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Unit mourns loss of two soldiers
Third solider suspected in the deaths
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SAVANNAH -- When he wasn't leading his squad on patrol south of Baghdad, Army Staff Sgt. Darris Dawson liked to challenge his men to games of pick-up basketball. Sgt. Wesley Durbin made sure troops followed rules, but also offered a sympathetic ear if they had problems.

Members of their Army unit described both men Sunday as well-liked, professional soldiers who quickly proved themselves after being tapped to fill leadership roles in Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment.

Dawson and Durbin died Sept. 14 after being shot at a small patrol base in central Iraq. The Army says a U.S. soldier in their unit is suspected of shooting both men. Few other details have been released.

"When it initially happened, there were a lot of feelings of confusion," Capt. Eric Tisland, the unit's company commander, said in a telephone interview from Iraq. "The basic question everybody wants answered is why, why did something like this happen. A majority of the soldiers are still definitely upset and disturbed, but have continued on."

A Defense Department official in Washington, told The Associated Press last week that the suspected shooter was a sergeant who was in a meeting with Dawson, of Pensacola, Fla., and Durbin, of Dallas, to discuss his leadership performance. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because details have not been made public.

Tisland and two other soldiers interviewed on Sunday declined to discuss the shootings because the slayings are still under investigation.

But they spoke highly of the two slain soldiers, who were mourned last week at a memorial ceremony in Iraq.

Dawson, 24, had recently re-enlisted during his third combat tour in Iraq. Just two months ago, he was asked to take charge of an eight-man squad whose leader had been wounded.

"The thing about him that impressed me most was he picked things up like he had been in the company for the entire deployment," Tisland said.

Within his first week as a squad leader, Dawson had discovered two caches of enemy explosives and helped an Iraqi village set up a water purification system, said Sgt. 1st Class Xaver Perdue, Dawson's platoon sergeant.

Perdue said he'd been a mentor to Dawson for more than five years, since Dawson was a private fresh out of high school.

"He was more like a son to me," Perdue said. "Dawson liked joking around with the soldiers. He was a friendly guy. He would take them out on the basketball court and say stuff like, 'When y'all get old enough to play me, come play me.'"

A father of four children, whose youngest daughter was born 4 months ago, Dawson had applied for a job as an Army recruiter for when his unit returned home early next year, Perdue said. The unit deployed in fall 2007 from Fort Stewart.

Durbin, 26, became a four-man team leader several months ago. He had just earned his sergeant stripes while serving as a commanding officer's gunner in Iraq.

Before joining the Army about two years ago, Durbin had previously deployed to Iraq with the Marines. He left the military for a short time to attend college, but soon decided to enlist in the Army, said Staff Sgt. Michael Navarro, a squad leader in Durbin's platoon.

"If a soldier was walking around and he had his hat on crooked, Durbin would correct it," Navarro said. "He would say, 'Hey, you want to do this right.' In the Marine Corps, they were always yelling and screaming to get a response. But we told him in the Army we don't do it that way. And he adapted perfectly."

The others jokingly called him "Jarhead" — slang for a Marine — but Durbin would pay attention to the mood of soldiers around him and offer to help anyone who seemed troubled, Navarro said.

"He would say, 'Sergeant, you're looking kind of down today, do you want to talk?'" he said. "That's one thing I will always miss. I'm a private person. But just the thought of him coming by and saying 'Do you want to talk?' meant a lot to me."


Bynum has covered the military based in Georgia since 2001.

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