N.Y. unit's veterans have mixed feelings over Mideast return
CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait — When Staff Sgt. David Lluvera headed home after the first Gulf War 13 years ago, he could hardly have imagined one day he’d be dusting Kuwaiti desert sand from his boots again.
“I said goodbye to this [sewer] hole once, and I never thought I’d be back,” said Lluvera, now 33, a soldier with the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard.
Lluvera and his buddies in the “Fighting 69th” are in Kuwait this week, preparing to convoy north for a year’s duty in central Iraq as part of the 256th Brigade Combat Team, a Louisiana National Guard unit. The brigade marks the start of the third set of troops to rotate into the Middle East as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the deployment isn’t the unit’s first tour since Sept. 11, 2001.
The 1-69 Infantry is based in midtown Manhattan, only a few miles from the site of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center. It lost two members when the Twin Towers collapsed. Everyone else, unasked, reported for duty that day — including one company commander who had barely escaped from the skyscrapers and showed up covered head-to-toe in dusty debris. The battalion served two exhausting months guarding Ground Zero and other key sites immediately following the attacks.
“This is what the National Guard was there for: to defend our country against an attack,” said Capt. Sean Flynn, 32, of Brooklyn, and 1st Battalion’s Company B commander.
“We were very close to everything that happened on Sept. 11th,” Flynn said.
Still, only a few in the unit have actually fought in combat before.
Spc. Shannon Flahive, 28, served four years as a combat engineer with the Germany-based 1st Armored Division, the last six months of it in Iraq. He left the Army in September 2003 to return home in Attica, N.Y., and study for the New York State Trooper’s exam. He joined the National Guard, only to find himself called up for another Iraq tour.
Back in the desert, he feels a weird sense of déjà vu.
“It feels like I went home for a little leave, and now I’m back again,” Flahive said.
His 1st AD unit entered Baghdad shortly after the capital fell to coalition troops. His unit’s sector was quiet at first, but he saw the insurgency slowly build and remembers the lessons he learned from his first time in Iraq.
“You’ve got to be strong, but not mean,” he said. “The [units] that were heavy-handed, they were the ones that were getting hit a lot.”
Flahive said the training the 256th BCT has gone through since its activation last May is much more on point. During the run-up to the invasion, the 1st AD focused on battling an organized fighting force — a skill the division didn’t need after the Iraqi army melted away faster than expected.
This time, he said, the training stressed urban-warfare skills. It included role-playing exercises with U.S. citizens of Iraqi descent.
“We actually trained for what we’ll be doing,” he said.
Three of Flahive’s comrades in Company B of the 1-69 Infantry, Lluvera, 1st Lt. Brian Rathburn, and Cpl. David Webster served in the first Gulf War. Although the turf is familiar, all three said the circumstances this time are far different.
“It was a simple mission, clearly defined,” said Rathburn, 34, of St. James, N.Y., who stormed the beaches with the 4th Marine Expeditionary Force in 1991. “You knew who the enemy was. They had specific uniforms, specific tactics.”
“[Now, the enemy is] not that easy to pinpoint. We’re trying to find two or three guys in a sandbox,” said Lluvera, who became an aircraft mechanic in civilian life after ending his nine-year Army career in 1998.
“It’s almost as if you’re running for office,” Rathburn said. “You’re trying to win the people over to your side.”
All agree they’ve gained maturity and experience since their first Middle East adventure. But they’re also burdened with more cares.
“Now I’ve got a family,” said Rathburn, now a Suffolk County police officer. “My wife’s home. She’s about to give birth any day.”
But all agree their unit has trained well. The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks quite literally hit home, and they’ve got a personal stake in the war on terror.
Revenge, or patriotism, can take a soldier only so far. When it’s time to fight, Lluvera said, something else must kick in. A complex war with a hidden enemy makes turning the killer switch on and off a delicate business.
“It’s all been training, until now,” he said. “When you make that first contact — when you’re forced to take someone’s life — that’s when it all becomes real.”