Under the glare of a midmorning sun, Staff Sgt. Jody Hayes stands sweating in the hatch of his M-113 armored vehicle, scanning for insurgents. Hayes and his Iowa National Guard crew have been stalled for nearly 30 minutes on a risky, slow-moving mission to clear road bombs, and he's getting nervous.
Suddenly he hears the snap of a sniper's bullet flying past his head. The round pierces the neck of the soldier next to him, Spec. John Miller, entering the two-inch gap between his Kevlar vest collar and helmet.
"Get down!" Hayes yells. Miller falls heavily against Hayes's leg, and at first Hayes believes his friend is taking cover. "Man, he got down pretty quick," he recalls thinking. Then he glances down and sees Miller bleeding at his feet.
Sgt. Ty Dermer, who is manning a .50-caliber machine gun within arm's reach of Miller, radios for help: "We got a man down! We need a medic, ASAP!"
Hayes drops down and cradles Miller's head in his lap, while Dermer rips open a pressure dressing and places it on the neck wound. Each man grabs one of Miller's hands and feels for a pulse. They still haven't found one when medic Spec. Jaymie Holschlag pulls open the back door of the M-113 and rushes, breathless, to Miller's side.
"Doc," Hayes says, looking up at her. "He's gone."
Holschlag begins checking Miller's pulse herself, as if she hasn't heard.
"Doc," Hayes repeats, louder. "He's gone!"
It is 10:18 a.m. on April 12, and John Wayne Miller is no more.
In the frenzy to save Miller, no one was thinking about why the war had snatched away the gangly 21-year-old Wal-Mart stocker from West Burlington, Iowa. Only later, as darkness falls and details of the day's horrors ricochet through their camp, do that question and others begin to haunt Hayes and his tightknit Iowa platoon. With a fifth of its soldiers killed or wounded, the platoon is reeling from the trauma of repeated loss, facing a constant threat from bombs and gunfire on Ramadi's streets, or mortar strikes on their base. They are angry, anxious, wracked by guilt -- one soldier suffers from combat stress so acute that he is unable to go on missions, and stays behind camp walls.
Dermer asks bitterly why the crew had sat exposed so long, making them an easy target.
Hayes turns inward, tormented over why the sniper had set his cross hairs on Miller instead of him.
Others wonder what Miller -- who sought escape by playing video games underneath a blanket -- was doing here in the first place.
Ramadi is a grim destination for U.S. troops. No battalion stationed inside the city has so far escaped a tour without serious casualties. More than 120 troops have been killed and hundreds more wounded since the summer of 2003 -- proportionally more than in Baghdad. And not all the deaths are from combat: One homesick 19-year-old recently shot himself in the head.
Miller's platoon of the 224th Combat Engineer Battalion headed to Ramadi in late February with 31 soldiers. Six weeks later it was down to 25.
Soldiers and Marines give roads here unofficial names like RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), Easy Street and Death Row -- routes so littered by bombs they're too dangerous to drive down. Although small-arms skirmishes with bands of insurgents have decreased sharply in recent months, the threat of snipers keeps troops crouching low on rooftops, ducking into doorways and sprinting across streets.
"It's kind of the heart of darkness," says Lt. Joseph Hallett of the 2nd Infantry Division, as he loads his Humvee for the April 12 mission with Miller's unit. Their task: to clear a neighborhood along Easy Street of road bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
At dawn, Miller and his platoon awaken from a rough slumber cramped inside Humvees or stretched out on the packed dirt of an austere Army base in eastern Ramadi known as Combat Outpost. The base has no running water, only a few wooden latrines, and is regularly pounded by mortars.
As Miller's vehicle commander, Hayes, 31, of Des Moines, is tough on his men in an effort to keep them alive, but he does what he can to lift morale. He notices a row of rose bushes in the otherwise barren compound. He picks a red and a pink rose, puts them in a plastic water bottle, and ropes it to the top of his M-113. Then he pulls on his body armor.
The convoy rolls into the city, zigzagging down alleys to avoid major roads. Almost immediately, soldiers start spotting telltale signs of explosives. "Corner of RPG and Easy, possible IED," calls out Staff Sgt. Kris Rainwater of Nowata, Okla. Rainwater and his infantry squad dismount. Banging on doors and climbing over courtyard walls, they begin searching houses bordering Easy Street, looking for IED-makers and triggermen.
Invisible to the Americans, the insurgents are ready. "We have sniper fire down by the water tower," Rainwater says. "They're starting to come out and play." Meanwhile, Hayes, Dermer and Miller advance south of Easy Street in their M-113 with the engineers' bomb-clearing crew, outpacing the infantry's protection. They find the road ahead oddly deserted. Fruit stalls are open, and skinned sheep and fowl hang from shop fronts -- a car idles without a driver, Dermer later recalls -- but not a single Iraqi is in sight.
The engineers soon discover why: Two 155mm rounds lie ready to explode, buried in a crater on the edge of the street. Using "the Buffalo," a lumbering anti-mine vehicle with a long metal claw, the soldiers try to remove the bomb. But before they can, a white dump truck comes storming down the street. A Bradley gunner fires warning shots, then opens up on the truck, stopping it and killing an Iraqi inside. All the while, Miller is standing guard, giving the sniper time to aim, squeeze the trigger and get away.
Holschlag runs to Miller. When the platoon medic sees that insurgents have taken out another of her "boys," she swears, grabs her medic's bag and walks back to her Humvee, slamming the side of it with her fist. Then she pulls out the gray body bag she has learned to carry at all times, and waits for a vehicle to evacuate Miller's body.
Hayes and Dermer ride back to camp in their M-113, the roses still tied to the back. They've barely cleaned the blood off the vehicle when frustration begins to erupt that afternoon over what seemed to some a flawed, futile mission.
Their faces dusty and streaked with sweat, the soldiers huddle to talk through the incident, raising more questions than answers. Why had the engineers been operating in daylight, when insurgents could easily "template" their position? Why had the infantry left them vulnerable? Why hadn't they caught the sniper who killed Miller?
"What sucks the most," says Miller's platoon leader, Lt. Tom Lafave, of Escanaba, Mich., "is we sweep an area and five hours later an IED goes off in the same spot."
Miller's squad leader, Staff Sgt. Steve "Shaggy" Hagedorn, is more blunt. "We spent three days clearing a route and I guarantee it's worse now than when we started," he says. "So everyone's asking, 'What are we doing it for?' Everyone's asking, 'Am I next?' "
Dusk envelops the camp, and soldiers brace for mortars. Miller's best friend, Spec. Greg Feagans, and his bunkmate, Spec. Shawn Conrad, withdraw into their barracks and begin packing up the remnants of his life.
Into a black plastic trunk they lay his uniform and sewing kit, his "Book of Dragons" and lucky red pack of Magic game cards. They carefully arrange his Xbox, Wal-Mart ID badge, and the volleyball he bought for others even though he didn't play.
"He can't be replaced," says Conrad, recalling how Miller would keep him awake with stories about fantasy space stations and underwater military bases. "We'll miss him."
"J-Dub," as platoon mates called Miller, was an unlikely hero. His mother died when he was a teen, and his father was in and out of jail, they said. After high school he found a job stocking shelves at Wal-Mart on the graveyard shift, which he liked because it let him devote his days to his real passion -- video games. Miller had a one-bedroom apartment on Prairie Street in West Burlington and a mean pet ferret. Other than that, they said, the lanky young man didn't have much going on in his life. So one day in March 2002, more for friendship than anything else, Miller signed up for the Iowa National Guard.
"At first he seemed sort of annoying, but then he became the best friend I ever had," says Feagans, 22, of Burlington. "We did everything together. It was just me and John Wayne."
In Iraq, Miller pulled pranks, like stealing Holschlag's cans of Pepsi. His platoon mates loved him for his generosity -- the pizzas he bought when they were home, how he was always ready to help. On chilly nights, when Conrad and other soldiers stood guard at a detention center nicknamed the dog pound, Miller would talk with them to help pass the time.
But he almost never got mail. And every night, he climbed into a narrow space created by a blanket draped over his top bunk, and watched movies like "Dragonball Z" and "Resident Evil" or played video games alone. "He loved the dark," says Feagans. "It was his way of getting away from the war."
A cat-whisker moon rises over the base, quiet but for the hum of generators. In the gravel outside their barracks, soldiers from Miller's platoon pull up chairs around a "campfire" of three green light sticks. Shirtless in the heat, they talk and swig nonalcoholic beer.
Miller has made his final escape from the war, his body refrigerated and readied for the flight out. But his death will replay in the minds of his platoon mates for a very long time. The shock is compounded by the loss just weeks earlier of the platoon's commander, 2nd Lt. Richard B. Gienau, 29, of Peoria, Ill., and Sgt. Seth K. Garceau, 27, of Oelwein, Iowa, when their Humvee was hit by a large road bomb. For some, it was already too much to bear.
Spec. Justin Edgington lights a cigarette and inhales, his face illuminated by the pale green glow.
"It's been pretty hard," says Edgington, 23, of West Burlington, who was close to all three of those killed. "I don't think John's death has really set in yet."
Edgington, so traumatized by the losses that he has been unable to go on missions, is one of hundreds of soldiers in Iraq being treated for combat stress each month, even as they confront new dangers every day in the war zone. Only about 2 percent of troops with combat stress are evacuated, Army psychiatrists in Baghdad say, based on a belief they have a better chance of recovery if they stay with their units.
But as in Edgington's case, staying in Iraq also heightens the risk of repeated exposure to trauma, considered the greatest cause of post-traumatic stress disorder. About 17 percent of troops who serve in Iraq are expected to suffer from major depression, anxiety or PTSD, according to an Army study published last July.
Edgington is the sole survivor to stay in Iraq from the IED attack Feb. 27 that killed Gienau and Garceau and wounded two other soldiers. He says he still dreams about the attack nightly, disturbed above all by his last glimpse of his commander. After the bomb exploded and the dust cleared, he found Gienau lying in his lap. "I remember looking for blood, and all it looked like was a little scrape on his scalp. He really looked like he had put his head in my lap and gone to sleep," he recalls.
After treatment in Baghdad for a concussion and combat stress, Edgington went back to Iowa for two weeks in March. There he saw a man halfway across the Wal-Mart who, from behind, looked exactly like Gienau. "I followed him around for a while trying to get a look at his face, and when I saw it -- it was totally different," he said. "It was really hard, almost like reliving the whole thing from the start."
Edgington, who in civilian life deals cards at Burlington's Catfish Bend Casino, can't stop thinking about his own close scrape with death. He's troubled about being apart from his wife, baby daughter Emylea and 5-year-old stepson Jaydon. "I won't see my family for so long," he says, taking a drag on his cigarette, "or I might not see them ever."
Then came the morning's news of another death, hitting Edgington hard. "Which buddy did I lose this time?" Edgington recalls thinking as he escorted Iraqi workers on the base. When he learned it was Miller, he says, "I was, like, numb all over."
Now he stays on the base, taking cover under his bunk when mortar rounds fly in. But he struggles to overcome his fear and return to combat to help the platoon. "Part of me wants to just stay here and never go out again. Another part wants to help my buddies, even though I'm scared to death to go out."
Back in the barracks, Hayes silently cleans his weapon, readying his gear for the next mission. Hoarse vocals from the Staind song "It's Been Awhile" play in the background, and Hayes's body language tells platoon medic Holschlag just how badly he's hurting.
Combat stress takes many forms, and Hayes wrestles not with fear but with guilt over narrowly surviving twice -- when Miller was shot next to him, and when Gienau died riding in his place.
"Lieutenant Gienau jumped in . . . my seat" in the Humvee the day he was killed. "Why did he do that?" Hayes asks quietly. "This time, we were standing shoulder to shoulder," he says of Miller. "What's to say [the sniper] didn't have his cross hairs on each one of us?"
Holschlag worries about Hayes blaming himself for what she sees as the fickle nature of war. With the unit facing several more months in Iraq, she knows all they can do is trudge on.
A construction worker from New Hampton, Iowa, Holschlag tries to sway fate with good-luck charms. On every mission, she fills her pockets with talismans: her bullet, her lucky dollar, photos of Gienau, Garceau and Miller, prayer beads and her Uncle Sam bear. "He brought me to Iraq -- he'll take me out," said the M-16 sharpshooter and mother of two.
To Holschlag and many in the unit, Miller was their "boy," their "kid," and in his sudden death, the good-hearted but awkward young man was mourned as a family member. "You live on top of each other. You get used to working together . . . then you go out one day and -- boom -- he's gone," she says.
"In 21/2 seconds, for no particular reason, because we found their weapons cache, they took him out," she says. "And never again will John Wayne Miller steal my Pepsi."