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Published: Friday, 6/15/2007

Difficult to escape from Iraq's deadly realities

THANK God for Paris Hilton. And Tony Soprano. And the NBA finals. They let the shallow, the suspenseful, and the sensational temporarily suspend the depressing run of stories about bombings and bloodshed in Iraq. War-weary Americans want desperately to forget the chaotic mess their government created with no way out.

So they flock to the theater of the absurd or any diversion that gets their mind off the fighting and dying in the desert. The pathetic saga of a spoiled heiress in the slammer is a great escape.

Discussing why a TV mobster didn't get whacked in the season finale also gives people plenty to yammer about that has nothing to do with the rising U.S. military toll in Iraq. Certainly nail-biter NBA championship games can block out the violence in Baghdad for hours.

Plus there's always baseball, beer, and barbecues to avoid news of the exploding sandbox. And we can always plan summer vacations, like the Iraqi parliament, to get away from it all.

Well, most Americans can. But scattered across the country in large cities and small towns are those who only wish they could tune out what's happening with the suicide bombers, the snipers, and the insidious exploding devices planted to inflict maximum fatalities.

But they can't. What those personally untouched by the war may overlook is that every single one of the 3,500-plus soldiers who have died in Iraq left someone behind who will never be the same. Somebody, a mother, father, wife, husband, child, best friend, high school coach, pastor, who will never get over the loss of the person behind the name, rank, and date of death.

Hometown newspapers give a poignant glimpse of the grief when a local soldier comes home to be buried. By now with the war in its fifth year, the published profiles of a native son or daughter who died under hostile fire, or IED attack, or crash, or combat in Iraq, have become regular features.

Over the last four years the abbreviated life stories of 150 Ohioans killed in Iraq have been read in the communities where they grew up, went to school, maybe married. Ohio's Iraq toll is among the highest in the country after Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, and California.

Postscripts of the casualties, which often include a fresh-faced military photo of the fallen accompanied by a couple paragraphs, don't do justice to a life cut short. There may be a quote from a grieving father asserting his son's unwavering commitment to the military and the mission in Iraq, or the laments of a mother struggling to comprehend the loss of a child.

Ohio mom Cathi Endlich couldn't get past disbelief when she learned her son was shot and killed Saturday while on patrol north of Baghdad. "I'm numb," she said about Cory, who had just turned 23. "I do a lot of crying and then I have good times where I'm good and then I just start crying all over again."

Sgt. Endlich's family received a letter from him after receiving the bad news. They say they're too heartbroken to read it yet.

Two years ago, Toledo native Jason Benford was killed by sniper fire in Iraq. A few months earlier he had been home on leave with family members. They said they made memories to last a lifetime. But Staff Sgt. Benford's wife and two young sons were robbed of what could have been.

The aching void that families struggle with when they carry their soldier to the grave also grips many others who knew and loved the deceased as a friend, a co-worker, comedic spirit, serious soul, student, star athlete, role model, or ordinary kid eager to see the world. For every name that appears daily on the rapidly growing list of U.S. casualties in Iraq, there are countless Americans who deeply mourn a soldier suddenly gone.

Dozens of Ohio hometowns, from Akron to Zanesville, have turned out to say good-bye to their own corporal, sergeant, or private. Some places like Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus have borne several soldiers to the cemetery.

The more it happens the more personal the deaths become and the harder it is to escape the reality of the punishing Iraqi quagmire. But that's the way it should be. When Americans are dying every day, sometimes three or more at a time, their fellow citizens should be obsessed with getting them home alive and ending the senseless slaughter.

That more of us seem obsessed with Paris, or The Sopranos, or LeBron is a glaring indication of how unequal the military sacrifice is in America. For some who moan about gas prices crimping their vacation plans, the war hasn't hit home at all.



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