After dark on Jan. 20, 2007, Iraqi guards at a provincial government center in Karbala waved through a convoy of Chevy Suburbans and other SUVs carrying about a dozen English-speaking men in American uniforms. The men were insurgents in disguise.
Kirk Alkire's life would never be the same.
Over the previous year, as a first sergeant at Anchorage's Fort Richardson Army base, Alkire had helped expand a force of paratroopers from 600 to 3,600 and ready them for deployment. After more than 20 years in the Army, many of the soldiers he trained and led to Iraq were younger than his own son.
The disguised insurgents threw a grenade into a building where U.S. and Iraqi officers were meeting at the Provisional Joint Coordination Center in Karbala. One of Alkire's soldiers tried to hold a door closed as a rifle pushed through and fired into the room.
Pvt. Johnathon M. Millican, 20, was hit and killed. The insurgents captured four more soldiers and fled from the base. Pursued for 25 miles, they abandoned the vehicles with two Americans still handcuffed inside. All four had been shot in the head or chest.
Three of the dead prisoners were young men from Alkire's company, 1st Lt. Jacob N. Fritz, 25, Spc. Johnathan B. Chism, 22, and Pfc. Shawn P. Falter, 25. The fourth was a public affairs officer temporarily attached to the group.
Along with the grief of losing members of his team — his heart and soul, he said — Alkire felt guilt for not being at the center when the attack occurred.
His role had been like that of a dad.
"I was their provider," he said. But he couldn't show how he felt. "As a leader, it's really tough to be the rock everyone is looking for, when I'm just trying to hold it together myself."
The fight was still on. The Alaska brigade had a year of its tour left. Two dozen American troops died that same day across Iraq, as President George W. Bush's surge tried to tame the chaos.
"We have a small ceremony in-country that not everyone can be part of, because you've got to carry on the mission," Alkire said. "Then you load them up on a helicopter, you drape a flag on them, and they fly away."
He said, "There's no time to grieve. It's dangerous. It's tough. So, for me, we kept sending people home. Fifty-three."
That's how many soldiers died from Alaska's 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division. Alkire carries the names on a set of replica dog tags he never leaves behind.
He retired in 2008 and rode his motorcycle from Alaska to visit the families of each of the young men from his company lost in that sneak attack.
First came the family farm where Jake Fritz grew up in Nebraska, meeting generations and visiting the grave. Then the Finger Lakes area of New York and Shawn Falter's family.
He spent a few days with each.
He visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Maryland, where one of his injured troops was still recovering, then rode down to Trafford, Alabama, to see Johnathon Millican's wife and father.
"Such good people, all of them," he said.
Alkire had left Alaska with a couple of friends and picked up more riders along the way. By the time they traveled from Alabama to meet the Chism family, in Prairieville, Louisiana, six bikes were rolling down the highway together.
"It was probably one of the most emotional experiences of my life," said Laddie Shaw, who did the entire monthlong ride of almost 10,000 miles at Alkire's side.
Shaw served as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam before becoming Alaska's director of veterans affairs in the 1990s. Like Alkire, he is an outdoorsman and climber.
As director, Shaw helped another veterans' cause to name Mount POW/MIA, near Eklutna Lake, east of Anchorage. He climbed it in 1999 to put the first flag on its summit. Since then, he has climbed the mountain every six months to replace the flag.
Alkire joined some of those climbs even before he retired. Since then, climbing the mountain has become a mission. He does it 15 to 20 times a year, taking veterans or family members, or depositing their small memorials in a box at the top.
It's not an easy climb. There is no clear trail. Access off Eklutna Lake Road requires bushwhacking and then ascending 3,000 feet of elevation in a mile.
Alkire recently led the sister of a fallen service member to the top.
"It was the first time she really felt a sense of grieving the loss of her brother," he said. "The mountain has helped her with the healing. That's why I continue to climb it."
On one of his climbs, Alkire picked out another nearby mountain as a new memorial. After a year of effort, Gold Star Peak was officially named in early February. Alkire also won a grant to put a memorial on top and a memorial park near the road down below, where visitors who can't climb look up at it.
There's a light in Kirk Alkire's eyes that contrasts with the grim message of that ring of 53 dog tags he carries. The ability to bring solace to so many people has given him joy and purpose.
I never served in the military. I can only dimly imagine Alkire's experience.
I identify more with the character in the movie "Saving Private Ryan" who, after seeing others give their lives so he can survive, is told by a dying comrade, "Earn this."
As Americans, we all have to earn it.
But even if I can't know Alkire's pain, I do feel a link to his love of these mountains and a belief in their healing power.
Shaw said a close friend, a veteran of three Iraq tours, recently took his own life. Maybe these mountains can save lives as well as memorialize them.
This column has been changed to reflect Laddie Shaw's correct title as the former director of veterans affairs.
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