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U.S. Military Death Toll in Iraq Reaches 3,000

January 1, 2007 at 10:45 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the loss of more than 3,000 Americans in Iraq and its impact back home.

In a moment, we’ll hear from three families whose lives have changed after their loved ones died in the war. But first, a statistical profile of the U.S. military personnel killed since the war began in March 2003.

The largest number of deaths for U.S. forces have come in central and western Iraq, roughly 1,100 deaths in Anbar Province alone, home to three cities where there have been fierce battles: Fallujah, Ramadi, and Haditha.

In and around Baghdad, about 800 troops have died.

And the remaining third have been killed in various cities and provinces around the country.

The vast majority, about 2,400, were killed in hostilities. IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, account for more than a third of the deaths. They also account for more than half of the deaths in the last two months.

Nearly 600 were killed in non-hostile situations.

More than 95 percent of American deaths have taken place since President Bush announced the end of major combat operations in May 2003.

Back here in the U.S., the deaths have touched every state and major city, as well as many smaller towns around the country. Not surprisingly, most of the fatalities hailed from major cities and large metropolitan areas, but the rate of loss is disproportionately higher among small towns in the upper Great Plains, Midwest, South and northern New England.

Among the branches of the U.S. military, the Army has suffered the heaviest losses. More than two-thirds of those killed were members of the Army, which includes reservists and Army National Guard.

For the much smaller Marine Corps, the war is exacting a heavy toll, as well. The Corps has lost nearly 900 Marines, including reservists. The Navy has lost more than 60 sailors; the Air Force, just under 30 personnel.

Overall, more than 600 of the 3,000 were reservists. And three military bases — Camp Pendleton in California, Fort Hood in Texas, and Camp Lejeune in North Carolina — have lost more than 800 troops combined.

By gender and race, more than 2,900 of the fallen were men. About 2 percent were women. That’s the highest number of women killed in an American war since World War II.

Seventy-four percent of all the fatalities were white; 11 percent were Hispanic or Latino; nearly 10 percent were African-American; about 3 percent were either Asian, American Indian, or native Hawaiian.

About 16 percent of all personnel killed were between 18 and 20 years old; 60 percent were 21 to 30 years old; 18 percent between 31 and 40 years old; and 5 percent were older than 40.

Ninety percent were enlisted members of the Armed Services. About 10 percent were officers.

The number of wounded continues to swell. More than 22,000 other U.S. troops have been injured, many of them grievously, since the war began.

Dealing with loss

Gretchen Mack
I could not get out of bed, didn't want to get out of bed, didn't want to do anything, didn't want to go anywhere. And it kept getting worse and worse.

Now, how some of the families of the fallen are dealing with their losses. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has our story.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Nearly every day, Gretchen Mack leaves her house in rural Wyoming and starts to walk, sometimes for just a mile or two, sometimes for 10. She says the walking is her form of therapy to deal with the death of her 19-year-old son, Chance Phelps, who died in Iraq.

GRETCHEN MACK, Mother of Fallen Soldier: It actually makes me feel like I'm closer to him out there than I am in this house, in any place.

SPENCER MICHELS: It was April 2004, when more than 1,000 people crowded into the high school gymnasium in Dubois, Wyoming, for Phelps' funeral. He had been a private first class in the Marines and was killed in a shootout in Ramadi, just west of Baghdad.

FUNERAL SPEAKER: I want you to know that he died a hero. He never let himself or his other fellow Marines down. He showed great valor under intense weapons fire at him and his fellow marines.

SPENCER MICHELS: After the service, people lined Main Street to pay tribute, as his body was carried by a horse-drawn wagon up the hill to the cemetery. His mother said her only son first started talking about joining the Marines after September 11th.

GRETCHEN MACK: He just told me -- he says, "I got to go." I couldn't stop him; I didn't want to stop him. But my heart was just -- you know, I think I always knew, really, that he probably wouldn't come back.

SPENCER MICHELS: Now, looking back, she said, during those months following his death, she nearly had a mental breakdown.

GRETCHEN MACK: I could not get out of bed, didn't want to get out of bed, didn't want to do anything, didn't want to go anywhere. And it kept getting worse and worse.

SPENCER MICHELS: Mack sought professional help. And in the two-and-a-half years since her son's death, she has taken steps to move forward. For one, she's gone back to school to pursue her love of photography.

GRETCHEN MACK: That's helped, because it makes me focus on something. And Chance would -- you know, he wouldn't want me feeling sorry for myself and sitting around. And he was always very encouraging, you know? So that's what I go on.

SPENCER MICHELS: And she and her daughter are also focusing their energies on organizing a walkathon, from 29 Palms Marine Base in Southern California to Dubois, a distance of over 1,500 miles. The money they raise will be used to help wounded Marines and their families.

GRETCHEN MACK: So we thought it would be a great way to just give part of ourselves back to these families and help them, and help ourselves, as well.

Lobbying congress

Paul Schroeder
It's so easy for people who lose someone like this to close the door. You want it to go away.

SPENCER MICHELS: Thirteen hundred miles away in Cleveland, Ohio, Rosemary Parker and Paul Schroeder have also been spurred to take action following the death of their son. Twenty-three-year-old Augie Schroeder died, along with a number of other Marines, when their amphibious vehicle hit a roadside bomb near Haditha in August 2005.

His parents, who had never been very politically active, decided they had to do something to channel their grief, so they began Families of the Fallen for Change, an organization to lobby Congress to pull out of Iraq.

Both Schroeder and Palmer have quit their jobs to devote all of their time to the organization, because they don't want the public to forget about the men and women who are coming home from the war in caskets.

PAUL SCHROEDER, Father of Fallen Soldier: It's so easy for people who lose someone like this to close the door. You want it to go away.

And we decided that, you know, all these guys come back from Iraq who are dead, in the dark of night at Dover Air Force Base, and we were not going to let that happen to our son.

So we opened the door; we turned the lights on; we opened the window shades; we let the sunshine on what has happened. And basically it's that message. We took his face and put his face on this floor.

SPENCER MICHELS: As they continue to grieve, they take a bit of comfort in the fact that political activism like theirs may have played a small part in the Democratic wins in Congress this fall. But they say their work is far from done, and they worry the Democrats in Congress may not act quickly enough to end the war.

ROSEMARY PARKER, Mother of Fallen Soldier: I think they're going to say, "Well, we're working on it." And they can make a lot of activity and a big show of, "We're working. We're making these plans," but not much is going to happen.

And that's what I'm worried about. I plan to keep working, you know, for the exit, by continuing to keep on the congressmen and saying, you know, "I didn't push to have you elected to sit there and talk about. I want to see some action."

SPENCER MICHELS: On a personal level, they say they are making some slow progress in their healing, as well. This year, they were able to put up a Christmas tree, something they couldn't bear to do last year.

ROSEMARY PARKER: Christmas was always a big season. You know, like we always had lots of things planned. And now we have almost nothing planned.

PAUL SCHROEDER: You have to find a new routine for the holidays. I met a woman, older woman, who lost a son in Vietnam. She was listening to me speak at some occasion, and she came up to me and put her arms around me. And I asked her -- she told me about her situation.

And I asked, "Does it get any easier?" She said, "No, you just get used to it." And I think that helped me turn a corner, because, "OK, I'm used to this."

Losing a brother

Fabian Rincon
I'm just sorry that it had to happen this way, but I think that played a big role in just who I am now and all the things that I have been involved in school.

SPENCER MICHELS: In Conyers, Georgia, 24-year-old Fabian Rincon says he, too, has been able to turn a corner since his brother's death in Iraq three years ago. Diego Rincon was 19 when he was killed, along with three other members of the Army's Third Infantry Division in April 2003.

Born in Colombia, Rincon was a legal resident when he served in the U.S. Army. At his funeral, he was awarded something he had always wanted: U.S. citizenship. And the townspeople of Conyers lined the street with signs paying tribute to an American hero.

FABIAN RINCON, Brother of Fallen Soldier: I will always remember our long talks on our four-hour car rides from Fort Stewart to our home in Conyers.

SPENCER MICHELS: At the time of Diego's death, Fabian had to be the family spokesperson, since his parents did not feel comfortable in that role. That experience has turned around his life.

FABIAN RINCON: I'm a totally different person. Before I was the introverted one in the family. You know, I kind of stuck to myself. I didn't really have that many friends in high school.

My brother, Diego, was a total opposite. He was the social butterfly. He had a friend everywhere he went.

I think after that, after his death, then I was pushed, you know, to represent the family. My parents, they were too grieved to speak to the media. It turned me into a totally different person. I can speak in front of people, in front of crowds, and I feel comfortable. I feel at ease.

SPENCER MICHELS: Fabian has just graduated magna cum laude from Georgia State University and is planning on attending law school. He also recently got engaged.

FABIAN RINCON: I think people have been themselves to be better than they think they are. With me, it's happened because of this tragedy.

And I'm just sorry that it had to happen this way, but I think that played a big role in just who I am now and all the things that I have been involved in school. Tragedy just forced me to challenge myself, and I know that Diego would have been proud of what I've done.

SPENCER MICHELS: Fabian says he often feels that Diego is living on through him, and he doesn't like to dwell too much on Diego's death. Recently, a freelance writer published a book about Diego's life and death. Fabian says he hasn't been able to bring himself to read the graphic descriptions of Diego's death.

FABIAN RINCON: I felt that all the memories that I had of my brother, all the happy memories, you know, going to high school together, you know, sharing our first car, you know, having him teach me a little bit about women and things of that nature, I feel that's how I want to remember him.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Rincon family, the Schroeder family, and the Phelps family, just three of the now 3,000 families who are remembering loved ones who have died in the war in Iraq.