One of my responsibilities at the newspaper is to format a running list of the week's casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. Department of Defense e-mails us the updates, and we compile them and print them every Sunday in our Nation/World section as a service to our readers.
Like any task done on a regular basis, it hardly registers anymore. I fly through the responsibility every Friday night, bolding the service members' names, putting commas where needed and changing the word "sustained" to "suffered." It's a small thing, but a big part of what I do at my job. I'm paid to get picky. Inanimate objects sustain injuries. People suffer them. But apparently our Department of Defense prefers to gloss over that fact.
There was a time in the more than two years that I've been doing this that the casualty list didn't require an entire page. Sometimes it was 15 to 20 names long, allowing me to pair it with the latest story from one of the wars and maybe a graphic or a photo. I'd title the page "War on terrorism."
But not lately. Ever since President Bush mandated a troop surge in Baghdad, I'm titling the page "Casualties" and fighting to squeeze all of them in.
Each entry includes a name, age, the service member's hometown, date and location of their death, a brief explanation of how they died, which regiment they belonged to and where it was based in the U.S. On occasion, it also includes, "Death is under investigation."
But today, on Memorial Day, it bothers me that I can distance myself enough from the gruesome reality of our nation's dead to search for misplaced commas. Or to make sure Arkansas is correctly abbreviated to Ark. when it comes after a city.
I know I'm not completely desensitized, though. Sometimes, while scrolling through the hundreds of photos that pop up after doing a search for "Iraq" on our Associated Press membership website, I stumble upon images that give me pause. There, in between the pictures of a soldier in desert camouflage staking out a post with a large automatic rifle, are a few simple mugshots. With an American flag hung vertically in the background, a young man or woman in uniform was likely told to sit on a chair and stare into the camera before being shipped off to war.
I always click on the thumbnail image to look at the individuals more closely and read the accompanying personal information. It's almost as if I'm drawn to them. Every face is different. Some are smiling, some aren't, but one thing always strikes me: the look of pride.
That is what pride looks like.
And they're all dead.
The Department of Defense makes the mugshots available to the media when the service members die -- whether from a roadside bomb, improvised explosive device or enemy fire.
Putting a face with the name always haunts me. It somehow connects me with their family back home. With the profound sense of loss they must be feeling. I often get choked up thinking about it.
It makes me angry at the assembly line of it all. I can't help but wonder if formatting that list of casualties would hit home more if along with their name, age and hometown, the Department of Defense included what their favorite hobby was. What kind of car they drove. How many kids they left behind.
So I guess I want to say thank you to all of them and all of the generations that served before for giving the greatest sacrifice of all in the name of freedom: their lives. All in the hope that a group of people, hundreds of thousands of miles from here, would know what it feels like to cast a ballot. To make their voice heard. To walk to a market and buy ingredients for a meal without fear. To be able to obtain an education. To worship whatever religion their faith calls them to. To enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
And to show my thanks, I won't take any of it for granted.