At a memorial service in March for Army Spec. Jason C. Ford, Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told the dead soldier's family and friends that "freedom exacts a sometimes fearful price."
That price has been paid 29 times by families in Maryland, Virginia and the District since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003. As of Tuesday, 798 Americans have died in the war, including 18 Virginians, 9 Marylanders and 2 residents of the District.
As the second Memorial Day since the beginning of the Iraq war approaches, relatives and friends of area residents who have died in the conflict continue to cope with the pain of their loss, even as some seek comfort in knowing their loved ones died as heroes.
"You take it day by day," Joseph Ford, a Vietnam veteran and retired D.C. police officer, said of his son's death in an explosion in Tikrit on March 13. "In my quiet time, I think about him a lot. I find myself, sometimes when the phone rings, thinking it is him. Then I remember. There are times I wonder what he would be doing" if he were still alive.
The region's fallen include 27 men and two women, Army Chief Warrant Officer Sharon T. Swartworth, 43, of Alexandria -- who left a young son when she died in November with five others in a helicopter crash in Tikrit -- and Pfc. Leslie D. Jackson, 18, of Richmond, who was killed last week.
Nineteen were in the Army, six in the Marine Corps, one in the Air Force and one in the Navy. One was a member of the Army National Guard and one in the Marine Corps Reserve.
The average age was 27. More than half were younger than 25.
The youngest to die were Jackson and Pvt. Bryan N. Spry, 19, of Chestertown, Md., who died Feb. 14 after a bridge collapsed, plunging his vehicle into a ditch in Baghdad. The oldest was Command Sgt. Maj. Cornell W. Gilmore I, 45, of Baltimore, a colleague of Swartworth's at the Judge Advocate General's office at the Pentagon who died in the same helicopter crash.
The lost troops include young soldiers, such as Spry and Ford, experiencing their first taste of war, and seasoned veterans, such as Command Sgt. Maj. James D. Blankenbecler, 40, of Alexandria, who had fought in Desert Storm a decade ago. Some were part-time soldiers: Spec. Darryl T. Dent, 21, of the District worked as a security guard at Ballston Common mall before being called up for duty in Iraq with the D.C. National Guard. He was killed in August when his vehicle encountered a makeshift explosive device.
They include college superstars such as Capt. James F. Adamouski, 29, of Springfield, a West Point standout who died in April 2003 when his Black Hawk helicopter went down in central Iraq, and those who floundered as adolescents only to become respected leaders in the service. Blankenbecler, who left a wife and three stepchildren, overcame rebellious teenage years to become a soldier so honored that his memorial service at the Killeen, Tex., convention center drew more than 900 people.
"He was strong-willed, and he gave us some problems when he was young, but all that changed when he went into the military," said his father, Lowell Blankenbecler. "You couldn't have asked for a better young man. He was proud to serve in the military. He thought what they were doing was right."
Here are the stories of some soldiers whose families agreed to share their memories:
Command Sgt. Maj.
James D. Blankenbecler,
40, of Alexandria
Lowell Blankenbecler didn't play golf for several months after his son died.
The climate in Jacksonville, Fla., where Lowell and his wife, Joanne, retired after leaving Alexandria in 2001, makes it possible to hit the links any time of year. But taking up a club was too painful a reminder that he would never again play with his "golfaholic" son Jim, who once arranged for them to volunteer during the Grand Slam golf tournament at Poipu Bay Golf Course in Hawaii.
They met golf greats Tiger Woods and Davis Love III. "We had a wonderful time. It was quite a treat," the senior Blankenbecler said.
Jim Blankenbecler was killed in Samarra in October when a rocket-propelled grenade sliced through the side of a Humvee he was riding in to a promotion ceremony, his father said.
"The grenade hit the front passenger door next to him. They said there was no door and no window," he said.
A chair in the dining room of the Blankenbecler home contains the archives of their son's last days. The papers include a report on the arrest of six men in connection with their son's slaying. The family has never heard if anyone was convicted.
Joanne Blankenbecler fought back tears as she recalled the last time she spoke with her son: Sept. 8, a few days before he was deployed.
"It was my birthday," she said. "He was fine. I held it together. I told him we'd say prayers for him. He said, 'Mom, I've been there. I know what it is like. I've been trained . . . I'll see you in April.' "
His battalion came back in April, but it had lost three soldiers, including him.
Spec. Jason C. Ford,
21, of Bowie
Florence Newell remembers the last phone call from her son, just a few days before he died in March. Jason Ford had finally arrived in Iraq and was staying in a house where former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein once lived. He talked effusively about his mission and about the group of soldiers in his unit.
"The only thing he talked about when he called or e-mailed, other than our family, was how much he liked the people he was working with," recalled Newell, of Southeast Washington. "He said he was with his family away from home. Sometimes I would talk to some of the other guys. They said, 'Don't worry, Ms. Newell, we love each other. We have each other's backs.' "
Ford, assigned to a battalion based in Germany, was killed as he rode in a Humvee with four other men on patrol in Tikrit.
His father, Joseph Ford of Temple Hills, said he has no qualms about American soldiers being sent to Iraq. But he still has questions about how his son died.
He wonders where his son's convoy was going at 5 a.m., the time of the attack. He wonders if the Humvee was properly reinforced. He wonders if the soldiers were warned that danger was present.
"No information has been given to me officially by the military," he said. "I know they are busy because there is a war going on. But my son died in that war. The military needs to step up to the plate for the survivors so we won't be victimized twice."
1st Lt. Jeffrey Kaylor,
24, of Clifton
Two days after their formal wedding in July 2002, Jenna and Jeffrey Kaylor left for Army duty stations hundreds of miles apart. By fall, they were both in Kuwait.
For six months, the newlyweds communicated only through e-mail, unaware that their Army units were stationed just a few miles away from each other in the Kuwaiti desert.
Then, in March 2003, Jenna Kaylor saw a vehicle assigned to her husband's unit.
"I sent a note back saying I was there. It detailed where I was at the camp," said Jenna, a first lieutenant now stationed at Fort Myer in Arlington.
The next day, when his unit sent a truck to pick up supplies at the camp, Jeffrey was on it. Their first meeting, after months of separation, was both awkward and sweet, she recalled.
"There was a terrible sandstorm outside, so we couldn't go anywhere by ourselves," she said. Instead, they spent 90 minutes inside a giant tent with 160 other soldiers trying to catch up.
"It was kind of like getting to know each other again," she said.
Two days later, Jeffrey returned on the supply truck for another 90-minute visit.
"We spent the majority of the visit in gas masks running drills in a bunker with 20 other people," Jenna said.
Jeffrey hitched a ride on the supply truck again two days later, for a visit that would be their last. "I had a really bad upper respiratory infection, and I was kind of out of it. They had me pretty heavily medicated," she said. "He pretty much just sat on my bunk and held my hand."
As they visited, military commanders prepared to invade Iraq. Jeffrey Kaylor's battalion was among those that made the initial sweep into the country in March 2003. Jenna didn't hear from her husband once the troops began moving. Her letters to him were returned unopened.
She was almost asleep in her tent around midnight on April 7, 2003, when her commanding officer summoned her.
Jeffrey's unit, they told her, had been assigned to disable a weapons cache found on abandoned Iraqi vehicles when an explosion occurred. A piece of shrapnel passed through his left eye, under his Kevlar helmet, and killed him.
Jenna Kaylor was a newlywed and a widow at 23.
Pvt. Bryan N. Spry, 19,
of Chestertown, Md.
From the moment her son got on the airplane at Fort Bragg, N.C., headed to the Middle East, Beverly Fabri said, she knew he wouldn't come back alive.
"I started planning his funeral, but my husband and mother made me stop," she said. That first day, she chose a Dolly Parton song called "I'm Gonna Miss You" as one of the funeral selections for her son, who went by Nick, after his middle name, Nicholas.
She and Nick's older brother, Mike Spry, an independent league baseball player, got passports after she read a "Dear Abby" column about a mother who was delayed from seeing her injured son because she had no passport.
One day, she asked someone how she would know.
"If they come in fatigues, he's been wounded," she was told. "If they come in dress uniforms, he's been killed."
About 11:15 p.m. on Valentine's Day, Fabri, her husband, Norman, and Nick's girlfriend, Lee Sandebeck, 16, were getting ready for bed when they saw a car coming down the road to their rural home. Lee had called earlier to ask to stay in Nick's room so she could feel closer to him, after he had failed to call her that day. It was Saturday, the day he always called.
The headlights drew closer. Then they saw flashlight beams.
Beverly went to the door. "May I help you?" she asked, straining her eyes to see who was approaching.
The dark figures came into the light.
There were two men in dress uniform and a chaplain.
Researchers Don Pohlman and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.