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How far is five miles of coffins?

April 13, 2008|By LLOYD "PETE" WATERS

The distance from my house in Antietam to Sharpsburg is almost five miles. I never thought much about that distance until I was recently reading an article on the 4,000th death in Iraq, and someone calculated that those 4,000 coffins laid end to end would stretch some five miles. A peculiar method for measuring our country's dead, I thought.

Death has occupied my reading for the last week or so. In a New York Times article, a feature story of six soldiers and their writings home to family and loved ones caused me to become more entwined with the Iraqi war. A collage of 4,000 small squares which was a part of this article had the name and face of each casualty of the Iraq war. By clicking on the square you could see the face of the departed soldier.

I clicked on some of those squares so I might better understand the human sacrifice of these American soldiers. I wanted to know them personally instead of viewing them only as a number.

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Jay T. Aubin, a helicopter pilot, his three fellow crewman and eight British soldiers were some of the first casualties of the war on March 21, 2003; David Stelmate, an Army medic from New Hampshire, and three fellow soldiers were killed when their Humvee hit a roadside bomb in South Baghdad bringing the war's total sacrifices to 4,000. The report of some notable war news for an Easter weekend seemed ordinary in some odd way.

Five miles of coffins have been offered up for our commitment to free Iraq. Progress is being made, I am continually told, but for the families of the 4,000, I wonder if they agree with the analogy and definition of that progress.

The New York Times piece gives us a rare glimpse of war deaths in the pictures and faces of those young American soldiers who are making the ultimate sacrifice every day. They are patriots who march off to war with a sense of duty and pride, but as battles occur, and arms and legs are lost, brains are forever damaged by shrapnel and the deaths of the American soldiers increase, the conversations of war grow louder. Even soldiers begin to whisper.

This issue of death is a very personal matter to people. One thing for sure, grieving can be a very difficult part of living.

Drew Gilpin Faust has written a riveting thesis on death in her book "This Republic of Suffering." It is a book that examines every aspect of death, and I mean "every" aspect of death during the Civil War in which some 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died. It seems that this war actually taught us to be concerned about counting our war dead.

Faust provides vivid insight and description of war as soldiers marched into battle, looking and preparing themselves for the "Good Death."

She looks at the soldiers' letters home to loved ones - the horrors of war described first hand by the soldier, those amputations, suffering, pain and the miseries of war.

The many stories of parents, wives, children, and sisters left behind to grieve a lifetime for a loved one. A tale of a father who searched for his son until he found him on the battlefield and actually retrieved the bullet from his son's skeleton which had killed him. The father carried this bullet with him for the rest of his life.

While doing a little more extensive reading on the 4,000th death during the Iraq war, I came to know Army medic David Stelmate a little better.

I discovered that he was initially assigned to an Infantry Unit in Afghanistan in 2003. According to his mother, he did not like the aspect of killing people and decided to lay down his gun and leave the Army for a period of time. Afterwards he re-enlisted and became a medic, as his real desire was to help save people.

As soldiers, Stelmate and his three companions gave their lives to help the Iraqi people. I find it a little more than strange that Specialist Stelmate's definition of helping people was more aligned with saving lives than taking them. In the end, he selected a medicine pouch over a rifle and bullets.

Each gray square of that collage of 4,000 frames provides a face of an individual who has given a life for this war in Iraq. You should take a look. Is each picture worth the price of this war? You have to decide that.

But as I travel the five miles from my house to Sharpsburg, I'll be a little more sensitive in thinking about Specialist David Stelmat, and those 4,000 American coffins. I wonder how many more miles our soldiers will have to travel before this sad journey is done.

Lloyd "Pete" Waters is a Sharpsburg resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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