Calif. Still Leads Nation in Iraq, Afghan War Casualties

by G.W. Schulz, Center for Investigative Reporting

When Chief Warrant Officer Nicholas Johnson’s Black Hawk helicopter went down during bad weather April 19, killing him and three others, he became the 671st service member from California to die in the combined Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Chief Warrant Officer Nicholas Johnson (Photo: U.S. Army)

A brief Department of Defense statement from April 24 said the crash occurred in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Johnson and the rest of his crew were assigned to an Army aviation regiment based in Hawaii. U-T San Diego later reported that the 27-year-old Johnson was on his first deployment, attended Chino High School in San Bernardino County and is survived by a wife and child.

California continues to lead the nation in fatal sacrifices made to the conflicts, according to an analysis of the most recent Defense Department data available. The figures, which include both hostile and non-hostile casualties, cover three major operations across the two wars: Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn.

The same gruesome reality holds for those wounded in action. An additional 4,358 service members from California have been injured as of April 16, outpacing the rest of the states and U.S. territories, including Texas, Florida and New York. All 50 states and the territories have lost more than 6,300 people, according to the data, and more than 44,000 have been wounded in action, many of whom were saved by modern medicine not available during previous wars. Most military personnel serving in the global war on terror lose their lives or are injured due to explosive devices [PDF] – thousands more than from gunfire since 2001, in fact.

Army Spc. Edward Acosta, a 21-year-old Ventura County native, survived for three months after his vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device in the Wardak province of Afghanistan, but he died of his injuries March 5. Acosta had an infant daughter and he liked to snowboard, and the Ventura County Star reported that he had been fascinated with the military since childhood. Another improvised explosive device killed 25-year-old Army Staff Sgt. Russell Proctor of Oroville in June during Operation New Dawn in Iraq.

Combat in Afghanistan took the life of Marine Cpl. Michael Palacio, 23, of Lake Elsinore on March 29. He was assigned to a battalion in Japan. The following day, Marine Cpl. Roberto Cazarez of Harbor City was killed during combat operations in Helmand. He was stationed at California’s Camp Pendleton.

Army Pfc. Steven Shapiro died due to a non-combat incident in Iraq in October, just weeks after his son was born. Shapiro, a 29-year-old from the Northern California town of Hidden Valley, lost his life on the day that President Barack Obama announced all U.S. troops would be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

Obama won a historic election in 2008 partly by promising a new approach in Afghanistan and a drawdown of troops in Iraq. The Iraq withdrawal came slowly, with thousands of Americans still there today in various capacities, and troops aren’t expected to be out of Afghanistan until 2014.

This story was produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.cironline.

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