Three Soldiers, Many Mourners

<B>Scott Pelley</B> Reports On Soldiers Killed In Iraq

Since the United States invaded Iraq close to a year and a half ago, more than 900 troops have lost their lives.

You've probably noticed those lists in the newspaper -- the lists of the dead. Some days, they just have a couple of names. Other days, more. They note the age, unit and hometown. But of course, there is so much more that's unsaid.

60 Minutes wondered who those Americans were, and wondered about the sacrifice and the people left behind. So last March, Correspondent Scott Pelley reported on three soldiers from that list.

Sgt. 1st Class William Bennett, a 35-year-old medic, was an elite secret soldier who had a remarkable knack for being in the midst of history.

Bennett, of the 5th Special Forces Group, treated John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban in Afghanistan. Like other Americans in a foreign land, the two men talked about home.

The soldier asked Lindh if he knew of Fort Belvoir, Washington, D.C. It's where Bennett met his wife, Allison, and where he launched a career in one of the toughest jobs the Army had.

Bennett, a high-altitude paratrooper and deep-sea diver, trained as a medic and spoke Arabic. He was among the first into Afghanistan where he called in air strikes on horseback.

He talked about that in a documentary on PBS' "Frontline" after the Afghan war.

"It was incredible," he said on "Frontline." "We were going up stuff that, you know, [was] a foot wide; you're 1,000 feet up on a cliff that you knew if you fell, you were dead. And it was very invigorating."

After Afghanistan came Iraq. Last August, in one of the worst enemy attacks since the invasion, the U.N. headquarters was bombed in Baghdad. Intelligence said the enemy was in a house in Ramadi. On Sept. 12, Bennett's team was ordered to capture the bombers.

Bennett's best friend, Vince Makela, was on the raid. "As we went up to the target, I knew things were different right away," says Makela. "There was an explosion and then followed instantly by AK-47 fire on automatic."

The well-armed enemy poured fire on the team. Seven Americans were wounded. Bennett climbed to the top of the house, and in a gunfight with the sniper, he was hit three times. Makela was on the chopper carrying the bodies of Master Sgt. Kevin Morehead and his friend Bill Bennett.

"So many thoughts came into my mind at this point. Seeing him in the body bag and knowing I'll never see him alive again," says Makela. "And knowing at that point, Allison didn't know, Seth didn't know. I knew that, you know, the huge effect that would have on them."

Allison and their son, Seth, had been getting ready for Bennett's return. "Seth and I had already made a welcome home banner and strung it up on the railing," recalls Allison.

Bennett was due home in three days. Instead, three soldiers came to the door.

"Every wife knows as soon as you open the door and you see that, you know what it is," says Allison. "Sometimes I wish I hadn't opened the door at all just to, even though you know it's just, if they couldn't tell me, it seemed like maybe he would be with me a little longer."

"He was a very nice man We kayaked sometimes in rivers. And we did lots of hiking," says his son, Seth. "I wonder what he's doing."

Was the conflict worth the sacrifice? "It has to be," says Allison. "If it's not finished, then I feel, like, that Bill and all the other soldiers would have died for nothing. It's definitely worth it."

"If he could pick a death, that's one he would choose. He died on the attack doing what he loved doing, with people he loved," says Makela. "He never wavered."

Bruce Smith, 41, chief warrant officer, Iowa National Guard, West Liberty, Iowa.

Oliva Smith remembers her husband Bruce most vividly around the barn. He built it with his own hands.

"Being in the National Guard, I've been in this unit for 16 years -- 22 years in the Guard. You know, that kind of training, I love it," said Smith in Iowa in 2001. "I'm still here doing it, so I must like what I'm doing. So, I must like my job."

Smith's job was to train pilots in the Ch47 Chinook helicopter. He never cut any of them slack, not even himself.

"He kept a stack of flash cards, and whenever we would go anywhere, those would go in the car with him. And I would sit in the car and quiz him on emergency procedures," recalls Oliva.

On Nov. 2, Smith's Chinook carried about 40 soldiers when it was hit by enemy fire, crash-landed and burned.

"It was a couple days after he died. I was down here giving some hay at 10 o'clock, and I was coming up to the house and I was standing at the corner outside the barn," recalls Oliva.

"I looked up at the stars and I said, 'Damn it, Bruce, the kids are gonna miss you.' And there was a shooting star and it was kinda, like, he was saying, 'I'm closer than you think.'"

Bruce Smith believed in the war. But Oliva wasn't so sure. Now, the fact that they haven't found weapons of mass destruction makes the loss even worse.

"Bruce and others were committing themselves to give up life, to give up baseball games and to give up teaching their daughters how to drive," says Oliva. "And now, you're admitting that you did not have all the information? I just really feel like we were let down, they were let down, they let those soldiers down."

In her husband's crash, 16 soldiers were killed, but more than 20 survived. Oliva believes Bruce used those emergency drills and all of his strength to save as many as he could.

"When I got his wedding ring back, his wedding ring is bent. And it's bent," says Oliva. "And I like to think that he was using it as strength. That this ring symbolized, in his hand, to fight those controls."

Smith leaves behind his wife, a 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.

Another name on the list is Pierre Piche, 29, Army captain, Starksboro, Vt.

Years ago, his mother, Lisa Johnson, moved from New York to get away from it all and raise her only child.

"He enjoyed hiking in the woods and swimming. There are a lot of waterfalls and streams," says Johnson.

At 18, Piche left for Carnegie Mellon University, and he surprised everyone by signing up for Army training — the ROTC. It was not part of the family tradition. "It broke my heart," says Johnson.

What was it in him that led him to the Army? "I don't understand completely," says Johnson. "Except that he wanted to be a part of history. He wanted to do the right thing for his country."

Piche fell in love with a woman named Cherish, and in military tradition, crossed under swords into married life.

"He was the ultimate romantic. I mean he was the husband that every wife dreams of having," says Cherish, who is reminded by love notes that he left before being shipped out. "They were in drawers, in cabinets, in the dog food and in the laundry, and in my shoes and jacket pocket. I think there are over 50 or 60 of them."

Cherish found the first note on the front door when she came in. It said: "I will walk through this door and see you again."

She found the last two notes in the pockets of her winter coat. She was getting ready to go to her husband's funeral in Vermont. "I put my hands in my pockets and I felt them. And I just closed my eyes for a minute, and I knew exactly what they were," recalls Cherish. "I pulled them out. One said, 'I will always love you.' And the other one said, 'We will always be together.'"

When Piche left for Iraq, Cherish says, she didn't worry much because he was a maintenance officer. It was supposed to be a desk job. "He used to joke around with me and say that the only Purple Heart he was ever gonna get was probably because he would get carpal tunnel syndrome from typing too many memos."

On Nov. 15, Piche was ordered on leave, a short vacation that he didn't want to take. He was aboard one of two Black Hawk helicopters that collided above Mosul. Seventeen people were killed.

Johnson received a proclamation from the president, honoring the memory of Pierre Esprit Piche. The certificate is "awarded by a grateful nation."

"I would like to believe that we are in fact a grateful nation," says Johnson. "But I worry that many Americans don't realize what the extent of the sacrifice of these soldiers is, and the sacrifice of their families."

There is a walk in the woods outside Nashville, Tenn., that brings Pierre and Cherish Piche full circle. It's a path that leads to the spot where he proposed. And it's now the spot where he will be remembered.

"I sent him a picture of this place that he hung up in Iraq. And I sent a little note saying this is one of the many places that we'll go when you come home," says Cherish. "But he's not coming home. So, that's why I wanted his ashes to be here … I miss you and I love you so much. And I am trying to be strong for you, but sometimes it's really, really hard."

Pierre Piche, 29, is among the names on the list of the honored dead -- now carried on currents of memory.