Arlington: repository for U.S. war dead – About 300 killed in Iraq alone are now buried there

29 December 2006

Perhaps no place illustrates the toll of the Iraq war more vividly than Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. In this “garden of stone,” in ruler-straight rows, rest one-tenth of the Iraq war’s American dead, whose number now approaches 3,000.

Privates lie beside officers. Soldiers beside Marines. Muslim troops beside Christians and those of other faiths.

Many were seasoned veterans, but most — 60 percent — never reached age 25.

Some died in fierce battles, trading bullets and rockets with a flesh-and-blood foe. But as the insurgency gained momentum in the past year, almost half of the servicemen and women fell to a faceless enemy, victims of remote-detonated IEDs, improvised explosive devices.

Like Army National Guard Sergeant Duane Dreasky of Novi, Michigan.

Each branch of service is represented here, though the Army has taken two-thirds of the Iraq war losses.

There are other grim statistics: More than two dozen fell at age 18; 62 were women; nearly one-quarter of those who died came from just three states, California, Texas and New York, according to casualty figures, which also show recent monthly death totals climbing to levels not seen since the war’s early days.

Each of the fallen resting here on a grassy slope facing the Washington Monument could stand for many others — traditional heroes decorated for acts “above and beyond the call of duty,” and those whose families say their heroism consisted of putting on their country’s uniform during a time of war.

Arlington honors each with a glistening 232-pound Vermont marble headstone marked with the most basic of information — and a number.

Dreasky lies down the row in space No. 8407.

Here is the story behind that number.

Years of football and jiujitsu had taken a toll on Duane Dreasky’s knees. But when the recruiters told him he was ineligible to serve, he bombarded local officials with letters until they finally let him enlist in the Michigan Army National Guard.

Twenty-one percent of those lost in Iraq were in the Guard or Reserve, none more determined than the man known as “Big D.”

When the beefy martial-arts instructor was told that his weight didn’t present “a good image for an NCO,” he went on a crash diet, ran with a 40-pound rucksack and lost about 50 pounds.

Dreasky’s wife, Mandeline, was also in the Guard and was severely injured during a 2003 deployment to Kuwait. But her husband had waited more than 10 years for his chance to serve, and she didn’t stand in his way.

Dreasky begged his way into a 13-month tour at Guantanamo Bay, then almost immediately badgered his superiors into letting him join Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 125th Infantry Regiment, on its deployment to Iraq. Once there, the 31-year-old sergeant acted more like a new recruit, constantly asking his superiors, “Anything else need to be done, boss?”

And so it was on the morning of November 21, 2005.

A group of eight Humvees was heading out into al-Habbaniyah. Dreasky was supposed to be off duty to give a younger forward observer a chance to learn the ropes, but he managed to pester his weightlifting buddy, Sergeant Matthew Webber, into giving another guy the day off.

As they prepared the vehicles, Dreasky, Webber and Staff Sergeant Michael Haney made plans to meet at the gym after chow for a workout. Before they parted, Dreasky flashed his trademark smile and uttered a favorite line from the movie “Gladiator”: “Strength and honor.”

The day’s mission was to take “atmospherics” in town and to bait insurgents — who’d been sowing the streets with improvised explosive devices — into making a move. They already had.

The Humvees were returning to base after about an hour’s work when two bombs, buried about a foot beneath the road’s surface, exploded. With a muffled WHUMP-WHUMP, Dreasky’s vehicle burst into flames.

Specialist John Dearing died instantly. The remaining four were burned almost beyond recognition. Despite excruciating pain, Dreasky did not cry out. Instead, he was obsessed with finding his rifle, so it wouldn’t be left behind for the enemy.

Dreasky was evacuated with the other wounded. That night, Staff Sergeant Mark “Doc” Russak, the unit’s chief medic, prayed in the camp’s makeshift chapel, then returned to his bunk, where he captured the torment of the moment in his journal.

“I don’t think the men of Bravo could take another death right now,” he wrote, “and I know it would crush me.”

But the deaths would keep coming: Sergeant Spencer Akers in December; Sergeant Joshua Youmans, who never got to hold the daughter born during his deployment, in March; Webber in April.

Dreasky, who was not told of the others’ deaths, battled to recover at San Antonio’s Brooke Army Medical Center.

When President Bush visited there in January, Dreasky moved to salute. Bush lightly touched Dreasky’s bandaged right arm and said: “You don’t need to salute. I need to salute you.”

Finally, on July 10, 2006, the IED of months before claimed its final victim.

The day before he deployed, Easter Sunday, the boy who once got in trouble for wearing camouflage to elementary school, asked his mother to promise him something.

“Mom, this is war. Anything can happen,” Cheryl Dreasky recalls him saying. “If something happens to me, you don’t rest until I’m buried in Arlington.”

After the funeral, when the bugle’s echo had faded and the brass shell casings from the rifle salute were collected, Mandy Dreasky gathered her husband’s comrades around her.

“You all need to continue to be soldiers,” she said. “Because that’s what Duane would have wanted. And that’s what he would have done.”

But some of Dreasky’s comrades wonder if Iraqis truly appreciate the sacrifices being made on their behalf.

“These people, you just see the apathy in them and you’re like, ‘Why am I here?’ You know?” says Staff Sergeant Jeremy Plaxton, who served with Dreasky. “If they don’t want it, I can’t make them accept freedom and fight for it.

“Personally,” he says, “I wouldn’t give up one Dreasky for the entire country of Iraq.”

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