TAMPA — As flags filled the small patch of earth, Walt Raysick worried he would run out of space.
One small flag waves for each American service member killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. There are thousands of them clustered together in this field of honor, an honor that carries no names but compels eyes to water from the grief that it represents.
Through 10 years of conflict, the losses kept growing.
But as Raysick prepares this week to plant more flags during the quarterly public ceremony, a bit of relief lies among the solemnity.
This is the fewest number of flags he has needed in years.
The United States has pulled its troops out of Iraq and will so, eventually, in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden is dead. Troops have trained to better identify improvised explosive devices.
The lower casualty numbers hold no promise of a continuing downward trend, but Raysick and others in the military community can't help but hope this is the beginning of the end.
"I'm praying," said Raysick, president of the Veterans Council of Hillsborough County. "Hopefully, it'll keep coming down."
On Saturday, people in the community will read the names of about 70 U.S. military members killed since October. Those who attend the ceremony at Tampa's Veterans Memorial Park will help plant the foot-tall flags in the Field Of Honor.
December marked the official end of the American military mission in Iraq. That month, no U.S. troops died in Iraq, according to icasualties.org, an independent website that compiles military death counts. Fifteen American service members died in Afghanistan in December.
That's the fewest American casualties in Afghanistan since 2009, the website shows. And it follows a particularly deadly summer in 2011, in which monthly casualties totaled at least twice as much: In August, the United States marked 71 fatalities related to the war in Afghanistan.
As of Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Defense reported 6,348 casualties from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Among the dead is Army 1st Lt. Dimitri del Castillo, 24, who died in Afghanistan in June.
Before he died, del Castillo completed several missions and came under fire several times, said his father, Carlos del Castillo, who lives in South Tampa. The Army officer was proud to have never lost one of his own.
After his death, the del Castillo family drew support from the community. They received photographs of their son, heard about memorials dedicated to him and directed donations to the Wounded Warrior Project.
But Carlos del Castillo says he doesn't want anyone else to endure the same loss.
"I'd love for the number to go down to zero," he said.
He plans to attend Saturday's event, along with the family of Army Cpl. Frank Robert Gross. Gross, 25, was killed in July in Afghanistan when an IED blast caused his vehicle to roll over.
His mother, Antonia Gross of Oldsmar, has helped launch a new chapter of the American Gold Star Mothers, a service organization for parents whose children were killed in war.
Nobody wants to become a gold star mother, she said.
For her, the wish is for the Field Of Honor ceremony to end — for there to be fewer and fewer flags until they only need to honor living veterans.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.