U.S. military death toll in Iraq hits 3,000 mark

Andrew Schneider, right, hugs a man, who identified himself only as Dave, among the graves at the Arlington National Cemetery, Oct. 29 in Arlington, Va. Andrew's son, Army Spc. Matthew Schneider, died of a heart attack Aug. 28, while serving the military in Iraq and is buried nearby.

The Associated Press
Published: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 31, 2006 at 10:25 p.m.
Jordan W. Hess was the unlikeliest of soldiers.
He could bench-press 300 pounds and then go home and write poetry. He learned the art of glass blowing because it seemed interesting and built a computer with only a magazine as his guide.
Spc. Hess, the seventh of eight children, was never keen on premonitions, but on Christmas of 2005, as his tight-knit family gathered on a beach for the weekend, he told each sibling and parent privately that he did not expect to come home from Iraq.
On Nov. 11, Hess, 26, freshly arrived in Iraq, was conducting a mission as the driver of an Abrams tank when an improvised explosive device, or IED, blew up. The blast was so powerful it penetrated the 67-ton tank, flinging Hess against the top and critically injuring his spine. His four crewmates survived. For three weeks, he hung on at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, long enough to utter a few words to his loved ones and absorb all their kindness.
On Dec. 4, Hess slipped onto the ever-expanding list of American military fatalities in Iraq, which has increased by an average of more than three a day since Oct. 1, the highest three-month toll in two years. On Sunday, with the announcement of the death in Baghdad of Spc. Dustin R. Donica, 22, of Spring, Texas, the list reached the milestone of at least 3,000 deaths since the March 2003 invasion.
The number reflects how much more dangerous and muddled a soldier's job in Iraq has become in the face of a growing and increasingly sophisticated insurgency. Violence in the country is at an all-time high, according to a Pentagon report released last month. December was the third-deadliest month for American troops since the start of the war, with insurgents claiming 111 soldiers' lives. October and November also witnessed a jump in casualties, 106 and 68 respectively, as American forces stepped up combat operations to try to stabilize Baghdad.
''It escalated while I was there,'' said Capt. Scott Stanford, a National Guard officer who was a commander of a headquarters company in Ramadi for a year after arriving in June 2005. ''When we left this June, it was completely unhinged. There was a huge increase in the suicide car bombs we had. The IEDs were bigger and more complex.
"And it was very tense before we left in terms of snipers," said Stanford, a member of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "I don't know if there were more of them, or if they were getting better."
This spike in violence, which has been felt most profoundly by Iraqi civilians who are dying by the thousands, has stoked feverish debate about the nation's military presence in Iraq. Many Democrats in Congress are urging a phased withdrawal from the country, but the Bush administration is leaning toward deploying additional troops this year. If the conflict continues into March, the Iraq war will be the third-longest in American history, ranked behind the Vietnam War and the American Revolution.
President Bush did not specifically acknowledge reaching the milestone of 3,000 American deaths, but a White House spokesman, Scott Stanzel, said the president "grieves for each one that is lost" and would ensure that their sacrifice was not made in vain. The war on terror, Stanzel said, will be a long struggle.
Hess had volunteered for his mission to spare another soldier the danger of going outside the wire that day. Like so many of his fallen comrades, he had become the victim of an inescapably dangerous roadside landscape.
"It was the type of injury you rarely recover from; in past wars you wouldn't have gotten out of theater," said his father, Bill Hess, a Boeing engineer and retired Air Force man. "So that was a blessing, that he could talk to us. He mouthed words, and we were able to say we loved him."
Steady toll of deaths In many ways, the third 1,000 men and women to die in Iraq faced the same unflinching challenge as the second 1,000 soldiers to die there - a dedicated and ruthless Iraqi insurgency that has exploited the power of roadside bombs to chilling effect. These bombs now cause about half of all American combat deaths and injuries in Iraq.
Overall, the casualty rate has remained relatively steady since last year, dipping only slightly. It took 14 months for the death toll to jump from 1,000 to 2,000 soldiers. It took about two weeks longer than that for it to rise from 2,000 to 3,000, during the period covering Oct. 25, 2005, to this week.
''It is hugely frustrating, tragic and disappointing that we can't reduce the fatality rate,'' said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst for the Brookings Institution.
The service members who died during this latest period fit an unchanging profile. They were mostly white men from rural areas, soldiers so young they still held fresh memories of high school football heroics and teenage escapades. Many men and women were in Iraq for the second or third time. Some were going on their fourth, fifth or sixth deployment.
But in other ways, the situation has changed in the past year. Improvised explosive devices - the kind that killed Hess - have grown deadlier, despite concerted Pentagon efforts and billions of dollars spent trying to counteract them. Insurgents are now more adept at concealing bombs, booby-trapping them and powering them to penetrate well-armored vehicles. They are also scattering more of them along countless roads, using myriad triggers and hiding spots.
At the same time, Iraqi citizens have grown less inclined to tip off soldiers to the presence of these bombs. About 1,200 roadside bombs were detonated in August.
The toll of war has fallen most heavily this year on regular Army soldiers, at least 544 of whom died in this group of 1,000, compared with 405 in the last group. This increase was the result of fewer National Guard soldiers and reservists being deployed to Iraq in 2006.
Considering the intensity of the violence in Iraq this year, it is remarkable that the casualty rate did not climb higher, analysts and officers say. Long-awaited improvements in body and vehicle armor have helped protect soldiers, and advances in battlefield medicine have saved many lives. New procedures, like leaving wounds open to prevent infection, and relaying soldiers to hospitals faster than ever, have kept more service members alive. Troops now carry their own tourniquets.
During World War II, 30 percent of all wounded soldiers died of injuries, a number that dipped to 24 percent during the Vietnam War and to 9 percent for the Iraq conflict. Though this is a positive development, it also means more soldiers are coming home with life-changing injuries. More than 22,000 soldiers have been wounded in Iraq.
Bombs and bullets are not the only things that kill soldiers; nearly 20 percent of those who die in Iraq do so outside of combat. Sometimes it is the hazard of driving too quickly on badly rutted roads. Humvees, weighted down with armor, can easily flip if maneuvered too quickly. Many of Iraq's roads are not built to hold heavy vehicles and the ground can give way, tossing multiton machines into narrow canals where soldiers have drowned. Helicopters are sometimes crippled by sandstorms or mechanical malfunctions. Accidents make up two-thirds of the nonhostile deaths.
With so many soldiers carrying so many weapons, mishaps occur, sometimes while handling firearms. Fire from one's own side is another inevitability of war, as is suicide. Since March 2003, 93 soldiers have died from self-inflicted wounds in Iraq.
In a way, these deaths can be even more difficult for parents to accept. Sometimes they wait months for official reports, since all noncombat deaths must be investigated.
"I don't think I ever thought something like this could happen,'' said Shelley Burnett, whose son, Lance Cpl. Jason K. Burnett, 20, died in May after his tank toppled into a canal. "We talked a lot about the IEDs and the dangers out there, but Jason kept saying, 'There is not a whole lot they can do to a tank.' "

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