For Many in Iraq, Death Is Quick and Capricious

Sgt. 1st Class Robbie D. McNary, 42, was killed March 31 in the violent Iraqi city of Hawija.
Sgt. 1st Class Robbie D. McNary, 42, was killed March 31 in the violent Iraqi city of Hawija. (File Photo)
By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 7, 2005

KIRKUK, Iraq -- His men called him "Big Daddy," and, for many of them, Sgt. 1st Class Robbie D. McNary was larger than life.

He stood more than six feet tall and weighed 240 pounds, with a thunderous laugh that filled up a room. His 22-year-old Humvee driver, Spec. Trent White, said McNary possessed "bear paws for hands" and "a heart the size of the world."

White was one of the young National Guardsmen whom McNary, a gruff 42-year-old former Marine, often referred to as "my kids."

On March 31, in the small, violent city of Hawija near Kirkuk, White threw his Humvee into reverse, gunned it to knock down a garage door and, instead, crushed McNary, his platoon sergeant, between the five-ton vehicle and a warehouse their platoon was about to raid. Within minutes, as White sat frozen in the driver's seat, McNary had bled to death on a dirt road.

The growing number of U.S. military deaths, which reached 2,000 last month and has since risen to 2,035, underscores a grim reality: There are countless ways to die in Iraq.

Since the March 2003 invasion, the U.S. military has catalogued the fatalities across a variety of demographics. Casualties -- including 15,477 wounded -- are delineated as "hostile" and "non-hostile." They are broken down by branch of service, by race and ethnicity, by active and reserve units, and by 31 potential causes, including cancer, electrocution, exposure to the elements, four types of transportation accidents and eight types of weaponry.

But the statistics also obscure how death here can turn on factors as capricious as luck and human frailty, on the subtle whims of a terrible moment. "Two thousand. Two thousand American soldiers," said 1st Sgt. Stanley Clinton, 53, shaking his head. Clinton spent the past year deployed with a converted tank company in Kirkuk, a disputed northern oil city.

"That's a lot," Clinton said somberly. "I think there are a lot of people who don't realize that what's done in an instant can never be undone the rest of their lives, you know? You can get killed awfully easy here, not just by an enemy, but by a little negligence on your part."

For Task Force 1-163, a Montana Army National Guard battalion that has completed a year-long combat tour, this has been painfully evident. The unit suffered a casualty rate of 8.5 percent patrolling the 150-square-mile area around Hawija, a dusty and remote insurgent stronghold populated predominantly by Sunni Arabs.

In addition to McNary, whose funeral in Montana was attended by 800 people, including the governor, Task Force 1-163 lost two other soldiers: Spec. Timothy C. Kiser, 37, a gregarious trucker and amateur singer from Redding, Calif., who was killed instantly when a fluke roadside bomb hurled a fist-size chunk of metal through the door of his Humvee; and Staff Sgt. Kevin D. Davis, 41, of Lebanon, Ore., who died at a hospital after a roadside bomb severed his right leg and part of his left. Before he was evacuated by helicopter, rescuers had kept him alive for 43 minutes next to the Hawija canal where the bombing had occurred.

Between them, the three men had 10 children. As in many National Guard units, the soldiers and their families had forged relationships that spanned years and even decades. Sgt. 1st Class Pete Heidt, 38, of Culver, Ore., had known Davis for 15 years. A genial reserve police officer, Davis once pulled Heidt over on the road just to say hello. A month after Davis's death, while on leave, Heidt saw his widow at the annual Strawberry Festival in Lebanon. He was so shaken he had to pull over as he drove his own wife and children home.

"I guess what I was imagining was if it was the other way around," he said, choking up all over again while in Iraq last week.

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