British tears, blood spill in Iraq war

Easy for U.S. to forget it's not alone in fight, loss

November 14, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NEWHALL, England - Russell Aston, a corporal with the Royal Military Police, was killed in the southern Iraq town of Majar al-Kabir, near Basra, in June. He was 30. Matthew Titchener, a major with the Royal Military Police, was killed in Basra in August. He was 32.

Anna Aston was not home when her husband called his last time. She waited for him to call again the next day but the phone never rang. There was just a knock on the door in the evening, right after she fed her 1 1/2 -year-old daughter, Paygan, and then she knew and her living room filled with people.

Matthew Titchener's younger brother knew when the phone rang and he heard his mother's pained scream that soon there would be a family funeral. He would be the one to dress his brother's son, Mattheson, now 2 years old, for the funeral services. At a time when seemingly small matters mean a lot, the brother was grateful he knew just what outfit the little boy should wear.

Nearly every day, the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq needs updating, and with the sheer number of deaths, Americans cannot be blamed if they feel the country is alone in its losses. The Pentagon says at least 138 soldiers were killed during the war and more than 150 others have been killed since May 1, when President Bush announced that major combat operations were over.

But the overly familiar ritual of the knock on the door, the phone call, the living room filling with neighbors and family, the dressing of young children for a parent's funeral, are occurring elsewhere, too.

Earlier this month, a Polish soldier was killed in Iraq. He was the first Pole to die in combat since World War II. His name was Maj. Hieronim Kupczyk. He was 44.

Yesterday, Italian soldiers were killed in Iraq in a suicide bombing in Nasiriyah. Among Italians to die there, they were Nos. 1 through 17, so far.

Here, enough soldiers have been killed that the pattern is well known. A dead British soldier is tallied as No. 30 or 35 or 40 killed in action, a ceremony is held and hometown newspapers publish a story, television shows the caskets arriving home. Britain moves on, but the soldiers remain dead. And their families continue living with that.

The death toll for British soldiers killed since the war began was 53 as of yesterday, and the fear among at least the Aston and Titchener families is that the news is becoming too commonplace, that the numbers are overtaking the names.

Need to remember

"I want people to remember that the soldiers who died in Iraq had families, that Russ had a lot of people who loved him," said Anna Aston, who at 31 is now a widow. She spoke from her living room in an old coal-mining village near where she and her husband were raised. "I don't know about the politics of all this but when people are arguing about it, or whatever, I want Russ remembered and all the other soldiers remembered."

"It's ruined my mom and dad's life forever," said Daniel Titchener, who spoke in London with his two remaining siblings, having traveled from Southport to attend a memorial service for British soldiers killed in all the country's wars.

"I've seen my parents change from happy-go-lucky people to people walking around and looking like, `What's the point of what I'm doing? What's the point of everything? Of anything?'"

Titchener would have returned home to his wife, Raqual, and their young son, Mattheson.

That was changed by Iraqi gunmen opening fire on the unarmored military vehicle in which Titchener was riding with three other soldiers. He apparently was not killed by bullets but by a grenade thrown at him.

Aston did not make it home because he was one of six soldiers confronted by an angry Iraqi mob. The soldiers took refuge in an unused police station and tried to hang on until help arrived. But the crowd surged and, although several of the soldiers apparently put their hands up in surrender, the Iraqis shot them execution-style and fled, leaving the bodies behind.

"The thing is, the war was over," said Anna Aston. "I have to admit, once everyone said, `Yeah, the war's over, we won,' I relaxed a hell of a lot more than when all the fighting was going on.

"I knew there was the odd thing I had to worry about but I thought, `OK, he's made it through the worst of it, I'll see him again soon.'"

She has taken some comfort by getting involved in efforts to remind people through a veterans group that soldiers continue to die. She takes comfort, too, with the thought that Paygan will one day get to know her father, if only from newspaper clips and stories about him told around the kitchen table, and the small box she keeps on a shelf in her living room, just out of reach of her daughter, also helps, even if it sometimes makes her cry. It is filled with her husband's ashes.

Daniel Titchener and his family comfort themselves with a resolve that Mattheson will grow up not just to know his father but likely to emulate him, at least in small ways.

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