‘Club 34’ on Baghdad: Two tales of a city
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Iraq was boring. Iraq was exciting. Iraq was terrifying. Iraq was fun. Iraq triggered every emotion from excruciating tedium to total exhilaration, sometimes in seconds flat.
“One word won’t do it,” said Staff Sgt. Eric Knott, 32, trying to sum up his 15 months in Iraq with Company C, 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Armored Division.
Knott went to war as a Bradley Fighting Vehicle commander with his crew, driver Spc. Joshua Reasoner, 23, and gunner Spc. James Conn, 22. In March 2003, Stars and Stripes profiled Reasoner, Knott and Conn just before they left for Iraq.
At the time, they were preparing their M2A2 Bradley, which they called “Club 34” after their platoon designation. They were typical soldiers of atypical ability, with some of the highest gunnery scores in the division. Off the range, they were relaxed and happy-go-lucky.
Back in Baumholder and trying to get used to life without guns firing and bombs going off, he’s a little “frustrated,” Reasoner said. Compared to Iraq, there’s not much going on in Germany at the moment. No mission. No thrill of being “amped up” for raids, he said.
If he were back in the war, there would be the deployment bonuses pouring in. He wouldn’t be drinking.
“In a way, I’d rather be back [in Iraq],” Reasoner said. “Of course, if I was back there, I’d be talking about getting back here.”
It’s a funny thing about war, Reasoner and Knott say. Most soldiers hate it while they’re in the middle of it. Yet back in garrison, they miss it.
Knott kept a 120-page journal with personal plans and notes including observations about the Middle East. That said, geopolitics rarely intrude into soldiers’ lives, according to Knott and Reasoner.
War is really about the other soldier, about dying for him if necessary. “If it comes to saving his ass, you know you’ll do it,” Knott said. “Even if you don’t like him.”
“That’s what I love that about the Army,” Reasoner said.
Stuck together on guard duty or at checkpoints for endless hours, soldiers become close “because there’s nothing else to do but get to know each other.” That produces what Reasoner believes will be enduring friendships, “lifetime friends, hopefully. There are guys I hate, and guys I love. But I respect them all. I’d do anything for any of them.”
If dedication to comrades increases, self-preservation wanes. Reasoner described himself as blasé about death, especially after the 1st AD was extended three months past their original one-year deployment.
“My attitude was, ‘If I die, I die.’ I didn’t care. If I died and it benefited [the Army], that’s fine. I’m pretty mercenary about it. They benefited me paying me the money.”
At the time Stripes profiled Club 34, Knott was confident the trio would survive: “If the [crap] hits the fan, we’ll come back. We’ll come back.”
And they did, just not as a team. Conn left the Army five months into the deployment, and Stars and Stripes was unable to locate him. Knott is now training room noncommissioned officer for Headquarters, Headquarters Company, and Reasoner is a dismounted infantryman.
Reasoner and Knott made it clear they didn’t see that much action compared to so many soldiers. Club 34 only fired its weapons twice — once to destroy a vehicle suspected of being a car bomb, once to destroy a captured artillery piece. But there were far more times they were attacked without shooting back.
Looking back on Iraq, the two recall being incredibly naive. “We had no idea. We had no clue what [war] was really going to be like,” Knott said.
“We had some really good times,” Reasoner said. “We had some really bad times.”
Though technically part of 1st AD, Charlie Company deployed March 18 — only two days before the war started — with V Corps.
Just a few days after arriving April 12 in Baghdad from Kuwait, the crew witnessed a fatal accident.
On April 18, a freak power surge in a Bradley undergoing maintenance caused the armored vehicle’s 25 mm cannon to fire. The round killed Pfc. Joseph Mayek, 20, of Rock Springs, Wyo. — the first Germany-based soldier to die in Iraq — and wounded a second soldier.
“It was our section that killed him. It was a tough way to start,” Knott said.
But there was too much to do to dwell on an accident.
Once stabilized in Iraq, Knott, Reasoner and Conn spent much oftime going to Fallujah and Ramadi to pick up fugitives from Saddam Hussein’s deposed regime, most prominently the June 14 capture of Hamid Raja Shalah, the Air Force commander who helped designed al-Samoud missiles.
“I was guarding him,” Reasoner said, smiling.
As they set into an eight-day rotation schedule on patrols, on static post and on maintenance, they found they liked Camp Muleskinner — formerly al-Rasheed Air Force school — on the southern edge of Baghdad, where they stayed from July 15, 2003 through March 19, 2004.
If the Army is a big circus, with the main venues surrounded by smaller tents, then Muleskinner “was the best tent in the circus,” Knott said.
Back with 1st AD
Though there were lulls between missions, even routine duties such as curfew enforcement could get adrenaline flowing. They’d cruise the expressways in blacked out Humvees until they spotted a car. Then they’d hop the curb and tear out after them, converging on the curfew violators and pulling out suspects at gunpoint, Knott said.
“It was awesome,” Knott said. “It was awesome.”
Reasoner and Knott are also candid about the disappointments even as they savor the highlights.
There were times they hated each other, and Knott replaced Reasoner as his driver after several confrontations, though they remain friends.
The soldiers thought they were going to return to Germany with V Corps, which would have meant only 90 days in Iraq. Instead, they were assigned back to 1st AD.
That caused deep resentment in that they’d be working with 1st AD soldiers who’d missed out on the march to Baghdad, and who hadn’t yet earned the right to wear combat infantry badges.
“For the first six months, I hated them,” Reasoner said, when he realized Company C was going to have to stay in Iraq the full 12 months. Then there was the extension.
Knott stayed in Iraq, but Reasoner returned to Baumholder on March 19, then had an 8-day reintegration. Reasoner headed out to Spain and the United States for 30 days of leave.
But on April 16, U.S. commanders announced the 1st AD was getting a 90-day extension. By May 5, he was back in Iraq for another 60 days.
The only choice, Reasoner said, “was to grit down and finish this thing out.”
What did Iraq mean to the soldiers?
On his right hand, Knott sports a high school senior ring chuck of gold and steel. But instead of “Class of 1985” it reads, “Club 34.” It has the 1st AD emblem inscribed on the side, and a tiny CIB in the stone.
Asked if he would do it all over again, Reasoner said, “Absolutely, I would. Absolutely. It sucked. ... But I’m a much better person for it.”
“I experienced life. I experienced death.”