March 18, 2007, 12:19AM
Texas paying heavy price in troops, casualtiesAt Iraq war's 4th anniversary, our death rate per capita exceeds other large states'
By MICHAEL HEDGES
Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON — As the nation commemorates the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war, a convincing argument can be made that Texas has contributed more troops and paid a higher price in blood than any other large state — and by a fairly wide margin.
More Texans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan than residents of any other state. Defense Department statistics list 160,100 active-duty service members and 23,161 National Guard troops and reservists from Texas deployed in the wars. No breakdown is available for the number of troops who have served in Iraq.
And of the 3,210 American service members killed in Iraq as of this weekend, 298 called Texas home. Of those, 69 lived in the Houston area.
That meant Texas had a death rate for its troops of 6.7 per half-million residents, far more on a per capita basis than other large states. California, the only state with a larger population than Texas, has a rate of 4.7 per 500,000, and New York, just behind Texas in population, lists its war death rate as 3.7 per 500,000.
Many more Texans were wounded. Through late February, more than 2,200 of the 23,677 wounded in the war listed Texas as their home state, according to the latest statistics available from the Pentagon.
One of those Texas soldiers who paid a price in blood is Luis Rodriguez, a 27-year-old sergeant.
The sniper bullet that found Rodriguez while he patrolled the city of Ramadi in late December pierced the Houstonian's back, shattering his collar bone and burrowing through his lung before exiting. "It felt like someone punched me, then my arm felt like it was burning down to my elbow," the Stephen F. Austin High School graduate recalled. "The next thing I remember, I woke up in Walter Reed (Army Medical Center in Washington), and it was three days later, New Year's Eve."
The Iraq war began exacting a toll on Texans in the first morning of the invasion after U.S. troops invaded Iraq from Kuwait on March 19, 2003.
The war's initial casualty was Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva of San Antonio, now retired, who stepped on a mine and lost his leg in the opening hours of the invasion.
Texas also had the sad distinction of suffering the war's 3,000th death. Spc. Dustin R. Donica, 22, of Spring, was killed on New Year's Day 2007.
A new directionFor wounded Texans, the experiences have run the gamut.
Rodriguez was struck by a bullet Dec. 28 while his unit with the 1st Armored Division worked near an Iraqi police station.
"I never heard the shot," he said, but reckoned that it came from a sniper at least a couple of hundred yards away. "I believe he was trying to make a head shot and didn't adjust for the wind."
Rodriguez, who said he has a large family that extends from Houston into Mexico, joined the Army after graduating from high school and working as a mechanic.
When Rodriguez's physical rehabilitation is complete and he regains some of the 32 pounds carved off his formerly 185-pound frame by the injury, he intends to leave the Army and use his education benefits to train as a mechanical engineer. He insisted the decision was not a result of serving two tours in Iraq or even suffering a severe wound.
"That was my plan all along," Rodriguez said. "I never saw myself as a lifer. I saw the Army as a steppingstone."
He won't be the first among his circle of friends to leave the service.
"After our first deployment lasted 15 months," he said, "most guys were saying 'uh-uh' to re-enlistment. I decided to do another tour, but I was one of a small number to do that."
The deaths of some Texas soldiers in Iraq have made headlines and illustrated the vagaries of a war fought for the most part without set-piece battles, front lines or rear areas.
During his 2005 State of the Union address, President Bush mentioned the heroics of Sgt. Byron W. Norwood of Pflugerville, near Austin. Norwood was killed Nov. 13, 2004, when he was shot by a sniper in Fallujah while saving the lives of seven Marines trapped by insurgents in a building, according to his fellow Marines. Norwood's parents, Janet and Bill Norwood, sat with first lady Laura Bush during the speech.
A Houston soldier, Pvt. Kristian Menchaca, was a victim in one of the war's most horrific episodes when he and another enlisted man were captured, tortured and killed by insurgents in June 2006.
The death in January of Staff Sgt. Hector Leija of Raymondville has raised issues about the clash between the media's war coverage and the privacy rights of a soldier and his family.
Leija's death unfolded under the eyes of two New York Times journalists. The newspaper published photographs of a dying Leija and posted on its Web site video of an interview with the soldier recorded just before he was mortally wounded. The Times later wrote the family a letter expressing "regret that the family suffered distress," according to a statement by the newspaper.
Cities feeling the bruntAlthough the war has been fought by a relatively small number of Americans who volunteered for active-duty military service or for the National Guard, many cities in Texas have felt a disproportionate impact.
From Killeen, the Central Texas home to Fort Hood, one of the Army's largest bases, the 4th Infantry and 1st Cavalry divisions have each deployed twice to Iraq.
Willie Browning, a volunteer with the Disabled American Veterans in Killeen, sees the toll of war at Fort Hood.
"Some of these men are ambulatory but still severely wounded," Browning said. "I have seen guys with closed head wounds, shrapnel still in their heads."
Browning works with soldiers who have had trouble adjusting, not just to their wounds but to the administrative and emotional challenges of suffering an injury during combat.
While not critical of the Veterans Administration's treatment of returning soldiers overall, Browning said, "some people fall through the cracks."
"Most of the frustration I see is with the bureaucracy people face in separating from the Army. Among the ambulatory wounded, there is more administrative frustration than medical frustration."
People in San Antonio, home to Fort Sam Houston and the Brooke Army Medical Center, also have seen a lot of the war's fallout.
Tammy Edwards has spent nearly two years in and around the medical center since her husband arrived there soon after he was severely injured in April 2005.
Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Edwards suffered third-degree burns over 79 percent of his body after a 500-pound bomb exploded under a Bradley Fighting Vehicle in which he was riding.
Tammy Edwards now works as a research assistant for the Geneva Foundation, chronicling the effects of injuries at Brooke. Bush recently named her to the federal commission created to review military medical care after recent disclosures of serious problems with the long-term care of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed.
"It hasn't been negligent by any means, but I feel like it could have been better organized," she said, speaking of her husband's care.
For example, she said that the psychological aspects of a severe injury aren't integrated into the overall treatment.
"They spend a lot of time convincing these guys that they are tough, and that they shouldn't have mental problems associated with their wounds," she said. "So then, when they are asked if they do have mental problems, they say no."
Stress of multiple toursMany service members who have returned to the United States from combat, and their families, come under increased stress because they are likely to deploy to the wars again, perhaps after just a short time.
Perry Jefferies, a Texas official with the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association, said the biggest strain he has seen in Texas has been the high deployment rate of the state National Guard — not just the thousands of troops who have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan but those activated for peacekeeping duties in Kosovo, Bosnia and other hotspots to free up combat forces.
"I've got a buddy in the Guard who went to Kosovo in '01, Afghanistan in '02, Iraq in '04, and they were looking to send him to Egypt in '05," said Jefferies, who served in Iraq as a first sergeant in 2003 before retiring from the Army.
Jefferies said his friend got out of the Guard and joined the Army. "He told me, 'I'll spend more time in the States if I go active-duty,' " Jefferies said.
Where is his friend now? "He's back in Iraq with the 1st Cavalry Division," Jefferies said.
For some, injury in Iraq has been a catalyst to a different life.
Jose Ramos of El Paso lost an arm in Iraq's Anbar province while serving his second tour as a Navy medic in 2004.
He has since enrolled at George Mason University in northern Virginia and is studying international affairs while minoring in Islamic studies and Arabic courses. Last week, he was named to the presidential panel investigating the care at Walter Reed and other facilities.
Ramos said the decision to study Islam and Arabic was part of a goal to "make a difference." He said he is not sure exactly what that means yet.
But Ramos is among those troops whose old life ended after seeing combat in Iraq. They now face an altered firstname.lastname@example.org
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