Casualties on Rise for Ga.’s 3rd Infantry
FORT STEWART, Ga. (AP) _ Ray Gilstrap wiped away tears as he stood beside the tree planted in his nephew’s honor, the latest in a living memorial to soldiers killed in Iraq that has more than doubled since the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division began its second tour this year.
``The numbers, compared to Vietnam, they’re so small. You don’t expect it,″ said Gilstrap, whose nephew, Sgt. Arthur R. McGill, was killed last month by an insurgent bomb while patrolling Baghdad. ``Of course, we look at it differently now.″
Seven months after the Fort Stewart-based 3rd Infantry deployed, the death toll during its second combat tour has surpassed the 42 casualties the division suffered leading the 2003 charge to Baghdad.
As of Aug. 12, 53 soldiers have died since the division’s 19,000 troops deployed in January, according to an Associated Press tally of Department of Defense casualty reports. Of those, 36 were killed in hostile action, including 25 slain by insurgent bombs detonated on roadsides, inside cars or by suicide bombers.
Dedication ceremonies have become a monthly ritual at the Fort Stewart Warrior’s Walk, the memorial of tree-lined sidewalks where an eastern redbud has been planted for each fallen soldier since 2003.
After the latest ceremony Thursday, Gilstrap said his family never anticipated McGill’s second deployment would be deadlier than his first. The 26-year-old from Gravette, Ark., had survived the 2003 invasion, facing a larger, more organized enemy.
``We weren’t as concerned,″ Gilstrap said. ``There wasn’t a prepared army waiting for them. He was experienced.″
The 3rd Infantry was the first Army division tapped for a return tour in Iraq. John Pike, a military expert who directs the defense Web site Globalsecurity.org, said a greater number of casualties ``was only to be expected.″
The U.S. death toll in Iraq doubled less than four months after President Bush declared major combat operations had ended May 1, 2003, when casualties stood at 138. More than two years later, at least 1,864 U.S. service members have died, according to the latest Associated Press count.
``It demonstrates that, in a standup war, the Iraqis didn’t give a very good account of themselves, whereas a much smaller number of insurgents are inflicting some real pain,″ Pike said. ``A significant element of it is that it is hard to fight an enemy that you can’t see.″
Lt. Col. Noel Nicolle, commander of Fort Stewart’s rear detachment, said that when the troops deployed ``there were no illusions″ about the threat posed by the insurgents and their shadowy tactics. He also noted the division’s 42 casualties during 2003 occurred in a shorter time span, between March and May.
``It’s a completely different mission now than two years ago,″ Nicolle said. ``In some ways it’s less hazardous _ you’re not going to get hit by an artillery barrage. But there are different threats.″
The Warrior’s Walk memorial continues to grow rapidly. Fort Stewart started a new row of redbud trees last month after reaching the end of the block-long sidewalk where the dedications began in 2003.
The new row of trees has been staggered to save space. Where it ends at McGill’s granite marker, 56 of the small lamps used to light each tree at night have already been posted at empty plots further down.
``We’re not predicting we’ll have that many. We’re hoping that we don’t,″ said Jeff Fornshell, ceremonies coordinator at Fort Stewart. ``We hope we’ll have to rip lights out.″
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