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Soldier slain in Iraq told of fear

Siblings of Army Private George R. Roehl Jr. mourned his loss in Manchester, N.H., yesterday. From left were Steven, Breanna, and Ben.
Siblings of Army Private George R. Roehl Jr. mourned his loss in Manchester, N.H., yesterday. From left were Steven, Breanna, and Ben. (Globe Staff Photo / Mark Wilson)

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Private George R. Roehl Jr. knew that his job as an Army scout placed him in extreme danger.

Every time he left the base, Roehl wrote his mother, he felt threatened. Every time he patrolled the perilous streets outside Baghdad as a scout, Roehl said, he came under attack.

The soldier's worst fears came true Tuesday when Roehl, 21, was one of three US servicemen who died of injuries after a roadside bomb exploded near their Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Taji and small-arms fire erupted.

''He was scared," said Pat Emery, a longtime friend of the family. ''He was telling his mother he wanted to come home."

But two leaves were canceled -- one for last Christmas and another in March -- and Roehl never did return home to visit his family or open the holiday gifts that have been carefully preserved in the family's small apartment in Manchester.

Roehl's mother, Betty Vezina, received the news of her oldest child's death about 9 p.m. Tuesday, when two Army officers called on her. ''She's having a tough time," Emery said of Vezina, a single mother of five who reported to her job as a delivery driver yesterday.

In addition to Roehl, the attack killed Corporal Joseph A. Blanco, 25, of Bloomington, Calif., and Private James F. Costello III, 27, of St. Louis. The soldiers were part of the First Brigade Combat Team, Fourth Infantry Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas.

Roehl grew up in Manchester, but graduated from Franklin High School in 2003, when he had been living temporarily with his father. Roehl joined the Army in fall 2004 because he wanted to serve his country, his family said. He had been in Iraq for five months when he was killed.

''I can see why he did it," his brother Steven, 15, said yesterday. ''He did it to free a lot of people so they had a better life. That's the part that makes me proud. But the part that makes me sad is he won't be coming home anymore."

Joining the military has been a family tradition, Emery said. Roehl's grandfather served in the Army; his father had been in the Navy; and his cousin is a Marine who is stationed in Iraq.

Roehl accepted the danger he faced in the Army, his family said, even though his sister Sarah, 19, pleaded with him not to enlist.

''He knew what was going on and what might happen," Steven said. ''He knew if he didn't come home, we'd be in a lot of pain."

Yesterday, on a beautiful spring afternoon, that pain was palpable outside the cramped apartment where Roehl's mother, two younger brothers, and one of his two sisters live.

It's an apartment where the family has no phone, and where no photographs of Roehl exist because floodwaters destroyed them in a backyard shed. Occasionally, the family would exchange e-mails with Roehl, but only through another person's computer.

Roehl's siblings spoke of letters to their brother that had gone unmailed because the Army had not given them an address.

Describing one such letter, Steven said: ''I hoped he was doing well. I was hoping that he was safe. I told him that I missed him and that we were getting ready to celebrate Christmas, and everyone was having fun. I told him it kind of stinks without having him here, and I wished he'd come home soon and safe."

Breanna, 11, spoke of the Christmas presents that her mother never gave to Roehl because his holiday leave had been canceled. Sifting through a container of gifts, Breanna displayed a collection of pens, pencils, notebooks, journals, and envelopes, which her mother hoped Roehl would use.

''That way he could write down things to help him cope," Emery said.

The container also held shampoo, snacks, and baby wipes, which Roehl said he needed to clean the sand from his body. And, finally, a book from his mother titled ''How Do I Love You?"

''He didn't like it there," Steven said of Iraq. ''He was afraid because, like he said, people were shooting at him every day. And he wasn't with the ones he loved."

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