‘Thanks’ just isn’t enough

The names sit like scattered ashes, enough sacrifice to turn an entire page gray as a tombstone on Memorial Day weekend.

Nearly 500 California troops have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

The list takes us from Roberto Abad, 22, of Bell Gardens, whose girlfriend was expecting their first child, to Benjamin T. Zieske, 20, of Concord, whose mother said: “He went over as a boy and died as a man. I could tell.”

Some go believing in a cause.


Some go to honor relatives who went before them.

Some go to earn citizenship, or because their lives lack structure or purpose, or because the military is the closest thing to family they’ll ever know.

Regardless of where they come from or why they go, all troops in Iraq and Afghanistan balance a belief in their own survival against unrelenting evidence of the randomness of death.

“Miss you all. Love you. Hope to see you again,” Army Spc. James L. Beckstrand, 27, of Escondido said in his last e-mail to friends before he was killed in 2004 by a car bomb in Iraq.


Army Sgt. Michael S. Hancock of Yreka was 29 at the time of his death in 2003.

“He couldn’t wait to get back home and play with the kids and go have dinner with me,” said his wife, Jeannie. “He was beautiful with the kids.”

I suspect that many of those who never got back home worried less about dying than about the impact on loved ones, knowing the fracture that would begin with a knock at the door.

Grieving spouses, children, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers delivered to a state of irrevocable loss. All of them left to wonder why and what might have been, the small moments of the day filled with solemn reflection.


“You are a great father!” 15-year-old Vanessa Jimenez wrote after her father, 34-year-old Marine Lt. Oscar Jimenez, was killed in 2004 on his third tour.

The San Diego man had promised Vanessa, one of two children, that it would be his last tour.

“You are my Marine hero!” Vanessa wrote. “And you will always be my hero forever!”

Navy Petty Officer Michael A. Monsoor, 25, of Garden Grove jumped on a grenade in September 2006 to save fellow troops.


Said President Bush at Monsoor’s Medal of Honor ceremony:

“One of the survivors put it this way: ‘Mikey looked death in the face that day and said, you cannot take my brothers. I will go in their stead.’ ”

I don’t know where that kind of courage and selflessness come from, but I fear the cost of defining war as a stage on which heroes find glory in death. The truth is harder, lonelier and crueler.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Tens of thousands of troops have fallen.

For every U.S. service member killed, roughly 10 have been seriously injured.

Despite the blood spilled and the billions spent, little progress has been made toward a mission that has never been quite clear; there is no end in sight.

“I never realized saving the world was so damned hard,” Army Maj. James M. Ahearn, 43, of Concord said in one of his final messages home before his death last year.


In the San Joaquin Valley, the mayor of Livingston, Gurpal Samra, had this to say when Livingston High School’s Karina S. Lau (half Chinese, half Mexican) was killed in 2003:

“Before we heard about Karina, the reports from Iraq were all numbers and names with no faces. Now one of the names has a face from here in our very own Livingston.”

It’s a face without fear, eyes that say, “Look at me, the future is mine.” Lau’s fourth-grade teacher said the Army private first class came to class speaking only Spanish, and was earning the highest scores on English tests by year’s end.

Lau was on her way home on leave for her 21st birth- day and planned to surprise her parents. Her helicopter was shot down near Bagh- dad on the way to the airport, and she died with 15 other soldiers.


“Karina! Karina! Karina!” her mother wailed at the cemetery, even as a Bronze Star was posthumously awarded to the daughter who wanted to be a music teacher.

If those who died are heroes, so too are those who have returned from battle to tell the truth about death and dying, about permanent disability, about endless nights haunted by the ghosts of these and other wars.

“I am the living death, the Memorial Day on wheels,” wrote Ron Kovic, who was shot and paralyzed in Vietnam. “I am your Yankee Doodle Dandy, your John Wayne come home, your Fourth of July firecracker exploding in the grave.”

If Kovic owes the country the truth of his experience 40 years ago, we owe the dead an outcry every time someone tramples the liberties they ostensibly died for in the last several years.


We owe them less grandstanding about this war in the presidential campaign, and more specifics about how to end it.

We owe them our thanks.