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U.S. leaders remember those they sent into the battle

By Charley Keyes, CNN Senior National Security Producer
  • Maj. Gen. John Campbell keeps a stack of white cards with him to remind him of the cost in lives
  • "My only prayer is that you serve with honor and return home safely," says Gates
  • Congressman Silvestre Reyes recalls the loss of friends in Vietnam

Washington (CNN) -- How do they count the cost? How do they remember the fallen?

From the deadly fields of Afghanistan, to the quiet hallways of the Pentagon, to the floor of the United States Congress, those who issued the commands, made the orders and debated the policy live each day with the responsibility of the consequences.

The U.S. Army general who spent the past year in charge of some of the most dangerous territory in Afghanistan, along the Pakistan border, keeps a stack of white cards with him day and night to remind him and others of the cost in lives.

"I carry these cards," Maj. Gen. John Campbell said, picking up two stacks of white index cards from the desk in front of him. "Every one of these -- a hero."

"We've taken some huge losses here," Campbell said from the air base in Bagram, with the sound of jets taking off in the distance. He was at the end of his tour in command of Regional Command East, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

He used to carry the cards in the sleeve pocket of his combat fatigues, an aide said. But, sadly, the fatalities kept coming, and now he keeps them in a satchel that goes with him everywhere. An assistant makes up the cards, each with a photo, circumstances of the death and details of the family left behind.

One stack is made up of members from Campbell's 101st Airborne Division, the 123rd Screaming Eagles who paid the ultimate price. The other group served with the 101st -- 94 soldiers including international partners from France and Poland.

The cards are among the last things Campbell sees at night. And they might be the first thing he shows reporters, congressional delegations and other government officials. They are powerful visual reminders of the cost as well as what's owed to their families.

"We can never forget the impact ... We can never forget their sacrifice. We can never forget the sacrifice of their families," Campbell said. "We've got to do everything we can to take care of their families for the rest of their lives. We owe that to them so we have to be able to honor our fallen like that."

As he sums up the year -- he's still holding the cards -- he says he's proud of what U.S. forces have accomplished. He turns the cards over in his hand, taps them gently on the desk.

"Never -- ever -- forget our great fallen, our great heroes," he said, holding up the cards one more time.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates chokes up when he talks about the responsibility of sending Americans off to two wars.

"I've done my best to care for them as though they were my own sons and daughters," Gates said when he was at the White House last month. "They are the best America has to offer ... And I will miss them deeply."

Gates gets the word from Afghanistan or Iraq when one of his have fallen.

"I'm the one that signed the orders that sent you all here," he told Marines at Sangin, Afghanistan earlier this year. And he pens the notes to the families of those who died.

"I write the condolence letters to the families of your fallen. And so I feel a tremendous personal sense of responsibility for each and every one of you. And I will, for as long as I'm secretary of defense."

"Virtually every day since taking this post, I've written condolence letters to the families of the fallen," Gates said in a videotaped Memorial Day message. "I will always keep all of you in my heart and in my prayers as long as I live -- as should all Americans."

His Pentagon aides prepare a file for each service member killed in action, complete with hometown newspapers articles that talk about a son or daughter lost in a distant battle.

"I swore I would never let any of them become a statistic for me," Gates told CBS. I get to read what their coaches and their parents and their brothers and their sisters say about them. So I feel like I know them."

At what was his last address during a U.S. Naval Academy commencement at Annapolis on Friday morning, Gates was moved almost to tears talking about his first trip as defense secretary to a war zone in December 2006 and seeing the young men and women in U.S. uniform.

"And I knew that some of them would not make it home whole, and some would not make it home at all," Gates said.

"As if you were my sons and daughters," Gates said. "My only prayer is that you serve with honor and return home safely."

Across the Potomac River, Congressman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, recalls the loss of his buddies while he was serving as a helicopter crew chief in Vietnam.

He will spend Memorial Day at home in El Paso, Texas, visiting the Fort Bliss National Cemetery and the grave of his father-in-law, who served in World War II and Korea.

"The experience of Vietnam, at least for me, is not just reserved for Memorial Day," Reyes said from his Washington office. "I think back to the buddies I lost in Vietnam."

"War is not like it is in the movies ... there is no music, there is constant fear, body parts, death."

Reyes has a front-row seat to the debates over Iraq and Afghanistan, as a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He also serves on the Armed Services Committee.

Reyes met with U.S. troops in Afghanistan in February.

"We know they are out there, that we are the ones that put them out there and we will never forget them," the congressman said.