A Death in the Class of 9/11

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Emily Perez, far left, with a command team from West Point's Beast Barracks, summer 2004.

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He brought in a picture of himself with Emily to show his platoon, which is composed of army linguists — support staff who, like Perez, are not combat personnel. "I wanted to make clear the dangers," he says. "We're all on the front lines in this war."

"We lost one of the greatest accomplishments of the academy," adds Lushenko, who himself is itching to get into the fight in Iraq. "But that motivates me even more to get over there and serve my country."

Leigh Harrell, a fellow classmate of Perez's, e-mailed me from Baghdad to say that she ran into Perez in Iraq not long ago. "We talked for probably an hour telling each other about the wild experiences we'd already had as platoon leaders in combat," Harrell wrote. "We had some laughs and both talked of how much we were looking forward to going home and seeing our families again."

"There's so much I still wanted to experience with her," says Ramirez-Raphael. "I wanted to have families together, maybe even send our poor little kids to West Point some day."

But it is the question of why — why a roadside bomb that costs a pittance to make killed a young officer with so much left to offer her country — that undoes Ramirez-Raphael. Having buried her friend on Tuesday, the question is still too much on Thursday. "I don't know," she says, "I don't know. I've asked myself that every day since she died, and I cannot tell you."

While I was at West Point, the most impressive thing about cadets like Ramirez-Raphael was the way they were able to safeguard their sense of duty from whatever doubts or insecurities crept in about the mission. In the classroom, I watched Perez's classmates debate the successes and failures of the current U.S. occupation strategy. They learned about the dangers of this particular war, from watching videos of an IED explosion to discussing the fate of West Point graduate Gen. Eric Shinseki, who was forced into retirement for contradicting Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's estimates about how many troops would be needed in Iraq. But outside of the classroom, the cadets still mustered on the plain and marched in unison, a physical reminder of their willingness to accept and execute whatever mission they are given.

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