U.S. Soldiers' Final Homecoming

Military funeral, casket, flag AP

The slowly climbing casualty count from fighting in Iraq — small compared to U.S. deaths in other conflicts, and dwarfed by Iraqi losses in the current war — reflects big losses for individual families that buried their dead Saturday.

One widow, her infant in her arms, buried her soldier husband in the cemetery next to the church where they were married four years ago.

Army Captain Christopher Seifert was remembered as the guy who "could find the rainbow in any situation." Seifert was one of two officers killed in a March 23rd grenade attack blamed on another soldier at a camp in Kuwait.

The other, Air Force Major Gregory Stone, was also buried Saturday. His longtime girlfriend told mourners to live for the moment, because "Tomorrow is not a promise."

Also buried Saturday was Marine Lance Corporal Brian Buesing, who died in an ambush. His father, once a Marine himself, says, "I don't understand why I'm burying my son."

Marine Major Kevin Nave was laid to rest as well. He died in a vehicle accident. His father says, "I have never felt pain like I feel now."

The current death toll for Americans in Iraq is 79, whole 27 British troops have died. No official death toll is available for Iraq's armed forces, although it was estimated that 1,000 died in fighting for the airport on Friday and 2,000 to 3,000 were lost in the Baghdad raid Saturday.

As funerals were under way for soldiers already identified, the Pentagon announced that eight dead soldiers found during the rescue of an American POW in Iraq this week were in her ambushed convoy.

The eight soldiers identified Saturday were with Pfc. Jessica Lynch when their convoy was ambushed near Nasariyah on March 23. Seven were members of Lynch's unit, the 507th Maintenance Company. Two other members of the unit had been listed as killed in action, and five are listed as prisoners of war.

Those five, who appeared on Iraqi television being questioned by their captors, were not among the bodies found during Lynch's rescue. After viewing that footage, Pentagon officials accused Iraq of executing prisoners of war.

The dead included the first American woman soldier killed in the Iraq war, Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23, of Tuba City, Ariz. Piestewa, a Hopi who was one of the few American Indian women in the military, was the mother of a 4-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl.

Piestewa and Lynch were good friends and roommates at Fort Bliss.

Hopi Tribal Chairman Wayne Taylor said news of Piestewa's death "rocked the very foundation of the Hopi reservation."

Many people in the community of 8,200 had rallied around Piestewa's family, hanging yellow balloons and signs with uplifting messages outside her parents' home.

"Our family is proud of her. She is our hero," her brother Wayland said Saturday in a prepared statement to reporters. "We are going to hold that in our hearts. She will not be forgotten. It gives us comfort to know that she is at peace right now."

The U.S. commandos who freed Lynch from a hospital in Nasariyah this week also found 11 bodies, nine of which were believed to be those of Americans. The nine bodies were returned to a forensics center at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for identification and investigation of how they died.

The Pentagon issued a statement early Saturday morning saying the status of the eight soldiers had been changed from missing to killed.

Besides Piestewa the other dead were identified as:

Sgt. George E. Buggs, 31, of Barnwell, S.C.

Master Sgt. Robert J. Dowdy, 38, of Cleveland.

Pvt. Ruben Estrella-Soto, 18, of El Paso, Texas.

Spc. James M. Kiehl, 22, of Comfort, Texas.

Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Villareal Mata, 35, of Amarillo, Texas.

Pvt. Brandon U. Sloan, 19, of Cleveland.

Sgt. Donald R. Walters, 33, of Kansas City, Mo.

Families members awaited word on how their loved ones died. One lawmaker said that if their autopsies show evidence of torture or execution, "a lot of us are going to be very angry."

"This is pretty devastating news for us," said Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. "I can only imagine what a devastating blow it is for all the families."

All but Buggs were members of the 507th Maintenance, an army unit based at Fort Bliss, Texas. Buggs was a member of the 3rd Division Support Battalion of Fort Stewart, Ga., another Army unit that was in the same convoy.

The ninth body taken to Dover had not been identified.

There was no immediate word from the Pentagon Saturday on whether the soldiers were killed in the ambush or afterward.

"We share the pain with other families that have lost a loved one," Javier Contreras, Mata's cousin said Saturday. "Johnny leaves a wife, teenage son and young daughter behind. He will be deeply missed, but never forgotten."

Walters was a veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War who had followed the example of his father, Norman, a trombonist in the Air Force Band.

"I guess he was following in my footsteps. He was a patriotic guy. He felt it was his duty to serve his country," Norman Walters said.

"We want to thank the entire community for their thoughts and prayers and everything they've done for us," Walters' younger sister, Kimberly Cieslak, said Friday after receiving the news from the Oregon National Guard.

Kiehl's parents were told of their son's death Friday evening by a chaplain.

In Des Moines, Iowa, the pregnant widow of Kiehl, also killed in the ambush, thanked supporters Saturday. Jill Kiehl, 20, is due to deliver the couple's son in May and said she will stay with her parents in Des Moines indefinitely.

"It has been a trying time for them and they want everyone to know how much the concern for them has helped them get through the past two weeks," according to a statement released by Col. Robert King, Iowa National Guard spokesman.

"We just want everyone to know we support the president and the troops, and we believe in what James went over there for," his mother, Janie Kiehl, told the AP in a telephone interview Friday night.

Sloan's father, the Rev. Tandy Sloan, is an associate minister at Historic Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church where the vigil was held Friday night. Reached at home early Saturday morning, he declined to comment.

"The entire Fort Bliss community expresses their heartfelt condolences to all the families during their time of sorrow," Fort Bliss spokeswoman Jean Offutt said in a statement.

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