Europe’s deadliest deployment
Examining life, emotions of ‘Dagger Brigade’ community in Schweinfurt
By CHARLIE COON AND AND MATT MILLHAM | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 5, 2007
SCHWEINFURT, Germany — In this Army community, a friend calls before coming over to have a cigarette.
A knock on the door can make a soldier’s spouse jumpy because it could be that knock.
“When it’s 8 o’clock at night and you’re not expecting anybody to come over, and someone just comes up and rings your doorbell, your heart stops,” said Krissi Van Oder, wife of Staff Sgt. Scott Van Order of the 9th Engineer Battalion.
“Or someone will call you on the phone and say, ‘This is sergeant so-and-so; your husband is OK,’ because they’ve had the experience of, ‘Oh my God, why are you calling?’”
“It’s terrible how many things can run through your head in 15 seconds,” Van Order said. “Your husband’s hurt. Somebody you know is hurt. Somebody you know was killed. They’re being extended.”
The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division — known as the “Dagger Brigade” — has endured the deadliest deployment of any Europe-based U.S. military brigade in Iraq. Fifty-six troops have been killed in combat since the brigade deployed a year ago, mostly from roadside bombs. One death, described as noncombat related, is under investigation.
Some units have suffered more losses than others. The hardest hit — the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment — has reported 27 deaths. Next on this tragic list comes the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, with 19 deaths.
Two Schweinfurt-based troops assigned to the 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, have been killed in Afghanistan.
It’s hard to find overt displays of what this community has endured.
Children cavort in playgrounds and Army wives run errands at the commissary and are proud of meticulously kept displays of flowers, mobiles and other decorations on their balconies.
The Army works to bolster morale by offering families free trips, family festivals and bowling — something to look forward to until the troops’ scheduled redeployment in October.
“You’ve got to have that next handhold as you climb that wall to getting the soldiers home,” said Lt. Col. Robert Whittle, commander of Task Force Guardian, the brigade’s rear detachment operation.
“We do our best to kind of put a finger on it when things start to go in wrong directions, because everyone’s hit by grief,” said Capt. Jacob White, who commands the rear detachment of 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment.
As many casualties as his unit has taken, “You can’t dwell on that,” White said. “I mean, the numbers, they are what they are, and you deal with it when it happens.”
People in Schweinfurt have bonded tighter, soldiers say, a result of their linguistic isolation in Germany, the rear detachment’s efforts to get people involved in activities, and the shared burden of the consequences of war.
The night before a memorial ceremony for five soldiers with Company C, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment who were killed by a makeshift bomb on June 21, families in the company gathered to talk about their grief.
Their conclusion: They are all in it together.
There is therapeutic value in knowing they’re all going through the same thing, White said.
Down in Iraq, soldiers are glad that their spouses have each other. “Some of us who serve together, our wives are neighbors and friends,” said Staff Sgt. Trent Byerley, of the 1-26.
During their off time, the soldiers talk about home. “We talk about anniversaries, kids’ birthdays,” Byerley said in an interview from Baghdad. “We ask, ‘How is your wife?’”
But the people back in Schweinfurt admit to having dark, sometimes contradictory emotions.
At the Rohr Cafe, near the chapel where memorial services are held, some wives say they have confusion in their hearts.
They’ll sit and sip coffee as mourners dressed in black walk by, toward the chapel, holding small bouquets of yellow and white roses. A short while later, they’ll hear the sound of rifle volleys and taps.
And they’ll take another sip of coffee and watch the chapel empty and people hug.
“The memorials — they hold them over there,” said Van Order, referring to the chapel, visible from the cafe. “So we hear them once or twice a week.
“It’s kind of devastating to hear taps and the 21-gun salute. Then you feel bad for whoever it is, but happy that it’s not yours. And then you feel guilty for being happy.”
As the wife of a 2nd Brigade soldier put it: “I’ve never experienced PMS like this, 24-7.”
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve smiled afterward, knowing that my husband is still alive. And that makes me feel like a horrible person,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used.
Nancy Gaskins’ husband, Sgt. 1st Class Robert Gaskins, was shot in the leg while serving in Baghdad with the 1-18 and was evacuated to Germany. The day before she got the news, Gaskins, as family readiness group leader, had led her group’s efforts to help another family deal with a similar event.
“One day, we’re all working together to help a family, and the next day, it was me,” she said.
Jason Winstanley, who is married to Capt. Angel Winstanley of 299th Forward Support Battalion, reacts his own way when he hears the rifle volleys and taps.
“I try to e-mail my wife the day of a memorial, when I hear the gunshots,” said Winstanley, the Army Learning Center operator at Ledward Barracks. “I need that. It’s not so much for her than me.
“It’s a reminder that it can happen to any one of us. It could happen tomorrow.”
Winstanley tells the couple’s 4-year-old daughter, Katarina, that her mother had to leave. It is her job, he tells the girl, and she will come back. Mommy went to help people.
He lets the girl watch “good news” stories on TV, such as clinic openings shown by the Pentagon Channel.
“I tell her, ‘Come here and look. Those are the soldiers Mommy is with.’”
Winstanley changes the channel when there’s footage of car bombs and burning Humvees.
Spouses have become keenly aware of the unpredictability of death and fragility of life.
Iilani Taylor, wife of Staff Sgt. Hy Taylor, recalls an exchange between Staff Sgt. Garth D. Sizemore and his wife while he was still in Schweinfurt. He was killed in Baghdad on Oct. 17.
“Before [Sizemore] left for deployment, we had eaten dinner with him and his wife,” Taylor said. Sizemore and Taylor’s husband were with the 1-26 and had been stationed together in South Korea; Fort Hood, Texas; and Schweinfurt.
“After dinner, [Sizemore’s] wife said to him, ‘I want to have a baby just in case something happens to you.’ And Sizemore said to her, ‘I’m too young for that. My car is my baby.’
“I don’t think she was joking much when she said it,” Taylor said. “This was a concern of hers.”
After Sizemore died, his wife had the car sent to his father in the States.
Read the related story: Families learning how to cope.
Nathalie Coulibaly and her daughter, 18-month-old Rahima, said her husband’s current deployment has been easier on her than his first, since she has met people and developed a support group. Nathalie is married to Staff Sgt. Brahima Coulibaly of Battery A, 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment, who is based in Baghdad.
CHARLIE COON / S&S