At 'Fort Sam' Cemetery, War Toll Hits Home

A bugler plays "Taps" during a funeral service for Army Pvt. Francis Lupo. i i

A bugler plays "Taps" during a funeral service for Army Pvt. Francis Lupo of Cincinnati, Ohio at Arlington National Cemetery on Sept. 26. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images
A bugler plays "Taps" during a funeral service for Army Pvt. Francis Lupo.

A bugler plays "Taps" during a funeral service for Army Pvt. Francis Lupo of Cincinnati, Ohio at Arlington National Cemetery on Sept. 26.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
A U.S. Air Force honor guard carries the casket of Airman First Class Leebernard Chavis. i i

A U.S. Air Force honor guard carries the casket of Airman First Class Leebernard Chavis during burial services at Arlington National Cemetery on Oct. 24, 2006. Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Win McNamee/Getty Images
A U.S. Air Force honor guard carries the casket of Airman First Class Leebernard Chavis.

A U.S. Air Force honor guard carries the casket of Airman First Class Leebernard Chavis during burial services at Arlington National Cemetery on Oct. 24, 2006.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

As the toll from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan mounts, cities and towns around the country are growing more accustomed to burying their sons and daughters. The ritual of laying to rest an active-duty member of the service has become more commonplace.

The San Antonio area has lost 25 members of the military in Iraq.

There's nothing routine about burying a 20-year-old. Nonetheless, Iraq war fatalities have been coming home with such regularity over the past almost-four years that people in San Antonio have learned what to do. The ritual is well established.

Funeral director Bill Piett says Porter Loring Mortuaries in San Antonio has handled several services since the Iraq conflict began.

"When that casket arrives at the airport, the passengers are asked to remain on that plane, and as the casket is borne off the plane by the honor guard it allows the dignity and respect for the deceased to come off the plane before anyone is allowed to disembark the plane," he says.

The honor guard at the Ft. Sam Houston army post is responsible for honoring fallen soldiers in 63 South Texas counties.

"From the time the plane lands, we send one soldier into the cargo hold to make sure nothing's tampered with on the casket of the deceased solider," says Sgt. First Class David Jones. "When he gets up there he makes sure the flag is properly draped, the dogtags are the way they're supposed to be."

The families of fallen Marines, soldiers, airmen and sailors get lots of support in San Antonio. With its four military installations and warm, sunny weather, the city has one of the largest ex-military communities in the country. The mayor attends every funeral of active-duty troops.

The San Antonio Express-News runs every obituary of an Iraq fatality on the front page.

There was the army sergeant known as "Gonzo" who was buried in his native Mexico — the infantryman and former lineman for the Kennedy High School Rockets who they called "Joe Na-na" — and the airman, "Crazy Ray" Rangel, who played defensive back for the South San Antonio Bobcats.

Scott Huddleston, a staff writer at the paper, says he has written stories about at least half of the local war dead, and covered the funerals.

"It's during that playing of taps that you can hear the sobs," he says. "The release. This chorus of sobs. That's the thing that sticks with me over and over again."

Sometimes a pretty woman with dark brown hair, wearing a black pantsuit with a gold pin on her lapel, stands in back of the assemblage at the funerals.

She's Kim Smith, mother of Private Robert L. Franz, who was killed in Baghdad on June 17, 2003.

She's a local member of the American Gold Star Mothers, a 78-year-old national organization composed of women who lost a child in the armed services. At the end of the line of mourners, Smith tries to speak to the newly grieving family.

"I don't have a speech, I go by my heart," she says. "I let 'em know who I am and give my condolences to them, and we usually end up in a long tearful hug. And I'll just let 'em know there's somebody out there they can call if they need to talk to or cry to or even scream to."

When a funeral is over, the new grave joins more than 112,000 others at Fort Sam Houston National Ceremony, which has long rows of white marble headstones punctuated by oak, crepe myrtle and pecan trees.

William Trower, director of the cemetery, oversaw 3,780 burials last year, including a small number who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The country itself bleeds because we are losing our sons and our daughters because they are so young and they have so much of their life left in front of them," Trower says. "But still even when we have an older vet who's served and who's retired, our heart still goes out and there's still a lot of pain."

Trower is immensely proud of his national cemetery. He sees that the grass is mown at least 42 times a year, that at least 20,000 headstones are scrubbed clean annually and that pinwheels and balloons and teddy bears are quietly collected from gravesites because they're considered undignified.

And he sees to it that the new graves are sodded, squared and tended just as carefully as those who came before.

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