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May 05, 2004

Soldiers Know Death

For what's it's worth this was the third most popular e-mailed item from the Editor and Pulbisher Web site as of 1 p.m.

By Van Berry

(May 02, 2004) -- During the past two weeks, as the American death toll in Iraq mounted, many media outlets have attached names and faces to the fallen. Many newspapers ran lists or photographs of all who perished in April, or broke the Pentagon ban on publishing pictures of flag-draped coffins. The month climaxed with the controversy over Ted Koppel reading the names of April fatalities on ABC's "Nightline" last Friday night. In response to one of E&P's articles on the subject, Van Berry, who describes himself as a sergeant "deployed with the 234th Signal Battalion (Army National Guard) out of Iowa," submitted the following essay, explaining his views on the "human face to war and casualties." Berry, who is scheduled to return home with the battalion in the following month, testifies that he is a former Air Force Academy cadet. According to official records, the 234th was mobilized on March 15, 2003, arrived in Kuwait on June 13 and entered Iraq on or about July 9. The unit is deployed with roughly 600 soldiers. -- Greg Mitchell

I am sitting in an Internet cafe right now, free of worry from danger and recovering from a couple of days of exhausting work on the wash racks, and a long and dangerous convoy -- but I am saddened and troubled. A hint of guilt lurks near my conscience as I know that there are possibly hundreds of young beating hearts about to be stopped within the next few weeks -- forever. Good young men with loving mothers, adoring sons and daughters and fawning nieces just wondering, "When is Uncle Sammy coming back?"

Many good people will leave this earthly world too early. Those like the strong heart and will of Pat Tillman who passed up almost 4 million dollars in pro football to make the monetary equivalent of what his agent spends in vehicle upgrades. I lived in Phoenix for almost five years and have attended a fair share of football games at Sun Devil Stadium. Roaring crowds and fanfare filled with excitement and energy -- few things come close to this level of awareness; unless you are being targeted by the enemy. Most of us here in Iraq and Kuwait have felt it, heard it, given thanks for being a few feet left or right. After awhile you strangely ignore the blasts and concussions -- unless they are less than a mile away.

I can remember seeing my last game at Sun Devil Stadium with my dear and departed friend Max Turner. Pat Tillman was there and his adrenaline was pumping. Then he felt that a higher call to duty was in order and he left all that talent on the table and put his life perilously on a delicate line. Now he is gone.

What I hope everyone will gain from this tragedy is that there is a human face to war and casualties. Our current president doesn't believe that genuine outpouring of heartfelt emotion and shared suffering is appropriate as a nation. He has used every inch of his authority to block images of the mounting number of draped coffins with respectful flags placed over each and every one at Dover Air Force Base.

Are they offensive? Most think not. Are they a breach of national security? Doubt it. What they do is invoke a strong sense of sympathy which is a natural human behavior. We all mournfully pay our respects to the pictures even though we don't personally know the individuals. We realize that they could have been our neighbor, our ex-boyfriend, a loved one estranged for trivial reasons.

Secrecy is not healthy in the short term or long -- especially in a democratic nation trying to preach to many other countries how to get rid of their tyranny, scandals and lack of transparency.

Now we have a human face to what used to be a simple number enlarging a tally of numerals. Death is much, much more than numbers. Death is a smile lost, a laugh silenced forever, a hug never given and a future never achieved.

Pat Tillman represented the military folks well -- more than those willing to utilize every influence to avoid service. He will not be forgotten. My friend Max is up there with Pat throwing a ball around and managing to force a few smiles in some way. Heroes don't have to die early to be remembered more vividly, but their memories and their sacrifice are sketched and painted intensely in our hearts, which keep on beating, and our tears, which keep on flowing.