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The empty boots, dog tags, inverted rifles and helmets of Army National Guard Capt. Phillip T. Esposito , Esposito and First Lt. Louis E. Allen comprise a memorial on display in Tikrit, Iraq.

The empty boots, dog tags, inverted rifles and helmets of Army National Guard Capt. Phillip T. Esposito , Esposito and First Lt. Louis E. Allen comprise a memorial on display in Tikrit, Iraq. (Daniel Bailey / U.S. Army)

TIKRIT, Iraq — The room where the explosion hit has been rebuilt. The memorial ceremony here was more than a week ago. A new company commander has taken the reins.

Still, the New York National Guard members with Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 42nd Infantry Division will worry and wait for the next few months to see what happens in a military criminal case that accuses one of their own of killing two of their officers.

“This is the type of situation that just doesn’t go away,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Fearnside, the division’s ranking enlisted soldier.

Nearly three weeks ago, Capt. Phillip T. Esposito and 1st Lt. Louis E. Allen were killed in an incident near the company’s headquarters on Forward Operating Base Danger in Tikrit. Military officials first said the incident was an indirect fire attack, but later opened a criminal investigation.

Staff Sgt. Alberto B. Martinez, a supply sergeant from the same company, was charged with two counts of premeditated murder. The charges came only two days after a memorial service was held for Esposito and Allen in Tikrit.

Their deaths appear to be the first incidence in Iraq of “fragging,” military slang for the deliberate killing of a soldier’s own superior officers.

“It was a tough few days there,” said Fearnside, who is from Niskayuna, N.Y. But he and the company’s first sergeant said the soldiers are doing their best to get back to work.

“We stalled for a little bit,” said 1st Sgt. Lance Willsey, of Mechanicsville, N.Y. “But they kept the mission going. The company has to keep its mission going.”

The mission is supplying the entire division’s 23,000 soldiers with armored trucks, uniforms, office supplies, ammunition and everything else the units need to operate.

Martinez, 37, was part of that process, and he helped soldiers get what they need here. Many saw him as a friend who went out of his way to do that, one soldier said last week.

Fearnside had helped to pick Esposito, 30, well over a year ago as the company commander. Willsey, who had worked with Esposito for years in the National Guard, seconded the choice.

Allen, 34, had arrived in Iraq just four days before he died. He had volunteered to come over and help this specific company, Willsey said.

Fearnside was on leave in New York when he first heard of the incident. He was scheduled to return the next day, and by the time he got back, it was clear that an investigation into the incident was under way.

A team of chaplains went to FOB Danger and lived with the company’s soldiers for a couple of days after the explosion, Willsey said. Counseling sessions continue to be available for all soldiers who need it, and their direct supervisors are watching to see who might need help dealing with the fallout from the deaths and the court proceedings, he said.

“I don’t want them to be afraid to talk about it,” Fearnside said.

The company’s soldiers learned about the charges after the families of the soldiers involved, but before the media began reporting the latest development.

“Disgust,” Fearnside said of how he felt about the charges. “Disappointment. Typical anger. [It was] a typical reaction that anyone else would have, especially if it’s someone you know. You ask yourself if you could have done anything.”

One of the division’s spokesmen, Maj. Richard Goldenberg, lived in the building where the explosion occurred.

“We’re a tight-knit family, the New York National Guard,” Goldenberg said. In some ways, he said, the charges brought a small sense of closure to the soldiers here and helped them grieve.

“There’s a degree of relief in having charges,” he said last Sunday.

But, Goldenberg said, most soldiers still have two main questions: Why did it happen? And what will be the final outcome?

Fearnside knows his soldiers will pay close attention to news about the case. But he doesn’t want them to think this will be their legacy from their year spent in Iraq.

“They don’t want to see their reputation tarnished,” Fearnside said. “We’re not going to let it take away from all the good work we’ve done here. They know they’ve got a mission. They are ready.”

Still, there’s no question it will be hard. Willsey said he relied on advice he thinks Esposito would have given him.

“I can hear him in the background,” Willsey said. “‘What are you doing?’”

In other words, Willsey added, “Get back to work.”

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