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Iraq Transition

Carrying friend in body bag haunts soldier

Story Highlights

• Soldier describes losing friend in war, carrying buddy's body back to base
• "Those images will always be in your head," Army Spc. Gerald Lee Meeks says
• Residents of Indiana town line streets to mourn loss of slain soldier
By Cal Perry
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. Army Spc. Gerald Lee Meeks says all he wanted in Iraq was to "keep everybody alive, all my buddies."

That hope was shattered last month when a roadside bomb blew up one of his best friends, and Meeks had to carry his slain buddy more than a mile back to base.

"I didn't want to believe it until I actually had to carry his body bag, which was pretty bad," he says, making a fist with his left hand and smashing it against a wall. "We had to carry him two clicks [kilometers] all the way back here."

There's a long silence as Meeks looks at two comrades. Finally, after a pause that seems like hours, he slowly says, "Those images will always be in your head. I'm sure many people over here got them, but I mean ... it just sucks. ... He has three kids and a wife."

He pauses again, correcting himself: "A widow."

His friend was Army Sgt. Robert J. Montgomery Jr., 29, of Scottsburg, Indiana. He was killed May 22 when a roadside bomb went off during a patrol not far from Fire Base Red, which is in Iraq's "Triangle of Death" about 15 miles (25 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad.

Meeks still struggles with what happened, even as he fights to survive every day.

"There's a bunch of mixed emotions going on in there," he says. "You want to scream out loud, you want to go home. ... You just hate seeing these people every day after one of your buddies dies."

Soldier part of U.S. military 'surge'

More than 3,500 U.S. troops have died in the war, including five more Thursday. Meeks is among the thousands of troops at the center of the U.S. military's "surge" -- the plan to put more boots on the ground, spread the troops out and get them into places where the military has not had a direct or consistent presence in the past.

He's a young soldier who's been worn down by the war and everything that comes with it. The 21-year-old from Spanaway, Washington, has been in Iraq for eight months, his first tour here.

On a hot day in mid-June, Meeks is planted on a corner "sniper's nest" on the rooftop of Fire Base Red. He's manning a gunning position -- keeping a close eye on the palm groves and fields in front of him. He's looking for any movement. Base troops have come under major attack already this week, and this spot is one of the most dangerous places in Iraq.

He takes his tour day by day, rarely thinking further than the next patrol, his next mission.

As Meeks speaks, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the commanding general of the 3rd Infantry Division, is nearby on the rooftop, talking with CNN correspondent Hala Gorani about the "surge" and the strategy behind it.

The military is working to establish small patrol bases such as this one and form alliances with Iraqi army units to patrol the volatile farmland and fight insurgents. But in this area, there are no Iraqi forces, Lynch says. (Watch the general describe the lack of Iraqi forces as "the problem" Video)

"We're in an extremely risky business. This is indeed combat operations that we're experiencing out here," he says.

Peering out over the vast area, Meeks gives a soldier's view. "To tell you the truth, it is one of the biggest s--- holes in Iraq. There is an IED planted everywhere," he says, referring to improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs.

The conversation is quickly interrupted by the general, who walks over to Meeks and hands him a special military coin.

"Thanks for what you're doing," Lynch says.

"Wow," Meeks responds.

Once the general walks away, Meeks looks at his two buddies in this netted fire position and adds, "That's pretty cool."

Quickly, the conversation picks up again about that fateful day when he lost his friend. Montgomery was in the lead. Meeks was five men behind him.

"The blast hit -- sharp metal went up in the air and came down. I could hear my two buddies screaming, and they were yelling Sgt. Montgomery's name," he says. "I could tell from the screams of their voices that something bad had happened."

Meeks' face slowly changes -- from remorse to sadness and slowly to anger -- as he continues.

"Our medics came rushing up with our platoon sergeant ... and, um, there was just utter silence out of him. And then I heard KIA [killed in action]."

A hero's tribute in Indiana hometown

Back in southeastern Indiana, residents on May 31 lined overpasses hanging flags and banners to honor Montgomery as his flag-draped coffin made the 20-mile journey from Freeman Field in Seymour to Scottsburg, a town of about 6,000. Montgomery was the first soldier in Scott County to die in the war.

When the body arrived in his hometown, more than 2,000 people crowded the streets, and two fire trucks formed an arch for the procession to pass through, says Mayor Bill Graham, Montgomery's uncle.

"It was overwhelming," Graham says. "The streets were lined and people were crying. An unbelievable tribute."

Montgomery was buried about a block and a half from where his mother raised him, Graham says.

"As low and as devastated as the family was, the outpouring of love and respect that the community showed helped carry the family through such a low, low time. I'm so proud of the respect shown," he says.

Montgomery's older brother, Micah, a master sergeant in the Army, came home from Iraq for the funeral, but he has since redeployed. "It was a great loss to Micah," Graham says. "His mother told him he could not go back to Iraq, but his reaction was that all of his friends and brothers were over there and he must go back."

Graham says troops in Iraq should know "that people over here support them."

"We can never thank them enough for the sacrifice they are making for freedom."


U.S. Army Spc. Gerald Lee Meeks still struggles with last month's loss of a friend, even as he fights to survive every day.


• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
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