By Lizette Alvarez and Andrew Lehren
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Jordan Hess was the unlikeliest of soldiers.
He could bench-press 300 pounds, about 135 kilograms, and then go home and write poetry.
He learned the art of glass blowing because it seemed interesting
and built a computer with only a magazine as his guide. Most recently,
he fell in love with a woman from Brazil and took up digital
photography, letting both sweep his heart away.
Specialist Hess, the seventh of eight children, was never keen on
premonitions, but on Christmas Day, 2005, as his tight-knit family
gathered on a beach for the weekend, he told each sibling and parent
privately that he did not expect to come home from Iraq.
On Nov. 11 this year, Hess, 26, freshly arrived in Iraq, was
conducting a mission as the driver of an Abrams tank when an improvised
explosive device, or IED, blew up. The blast was so powerful that it
penetrated the 67-ton tank, flinging Hess against the top and
critically injuring his spine. His four crew mates survived. For three
weeks, Hess hung on at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, long
enough to utter a few words to his loved ones and absorb all their
On Dec. 4, Hess slipped onto the ever-expanding list of American
military fatalities in Iraq, which has increased by an average of more
than three a day since Oct. 1, the highest three-month toll in two
years. On Sunday, with the announcement of the death in Baghdad of
Specialist Dustin Donica, 22, of Spring, Texas, the list reached the
milestone of at least 3,000 deaths since the March 2003 invasion.
The number reflects how much more dangerous and muddled a soldier’s
job in Iraq has become in the face of a growing and increasingly
sophisticated insurgency. Violence in the country is at an all-time
high, according to a Pentagon report released last month. December was
the third- deadliest month for American troops since the start of the
war, with insurgents claiming the lives of 111 soldiers. October and
November also witnessed a jump in casualties, 106 and 68 respectively,
as American forces stepped up combat operations to try to stabilize
"It escalated while I was there," said Captain Scott Stanford, a
National Guard officer who was a commander of a headquarters company in
Ramadi for a year after arriving in June 2005. "When we left this June,
it was completely unhinged. There was a huge increase in the suicide
car bombs we had. The IEDs were bigger and more complex."
"And it was very tense before we left in terms of snipers," added
Stanford, a member of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
"I don’t know if there were more of them, or if they were getting better."
This spike in violence, which has been felt most profoundly by Iraqi
civilians, has stoked feverish debate about the U.S. military’s
presence in Iraq. Many Democrats in Congress are urging a phased
withdrawal from the country, but the administration of President George
W. Bush is leaning toward deploying additional troops in 2007. If the
conflict continues into March, the Iraq war will be the third-longest
in American history, ranked behind the Vietnam War and the American
Bush did not specifically acknowledge reaching the milestone of
3,000 American deaths, but a White House spokesman, Scott Stanzel, said
that the president "grieves for each one that is lost" and would ensure
that their sacrifice was not made in vain. The war on terror, Stanzel
said, will be a long struggle.
Hess had volunteered for his mission to spare another soldier the
danger of going outside the wire that day. Like so many of his fallen
comrades, he had become the victim of an inescapably dangerous roadside
"It was the type of injury you rarely recover from; in past wars you
wouldn’t have gotten out of theater," said his father, Bill Hess, a
Boeing engineer and retired air force man. "So that was a blessing,
that he could talk to us. He mouthed words, and we were able to say we
loved him. There is a lot to be said for that."
In many ways, the third 1,000 men and women to die in Iraq faced the
same unflinching challenge as the second 1,000 soldiers to die there —
a dedicated and ruthless Iraqi insurgency that has exploited the power
of roadside bombs to chilling effect. These bombs now cause about half
of all American combat deaths and injuries in Iraq.
Overall, the casualty rate has remained relatively steady since last
year, dipping only slightly. It took 14 months for the death toll to
jump from 1,000 to 2,000 soldiers. It took about two weeks longer than
that for it to rise from 2,000 to 3,000, during the period covering
Oct. 25, 2005, to this week.
"It is hugely frustrating, tragic and disappointing that we can’t
reduce the fatality rate," said Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst
for the Brookings Institution.
The service members who died during this latest period fit an
unchanging profile. They were mostly white men from rural areas,
soldiers so young they still held fresh memories of high-school
football heroics and teenage escapades. Many men and women were in Iraq
for the second or third time. Some were going on their fourth, fifth or
But in other ways, the situation has changed in the past year.
Improvised explosive devices — the kind that killed Hess — have
grown deadlier, despite concerted Pentagon efforts and billions of
dollars spent trying to counteract them. Insurgents are now more adept
at concealing bombs, booby-trapping them and powering them to penetrate
They are also scattering more of them along countless roads, using
myriad triggers and hiding spots — under garbage and tires, behind
guard-rails, inside craters. At the same time, Iraqi citizens have
grown less inclined to tip off soldiers to the presence of these bombs.
The toll of war has fallen most heavily this year on regular army
soldiers, at least 544 of whom died in this group of 1,000, compared
with 405 in the last group. This increase was the result of fewer
National Guard soldiers and reservists being deployed to Iraq in 2006.
Considering the intensity of the violence in Iraq this year, it is
remarkable that the casualty rate did not climb higher, analysts and
officers say. Long- awaited improvements in body and vehicle armor have
helped protect soldiers, and advances in battlefield medicine have
saved many lives. New procedures, like leaving wounds open to prevent
infection, and relaying soldiers to hospitals faster than ever, have
kept more service members alive. Troops now carry their own tourniquets.
During World War II, 30 percent of all wounded soldiers died of
their injuries, a number that dipped to 24 percent during the Vietnam
War and then to 9 percent for the Iraq conflict. Though this is a
positive development, it also means that more soldiers are coming home
with life-changing injuries, including amputations and brain trauma.
More than 22,000 soldiers have been wounded in Iraq.
"There is no question that the number of dead should have been far
higher," said Dr. William Winkenwerder, the assistant secretary of
defense for health affairs, referring to the Iraqi conflict. "Some of
these blast injuries are very powerful."
Bombs and bullets are not the only things that can kill soldiers;
nearly 20 percent of those who die in Iraq do so outside of combat
operations. Sometimes it is the hazard of driving too quickly on badly
rutted roads to avoid danger. Humvees, weighted down with armor, can
easily flip if maneuvered too quickly. Many of Iraq’s roads are not
built to hold heavy vehicles and the ground can give way, tossing
multiton machines into narrow canals where soldiers have drowned.
In a way, these deaths, coming not at the hands of the enemy, can be even more difficult for parents to accept.
"I don’t think I ever thought something like this could happen,"
said Shelley Burnett, whose son, Lance Corporal Jason Burnett, 20, died
in May after his tank toppled into a canal. "We talked a lot about the
IEDs and the dangers out there, but Jason kept saying, ‘There is not a
whole lot they can do to a tank.’"