MELISSA BLOCK, host:
American soldiers in Afghanistan held a memorial service today for three of their slain comrades. They died at a mountainous province called Kunar along the border with Pakistan. It's an area that the U.S. military now calls the busiest combat theater in the country. At the U.S. base there today, G.I.s paused to remember.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Kunar.
(Soundbite of helicopter rotors)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: In a shady field here at Camp Blessing, scores of soldiers gather to mourn three of their own from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Nearby, Blackhawk helicopters take off and land, a reminder that the war outside the camp is far from over. But for the moment, the soldiers pause to remember their comrades killed in late October. One was fatally shot when his position was overrun by militants. The others died two days later in an ambush.
The men who were in their 20s are regaled as tough-as-nails warriors. But each is also remembered for his softer side - Staff Sergeant Larry Rougle as a doting father to his young daughter, Sergeant Joshua Brennan as a lover of music and the guitar that he played whenever he got the chance, and Specialist Hugo Mendoza as a caring medic.
Staff Sergeant Michael Gabel eulogized his best friend, Larry Rougle.
Staff Sergeant MICHAEL GABEL (173rd Airborne Brigade, U.S. Army): I will not be bitter. I will not shed any tears of sorrow. I am proud to have known such a good man and a warrior to the bitter end. Until we see each other again. Sky soldiers.
NELSON: The paratroopers comfort each other with hugs and pats on the back. Still, Sergeant Benjamin Sanchez Jr. says that on days like this, it's hard to keep going.
Sergeant BENJAMIN SANCHEZ JR. (173rd Airborne Brigade, U.S. Army): It just seems we're trying to win over the people, but it's very difficult. The enemy is trying to win them over, too, and it's a tug of war with the enemy and ourselves. And it seems sometimes, we take two steps forward, and on the other days, we take two steps back.
NELSON: That is how many here at Camp Blessing see the fight in this part of Kunar province. A battle waged in tree-covered mountains lining the Korengal Valley. Their enemy includes foreign fighters who come from nearby Pakistan, and Taliban fighters who also recruit underemployed local youth to attack troops. Some officers say the insurgents, despite their heavy losses, are growing more brazen. Nowadays, they usually fight American and Afghan soldiers up close. The sounds of battle could be heard during the memorial service.
Captain DAVID SCHNARR (Army Chaplain): Almighty God and Heavenly Father, we come into your presence to remember Larry Rougle, Joshua Brennan and Hugo Mendoza, and to reflect a moment on the brevity of life and the value you place on each…
(Soundbite of explosion)
NELSON: That boom during Chaplain David Schnarr's prayer was one of camp's 155 Howitzers fired on Taliban position several miles away. Seven of the 10 soldiers killed in Kunar since June are from Captain Daniel Kearney's battle company. He calls his men heroes.
Captain DANIEL KEARNEY (U.S. Army): They're like my family. They're like my little brother. I don't like people pick on my little brother at home. I don't like people picking on my little brothers here. So it ends up making the boys angry and stuff like that. But there's not much I can do about it except to keep on pushing the boys to out there and do everything that they're doing already.
(Soundbite of music)
NELSON: Nearby, Sergeant Brennan's platoon mates finish writing messages of condolence on the dead man's guitar.
Unidentified Man: All he loved to do is play his music.
NELSON: What kind of music did he like?
Unidentified Man: Anything and everything, so long as he could play, he loved it.
NELSON: The squad leader says he will send the guitar to Brennan's family.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, reporting from Camp Blessing in Afghanistan.