Hometowns across U.S. mourn their war dead

November 1st, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Hometowns across U.S. mourn their war dead


CHICAGO - Almost a third of the 102 U.S. troops killed in Iraq in October - the fourth deadliest month of the war - were on extended, second or third tours.
At home, that further exposure to danger added heartache to the deaths and underscored national anxiety over a conflict more protracted than anyone expected.
Among the first to die in October was 27-year-old Staff Sgt. Jonathan Rojas of Hammond, Ind.
"He should have come home," Hammond High School assistant principal Cynthia Warner said of the 1997 graduate, killed two months after his tour was extended. "He should be home. He shouldn't be coming home the way he did."
A Chicago Tribune analysis of Department of Defense information and interviews with family members sketched a portrait of the war American troops are fighting.
All but 10 of those killed in October were enlisted, their average age 24. Of those who died, 58 were killed by mines and makeshift bombs, eight fell to sniper fire, and 30 more died in skirmishes on missions in the heart of the country. Another six died in accidents and non-hostile incidents.
As their bodies came home, there was no hiding the anguish, and no corner of the country was spared.
Early in October, Rojas' body returned to a grim hero's welcome in Hammond.
As his flag-draped coffin whisked by in a motorcade of family and officials, 300 students from his high school lined the street in front of the school. They had stayed late into the evening, wearing yellow and holding flags, side-by-side with parents and past graduates.
The silent gesture - of respect and sadness - was emblematic of how the nation reacted to the mournful homecomings. With mixed feelings and heavy hearts, communities honored each individual for service and sacrifice even as the deaths evoked frustration for others.
The Rojas family said the rosary together for nine days after their son's Oct. 13 funeral. Their home in Hammond was kept brightly lit, and the yard was decorated with yellow ribbons and American flags.
They moved to the U.S. from Mexico City in 1990, when Rojas a child. Not yet a citizen when he died, Jonathan Rojas joined the Army in 2000, leaving a job in a Calumet City, Ill., glass shop, his younger brother William said.
His unit, the 1-17 Infantry battalion of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, was told in July that their time in Iraq was extended. They shifted from Mosul to Baghdad the next month.
By Oct. 3, as they joined a fellow Army unit in a fractious slum near Sadr City, hopes to comfort that neighborhood with an American presence were descending into chaos.
In a quagmire blend of dirt road and raw sewage, a Stryker vehicle in Rojas' unit stuck fast in the muck. Children throwing rocks from a nearby schoolyard pelted the soldiers. As Rojas peered around his protective hatch, a sniper killed him, his battalion commander said in an e-mail interview from Iraq.
"He just wanted to do something different with his life," William Rojas said of his brother. The family was proud of what he had done, he said.
Across the country, the family of Army Sgt. Mario Nelson - also extended on his first tour in Iraq - spent frustrating weeks crowded into his family's Brooklyn two-flat, waiting for the burly sergeant's body to return. They had expected him to come home alive.
"The closer it came to him being home, the more hopeful we were that he'd make it," Dyna Nelson, 23, said of her brother. Enthusiasm had faded when he was told his tour was extended, she said. After a brief leave home to visit his wife and young daughter, he'd returned to Iraq, tired and resigned.
He'd survived an earlier RPG attack. A second found him in the tumultuous town of Hit on Oct. 1.
In Montana, the family of Lance Cpl. Jeremy Scott Sandvick Monroe had grown familiar with the strain of war while the 20-year-old Marine served in Afghanistan.
"It's hard to go through," said his father Monte Monroe, whose son was then assigned to Iraq. "Every day is a struggle."
After his son's Oct. 8 death in Iraq's Anbar province, only the high school gymnasium in the small town of Chinook, Mont., was big enough to hold his Oct. 16 funeral.
The Marine's funeral procession crawled at 30 miles an hour along Highway 2 to reach Hillside Cemetery in Dodson, 50 miles away. At the farm town of Harlem, 50 residents stood out in the bitter cold, waving American flags and saluting passing mourners.
At the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, some 150 residents came out in a show of respect. A few came on horseback, in full dress regalia. One horse had no rider, said Chinook Assembly of God Pastor Mike Bradley, a traditional honor for a fallen warrior.
Mourners at the cemetery shivered as Marines fired the crisp volleys of a 21-gun salute. A bugler played taps, and dirt was pushed into a grave Sandvick Monroe's relatives and friends had dug with shovels and picks.
Grief also found the hometown of Sgt. Jonathan E. Lootens, in farm country 30 miles outside Rochester, N.Y. The 25-year-old Army veteran died Oct. 15 in Kirkuk, where a roadside bomb exploded beside him.
He'd served already in Afghanistan, and convinced his family the military was right for him. It took time. Andrea Ralyea told her brother it was crazy. He said he had to do it.
By any measure, Ralyea said, his youth had been chaotic, tinged with drugs and alcohol, and tainted when he dropped out of school at 16. The Army gave him purpose and pride. It sent him to Afghanistan, where he saw combat, and stationed him in Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, where his family celebrated his return in 2004.
In August, Lootens, 25, shipped out again, this time for Iraq.
"It seemed like the two tours were close together," Ralyea said, "but he re-enlisted in Afghanistan. It's what he wanted to do."
The day after Lootens' funeral in New York, they buried Army Spc. Daniel W. Winegeart in a driving rain in Texas. He had been killed on his third tour in Iraq.
In the small country cemetery, mourners couldn't avoid the mud. His stepmother Diane Winegeart said they had to wade in it.
The 23-year-old soldier loved the mud. Growing up in Kountze, Texas, he would ride through it with friends on all-terrain vehicles, spray it off his back wheels like a rooster tail, and come home covered in it, grinning.
Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport came to a halt as an honor guard carried his casket to a waiting hearse.
A police escort and 42 motorcycle riders from the Patriot Guard escorted his body and family to his hometown. As they neared Dayton, 49 miles from Kountze, people lined darkened roads and freeways. Fire trucks ran their lights. Children and senior citizens held banners, flags and candles.
In Kountze, supporters crowded the four-lane highway until only one lane was open. A local Girl Scout troop put out flags.
It also rained in North Carolina as Lance Cpl. Nathan R. Elrod, 20, was brought back to tiny Rockwell last Friday.
Killed Oct. 21 with three other Marines in Anbar province, he was welcomed home by aging veterans standing in the rain outside AMVETS Post 845, pots of flowers and American flags in their hands.
"He was one of my biggest idols all through school," said 17-year-old David Benfield, who was at the AMVETS post after Elrod's funeral Sunday and still wants to follow him into the military.
Elrod's girlfriend had also joined the Marines, Benfield said, and was given a short leave from boot camp to attend his funeral.
The Chicago area learned of a death in Iraq more than once in the last month. Besides Rojas, Marine Lance Cpl. Edwardo Lopez Jr., 21, of Aurora, Ill., died in Iraq after a previous posting in Afghanistan.
The most recent local death was Marine Reserve Sgt. Thomas Gilbert, 24, of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines.
He died Oct. 25 in Anbar province in hostile action. His family in Downers Grove, Ill., learned of it the same afternoon.
As school let out nearby, a trio of uniformed Marines approached his mother's house. Framed in the open doorway of her garage, the woman brought her hands to her face and wept as stunned neighbors watched.
His funeral will be held Thursday in Downers Grove in the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church.

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