Perhaps no place illustrates the toll of the Iraq war more vividly than Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. In this "garden of stone," in ruler-straight rows, rest one-tenth of the Iraq war’s American dead, whose number has reached 3,000.
Privates lie beside officers. Soldiers beside Marines. Muslim troops beside Christians and those of other faiths.
Many were seasoned veterans, but most — 60 percent — never reached age 25. Like Marine Sgt. Adam L. Cann of Davie, Fla., killed when he tried to prevent a suicide bombing three weeks shy of his 24th birthday.
Some died in fierce battles, trading bullets and rockets with a flesh-and-blood foe. But as the insurgency gained momentum in the past year, almost half of the servicemen and women fell to a faceless enemy, victims of remote-detonated IEDs, improvised explosive devices. Like Army National Guard Sgt. Duane Dreasky of Novi, Mich.
Each branch of service is represented here, though the Army has taken two-thirds of the Iraq war losses. Men like Spc. Matthew E. Schneider, a communications wiz who was found dead in his bunk, one of the 20 percent classified as non-hostile casualties.
There are other grim statistics: More than two dozen fell at age 18; 62 were women; nearly one-quarter of those who died came from just three states, California, Texas and New York, according to casualty figures, which also show recent monthly death totals climbing to levels not seen since the war’s early days.
The grim milestone was crossed on the final day of 2006 and at the end of the deadliest month for the American military in Iraq in the past 12 months. At least 111 U.S. service members were reported to have died in December.
Each of the fallen resting here on a grassy slope facing the Washington Monument could stand for many others — traditional heroes decorated for acts "above and beyond the call of duty," and those whose families say their heroism consisted of putting on their country’s uniform during a time of war.
Arlington honors each with a glistening 232-pound Vermont marble headstone marked with the most basic of information — and a number.
Cann occupies grave No. 8310.
Dreasky lies down the row in space No. 8407.
And Schneider has marker No. 8422.
Here are the stories behind those numbers.
In his last e-mail home, Adam Cann wrote his dad in Florida about some easy money he’d just won.
The Marine sergeant had made a wager with Cpl. Brendan Poelaert on the New Year’s Day 2006 Miami Dolphins-New England Patriots game; even a rare drop kick couldn’t stop Miami from pulling off a 28-26 victory.
"brendan is a big pats fan," Cann wrote from Ramadi, Iraq. "and we bet 100$ on the game. haha!!!"
Cann’s grandfather was a Navy corpsman in World War II, and the boy spent many hours listening to stories in the family’s "war room" — a den festooned with weapons and flags. Looking for a "real challenge" after graduation from South Plantation (Fla.) High School in 2000, Adam followed his older brother into the Marines.
Tattooed over his heart was the Latin motto from the Cann family coat of arms: "Perimus Licitus" — which can be translated as "let us die for things legitimate."
Cann went to military police school and later to the service’s elite K-9 training center — where he met his canine teammate, Bruno, at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in December 2002.
The German shepherd’s bomb-sniffing abilities were unquestioned, but Bruno was skittish around people. He had none of the attack instincts required of a true military working dog.
"That’s a dog that can’t be fixed," thought Jason Cannon, a friend.
But by the time they were ready for deployment to Iraq in the spring of 2004, Bruno was as fierce a warrior as his handler.
"He transformed that dog from nothing to a great police K-9…," Cannon says. "They were a really tight team."
Still, beneath Cann’s body armor and bravado beat the heart of a clown. Cannon still chuckles when he recalls the time his friend poured sour goat’s milk into their interpreter’s boots, among other practical jokes.
In 2005, Cann re-upped, volunteering for a second tour in Iraq. He and Bruno were sent to Ramadi with the 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, attached to the Army’s 109th Infantry Regiment.
Poelaert, of East Kingston, N.H., was on his first tour of duty, with his Belgian Malinois dog, and he looked up to Cann. "He really taught me how … to be a good Marine, I guess," the 22-year-old says. "He was fearless in everything he did."
On Jan. 5, those two and another handler were at the old Ramadi Glass and Ceramic Works, where close to 1,000 Iraqi police recruits were awaiting screening.
Suddenly, Bruno began barking ferociously at one man in line. Cann rushed over to confront him.
The next thing Poelaert remembers is waking up in the dust, covered in blood. About five yards away, Cann lay dead, the critically injured Bruno resting protectively on his partner’s chest.
The man in line had been wearing a vest packed with 40 pounds of explosives and ball bearings. Forcing the suicide bomber to detonate his load prematurely, Cann took the blast’s full force.
An Army lieutenant colonel and five dozen others also died. Poelaert’s entire right side was pockmarked with shrapnel, but he says Cann’s sacrifice saved his life.
"He saved a lot of people that day," Poelaert says. "We always had each other’s backs, and that day he paid the ultimate price so I’d survive."
Cann was awarded a posthumous Bronze Star with a combat "V" device for valor. Officials say he is the first K-9 handler killed in action since the Vietnam War.
Back at Camp Pendleton, Bruno has fully recovered and has been assigned to a new handler. Poelaert’s injuries will force him to leave the Marines.
On his cross-country drive back to New England, he will make a detour to Arlington to pay his respects — and to finally make good on that bet.
Years of football and jiujitsu had taken a toll on Duane Dreasky’s knees. But when the recruiters told him he was ineligible to serve, he bombarded local officials with letters until they finally let him enlist in the Michigan Army National Guard.
Twenty-one percent of those lost in Iraq were in the Guard or Reserve, none more determined than the man known as "Big D."
When the beefy martial-arts instructor was told that his weight didn’t present "a good image for an NCO," he went on a crash diet, ran with a 40-pound rucksack and lost about 50 pounds.
Dreasky’s wife, Mandeline, was also in the Guard and was severely injured during a 2003 deployment to Kuwait. But her husband had waited more than 10 years for his chance to serve, and she didn’t stand in his way.
Dreasky begged his way into a 13-month tour at Guantanamo Bay, then almost immediately badgered his superiors into letting him join Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 125th Infantry Regiment, on its deployment to Iraq. Once there, the 31-year-old sergeant acted more like a new recruit, constantly asking his superiors, "Anything else need to be done, boss?"
And so it was on the morning of Nov. 21, 2005.
A group of eight Humvees was heading out into al-Habbaniyah. Dreasky was supposed to be off duty to give a younger forward observer a chance to learn the ropes, but he managed to pester his weightlifting buddy, Sgt. Matthew Webber, into giving another guy the day off.
As they prepared the vehicles, Dreasky, Webber and Staff Sgt. Michael Haney made plans to meet at the gym after chow for a workout. Before they parted, Dreasky flashed his trademark smile and uttered a favorite line from the movie "Gladiator": "Strength and honor."
The day’s mission was to take "atmospherics" in town and to bait insurgents — who’d been sowing the streets with improvised explosive devices — into making a move. They already had.
The Humvees were returning to base after about an hour’s work when two bombs, buried about a foot beneath the road’s surface, exploded. With a muffled WHUMP-WHUMP, Dreasky’s vehicle burst into flames.
Spc. John Dearing died instantly. The remaining four were burned almost beyond recognition.
Despite excruciating pain, Dreasky did not cry out. Instead, he was obsessed with finding his rifle, so it wouldn’t be left behind for the enemy.
Dreasky was evacuated with the other wounded. That night, Staff Sgt. Mark "Doc" Russak, the unit’s chief medic, prayed in the camp’s makeshift chapel, then returned to his bunk, where he captured the torment of the moment in his journal.
"I don’t think the men of Bravo could take another death right now," he wrote, "and I know it would crush me."
But the deaths would keep coming: Sgt. Spencer Akers in December; Sgt. Joshua Youmans, who never got to hold the daughter born during his deployment, in March; Webber in April.
Dreasky, who was not told of the others’ deaths, battled to recover at San Antonio’s Brooke Army Medical Center.
When President Bush visited there in January, Dreasky moved to salute. Bush lightly touched Dreasky’s bandaged right arm and said: "You don’t need to salute. I need to salute you."
Finally, on July 10, the IED of months before claimed its final victim.
The day before he deployed, Easter Sunday, the boy who once got in trouble for wearing camouflage to elementary school, asked his mother to promise him something.
"Mom, this is war. Anything can happen," Cheryl Dreasky recalls him saying. "If something happens to me, you don’t rest until I’m buried in Arlington."
After the funeral, when the bugle’s echo had faded and the brass shell casings from the rifle salute were collected, Mandy Dreasky gathered her husband’s comrades around her.
"You all need to continue to be soldiers," she said. "Because that’s what Duane would have wanted. And that’s what he would have done."
But some of Dreasky’s comrades wonder if Iraqis truly appreciate the sacrifices being made on their behalf.
"These people, you just see the apathy in them and you’re like, `Why am I here?’ You know?" says Staff Sgt. Jeremy Plaxton, who served with Dreasky. "If they don’t want it, I can’t make them accept freedom and fight for it.
"Personally," he says, "I wouldn’t give up one Dreasky for the entire country of Iraq."
With his round, wire-rimmed spectacles and boyish face, Matthew Schneider was more Radar O’Reilly than Sgt. York.
But the modern Army needs brains as well as brawn. And when the confessed "computer geek" arrived in Iraq last January, the team chiefs were all fighting over who would get him.
Teachers at Gorham (N.H.) High School said there wasn’t much they could teach Schneider about computers. Though a brilliant student, he was "a bit of a devil," locking up other students’ machines and making disc drives open and close, seemingly on their own.
Schneider attended a technical college for a couple of years but lacked direction. Thinking the Army would be a good place to get his focus, he enlisted in February 2004.
In a way, Schneider had already cheated death.
He was born six weeks prematurely, and doctors diagnosed idiopathic hypertrophic subaortic stenosis, or IHSS — a thickening or enlargement of a portion of the heart that chokes off blood flow and can lead to sudden death. It’s the kind of thing that fells seemingly healthy high school athletes without warning. But by age 2, Matthew appeared to have outgrown the condition.
By the time he reached the Army, doctors gave him a clean bill of health, and he was soon bragging to his father, Andrew, that he was running three miles a day and doing 100 sit-ups and push-ups.
Schneider was assigned to Alpha Co., 141st Signal Battalion, part of the 1st Armored Division, based in Wiesbaden, Germany. He complained to his father about a local Internet service provider that charged soldiers $80 a month for access.
When he got to Ramadi, Schneider approached his superiors about setting up a satellite-based Internet system on base. His comrades quickly dubbed the service the "Schneidernet."
For troops stuck in the desert for months at a time, it was a huge morale booster.
In frequent calls and online chats, Schneider assured family members that he was in probably the most secure building on base. But it wasn’t an enemy attack that killed Schneider; it was a heart attack.
He was just 23.
On a recent Sunday, Andrew Schneider visited Arlington with his daughter, son-in-law and their three children. As a clock at the Tomb of the Unknowns tolled on the ridge above, 4-year-old Joseph Gray collected pebbles from the freshly turned earth of a neighboring grave and piled them around the temporary tin marker on Uncle Matthew’s grave.
"He died with his uniform on," his father says proudly. "What other place should he be buried?"
A white marble stone has since replaced the pile of pebbles. It doesn’t say that Schneider joined up to get an education, or that he died in his bunk.
All it says is that he served his country honorably and that, like the others here, he passed too soon.