Monday, January 09, 2006

Snapshots of Some We Lost Last Week

With the death toll of American troops taking yet another cruel leap over the weekend – an Army Black Hawk helicopter crashed in Northern Iraq, killing all 12 people aboard, while five Marines were killed in combat in Western Iraq – it seemed time to take a closer look at some of the lives ended by this war.

As the macabre tote board continues to ring upward and with the flurry of other news on the domestic front, it's far too easy to become numb to the tragic, human price of this war. When the numbers grow larger, we may tend to forget that real American families are being altered in the most unforgiving way, by a war for which we have yet to receive an honest, coherent explanation.

In addition to the lives lost over the weekend, 11 troops were killed on Thursday, bringing the total number of military dead in Iraq to 2,210. Five of those brave men died together, when a bomb tore through their military vehicle during convoy operations in An Najaf.

I'd like you to know something about these five people:

Capt. Christopher P. Petty, 33, of Vienna, Va.

A graduate of James Madison High School in Vienna, VA, Christopher Petty was an average student in high school, according to his father, who said that his son thrived in the military and rose to the rank of captain and commander of an entire artillery battalion in Iraq.

"It's just kind of a typical American story where . . . the combination of life and experience in the military turns him completely around to where he's a model officer," said Paul R. Petty, a retired CIA officer.

After attending Marshall University, where he was enrolled in the ROTC program, Petty was commissioned in the Army upon graduation. Petty's grandfather, a World War II Veteran, proudly pinned his own second lieutenant's bars on his grandson at the commissioning.

On his second tour of duty in Iraq when killed, Capt. Christopher P. Petty was married and leaves behind two young sons, ages three and three months.

Maj. William F. Hecker, III, 37, of St. Louis, Mo.

William Hecker had been deployed to Iraq just after Thanksgiving.

A husband and father of young children, Hecker had military service in his blood, with ancestors from Germany in the American Civil War, a father who is a retired Army Colonel (and Vietnam Veteran) and a brother currently serving in the Marines.

"He was in the process of training or helping to train the Iraqi military so they could eventually take over the military duties of the country," said his uncle, Hans Hecker. "He felt what we were doing in Iraq was the right thing to do and he was there to perform his duty."

Since graduating from West Point Military Academy in 1991, Hecker also served in Bosnia. But he had already published a book on Edgar Allan Poe -- and how military culture and training influenced the young poet – and his dream was to teach after his year-long tour of duty in Iraq.

"He wanted to go back to West Point to become a professor of English literature for all the Cadets," said his uncle.

Sgt. Johnny J. Peralez, Jr., 25, of Kingsville, Texas.

Sgt. Johnny Peralez, a young man who told his family he had decided to make the Army a career because he had "found his calling," had, at the age of only 25, served his country in almost every military way possible. After joining the Army, he served in Germany and Kosovo and was among the first contingent of American troops in Afghanistan. He had previously served 14 months in Iraq and had just begun his second tour in November.

A combat medic, who followed in his Mom's footsteps in caring for others – his mother is a nurse – Peralez will be remembered by family and friends as a happy, creative guy who loved to perform and make others feel good.

At Falfurrias High School, Peralez was on the tennis team, played alto sax in the band, acted in one-act plays, and because of his interest in the arts, his teachers thought he would pursue a career in theater.

Cynthia Perez, his tennis coach in high school, remembers Peralez as a "happy-go-lucky" teen. "He was always so witty and in such a good mood because he wanted to make everybody happy," said Perez, now principal at Falfurrias High School.

Cristina Ruiz, his former neighbor in Falfurrias, called him the "nicest, funniest, best friend I've ever had."

"We lived about five feet apart, and we were always trying to make each other laugh," said Ruiz, who was on the tennis team with Peralez. "Johnny would win hands down, because he had a good slow motion technique."

Peralez is survived by his mother, Virginia Garcia; his father, Johnny J. Peralez Sr. of Lockney; a sister, Nina Kristine Peralez of Dallas; brothers, Romeo Villa of Killeen and Jessie Rene Peralez of Lockney; grandparents José and Tomasa Peralez of Lockney; and grandfather, Pedro Vasquez of Premont.

Sgt. 1st Class Stephen J. White, 39, of Talladega, Al.

Stephen J. White, a father of seven children, was on his fifth tour of duty in 20 years of military service when he was killed in Iraq on Thursday.

The soldier's wife, Vicky, who is also on active Army duty, accompanied his body home Friday night.

White, who also went to Iraq right after the Thanksgiving holiday, was assigned to the Third Battalion, 16th Field Artillery, Second Brigade Combat Team of the Fourth Infantry Division, based in Fort Hood, Texas.

"We want folks to know, our brother was a soldier for the Army, but he was also a soldier for the Lord," White's brother Stanley White said Saturday. "He was a good man."

"He said he was going to be somewhere near the Syrian border, but right now we still don't have a lot of details about what happened," the brother said.

Pvt. Robbie M. Mariano, 21, of Stockton, Calif.

Robbie Mariano, who hailed from the Central Valley of California, was, at only 21, the youngest of the men killed in An Najaf on January 5.

"He loved music," said his mother, Debbie Mariano. "He would always sing. He was always making people laugh, too. He was really popular; had lots of friends."

Mariano had recently asked for only two things in the care package his family just mailed him: protein powder, so he could stay in the best shape while at war, and guitar strings, so he could continue playing for the soldiers in his camp. That package is still in transit.

"He was always upbeat about the war and believed in what he was doing over there," said father Bob Mariano, a Stockton Police sergeant. "The Army was his new family. I talked to him about 10 hours before he died. He said he was doing fine."

Robbie Mariano planned to leave the service in 2008, attend college on the GI Bill and possibly follow in his father's footsteps with a career in law enforcement.

But to his friends he was an avid skateboarder, who loved practical jokes and would play music by his favorite band, Green Day, every chance he got.

"I see him with his guitar, wearing a Green Day shirt and singing the band's songs for us -- we all thought it was funny," said his father.

"He loved music," said his mother, Debbie Mariano. "He would always sing. He was always making people laugh, too. He was really popular; had lots of friends."

His grandparents had planned to surprise him after his discharge with a small home they own next door to their own in Stockton. "This is really hard. We're so very proud of him,'' his grandmother said.

His cousin, writing on her blog yesterday, paid tribute to her lost relative.

"This senseless war may have taken my cousin from my family but we still have many memories, pictures, and his spirit to watch over us now from heaven. At least there is no war that can hurt him any more now in Heaven. May you Rest in Peace, Cousin Robbie. We'll meet again someday when you greet me with open arms and your guitar by your side at Heaven's gates. I hope you know we love you and miss you very much."