The war in Iraq has taken a particularly heavy toll on soldiers from Oregon.

On a per capita basis, Oregon has lost more soldiers than any Western state except Wyoming.

For every Californian that has died in Iraq, nearly two Oregonians have laid down their lives as a percentage of the state's total population.

For every coffin headed back to Nevada, almost four returned to Oregon per capita. Washington state has buried two soldiers for every five here.

Eighteen Oregon soldiers have been killed since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003, with four dying in the last two weeks. The number does not include soldiers with strong Oregon ties who lived in other states at the time of their deployment.

One of Oregon's first fatalities was a Pendleton native. Tony Stever served as a mechanic in the Army for 12 years. He was killed in action in Baghdad on April 8, 2003, when his resupply convoy was ambushed. He was posthumously awarded both a bronze and silver star for saving the lives of other soldiers during the attack that killed him.

Stever, a 1985 graduate of Pendleton High School, was the first local soldier killed in action since the Vietnam War, according to research by area Veterans of Foreign Wars.

While the available statistics do not break down the deaths by the soldier's military affiliation, the most recent funerals have been for soldiers from the Guard's 2nd Battalion 162nd Infantry, based in Cottage Grove and currently stationed in Al Taji, 16 miles north of Baghdad.

"It's been extremely hard," said Maj. Arnold Strong, spokesman for the Oregon National Guard. "It's one of the consequences of being as good as we are."

The Oregon National Guard was recently ranked as one of the five best in the nation in terms of recruitment and retention, Strong said. That has led to Oregon soldiers being placed in the line of fire more often, he said.

The Guard has maintained 90 percent of its troop strength and has a large contingent of former Army Rangers.

"The reality is these guys, because they're so well-trained and have all the badges, have become the guys they need in Iraq," Strong said.

In Baghdad, the Oregon Guard has been assigned to act as the quick reaction force for the 1st Cavalry Division - the largest active duty unit in the U.S. Army, based out of Fort Hood, Texas.

The unit's daily duties include patrols in Sadr City, a suburb of Baghdad and a stronghold of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr.

"Every day, they are being shot at," Strong said.

More than 700 members of the Oregon Guard are in Iraq, many patrolling in enemy territory.

In July, an estimated 450 more Oregon troops are scheduled to depart for Iraq, including about 140 soldiers from the Pendleton and Hermiston areas. The soldiers will go to Ft. Bliss, Texas, around the first of the month before going overseas.

Capt. Martin Nelson of Detachment 1HHC, Third Battalion, 116th Cavalry, said in an earlier interview that the soldiers will replace battle-weary troops currently serving in Iraq, if their orders don't change.

"We'll do the jobs we're trained for," he said. "Some will perform patrols or man checkpoints." Nelson said other soldiers could be assigned to drive fuel or equipment trucks or provide security.

In addition to the 300 members of the 116th Cavalry, which also consists of soldiers from The Dalles, La Grande, Baker City and Ontario, about 150 members of the Gulf Troop 82nd Cavalry in Redmond are part of the mobilization for Iraq.

With 102 deaths, California has buried more of its own than any other state. But with 35.1 million people, California dwarfs Oregon's population of 3.5 million - and so the loss per capita is far less. Wyoming, with its sparse population of 490,000, has lost four soldiers.

New Mexico, like Nevada, has also lost just three soldiers - one from the Army and two from the Marines.

"We have lost zero from the Guard," said Tom Koch, spokesman for the New Mexico National Guard in Albuquerque. "We're all holding our breath."

It's not just luck though, said Maj. Kim Lalley, another spokeswoman for the New Mexico Guard. About 385 Guard troops are stationed in Iraq, most as part of a transportation company.

Lalley credits the Guard's ambush training with saving lives.

"They know not to stop," she said, "and they were taught that long before the Jessica Lynch incident."

Meanwhile, Oregon is still coming to terms with a June 4 ambush that left three guardsmen dead in Sadr City.

Guard officials have called the attack the single worst loss since World War II. That weekend, Strong's office was "like a morgue," he said.

"The young men who died represent every demographic," Strong said. "There was a baker, a kid who had just finished his mathematics degree, a kid who was a first-class Web designer and a kid that worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken. It hits home."

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