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Iraq veterans remember the fallen on anniversary

At a reunion in Georgia, about 150 who served in Task Force 3-15 pay tribute to comrades slain in the battle to take Baghdad 10 years ago.

April 10, 2013|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Those who served in Task Force 3-15 of the 3rd Infantry Division and their family members visit memorials to fallen soldiers on the Warriors Walk at Ft. Stewart, Ga.
Those who served in Task Force 3-15 of the 3rd Infantry Division and their… (David Zucchino, Los Angeles…)

FT. STEWART, Ga. — Angel Acevedo found the granite marker for his friend, Robert Stever, known to all as "Catfish."

There it was on the Warriors Walk memorial. It lay beneath tree No. 31, one of 444 planted here to honor fallen soldiers: Army Staff Sgt. Robert Stever of Pendleton, Ore., killed in action in Iraq on April 7, 2003. A redbud sapling was sprouting delicate pink blossoms above the marker that bore Stever's name.

Acevedo felt old emotions rise again — remorse, regret, guilt. He has yet to shake the memories of that day outside Baghdad, when a rocket-propelled grenade decapitated his friend. Stever collapsed into the arms of Acevedo, then an Army warrant officer, as Acevedo fired his weapon inside an armored personnel carrier.

"I keep asking myself, 'Why did he die and not me?'" he said.

That question weighed on Acevedo as he gathered here with 150 members of his former battalion, Task Force 3-15, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the day they and other soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division captured Saddam Hussein's government complex and toppled his regime.

Task Force 3-15 battled furiously that day to keep a crucial highway into Baghdad open to deliver fuel and ammunition to two other battalions that had fought their way into the capital.

In 2003, Aaron Polsgrove was a 26-year-old captain with no combat experience. He led the supply convoy that was riddled with grenade and small-arms fire. Moments after Stever was hit, a second soldier, Sgt. 1st Class John Marshall of Los Angeles, was cut in half by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Marshall had taken the captain's place at the head of the convoy. "It should have been me," Polsgrove said.

Polsgrove, arm in arm with his wife, Wendy, found Marshall's marker beneath tree No. 29.

Polsgrove left the Army nearly eight years ago, but he has never quite let go of Iraq. He remembers that wrenching day outside Baghdad when he had to leave Marshall's remains on the highway to get his men out of the kill zone.

"I had dreams about it every single night for more than a year," Polsgrove said. "I was so angry — I was just looking for an excuse to blow someone away."

His wife squeezed his hand. "It took a long time for me to get Aaron back," she said.

Photos of Stever, 36, and Marshall, 50, were projected on a video screen at a battalion dinner in a hotel ballroom. Some of the soldiers and their wives wept as a tribute to the dead was read aloud.

Later the men shared battle stories, hugging old friends and joking about expanding paunches and receding hairlines. They downed beers and remembered where they were 10 years ago on April 7 — at Objectives Moe, Larry or Curly, three highway interchanges where they were outnumbered.

Snapshots of smoky battle scenes played out on the video screen, a reminder that Iraq and Afghanistan are the first wars so thoroughly documented by warriors themselves. Soldiers sent in more than 4,500 photos for the slide show, said Capt. Bevan Stansbury, who helped organize the reunion.

Battalion members have scattered over the years, but few have escaped the debilitating costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They've suffered lost limbs, post-traumatic stress disorder and deep emotional scarring. The soldiers of 3-15 have seen more good friends killed or wounded. They have served multiple deployments, with some families breaking under the strain.

At least three-fourths of the soldiers at the reunion are out of the Army now, raising families and pursuing civilian careers.

Polsgrove was ordered to return to Iraq in 2004. His firstborn son was just a month old. "I looked down at that little baby in my arms and it was a very easy decision," he recalled. "I got out."

Robert Gallagher, who was a command sergeant major in 2003, spoke of "wounds above the shoulder." He has hearing loss and a traumatic brain injury from combat explosions.

"Look out for one another," Gallagher told his men at the dinner. "Don't forget the past, but don't live in the past."

Many at the gathering had earned Purple Hearts, including Acevedo, who was wounded by shrapnel from the grenade that killed Stever.

"Nobody in the last 10 years has done what you guys accomplished — that's your legacy," Ronny Johnson told them. In 2003, Johnson was a captain who led a rescue convoy that rushed to the aid of soldiers in danger of being overrun at Moe, Larry and Curly.

Few cared to speak of today's Iraq, with its ethnic bloodletting and tight kinship with Iran.

"I don't watch the news about Iraq anymore," Acevedo said. "I'll never forget it, but I don't want to hear about it."

Acevedo said he was diagnosed with PTSD, and for years he saw a psychiatrist. He considered his visit to Warriors Walk, where fallen soldiers from Ft. Stewart are honored, a form of therapy.

At Stever's marker, soldiers and their wives stood quietly next to Acevedo, who stared at dog tags that dangled from the redbud.

"Something has to be said," Acevedo said, breaking the silence. He paused and added, "I was the last one to see him alive."

"Stever and Marshall were doing what a warrior and a man is supposed to do — they did their duty," Acevedo said. "If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here.... Sometimes I wish it was me and not them."

He wept as he glanced down the straight rows of redbuds.

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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