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The last full measure
Spc. Josh Boyd lay motionless in the desert, his right side mangled, his limbs looking as if they had been turned inside out. The other paratroopers tried to smother his wounds, tried to stop him from bleeding into the sand. All around them, figures were starting to appear in the thick cloud of dust and smoke the second bomb had left behind. Cuts and blood pocked Sgt. 1st Class Chris Magee?ูs face. His body armor had blown open.
A piece of shrapnel had ripped into Pfc. Chris Ess?ู right arm, cutting the flesh away until it hit bone. Sgt. Casey Gougler?ูs world went silent, his eardrums ruptured. But none of the injured wanted help. They were too angry, too dazed, to see their own wounds. All they could see were the dead. Seven of them. The bodies ?ำ six of their fellow 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers and an Iraqi interpreter ?ำ lay in or around a burning Humvee. Magee, the platoon sergeant, stumbled back to his truck, pushing aside the hands that reached out to steady him. ?Leave me alone,? he ordered the paratroopers. His men were gone. Nothing else mattered.
Nearly three months later, Magee is back in Fayetteville. His wounds bought him a ticket home. He still wears a patch over his left eye. His skin still bears the scars left by flying shrapnel. He still can?ูt shake the memory of that moment in the desert or think of much else. In Virginia and New Hampshire, Washington and Texas, New Mexico and Arkansas, the families of the soldiers can?ูt either. They still are stalked by horror of the day strange vehicles turned into their driveways and the purposeful way the stoic, uniformed men climbed out and walked to their doors. They can still hear the soldiers?ู words, ?We regret to inform you...? They still can?ูt believe their sons are dead, that they?ูll never see their smiles or hear their voices again. But somehow, in all of the pain, they?ูve found the strength to do this: To explain how these men ?ำ their men ?ำ left the safety and anonymity of their small-town lives to become paratroopers and brothers. And how, on March 5, those brothers died together on a dusty street in Samarra, Iraq.
It was morning in Samarra.
Four Humvees rumbled their way around the desert, slowly cresting and descending dirt mounds, like toy trucks trudging through a sandbox.
All around them, muddy irrigation ditches cut fields into a patchwork of green and brown squares.
Out here, the paratroopers ?ำ from Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment ?ำ couldn?ูt hear the noise of Samarra?ูs crowded, open-air market or smell the stench of rotting garbage.
The paratroopers had arrived in the Sunni-dominated city in August 2006, shortly after a bomb destroyed the Mosque of the Golden Dome, a sacred Shiite shrine.
The attack aggravated the already rancorous relationships of Shiites, Sunnis and American soldiers, making Samarra one of the more dangerous places to patrol.
Roadside bombs, planted hastily in earthen humps, were spotted all over town.
Random bullets zipped past the paratroopers with frightening frequency.
The morning of March 5, though, had been quiet. The paratroopers were on their way to a car lot on the western side of town. They had received a tip that bomb makers were hiding there, and they planned to check it out.
Spc. Ryan Bell was at the wheel of the lead Humvee. Built like a bulldog and known for his heavy foot, Ryan drove the truck like a sports car. Magee often had to radio him to slow down.
?This isn?ูt one of those Indy cars,? Magee would holler. ?This is a Humvee.?
But Ryan was the type of soldier who knew only one speed.
Spc. Ryan Bell
Navigating life at breakneck speed was a trait Ryan Bell inherited from his father, Mike, a long-recovered alcoholic who had been married six times and dodged the Vietnam draft.
Ryan moved to Washington state to live with him when he was 8 years old. Washington, with its big sky and monstrous mountains, was a little boy?ูs dream. One summer, Ryan and Mike lived in a teepee with their pet porcupine. They danced at powwows and showered in the breeze with 5-gallon buckets of lukewarm water.
When they finally moved into a house in a town called Colville, Mike filled their seven acres with a menagerie of animals and rusting classic cars.
It was there that Ryan learned to kick a miniature donkey into a trot and whip through grassy fields on an orange motorcycle.
Colville sits in a valley in the northeastern corner of the state, a short drive from Idaho and Canada. It?ูs an offbeat little place, populated by young hillbillies, old hippies and people looking for a new start and fresh air.
The best place in town to drink is decorated with obsolete farm equipment and paintings of bare-breasted women in feathered hats. The best place to eat serves meals on mismatched china and plays an endless soundtrack of Tom Petty.
And in the middle of it all, just two storefronts down from the antiques shop Mike owns with his wife and Ryan?ูs stepmother, Ginger Rhoades-Bell, is the Army recruiting office.
That?ูs where, in 2004, Ryan signed his name to the sheet of paper that would eventually steal him from Colville and drop him first in Fayetteville and then Iraq.
In many ways, Ryan?ูs enlistment was inevitable.
When he was young, willful and unafraid ?ำ a combination that made him one of the middle-school bad kids ?ำ Mike, Ginger and Ryan?ูs mother, Sheryl Vickery, decided that military school was the only way to stop Ryan?ูs spiral.
They sent him 2,500 miles away to Riverside Military Academy, a campus dominated by stretches of long green grass and red brick buildings in Gainesville, Ga.
There Ryan wore a blue cadet uniform to class and answered questions with ?yes, sir? and ?no, sir.? Free time was scarce, and following the rules was required.
The structure didn?ูt knock the all-out attitude out of Ryan ?ำ he once launched a lunch tray to the ceiling in a fit of anger and sent a buddy?ูs stereo speaker to the laundry room in a bag of dirty clothes ?ำ but it tempered him enough that his grades spiked and leadership skills surfaced.
In many ways, military school fit Ryan. He was high-maintenance about his appearance, stopping for mirrors and insisting on designer clothes. So the first time he saw the pomp and polish of morning formation, he couldn?ูt tear his eyes away.
And he liked the autonomy. Alone at Riverside, Ryan could make his own decisions. But if he made the wrong one, it came with consequences: push-ups, demerits and weekends spent in the barracks under the watchful eye of a TAC ?ำ teacher, adviser, counselor ?ำ officer.
By the time Ryan graduated in 2003, awash in college scholarship money, Mike was certain he had made the right choice for his son.
But his son had made a choice, too.
He decided to reject every scholarship offer. He had just spent five rigid years in military school. He wanted a break from the studying and the structure. He wanted to spend a year working with his father in Colville.
But the promises of work soon faded into drug-filled nights and sleep-too-late mornings.
Eventually, Mike fired him.
He knew Ryan was tumbling back into that spiral, but he also knew Ryan would see when he had fallen too far.
Mike raised his son in the community of Alcoholics Anonymous. He and Ginger each had been sober for nearly two decades. Ryan learned early how to recognize excess and where to go when it consumed him.
For Ryan, the answer to his listlessness was structure. And the only place to find that was in the military.
He joined in May 2004.
By then, the war in Iraq was more than a year old and so was the weekly protest on the sidewalk in front of the Army recruiting office in Colville.
The debate carried into the Bell house, too. Mike spent 18 months in federal prison after he refused to serve in Vietnam. Though his stance had softened a bit over the years, he still had his reservations about war, especially one that beckoned his only child.
Stronger than Mike?ูs conviction was his confidence in his son.
Ryan was 20 now, a man. And he had chosen action over wasting away on drugs and idle time.
Mike couldn?ูt argue with that. In fact, it sparked a flickering flame of pride.
One year later, in June 2006, Ryan surprised his father again when he brought a woman home with him to Colville.
Her name was Teri, and the story she told about how they met was so typical of cocksure Ryan.
Teri was out with friends at Cadillac Ranch, a bar on Fort Bragg Road in Fayetteville.
Ryan spotted her as she walked by and asked Teri if she?ูd dance with one of his friends.
Teri allowed her blue eyes to linger on him for a moment.
?Yeah,? she told him. ?And, by the way, you?ูre really hot.?
Ryan grinned at her as she sauntered away.
?I know,? he called over the music.
To Teri, they weren?ูt a perfect match. He was 20. She was 24. He had four girls following him around the bar that night. Teri typically had two boys following her around ?ำ her sons.
But something about Ryan?ูs persistence and smile persuaded her to dance with him, kiss him and let him walk her outside.
When he asked for her number, she immediately obliged.
Within days, he met her sons. Within weeks, they were in love.
And that summer weekend they visited Colville, they decided to get married. Teri bought a white gown at a local thrift shop that Ginger altered to fit. Ryan wore his grandfather?ูs tuxedo and a little boy?ูs grin that told Mike all he needed to know about how much Ryan loved Teri.
Two months later, on the night before he left for Iraq, Ryan wrote his new wife one last love letter on a sheet of loose-leaf paper:
This is easily the hardest thing I?ูve ever had to do. I really don?ูt want to leave you. The only thing that helps me stay calm is the fact that I?ูll be with my boys. I promise I?ูll come home and be the husband and father of your dreams. Please stay safe. I?ูll miss u more than you?ูll ever know. No matter what though you will always be my baby and I?ูll cherish the time we have together always. Please keep me in your heart and mind and know that I love you very much.
See you soon baby.
He signed it, like he signed everything else, with his full name: Ryan Bell.
It was after noon when the paratroopers finally reached an abandoned car lot on the western side of town, where they suspected bomb makers were hiding. They parked before the suspect lot?ูs concrete and iron fence.
Staff Sgt. Rob Stanley jumped out of the Humvee, his tan combat boots raising dust from the desert. He stretched his wiry frame and adjusted his gear ?ำ cool-guy gear, the paratroopers called it. He always had the latest.
Rob spent the drive to the car lot in the seat next to Ryan, one eye on a computer screen that tracked the convoy?ูs route and the other on the road ahead. He was searching for the glint of a wire or suspicious mound that signaled a roadside bomb.
The platoon had already found dozens of them in the months it had patrolled Samarra. It usually took the better part of the afternoon to block the road, send lookouts with weapons onto rooftops and disarm the bombs ?ำ a task no paratrooper enjoyed.
So Rob was ready to run into the people who made them. It was his favorite part of war: chasing down the bad guys.
Staff Sgt. Rob Stanley
For Rob Stanley, the thrill of chasing the enemy was partly the product of the superhero-obsessed 1980s culture in which he?ูd grown up and partly the product of the community in which he was raised.
Before Fredericksburg, Va., became a commuter town, before traffic snarled the country roads and strip malls grew like dandelions, the town was known mainly for one thing: It was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.
In Fredericksburg, there is still honor in war and respect for its toll.
Rob grew up on that battlefield.
He spent the better part of his boyhood behind his mother?ูs rural Spotsylvania house, wearing camouflage and face paint, hiding in the trenches dug by Civil War soldiers and calling GI Joe and Captain America his heroes.
He spent the better part of his teen years running around with a group of nine misfits who called themselves ?The Boys.?
They liked to climb billboards to moon cars, steal lawn ornaments from their neighbors?ู landscaping and smoke cigarettes in a church parking lot until the cops chased them away.
Rob Stanley was their undisputed captain.
Or, as his father likes to say: Rob was a squad leader when he was 18 years old.
Because even though he liked to skip a little school and raise a little hell with The Boys, Rob understood concepts it took most people a lifetime to learn: respect, honor and loyalty.
He addressed his elders as sir and ma?ูam and organized the clothes in his closet by size and color. He befriended younger, weaker boys when he felt they needed protection. He read Tom Clancy?ูs ?Without Remorse? ?ำ the tale of a Vietnam veteran who hunts down his girlfriend?ูs killers ?ำ cover to cover and insisted his friends read it, too.
He smoked Marlboro Reds ?ำ practicing his technique in the mirror until it looked just tough enough. His boys smoked Lights. He drank his coffee black. His boys insisted on sugar and cream.
The other mothers in town told Thelma Stanley they wished Rob was their son.
Thelma only smiled back at them. But the truth was, she and her husband, the elder Rob, were just as enamored with their youngest child.
They?ูd married young, had a daughter right away and spent the next 17 years believing what they were told: They couldn?ูt have any more children.
When a doctor finally disputed that diagnosis in 1978, Rob and Thelma were already in their late 30s, ancient for parents in those days.
But Thelma asked her husband anyway: ?Do you want to have another baby??
?Only if it?ูs a boy.?
He had always ached for a son. Someone to wrestle in the backyard and cheer on at Little League games, someone to teach all of the things he had learned and mold into a man.
Rob was just about all he could have asked for.
?I was the proudest sucker in the state of Virginia,? his father said.
Rob had a smile that rippled his cheeks like a rock shivers the surface of a pond. He ran as if he was always sprinting for a finish line. He told his mom he loved her, even if he was just walking down the driveway to get the mail.
Once, as father and son drove a stretch of Interstate 40 on their way to Myrtle Beach, S.C. Rob turned in the passenger seat and said:
?Hey, Dad, I?ูve got a question. Most of my friends hate their parents, but we?ูre like best friends. Why??
The elder Stanley can?ูt remember how he answered, but he never forgot how he felt ?ำ like his heart got so big in his chest that it would start splitting his ribs.
By the time he was 13, Rob was steering a riding mower around the family?ูs airport, where locals chartered planes for business and pleasure.
This is where father and son forged a bond so close that, had they been nearer in age, strangers might have had trouble telling them apart.
They addressed friends and strangers with the same easy drawl, laughed at the same jokes. They chain-smoked cigarettes and drank cup after cup of black coffee. Airport coffee, they called it.
?Two peas out of the same pod,? airport co-owner Billie Toombs called them.
The truth was, and everyone including Rob knew it, that his father had already created a future for him and it was patiently waiting for Rob to decide if he wanted it or not.
His father?ูs half of the airport, the RV, the two-story house, the money in his bank account ?ำ all of it would go to him. The lawyers had already figured it out and drawn it up.
It would have been easy for Rob to say yes, to reap the rewards of his father?ูs hard work, to sit back with a cup of airport coffee and wait for his turn.
But that wouldn?ูt have been Rob.
He had to go out and prove he was a man instead of always being Mr. Stanley?ูs son.
So in October 1999, father and son drove to the recruiting office in Fredericksburg.
And as the elder Rob Stanley watched his namesake walk away, he cried. He knew he?ูd never see his kid again, the one who begged to go to Disney World and hooked fake grenades onto his pajama pants and set booby traps in the backyard. Because that kid was going to come home a man.
And he did.
Rob learned quickly that there were people like him who joined the Army because it was in their blood to be heroes, and there were people who joined because they had nothing else.
He felt for those guys. And he and his wife, Jayme ?ำ whom he met in a Fredericksburg bar when she was a college student ?ำ began taking them in.
They hosted weekend cookouts and Thanksgiving dinners at their Spring Lake home. They filled their garage with beer and couches. They gave a lot of soldiers a place to go when they couldn?ูt go home.
By the time Rob became a squad leader, he wasn?ูt the kind who had to yell a lot. When his men screwed up, it was enough to know they let him down.
And Rob thought about that when it came time to decide whether or not to re-enlist.
He had already been deployed three times in his eight years as a soldier ?ำ to Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq.
He led a group of paratroopers into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
He had already proven to everyone he was a man. But when he learned his paratroopers would return to Iraq, he decided he couldn?ูt walk away. He signed up for more.
?I don?ูt think I can let them go without me,? he told his parents.
Because in a country where lives are in danger every day, even soldiers want a hero, even paratroopers want a Captain America.
Rob was theirs.
And he knew that.
?I hate to leave you guys,? Rob told his parents days before he joined his platoon in Iraq. ?But my boys need me.?
Driving a Humvee ?ำ a familiar, slow-moving target ?ำ through the open desert in a war-torn, Middle Eastern country makes the men sitting inside naked to the worst of possibilities.
Their best protection, and sometimes their only protection, are two men in the back of the truck ?ำ the interpreter and the gunner.
Despite his Iraqi heritage, Arthur, as the unit?ูs best interpreter was known, was considered a member of the team. That afternoon he took the seat directly behind Rob, but it would be understandable if his mind wasn?ูt on the mission.
Interpreters who do their jobs long enough often become the targets of angry Iraqis, and moving to the United States sometimes is their best chance to escape the danger.
It had taken several months to get the paperwork approved, but Arthur was set to pick up a visa to the United States the next day.
Spc. Justin Rollins stood in the turret beside Arthur, his .50-caliber machine gun ready to take on any threat.
Justin had transferred to Magee?ูs squad from the weapons squad, where his leader had considered him disrespectful, just after arriving in Samarra.
Whether that reputation was deserved didn?ูt matter to Sgt. 1st Class Magee. The moment Justin arrived, he pulled him aside and smoked him.
Thirty minutes of push-ups, flutter kicks and jumping jacks sent the message: disrespect won?ูt be tolerated here.
Justin heeded it and, as far as Magee was concerned, became one of the most valuable paratroopers in the unit.
When they prepared to leave base on missions, Magee always ordered Justin into the turret of the first or last Humvee ?ำ the most vulnerable trucks that begged for the platoon?ูs best gunners.
And Justin was the best.
Spc. Justin Rollins
Newport, New Hampshire
Justin Rollins?ู father, Skip, taught him how to shoot with an empty, sturdy rifle when Justin was just 4 years old. He cut more than 3 inches off the stock so his son could fit the gun in his shoulder and took him into their eastern New Hampshire backyard.
It was rural enough that a moose once clip-clopped past the driveway, but close enough to other houses that when Justin started picking off the squirrels his mother, Rhonda, lured to the backyard with birdseed, the neighbors heard the shots.
Her son was a smart ?ำ genius, according to his intelligence tests ?ำ but uncontrollable kid. His teachers couldn?ูt get him to sit still. Neighborhood parents didn?ูt let their children invite him to birthday parties because they didn?ูt know how to handle his mischief.
When Justin was in third grade, doctors finally, mercifully, told Rhonda her son had attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity.
For a while, Justin took Ritalin, but he didn?ูt like the way the drug made him feel ?ำ like something was constantly crawling under his skin, looking for a way out.
?I?ูd rather be myself, and I?ูd rather have friends,? he told his parents.
He found them at Newport High School, where people fell in love with his gasping-for-breath laugh and his come-what-may attitude.
Newport is a town where mom-and-pop stores still outnumber the chains, where kids still slip their fingers into the change slots of pay phones hoping to find a forgotten quarter and where boys still take their dates to the covered bridge to steal a kiss.
There, the Rollins brothers ?ำ Jon and Justin ?ำ were the good ol?ู boys. They got in enough trouble for the cops and neighbors to know them by name but had enough charm to talk themselves out of a jam.
The two years that separated them alternately seemed like nothing and like an eternity, making them, as brothers tend to be, both best friends and sworn enemies.
Jon shot Justin in the butt with a BB gun. Justin whipped marbles at Jon?ูs neck. They threw fists at each other?ูs heads and then ducked, until every door in the house had a hole punched in it.
They were ?ำ unquestionably, unequivocally ?ำ boys.
But, just like his mom, Justin had a soft center.
And that soft center was always searching for an escape from Justin?ูs hard outer shell.
It found that escape in Room 17 at Newport High School, in Miss Urban?ูs economics class. Brittney Murray, a freshman, was smart enough to take the class early. Justin, a senior, had already failed it once.
Brittney noticed Justin right away. He was loud, and he wore a varsity jacket with white leather sleeves. She figured, with all of the beautiful girls his own age, he would never look at her.
But something about Brittney gripped Justin. She was kind without being insincere, innocent without being naive.
They started secretly driving around in his car after school and meeting in rural fields when Brittney?ูs parents weren?ูt around.
?I can?ูt even kiss you or I?ูll go to jail,? he?ูd tell her, laughing.
After a few months of sneaking around, Justin asked Brittney to be his girlfriend.
She told him no.
Somehow, in all of her teenage innocence, Brittney recognized something that even the most sophisticated of adults sometimes ignore ?ำ they both had a lot of growing up to do.
Three years later, when Brittney?ูs prom picture ran on the front page of the local newspaper, Rhonda noticed just how much growing up her son?ูs high school crush had done.
She mentioned it to him on the phone one evening when he called from Fort Bragg.
?I really blew it with her, didn?ูt I?? Justin asked.
?It?ูs not too late,? Rhonda told him.
So on the day of graduation, June 2006, Justin flew home to Newport and took his pit bull, Kayla, for a walk downtown. And right there, in the middle of the commons, in the middle of her graduation speech, Brittney, the class president, looked up and saw Justin staring back at her.
In the three years they had been apart, Justin had changed.
He gave up his dream of attending aviation school in New York to join the military.
Part of him felt the wave of patriotism that came with Sept. 11, 2001; part of him wanted to prove to doubters in Newport that their town troublemaker could make more than trouble.
Skip and Rhonda supported Justin?ูs decision. They thought he could use the discipline, and they were sure he?ูd never see war.
Because, just as Justin joined, the Iraqi people were pulling a statue of Saddam Hussein to the ground. They thought the war would be over before Justin had enough training to go.
Still, when Justin came charging up the steps of their split-entry home with his Army contract in hand, screaming, ?Airborne Ranger, baby! Infantry!? Rhonda felt fear grab at her heart.
?Can?ูt you play in the band?? she asked.
That, Brittney says, wouldn?ูt have been Justin. He wanted more responsibility than that, and the Army wanted to give it to him.
His superiors liked his intensity. His peers liked his shenanigans.
He held lighters under metal chairs until the paratroopers sitting in them screamed like girls and jumped to their feet. Using empty water bottles as mallets, he pretended to tap out a tune on an imaginary xylophone while the Beach Boys?ู ?Kokomo? played in the background.
Despite his pranks, Justin took his training seriously and finished in the top 10 percent of his class. It earned him a trip to recruiter school and a job in a recruiting office in New Jersey.
He didn?ูt want it. He requested a different assignment.
That?ูs military suicide, fellow paratroopers warned him. Justin wouldn?ูt listen. All he cared about was his infantry badge and his boys.
The Army granted his request and, in the summer of 2006, Justin received orders to deploy to Samarra.
He called his mom at the bank where she works.
?We?ูre going to Iraq!? he screamed, his voice shaking with excitement. She could hear men whooping in the background.
Rhonda was frozen. This was real.
She longed for the days Justin asked her permission. She thought of the time he called her from Fort Bragg and said: ?Mom, I have to ask you something. Can I get a tattoo? I?ูm the only guy in the 82nd without one.?
Why wasn?ูt anyone asking her permission now, when the stakes were so much higher, when the question was so much more important?
She would have said no.
But Justin wasn?ูt the type of person who thought about the what-ifs of war. He was the type who took risks and laughed about them later, no matter the outcome.
?No balls,? he?ูd challenge those who didn?ูt want to gamble with him.
But when he knew he had to go to Iraq, he allowed himself two moments of apprehension.
The first was in his parents?ู garage as he shared a beer with his father.
?If something happens, promise me you?ูll bury me in Arlington,? he said.
Skip didn?ูt want to hear how there was no greater honor than to be buried in the nation?ูs capital. He only wanted assurance that his son would be safe. But Justin wouldn?ูt let it go. He grabbed his father?ูs jacket, crumpling the lapel.
?Promise me,? he begged.
The second moment was in his bed, lying next to Brittney, her gray eyes gazing into his brown ones.
They had a plan: Brittney would transfer from the University of New Hampshire to the University of North Carolina in the fall to be closer to him. She?ูd study dentistry. He?ูd try out for Ranger school. They?ูd marry, have two kids and three dogs.
He was already shopping for an engagement ring.
?What if I don?ูt come home?? Justin asked her.
Brittney didn?ูt hesitate.
?Your job is to be a soldier and my job is to wait,? she told him. ?And if you don?ูt come back, I?ูll still wait. I?ูll always wait.?
Like a fortress designed to deter enemies, the city of Samarra is ringed by a 10-foot sand berm meant to keep out insurgents.
But Iraqis have been known to burrow holes through the dirt walls to get inside. And, on March 5, it was the job of the paratroopers to locate and inspect each one.
When he was finally satisfied all of the holes in the berm had been marked on a map, 1st Lt. Charles Hodges ordered the paratroopers back to their Iraqi home: Combat Patrol Base Olsen.
The small base is an old casino captured in the early days of the war. From a distance, it looks like a two-story mansion and, compared to many of the accommodations in Iraq, it might as well be.
The building has four staircases, including a spiral one in the main entryway, a gym, three kitchens and much-coveted indoor showers.
On the day they arrived, Pfc. Cory Kosters spent 20 minutes exploring its crevices and gazing at the Tigris River from its second floor.
On the afternoon of March 5, Cory sat behind Ryan in the lead truck, scanning the area for snipers. Pressed against the window, he probably struggled to keep his eyes open.
Riding in a car always made him sleepy. He slept so often as a kid that when he finally got his driver?ูs license he got lost in his hometown of The Woodlands, Texas. Sometimes, he had to call his dad for directions home.
Pfc. Cory Kosters
The Woodlands, Texas
Cory Kosters, at 19, was one of the youngest paratroopers and on his first deployment. At first, Sgt. 1st Class Magee had been reluctant to take him on missions.
Cory was too good for the Army, Magee thought. Too sweet and too smart. Every new thing he saw fascinated him.
In many ways, Cory had been sheltered from the world.
Home-schooled by his mother, Senta, and wrapped in the protective cocoon of his church, Cory and his younger brother, Kevin, had to use fantasy to find adventure.
As kids, the boys would escape the perfectly manicured lawns and brick houses of their affluent neighborhood and venture deep into the woods and the world they called ?Castles.? They conjured up potions from twigs and berries, practiced sword fighting and built elaborate, three-story tree forts.
In their quasi-medieval world, Cory was king. He set the rules, gave each of the neighborhood children a role and hammered out pennies on his father?ูs anvil so the kids could buy and sell.
But among strangers, Cory covered his inner king in a cloak of silence and shyness. Only those who knew him best detected his sense of humor ?ำ he played the straight man to his brother?ูs quick wit ?ำ and his steely nerve.
In high school, bored with their surroundings and enamored with the Brad Pitt film, Cory and his friends created a fight club.
One night, Cory stood nose to nose with Micah Raaf, a lean, shaggy-haired future Navy SEAL. Raaf figured slim-framed Cory would be an easy opponent. So when the fight started, Raaf charged Cory to head-butt him. Cory sidestepped his charge and threw an uppercut that slammed into Raaf?ูs face and tossed him to the ground.
Cory would show the same aplomb in Iraq, cooly brushing off his face moments after a sniper?ูs bullet whizzed by, smashing into a wall and spitting fragments and dust into the air.
Iceman, the paratroopers called him.
But it wasn?ูt just that nerve that earned Cory a reputation among his fellow paratroopers. It was his intelligence.
Cory was, without exaggeration, a computer whiz. He and Kevin built their first computers from scratch and led a clan of computer gamers. The members of the group would lug their machines to one house and watch while Cory connected them into a network.
Then, fueled by junk food, energy drinks and adrenaline, Cory?ูs clan battled clans around the country in pitched online battles.
Marlon and Senta Kosters let their son live out his backyard, get-your-hands-dirty fantasies until just before high school graduation.
They made it clear then that they wanted him to go to college.
Cory had another idea. After a lunch meeting with an Army recruiter, Cory decided he wanted to join the Special Forces.
A fascination with weapons ?ำ it wasn?ูt uncommon to see him on the roof of his house with an Airsoft rifle or throwing knives in the backyard ?ำ and a thirst for real adventure made a stint in the Army look like Cory?ูs best chance for a new life.
Like many of his friends, Cory was a little ashamed of his affluent upbringing. The 2-year-old war, which his family supported, only served to make him feel worse.
Real men, Cory thought, fought for their freedom. His had always come easily.
He wanted to defend his country and earn what he owned.
The Army gave him a chance to repay that debt.
But he seemed to sense his choice wasn?ูt the path anyone had intended him to take.
Before Cory signed the papers, he talked with his mother. He was seeking direction from the Bible.
Tell me where to go, he told her.
?Read about Joshua,? Senta told him. ?He was a warrior and followed God?ูs direction.?
Cory read the book of Jonah instead.
?Joshua did what God asked, and I wanted to read about someone who didn?ูt do what God wanted them to do,? he told her.
The month before he left for Iraq, Cory flew from Fayetteville to Houston to visit his family.
Back in The Woodlands, he quickly fell into his old routine. The clan threw gaming parties and the Kosters took one more vacation to their favorite spot, Galveston, where Cory and Kevin swam and skim-boarded in the surf.
But Senta noticed something changed in her son. It wasn?ูt just the sheepish pride on his face when people in the airport shook his hand and thanked him for his service. And it wasn?ูt just the way he rose early every morning to jog, which he had never done before.
It was a sense that her oldest son was pulling away, as if he had already sent a piece of himself to Iraq.
He didn?ูt want anyone to feel too much. It would only make the goodbye harder.
But Senta?ูs fear that her first-born son would come back from Iraq hard, his innocence tarnished by the killing, overwhelmed her.
Before Cory returned to Fort Bragg, she told him she?ูd pray for his safety. Cory told her not to bother.
?I know where I am going to spend eternity,? he said. ?Pray for the others.?
On the way back to base, the paratroopers could relax a little. Their mission ?ำ the mission no one liked because it took them off the paved streets of Samarra and onto the dirt roads where it was simple for insurgents to dig down and hide bombs in the earth ?ำ was nearly over.
Cory likely nodded off, lulled into dreamland by the consistent drone of the Humvee?ูs engine. Arthur might have imagined what it would feel like to finally hold that visa between his fingers.
No one would have heard the click of metal hitting metal as their tires rolled over a pressure switch, closing the circuit that would trigger two anti-tank mines buried beneath them.
But from the driver?ูs seat of the second Humvee, Sgt. Andrew Perkins watched it happen:
The desert shook.
The earth spit dust.
The Humvee split in two and caught fire.
Black smoke slipped toward the sky.
It?ูs hard to describe how Andrew must have felt then, watching the Humvee burn. Because there is something that happens to men in war that those who have never known war cannot comprehend.
The Army teaches paratroopers to be proud comrades.
War teaches them to be brothers.
So after the noise and the dust, after paratroopers cursed and Magee chucked his headset across his Humvee, when Andrew remembered that Rob Stanley was in that burning truck, he began to run.
He forgot all that he had been taught about Army protocol. He forgot that, as a driver, he was supposed to stay with his Humvee.
And he didn?ูt care.
Because if there was any chance his staff sergeant, his brother, could be saved, Andrew was going to save him.
Sgt. Andrew Perkins
Roswell, New Mexico
It must have shocked the other paratroopers to watch Andrew Perkins run. Because he was a soldier who never did anything on a whim. He was a thinker. He had to consider all of the angles before making a decision, even a simple one.
He was so excruciatingly thorough that, when Andrew was preparing to take his sergeant board, Magee pulled him aside and said: ?Look, don?ูt be a jackass. Just go to the board and hit it.?
But in those sickening moments after the bomb exploded, the other side of Andrew, the side that was selfless, must have taken over and tossed every question away.
It would have been like him to think of his comrades before himself. When a few members of his unit failed the Ranger course because they couldn?ูt swim, Andrew set aside his own dream of earning a Ranger tab to teach swimming lessons.
When a buddy?ูs wife needed help taking her special-education students on a fishing trip in Fayetteville, Andrew volunteered.
And when his older brother, Aaron, graduated from basic training at Fort Benning, Andrew was the only person to show up on family day.
Thinking no one could make the trip to Georgia, Aaron was in the weight room, attempting to bulk up. The Army had already threatened to toss him out of the service for being too small.
He was well into his workout when he heard someone yell that he had a visitor.
Aaron looked up and saw his brother in the doorway, standing straight-backed in his uniform and holding his maroon beret.
?How?ูs it goin?ู, Private Perkins??
Andrew knew he was his brother?ูs inspiration for joining the Army and he wasn?ูt going to let him graduate without an audience. So he borrowed a buddy?ูs car and drove the 498 miles that separate Fort Bragg from Fort Benning.
It was the first time the brothers had seen each other in six years.
Back in Texas, the boys had been best friends, sharing an obsession with comic books ?ำ particularly the classic 1960s issues of Spider-Man ?ำ Pearl Jam and girls.
Andrew was a skater who wore a curly afro and baggy shorts and spent all of the money he earned working at Bath & Body Works ?ำ a good place to meet girls ?ำ on skateboarding gear.
He didn?ูt worry about much until his parents divorced.
Then he worried about everything. The guy who could solve any problem with a good, long talk and spent hours analyzing all of the possible solutions couldn?ูt fix his parents?ู problem, and the over-analyzing took its emotional toll.
He moved in with his father, Weldon, and took care of his younger brother and sister when his father was at work, playing both chauffeur and chef.
But he was disillusioned. He wanted to be a part of something meaningful, to fight for causes bigger than himself.
The Army filled the void.
Andrew happily shaved his curls away, transforming his face from a teenager?ูs to an adult?ูs. He spent hours at the gym, transforming his physique from a skater?ูs to a soldier?ูs.
When his son left for basic training, Weldon offered his slap-on-the-back approval. ?It will make a real man out of you,? he predicted.
Ask Magee, and he?ูll tell you Weldon?ูs prediction was correct.
Andrew was one of the older soldiers, the kind who had experienced enough life outside the Army to give his service perspective.
The younger soldiers like to sit up late at night and talk to Andrew about the big, lofty things lives are made of: dreams and goals; where they came from and where they were going.
Andrew never disappointed.
He could talk better than he could do almost anything else. Even short conversations took the better part of an hour to complete.
When he was a child, he pestered a neighbor named Dog, who lived in the same apartment complex. Every day after school, Andrew rang his doorbell and rambled.
An exasperated Dog finally asked Andrew to stop ringing the bell.
The next day, there was a knock at Dog?ูs door.
?I didn?ูt ring your doorbell,? Andrew said when Dog answered.
Even his stepmother, Liz Perkins, constantly shooed Andrew away when his late-night, longwinded ways cut into her sleep.
In Iraq, it was Cory Kosters who endured the talking.
Knowing the wiry young paratrooper needed to add muscle to his thin frame, Andrew volunteered to train him.
But their hour-long sessions soon stretched to three hours.
He?ูll get into a conversation with ANYONE who walks by, even when it?ูs HIS TURN on the weights , Cory wrote in an e-mail to his family.
But as he prepared to deploy, Andrew was suddenly succinct with his family and friends.
Maybe he simply couldn?ูt put all of his thoughts into the right words, but those who spoke with him thought it was more. They felt as if Andrew were somehow preparing them for a life without him.
He told his closest childhood friend, Nick Compton: ?If I die, I did it doing what I wanted to do.?
He told his mother, Kathy Perkins, that a roadside bomb likely would kill him, and it would be instant.
The last time Andrew visited his father?ูs New Mexico home, he told Weldon, after a long motorcycle cruise down historic Route66 on the Arizona border, past the mountains, 1950s-era gas stations and native American jewelry stores: ?That was the best ride I?ูve ever taken.?
Weldon didn?ูt want it to be his last. So as father and son said goodbye, Weldon clutched him and gave him this advice:
?Don?ูt do anything stupid. Trust your buddies around you. You watch your back, and we?ูll watch your back here.?
From the passenger seat of the third Humvee, Staff Sgt. Justin Estes watched Andrew race to the wreckage.
Dutch, as the men called him, had spent most of his time in Samarra with the 3rd Platoon, transferring to 1st Platoon in February to take over a squad. He didn?ูt know these men the way they knew each other. He hadn?ูt been with them long enough.
But he knew this much: for Andrew, a driver, to abandon his truck for a burning Humvee, something must have pulled him.
Dutch looked over his shoulder, to the truck idling behind him. Magee stood beside it, sweating with anger.
?There?ูs somebody up there still living,? Dutch called.
Then he grabbed a fire blanket and he ran.
In that moment, Dutch couldn?ูt have known if anyone was alive or not. He wouldn?ูt have known how to save him even if he were.
But he ran anyway.
Staff Sgt. Justin Estes
Justin ?Dutch? Estes wasn?ูt the kind of guy who thought much before he acted. He wasn?ูt the kind of guy who got scared off by a little danger.
He was the kind of guy who thrived on it.
?If playing the piano was dangerous, he?ูd be doing that all day,? fellow soldier Troy Cook liked to say.
It was the danger that drew him to infantry.
Dutch joined the Army in 2001 as an artilleryman because it had the largest signing bonus ?ำ $18,000.
Artillery took him to South Korea, Germany and, eventually, Iraq. But it was an uneventful deployment, spent guarding the base outside Bayji and transforming an old bathroom into an entertainment center.
Dutch, and his wandering biker?ูs soul, needed more than that.
He grew up in Sims, Ark., in the rolling hills of the rural South.
More hands-on than book-smart, he was a teacher?ูs frustration, always going for the laugh instead of the grade.
?Was that really homework last night?? he?ูd ask his teacher.
To Dutch, it was this simple: If it wasn?ูt fun, he wasn?ูt interested. And school wasn?ูt fun.
Like Rob Stanley, Dutch was more interested in running around with the boys than almost anything else.
In Sims, they liked to drive fast and party hard.
Even when he worked as a dishwasher at a Christian day camp, he spent more time aiming the sprayer at unsuspecting campers than at the dishes.
He took only two things seriously: the Army and pool.
His father, Don Estes, taught him how to play on faded green felt at Hop?ูs Grocery and Deli.
The squat wooden building, just off Route 88, reeked of fried food, but the games were cheap at 50 cents a pop and the competition was stiff.
Most of the time, the teacher beat the student, sinking the eight ball to end the game.
But just before Dutch graduated from high school, Don had an off night. Nothing was falling.
And before he knew it, his son was lining up the eight ball.
?Don?ูt choke,? he teased him. ?Shoot straight, son.?
Dutch lifted his eyes from the table for a moment and grinned.
?I got this one, Dad.?
With a sharp crack, the eight ball sailed into the pocket.
In those waning days of high school, Dutch was certain he wanted to be a Marine. With mediocre grades and an impatience for learning, college wasn?ูt an option.
But the discipline of the military appealed to him and, as his junior high basketball coach ?ำ a retired Marine ?ำ well knew, Dutch always responded to a good, military-style butt chewing.
But the Marines didn?ูt want him.
They were afraid the moles on his skin would turn cancerous under the sun.
In his disappointment, Dutch took a job he didn?ูt want with a contractor laying fiber-optic wire for big-box stores across the country.
It was a paycheck, but it wasn?ูt Dutch. He needed more stimulation than that, more action.
On one of his business trips to Panama City, Fla., he got a tattoo that told his best friend, Hannah Waldron, a lot about where he felt his life was going.
Dutch met Hannah in a high school algebra class and, after her crush faded to friendship, the two were inseparable.
For her 16th birthday, he gave her $1 and a card with this message inside: This is all the money I have, but you are worth so much more to me.
They weren?ูt afraid to tell each other what they were feeling, so when Hannah asked him to explain his tattoo ?ำ an inked picture of four ornate skulls sitting on interlocking branches ?ำ this was his reply:
?As soon as you are born, you start to die.?
Don recognized his son?ูs frustration and his ache for adventure. Still believing the military was the best fit for Dutch?ูs personality and knowing the Marines wouldn?ูt have him, Don suggested the Army.
In January 2001, Dutch finally left Arkansas for basic training.
And the rough edges of his life, the ones that always seemed to be knocking together, suddenly smoothed and slid into place.
In the Army, Dutch wasn?ูt a boy looking for his niche. He was a man who had found it.
In the Army, Dutch wasn?ูt the kid who couldn?ูt hack high school. He was one of the most respected soldiers in the barracks.
And it buoyed him.
One evening, while playing dominos in his room in Bayji, Iraq, Dutch was accused by Lt. Dan Grant of cooking the score.
Grant expected his soldier to protest.
But Dutch stopped playing altogether.
?Are you calling me a liar?? he asked.
The hurt and the shock showed on his face. No one was going to take the respect he earned in the Army away from him.
After his first deployment, after disappointing months of guarding the base with limited action, Dutch?ูs wandering biker?ูs soul again took hold of him.
He organized a month-long odyssey, traveling from the Oregon coast to a stretch of sun-soaked sand in Panama City.
By the time he got to Florida, he and a buddy had already spent $700 on a rental car ?ำ an SUV they wrecked on the way to the airport ?ำ and thousands of dollars on cocktails.
They returned to Arkansas broke, tired and carrying a week?ูs worth of dirty clothes. But they also came back with a story, an experience that no one else had. For Dutch, it wasn?ูt about the money that he?ูd spent; it was about the journey he?ูd taken.
He ached for a similar journey in the military.
So in 2005, he transferred from the artillery to the infantry.
There is an unspoken pride in the infantry, that its skills are somehow superior to the other branches. And that soldiers who come from artillery will never measure up.
Dutch shattered that stereotype.
He was, Magee thought, at ease giving orders and intensely cool under pressure.
Once, in a rush for a mission, a fellow paratrooper forgot to zip his assault pack. As he grabbed it from the ground, its contents rained onto the floor.
Dutch glanced up and smirked.
?Hey, just put that stuff anywhere, why don?ูt ya.?
But, on March 3, two nights before their four-convoy mission, something seemed to shake the unshakeable Dutch.
His father noticed it first, when they spoke by phone.
Hannah noticed it next.
He sounded tired and scared, worn down by constant missions.
Hannah tried to steady him, tried to talk about what he had waiting for him at home: the friends, the booze. But none of it seemed to cure him.
?Are you scared to die?? she finally asked him, the tears slipping down her cheeks.
?No,? he told her. ?I just want to know when it?ูs happening.?
Before he hung up that night, Dutch asked Hannah for a favor.
?I want you to tell everybody I love them and miss them and I will see them real soon.?
And then he ended the conversation the way he ended every conversation with his best friend.
?I love you more than you know.?
Looking at the broken Humvee the blast left behind, Magee couldn?ูt believe that anyone had survived.
But if Andrew and Dutch thought they had a chance to save someone, he was going to take it.
He stuck his head inside of his Humvee and called for the medic.
?Boyd, get out. Let?ูs go,? he yelled.
Spc. Josh Boyd jumped out of the last truck, his bulging green aid bag in hand, and raced to the wreckage of the first with Magee.
He knelt next to the paratrooper Andrew had been tending to, checking to see what damage the flames had done to flesh.
Josh?ูs friends liked to say he had golden hands, that soldiers who lived weren?ูt lucky ?ำ Josh made them lucky.
But Josh wasn?ูt sure any amount of luck could repair the damage the bomb had done to these bodies.
The blast had been too big. Their last breaths had come too fast.
He worked anyway.
Because it was his job. And because it was his nature.
Sgt. Josh Boyd
When Josh Boyd?ูs friends met him for the first time, they were struck by his need to protect: the way he bought breakfast for the homeless men who frequented a diner where he worked; the way he hunted down jobs for friends who didn?ูt have one.
When they met met his mother, Tonya Boyd, they understood where that need came from.
The first time Tonya let her son ride his bike down the street in their Abilene, Texas, neighborhood, a car clipped his back wheel. He wasn?ูt injured, but she took the accident as a sign from God: Protect Josh.
So even though the one-story stone elementary school was only a short walk away, she wouldn?ูt let him walk it alone. And even though the sprawling neighborhood park was just across the street, she insisted he play in their backyard.
Without much freedom or athletic ability, Josh spent his hours lost in fantasy novels or endlessly practicing a form of judo that uses wooden staves.
He moved all the furniture in his room against the walls so he could train. Mastering the weapons cost the Boyds countless light bulbs, a ceiling fan and several windows.
Sewing was safer. The family owned a downtown shop ?ำ Dean?ูs Boot and Shoe Repair ?ำ and though Josh hated dealing with the customers, the family trade came easy to him.
His first project was piecing together an American flag.
Josh?ูs hobbies didn?ูt earn him popularity at school, but he didn?ูt much mind.
He was the kind of kid who didn?ูt have patience for his peers. He was too intelligent, too insightful, too infuriated with what he saw as childish ignorance.
Kids tortured him. School bored him. He usually ignored his work until the end of the semester, crammed it all in and aced the tests.
?Why should I do the work when I know how to do it?? he asked his mother.
For Josh, joining the Army in 1997 was a chance to get out of Abilene, far from the aches of adolescence. He could see the world and have an adventure, just like the posters said.
The Army looked like a challenge; something school never had been.
He aced the entrance test, and the recruiter told him he could have any job he wanted.
But his parents, especially his father, Robin, who joined the Army as an engineer just after Vietnam, had reservations. He saw how war changed men. He watched buddies drink themselves to death.
Josh was 18, and it was his choice.
He chose infantry.
He was stationed at Fort Lewis, just south of Seattle, and spent most of his downtime exploring the city.
Military life at Fort Lewis disappointed Josh. The soldiers didn?ูt go anywhere, they didn?ูt do anything, they didn?ูt help anyone.
So when his enlistment was up in 2001, he moved to Seattle.
He told his parents he needed to escape the oppressive Texas heat and the suffocating smallness of Abilene.
But mostly he wanted to be closer to Kelly Mavis.
He had met her at a city cafe, where he worked when construction jobs were scarce. She had just wandered in after a day of landscaping. The work muscled and tanned her.
Josh slid his hand over her skin.
?Nice back,? he said.
She whipped her sturdy body around in her chair and backhanded him across the temple.
Kelly spent nine years as a bouncer and bodyguard. She knew how to hit people so they went down.
Not Josh. He stayed upright and grinned at her.
Though he stood only about 5 feet, 9 inches tall, he was an imposing figure. His shoulders were broad and defined from working out. The hair on his head was shaved close to his scalp, but the hair on his face sprouted into what could only be described as mega chops. He wore Coke-bottle glasses.
Kelly felt a tug at the corners of her mouth.
?You get a break?? she asked him.
Like Josh, Kelly had always found comfort in loneliness. And 2001 was especially lonely.
She had just returned to Seattle from New Mexico, where she spent most of her time and money taking care of her ill mother.
It showed in her shoes.
They were almost a decade old and held together with duct tape, glue and baling wire.
Josh asked her about them only once. The anguish in her eyes kept him from asking again or apologizing.
But like the knights in his fantasy novels, Josh owned an unwavering sense of chivalry and, two weeks after he noticed her shoes, a package arrived on Kelly?ูs doorstep.
Inside was a pair of $120 Wolverines ?ำ the gold standard of work boots.
In that moment and that gesture, Kelly found in Josh what she had never bothered to want in anyone else: companionship.
They drank coffee together. They read books together. They climbed bridges together. They danced until early morning at a dark artists?ู club called Mercury. Too often, they fell asleep in a heap on Kelly?ูs old couch, half-eaten plates of food still in their laps.
?He took my broken life and gave me a good one,? Kelly said.
And though they discussed it, their relationship never strayed past friendship.
Kelly felt this way: Boyfriends come and go. Even husbands come and go. But there was only one Josh, and she intended to keep him.
?I would have sooner gave up my family that that man,? she said.
She never thought she?ูd ever have to.
But a lack of money and discipline ate at Josh?ูs pride. So in 2005, without a word to anyone, he disappeared.
His parents, worried when their son?ูs weekly calls home ceased, contacted Seattle police.
They found his Ford truck abandoned in a parking lot.
And just as everyone was beginning to think the worst, Josh called home.
?Mom, I?ูm back in basic,? he said.
This time, he was stationed at Fort Sam Houston, a short drive from downtown San Antonio. He completed a medic course there and reported to the 82nd in March 2006.
Medicine gave Josh everything the infantry didn?ูt. It was a challenge. He could help people.
And for the first time, he felt a camaraderie with his fellow soldiers.
He used the skills he learned at his parents?ู boot repair shop to customize their gear, sewing freezer packs into headbands and adding straps and buckles to backpacks.
The last time he visited Abilene before deploying to Samarra, he gathered spools of heavy thread and thick needles to take with him, though he guessed that, in Iraq, he wouldn?ูt be repairing gear as often as he?ูd be repairing soldiers.
He knew what waited for him. So did his father.
?I love you, and take care of yourself now,? Robin told his son at the airport.
Tonya only sobbed. To a mother who couldn?ูt let her son cross the street, to watch him cross an ocean into a waiting war zone was agony.
Between her tears, Josh tried to warn her and to say goodbye.
?Mom, since I have previous infantry training and I?ูm a medic, I am going to be right there in the front.?