- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2003

BAGHDAD — For U.S. soldiers in Iraq, Memorial Day won’t mean back yards, picnic tables and grilled hot dogs. It will be another 24 hours spent on foot patrol, guard duty or reconstruction projects.

But the memorial part will be there.

American troops — many of them young, many new to such seriousness — say memories of fallen comrades will linger, and a holiday that once meant the beginning of summer has taken on new significance.

“In the past, I never thought about why Memorial Day was celebrated. And now, when I know someone who died and what it means, in the future I’ll be thinking of my buddies,” said Sgt. Jeremy Smith, 22, from Reno, Nev., who is a driver in the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade.

The war in Iraq has produced tens of thousands of new combat veterans, and many will remember their 136 fallen comrades while at the same time feeling thankful for their own survival.

Regardless of whether they knew any of those killed, soldiers say a common sense of purpose produces a common sense of loss.

In the driver’s room at the 2nd Brigade command post, where the average age is 21, the men lost two colleagues in a missile attack and say Memorial Day will open wounds that haven’t healed.

“It’s not going to be a very good day for us,” said Pfc. James Luhrs, 20, of Orlando, Fla. “We miss our friends, but we can’t do nothing about it. We are still here.”

The missile attack came April 7, the day the 2nd Brigade was ordered into Baghdad to capture a chunk of the city center. In the tactical operations center, behind the lines, everyone knew the entire brigade would be fighting that day and they would be busy coordinating the moving pieces.

After four hours of fighting, the brigade had captured all the key buildings in its zone. Lt. Col. Eric Wesley, the brigade’s executive officer who was coordinating the fighting from the operations center outside Baghdad’s city limits, got on a hand-held satellite phone to call the commander, Col. David Perkins, who was at the front.

As they spoke, an Iraqi missile struck the operations center, sending a fireball across the compound. Recovering from the shock of the explosion, soldiers pulled dead and wounded from the blast zone and drove the surviving command post vehicles out of the flames, Col. Wesley said.

“There was a lot of fire, smoke and dust. You couldn’t see very well,” he said. “The soldiers did a phenomenal job of immediately kicking into a recovery action, immediately triaging casualties, getting them out, getting them treated.”

Four persons were killed instantly, Col. Wesley said, and another died later — three soldiers and two civilian journalists dead at what was thought to be a safe position, away from the fighting. Seventeen soldiers were wounded, 22 vehicles destroyed and a 10-foot-deep crater remained.

Among the dead were Col. Perkins’ Humvee driver, Cpl. Henry Brown of Natchez, Miss., and the operations officer’s driver, Spc. George Mitchell of Rawlings, Md.

They were known for their good humor, patriotism and professionalism, men who spent hours working on their Humvees and waiting outside meetings alongside the other command staff drivers, who had become friends and comrades.

Today, the survivors speak of their lost colleagues with a reverence that seems to age their young faces.

“When you are at war, you have a mission, and everyone is a piece of the puzzle. And when you lose a piece of the puzzle, everything shifts,” said Spc. Joseph Lynes, 23, of St. Marys, Ga.

All the soldiers said losing a friend in combat is different from losing a loved one in an accident or to disease or old age.

“It is more acceptable in war. At least you died for something, fighting for our country,” said Sgt. Larry Pennington of Adamsville, Tenn. “In combat, you died because you were doing something.”

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