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War as real as it gets

Wall of Heroes honors troops killed on Iraq's 'meat grinder' roads

By Cal Perry
CNN

Editor's note: CNN producer Cal Perry is embedded with the U.S. Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, Forward Operating Base Falcon: Northern Babil Province.

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The Wall of Heroes includes photos and biographies of fallen soldiers.

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NORTHERN BABIL PROVINCE, Iraq (CNN) -- It's dubbed the "meat grinder." And the toll taken on U.S. forces on these roads patrolled by the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in the northern Babil province explains why.

They are some of the most dangerous roads in Iraq and being on them cost the unit 14 men in less than two months this summer.

The soldiers say a cycle has developed: they get hit by a roadside bomb and five minutes later someone puts another in its place.

As we geared up to patrol a road called "Route Bug" -- one of the worst -- an African-American sergeant stood on top of his Bradley fighting vehicle and exclaimed to his men, "I've seen this movie gentlemen, and the black man does NOT die first."

Everyone laughed. It was a moment of levity masking an unfortunate truth that all the men knew all too well: This is not a movie, and the cost of the war here at Forward Operating Base Falcon is as real as it gets.

When you walk into squadron headquarters, the first thing you see is the Wall of Fallen Heroes. The wall's 14 pictures and biographies of men killed from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment stand out like a massive scar. It's impossible to do justice to each story on the wall with a photo and a brief bio.

'Part of me will never leave'

The commander of Thunder Squadron, Lt. Col. Ross Brown, constantly engages in debates -- both political and military.

Brown, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, is haunted by the memories of his fallen soldiers. "A part of me will never leave," he said.

As Brown explained how each soldier's death has affected the unit, I couldn't help wonder about the toll that they have taken on him.

He goes to each site where his men have died, picks up pieces of their bodies and places them in body bags. There is no pleasant death from homemade bombs; they tear limb from limb.

Later, Brown sits for hours listening to stories told by the fallen soldier's comrades. He then goes to his office to draft a letter to the soldier's family.

Sometimes Brown receives letters from family members in response. He shared one of them with me in which the family of a soldier killed in a burning vehicle asked about the condition of his body.

"How do you tell a family that we could not get to the burning vehicle for over an hour?" Brown asked. "That the ammo inside was cooking off?"

Instead, Brown writes to the families about the sacrifices they are making.

Brown said he writes the letters in part "for the kids."

"I want their kids to know who their father was and how he lived," Brown said. "My father fought in Vietnam. If he had died when I was young, I would want to know who he was, how he lived."

Sacrifice and honor

Each story Brown tells is about sacrifice and honor. One soldier Brown talks about had lost his legs and an arm in combat. Despite his severe injuries, Brown said, the soldier would ask only about the condition of his comrade next to him.

" 'Is he OK? Is he OK?' "

Eight hours later, the soldier who had lost three limbs died at a medivac station with Brown by his side.

As I stand in front of this wall, I am stunned by how short the lives of these men were.

For the American citizen who is removed from this conflict, the casualties may appear like a manageable trickle of death in the Iraq war. But for the men of Thunder Squadron and their families, it is an almost daily, terrifying loss.

The Wall of Fallen Heroes

  • Staff Sgt. Justin Lee Vasquez, 26 January 1979 - 5 June 2005
  • Spc. Eric James Poelman, 6 April 1984 - 5 June 2005
  • Pfc. Brian Scott Ulbrich, 22 October 1981 - 5 June 2005
  • Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Wade Phelps, 11 March 1966 - 23 June 2005
  • Staff Sgt. Scottie L. Bright, 16 July 1968 - 5 July 2005
  • Cpl. Lyle J. Cambridge, 30 October 1981 - 5 July 2005
  • Sgt. Timothy James Sutton, 31 October 1982 - 11 July 2005
  • Spc. Ronnie David Williams, 22 May 1979 - 17 July 2005
  • Staff Sgt. Jason W. Montefering, 23 January 1978 - 24 July 2005
  • Sgt. Milton M. Monzon Jr., 5 October 1983 - 24 July 2005
  • Pfc. Ernest W. Dallas Jr., 15 October 1983 - 24 July 2005
  • Pfc. Reveron A. Villatoro 1 February 1986 - 24 July 2005
  • Staff Sgt. Jeremy Alexander Brown 10 November 1978 - 3 July 2005
  • Pfc. Robert Adam Swaney 21 May 1984 - 30 July 2005
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