- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2009

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. | Barber Art Rico says he dreads looking at the newspaper these days for fear he’ll see the picture of another customer who was killed in combat.

“We’ll sit there, and we’ll look and say, ‘I remember cutting his hair,’ ” said Mr. Rico, 63, owner of Rico’s Barbershop in a strip mall a few miles from the main gate to Fort Carson.

The sprawling post and its neighbors were bracing Tuesday for bad news after a fierce weekend battle in Afghanistan left eight U.S. soldiers dead.

On Wednesday, the Pentagon said all eight were from Fort Carson: Staff Sgt. Vernon W. Martin, 25, of Savannah, Ga.; Sgt. Justin T. Gallegos, 27, of Tucson, Ariz.; Sgt. Joshua M. Hardt, 24, of Applegate, Calif.; Sgt. Joshua J. Kirk, 30, of South Portland, Maine; Sgt. Michael P. Scusa, 22, of Villas, N.J.; Spc. Christopher T. Griffin, 24, of Kincheloe, Mich.; Spc. Stephan L. Mace, 21, of Lovettsville, Va.; Pfc. Kevin C. Thomson, 22, of Reno, Nev.

“I don’t even want to look at the faces in the doggone newspaper this next time because there’s a good chance that I’m going to be heartbroken again,” said Mr. Rico, speaking a day earlier.

Mr. Rico’s shop windows advertise fades, flattops and military discounts, while his walls are decorated with Army, Navy and Air Force football pennants and a flag-draped picture of the Statue of Liberty.

Fort Carson is a powerful presence in Colorado Springs and the nearby small town of Fountain. It is already home to the 4th Infantry Division as well as cavalry and Special Forces units. It’s in the middle of a $1.3 billion construction boom to prepare for more soldiers.

Since 2003, more than 12,000 troops from Fort Carson have been deployed to Iraq, where 255 have been killed. Not including the latest attack, another 15 have been killed in Afghanistan.

On Saturday, hundreds of insurgents armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades stormed two U.S. outposts in the mountainous Nuristan province.

The U.S. death toll was the worst in a single Afghan battle in more than a year. The attack involved Fort Carson’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, which already has seen some of the bloodiest combat in Iraq.

The 3,500-soldier unit was deployed to Iraq’s Sunni Triangle in September 2004, and over the next year, 64 soldiers were killed and more than 400 wounded - about double the average for Army brigades in Iraq, according to Fort Carson.

In 2007, the unit served a bloody 15-month mission in Baghdad. It was deployed in May to the Khyber Pass region in Afghanistan and lost three soldiers in an insurgent attack on Aug. 1.

The Army studied the unit after 10 infantrymen were accused of murder, attempted murder or manslaughter in 2007-08 after returning to civilian life. Some had trouble adjusting and said they refused to seek help while still in the Army or were belittled or punished if they did.

Richard Love, 63, the postmaster in Fountain, said he sees the toll on the faces of the wives whom soldiers leave behind.

“I’ve encountered wives of some of the troops who have been killed over there, and their emotional disposition - it’s just so hard to take,” Mr. Love said Tuesday while drinking coffee and eating a breakfast burrito at the Black Bear coffee shop not far from Fort Carson’s main gate.

One wall of the shop is lined with pictures of smiling soldiers posing with Black Bear mugs in Iraq.

Mr. Love said the troops in Afghanistan deserve more support and that President Obama should grant Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for additional soldiers. Many other residents agree.

“How do I put it? Either give them support or get them … out,” said 55-year-old Tim Cassel. “Otherwise, we’re just wasting our boys and girls.”

Brian Grablin, 28, who served two tours in Iraq before leaving the Army, said residents may be getting accustomed to hearing about Fort Carson soldiers dying in combat.

Mr. Grablin, who was at the Black Bear studying for a college test, said he and other civilians need to think about what the soldiers’ sacrifice means.

“Eight soldiers died so that I can sit here and drink coffee and study for my exam,” he said.

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