On Feb. 2, M-1 driver Cpl. Walter Howard, 35, was maneuvering his tank against insurgents near the town of Balad when an IED exploded, killing him instantly. At his memorial service today, officers and soldiers wept and held each other. A general, colonels and sergeants major clapped shoulders and doled out hugs. An entire battalion and their brigade leadership poured out their hearts. It was hard to watch.Howard, a former Seabee with a wife and a daughter, is the first fatality suffered by Alpha Company, 1-8 Infantry, which since December has occupied a crappy little FOB called McKenzie, where MREs pass for food, the mud is ankle-deep and the mood is plain glum. Theirs is the bad side of Balad; almost every day they take fire from disaffected Sunnis in the city's suburbs. IEDs are a constant threat. And while everyone hopes that Howard will be the only KIA here, most know better.Still, every day Alpha Company rides out in their Humvees, M-2 Bradleys and tanks. Every day they walk the area's filthy streets, knocking on doors or kicking them down, following leads, rounding up bad guys and doing what they can to win the hearts of these poor, untrusting people. Every day they face death side by side, motivated in part by patriotism, duty, pay, their desire to help Iraqis or a lack of anything better to do, but mostly by their love for each other and their refusal to let each other down.Never mind radio jammers, armored vehicles and drones. Never mind multi-billion-dollar programs like FBCB2 and Blue Force Tracker. The real secret weapon of this nasty little war is the young grunt on the ground, the guy who faces Iraq's million little problems with a million little solutions of his own, every day for a year at a time, and who -- while folks back home decry the monetary cost of this war -- bears the true cost, in his blood.God bless the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.-- David Axe
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