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U.S. soldiers confront dangers despite declaration of victory

TIKRIT, Iraq—He was the quiet one.

Laid back and quick with a smile, friends said Pfc. Jesse Halling didn't seem like the typical soldier.

But when the bullets flew and the other soldiers in his 401st Military Police Company needed him, Halling didn't falter. He didn't duck behind the shield atop his truck. He aimed his .50 caliber machine gun and fired, quickly using up a box of ammunition and then reloading.

As more bullets came, he yelled at a friend to stay down, probably saving that man's life.

It cost him his own. Halling, 19, from Indianapolis, died on June 7 during a firefight in Tikrit that left five other soldiers injured.

President Bush declared victory in Iraq more than a month ago, but soldiers in Iraq say the war is far from over. They're taking and returning gunfire almost nightly and sending friends home in body bags. In the past two weeks, 10 soldiers have been killed and dozens wounded in enemy attacks.

On Tuesday, about 200 soldiers, Iraqi police and Tikrit officials braved the afternoon sun to honor Halling, whose unit was based at Ft. Hood, Texas. Standing on the grounds of one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, overlooking the green twists of the Tigris River, they wiped sweat from their brows and tears from their faces as Halling was remembered as someone who "died for the most noble of causes—to protect his fellow soldiers."

"He saved our lives," said Sgt. Angel Cedeno, who heeded Halling's call to stay down and believes he's alive today because of it. "Not once did he get down from the turret as some people do. Just thinking about him not coming down, firing away and doing exactly what he was supposed to do, yeah, I'm proud of him."

Some soldiers say they're worried that they've been forgotten and their war relegated to the back pages. They fear people don't realize how horrible it is—bullets cracking against metal, jarring explosions, the screams and shouts of fellow soldiers, blinding lights.

"We're getting shot at here. Friends are dying. Mothers and fathers, everyone," said Pfc. John Jones, Halling's roommate and close friend. "They say back home that the war is over, but they don't have to drive by there every day."

"There" is the Civilian Military Operations Center (CMOC) in Tikrit where Halling was fatally wounded. On the early morning of June 7, he was the gunner in a Humvee that included Cedeno and 1st Lieutenant Roscoe Woods. It was a routine night: after finishing a convoy escort, the team had stopped for food and a break.

"It was normal, like every day, and then we heard the explosion and people screaming," Cedeno said.

A rocket-propelled grenade had exploded within the gated CMOC area, wounding five people. Small-arms fire was everywhere. Cedeno and his team rushed to the site and joined the battle.

"All you could see was Jesse's weapon going off," Jones said. "You could see the tracer rounds."

Jones said the battle seemed to last forever—20 minutes, 30 minutes; others said it was over in half that time. What's certain is that another rocket-propelled grenade was fired and exploded near Halling's vehicle. About the same time, Woods noticed that Halling had stopped firing his gun and appeared slouched over, although he was still on his feet.

"I said, `He's hit! He's hit!'" Woods said. "He didn't even scream when he got hit. He was just quiet."

Cedeno pulled at Halling's jacket and the soldier came crumpling down. He died a short time later.

On Tuesday, Cedeno, his voice sometimes choked with emotion, praised Halling's dedication to duty.

"He told me he never wanted to let me down, the platoon down, the team down, and he never did," Cedeno said. "I'll miss looking down on him at the gun, but I know he's looking down on us right now."

The hard part, the soldiers said, is moving on, fighting the good fight in a country that seems increasingly hostile. And they miss their friend Jesse, who dreamed of being a pilot, like his father, a retired Marine Corps major, and who talked incessantly about going home and working on his 2001 black Camaro.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.