A new milestone was reached in Iraq this week: the death toll for US soldiers reached the 500 mark. Most of these deaths have occurred since President Bush declared an end to the major hostilities on May 1. And despite claims by the administration that Saddam's capture has led to the arrest of key Baath loyalists who were attacking them, the attacks continue unabated. By US official accounts, there are 17 attacks on US soldiers every day. There have been more soldiers killed in this intervention in Iraq than in the first four years of US intervention in Vietnam.
This grim toll is agonizing for the families back home. For the five hundred families who have lost loved ones, the grief is now part of their daily lives. The other 100,000 families live in constant fear. “It's like a game of Russian roulette”, said one of my friends whose son is serving in Iraq. “Every day we wonder if our luck will hold out, or if today is the day we take the hit.”
I fear that the American people been lulled into accepting these daily casualties, processing them as lightly as they do the day's weather report or the sports figures. The fact that the media is banned from covering the flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base or that President Bush has not attended one funeral helps shelter the public from the true horror of this daily carnage. And just recently, the press stopped covering the soldiers' deaths as front-page news.
To the list of those killed we must add the wounded. As the year closed, over 8,000 soldiers had been evacuated from Iraq for treatment at the Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany, where they arrive in the dark of night, hidden from the media. A new generation of young men and women living the rest of their lives in wheelchairs or coping with severe disabilities is another painful legacy of this military intervention.
What is perhaps most distressing for many of the troops and their families is that there is no timeline for their return. While the Bush administration has fixed a date for a transition to Iraqi self-rule on July 1, 2004, it intends to keep US troops in Iraq for years to come. Many military families are questioning that logic, particularly after the capture of Saddam Hussein. They say that their job is done and it's time for the Iraqis—and the UN—to take over.
Some military families who think this way joined me on a recent delegation to Iraq.
Anabelle Valencia braved the treacherous road to Saddam's birthplace, Tikrit, where her 24-year-old daughter Giselle was based. Giselle had been stationed in Germany before being deployed to Iraq; her mother hadn't seen her in three years. During their tearful but joyous reunion, Anabelle heard tales about how her daughter, who drives prisoners in convoys from Tikrit to Baghdad, narrowly escaped death one day when mines blew up all around her truck.
Mike Lopercio had a joyous reunion with his son, Anthony, who is stationed in another anti-American stronghold, Fallujah. But seeing the endless US convoys and patrols barreling through Iraqi cities and towns, Mike realized that the presence of US troops is actually fostering more and more resentment, and greater resistance. The longer they stay, the worse it will get. His son told him, “Dad, they hate us here, they think of us as occupiers and want us to go home.”
Fernando Suarez had the most difficult journey of all. He traveled to the lonely, dusty desert of Diwaniya to pay his last respects to his son Jesus, who was killed on March 27 when he stepped on a US landmine. Fernando also visited US troops, schools and hospitals, handing out letters of peace and friendship from American schoolchildren. “I went to Iraq to say goodbye to my son, and to show my love for the Iraqi children and for the troops,” Fernando said. “Right now, the best way we can show our love for the troops is to call on George Bush to bring them home.”
Whether or not we supported this war to begin with, it's time to question the price our soldiers and their families are paying. As long as Iraq remains occupied, there will be resistance to the occupation and the casualties will continue to mount. Let's stop this daily bloodshed by ending the occupation of Iraq and giving our troops a chance to return to their families.