Memorial Day shrine built for missing troops
QUARGHULI, Iraq – The shrine is just some sheets of plywood and a couple of two-by-fours.
The carpenter who lovingly built it, Sgt. Curtis Dorr, wishes it could be grander – perhaps some pieces of felt to hide the knotholes or some trim to make it a more fitting tribute for a Memorial Day ceremony.
Nailed to the wood are the photos of five U.S. soldiers and one Iraqi soldier who died this month following an ambush south of Baghdad, as well as two other Americans killed in December.
Dorr, 38, of Troy, Maine, touched each of the framed pictures and remembered his fallen friends from Delta Company, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment.
“They were just kids,” he said, thinking about Sgt. Anthony Schober, 23, of Reno, Nev. “Just kids.”
Then he turned to the photo of Sgt. 1st Class James D. Connell Jr., 40, of Lake City, Tenn.
“Sgt. 1st Class Connell has four kids,” Dorr added. “Such a waste.”
Two other soldiers remain missing from the May 12 ambush – Spc. Alex R. Jimenez, 25, of Lawrence, Mass., and Pvt. Byron W. Fouty, 19, of Waterford, Mich. – and the search for them goes on, although the pace has slowed a bit.
Long gone are the extra cooks and translators brought into this villa-turned-outpost to handle the influx of extra troops brought in for the search.
Still, the soldiers set out daily in this Sunni-dominated hamlet, wearing 72 pounds of body armor and a full combat load in 115-degree temperatures to follow any lead. Last week, Iraqi police found the body of Pfc. Joseph J. Anzack Jr., 20, of Torrance, Calif., floating in the Euphrates River.
“The guys that we lost, we remember them, and that’s what pretty much that drives us every day, ” said Pfc. Samuel Rhodes, 25, of Albuquerque, N.M. “The day that they died, that totally broke my heart. It angered me. It made me want to fight twice as hard.”
It also has been rough Memorial Day weekend for platoon leader, Lt. Morgan Spring-Glace, 25, of Worcester, Mass. His job is to write the letters to the families of his men, but he is struggling with that task.
“I never thought I’d be in a situation like this,” he said, adding that the deaths haven’t fully sunk in for some.
“One of my men said to me … as we were coming back from this mission that, ‘It’s like they could come back any time, you know?’ I know the feeling,” Spring-Glace said. “It’s like you can just press the button and go back to the way it was.”
He remembered the personalities of his fallen comrades – how Schober, who was turning into “a really good squad leader,” couldn’t be understood when talking on the radio. “He sounded like Sylvester Stallone.”
Or how Pfc. Christopher E. Murphy, 21, of Lynchburg, Va., loved computer games – which could be a problem with a balky generator that sometimes broke down.
“He came off of guard duty with this face-splitting smile on – it was like nothing could ruin his day. Then, the generator died 20 minutes later, and he was really unhappy about that,” Spring-Glace recalled.
He thought about how Pfc. Daniel W. Courneya, 19, of Vermontsville, Mich., who was posthumously promoted to specialist, had just received a care package from his wife – and one of the items inside was a baseball cap.
“Almost all the time he was watching music videos and writing letters to his wife,” he said.
And then there was Connell, some 15 years older than Spring-Glace, who was “was never afraid to tell me when I was wrong, and it was good for me … because it made me better _ slowly and painfully.”
“I was glad that at least Sgt. Connell had just gotten back from leave and he had just seen his children,” Spring-Glace added.
Amid the somber Memorial Day weekend for the company, there was still a job to do. The soldiers laced up their boots – still wet from the day before – and put back on their sweat-stained uniforms. Then they headed back out into the tall reeds and palm groves to find their two missing friends.