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Fallen but not forgotten: No Thanksgiving

By John Rutherford, NBC News Producer, Washington

U.S. military officials in Baghdad are thankful this week for a sharp drop in roadside bombings, which account for two-thirds of U.S. troop deaths in Iraq. The number of IEDs found last month in Iraq fell to the lowest level in two years, partly because Iran is apparently living up to a pledge made last summer to block the flow of explosives across its border into Iraq.

"We have not seen any evidence that weapons continue to come across the border into Iraq," Maj. Gen. James Simmons said in Baghdad.

Still, five of the eight American combat deaths last week in Iraq were caused by roadside bombs.

1. Army Sgt. Joseph Vanek, 22, of Elmhurst, Ill., had three goals when he returned home from Iraq: go to college, find an apartment, and buy a motorcycle. "He was a young man," explained his father on fayobserver.com. Vanek had his sister read him the classified ads. "He didn't want to pay more than $500 a month for a place," she told the Daily Herald, laughing through her tears. Vanek, with the 82nd Airborne Division, was killed Nov. 12 by small arms fire in Baghdad.

2. Army Capt. David Boris, 30, of Pottsville, Pa., asked students at Pottsville High School for a favor, and they complied. "He said, 'Would you consider adopting my platoon, sending them care packages because some of the men never receive anything?'" one of the teachers told WNEP. Boris, a West Point graduate, was a platoon leader in Afghanistan with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. He was killed Nov. 12 by a roadside bomb in Bermei. Boris leaves his widow, Jamie.

3. Army Spc. Adrian Hike, 26, of Callender, Iowa, was injured in 2005 by a suicide bomb attack in Iraq. After several surgeries, he recovered and began a tour in Afghanistan. He had recently talked of re-enlisting when his tour was over. Hike died in the same bomb blast that killed Capt. Boris. "All the sudden it just hits you that you'll never see that child again, never get to hug him, hold him, give him kisses," Hike's mother told KETV. "I'm just overwhelmed."

4. Army Spc. Ashley Sietsema, 20, of Melrose Park, Ill., planned a career in medicine. "She had it all mapped out for what she was going to do each year when she got back and what hospital she was going to get her training at," a relative told the Chicago Tribune. Sietsema, a combat medic with the Illinois National Guard, was killed Nov. 12 when the ambulance she was driving rolled over and hit a tree in Kuwait City, Kuwait. She is survived by her husband, Max.

5. Army Sgt. Christopher Kruse, 23, of Dodge City, Kan., enjoyed hunting, fishing, working on cars, and throwing darts. Kruse, with the 2nd Infantry Division, was killed Nov. 13 by a roadside bomb in Mukhisa, Iraq. "We had many great times in Little League baseball where I coached him," read an entry in patriotguard.org. "He had grown up to be an outstanding young man." Kruse is survived by his widow, Courtney, and two sons, Christian and Josh.

6. Army Cpl. Peter Schmidt, 30, of Eureka, Calif., died in the same bomb blast as Sgt. Kruse. Schmdit had written in MySpace: "I look forward to being back home again and enjoying some of the small parts of civilized life I took for granted before. Things like supermarkets with well-stocked shelves, ATMs that let you access your money more than once a month, people not shooting at you every time you are outside, and wearing whatever clothes I want."

7. Army Pfc. Casey Mason, 22, of Lake, Mich., worked for Lux Funeral Home before enlisting in the Army in 2006. An MP with the 8th Military Police Brigade, Mason was killed Nov. 13 by small arms fire in Mosul, Iraq. "The last thing I told him was to come home safe," Lux's owner told the Mount Pleasant Morning Sun. "No one ever dreamed this would happen." Lux handled Mason's funeral when his body was returned home to Michigan.

8. Army 2nd Lt. Stuart Liles, 26, of Hot Springs, Ark., graduated from Fountain Lake High School, earned a liberal arts degree from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, and entered the Army in 2006. Liles, a platoon leader with the 82nd Airborne Division, died Nov. 13 in Bagram, Afghanistan, of injuries suffered in a non-combat incident that was under investigation. He is survived by his widow, Aubre, and daughter, Aurora, of Raeford, N.C.

9. Army Spc. Derek Banks, 24, of Newport News, Va., always had a smile on his face and was voted "most popular" his senior year in high school. "All Derek ever wanted was to be loved," a friend told the Newport News Daily Press. Banks, with the Virginia National Guard, died Nov. 14 of wounds suffered Oct. 25 when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. He is survived by his widow, Sheena, and 2-year-old son, Derek Jr.

10. Army Sgt. Kenneth Booker, 25, of Vevay, Ind., was killed Nov. 14 by a roadside bomb in Mukhisa, Iraq. His parents got the news the same day his mother mailed him a Christmas package. The package contained a little Christmas tree, a movie, Christmas music, a Christmas mug, and cocoa. A note said Christmas was coming to him since he couldn't be home for Christmas. "I didn't know he was already gone when I sent it," his mother told the Madison Courier.

11. Army 2nd Lt. Peter Burks, 26, of Dallas was remembered as always mature, even as a youngster. "He was like a little adult," a friend told the McKinney Courier-Gazette. "He was very grounded, very serious." Burks graduated from Texas A&M University and worked as a tour guide in France and for several Dallas sports teams before joining the Army in 2006. A member of the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, he was killed Nov. 14 by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.

12. Army Sgt. Mason Lewis, 26, of Gloucester, Va., left in May with the 3rd Infantry Division for his second tour in Iraq. His mother couldn't shake a bad feeling, despite praying and praying. "He told me of the horrible conditions over there in Iraq and what a very ugly place it was," she told the Washington Post. Lewis was killed Nov. 16 in a training accident with Iraqi troops. "He was up on a roof," his mother told the Post. "All I know was that he fell."

13. Army Sgt. Steven Ganczewski, 22, of Niagara Falls, N.Y., got a lot of resistance from high school guidance counselors. "They didn't understand why someone with his potential would join the Army," his father told the Buffalo News. But he loved the Army, serving five tours of about three months each in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. An Army Ranger, he died Nov. 16 in Balad, Iraq, when he fell from a helicopter. He leaves his widow, Rachel, and daughter, Makayla, 2.

I want to thank those who have thanked me for writing these tributes. I appreciate your comments. I hope someday soon there will no longer be a need for any more tributes.

Washington Producer John Rutherford is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He posts a weekly tribute to service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.