‘Am I Next?’

At dawn, Miller and his platoon awaken from a rough slumber cramped inside Humvees or stretched out on the packed dirt of an austere Army base in eastern Ramadi known as Combat Outpost. The base has no running water, only a few wooden latrines, and is regularly pounded by mortars…

Under the glare of a midmorning sun, Staff Sgt. Jody Hayes stands sweating in the hatch of his M-113 armored vehicle, scanning for insurgents. Hayes and his Iowa National Guard crew have been stalled for nearly 30 minutes on a risky, slow-moving mission to clear road bombs, and he’s getting nervous.

Suddenly he hears the snap of a sniper’s bullet flying past his head. The round pierces the neck of the soldier next to him, Spec. John Miller, entering the two-inch gap between his Kevlar vest collar and helmet.

“Get down!” Hayes yells. Miller falls heavily against Hayes’s leg, and at first Hayes believes his friend is taking cover. “Man, he got down pretty quick,” he recalls thinking. Then he glances down and sees Miller bleeding at his feet. …

“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. ..

Spec. John Wayne Miller was killed by sniper fire in Ramadi, Iraq, on April 12.

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. ..

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. ..

“What sucks the most,” says Miller’s platoon leader, Lt. Tom Lafave, of Escanaba, Mich., “is we sweep an area and five hours later an IED goes off in the same spot.”

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?’ ” ..

The shock is compounded by the loss just weeks earlier of the platoon’s commander, 2nd Lt. Richard B. Gienau, 29, of Peoria, Ill., and Sgt. Seth K. Garceau, 27, of Oelwein, Iowa, when their Humvee was hit by a large road bomb. ..

Edgington, so traumatized by the losses that he has been unable to go on missions, is one of hundreds of soldiers in Iraq being treated for combat stress each month, even as they confront new dangers every day in the war zone. ..

Edgington is the sole survivor to stay in Iraq from the IED attack Feb. 27 that killed Gienau and Garceau and wounded two other soldiers. He says he still dreams about the attack nightly, disturbed above all by his last glimpse of his commander. After the bomb exploded and the dust cleared, he found Gienau lying in his lap. “I remember looking for blood, and all it looked like was a little scrape on his scalp. He really looked like he had put his head in my lap and gone to sleep,” he recalls. ..

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