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Thursday, May 31, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fort Lewis shifts to group rites

Seattle Times staff reporter

Fort Lewis will shift to monthly group memorials -- rather than individual services -- for fallen soldiers, a change that reflects the mounting number of deaths as the post fields more than 10,000 soldiers in Iraq.

So far this month, the Army has announced the deaths of 19 Fort Lewis soldiers, including three whose names were made public Wednesday.

It is by far the deadliest month of the Iraq war for the post, which averaged fewer than three deaths a month for the first four years of the war. Post officials say the increased number of fallen soldiers has made it more difficult for rear detachments to pull off the planning and other logistics required for individual memorial services.

"As much as we would like to think otherwise, I am afraid that with the number of soldiers we now have in harm's way, our losses will preclude us from continuing to do individual memorial ceremonies," wrote the post's acting commander, Brig. Gen. William Troy, in a May 22 memorandum, which was first made public on the Web site of United For Peace, Pierce County, a peace activist group.

The post memorial services are in addition to services held by the Iraq units of fallen soldiers, and graveside and church services held by families.

The post services, which include personal remembrances of the departed soldiers, are a wrenching reminder of the toll of the war. They draw from dozens to hundreds of mourners, and in about a third of the services, include the family of the fallen soldiers, according to Joe Piek, a post spokesman.

The memorial services have been organized by rear detachments for deployed units, officers and soldiers who also have other tasks that include assisting wounded soldiers, supporting families and other administrative and logistical work.

Beginning in June, the memorial services will be the responsibility of the post chaplains. Though they will be group services, they will still include remembrances of each fallen soldier, according to Piek.

Other posts with major troop deployments to Iraq, such as Fort Hood in Texas, already have monthly, rather than individual, memorial services.

Fort Lewis held some group memorial services in May, including one for six soldiers who died together when their Stryker was blown up.

Fort Lewis has two combat Stryker brigades in Iraq, as well as numerous smaller units.

The Stryker brigades, which patrol in eight-wheeled vehicles, as well as on foot, have borne most of the deaths. The latest announced were:

• Pfc. Charles B. Hester, 23, Cataldo, Idaho, who died May 26 when his vehicle was hit by a bomb in Baghdad. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team), which has been in Iraq for almost a year, and has had its tour of duty extended for about three months.

• Staff Sgt. Thomas Michael McFall, 36, of Glendora, Calif., and Cpl. Junior Cedeno Sanchez, 20, of Miami, who both died May 28. They were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 38th Regiment, 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which arrived in Iraq in April. They were on a foot patrol when a bomb exploded nearby.

"Tommy was my husband, a proud dad, a great son and a friend to many," said Emily McFall, McFall's wife, in a statement released by the Army. "We opened our house to many for Christmas and Thanksgiving, so his soldiers would not be alone for the holidays ... . He shared his love of beer and classic rock with the younger Joes ... . He would have had 13 years [in the Army] in October."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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