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Monday | May 26, 2003

Minor combat operations

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

Nothing is over. It's just slowed down. The accidents, the killings which look like accidents, all are common in combat areas. We just have to hope that it doesn't grow to include many more combat deaths.

Steve Gilliard

Posted May 26, 2003 09:46 AM | Comments (26)


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