His wife has all 120 letters he sent from Iraq, and reads them one by one, in consecutive order. The soldier who tried to pull him from the burning fighting vehicle keeps a photo collage of him in his living room. His brother still prays to him. And his nephew still sleeps with his uncle's black rosary.
Army Spc. Genaro Acosta of Fair Oaks -- "G" or "Mondo" to those who knew him -- was killed by a roadside bomb on Nov. 11, 2003. As the number of U.S. military members killed in the Iraq war surpasses 3,000, we tell the story of one of the first local casualties through the people who still mourn him daily, years later.
The rifle salutes are long over and the last notes of taps have faded, but for the friends and family of the dead, the burden of grief never ends.
A wife's sorrowRoxanne Acosta has moved three times since that day in 2003 when she screamed at the uniformed officers who came to the bank where she worked. She went from Fort Hood, Texas, back home to Atascosa, Texas, then Biloxi, Miss., to Benton, Ky.
On every move, the white strapless A-line dress, the bodice and train trimmed with beads, the tags still attached, has come with her.
She knows she'll never wear it, but the 30-year-old can't bear to part with the wedding dress. It's a reminder of what won't ever be.
"It's beautiful," she says, almost in a whisper.
The couple were married in a civil ceremony in 2002 but told only a few people because they were waiting for the big Catholic ceremony. The wedding was postponed when Genaro Acosta was deployed to Iraq, but everything was set for May 29, 2004.
The church was reserved, the hall booked, the DJ selected and the caterer prepaid. But the roast, potatoes and green beans that were supposed to be served at her wedding reception were instead served at her husband's funeral.
Thoughts of her husband come daily, when she catches the scent of the fresh popcorn they liked to eat together, when she snuggles with Lucy -- the Shih Tzu he gave her as he left for Iraq, when she hears something, sees something, she'd like to tell him about.
"There will never be another G," she says.
She is trying to live life again -- she started a business doing disaster remodeling and restoration, and her business partner has become her companion, but not, she insists, her boyfriend.
"I don't think I'll marry again," she says. "I've always been the type that will only marry once. We didn't get married by the church, but we were still married."
There are the 120 letters he wrote her from Iraq -- filed in order by date -- in a box in her living room. She reads them, one by one, from front to back, and then starts again.
She hasn't reread the more than 300 letters she wrote him, but they sit in a box in the attic, with the Iraqi uniforms and souvenirs he collected and were sent to her after his death.
She still wears her engagement ring on her right hand, and keeps in her jewelry box the gold cross, tarnished by fire, the only possession her husband was wearing that survived his death.
She's resigned herself to the label "widow." But she hasn't been able to return to church.
"I can honestly say I'm very angry with God because I prayed every single day, every night" he was in Iraq, she says, "and I feel as though I was let down."
A soldier's guiltThe guilt hasn't gone away, it hasn't even lessened.
Staff Sgt. Dennis Griffee broke a vertebra and damaged three disks when the bomb exploded at 11:53 p.m., sending the 33-ton Bradley Fighting Vehicle airborne. But it is his friend's death that pains him the most.
As the supervisor, he was responsible for him. He had promised Acosta's wife he'd bring him back, safe.
Griffee ran back to the vehicle twice to pull the 6-foot-2 Acosta through the small back entrance, called the hell hole. But when the ammunition began to explode, there was nothing he could do.
"Everybody in the unit was crying," recalls Griffee, who is retired and lives outside Denver. "And I just had, I still have, this incredible sense of failure."
It's become a daily routine for Griffee -- the game of what if.
What if he didn't encourage Acosta to re-enlist? Acosta probably would have left Iraq in October, less than a month before they drove over that roadside bomb.
What if he ordered, instead of suggested, that Acosta -- achy from a nasty cold -- stay home that night?
What if they weren't rushing toward chow, hurrying back from patrol for a special meal for those who work nights? What if Griffee hadn't decided to turn on their lights, becoming a target in the night?
Griffee sees reminders of that night everywhere he looks. In the cane he now uses for short distances, in the wheelchair he uses for longer ones. Griffee, 29, who can't lift anything heavier than 15 pounds, will never be able to pick up his 3-year-old daughter.
He clings to the good memories -- how Acosta every night would wish everyone in the unit a good night; how Acosta so ingratiated himself with the lunch ladies that they came to his memorial service; how on quiet nights on patrol, Acosta, the driver, would yell into the intercom, "Scooby dooby doo!"
"I think of him the first thing when I wake up," says Griffee. "I think about him constantly. I picture him and it's a lot of wondering what he would be doing now."
To Griffee, Acosta has become someone to live for, to model his life after, to make proud. And he feels his presence carrying him.
Whenever there's something Griffee has to do, he starts by saying to himself, "OK, Mondo, here we go."
A brother's lossFernando Acosta has the same burly frame as his brother, the same military presence, the same strong jaw. Three years after a bomb blew apart both their lives, the tears still come, rolling down his face when he's driving in his car, alone.
"It never gets easier," he says. "You just tend to live with it."
Acosta holds on to what memories he has of his brother. He visits the Fallen Heroes Memorial Web site weekly, to see what Genaro Acosta's friends and even strangers have posted. He has a box filled with clothes, newspaper articles, Iraqi money, letters from the president and photos, that he hopes to give his brother's son, almost 7, should he ever want it.
Fernando Acosta still picks up the phone to call his brother out of habit, to tell him about his own son being born or about his new baby daughter. But then he remembers -- his brother is dead.
"Your mind plays tricks on you," says Acosta, who is 30 and lives in Citrus Heights. "For a split second, you forget what happened."
The brothers grew up in a Long Beach garage converted into a one-bedroom apartment. Their single father worked the swing shift at a foundry, and the brothers were left to fend for themselves much of the time, raising each other.
Older by a year and 10 days, Fernando Acosta did much of the raising, reining in his stubborn brother. When his younger brother tripped, Acosta was there to pick him up.
"My brother always found trouble," Acosta says with a deep laugh, "even when he was on his best behavior."
Fernando Acosta joined the Air Force out of high school and was stationed at Travis Air Force Base. When Genaro Acosta seemed directionless, he turned to his brother and they moved in together in Fair Oaks.
Genaro Acosta was a baker at Noah's Bagels, a driver for an auto-parts store and a driver for a blood bank, before he enlisted in the Army in 2000.
"I'm proud of him, and in a lot of ways. He finally grew up and was doing what he needed to do," Fernando Acosta says.
Then the bomb exploded. Genaro Acosta died instantly, the military said, though his body couldn't be recovered from the burning vehicle for nearly six hours.
The memories come at the most unexpected moments -- when Fernando Acosta is watching a movie, when he hears the Mexican folk song "El Rey," by Jose Alfredo Jimenez, when he notices the same chin, stubborn facial expressions and fiery personality in his own son Elijah, who's almost 2.
He still prays to his brother, asking him to look after their father. And he still sees his brother in his dreams.
"You never really are the same person," he says. "There's always something missing."
A legacy left to a nephewJustice Hockett sees his uncle every day. The 8-year-old keeps Tio G's photo attached to his favorite stuffed animal.
Wrapped around Geoffrey the Giraffe's neck, along with garlands of silver and red stars, is his uncle's black rosary.
"I loved him," says the third-grader, who is Fernando Acosta's stepson.
The memories of his uncle are fleeting -- there's the time they went down to the river and waded in the shallow water. There are the hours they spent outside in the yard, raking leaves, blowing bubbles and swatting mosquitoes as his uncle puffed on cigarettes.
Tio G was the one who always got him whatever he wanted, important stuff, like ice cream.
Genaro Acosta's legacy lies in his bravery, his nephew says.
"When I have to face something, I think of him, because he makes me more brave," Justice says.
Justice channels his uncle whenever he is frightened of spiders, a dog or a bully at school. "I usually picture his face," he says.
"I see him and think of him a real lot. It makes me happy to remember what he looked like and not forget."