In a somber ceremony beneath a bright blue sky, the 3,000th United States troop killed in Iraq was laid to rest here Monday as friends and family members wept.
“Three thousand is not just a number to us anymore,” said Jim Foster, senior pastor at John Wesley United Methodist Church in Houston, which held an emotional service honoring Army Spc. Dustin Ross Donica. “It has a face now.”
Donica, 22, was shot in the head Dec. 28 by a sniper in the city of Karmah in Al Anbar province. He was the fifth young man from Spring, Texas, to die in the war -- a heavy toll for the Houston suburb of about 36,000.
“Double D,” as Donica was known, enjoyed sports and playing cards and video games, friends recalled.
He had a MySpace page where he talked about his “glory days” on the powerhouse Klein High School Bearkats soccer team, his love of ham-and-pineapple pizza, and his desire to return to college once his service was over.
Donica was always mature for his age, his friends’ parents said. Wendy Fryfogle recalled during Monday’s service how when he was 17, he warned her not to drive in a flood. As it turned out, she said, he was right -- she wound up stuck in deep water.
In 2003, Donica left the University of Texas at Austin to join the Army because he believed it was his duty, his parents said.
He was close to his younger sister, Courtney, and planned to surprise her by using his R&R; leave to show up at her college graduation, said their father, David. The siblings would often say, “We are twins, born one year apart.”
When Donica deployed from Ft. Richardson, Alaska, to Iraq, he sent his sister a teddy bear wearing a paratrooper’s uniform with a “Donica” patch on its arm. It was supposed to watch over her until he got home.
On Monday, the Patriot Guard Riders -- a band of bikers that helps honor fallen soldiers -- showed up by the dozens to escort Donica’s hearse. The road from the church to the cemetery was filled with hundreds of people holding American flags and placing their hand over their heart.
At the gravesite, an Army representative announced that Donica had been awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. As Donica’s casket lay draped with the flag next to a portrait of him in uniform, soldiers shot off a jarring rifle salute, followed by a long silence.
Donica last spoke to his mother, Judy, on the phone two days before he died, the family said. He ended the conversation by telling her that he loved her. And he asked his family to take caramel apples to a wounded Army pal receiving treatment in San Antonio.
His final communication to his family was a hastily drafted e-mail:
“i can’t wait until i am able to come home. really want to see you guys and get away from this miserable place for a while. i’m sure mom dug this up by now so i’ll explain. i like to shield ya’ll from everything bad that happens and any close scrapes. you can hear those stories next year. but i’m sure you’ve heard about this. on the 7th of dec, 2 people from my company died from an ied explosion. it was my platoon, my squad, my patrol, i was there treating casualties. it happened about 150 meters from me.... please don’t worry about me. we are all doing everything we can to bring each other back safely and it doesn’t help anything to be regretful or to worry about something you can’t help or change. i just want you guys to know that i love you all and i’m proud to be your son.”
He signed the note “dd.”
Donica’s family learned on the Internet that he had been designated the 3,000th troop killed in Iraq.
David Donica later stumbled onto an antiwar site, containing his son’s photograph and personal information, that protested “the lies and treason of George W. Bush.”
The idea of their son being used as a pawn in a political argument has “caused us a lot of grief,” David Donica said. The page eventually was taken down.
The Donicas, friends said, do not believe their son’s death merits more attention than anyone else’s.
“Their feeling is: What about No. 2,999?” said Donica’s high school soccer coach, Allen Baker. “What about No. 3,001?”