NEWPORT NEWS -- The U.S is drawing down its forces in Afghanistan. Talk in Congress has turned toward budget cuts and fewer troops.
But at Fort Eustis, this period will go down as its darkest chapter in the 12-year war terror.
Three soldiers from a single company were killed between June 18 and July 27. It is believed to be the worst single period for this Army post since the 9/11 attacks, all focused on a tight-knit transportation company doing one of the war's most dangerous jobs: providing security for convoys.
First came Sgt. Justin R. Johnson, who died from indirect fire at Bagram Air Base in June. Then last weekend, the same company lost two more soldiers when their vehicle was attacked by an improvised explosive device and small arms fire.
Spc. Caryn Nouv and Sgt. Eric T. Lawson left behind families with children, as did Johnson.
A list of the fallen kept by the Daily Press shows that Fort Eustis last suffered casualties in 2008, when two soldiers were killed in Iraq. Other soldiers died in action in earlier incidents, but never three in such a short period.
It is a heartbreaking reminder of something that soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines know all too well.
Capt. Justin Macht at Fort Eustis put it this way: "As you're drawing down, things still happen," he said. "Just because we're drawing down doesn't mean they're drawing down."
The three soldiers belonged to the 359th Transportation Company, which deployed to Afghanistan in January.
The 359th is a close-knit group, said 1st Sgt. Darwin Barcus, who is with the company's rear detachment while the others are deployed. At Johnson's memorial service, Barcus provided the most emotional moment as he barked out the roll call, when he shouted Johnson's name and was greeted by silence.
On Wednesday, he reflected on this latest loss, and two soldiers he knew.
"A happy mother, a happy father," he said.
Both Nouv and Lawson made their mark with their personalties, he said.
"With Specialist Nouv, it was a laughter you can't forget," he said. "It was one of those unique smiles. From a distance, you know it's her."
Sgt. Lawson was a fun-talking type who would tease Barcus -- a big bear of a man -- by saying, "Now I'm a small guy, but if I put these vise grips on you, it's going to be something different now," Barcus recalled.
The 359th still has time left on its deployment, and its officers face a new challenge, said Macht.
"As an officer, you really have to stay strong for the unit," he said. "You have to continue the mission. You've got to be able to guide them so they don't fall out and don't fall behind."
An even bigger challenge may come later, after the soldiers complete their mission, arrive home and have time to reflect. That's when the mind starts to "race and think," Barcus said.
Regardless, the homecoming of the 359th promises to be a different sort of event, as many families celebrate a well-deserved reunion against the backdrop of loss.
"When they return from that deployment, it's going to be a devastating blow," he said. "Everybody will look for everybody to walk through that door, including those three individuals, three highly professional, well-respected soldiers."'
And although Johnson, Nouv and Lawson won't be there, Barcus said, "They'll be standing tall right there with them -- even if they're not there in person."