U.S. Families Find Own Meanings in Iraq Deaths

U.S. combat deaths in Iraq are on pace to rank it as one of the deadliest months yet. The people who have felt the impact the most are the families and communities the victims come from.

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The war in Iraq has become more dangerous for American soldiers lately. So far this month more than 70 U.S. troops have been killed there, making it one of the most violent months in the war.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn examines the impact on the families of some of the fallen.

WADE GOODWYN: Mario Nelson's friends and family called him Big Moe. He was 6'3", 275, and the 26-year-old had a reputation as being incredibly strong. On the first day of October, the Army sergeant was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade while on patrol. He was from Canarsie in Brooklyn.

The next day, two Georgia boys, Justin Jarrett, age 21, and his sergeant, James Ellis, age 25, were killed in Taji by an explosive device near their vehicle. Jarrett left behind a young wife, Kathleen, and his 9-month-old daughter Kaden(ph).

In an effort to secure Baghdad, the American military has beefed up its forces in and around the city. That, in turn, has translated into a significantly higher rate of American and Iraqi deaths. The month of October is on track to be the deadliest of the war. In Memphis, Tennessee, another military family is celebrating the life of an officer killed in battle.

Ms. JOSIE BALLIN (Captain Robert Secher's sister): After his funeral last week, we had house full of Marines. It was an astounding sight to see all these Marines in their dress blues who had literally come in from all over the world because they love my brother.

GOODWYN: Josie Ballin is the sister of Marine Captain Robert Secher, killed by a sniper on October 8th.

Ms. BALLIN: They've called him a Marine's Marine, an officer's officer. He embodied what a Marine should be. And one of them said to me, you know, I have spoken to six different people tonight, and each one of them told me that Robert was their best friend. And there's a certain mystique about the United States Marines. It's a brotherhood like nothing I've ever seen.

GOODWYN: Secher was killed during a firefight in Iraq's Anbar province. He was an unlikely Marine, his father a university professor. But his sister says the only place the captain wanted to be was on the field of battle.

Ms. BALLIN: He had reached the certain level of self-actualization. He was doing what he had wanted to do since he was a boy and he loved every minute of it.

GOODWYN: At one point in his career, Robert Secher guarded the presidents of the United States, both Clinton and the first president Bush, trusted enough to carry a sidearm while accompanying the commander-in-chief. In Iraq, he trained the Iraqi army. Those were his proudest accomplishments. But his father says the captain was not happy with what he saw in September upon his return to this country while on leave.

Mr. PIERRE SECHER (Captain Robert Secher's father): He came back here for the first time after several months, and he said it is incredibly sad. There's a war on, he says, and this country is totally unaware.

GOODWYN: Eighty-two-year-old Pierre Secher tried to enlist during World War II, but he was 4-F physically disqualified, one of his life's greatest regrets. That his son was a highly respected Marine captain will make the retired political science professor proud the rest of his life. Pierre Secher says he is frustrated with the war in Iraq, but like his son he's much more frustrated with Americans here at home.

Mr. P. SECHER: I will tell what my thoughts are now; my thoughts are this: The people in this country, and especially the young people in this country, have got learn that there's a price to pay for having a country. Now that price does not necessarily have to be death, but it has to be a price that involves a recognition that we are a community.

GOODWYN: Pierre Secher says that's exactly what his son loved about the Marines, the sense of community, the shared purpose, the idea that they were men and women who did more than talk. The fact that Captain Robert Secher, age 31, died in battle surrounded by his men brings his family great solace.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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Correction Jan. 26, 2007

In the broadcast version of this story, NPR identifies Marine Capt. Robert Secher as 31. He was 33 at the time of his death.

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