'Thanks' just isn't enough

The names sit like scattered ashes, enough sacrifice to turn an entire page gray as a tombstone on Memorial Day weekend.

Nearly 500 California troops have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

The list takes us from Roberto Abad, 22, of Bell Gardens, whose girlfriend was expecting their first child, to Benjamin T. Zieske, 20, of Concord, whose mother said: "He went over as a boy and died as a man. I could tell."

Some go believing in a cause.

Some go to honor relatives who went before them.

Some go to earn citizenship, or because their lives lack structure or purpose, or because the military is the closest thing to family they'll ever know.

Regardless of where they come from or why they go, all troops in Iraq and Afghanistan balance a belief in their own survival against unrelenting evidence of the randomness of death.

"Miss you all. Love you. Hope to see you again," Army Spc. James L. Beckstrand, 27, of Escondido said in his last e-mail to friends before he was killed in 2004 by a car bomb in Iraq.

Army Sgt. Michael S. Hancock of Yreka was 29 at the time of his death in 2003.

"He couldn't wait to get back home and play with the kids and go have dinner with me," said his wife, Jeannie. "He was beautiful with the kids."

I suspect that many of those who never got back home worried less about dying than about the impact on loved ones, knowing the fracture that would begin with a knock at the door.

Grieving spouses, children, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers delivered to a state of irrevocable loss. All of them left to wonder why and what might have been, the small moments of the day filled with solemn reflection.

"You are a great father!" 15-year-old Vanessa Jimenez wrote after her father, 34-year-old Marine Lt. Oscar Jimenez, was killed in 2004 on his third tour.

The San Diego man had promised Vanessa, one of two children, that it would be his last tour.

"You are my Marine hero!" Vanessa wrote. "And you will always be my hero forever!"

Navy Petty Officer Michael A. Monsoor, 25, of Garden Grove jumped on a grenade in September 2006 to save fellow troops.

Said President Bush at Monsoor's Medal of Honor ceremony:

"One of the survivors put it this way: 'Mikey looked death in the face that day and said, you cannot take my brothers. I will go in their stead.' "

I don't know where that kind of courage and selflessness come from, but I fear the cost of defining war as a stage on which heroes find glory in death. The truth is harder, lonelier and crueler.

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