LEE HOCHBERG: Soldiers and family members wept openly as they filed past memorials to the six servicemen killed in the mess hall bombing in Mosul on Dec. 21. Six rifles with helmets atop them represented the fallen soldiers. With each, an empty pair of combat boots.
The six deaths brought to 37 the number of Fort Lewis soldiers lost in Iraq since March of 2003. These latest victims were members of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, called the Stryker Brigade for the new light armored vehicles it uses.
They died when a suicide bomber, apparently dressed in an Iraqi military uniform, walked into their mess tent around noontime and detonated, killing 22 people, including 14 members of the U.S. Military. It was the most deadly attack so far at a U.S. Military base in Iraq.
MAJ. TIMOTHY GAUTHEIR: When the phone rang in the early hours of the 21st, the brigade XO said, "It's very bad. You need to get in here right now." Little did I know how bad it was.
LEE HOCHBERG: Hundreds of friends, families and fatigue-clad soldiers packed the field house at Fort Lewis last week, to hear commanders and soldiers pay homage to the lost fighters. 31-year-old Capt. William Jacobsen, a father of four, was company commander. He was eulogized by fellow soldier Capt. David Barbuto.
CAPT. DAVID BARBUTO: I will never forget Bill or what he stood for, and I look forward to the time that I will get to see my friend again. I will shake his hand and give him a hug and tell him how much we all missed him.
LEE HOCHBERG: Twenty two-year-old Private First-Class Lionel Ayro of Louisiana had enlisted in 2002, with hopes of earning a college scholarship. He was remembered by a friend, Sgt. Efrain Rodriguez.
SGT. EFRAIN RODRIGUEZ: He was a man that would cry when he saw the "Lion King," a man that was devoted to his mother, a man who believed in everything he was doing, a man that one day was going to own his own trucking business.
LEE HOCHBERG: Staff Sgt. Julian Melo, 47, a Panamanian supply specialist from Brooklyn, New York, died on his ninth wedding anniversary. His commander, Capt. David Iannuccilli:
CAPT. DAVID IANNUCCILLI: Everyone who knew him will remember his spirit and joy. Until we join Julian in the next life, we'll never know why such a good man was taken from us so tragically.
LEE HOCHBERG: There was no mention in the service of the controversy over why the tragedy did happen and the apparent security breach which allowed the suicide bomber to enter the mess hall.
Some soldiers had complained that the mess tent, less than a quarter of a mile from the edge of the base, was a target for rocket attacks from insurgents outside. They also said that the U.S. Military's attempts to train and work with Iraqi soldiers left them vulnerable to the kind of suicide attack that eventually took place.
Fort Lewis' commander deferred all questions to commanders in Iraq. Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik:
LT. GEN. JIM DUBIK: Let them comment on that, let them decide what adjustments to make, if any. It would be, for me, inappropriate to try to second- guess someone 10,000 miles away with much more information than I have.
SOLDIER: Staff Sgt. Johnson. Staff Sgt. Johnson.
LEE HOCHBERG: But for some, that lack of an answer was every bit as hard to bear as the traditional mournful roll call, in which the names of the dead soldiers went unanswered.
SOLDIER: Specialist Castro. Specialist Castro. Specialist Jonathan Castro.
LEE HOCHBERG: Friends of 21-year- old combat engineer Jonathan Castro grieved his loss, but his family didn't attend the Fort Lewis memorial. They held their own service instead near their hometown of Corona, California. His mother spoke.
VICKI CASTRO: I grieve for those families that are going through the same pain that we are. I grieve for a country that is losing so many promising men and women. I grieve for a world that thinks conflicts can be solved at gunpoint.
LEE HOCHBERG: Vicki Castro and her husband Jorge eulogized their son as a creative, intelligent boy who designed and built unusual bicycles, cars, even an electric guitar.
He had completed his three-year stateside hitch, but had been extended under the military's stop-loss program and sent to Iraq in October. Once there, he told his mother he and other soldiers were concerned about security risks, that the army was allowing a large number of Iraqis to work on base.
VICKI CASTRO: He was just sitting down having lunch. They cost my son his life, because they wanted to have the Iraqi National Guard sitting there eating lunch with them. We're not there to socialize. That isn't why we went there.
LEE HOCHBERG: Although she's a Republican, she holds Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld personally accountable for her son's death. But she doubts government investigators examining the security breach will agree.
VICKI CASTRO: Somebody's making decisions that are the wrong decisions here. I mean, somebody has got to admit that this was a wrong decision, to allow these guys to come and sit and eat with hundreds of our men. Their goal is to attack us. And I'm sorry, that decision was the wrong decision. And I think that there should be some accountability here.
LEE HOCHBERG: She says if there's to be any legacy of her son's death, it would be for the U.S. to end its involvement in Iraq and for the troops to come home now. ( 21-gun salute ) But at Fort Lewis, there was resolve to continue the fight.
First Sgt. Carlon Addison:
FIRST SGT. CARLON ADDISON: We know our mission must continue. These men would have done the same and expect nothing less of us. Staff Sgt. Johnson, Corporal Castro and Specialist Ayro, we love and miss you, but we will continue our mission here in Iraq because of you.
LEE HOCHBERG: The community's agony won't end soon. As the mourning for the six soldiers continued, there was another military death this weekend. A 26-year-old National Guardsman based at Fort Lewis was killed on foot patrol Dec. 30, while searching for insurgents in Baghdad.