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The toll in Iraq takes toll at home

Twenty-three American soldiers have given their lives to the occupation of Iraq in the past two weeks, cut down to a stack of photographs by accidents, illness and the rising insurgency.

There is Lt. David Bernstein, killed two weeks ago, who got a proper burial on Friday at the U.S. Military Academy where he went to school. As his mother sat with a folded flag in her lap, his father accepted a Bronze Star.

And there is Sgt. Aubrey Bell, the 280-pound Alabama National Guardsman, who drove a forklift back home and ate mayonnaise sandwiches, and who was shot to death in front of a police station.

And Pvt. Rachel Bosveld, the 19-year-old military police officer who loved to draw forest scenes and was silenced by mortars.

And Sgt. Paul J. Johnson, a paratrooper who could imagine no fate better than leaping into the night sky, who died after being burned by a bomb.

And Pvt. Jamie L. Huggins, Pvt. Jason Ward, Pfc. John Hart, Lt. Col. Charles H. Buehring and 15 others.

President Bush declared an end to major combat hostilities in Iraq on May 1. But six months after that declaration, more than a soldier a day is dying. In October, more than 33 American soldiers were killed by hostile fire, up from 16 in September.

For every one killed, Pentagon officials estimate, seven others are wounded.

Back home, the steady rhythm of casualties is producing a steady rhythm of rituals _ the gray car with government plates pulling into the driveway, the notification, the papers to sign, the cards to read, the flag to fold.

And then another day, another town, another set of horns to blow.


A soldier for life

Missy Johnson was studying for a pharmacology test in her pajamas when she heard the thump on the door.

Who in the world is that? she asked herself.

She glanced out the window. Military men in their dress greens.

"I couldn't believe it," Johnson said. "I just couldn't believe it. I knew exactly what they were here for."

Her husband, P.J., a decorated paratrooper who had once fought a battle in Afghanistan in a flak jacket and boxer shorts, had been killed. His squad had just finished delivering a load of school supplies in Fallujah on Oct. 20 when a homemade bomb ripped through his Humvee. He had burns on 80 percent of his body.

"The secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your husband was killed in action," the chaplain began. It is a formal script, always delivered standing.

Johnson, 29, lived the Army life. At age 5, he announced that he was going to be a soldier. At age 8, he dug ditches in the yard for toy soldiers.

"He put those little plastic men through basic," said his mother, Patricia Urban.

As a teenager, he gravitated to Vietnam veterans, soaking up their stories and their combat aura. On his 16th birthday, the first day he was old enough to do it legally, he jumped out of a plane.

When Johnson told her 4-year-old son, Bryan, that Daddy had gone to live with Jesus, he put his hands on her cheeks and said, "It'll be okay, Mommy, it'll be okay."


Support from the whole town

Minutes after the family of Sgt. Jamie L. Huggins learned that he had been killed in combat, phones starting ringing across town. There is no such thing as a "family" crisis in Worland, population 50. The Huggins boy had died. Time to start a collection.

Fay Wehar, a neighbor, started banging on doors, trying to raise some gas money.

"Everyone knew Jamie, and everyone's reaction was about the same: It was a horrible thing," she said.

Wehar collected $371, mostly crumpled bills and one check. She gave it to the Hugginses, who left a few hours later for the 20-hour drive from this prairie town of shuttered coal mines to Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the 82nd Airborne Division.

Huggins, a 26-year-old paratrooper, was killed during a patrol in Baghdad on Oct. 26, after his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb, the insurgency's weapon of choice.

Danielle Huggins had just heard from her husband the day before. She said she asked him: "Why are you still needing to be there? You should be at home."

His answer, she remembered, was "We are doing good, Danielle; we are doing good."


A differing opinion

Andrea Brassfield's husband painted a different picture.

"He told me: "They don't want us here. They throw rocks at us. They shoot at us. I don't know what we're doing here,' " she said.

Specialist Artimus D. Brassfield, a tank driver for the 66th Armored Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, was killed in Samara, north of Baghdad, on Oct. 24. His death has not changed his wife's opinion of the war. She was against it when it began. She is against it now.

Officials told Brassfield that her 22-year-old husband was killed by a mortar round while he was playing basketball. She said she later learned from members of his unit that this wasn't quite right.

"He was fixing a tank when the first round struck," she said. "He started running toward the gymnasium when the second one hit, and that is what killed him."


The full blast of explosion

Capt. John R. Teal was coming home. The table was laid with cakes and cookies; there were flowers, too many flowers, blooming in the living room; his parents, Emmie and Joseph Teal, waited on the couch, hands knitted in their laps.

"I need to see him, Joe," Emmie Teal said.

Joseph Teal looked at his hands.

John R. Teal, 31, 2nd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, was blown up by a bomb while riding in a convoy in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad, on Oct. 23. He had been working with Iraqi town councils.

His remains were making the journey from Baghdad to a base in Germany to a funeral home here, on the outskirts of Richmond. Army officers told the Teals their son "got the full blast" of the explosion.

"I hope they fix him up good," Emmie Teal said.

"No, no, no," Joseph Teal said. "What's in that casket is a cold, damp piece of shell."

"Maybe they can crack the lid just so I can hold his hand," she said.

"Damn it, honey," Joseph Teal exploded. "That's not him, that's not the person who walked out of here, that's not John Robert!"

"Okay, honey, okay," she said.

Rain beat against the windows. The living room grew gray. Both the Teals started to cry. "When I heard the news I felt almost, almost . . ." Emmy Teal paused, knowing the word but not quite ready to bring it into the room. "Relief."

"I was dreading this every day of my life," she explained, between sniffles. "So when the Army finally came to the door and told us J.R. was dead, it was like this big thing hanging over my head just went away."


Making the most out of life

Sgt. Aubrey Bell grew up poor. He was raised in the woods drawing water from a well and eating whatever his mother stuck between two slices of bread. Butter sandwiches. Mayonnaise sandwiches. Ketchup sandwiches. You name it.

His life, as his friends tell it, was taking a little and making a lot.

"He was just a cheerful, happy dude," said Eric Wingate, a childhood friend.

Bell didn't especially savor the Iraqi summers, where soldiers say the temperature can reach 140 degrees, or sleeping in tents with 100 men and 100 pairs of ripening combat boots.

But he liked children. And in Iraq, the 280-pound soldier in the XXXL uniform drew them like a magnet.

"I used to always ask him, why you let them get so close to you?" said his fiancee, Philandria Ezell. "And he'd say, honey, they're just kids."

On Oct. 27, Bell, a 33-year-old Alabama National Guardsman with the 214th Military Police Company, was shot in the stomach in front of a police station, where he had been training Iraqi police officers.

His family is furious. As they sat around on folding chairs in his mother's front yard, an ice chest of Miller Lite at their feet, they glared at the ground.

"Why is it okay if he dies?" his cousin Vecie Williams asked. "The president don't care. You see him on TV. He says this, he says that. But show me one tear, one tear."

Something that nags them is whether Bell was wearing a bulletproof vest. In many of the pictures he sent home he is not. There is nothing between him and the enemy but a few layers of cotton.

"The Army people say he got shot," Ezell said. "But they don't say nothing more."


Looking for answers

Brian Hart is on a quest for answers. By night, he sends e-mail messages and posts notes on electronic bulletin boards. By day, he works the phones.

Hart is haunted by the ambush that killed his son. Pfc. John Hart, a 20-year-old paratrooper with the 173rd Infantry Brigade, was hit in the neck and killed on Oct. 18 in Taza, near Kirkuk. It was the same late-night attack that took the life of Lt. David Bernstein. Their unit was ordered to find the enemy. The enemy found them.

But what happened after that, after the grenades ripped into the Humvee?

"Did John bleed to death? Did he suffer?" asked Alma Hart, his mother.

Brian Hart is more critical.

"The Army hasn't given us any more information than a three-sentence press release," he said. "It's awful."

An Army spokeswoman, Shari Lawrence, said what relatives are told about a soldier's death was sometimes incomplete "because we try to notify the family as quickly as possible."

So the Harts are left turning to other soldiers to complete the picture. They have learned that some soldiers have been camping out in water treatment facilities and sleeping on pipes, and that others lack the right protective gear. And that most Humvees, like the one their son was killed in, are not armored.

"It breaks your heart that these kids are living in real deprivation out there and we don't know about it," Alma Hart said.

Maj. Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman, said that nearly 50,000 troops were without bulletproof vests, but that the Army hoped to have them outfitted by next year.

The Harts are working with members of Congress to get more resources now. They still support the war; they just want it fought better.


A last act of heroism

The sky was clear, the air was crisp and the general had a story to share.

The old men in the American Legion hats tipped their heads forward to listen. The Green Beret commanders looked down at their boots.

Brig. Gen. Leo Brooks Jr., commandant of the U.S. Military Academy, explained why Lt. David Bernstein, valedictorian of his high school class, fifth in his class at West Point, was winning a Bronze Star. "That night there had been a rocket attack at the Kirkuk airfield," Brooks began.

And as Bernstein and his men were searching the countryside, Iraqi forces surrounded them and blasted their Humvee with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades. Hart was killed instantly.

"They were taking fire from the back and from the front," the general said. "And Lieutenant Bernstein was hit."

But his driver had fallen out of the truck and was pinned underneath. And the enemy was advancing.

With a bullet wound in his leg, Bernstein tried five times to rescue his driver. The fifth time, he pulled him out.

But the lieutenant had lost so much blood, he was now dying. He squeezed off a few rounds before he collapsed.

"I have seen the face of terror, I have felt the stinging cold of fear, I have lived the times most would say are best forgotten. But at least I can say I am proud of what I was _ a soldier," Lt. Col. Kevin McDonnell said in a graveside speech. "I am not sure who originally said those words. But they remind me of David."