"Am I Next?"

A day in the life of the Iowa National Guard...

I'd like to see Bush tell these guys to their face to "stay the course."

Hayes drops down and cradles Miller's head in his lap, while Dermer rips open a pressure dressing and places it on the neck wound. Each man grabs one of Miller's hands and feels for a pulse. They still haven't found one when medic Spec. Jaymie Holschlag pulls open the back door of the M-113 and rushes, breathless, to Miller's side.

"Doc," Hayes says, looking up at her. "He's gone."

Holschlag begins checking Miller's pulse herself, as if she hasn't heard.

"Doc," Hayes repeats, louder. "He's gone!"

It is 10:18 a.m. on April 12, and John Wayne Miller is no more.

In the frenzy to save Miller, no one was thinking about why the war had snatched away the gangly 21-year-old Wal-Mart stocker from West Burlington, Iowa. Only later, as darkness falls and details of the day's horrors ricochet through their camp, do that question and others begin to haunt Hayes and his tightknit Iowa platoon. With a fifth of its soldiers killed or wounded, the platoon is reeling from the trauma of repeated loss, facing a constant threat from bombs and gunfire on Ramadi's streets, or mortar strikes on their base. They are angry, anxious, wracked by guilt -- one soldier suffers from combat stress so acute that he is unable to go on missions, and stays behind camp walls.

Dermer asks bitterly why the crew had sat exposed so long, making them an easy target.

Hayes turns inward, tormented over why the sniper had set his cross hairs on Miller instead of him.

Others wonder what Miller -- who sought escape by playing video games underneath a blanket -- was doing here in the first place.

Ramadi is a grim destination for U.S. troops. No battalion stationed inside the city has so far escaped a tour without serious casualties. More than 120 troops have been killed and hundreds more wounded since the summer of 2003 -- proportionally more than in Baghdad. And not all the deaths are from combat: One homesick 19-year-old recently shot himself in the head.

Miller's platoon of the 224th Combat Engineer Battalion headed to Ramadi in late February with 31 soldiers. Six weeks later it was down to 25...

Miller's squad leader, Staff Sgt. Steve "Shaggy" Hagedorn, is more blunt. "We spent three days clearing a route and I guarantee it's worse now than when we started," he says. "So everyone's asking, 'What are we doing it for?' Everyone's asking, 'Am I next?' "


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