Requiem for Fallen Fighters

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006

On the first Monday of every month, the Rev. Robert H. Malm stands before his congregation at a special requiem service and reads the name and rank of every U.S. serviceman or woman who was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan the previous month.

The first thing he notices is that most of the casualties are enlisted men. The officers and the women, those names jump out. But it's the privates, the specialists, the corporals and the sergeants who are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Every morning, Beth Wiggers, an administrative associate at Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria, starts her day by checking the names on the Department of Defense's Web site ( http://www.defenselink.mil/ ). "DOD Identifies Army Casualty," the headline often reads. They die in places such as Anbar Province, Balad, Muqdadiyah, Baiji, Baghdad, Fallujah and Kandahar.

"I notice where they're from. I notice their names," she said. "And I notice their ages. . . ."

The majority are younger than 24.

Every week, Wiggers records the names and the church publishes them in its bulletin. Every Sunday, the week's death toll is read from the pulpit. Oct. 8: 18 dead. Oct. 15: 31 dead. Oct. 22: 24 dead. "Requiescat in pace." Rest in peace, "the 23 U.S. servicemen and women who died last week in Iraq and Afghanistan and all other victims of warfare and terror," Malm read at the Oct. 29 Mass.

At Monday's service, the October list was one of the longest since the war in Iraq began in March 2003: 105 U.S. dead, one of the deadliest months since the U.S. Marines staged an all-out offensive against insurgents in Fallujah in 2004. That month, 137 died.

With the United States deeply divided by the war and its costs, Grace Episcopal Church's actions could be seen as controversial -- political even.

Ted Koppel was excoriated by some a few years ago for reading the names of the dead on his "Nightline" broadcast. Sinclair Broadcasting Co. refused to air the show on its ABC-affiliated stations. That was back when there were 721 names to read. Now, the total is closer to 3,000.

A Department of Defense journalist lost her job after photographing rows of flag-draped coffins being returned home with the remains of U.S. military men and women. Critics said that such photographs would weaken the resolve of the country and that that would play into the hands of terrorists. Many supporters of the war have maintained that opposing the war is unpatriotic.

But to Malm, the monthly requiem is not about politics. It's not about being for or against the war.

"These people need to be remembered," Malm said in an interview in his rectory office. The names are offered as prayers, he explained. And prayer is hard to debate.


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