The mournful notes of a solitary bugler blowing taps rose into the breezeless desert air. In a final roll call, her name -- Analaura Esparza -- was intoned three times, with long pauses between, as if she might answer.
Hundreds of soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division lined up in long, silent rows Friday to pay tribute to Esparza, a 21-year-old private first class killed two days earlier when a bomb went off almost directly beneath the Humvee she was driving, ripping into her left leg and chest.
A member of a forward support company, she was returning to base after a supply run in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s restive hometown.
A world away, in a tidy middle-class neighborhood outside Houston, where wildflowers line the sidewalks and every other house seems to have a basketball hoop in the driveway, the cries of a mother who had lost her only child echoed through a cul-de-sac Friday.
“Que paso?” Armandina Esparza screamed again and again. “What happened?”
Her husband, Augustin, his red-rimmed eyes peering through bifocals, remembered “a good daughter, a brave daughter.”
“She was proud of what she did,” he said, “not because she was a woman but because she was a soldier.”
Esparza, known to her friends as Lissy, was the 315th American soldier to die in Iraq or Kuwait since the start of the war. But she was only the fourth female fatality, and her death underscored the lack of distinction between traditional combat and support roles in a war in which the front lines are everywhere and nowhere.
That is particularly true in places like Tikrit, where U.S. troops are aggressively hunting insurgents loyal to the deposed Iraqi leader, and where every American soldier leaving the gates of highly fortified U.S. compounds is under orders to consider himself -- or herself -- to be on combat footing.
In Iraq, women serve in all units except those specifically designated for combat: infantry, artillery and armor.
Besides triggering an outpouring of grief for a young woman who was, by all accounts, a particularly well-loved daughter and comrade, Esparza’s death renewed a long-standing debate about Americans’ psychological readiness to sustain female casualties -- inevitable in a conflict in which women fill a plethora of hazardous roles.
The women who served alongside Esparza in Tikrit insist, with fierce and wholehearted pride, on their status as soldiers first, with gender inconsequential.
“I’m the leader of my platoon, and that’s how my platoon thinks of me -- not as a female,” said 1st Lt. Amanda Lee Dorsey, a no-nonsense military police officer who regularly goes out on patrols and convoy-escort missions around Tikrit.
But these same soldiers acknowledge that their loved ones, and the public at large, tend to view them a bit differently, if only because of their status as a minority. The 4th Infantry, based at Ft. Hood, Texas, is about 12% female, said public affairs officer Maj. Josslyn Aberle.
“Because the number of us is smaller, one of my female soldiers said today that her parents had been terrified when they heard a woman soldier was killed here in Tikrit,” said Dorsey, a 25-year-old from Hickory Hill, Ill. “She asked me, ‘Did you call your parents?’ ”
“A female’s death gets more attention,” said 1st Lt. Mary Shannon Newell, who, like Dorsey, serves in the 720th Military Police Battalion.
“You hear the argument that this war will be different, because people can’t handle the idea of their daughters coming home in body bags,” said Newell, 24, of De Kalb, Miss. “My brother’s serving here in Iraq too, but everyone always seems more worried about me.
“Me, though -- I’m worried about him!”
Esparza’s death, the third in the 700-strong task force in which she served, appeared particularly wrenching for fellow soldiers.
The Army was supposed to be a means to an end for Esparza, who at age 7 immigrated with her family to the United States from Monterrey, Mexico. She earned mostly A’s before graduating from Cy Falls High School in 2001. In school, she was a member of the French honor club and developed an eye for photography.
She wanted to go to college to become a psychologist, but she knew the family couldn’t afford it on her father’s wages as a machinist. So she enlisted in the Army in May 2002 as a supply specialist. She figured she would serve a couple of years, come home and maybe go to Rice University or the University of Houston.
Her 4th Forward Support Battalion had been in Iraq for six months, mostly around Tikrit.
“When she joined the Army, none of this was going on,” said her aunt, Meyra Esparza. “She was sent to Iraq so fast.”
Esparza trained at Ft. Jackson, S.C., and Ft. Lee, Va., before shipping out to Kuwait. Along the way, she had found love -- with Spc. Jose Gomez, an infantryman from the Bronx in the 122nd Task Force, to which her supply company was attached. He had already returned to the U.S., and she intended to join him when she could. They planned to marry.
“He was so nervous he could barely get the words out,” Esparza wrote a friend about his proposal. “I still have to get a ring and he still has to get my parents’ permission. But I look forward to having his kids and getting old and fat together. I truly believe this was meant to be.”
Esparza managed to call home last weekend. She had been told she would return to the U.S. after six months, but she had recently received, like thousands of other soldiers in Iraq, orders to remain for far longer.
“She was anxious to get home, but she said everything was fine,” Meyra Esparza said. “Every time she called, she spoke with confidence. She would say that she was OK, that she was coming home soon. She had a lot of hopes, a lot of dreams.”
In Esparza’s unit, officers and peers alike spoke of a reliable and self-disciplined young soldier with an infectious laugh and a light-up-the-room personality. She would joke at her own expense about her stop-and-go style of driving, saying she needed to log more miles outside Houston.
“Everyone who knew her should feel blessed,” said Staff Sgt. Carlos Garcia of San Diego, who recalled how Esparza took a lunchtime college course and was exuberantly delighted with her A.
At a memorial to her Friday, bouquets of artificial flowers were placed over camouflage netting, together with a traditional salute to the fallen: an M-16 rifle pointed to the sky, topped with a helmet and propped between a pair of combat boots.
Each member of her company passed before it, some saluting, some kneeling for a moment’s prayer, some crossing themselves. Others paused to wipe away tears.
The attack that killed Esparza and wounded three others, two of them seriously, pointed up the vulnerability of the American forces to ambushes by insurgents, these days most often involving roadside explosive devices. Her three-Humvee convoy was less than 400 yards from base, shortly before 5 p.m., when it was hit. Esparza was driving the lead vehicle.
“I didn’t hear the blast -- you don’t. I just felt the shock wave,” said Capt. Curtis Kuetemeyer, the company commander, who was riding in the same Humvee. “I saw a flash of light and a cloud of dust moving, like watching a tape in slow motion. And then I saw her -- she was so, so hurt.”
Esparza was rushed within moments to a casualty center at the main U.S. base in Tikrit, a sprawling palace compound on the banks of the Tigris River that belonged to Saddam Hussein, but she died a short time later.
“They all received the highest level of resuscitative care, but she had massive injuries,” said Capt. Alex Morales, a physician’s assistant who worked on her. “Even the best efforts by a fully equipped surgical team would not have been enough.”
Kuetemeyer said he and Esparza had often talked about the dangers of traveling in and around Tikrit in supply convoys, but that Esparza did not dwell on them. “She was very, very careful but very calm,” he said.
Although Esparza was in a support company, commanders say her job in Tikrit was just as dangerous as many of those that are “combat-coded.”
“The line is very, very blurred,” said Aberle, the 4th Infantry public affairs officer.
Like others, Aberle is glad to see women being recognized for the perilous jobs they perform, from aviation to intelligence. But she said there should be no distinction between the sacrifices made by men and women alike.
“The death of any of our soldiers is a tremendous loss to the unit, regardless,” she said.
In the Tikrit palace parking lot where soldiers in camouflage and battle gear gathered for the memorial to Esparza, no one seemed ready for last farewells.
“It is a difficult task to say goodbye to a fellow soldier,” said Lt. Col. Darrell Gore, the battalion commander. “She has given her life for her country, and for freedom -- a freedom that is not free, but is very costly.”
Spc. Anton Rzhevskiy of the Bronx had a more personal recollection of his friend.
“She was only 5-foot-4 in her boots, shorter and smaller than a lot of people,” he said. “But her heart was bigger -- much, much bigger.”
King reported from Tikrit and Gold from Houston. Times researcher Lynn Marshall in Seattle contributed to this report.