Grief, Determination Mark Farewell

Tall Afar, Iraq – The soldiers marched half-step – boots thudding softly, rifles barely rattling – and stood silently by the airstrip at twilight.

Nobody had ordered them here. Yet more than 200 massed to send off their dead.

A few hours before, insurgents in Tall Afar had killed four of their comrades – including two from the Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

And now – as the gray-blue sky broke into bright constellations and many men wept at the sight of a helicopter lifting off with the flag-draped bodies – these soldiers wanted payback.

“I want to go out and find the bad guys,” said Sgt. Jean-Marie Alexis, 37, a Haitian-born member of the reconnaissance squadron. “This is really frustrating. We can’t see them.”

Lt. Col. Chris Hickey, leader of the Sabre Squadron that lost two of the four, sympathized with Alexis and the others. His squadron lost eight during its year-long deployment in Iraq. Yet now, Hickey faced his men solemnly. He ordered restraint.

“What we cannot do is go into that city and burn it down,” Hickey said. “That’s what the enemy wants us to do. We are here to help the Iraqis establish democracy.”

So instead of lashing out the way armies have done for centuries, these soldiers stood silently on cold gravel, muffling inner wails.

“We have a plan,” Hickey told them. He reviewed how winning over Iraqis and harnessing Iraq’s soldiers would prove far more effective to defeat the anti-U.S. fighters.

But nothing will ease this “tremendous loss,” said Staff Sgt. Scott Muirhead, who rode alone in the back of a medic Humvee escorting the wrapped bodies to the waiting soldiers. “This is like getting kicked in the gut, and it takes all the energy out of you.”

This was an unofficial ceremony, the one that happens in the field when soldiers die. Official ceremonies are to be held next week.

Army officials identified the Fort Carson-based soldiers Monday as newly married Spec. Ricky Rockholt, 29, of Roseburg, Ore., and Pvt. 2 Robert Murray, 21, of Indianapolis, who dreamed of flying.

Also dead were 1st Lt. William A. Edens, 29, of Columbia, Mo., and Sgt. Eric W. Morris, 31, of Sparks, Nev. Both were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team), based in Fort Lewis, Wash.

The soldiers were killed on a reconnaissance mission Thursday afternoon. Army officials requested that The Denver Post not publish an account of the mission until relatives had been notified.

A convoy of five armored vehicles – two “Strykers” with rubber tires and three M1 tanks – had entered southwestern Tall Afar.

The city of 200,000 west of Mosul has become a hotbed for anti-U.S. fighters who have coerced residents to support them in battling “infidels,” U.S. officials and local men say.

The 3rd Armored Cavalry, along with a Fort Lewis-based reconnaissance squadron, are trying to help isolate and destroy the insurgents.

Around 4:20 p.m., one of the Strykers, carrying troops from both units, hit a bomb planted in the center of a dirt road. It blew through the bottom plate, right through where soldiers were sitting, and through the roof and rear of the vehicle. It flattened six tires.

The three tanks circled around the Strykers, firing at a man nearby who seemed to be running away, platoon leaders said later.

Two specialists newly trained in emergency medicine pulled out the wounded. Choppers clacked in to evacuate them.

But four soldiers died. Two other 3rd ACR soldiers – Spec. Nicholas Beintema and Spec. Bryan Lofton – were injured.

They are expected to recover.

Regimental commander Col. H.R. McMaster flew to the scene Friday morning and met with troops, then flew to Mosul and pinned Purple Hearts on blankets covering the wounded and dead.

This town, where insurgents have holed up, “is a tough place. We’ve got to figure it out,” McMaster said.

“The enemy wants us to overreact,” McMaster said. “We’ll pay them back. But we’re going to do it in a smart way that is consistent with our ideals and values.”