In Iraq, U.S. Troops Are Still Dying -- One Almost Every Day
Death Rate Down, but Families of Victims Face Special Anguish

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 26, 2003; Page A16

Of this, the family and friends of Marine Sgt. Kirk Allen Straseskie are sure: He is wearing his dress blues and standing guard at the gates of heaven. Because that's where he said he would be if he were killed, and he was always a man of his word.

A week ago, Straseskie, 23, was standing on the bank of an Iraqi canal when a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter crashed into the water shortly after takeoff. According to the Pentagon, he immediately plunged in to try to save the crew of four fellow Marines.

Instead, they died together -- some of the 23 U.S. soldiers, airmen and Marines who have lost their lives since President Bush declared on May 1 that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended."

In the public's mind, the war may be over, but U.S. troops continue to fall in Iraq at the rate of almost one a day. That is down from an average of three a day between the start of the war on March 19 and May 1, when a total of 139 American service members were killed.

The continuing casualties have had no discernible impact on the administration's willingness to keep U.S. forces in Iraq. On the contrary, the number of American GIs on the ground has risen by 15,000, to nearly 160,000, since Bush declared victory on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

Without wanting to seem cavalier about loss of life, Pentagon officials note that the current casualty rate is not much different from the rate in peacetime training, and that the U.S. mission in Iraq is far from complete. On May 10, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld pledged to commit as many troops as necessary to stabilize the country, adding that "anyone who thinks they know how long it's going to take is fooling themselves."

To those who grieve this Memorial Day for Americans killed since the end of major hostilities, however, there is special anguish.

"It was supposed to be over. The president said it was through," said Beverly Payne of Clarkston, Wash., choking up as she spoke of the death of her stepson, Master Sgt. William L. Payne, 46, in a May 16 explosion.

A Department of Defense news release said Payne was "examining unexploded ordnance" in Haswah, Iraq, when the accident occurred. But his family says an Army liaison officer initially told them a different story: A soldier in Payne's unit, part of the 70th Armor Regiment based at Fort Riley, Kan., tossed what he thought was a dud munition against a tree, killing Payne and injuring three other soldiers.

"The truth is, nobody will know what happened," Payne's sister, Deanna Bodden, said in a telephone interview. "Only Billy knows what happened."

Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd said the incident is under investigation. The names of the other soldiers involved have not been made public. Since May 1, accidental explosions of left-over ordnance have killed four U.S. troops.

Hostile fire has caused few of the recent casualties. Just two Americans have been officially listed as killed in action this month. Staff Sgt. Patrick Lee Griffin Jr., 31, of Elgin, S.C., an Air Force computer technician and the father of two young children, died May 13 when his convoy was ambushed on the way to Baghdad.

Army Pfc. Marlin T. Rockhold, 23, was shot in the head by a sniper while directing traffic on a bridge in Baghdad on May 8. He had believed he was safe after U.S. forces rolled into the Iraqi capital and the regime of Saddam Hussein evaporated.

"I'm doing just fine now that the war is over here in Iraq!" he wrote to his grandmother on April 17. "To actually take a man's life is more than I ever cared to do. But it was either them or me. I don't know what they were told, but God told me I was coming home!"

The letter arrived in Rockhold's home town of Hamilton, Ohio, on the day he died, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Traffic accidents have been one of the main causes of non-combat deaths, claiming the lives of six U.S. servicemen this month. Among them was Army Spc. David T. Nutt, of Blackshear, Ga., who was driving a five-ton truck on a highway in northern Iraq on May 14 when a civilian vehicle cut him off. According to the U.S. Central Command, Nutt swerved to avoid the vehicle, which caused his truck to head toward a child. Nutt then swerved to avoid the child, and the truck rolled over.

Three U.S. troops have died from what the Pentagon calls "non-hostile discharges" of firearms. The incidents are still under investigation and may be declared accidents, suicides or even homicides.

The family of Army Spc. Rasheed Sahib, 22, of Brooklyn is particularly suspicious of the military's explanation of his death. According to the Pentagon, Sahib and another soldier were cleaning their weapons when the other soldier's weapon accidentally fired on May 18 in Balad, Iraq. The round hit Sahib in the chest.

His sister, Nafeeza Sahib, 19, said the family wants to know whether he was killed because he was a Muslim. She said her brother, who came to the United States from Guyana when he was 5, was proud to serve his country and hoped to join the FBI. But, she said, he also told her that "it was very tough on him after the World Trade Center. He said people looked at him differently."

The largest single cause of continuing casualties has been helicopter accidents. On May 9, two Army medical helicopters were trying to remove an Iraqi girl injured in an explosion in the city of Samarra. The girl was loaded onto the first chopper, which took off safely. But the second air ambulance snagged a wire over the Tigris River and flipped into the water, killing three crewmen.

Ten days later, Straseskie died trying to rescue the crew of a transport helicopter that had crashed for unknown reasons in the Al Hillah canal, about 60 miles south of Baghdad. He had recently placed a satellite phone call to his best friend and former high school classmate in Beaver Dam, Wis.

"He said, 'Don't worry, it's about over. We'll be home in a little while,' " recalled the friend, Nick Neuman.

Neuman said some people in Beaver Dam have suggested that Straseskie died in vain because the war was over. But, he said, "I don't want to think that way. I believe Kirk died as a hero."

Straseskie, a 5-foot-8, 170-pound block of muscle with the Marine Corps emblem tattooed on his chest, had wanted to join the Marines since he was 6. "He'd get so pumped up when we saw the Marine commercials, because that's all he ever wanted to do. He just wanted to protect everybody," Neuman said.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Straseskie had a premonition he might die in war and sent Neuman an e-mail from his Marine base at Camp Pendleton, Calif., with final messages to his family and friends.

"When the time comes for me, it will find me ready and standing tall," he wrote. "My life was not wasted, and I died for what I believe in. I ask you to take comfort in that, and do not mourn me, for now I wear my dress blues and stand guard at the gates of heaven."

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