BOB WILLIAMSON KNOWS about war. The World War II veteran served in the South Pacific from 1943 to 1946 with the U.S. Navy. Now, more than half a century later, Washington is finally memorializing the 292,131 fallen American fighters who helped to crush the Axis powers. On May 29, the American Battle Monuments Commission will dedicate the new National World War II Memorial, a regal display of reflecting pools, bronze columns, and historic inscriptions situated between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
For Mr. Williamson the tribute was long overdue. The veteran, now in his 70s and living in Illinois, visited the new memorial earlier this month with Marie, his wife of 58 years. But while he is proud to have served in the fighting force that NBC anchor Tom Brokaw dubbed the "Greatest Generation," Mr. Williamson thinks today's U.S. military is tougher, more professional, and better trained than the military of his day. They also have it tougher, he says, fighting an enemy that doesn't wear a uniform and hides in the shadows.
Mrs. Williamson, meanwhile, worries that at least half of Americans don't understand what's at stake in the war in Iraq. "Freedom," she said, "is an expensive commodity."
As of May 19, 791 military service members had paid the price-and every one of them volunteered. Unlike previous declared wars, none of the American warriors now fighting and dying to keep terror from U.S. shores was drafted. And all who volunteered for the Army or Marine Corps since Sept. 11, 2001, knew they were signing up for more than college or job training or tickets out of dead-end towns: They knew they would likely be called to lay their lives on the line. Some died living out the biblical sentiment expressed in John 15:13: "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends."
Army Private First Class Jesse Halling did. He was only 19. As a kindergartner, the boy from Indianapolis liked to draw pictures of jets, helicopters, and tanks. As soon as he could, he enlisted in the Army.
Assigned to the 401st Military Police Company in Ft. Hood, Texas, Pfc. Halling's unit came under fire on June 7, 2003, in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. Manning the turret of his Humvee, Pfc. Halling ordered his squad mates to take cover while he returned fire. When the turret-mounted M-60 machine gun ran out of bullets, he grabbed his M-16 and kept firing, while trying to reload the M-60 and shouting out the location of the enemy, and where to return fire.
The Army credits the teenager with saving the lives of three to five other men. Pfc. Halling refused to leave his post, holding off enemy forces until shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade cut him down.
At a memorial service last June, friends described Pfc. Halling as a typical fun-loving teen who liked trucks and fast motorcycles. He was handsome they said-"a chick magnet." Pam Hallings, the soldier's mother, still gazes at her son every day. She keeps a picture of him on her computer at work that shows Jesse, surrounded by smiling Iraqi children. "Sometimes I look at it and I lose it," she told the Indianapolis Star in March. "He's smiling, and all the kids are smiling. It's a beautiful picture.... [But] it's hard to see his face and think that he's gone."
Jason Dunham is gone, too. Just 22, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2000, right after graduating from high school in Scio, N.Y. In school, Jason wasn't shy: In third grade, he once declared his affection for a female classmate, sending her a note that said, "Come on and kiss me, baby." In high school, he was a star athlete but not prideful, the type to befriend and help out underclassmen when other older students would ignore them.
That's why no one in Scio was surprised to learn that on April 14, Cpl. Dunham sacrificed himself to save two fellow marines. A machine gunner and squadron leader, Cpl. Dunham was guarding a vehicle checkpoint in Karbala along with two other marines under his command. According to a Marine Corps report, a car pulled up to the checkpoint and a man got out and started running. Cpl. Dunham tackled the man, who then pulled a pin from a grenade. The marine threw himself between the grenade and his men before it exploded. Mortally wounded, Cpl. Dunham died eight days later. His sacrificial heroism saved the lives of the other two marines, who are now recovering from wounds sustained in the attack.
On May 2, more than 1,000 friends and family packed the Scio High School gym where Cpl. Dunham had played basketball. While it rained outside, Rev. Ron Sellers told mourners that their friend had died as he lived: "Caring more for others than himself. Putting the safety of others before his own."
Army Specialist Todd M. Bates, 20, also put others before himself. Assigned to an Army National Guard unit based in Brookpark, Ohio, the Bellaire, Ohio, native was on a patrol on the Tigris River south of Baghdad on Dec. 10 when Staff Sgt. Aaron T. Reese fell overboard. Spc. Bates immediately plunged into the water to try to rescue his squad leader, but did not come back up again. Both men drowned.
Before his death, Spc. Bates wrote to his grandmother from Iraq, telling the woman who raised him that he was grateful for his upbringing. "He said when he saw the kids over there, he appreciated all the things he had," his grandmother said.
"Todd always wanted to be somebody," said the Rev. Don Cordery, the soldier's high school football team chaplain. Spc. Bates succeeded in that goal, Rev. Cordery said, becoming "an American hero."
Army Chief Warrant Officer Chuck Fortenberry had made a career of defending Americans. A devout Christian, the Apache helicopter pilot had spent years patrolling the Korean DMZ. He didn't have to go to Iraq. With 19 years of service, he was eligible for retirement and could have put in his paperwork. Instead, he decided to stick with his unit because, his father Kenneth said, "He felt he might save lives."
He was right. His bird, the AH-64 Apache gunship, is the terror of enemy ground forces. The helicopter can fire on two targets simultaneously and hit one the size of a man from a mile away. CWO Fortenberry, 38, and his gunner CWO Shane Colton, 32, were on a different mission when on April 11 they received a "9-1-1" call from an Army fuel convoy pinned down by enemy fire near Fallujah. With another Apache on their wing, CWOs Fortenberry and Colton broke off and sped toward the battle. Their mission: Draw fire toward themselves and away from the convoy.
The convoy of 29 to 30 Army reservists had been trundling over the desert on a supply mission when a force of 100 to 300 Muslim insurgents attacked them. In the ensuing two-hour firefight the Americans were running out of ammo. One young reservist who later e-mailed Kenneth Fortenberry said he had fired more than 600 rounds, and had only two ammo clips left when the Apaches roared in.
The choppers churned in low, strafing the enemy with cannon fire. As a convoy commander radioed enemy positions from the ground, CWO Fortenberry dove and banked, rounding on the targets again and again, crafting clear shots for CWO Colton. Suddenly a surface-to-air missile streaked toward the Apache and slammed into its tail boom. Still, CWO Fortenberry banked and headed in again as CWO Colton kept on firing. Finally, according to an eyewitness, the Apache's top rotor stalled and the ship plunged to earth, exploding on impact.
CWOs Fortenberry and Colton died on Easter morning, but they saved an entire unit. E-mails and phone calls that have streamed into the Fortenberry family strike one universal theme: If it hadn't been for the Apaches, the whole convoy would likely have been lost.
Asked what he'd like Americans to remember about his son, Kenneth Fortenberry said, "that he performed his duty honorably ... everything he did, he had service to the Lord in mind."
The Fortenberrys are coping with their grief by trying to stay busy. CWO Fortenberry left behind Cynthia, his wife of 12 years, and three sons, Benjamin, Alex, and Nicholas. "I didn't know what grief was until this happened," his dad said. But he explained one source of solace: "There are four families that are grief-stricken over the loss of Chuck and Shane. But if they hadn't sacrificed themselves, there would have been 60 families going through what we're going through. That gives me some comfort."
Shane Colton's parents, meanwhile, draw comfort from the tight-knit squadron that has enfolded Mr. Colton's wife Inga, son Lance, 11, and parents Loren and Cathy Nix. One officer in particular reached out to Mr. Colton's family. On March 23, 2003, during one of the war's earliest battles, Apache pilot CWO David Williams was among seven Americans taken prisoner: their pictures in captivity were broadcast around the world. Twenty-one days later, U.S. Marines rescued all seven POWs. By military tradition, when a U.S. prisoner of war is freed, a close friend, often someone from his own unit, goes with him to ease the journey home. For Mr. Williams, Shane Colton was that man.
In April, when he learned CWO Colton had perished in action, Mr. Williams contacted the Nixes and asked to go to Dover AFB, Md., identify his friend's body, and bring him back to his family. "Shane brought me home last year," Mr. Williams told Mr. Nix. "I'm going to bring Shane home this year."