Taken together, the stories of the 2,000 American soldiers who have died in Iraq in the past two years tell a poignant tale about who is bearing the largest burden.

The victims are disproportionately working-class young men, most in their 20s, Pentagon statistics show.

They are largely from the South or small towns and cities such as Bedford, Mass., and Gypsum, Colo., distant from the nation's political, cultural, academic and media centers.

They were raised in areas where uniformed service is common and respected, often near military bases or where the economy is struggling and prospects are limited, such as in northern Maine.

The median income of families that include a soldier is lower than for those without one serving, Army statistics show.

Whites account for 74 percent of Iraq deaths, while Hispanic deaths were 11 percent.

Baltimore lost two African-American soldiers in an accident north of Baghdad in mid-October; blacks have accounted for 10 percent of all fatalities.

Southern, rural
As has been true through much of American history, Southern states have taken the lead in service and in death.

Thirty-one of the war dead came home to Mississippi in flag-draped coffins, one more than from Massachusetts, even though Massachusetts has nearly twice as many prime service-age men and woman as Mississippi - 325,000 vs. 180,000 ages 17 to 24.

Tennessee, with 316,000 from that age group, had 46 dead while New Jersey, where that group is nearly a third larger, had 37 dead.

South Carolina also saw a high percentage of war dead relative to its population, with 31 dead, the same number as Maryland, even though Maryland has 25,000 more young men and women of recruiting age.

Among the South Carolinians who died was Nolen Hutching, a 20-year-old Marine private from Boiling Springs, who was killed March 23, 2003, in a friendly fire incident outside the southern Iraq city of Nasiriyah.

His mother, Carolyn, recalled last week that the family was living in North Carolina when Nolen, then 12 years old, was encouraged to join the military by a neighbor who had been a Marine. Moving to Boiling Springs, his interest was whetted by coaches and fellow members of the Northside Baptist Church, some of whom also served.

Despite her worries about his safety, Nolen was adamant about joining, and he enlisted in 2000, two months after graduating from high school.

"People here, they just appreciate a person who goes and wears the uniform and makes sacrifices for his country," his mother said, remembering no such martial spirit in her hometown in New Mexico. "People in the South are different, more patriotic, I guess."

The South contains 35 percent of the youth population but provides 41 percent of the Army's new soldiers, according to Army officials. The Northeast contains 18 percent of the youth population but provides 13 percent of recruits.

Class concerns
For a number of years, defense analysts have worried about a growing divide between the military and much of society.