The route-clearance team of combat engineers from Company E, “The Fighting Eagles” of 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, had been on patrol for two hours when they crossed a wide boulevard marred by the signs of fierce combat.

The street lay largely deserted. Several of the buildings bore the holes of large-caliber shells. Some lay in partial ruins.

A few pedestrians were out, but they began moving quickly off the sidewalks as soon as they saw the American vehicles. Shopkeepers began to shutter their doors. This was not a good sign.

A few minutes later, as if on cue, the staccato tap-tap-tap of automatic weapons fire rang out.

“We’re taking fire,” said Spc. William Irwin, 27, of Truth or Consequences, N.M., a .50-caliber machine gunner in the lead truck, an RG-31 Mine Protected Vehicle. “It sounds like small arms.”

His voice was calm and even, as if he’d been through the drill a hundred times.

The shooting continued until a Kiowa scout helicopter swooped low over the neighborhood, then it stopped. The Bradley and an armored vehicle rejoined the column. The patrol ended back at Forward Operating Base Marez about an hour later. There had been no casualties.

Despite the gunfire, it had been a relatively uneventful patrol.

The patrol had found no bombs that day, a rare occurrence, according to 1st Lt. Michael Holbrook, 25, of Sacramento, Calif., a Bradley commander on Tuesday’s patrol.

“These vehicles and these soldiers have taken some mean hits, but they keep going,” Holbrook said. “Fortunately, we’ve been very, very lucky.”

Many of the soldiers in the company have survived their fair share of bomb blasts, and some have been seriously wounded. But so far, none had been killed during the unit’s yearlong deployment.

The company’s luck changed the next day when an insurgent bomb killed Capt. Timothy I. McGovern, 28, an Indiana native, and Spc. Brandon W. Smitherman, 21, of Conroe, Texas.

McGovern, the company commander, and Smitherman, his driver, were on patrol on “Route Barracuda,” perhaps the most dangerous road in Mosul, when an insurgent fired a rocket-propelled grenade at one of the vehicles in their column and fled to the cover of a nearby building.

Spc. Craig Chumley, 27, of Conway, Ark., was in a Buffalo vehicle, checking for fresh explosives in a crater caused by an earlier blast, when the insurgent fired the RPG.

McGovern and Smitherman were in a Bradley providing security for the Buffalo and other bomb-clearance vehicles in the column. They moved up to protect the Buffalo’s flank, and their Bradley ran over a large buried explosive device.

“The RPG was shot, and Smitherman moved on the guy,” Chumley said. “He was going after him, and that’s when they got hit.”

No one knows how big the bomb was that killed McGovern and Smitherman, but the blast was so powerful that their Bradley was destroyed. One other soldier and an Iraqi interpreter survived the blast.

The two soldiers died on the 365th day of their deployment.

At a brief awards ceremony and change of command on Thursday, senior commanders mourned the loss of the two fallen soldiers, but reminded their comrades to keep their spirits up as their time in Iraq winds down.

“Hang in there,” said Col. Stephen Twitty, commander of 4th Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. “We’ve got 30 days of a hard fight left, then we’ll get back home to our families.

“When the history books are written, it’ll be the combat engineers and EOD (explosives ordnance disposal), who’ll be recognized as their real heroes of this war,” Twitty said.

Command Sgt. Maj. Steve Frennier told the assembled troops to draw strength from each other.

“Reach out and touch the man to the left, now reach out and touch the man to your right,” said Frennier, the top enlisted man for 4th Brigade. “In times of danger and crisis, we all need a hero. You are touching a hero right now that will get you through this.”

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