They were prepared to die, even the truck drivers and supply clerks; any American who sets foot in Iraq must be. They made out wills, as the military requires, and left behind letters and videos for their families. The families in turn prepared for the day when they might open the door to find a chaplain on the other side. In military families the notion of duty is not confined to the battlefield. On the morning that 14-year-old Rohan Osbourne learned that his mother, Pamela, had been killed in a mortar attack on her Army base, his father dropped him off as usual at Robert M. Shoemaker High School, where three quarters of the students are the children of soldiers from nearby Fort Hood, Texas. "I might not get a lot of work done today, ma'am," Rohan politely explained to his teacher. "My mommy died yesterday in Iraq."

War notoriously robs parents of their sons, but it also steals husbands and fathers, and increasingly wives and mothers. The Pentagon doesn't keep these statistics, but using figures compiled by the Scripps-Howard News Service and other sources, NEWSWEEK has calculated that as of last week 1,043 American children had lost a parent in Iraq. To put it another way, nearly two years after the invasion on March 19, 2003, among the 1,508 American troops who have died as of March 11 were an estimated 450 fathers, and 7 mothers. A wartime death presents unique hardships for children. It occurs in a far-off country, often to a parent who left home months earlier; young children may find it hard to grasp the finality of the event. Offsetting that is the impressive panoply and ritual of a military funeral, and the consoling knowledge that the sacrifice was in a worthy cause. The death of a parent often leaves a family not just sadder, but poorer, and surviving spouses are agitating for improvements in their benefits. But there are needs no government program can fill.

The fathers were big strong men, like Nino Livaudais, a 23-year-old Army Ranger with two tours in Afghanistan behind him before the invasion. His son Destre, now 7, is still struggling to understand how such a hero could have been killed by a mere bomb. "I can kind of picture it," he says hesitantly. "But it's hard to picture it. I don't really think explosions hurt that much. My dad's usually a tough man. He went through about five wars." Livaudais left, besides Destre (then 5) and his wife, Jackie, a 2-year-old son, Carson, and Grant, who was born after his death. As relatives gathered on the family porch after Nino's funeral, Carson grew excited by all the unexpected company and started calling for his daddy to join the party. He then turned around, puzzled, as the grown-ups all burst into tears.

And their mothers were loving and devoted, like Spc. Jessica Cawvey, 21. Before she left for Iraq last February with her Illinois National Guard unit, her daughter, Sierra, made her pinkie-swear she wouldn't die. So when Cawvey was killed by a roadside bomb in Fallujah last October, it was not merely a tragedy for Sierra, it was a kind of betrayal. "We had to explain that even though she died, it wasn't her mommy's fault," said Kevin Cawvey, Sierra's grandfather. Vanessa Arroyave, who was 6 when her father, Marine S/Sgt. Jimmy Javier Arroyave, was deployed, was certain he would die in Iraq. "She was very adamant about that," says her mother, Rachelle. The little girl was right. Last April, when Arroyave was killed in a truck accident, Vanessa told her mother: "I told you so." So Rachelle faced the mirror image of the Cawvey family's problem. She had to reassure her daughter that by predicting her father's death, she hadn't brought it about.

The sudden onslaughts of grief are sometimes almost more than Nelda Howton, the principal of Osbourne's school near Fort Hood, can bear. She has picked up the phone to find a mother sobbing on the other end, begging Howton to drive her son home. One girl's aunt walked straight to the classroom and appeared in the doorway, tears streaming down her face. The students do characteristically thoughtless things, like asking Jessica Blankenbecler for her autograph because they had seen her on television. Blankenbecler, a pretty sophomore, was the first student at Shoemaker to lose a parent in Iraq. That wasn't the worst of it; one girl told her, "I wish something would happen to my dad because then we'd get rich"--a remark that carried a particular sting because Blankenbecler's mother, Linnie, thinks they're actually going to be poor.

Compensation for the families of soldiers killed in action is a politically and emotionally charged issue, particularly in light of the changing makeup of the military. The saying used to be that "if the Army wanted you to have a wife, they would have issued you one," but the proportion of married soldiers is higher today than in any previous war, says Charlie Moskos, a Northwestern University sociologist. The military today is a better-paid career than most high-school graduates could aspire to otherwise, which may explain why the average male soldier now gets married at 24--three years younger than the rest of the population. The heavy reliance on Reserves and National Guard troops also puts family men and women on the front lines in unprecedented numbers. Of the Americans killed in Iraq through the end of November 2004, more than two in five were married.

Characteristically, the military and Congress have responded to the urgent needs of the survivors by adding new layers of bureaucracy to a system that dates back to the Civil War (and, in fact, is still paying benefits to five offspring of Civil War veterans). Spouses receive a lump-sum "death gratuity" of $12,420, plus life insurance of as much as $250,000. This payment would be effectively doubled by a bill that is expected to pass in the next month. Families are eligible for Social Security payments and for two different kinds of government annuities, although the fine print requires an offsetting reduction in one if you also collect the other. Survivors are eligible for generous college-tuition grants and lifetime subsidized health care. As an illustration, the National Military Families Association calculated the benefits for the family (a wife and children ages 1 and 3) of an enlisted man with a salary of $38,064 a year, including a housing allowance and combat pay. Apart from the lump-sum payments, his wife would receive the equivalent of an annual income of $57,624, falling to $45,804 after two years, then declining in steps as the children reach adulthood. By the time the younger child turns 23, the wife's check would amount to only about a quarter of her husband's active-duty salary.

Last year the Department of Veterans Affairs added bereavement counseling to the package of benefits. This supplements the work of a voluntary organization called TAPS--Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors--which organizes "emotional peer-to-peer" counseling among kids. There are also freelance outreach efforts by the adult children of servicemen killed in Vietnam, who are now approaching middle age themselves. Tony Cordero, who was 4 when his father, William, was killed in 1965, founded a survivors' group called Sons and Daughters in Touch, which has begun inviting the children of Iraqi casualties to its Father's Day memorials. Ever since the publication of her family memoir ("Hero Mama"), the writer Karen Spears Zacharias, whose father was killed in Vietnam, has become a magnet for bereaved kids, who write and call her at all hours. In quiet visits, she tells them she understands how they feel: "It's difficult to lose a father in an unpopular war."

Psychologists have learned a lot about how to help children through the grief process. Unfortunately one of the most important recommendations--to avoid unnecessary changes to the child's daily routine--is impossible for many military families, who generally have to move off base within six months. Previous advice that a healthy adjustment required a clean break with the deceased parent is now inoperative; current thinking is that children "want and need a continuing bond to their dead parent," according to J. William Worden, co-director of Harvard's Child Bereavement Study. "They talk to them, they keep things that belong to them, they dream about them and think about them," he says. Tony Bertolino Jr., 15, appears to have memorized the entire career and duties of his father, an Army sergeant who was killed in an ambush in late 2003. "He was a highly respected soldier and man," he says. David Kirchhoff Jr., whose father, an Iowa guardsman, died of heat stroke in Iraq in 2003, has turned his bedroom into a virtual shrine to his father, including a wall of photographs. Like many sons of soldiers, he imagines enlisting himself someday. His plan, though, is to "go over there and tell everybody it's not worth it." Compared with the 20,000 American children who lost a father in Vietnam, the families of Iraqi war casualties have the advantage that almost all of them are getting a body back. Many men back then were lost in the jungle or the air and were--or still are--listed as "missing," leaving their families to wonder, "Is he going to be coming around the corner one day?" says Cordero. It was with that in mind that Tina Cline, whose husband, Marine Lance Cpl. Donald Cline, was killed in an explosion on the fourth day of the invasion, decided to let 2-year-old Dakota look inside the flag-draped coffin at the uniformed body inside. The body had no head.

"Daddy's not coming home," she whispered to her son, who was dressed in a tiny dark suit and tie. "He's got a bigger job to do, helping God in heaven."

Parents have always said that, to little boys who stood at attention and promised their moms they would be brave. They wore their father's dog tags to school, and, in the way of things, eventually went off to fight in their own wars. On the same day that Cline's vehicle was hit by a shell, Marine Sgt. Phillip Jordan was killed in Nasiriya, leaving behind a 6-year-old son, Tyler, whom he called "Lavabug." For a week after, Tyler sulked around the house in his 6-foot-3-inch father's camouflage shirt, refusing to eat or to talk to his mother, Amanda.

"God needed Daddy in heaven," she explained recently.

"Well," he replied, "I needed him, too."