In a long and faraway war, the dead too easily lose their names and become like numbers on a scoreboard.
This is due partly to the cold nature of the news business, and partly to the benumbing nature of war. So many U.S. soldiers have now died in Iraq – 966, as of Friday – that the weekly tally is typically compressed into a brief newspaper paragraph or a single sentence of cable scroll.
Seldom are personal details attached to these numbers, unless a death hits home. Last week, one hit hard.
Alexander Arredondo, a lance corporal in the Marines, was killed during combat in the embattled Iraqi city of Najaf. He was only 20 years old, on his second tour of duty.
The sad truth is, you wouldn’t be hearing much about Alex Arredondo if it weren’t for what his father did Wednesday when three Marines showed up at the family’s Hollywood, Fla., home with the dreaded news.
Carlos Luis Arredondo went to pieces. “Crazy with grief,” said his mother.
He grabbed a gas tank and a blowtorch and clambered into the white government van in which the Marines had arrived. When Carlos Arredondo torched the van, he caught fire himself.
All the local TV stations ran the video. You couldn’t miss it.
The van was scorched to a shell. The explosion threw Carlos Arredondo to the ground, where he lay weeping and flailing in an agony that reached far beyond his physical injuries – an agony of the heart.
It was his 44th birthday, and his oldest son was gone.
A Marine spokesman in Camp Lejeune, N.C., told The Sun-Sentinel that he’d never heard of a relative of a dead soldier reacting the way Alex Arredondo’s father did.
Yet, there isn’t a father alive who can’t understand the depths of his grief.
By the end of this year, perhaps sooner, more than 1,000 American families will have received the same crushing news that was delivered last week to the Arredondos.
And it’s news for all of us, despite the perfunctory and parenthetical way the media reports it. One dead soldier is still important.
Every few days, military jets carrying flag-draped coffins return from Iraq to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The Bush administration won’t allow the coffins to be photographed there, but in hundreds of towns across America – where the funerals are held – it’s no secret.
The killing in Iraq hasn’t stopped, and the end is nowhere in sight.
Since the so-called handover of power in Baghdad, assorted insurgent factions have continued staging bloody hit-and-run attacks against civilians, the new government and U.S. troops. This happens, on average, about 50 times a day throughout Iraq.
Alex Arredondo’s mother spoke to him by phone the night before he died. He said he was positioned 250 yards from the Najaf mosque occupied by a rebel Muslim militia, which has been battling U.S.-led forces for weeks.
The family doesn’t know exactly how Alex died; the official account will come later. Meanwhile, Carlos Arredondo lies in stable condition in the burn-treatment center at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
As for the double tragedy, it must be said that for many of us who never met him, Lance Cpl. Alex Arredondo is no longer just a number or even just a name.
We know he grew up in Massachusetts and attended the Blue Hills Vocational Technical School, near Boston.
We know he signed up for the Marines as a teenager, a month before the 9/11 attacks. His stepmother said he saw military duty as a way to pay for college, and he didn’t want to burden his family.
We know he had a brother, Brian, who is three years younger, and a half-brother, Nathan, who is about to enter preschool. There is a girlfriend, as well, back in New England.
We know he had green eyes. We know he was studying Arabic. We know he came home last Christmas, bringing a Dr. Seuss book for his youngest brother.
Such ordinary details tug at us powerfully, and remind us of the true dear cost of this insane war.
In the days to come, more fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters will experience the anguish that shattered Carlos Arredondo on his birthday.
The soldiers they will bury deserve to be more than a number in the body count, more than a paragraph in the news.