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Fallen but not forgotten: Winding down?

By John Rutherford, Producer, NBC News, Washington

Army PFC Derek Derose, who was wounded Oct. 17 by a roadside bomb while on patrol near Beni Zaid, Iraq, has a mixed assessment of the situation in Iraq.

"As far as conflict-wise, it's pretty much over, mainly encountering IEDs," Derose, 20, of Stafford, Va., said last Friday after receiving a Purple Heart at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "We are putting a really big dent in their [al Qaeda's] caches. We quickly became cache killers because we were finding some large caches.

"But as far as this country stabilizing, I don't see it happening any time soon, because they [the Iraqis] are lazy, and they just love to take handouts. So until they get the initiative to take it on their own and do stuff to get their country up and running, we're going to be over there for a while."

Derose (right) deployed to Iraq a year ago with the 25th Infantry Division. He was the only soldier at this month's ceremony to receive a Purple Heart, the lowest number in months.

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At the same time, the military is reporting a dramatic drop in casualties in both war zones. The last U.S. combat death in Iraq was on Dec. 4; in Afghanistan on Dec. 1.

"This shouldn't suggest that things will be easier in Afghanistan," MSNBC military analyst Col. Jack Jacobs told me. "Indeed, the opposite is true, and we are in for a hell of a ride next year."

Jacobs said the fighting and dying are down in Afghanistan because of the weather.

"It's winter," he said. "Particularly in the mountains, the enemy holes up until the spring thaw. It's cold and snowy and miserable. Come springtime, it won't be so quiet."

In Iraq, he said, the Iraqi army is now carrying out many of the operations previously conducted by Americans.

"A larger number of our forces are now engaged as mobile training teams to train Iraqis, rather than chasing bad guys all over the country," Jacobs said.

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Army Sgt. Peter Neesley, 28, of Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., died in his sleep in Baghdad of an undetermined cause on Christmas Day of last year. After his death, his family began a successful effort to bring home to Michigan two stray dogs that Neesley had adopted off the streets of Baghdad (click here to read the earlier story).

This is a recent photo of the two dogs, Boris and Mama, much healthier and a lot chunkier than they were a year ago.

"They are doing really well," Peter's sister Carey wrote. "This last couple weeks have been hard for us as we approach the one year anniversary of Peter's death. We miss him so much. But we also have paused to remember all those that provided us with great comfort in those dark days.

"The dogs have brought a lot of comfort and some necessary comic relief at times. They are definitely Peter's children."

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One final note. I am retiring from NBC News at the end of this month and will no longer be writing the "Fallen but not forgotten" blog. I want to thank everyone who has read and commented on the blog over the past year and a half. I especially appreciated the thoughtful comments of Anna, Stephanie-Umbro and Jackie Rawlings. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year and all the best.

WRC-TV photo of Army PFC Derek Derose, and Neesley family photo of Boris and Mama.

Click here to view tributes to the 461 service members killed this year in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the following three casualties from last week:

1. Army Pvt. Colman Meadows III, 19, of Senoia, Ga.

2. Army Staff Sgt. Jonathan Dean, 25, of Henagar, Ala.

3. Army Pfc. Coleman Hinkefent, 19, of Coweta, Okla.

Washington Producer John Rutherford is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He also posts stories on the military at www.fieldnotes.msnbc.com (click on "John Rutherford" under "categories") and at http://john-rutherford.newsvine.com. The first tribute gallery can be found at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22802019/ and the second at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27336564.