The death of a 34-year-old Army staff sergeant wounded by a roadside bomb marked the 2,000th military casualty of the Iraq war, the Pentagon announced Tuesday, cementing another grim milestone in the two-and-a-half-year-old conflict in Iraq.
It's a number that many are using as a symbol of either a misguided military action or the ultimate cost of freedom. But who are the men and women behind the number? Of those 2,000 troops lost, nearly a third were between the ages of 20 to 22, with the highest fatality rate (11.7 percent) being among 21-year-olds, according to figures from the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, which gathers the bulk of its data from the U.S. government. Soldiers in their mid- to late-20s made up 37 percent of deaths, making almost 70 percent of U.S. casualties under age 30.
Nearly half the fallen were soldiers, one-quarter were Marines and 15 percent were from the National Guard. More than three-quarters (78 percent) were killed in combat, with more than 93 percent killed after President Bush declared an end to major combat in May 2003.
Most casualties were suffered by men, with only 46 female fatalities. Seventy-three percent were white, compared to 11 percent Hispanic and 10.7 percent black; other ethnicities constituted the remaining 5 percent. Forty percent left behind spouses and 30 percent were survived by children.
Roadside bombs, or "improvised explosive devices," were the leading cause of hostile deaths at 28 percent, while firefights, or heavy gunfire, accounted for nearly 24 percent. As a result the Army created a special unit committed to learning and teaching soldiers about IEDs in March. Training included including recognition, characteristics and placement of the devices, and how to counter those systems.
As quickly as news of the latest figure broke, so did damage control by the Department of Defense. In a statement issued shortly after the 2000th loss was confirmed, military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Steve Boylan called the number an "artificial mark on the wall" and not a landmark that should be exploited by the press.
"The 2,000 service members killed in Iraq supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom is not a milestone," he said, noting that the 2,000th soldier, sailor, airman or Marine killed in action is just as important as the first that died. Instead Boylan urged the media to "celebrate the daily milestones, the accomplishments they have secured and look to the future of a free and democratic Iraq and to the day that all of our troops return home to the heroes' welcome they deserve."
Those homecomings will have to wait, however, as President Bush told the American public earlier Tuesday morning there are no plans to pull troops and that more casualties can be expected as our forces face difficult circumstances as they try to help establish political and social stability in Iraq.
"These terrorists are as brutal an enemy as we have ever faced, unconstrained by any notion of common humanity and by rules of warfare, [and] no one should underestimate the difficulties ahead," the president said during a speech at Washington's Bolling Air Force Base.
While each loss of life is heartbreaking, Bush continued, the best way to honor our fallen troops' sacrifices is "to lay the foundation of peace by spreading freedom."
Yet each fallen soldier intensifies a growing weariness from the U.S. public, whose support for the war has been dwindling in the recent months. According to the latest poll published in the The Wall Street Journal Tuesday, more than half of Americans (53 percent) now say it was wrong to invade Iraq, up from 43 percent one year ago.
In light of these numbers, antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq last year, is planning a four-day protest outside the White House, where she hopes 2,000 supporters will gather to die symbolically by laying on the grounds to represent each fallen soldier.
"Two thousand families have been destroyed for nothing," Sheehan told The Associated Press. "Enough is enough. The killing has got to stop."
Meanwhile, Senator Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) spoke out to his fellow politicians and urged them to take a stand in the name of the fallen troops, including the 357, he says, that "never saw their 21st birthday," according to a Washington Post report.
"We cannot allow our nation to drift into a war without end in Iraq," Durbin added. "We do not honor fallen soldiers simply by adding to their numbers."