In Iraq, a silent phone line means a comrade has died

When a United States soldier dies in Iraq his comrades immediately know about it because all communications at the base are cut-off pending notification of the family.

Within minutes of a death being reported, commanders order all outside phones, along with internet access, closed in order to prevent families finding out by chance about a death or worrying after hearing of an incident.

“If there is a combat death, instant help is provided to that unit along with a debrief,” says Major Andrew Magnet, a brigade surgeon based outside Baquba, northeast of Baghdad.

“What is important is to get them back into a normal routine. That’s the best cure,” he adds.

US forces have suffered more than 2 050 fatalities in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion, many as a result of roadside bombs planted by insurgents.

Overall, deaths average about two per day, with one person dying of wounds received for every three killed in action, according to Pentagon figures recently published by the Army Times newspaper.

Most of those killed have died in and around Baghdad, or in the Sunni-dominated western province of al-Anbar.

Of the combat deaths reported until October 15, 766 were caused by explosive devices, 424 by gunshot and 151 by mortar or other missile fire.

The recent deployment of large numbers of reservists has also seen their casualty numbers increase. Over the past seven months, nearly four of every ten soldiers killed have been national guardsmen.

“I’m thankful the Lord has given me the opportunity to be here,” said army chaplain Timothy Sowers as he described holding the hand of a wounded soldier in a hospital.

“They need and appreciate having a chaplain with them,” said the 47-year-old Lutheran chaplain who conducts services for a number of other Protestant denominations.

“I can see and understand evil—the murdering of innocent people,” he said, adding that being in Iraq has given him “a greater appreciation of life”.

There are currently about 160 000 US troops in Iraq as part of a temporary buildup for the December 15 general elections, but the Pentagon on Monday said it planned to rotate only 92 000 fresh troops into Iraq starting in mid-2006.

US President George Bush has refused however to set a deadline for withdrawing troops, despite growing opposition to the war in the United States.

On Monday, around 50 soldiers gathered around a camp fire at a base on the outskirts of Baquba to remember one of the latest casualties, Captain Joe Cahill, who died on Sunday in a roadside bomb explosion.

His friends were putting together a DVD of testimonies to be sent to the family, ahead of a full memorial service.

For grief counseling, teams of combat stress specialists interview soldiers close to the deceased.

“You got to check their head and make sure they don’t blame themselves for what has happened,” said Sergeant Victor Fermin (36) a former New York City policeman.

“Whenever this happens, the first reaction is one of shock and disbelief.
Some will have survivor’s guilt, while others will get mad at the Iraqis,” he said.

“A lot of times, kids will bottle things up and it will just wear them down after a while,” he said.

Twenty-six-year-old Specialist Samantha Spurlock, from Virginia, said that when a death is announced she concentrates on her work.

“My dad is real proud of me… My mom’s proud too, but I’m sure she’s afraid,” she said.

“I’ll wait until I get home before I tell them about all that stuff,” she added. - AFP

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