I had just made it into the office (a makeshift trailer) to check my e-mail before getting to work. I had stayed up most of the night watching the Rose Bowl with some of the guys, and I was still on a high from the Longhorns’ crazy win. It was going to be a great morning. But almost as soon as I’d switched on my computer, I was interrupted: There was word from my company’s executive officer of an IED. At first the news didn’t strike me as all that strange, because you hear about those with some frequency. Usually it’s a false alarm, or sometimes it’s some primitive device that couldn’t really hurt anybody. But this time was different. There were KIAs. That’s when you start to worry.
I headed to the tactical operations center (TOC) to get the scoop. A few weeks earlier, a new battalion had arrived at Forward Operating Base Duke, and it so happened that it was the exact unit I was a member of when I came to Iraq in 2003: 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery. Its role in the province is typical of any Army unit’s—help rebuild infrastructure, train the Iraqi army, and continue to work toward the transition of power to Iraqi authorities. Its men patrol Najaf and provide security support for our Civil Affairs missions. Several of my old buddies were still in the unit, and we’d seen each other on the FOB. The news was that it was my old battalion that had been hit.
As I walked into my former stomping grounds at the TOC, I saw distressed looks and bleary eyes. The commander, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Hilliard, whom I have known for years and who took command of the battalion after I left, was on the phone, with a concerned look on his face. He had just returned from the site of the IED attack. I cornered one of my buddies and asked him what had happened. He gave me the quick rundown: a five-Humvee convoy, in a small town north of the FOB; one really bad IED; and five dead in one vehicle. All killed instantly. “Who was it?” I asked. He told me the names, and right away I had vivid memories come to mind—times that I’d spoken with these guys, times that we’d worked and learned with each other, times that we’d laughed together. Three of them were with the unit in 2003, during the invasion.
One was a young medic from South Texas, Sergeant Johnny Peralez Jr. More times than I can remember, I watched him and his fellow medics work calmly and efficiently to save lives, both American and Iraqi. Another was a captain named Chris Petty. He and I had worked together when we were both on staff in 2003. Anyone who’s ever worked staff in the Army knows that it can be a punishing, thankless job. I remember how he always gutted it out in ways that I knew I never could. Then there was Sergeant First Class Stephen White, the ultimate supply sergeant. He always fulfilled expectations and was viewed as one of the most competent and valuable noncommissioned officers in the unit. I had just met the senior member of the vehicle, Major William Hecker, a couple weeks before. He had arrived at FOB Duke and quickly set the standard for how his operations center was going to conduct business. He was a professional and very respected. Finally, the fifth soldier was Private Robbie Mariano, a young man from California who had joined the Army a little more than two years ago. He was the vehicle’s turret gunner that day. As these facts and memories raced through my mind, I felt a sudden wave of heat flood my face. It’s hard to explain just how I felt, when at the time, I didn’t really know how to feel. I just felt sick. It wasn’t the first time the battalion had suffered loss of life; we’d lost men before in both combat and non-combat incidents. But to lose five instantly, and within just a few weeks of their arrival … The shock is indescribable.
Military tradition calls for the unit to hold a memorial ceremony for the fallen, and this one, a few days later, was a perfect display of reverence and respect for the men we had lost. It was nighttime, and a light rain was falling from the desert sky. The division and brigade commanders had arrived, and the chaplain opened the ceremony. A friend of each lost soldier gave a brief eulogy, telling the rest of us how the men had lived their lives, how they would be missed, and that they would never, ever be forgotten. That is the promise to a soldier who pays the ultimate price. Afterward, there was a prayer, and then the final roll call. As the first sergeant called out the five names, I kept expecting the guys to appear from the back of the formation, sound off, and say, “Here, First Sergeant!” But the calls never came, and the names trailed off into the cool night. We listened to taps, tears mingling with the rain on our faces. Then we formed a single file, stepping to the front toward a carefully arranged display: five sets of desert combat boots; five rifles with the barrels pointed downward, placed between each pair of boots; five sets of ID tags, hanging on the rifles; five helmets, resting securely on the buttstock of the rifles; and five framed photographs. We filed by one by one, each giving a slow salute in memory of the fallen men. When it was my turn, my right arm shook as I raised it to my patrol cap, and as I looked at the photos, I thought to myself, “Remember this.” Now, when I do pray, I pray for their families, and I pray that I will never forget.
Because it was my old battalion, the ceremony was also a reunion. Friends from years past had convoyed or flown in from all over southern Iraq for the farewell. I’ll always remember the look in their eyes as we embraced and quickly caught up. As good as it was to see each other, we agreed to a man that the circumstances that had brought us back together could not have been worse. Still, the one thing I knew was that on that night, there was absolutely nowhere else I would have rather been.
Sergeant Johnny Peralez Jr. is one of 207 Texans who have died in the Iraq war as of February 28. To read continual updates on our fallen heroes and to post your condolences and tributes, go to Fallen Heroes.