THE GRAVEDIGGERS had come and gone. So John Mykland and Jim Sand of Wilbert Funeral Services of Tacoma could pull their flatbed hoist truck up>"/>
THE GRAVEDIGGERS had come and gone. So John Mykland and Jim Sand of Wilbert Funeral Services of Tacoma could pull their flatbed hoist truck up to the opening and unload the burial vault that would protect the remains of Army Spc. Justin Hebert. At 9 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 16, the air was warm and wet at the graveyard high above the Old Stilly River and the hay fields of the Stillaguamish Valley, Snohomish County, where Hebert grew up, went to school, departed for war, and now had returned. The burial workers put wood across the grave to hold a chrome vault carriage and then placed a carpet of artificial grass around the edges. "We knew he was killed in Iraq, but that's all," Mykland said. Sand nodded. "I didn't know how old he was until I read the nameplate," the one on the vault, Sand said. "Wow, 20."
Twenty years and four days. A small space in which to squeeze a bursting life. Born July 28, 1983, in Everett; died Aug. 1, 2003, in Kirkuk, Iraq. A paratrooper with the Sky Soldiers of the 173rd Airborne, Hebert was on patrol, enforcing a nighttime curfew, when a rocket-propelled grenade sailed into his Army vehicle. That is all his family knows. He was the 52nd American casualty since May 1, when a dressed-for-battle commander in chief arrived aboard the Everett-based USS Abraham Lincoln and declared an end to major fighting in Operation Iraqi Freedom. On July 16, the overall U.S. combat death toll in Iraq hit 148, one more than the number of soldiers killed in the 1991 Gulf War, the "100 Hour War." Including accidental deaths, the overall American toll has risen to 268. At least three might be suicides. The number of wounded is said to be around 830, although it could be more than 1,000. So many battle and non-battle casualties have swamped Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C. that they are using beds reserved for cancer patients and sending an overflow of less seriously wounded to local hotels.
But, "We don't do body counts," says former Central Command leader Gen. Tommy Franks. It is harder to launch the next war if too much is made of the last one. Better the public is not reminded of collateral damagethe estimated 7,000 civilians killed and 20,000 injured in the course of freeing them in Iraq. Or the body count since the last war, 1991's Operation Desert Storm. It's at least 8,500, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. They were overwhelmingly young and middle-aged soldiers or vets whose early deaths have been linked to the mix of chemicals, vaccines, and radioactive battlefields thought to be behind Gulf War Syndrome, a catchall illness that afflicts an estimated 150,000 or more Gulf War vets. It is almost certain to be followed by Gulf War II Syndrome. Health and environmental casualties are the legacies of modern warfare. Iraq reports a quadrupling of civilian cancer cases since 1991, especially in the region where depleted uranium bombs and shells were used extensively. There are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, vets say. We brought them with us.
IF THE MAJOR FIGHTING has ended in Iraq, the major dying just began in little Silvana, north of Everett, Hebert's home. That brought a crowd later Saturday morning to the nearby Arlington middle-school gymnasium where Hebert once played and where now his flag-draped casket was rolled into place beneath a basketball hoop. More than 300 friends and family members watched from the risers and folding chairs and tried to make the best of it. Army Chaplain Maj. Keith Belz reminded everyone that, after all, "The first thing you learn as a child is to say hello and goodbye." The old vets wore their colors, including American Legionnaires who had coincidentally scheduled their annual picnic for that day. The newspapers had said Justin Hebert was Snohomish County's first Iraq casualty, and, it turns out, he was Washington's first combat fatality. "Yes, I think that's right, the first one," Lt. Gen. Edward Soriano, the three-star commander of Fort Lewis, told me later outside the school gym. A Marine from Vancouver, Lance Cpl. Cedric Bruns, 22, was killed May 9 in a nonhostile vehicle accident in Kuwait. Pfc. Duane Longstreth, 19, Tacoma, died a week after Hebert in Baghdad, of a noncombat bullet wound to the head that is being investigated. Soriano had just spoken with Hebert's parents, Bill and Robin, and Justin's older sister, Jessica. The parents were unable to get up and speak during the memorial, and Sgt. Nick Lewis, a soldier pal of Justin's, read a note from Bill, which said, "He gave his life so the people of Iraq could have a better life." This is what Soriano said to the family privately, too. "I told them we were proud of their son," said the general. "All politics aside, this young man paid the ultimate price. He gave his life for his country." He waved his hands a little. "All politics aside."
During the memorial, sister Jessica, her long, red hair falling across her face as she tried to read her notes and wipe her eyes, had briefly breathed her brother back to life. "I'm sorry for all the times I beat you up," she said, gulping hard to talk. She was his No. 1 fan. She bragged about him, he was her red, white, and blue, Jessica said. When she got to "I've got to let you go now, dear brother," her shoulders fell and she sobbed to a finish. No one in the gym had been thinking of Kirkuk, Iraq, when Justin left for the Army a week after high-school graduation in 2001, a few months before 9/11. His is a military familyhis dad and uncle were Navy, and his grandfathers both Armybut he was enticed by a $5,000 signing bonus and the Army's promise to pay for a college education. A DVD montage shown on a drop-down screen in the gym, to the agonizing refrains of "Amazing Grace," slowly spun out his baby pictures, family photos, first day of school, Christmas scenes, and suddenly boot camp. Finally, there he was that last time with Jessica on her birthday last January. With that, the pallbearers put the coffin in a hearse and the procession moved to the graveyard on the hill. It passed a final time for Hebert through Silvana, where a U.S. flag bearing his name is hung outside Willow & Jim's Country Cafe. Inside, a pickle jar was stuffed with donations for the Hebert family.
Seeing this, watching the mother clutch the medals her son got for dying, it was difficult to put all, if any, politics aside. No WMD, no Al Qaeda, no Saddam, no 9/11 connection. Why, exactly, was this kid dead?
WHEN EVERYONE LEFT the graveyard after the rifle volleys and taps, Mykland and Sand came out from the edges and removed the fake grass. They gently lowered Justin Hebert and the crypt into the ground. "This vault is called the Salute," said Mykland. "It's different from othersthe colors and the liner are different, silver and gray. It's made just for soldiers."