[A few of Jesus Montalvo’s 12 brothers and sisters in Mayaguez say he used to phone home from Iraq, asking them to sing him plenas — Puerto Rican ballads. This Christmas, their brother won’t be here to accompany them on the pandereta drum and the cuatro guitar. Those pictured (from left) are: Segismundo Lopez Montalvo, Leo Montalvo, Olga Montalvo and Clarissa Montalvo.]

Listening to NPR “Morning Edition” on my morning drive to the university, I learned that the death toll of U.S. servicemen this month in Iraq has reached 100. It is hardly more tragic just because a round number is reached. But it does give pause to those ardent defenders of our failed involvement in Iraq that insist we “are not there yet.” What is the threshhold of “there” that would convince unflinching “stay the course” advocates even when just about every marker indicates it is the wrong course?

Several times in the past few years the New York Times has published double-page spreads with the faces of all the dead. Looking at such faces puts a wrinkle in the rhetorical numbers game. Also on NPR this morning is a segment on several young Puerto Rican men who joined the armed forces (some with $20,000 for a signing bonus) and gave the ultimate sacrifice for a war that is going in the wrong direction. The story of Jesus Montalvo says it all:

“It’s as though Puerto Rico were crying,” says Leo Montalvo, as he looks out the window at the downpour from a tropical thunderstorm that’s coming down hard on the city of Mayaguez. He and some of his 12 brothers and sisters are gathered at the house, grieving over word that their 46-year-old-brother Jesus was gunned down in combat, just four days before his mission was to end. He was reportedly the 55th soldier from this island to die while fighting for the United States in Iraq. Montalvo’s family buried him Sunday…

Puerto Rican soldiers have been fighting in the U.S. armed forces since at least World War I, when the island became a U.S. territory and its residents became citizens.

Altogether, more than 150,000 Puerto Ricans served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. But as Maria Munoz notes, they’re from a territory, not a state, and they can’t send a voting member to Congress or vote for commander-in-chief.

“It’s ironic,” she says. “We can’t decide who will be president, but the U.S. offers for us to go to war. They see soldiers as just workers, like when we’re shipped off to pick tomatoes. It’s the same.”

Daniel Martin Varisco