MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Now to Iraq, where some of the hardest fighting is taking place in rural areas north of Baghdad. In Diyala province, insurgents are trying to regroup after being forced from the capital. Last week, an Army unit lost three of its men there in a firefight with insurgents.
NPR's Corey Flintoff was embedded with the unit, and reports on how the soldiers dealt with their loss.
COREY FLINTOFF: The first word that there had been casualties came over the radio in a convoy of armored trucks on its way to the battlefield.
U: Was there KIAs? Oh, so we can have up to five people taken out of the fight.
FLINTOFF: Just a short time before, soldiers from the Army's 1-32 Cavalry clambered out of helicopters into the predawn darkness of a place in north-central Iraq called Bichigan. One team edged out over the cold, broken ground of a farmer's field and run into a barrage of fire from fighters hidden nearby.
Capt. Mike Loveall is the commander of Charlie Troop, a man with a blunt football player's face. He said the whole firefight took only 15 minutes.
NORRIS: You really don't have time to think. You're not really thinking as much as you're reacting and going off of your training, your instincts and your adrenaline.
FLINTOFF: That training says you keep fighting until the enemy is dead. Lt. Tim Cunningham is a platoon leader.
NORRIS: We assaulted through their position. We confirm by kicking or moving their bodies to make sure that they're dead. And then we secure the site around our casualties.
FLINTOFF: Cunningham says there were six bodies sprawled in the trench where the insurgents ran after the first ambush. By now, it was clear that two of Charlie Troop's soldiers were also dead. Three were wounded. One of those men would die soon after. Charlie Troop had no time to mourn or even consider its losses. There were wounded to treat, houses to search, and acres of orange groves where insurgents were known to camp and stash weapons.
Staff Sgt. Matthew LeVart.
NORRIS: All of my soldiers reacted very well. They were able to compartmentalize. Obviously, it's not something that you can completely forget and just overlook, but we were able to continue to fight.
FLINTOFF: On the afternoon after the fight, Capt. Tammy Phipps got a call from Camp Paliwoda where Charlie Troop is based.
NORRIS: You hope they're just calling because they want a stress-management class. But you always know, there's that pit in your stomach that said, I hope that there wasn't any KIAs.
FLINTOFF: Phipps heads a combat stress team. She's an occupational therapist by training, a mom from South Dakota. Her job here is to try to help soldiers deal with death.
NORRIS: The main focus is teaching people to watch their buddies, understanding that this is going to hurt. It sucks, and it's a lifelong process to really get through this.
FLINTOFF: Tammy Phipps and her team were waiting a day later when the helicopters brought the men back. She says that once the pressure is off, soldiers begin to face their feelings.
NORRIS: When you mix in a pot of guilt, anger, sadness, and then also joy - I'm alive, and that's very, very confusing for all those emotions.
FLINTOFF: Capt. Mike Loveall is the man who has to make phone calls and write letters to the family members of the men whose lives were lost. He said it's the hardest part of his job.
NORRIS: The family wants to know exactly how it happened, what happened. Unfortunately, this is not the first time I've had to do this, so sometimes they ask questions, you know, about how was he? Very, very personal stuff.
FLINTOFF: Several days ago, the Department of Defense released the names of the men killed at Bichigan: Private First Class Danny Kimme, 27 years old, from Fisher, Illinois, Private First Class David Sharrett, also 27, from Oakton, Virginia, and Specialist John Sigsbee of Waterville, New York. He was 21. Sgt. Matt LeVart says there will be a memorial.
NORRIS: You try and honor them. And you use that day to pay your respects and to remember them. And you use that day to find out how you're going to carry on.
FLINTOFF: Lt. Col. Bob McCarthy commands the squadron of which Charlie Troop is a part. He'll speak at the memorial and try to make sense of the loss. His eyes well up when he talks about it.
NORRIS: You've got to look forward, okay. Every single loss is a tragedy, period. But we've got to make it matter.
FLINTOFF: The stress management people say that leaders are often the first to give comfort to their men and the last to seek it for themselves. The question is who Col. McCarthy talks to.
NORRIS: That's - I talk to my boss. I spent 20 minutes on the phone with him this morning.
FLINTOFF: The remains of the dead soldiers have been sent home. At least one of the wounded men will return to duty with Charlie Troop in a relatively short time. They'll keep going back to Bichigan and the farm country where their comrades fell for the much of the coming year.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News.
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