Losses in Iraq hit Schweinfurt unit hard
BAGHDAD — The latest losses are so recent that Staff Sgt. Trenton Tharp still expects to see his friends walk around the corner. He knows they are gone — Tharp is a soldier after all, and death is nothing new. But, for a little while longer at least, a part of him still wrestles with reality.
“Your heart wants to tell you, ‘No, it didn’t happen,’” he said.
Deployment to Iraq hasn’t been easy for U.S. soldiers, and Tharp and other members of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment are no exception. The Schweinfurt, Germany-based unit has endured a stream of casualties. The losses have included key leaders in quick succession, leaving the tight-knit group little time for recovery.
To cope with the strain of a difficult deployment, the soldiers said they have turned to each other and the support of their families back home. They have leaned on a sense of camaraderie and community that has only continued to grow. The unit is expected to leave Iraq by the end of October.
“We’ve taken a lot more casualties than anybody expected,” Capt. Jess Greaves said. “With every guy you lose, all the guys you have left become tighter. They depend on each other emotionally as much as they do tactically.”
The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division — known as the “Dagger Brigade” — has sustained the greatest numbers of deaths of any Europe-based brigade; 56 troops have been killed in combat since the brigade deployed a year ago, mostly from roadside bombs. The hardest hit among Dagger’s battalions has been the 1-26 with a reported 27 losses.
“You don’t know what camaraderie is until you lose a brother,” said Spc. Joshua Hockett, 21, of Lakewood, Wash.
During the year the 1-26 has been in Iraq, its soldiers have drawn dangerous assignments. They have rolled into, among other places, the heart of the eastern Baghdad sector of Adhamiyah, around the Abu Hanifa mosque, center of the extremist Sunni resistance in the area.
“Adhamiyah has been hot all year round,” Tharp said. “If you go into Adhamiyah and don’t fire your weapon, it’s a great day.”
The 1-26’s Charlie Company alone has lost more than a dozen soldiers in the battle-scarred streets. Spc. Ross McGinnis was killed after diving onto a grenade and smothering the explosion, sparing the lives of four other soldiers. He was awarded the Silver Star and has been nominated for the Medal of Honor.
“There’s every kind of attack you can imagine,” Tharp said. “I’ve seen machine-gun fire, precision small-arms fire (sniper attacks), large IEDs (improvised explosive devices), small IEDs, RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), mortar attacks. We’ve taken everything they can throw at us.”
The 32-year-old from New Castle, Colo., estimates he has been hit by 14 makeshift bombs. The roadside attacks have damaged his vehicles and on occasions knocked him out.
“It’s been a very trying year. We’ve lost a lot of good men,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like we’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel just yet.”
Tragedy has had a sense of the dramatic when it comes to the 1-26. In June, on the same day the unit lost five men to a roadside bomb, commanding officer Lt. Col Eric Schacht’s teenage son was found dead in Germany. Schacht returned to Germany to be with his family.
In July, Master Sgt. Jeffrey McKinney was killed in a noncombat related incident that is still under investigation. Within a week of the loss of McKinney, four additional 1-26 soldiers, including another noncommissioned officer, Sgt. 1st Class Luis E. Gutierrez-Rosales, were killed by an explosive.
Tharp, who considered Gutierrez his best friend, led the group of soldiers who collected the remains of their fallen comrades.
“You just have to make yourself pull through it,” Tharp said of the difficult period. “[What helps is] everybody has family. I personally think about my wife and five boys.”
Tharp said that he does not talk about Iraq with his sons. Nonetheless, they notice a difference in their father when he returns home.
“Families sometimes make the mistake of expecting the same individual that left them to come back,” Tharp said. “It’s a hard adjustment for them. My kids point out differences in me every time I [return from deployment].”
Tharp said that he shares everything with his wife: the good, the bad, the ugly. “Without my wife’s backing, this would have been an unbearable year,” he said.
Pfc. Shawn Tomey, a 24-year-old from Michigan, said that although his wife is also a great support, there’s only so much about his experience in Iraq he wants to share.
“I keep her informed as best as I can without telling her what she doesn’t need to know,” he said. “It’s hot, I’m tired and dirty. She’s 2,000 miles away. What can she do about it?”
Tomey instead turns to his fellow soldiers, the only people who will fully understand what it has meant to serve in Iraq. Soldiers process their experience in different ways, he said. “Some guys go to the gym, some guys run, some guys are into video games, some guys talk about it, others don’t.”
But when called upon, soldiers are there for each other, he said.
“You think it’s going to be a long time over here and it is, but you are here with your buddies and that makes it tolerable,” he said. “I knew where I was going when I signed on. You get your buddy, lean on your buddy and every day is the next day.”
Spc. Michael Collier, 20, of Auburn, Ala., said the feeling of battle-tested camaraderie is pervasive across the battalion.
“Me being a fueler, I’ve talked to every soldier here and we’ve pretty much become like brothers,” he said. “The whole battalion feels it. It’s been hard. We just want to get the hell up outta here and see our families.”
Struggling with the deployment and sagging under the weight of the change in policy that has extended their tour of duty, several enlisted soldiers said they have had enough. One soldier, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution, said that several members of the battalion who had intended to make the military a career will instead opt out as soon as possible.
Lt. Col. John Reynolds, who took over the 1-26 after Schacht’s departure, said it is natural for soldiers to be angry during trying times. One of the stages of grieving, after all, involves feelings of hostility, he said.
“This is my fourth combat tour. It doesn’t get any easier,” he said. “It stresses the body, it stresses the mind, it stresses the heart.”
The 1-26 has been operating at a high tempo since their quick deployment from Germany, Reynolds said. The loss of soldiers that others looked up to may have been the breaking point for some of the soldiers, he said.
“You don’t fight the anger, you work through it,” he said. “Some people have had enough, and I don’t blame them. But the mission is still there and you still have to leave the gates in the morning.”
To help soldiers through the tough transition, Reynolds instituted “Operation Healing Heart” a week after assuming command. The move was made to encourage soldiers to seek out counseling and morale-boosting services.
Sgt. Omar McQueen, of the 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment, which is attached to the 1-26 task force, said a good NCO keeps an eye out on “the younger guys.” A month before their scheduled return to Germany in October, the battalion chaplain will offer classes to help ease the soldiers’ reintegration into their families.
“You are not just going to go home and get back into the swing of things,” said McQueen, 30, of New York
McQueen said that it is often when solders returns home that the experience of living in a war zone finally catches up with them.
He recalled landing in Germany after a previous deployment and seeing the gathered families waiting to embrace their loved ones. With the emotional scene playing out in front of him, he said, all he had just experience in Iraq came back to him “in about 15 seconds,” he said.
“It’ll hit you all at once, all the soldiers you’ve lost, all the missions you’ve been on, all the times you’ve been chewed out.”
The rush of memories, he said, left him momentarily shaken with tears welling in his eyes and more unsure of himself standing in the safety of an airport in Germany than at any time he was in a war zone.
Read Sunday's installment, Europe's Deadliest deployment.