Giving thanks in Iraq: Close calls leave troops counting their blessings
November 25, 2004
FORWARD OPERATING BASE MACKENZIE, Iraq — Six hundred thirty times since the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment arrived in Iraq last March, they have been attacked by the enemy.
Sometimes a roadside bomb blows up next to a truck. A mortar explodes in the middle of the base. Insurgents pop out from hidden positions and open fire with AK-47 rifles on a whole convoy. In Iraq, the front lines are nowhere, and they are everywhere.
At a base like FOB MacKenzie, home of the 1st Infantry Division’s 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, it is hard to find an infantryman, engineer, supply sergeant, pilot or clerk who hasn’t had a close brush with death. Most have had several.
They’ve lived through things they’ll never share with anyone except other combat veterans and fought fear beyond anything most civilians will ever feel. The experience has changed some of them in ways they don’t yet realize.
“These guys are battle-hardened. There isn’t anybody who hasn’t been under attack,” said Maj. Kirk Dorr, 38, of Marlboro, Mass., the squadron’s operations officer. “The logisticians and convoy supporters see just as much contact as our line troops.”
Seven 1-4 Cavalry troopers and one civilian from MacKenzie have died in the nine months since the unit took over the former Iraqi airfield 20 miles east of Samarra. More than 50 others have been wounded.
Hundreds of 1-4 Cavalry soldiers have dodged death by a whisker, aided by luck, pluck or divine providence. Almost everyone here can name three or four or more occasions he should have died, but didn’t.
“I can’t even count them,” said Spc. Joshua Burgess, 25, of Arlington, Texas, a member of Troop B. He has lived through two bomb attacks on his convoy the same day and countless pot shots he describes as “nothing really significant.”
For thousands of soldiers in the war zone, life itself is something to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.
“I’m thankful for having all my fingers and toes,” said Spc. Jose Bartual, 26, of New York City.
By now these men hardly mind small-arms fire, which at least gives them a chance to fight back. What they hate most are the roadside-bomb explosions. They come out of nowhere, from an invisible enemy.
“The first 10 or 15 seconds, everything is chaos,” said Capt. John Trylch, 30, the Troop B commander. “The explosion, the dust and dirt. … The radios start screaming, everyone is yelling.”
But then the training really does kick in. Soldiers remember what they’re supposed to do: take a firing position, man a radio, organize troops or treat casualties. Leaders say panic is surprisingly rare.
“Even though you want to duck down, you can’t,” said Spc. Robert Laurell, 21, of Troy, Mo., a gunner for the 9th Engineers. “Your battle buddies are relying on you to stay up there and keep firing.”
Heading out on the next patrol isn’t always easy. But it is part of the job. Every soldier must find a way to get past the fear.
“Everybody deals with it differently,” said Sgt. Jason Benton, 25, of the 9th Engineers. “I just try not to think about it, act like it’s the first time I’m going out again.”
Pfc. Joshua Schmidt, 21, said he didn’t want to leave the base in an armorless Humvee after surviving a mine strike in an armored one last April. Bartual said he struggled to get back in his vehicle and go on patrols again after the near-miss at the cemetery.
“I was a nervous wreck after finishing that mission,” Bartual said. “I used to get blisters from gripping the steering wheel so tight.”
Occasionally someone finds excuses to dodge a mission. But soldiers know their buddies depend on them. It doesn’t happen often.
“If you don’t go, someone else has to,” said Spc. Steve Wetmore, 20, of Union City, Pa., and the 9th Engineers.
Sgt. Orville Whitlock, a squad leader with the 9th Engineers’ sappers, survived an RPG strike on his Humvee May 5. The detonating charge whizzed just inches from the heads of the two men in the right-side seats, exploding against the front windshield in a shower of safety glass. All five occupants suffered shrapnel wounds.
Still he rides on patrols — sometimes in the same Humvee, which still is scarred with a large hole where the grenade hit.
“Everybody’s scared. But you can’t be too scared to function,” Whitlock said. “I use the fear and the worrying about coming back as fuel to get through the mission.”
“You have to keep your head in the game,” Benton said. “You can’t fear death.”
Rarely do soldiers discuss these close calls with anyone back home. They don’t want to worry wives, kids, husbands or parents.
“I don’t tell ’em anything — just ‘everything’s good, the weather’s getting better,’ ” said Benton, who has a wife, Scharlamange, and two children back home in Schweinfurt, Germany. “They already worry enough about me.”
“You’ve got to candy-coat it,” said Spc. Shane Stupavsky, 20, of Quincy, Ill., who serves in Trylch’s troop.
Even among themselves, soldiers say, they don’t often talk much about combat once it’s over. But there is an unspoken bond among troops who have been together in an especially hairy mission.
“Sometimes just a glance, a pause in a discussion, is worth a thousand words,” Trylch said.
With the 1st Infantry Division’s deployment now almost three-quarters complete, troops are thinking more and more about getting home safely and need to stay focused on the mission at hand, soldiers said.
Nearly 100 of the 22,000 soldiers from the 1st ID-led Task Force Danger — which also includes brigades from the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division and the North Carolina National Guard, plus many smaller Guard and Reserve detachments — have been killed.
Ironically, there is a grim joy to war. Soldiers report a fierce adrenaline rush from combat, and they get to use the skills they’ve trained at for years. There’s a certain pride in surviving a tough scrape.
“Any soldier that’s gone into combat has to be satisfied with what he’s done,” said Capt. Gary Fisher, the 39-year-old 1-4 Cavalry chaplain from Alexandria, La. “It’s life-defining. It’s very fulfilling to have achieved ‘mission complete.’ ”
He has twice been on convoys in which soldiers died from enemy attacks. He vividly remembers the pavement burning his knees, the sweat pouring from his head, as he prayed in the ear of an injured sergeant.
“I am most alive when I experience moments of combat,” said Fisher. “It has a way of cutting away everything that’s unnecessary for life.”
Some soldiers say they’ve already sensed the jarring difference between life at home and life in a combat zone.
“When I went home on [rest and recuperation], people were just griping and bitching about little things,” Schmidt said. “They’re not thinking about getting killed every day.”
Dorr believes troops who have lived close to death have been changed in ways that they won’t fully appreciate until long after they get home.
“There are certainly some people here who have seen some awful things,” he said. “You’re either going to leave Iraq a better person or a worse person. But you’re going to change.”
“I think they understand,” Fisher said, “that this is the defining moment in their lives.”