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After his death, Sgt. Mock's words mean even more

By Arwa Damon
CNN
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. CNN correspondent Arwa Damon has been based in Baghdad since March 2003.

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- I was scrolling through the Pentagon's list of American troops killed in action in October, trying to determine how many deaths were caused by roadside bombs and how many by small-arms fire.

That's when I came across the name of Army Sgt. Willsun Mock, 23, of Harper, Kansas.

The realization that he died crashed down on me. (Watch Mock describe the thoughts and fears of a soldier at war -- 4:11)

I flashed back to the moment that I saw the news release on October 22 of a "MND-B soldier killed by roadside bomb in eastern Baghdad. The name of the deceased is being withheld pending notification of the next of kin." A colleague had said at the time: "That's 11 this weekend."

Number 11 was Mock, a soldier I met in the fall of 2004.

I really got to know Mock, ­as his comrades called him, as a specialist during the infamous November 2004 Falluja offensive.

He would be on the gun on overnight duty, and I would be trying to send our stories back to CNN's Atlanta headquarters under a clear starry night that was in utter and complete contrast to the sounds of bombs raining destruction on the city.

The battle, the bonds between people, the bizarre conversations, the little snapshot memories -- all rushed back.

Mock had no pretenses: Not about the mission and not about why he loved being a soldier despite all the emotional turmoil.

Nothing hit me like watching the interviews and the video of Mock. Words that he said back then are now haunting, chilling,and heartbreaking.

"Your heart is racing so fast you are not sure what happened until you sit down later and think about it and figure everything out," he once said. "Moments like that, the artillery whistling overhead like someone is whistling 'Dixie' and it explodes...."

Mock paused, like he always did, contemplating his words, "Moments like that ..."

'Everybody walked away changed'

He used to say he was afraid to go back home to Kansas, worried that the war had changed him too much.

"I think not only me has changed, I think that everybody that was there, enemy, friendly, everybody walked away changed," he said.

"The ways that we changed, you have a different outlook on life. You don't take nearly as much for granted, and when you tell your girlfriend or your mother, your father, 'Hey -- I love you,' you really mean it."

Those were his words just days after the fight for Falluja ended.

He used to apologize for being "rough around the edges." He wasn't. In many ways, he was still the gentleman his family had brought him up to be.

'Nobody wants to die'

Certain words ­that he uttered with such certainty and air of pensiveness now carried so much more meaning.

"Nobody wants to die out here even though the soldiers would for our country. Any of them would -- that's not a question," he said as his first deployment came to an end in February 2005.

And for him it was "absolutely" worth it.

"It would break my heart to see one of my brothers in the military serving in a place like this," he said when asked why he would stay in the military. "I would much rather myself suffer than one of them, and they have kids to think about, and I'm a little young for that right now. And it's good serving with the men; it's good serving for this great nation."

What would stick with him after he departed Iraq for the first time?

"Every time we lose soldiers and we have our ceremonies here for the fallen comrades and they play the taps for those men -- that's probably the moments that will stay in my mind more than ever," he said. "From now until the day that I die, every Memorial Day and Veterans Day when I go to the local cemetery in Harper, Kansas, and they play the taps, I am sure it will hit me pretty hard then."

Now, this Veterans Day, they will be playing taps for him -- for Mock, ­ the soldier with his motto tattooed under his sleeves -- "Strength and Honor." The sweet, brave 23-year-old from Harper, Kansas.

Mock was redeployed to Iraq in August 2006. I last saw him on a rooftop in eastern Baghdad in early October after one of his men was wounded by an insurgent sniper.

His last words to me were, "Take care of yourself. It's dangerous out there. Keep your head down." Twenty days later, he died when a roadside bomb went off.

The words echoed by his men at his memorial were "Strength and Honor, Sgt. Mock."

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Army Sgt. Willsun Mock, 23, of Harper, Kansas, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq on October 22.

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