Memorial Day in Iraq Includes Fresh Memories of Fallen Friends

U.S. troops in Iraq held Memorial Day ceremonies amid continued fighting with Iraqi insurgents. For some soldiers, simply going out on patrol brings back memories of those who have fallen.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

American troops in Iraq took time out to observe this Memorial Day. Many attended religious services honoring those who have died during the war. As NPR's Tom Bullock reports, for some soldiers, simply going out on patrol brings back memories of fallen friends.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

TOM BULLOCK reporting:

A small US military convoy makes a right-hand turn onto what appears to be an ordinary Baghdad street. But to the men of Bravo Company 2156 Infantry, it's anything but. Behind the driver of one Humvee sits a young soldier, his body tense as the convoy passes a gas station.

Specialist RUSTEN ADAM MAY (Bravo Company 2156 Infantry): I just can remember laying in the street right there, bleeding when it happened. This brings back bad memories.

BULLOCK: Specialist Rusten Adam May has light brown hair and a steady gaze. This is the first time the 21-year-old has returned to the site of a car-bomb attack that wounded him and four other members of his Louisiana National Guard unit.

Spec. MAY: Turned down the road. We saw a car. We got signaled by some local nationals, and we couldn't understand what the local nationals were saying.

BULLOCK: The car was a black BMW, a favorite of Iraq's insurgents. It was parked close to the gas station and sitting noticeably lower to the ground than it should. Specialist Casey Carroll was also on patrol that day. He says it was clear the soldiers had just discovered a car bomb waiting to be remotely detonated by a nearby insurgent.

Specialist CASEY CARROLL (Bravo Company 2156 Infantry): And we noticed they had a couple cars behind it, but we really wasn't too positive that the last vehicle, you know, would have any type of explosives in it. So basically what we did was just blocked all incoming traffic to help, you know, save the innocent and protect them from anything that may occur. We saw a possible trigger man, moved up on him, and as soon as we started moving up, that rear vehicle--that was the first one to go off, so that pretty much hit us down.

BULLOCK: The military calls these complex attacks. An initial event draws soldiers to a scene where one or more additional attacks are launched to maximize casualties. But that dry language conveys little of what it's like to be drawn into an insurgent ambush. The initial car-bomb explosion was so powerful, it shattered windows more than a block away. The blast knocked four nearby US soldiers unconscious and riddled their bodies with shrapnel. Rusten May was one of them.

Spec. MAY: When I came to, and I saw my team leader was laying right next to me, and I saw him--and he was bleeding. His eye was gone. So we hurried up and got to our feet. The other two guys were down. Casey Carroll, our commanding officer, was just laying there.

BULLOCK: Specialist May had been wounded in the hip, leg and face. One foot had gone numb, but he still managed to run to his Humvee and grab a medical kit. As he and other soldiers began treating the wounded, insurgents struck again. The patrol was attacked by machine-gun fire. Then that black BMW the patrol suspected of being a car bomb also exploded. Specialist May says they were able to load the wounded into Humvees which then quickly headed back to base.

Spec. MAY: But en route, the vehicle I was in broke down. Because of the blast, it got little things in the hood--in the concussion--like the hoses loose.

BULLOCK: It was here, without warning the insurgent ambush claimed an American life. Thirty-nine-year-old Sergeant Paul Heltzel, a husband and father, seemed fine after the attack. He was lucid, talking, had no visible wounds. He was the first to get out of the broken Humvee to provide security while they waited for another US patrol to arrive. But the same concussion wave that disabled the Humvee had caused massive internal injuries. Rusten May says Heltzel just suddenly collapsed.

Spec. MAY: I tried to help him. I couldn't figure out what was wrong with him, obviously. I mean, I tried CPR after his heart stopped, restarted his heart. Found out he died on the way to the hospital.

BULLOCK: Sergeant Paul Heltzel was awarded the Purple Heart posthumously. He was buried with full military honors. Four other soldiers of Bravo Company earned the medal that day. In all, the unit has been awarded eight Purple Hearts, but Specialist May says only two of the recipients are still in Iraq.

Spec. MAY: Everybody else is either at home or dead.

BULLOCK: Bravo Company would have just one Purple Heart recipient on duty in Iraq if Specialist Casey Carroll had not made a surprising decision. He had severe shrapnel wounds in his hip and foot. Carroll had to be air-lifted to a military hospital in Germany, then to Walter Reed Medical Center. When he was finally released, Casey Carroll could have stayed home and gone back to life as a civilian. He did the opposite.

Spec. CARROLL: At that time, you know, just started running, slowly and gradually building my legs back up.

BULLOCK: So at a time when the US military is having problems finding new recruits, this wounded soldier rejoined his unit in Iraq.

Spec. CARROLL: My wife, she didn't want me to come back. Of course, family's not going to want you to come back into harm's way, but you know, in the past seven months, things got deep with these guys out here. They're like brothers.

BULLOCK: Today at the Greenoaks Funeral Home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a flag was placed on the grave of Sergeant Paul Heltzel. In Baghdad, the soldiers of Bravo Company 2156 will again be out on patrol. Along the way, they'll see reminders of wounded soldiers and friends they've lost.

Spec. CARROLL: We all go back home together one day about four months down the line and remember the ones we lost and try to live on through them, you know.

BULLOCK: Tom Bullock, NPR News, Baghdad.

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