Sgt. Rocco Elia, Sgt. Joe Bolland, and Spc. Chris Antoniou, left to right, pose with a painting done by Sgt. Aaron Anslow to honor a fellow 660th Transportation Company soldier killed while on duty in Iraq.

Sgt. Rocco Elia, Sgt. Joe Bolland, and Spc. Chris Antoniou, left to right, pose with a painting done by Sgt. Aaron Anslow to honor a fellow 660th Transportation Company soldier killed while on duty in Iraq. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

LOGISTICS SUPPORT AREA ANACONDA, Iraq — Since arriving in Iraq in February, the soldiers of the 660th Transportation Company pray together before every mission that takes them out on the country’s dangerous roads.

Now, with nearly 1 million miles behind them and four lives lost on those roads, they’ve added to their pre-convoy ritual.

“We give each other a big hug,” said Sgt. Joe Bolland, 26, a cop back in Coraopolis, Pa.

The 660th, a U.S. Army Reserve unit from Zanesville, Ohio, part of the 7th Transportation Battalion, arrived in Iraq with 144 soldiers. As of mid-December, the company was down 26 soldiers.

“What are we down to — 118?” Sgt. Rocco Elia asked Spc. Chris Antoniou, who nodded.

Three soldiers were killed in action and a fourth died in a traffic accident. Others have gone home with serious wounds.

Company soldiers have been awarded more than 30 Purple Hearts. Some of the awards are still pending.

The soldiers live in a warehouse on the far side of the base. They’ve divided the space into individual quarters and decorated them like college dorm rooms. Because they are so far from the main part of the base, their food is delivered to their private dining area.

“We’re the tightest company in the battalion,” said Capt. Joe Shalosky, the company commander.

The 660th carries fuel and escorts contracted trucks all across Iraq. The first month in Iraq was easy. There were no roadside bombs and no ambushes from palm groves.

“They’ve spent long nights on the road together,” Shalosky said.

But the unit’s sense of security was shattered in April when Spc. Jason Goldsmith was injured by a landmine. He was taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for treatment.

The next month, the company suffered its first death. Sgt. James Harlan, 44, a father of five, was killed May 14 when an abandoned vehicle blew up as his vehicle passed.

“We were on the road together,” said Antoniou, 37, a steel worker and motorcycle mechanic from West Virginia. “I was probably four vehicles behind him.”

The convoy commander had called on the radio to watch out for the abandoned vehicle, a favorite hiding place for roadside bombs.

“As soon as she got done saying that, the [bomb] went up,” Antoniou said.

Harlan, from Owensboro, Ky., was taken to the combat support hospital in Baghdad, where he died four hours after surgery.

“He was a good guy. He was just real,” Antoniou said. “He spoke what was on his mind. He was just a good old boy from Kentucky. Everybody loved him.”

“You could always guarantee you were going to laugh your ass off when he was around,” he said.

On Sept. 18, Spc. Allen Nolan was fatally injured when a roadside bomb blew up as his vehicle passed. He was 38, had two kids and was two weeks away from going home on leave to Marietta, Ohio.

Elia, 33, and Nolan had been buddies for eight years. Their families know each other. They planned to vacation together next summer. Elia was in the gun truck behind Nolan when the bomb blew. He went with Nolan to the hospital.

“We got to say we love each other to each other,” Elia said. “He asked me to pray with him. I couldn’t touch him. He was burned all over. I could touch him on the chest.”

Nolan died on Sept. 30 in a hospital at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

“Spc. Nolan, he volunteered for every mission,” Elia said. “He’d get mad if he wasn’t put on a mission. He considered it a slap in the face.”

Instead of a vacation with his buddy, Elia plans to visit Nolan’s grave when he returns to Ohio.

“I think that’s going to be tough,” he said, “seeing his name on the headstone.”

When a roadside bomb killed Staff Sgt. Richard Morgan, 38, of Clairsville, Ohio, on Oct. 5, Bolland saw it happen. Morgan had welcomed Bolland to the unit back in 1998. Morgan came to his room every night in Iraq and played Play Station, sometimes while Bolland was trying to sleep.

“He was the convoy commander. He was in the lead vehicle,” Bolland said. “I was in the truck right behind him.”

When Bolland saw Morgan’s vehicle disappear in a cloud of dust on the dark Iraqi night, he knew it was bad. But Bolland couldn’t stop.

“The hardest thing was knowing I had to keep going. I couldn’t stop to see if they were all right,” Bolland said. “I was the lead military vehicle. I floored it as fast as it could go. I told everyone to stay to the right [because] there was a vehicle down on the left.”

Bolland pulled into a Marine Corps checkpoint a couple of miles down the road and gathered the trucks together. A senior noncommissioned officer told them Morgan was dead.

“He asked me to say a prayer and, needless to say, it was the hardest prayer I’ve ever given,” he said. “I got maybe three words out and I broke down.”

Bolland, a bugle player, played taps at the memorial services for all four company soldiers, including Staff Sgt. Donald Davis, 42, of Saginaw, Mich., who was killed Aug. 24 when his truck overturned on a detour route near Fallujah.

Bolland was given the option of not playing at Morgan’s service because they were close friends.

“I said I wouldn’t want anyone else to do it,” Bolland said. “He was my sergeant, my friend. I can’t think of anything better than to play taps for him.”

“It hadn’t sunk in until I realized he wasn’t coming over to play PlayStation,” Bolland said.

The 660th Transportation Company soldiers make no bones about it. They love each other.

Their pre-mission prayers and hugs express a bonding that happens only in combat and continues after the battles are over.

The soldiers admit they didn’t know what to expect when they arrived nearly a year ago. But they remember the words of an NCO while they trained in the States for the mission.

“Trust me when I tell you,” he said to them, “we’re not all coming back.”

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