ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY

Captain Is First Army Nurse Casualty Since Vietnam

Iris Santiago and Jorge Ortiz, seated, mourn the loss of their daughter, Army Capt. Maria I. Ortiz.
Iris Santiago and Jorge Ortiz, seated, mourn the loss of their daughter, Army Capt. Maria I. Ortiz. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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By Mark Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2007

Capt. Maria I. Ortiz was buried yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery, nearly a month after she was killed in the Green Zone in Baghdad, the first Army nurse to die in combat since the Vietnam War.

Ortiz, 40, of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, was killed July 10 by enemy fire, the Defense Department reported. She was caught in a mortar attack while returning from physical training.

A horse-drawn caisson brought Ortiz, the 357th person killed in Iraq to be buried at Arlington, to her grave. More than 250 people piled out of cars and buses to pay their respects.

Sweltering heat gave way to cooling gusts, and before long the sky darkened and began to pelt the mourners with rain. Some of them took refuge under an overhang, and some ducked under umbrellas.

But the mourners focused on the seven riflemen firing off three shots apiece. They focused on the sounds of taps barely audible in the rain. They focused on honoring Ortiz as her parents, Jorge Ortiz and Iris Santiago, were handed folded flags by Maj. Gen. Gale S. Pollock, the Army's acting surgeon general and a nurse herself.

Ortiz volunteered to go to Iraq, leaving in September after 18 months as the chief nurse at the Kirk U.S. Army Health Clinic at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

"She really felt that while what she was doing here was important, she felt as though she needed to go over there, because she wanted to take care of our soldiers and the people of Iraq and the coalition soldiers," said Wanda Schuler, who worked with Ortiz at the Kirk clinic.

Ortiz was born in New Jersey but grew up in Puerto Rico. She enlisted with the Army Reserve in 1991, going on active duty in 1993. In 1999, she was commissioned an officer.

"Everything she did, she always had a smile. Even if she had a bad day, she always had a smile," Schuler said. "The entire clinic was devastated."

New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) recognized her "patriotism and dedicated service to her country and her fellow soldiers" in an executive order as flags in the state were flown at half-staff Monday to honor Ortiz. Her mother and one of her sisters live in the state.

Ortiz also served in the Army in Honduras and South Korea and was a dialysis nurse at Walter Reed Army Medical Center from 2001 to 2003.

"If there was such a thing as the jewel of the clinic, she was the jewel," Renee Smith, who worked with Ortiz at Kirk, told The Post last month. "Her work wasn't finished until everybody was cared for."

Schuler kept in touch with Ortiz via e-mail after the latter left for Iraq. When the clinic commander informed people at Kirk what had happened, Schuler posted a picture of her friend on her bulletin board.

"It might sound quirky, but I say good morning to her every day," she said. "She was such a warm, wonderful person. She is someone who you will never forget."


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