War toll speaks to geography, class split


Washington -- Taken together, the stories of the 2,000 American soldiers who have died in Iraq in the past two years tell a poignant tale about who is bearing the largest burden.

The victims are disproportionately working-class young men, most in their 20s, Pentagon statistics show.

They are largely from the South or small towns and cities such as Bedford, Mass., and Gypsum, Colo., distant from the nation's political, cultural, academic and media centers.

They were raised in areas where uniformed service is common and respected, often near military bases or where the economy is struggling and prospects are limited, such as in northern Maine.

The median income of families that include a soldier is lower than for those without one serving, Army statistics show.

Whites account for 74 percent of Iraq deaths, while Hispanic deaths were 11 percent.

Baltimore lost two African-American soldiers in an accident north of Baghdad in mid-October; blacks have accounted for 10 percent of all fatalities.

Southern, rural

As has been true through much of American history, Southern states have taken the lead in service and in death.

Thirty-one of the war dead came home to Mississippi in flag-draped coffins, one more than from Massachusetts, even though Massachusetts has nearly twice as many prime service-age men and woman as Mississippi - 325,000 vs. 180,000 ages 17 to 24.

Tennessee, with 316,000 from that age group, had 46 dead while New Jersey, where that group is nearly a third larger, had 37 dead.

South Carolina also saw a high percentage of war dead relative to its population, with 31 dead, the same number as Maryland, even though Maryland has 25,000 more young men and women of recruiting age.

Among the South Carolinians who died was Nolen Hutching, a 20-year-old Marine private from Boiling Springs, who was killed March 23, 2003, in a friendly fire incident outside the southern Iraq city of Nasiriyah.

His mother, Carolyn, recalled last week that the family was living in North Carolina when Nolen, then 12 years old, was encouraged to join the military by a neighbor who had been a Marine. Moving to Boiling Springs, his interest was whetted by coaches and fellow members of the Northside Baptist Church, some of whom also served.

Despite her worries about his safety, Nolen was adamant about joining, and he enlisted in 2000, two months after graduating from high school.

"People here, they just appreciate a person who goes and wears the uniform and makes sacrifices for his country," his mother said, remembering no such martial spirit in her hometown in New Mexico. "People in the South are different, more patriotic, I guess."

The South contains 35 percent of the youth population but provides 41 percent of the Army's new soldiers, according to Army officials. The Northeast contains 18 percent of the youth population but provides 13 percent of recruits.

Class concerns

For a number of years, defense analysts have worried about a growing divide between the military and much of society.

Senior Army officers say privately that there are only a handful of members of Congress who have sons or daughters in the military, although a third of the Army generals have children in uniform. And the number of Episcopalians among the Army's enlisted ranks is as small as the number of Muslims, each group counting about 1,800 soldiers among its membership, according to Defense Department records.

Ralph Peters, a former Army officer and military analyst, plays down the class issue, saying that the military has always drawn a disproportionate number from the South and working-class enclaves, such as the coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania where he was raised. Only in "emergency wars," such as the Civil War and World War II, were all classes of society represented, he said.

"The truth is, we're getting the middle class; they're your officer corps," added Peters, who said the retention rate for combat units is very high, and there is little support within the military for a draft.

"The Army's response would be, `We don't want anyone who doesn't want to be here,'" said Peters.

John Hart wanted to be in Iraq. The 20-year-old Army paratrooper from Bedford, Mass., a small working-class town west of Boston, was killed in October 2003 outside Kirkuk when his Humvee came under attack. Brian Hart remembered that his son always leaned toward the military, an interest perhaps piqued by two uncles who are Marines, but the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were the determining factor.

Bedford High School also draws a sizable number of students from nearby Hanscom Air Force Base, and John was a member of the Junior ROTC program at the school. Hart noted that Bedford has two deaths from the Iraq war: the other was Marine Lance Cpl. Travis Desiato, who was a year younger than John and died last November.

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