Excerpt: 'The Long Road Home'

Separated from the wounded soldiers, on a stretcher next to the outside wall of the aid station, Captain Trent Upton saw what was unmistakably a dead soldier. Medics who first examined him had pulled the soldier's camouflage top and T-shirt up and over his face, pinning his arms in a grimly unnatural position. Upton, who was supposed to be keeping track of the dead and wounded, called quickly for the chaplain. Ramon Pena, like almost all the soldiers at Camp War Eagle, was so new to this base that he hadn't even known where the aid station was located, and had to be guided there when the word came that a platoon had been ambushed. Now the chaplain looked down at the soldier stiffening in front of him and remembered the prayer he had recited to the men of Alpha Company just an hour before, when they had left the base on their ill-fated rescue mission.

Lord, protect us. Give us the angels you have promised and bring peace to these soldiers as they go out. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

These words haunted the chaplain as he took hold of the dead soldier's hand and watched as Upton gently pulled down the T-shirt and uniform top covering the face. Pena didn't know the soldier, but Upton recognized him instantly. It was Specialist Stephen Hiller, twenty-four years old, from a small town in Alabama. Hiller had just announced that his wife, Lesley, was pregnant again.

Upton knelt at Hiller's side and put a hand on his shoulder as the chaplain, clutching Hiller's fingers in his own, administered last rites. Then the men covered the young soldier in a thick flowered blanket -- the kind found in nearly every Iraqi home.

Colonel Abrams stood nearby frozen for a moment as he watched Chaplain Pena and Captain Upton move between the dead and the wounded. With the muffled sound of tank fire close by and soldiers still trapped in the city, Abrams, cursing, mumbled a quiet plea. "Damn, this is bad, this is really bad, but please, God, I hope this is all of them. Let this be all of them."

Less than four miles away, at the center of the action, Lieutenant Shane Aguero and his platoon were huddled on a rooftop as the smack of automatic weapons grew louder in the narrow alleyway below. Humvees burned in the distance -- the same vehicles his men had escaped not long before. Frenzied crowds now surrounded the vehicles.

Aguero was only dimly aware of a thick line of blood making its way down the left side of his face as he watched the tracer rounds streak across the deepening gray sky. Despite the approaching waves of armed militia, or perhaps because of them, the lieutenant's eyes were drawn briefly to the sight of a bird -- a sparrow, he thought -- arcing low and untouched beneath the gunfire. For some reason, the bird carried Aguero's thoughts back home, away from the battle, away from his soldiers now trapped in this Sadr City firefight, to the warning his wife had given him when he left her outside their home near Fort Hood, Texas, just a few weeks before.

"In every war," she had cautioned, "there is always a platoon that gets pinned down. Don't let it be your platoon."

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