101st Airborne - Stripes

101st Airborne

101st Airborne Division:

Close-knit military community feels pain of deaths in wars the nation has forgotten

101st Airborne Division:

Close-knit military community feels pain of deaths in wars the nation has forgotten

By Dianna Cahn

Stars and Stripes

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — Rain came in a deluge on the Friday of Sgt. William Bays’ funeral.

“He was a friend, a peer, a husband,” Sgt. Lucas Schultze, a fellow soldier of the 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, said, crying as he spoke of the more senior comrade who taught him to lead. “A father, a son and a brother.”

Mourners filed out of the chapel on Fort Campbell, ducking into dry cars that maneuvered into formation.

“A great mentor,” Schultze said.

The procession crossed the base that straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee border, past training grounds where members of the 101st Airborne Division prepare for war, past buildings where they reunite with loved ones when they return and past the headquarters where a long corridor bears the names of the thousands of “Screaming Eagle” soldiers who didn’t make it home. In wars that many have forgotten about, troops are still dying from hostile fire.

Lindsay Bays, sister of Sgt. William Bays, pauses at her brother’s casket during his funeral held at Belmont Cemetery in Allensville, Ky., on June 23, 2017.

Michael S. Darnell/Stars and Stripes


One by one, the vehicles pulled out of the gate where war protesters were rumored to be massing but instead, several dozen people stood in the downpour waving flags in a final farewell.

Pounding rain blurred the flashing lights of the cars ahead and drowned out the rumble of Patriot Guard motorcycles along with 12 gray cement trucks that joined at the rear. The trucks bore military-related decals, including the 101st insignia of a bald eagle — “Old Abe” as it is affectionately known — and the company’s name: Screaming Eagle Ready Mix.

The company wanted to do “a little bit of something to maybe ease their pain,” said Jeff Burkhart, a Clarksville City Council member and a co-owner of the company, which has no military connection.

For 40 miles from the post to the cemetery in Allensville, Ky., residents lined the route. American flags hung from cranes, and people wearing red in tribute huddled under rain capes, honoring the Fort Campbell soldier.

They didn’t know Bays, 29, or Sgts. Eric Houck, 25, or Dillon Baldridge, 22, who were killed June 10 when an Afghan army commando allegedly turned his weapon on his American trainers. But Fort Campbell is part of the fabric of this region of rambling pastures and small towns, where farmers and business owners live side by side with veterans of the 101st and the post that offers a place to gather year-in, year-out for celebrations — and tragedies.

“It’s not that we knew them personally, but we take it personally,” Burkhart said.

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Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 101st has paid into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with constant deployment rotations and the lives of its soldiers.

Its leaders say that is the pride and legacy of the 101st — answering its call to serve with commitment. But in recent years, as the U.S.’ role has slowed down, so have the casualties coming home, leaving a new generation of deploying servicemembers to learn what service had cost the soldiers whose boots they fill.

“The new soldiers, they don’t get it,” said Sgt. Jonathan Merced, who has been in the Army for four years and is a squad leader in 1-187’s D Company. Merced deployed to Afghanistan alongside the men who were gunned down in June, but he returned early for medical reasons and is training the newest recruits. “They don’t understand the loss, so I try to tell them this is something serious.

“It matters what we do here in the rear. It’s important that we continue to train the way we train because you’ve got to be ready for anything.”

He wants them to know: Each time they deploy, “there’s a serious chance I am not going to coming back.”

Getting the news

The call, as it always does, took Lt. Col. Joseph Suddith off guard. Three soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team who were deployed to Afghanistan had been killed.

It was 4:30 a.m.

As commander of the rear provisional brigade of the 3rd BCT — the element that stayed behind to prepare for other missions — Suddith got right to work.

For almost 16 years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 101st has paid into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with constant deployment rotations and the lives of its soldiers. Hear some of the unit's soldiers, past and present, talk about what that means to them. Produced by Michael S. Darnell/Stars and Stripes

He knew the drill. During the surge of 2009-12, the fight was so intense that Suddith remembers attending funerals every week or two. He once had served as mortuary affairs officer after a catastrophic IED had killed five soldiers.

Now, as the experienced senior rear officer, it was his job to make sure the detachment back home was ready — for anything. He’d helped train the casualty notification officers who would go to the soldiers’ homes to break the news and the casualty assistance officers who sweep in immediately afterward to help guide the family.

Survivor Outreach Services were alerted — though they would step in later, once the casualty assistance officers helped the family through the first few months of burying their soldier and filing for benefits. Also alerted was the Care Team — organized through the family readiness program — that would provide two or three spouses to help keep the survivor’s household running on those shocking first days.

Within a few hours, soldiers and civilians were in place.

They’d staffed for death, planned for it, rehearsed it.

“It’s pretty scripted for us,” Suddith said.

But none of that made it easier. The men had been deployed nine months and these were their first combat deaths. The last unit to deploy didn’t lose anyone. Now, three soldiers in their 20s were lost.

In the next two weeks, Suddith would fly to Dover Air Force Base, Del., twice for the dignified transfer of the remains of the men in his brigade, would meet with families just starting to grasp their tragedy and would run the unit’s preparations for two of the three funerals.

“The moment you get used to that, you probably need to be doing something else in life,” he said.

But Suddith also was keenly aware that he was the one these young soldiers were looking to for guidance. They would follow his lead.

“I reaffirm to them it’s OK to grieve, but I also have business to do,” he said. “We still have a mission to make. Take a knee, drink a little water and get back on the horse.”

Rendezvous with destiny

That’s the thing about a unit as storied in battle as the 101st. People join because they want to be the best. And they know that comes at a high cost. Which is why, even after 15 years of steady war deployments, the 101st still enjoys a high retention rate, he said. The 101st did not provide a full tally of its war losses. But its casualties at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were staggering: 104 killed in 2010 in Afghanistan and 105 killed from 2005 through 2006 in Iraq. More than 400 of its soldiers were wounded in Afghanistan from March through July of 2010, USA Today reported — a fighting season when the 101st made up 20 percent of all American forces.

“If you want to slide down a rope out of a helicopter, you come here. If you want the opportunity to go to combat and be on the pointy end of the stick, you … come here or go to the 82nd. I think the reputation of the unit, the history of the unit brings them here, and I think they stay when they see why we have that reputation in history,” Suddith said.

This was the division that dropped into occupied France behind enemy lines on D-Day and fought at the Battle of the Bulge. They emerged victorious at Hamburger Hill and fought seven major battles in Vietnam. From their start in 1942 with the declaration by Maj. Gen. William Lee that the unit had “a rendezvous with destiny,” the 101st has taken part in every major American conflict.

“It makes you proud to be a part of that,” Suddith said. “But when you get to that unit and find that the leadership is good and the training is hard, you become that much more proud.”

Screaming Eagles logos abound on businesses and doorsteps surrounding the base. Retired Chief Warrant Officer 5 John Nikolao keeps a metal mold of “Old Abe” on his front porch.

“It’s the first thing people see,” he said.

He wears Screaming Eagles hats and has considered getting a similar tattoo. Nikolao, who retired this year, flew Black Hawk helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan, deploying every other year from 2003 to 2014.

“The risk is inherent but the call of duty is just something that’s embedded in your blood,” he said. “It becomes part of who you are.”

Boots on the ground

For one week every fall, the lawn of the 101st Airborne Division Headquarters on Fort Campbell is filled with rows of military boots — each adorned with an American flag and a picture of a soldier who has died since Sept. 11, 2001.

Last year, there were more than 7,000 boots.

Jasmin Bays, 36, will have the opportunity to add her husband’s this year — likely alongside those of Houck and Baldridge. She also will be able to hang his picture in the Hall of Remembrance, a memorial to those who served and died in the 101st.

Both projects are run by Survivor Outreach Services at Fort Campbell, a program that serves as a bridge connecting surviving family members to the soldiers of the 101st. The program steps in when the work of the Casualty Assistance Officer is done and stays for the long haul — letting families know they always have a place here, director Suzy Yates said.

They give new widows hope by introducing them to others who have survived the heartbreak, Yates said. At the same time, young soldiers see the memorial — or the Boots on the Ground display — and realize that if something were to happen, their families would not be forgotten.

Those reminders are part of what brings the 101st into the community around it. And it is what Jasmin Bays said she has seen since June 10.

Help has been “coming from every direction,” she said. “To see and feel all the love coming from the community and everyone around us — it’s really overwhelming,” Bays said. “Maybe it sounds weird, but the love that William gave us — it comes from the people back to us now. That’s how it feels.”

The two met online in 2012 when William was stationed in Germany. They chatted virtually for weeks, realizing they saw life through the same lens. Then they met and “he never left,” she said.

He’d been through a rough divorce. She was raising three girls on her own. Their friends and family said each one saved the other. She loved his green eyes and his generosity, how he cherished his time with the girls and complemented her more pessimistic nature with his optimism.

"They don’t understand the loss so I try to tell them this is something serious. It matters what we do here in the rear."

- Sgt. Jonathan Merced

He coached her through getting her U.S. high school diploma and then through college classes. He knew she would make it even when she had doubts.

“He was what you would expect from a perfect man. He was my soul mate. I could talk with him for hours, about everything.”

They married in late 2013, and she and the girls joined him in the states a few months later. They lived on post until a year ago, when they bought a house in Allensville. She knew what being a member of the Rakkasans — as the 187th Infantry Regiment is known — meant to him. It was more than a job. It was a big part of their lives, she said.

He always said he’d be OK dying for his brothers and sisters. They had discussed that possibility — agreeing that if anything happened to either of them, the other would stay put in their house in this Fort Campbell community, where their roots were already so deep.

On the day of the funeral, among all the people lining the road and offering love, Jasmine Bays noticed a little girl who held a banner that said, “Sgt. Bays died for us so we stand for him.”

“When I saw that, I couldn’t stop crying,” she said. “I mean, all the people who came out — all the people who were standing there. They were strangers and they still care. I mean, where do you find that?”

A place to gather

There are days when Richard Gatewood thinks he has the worst of it under control. The injury, the pain, the anxiety from not ever feeling like the job is done — including the to-do list each day that he has written on his bathroom mirror so he doesn’t lose track. His traumatic brain injury messes with his memory.

But then there are those days when he just can’t get his unfinished business as a soldier out of his mind. Leaving the battlefield on a stretcher, wondering whether he would ever feel like it’s behind him.

On those days, Gatewood is grateful that just 30 minutes from his home is Fort Campbell, where he can drive by his old unit, walk through the museum and wander around the division’s myriad memorials assembled in a parklike setting at the center of the base. There, he usually runs into other soldiers looking for solace.

“It’s not just the old guy wearing the funny hat from some veteran’s organization that’s coming back,” he said. “It’s the young guy that’s 26 years old, who joined the Army when he was 17, deployed when he was 18 and deployed every other year after that.”

Over decades and generations, memorials cropped up all over Fort Campbell, often outside the headquarters of a particular unit — a growing testament to the never-ending cycle of the 101st going off to war.

In recent years, the division started moving the monuments to a central location on base. There, a large display of old military aircraft is surrounded by hefty, stone monuments dedicated to various units or campaigns and listing the names of those lost.

There is a section for the Rakkasans, from those lost in Iraq and Afghanistan to others dating back to World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm. Granite stones, some dark, others light, commemorate airborne or military police or parachute field artillery. One monument, which includes a plaque with a list of names three rows wide, bears the title “Liberators,” dedicated to the 20th Armored Division that liberated Munich and the Dachau concentration camp from the Nazis.

“Having those memorials all in one spot will cause those that come to see the 101st to realize the gravity of the contribution of the 101st,” Gatewood said. “I think in that way the 101st takes care of its people in a way it doesn’t even realize.”

Gatewood loved being a sergeant first class in the 32nd Cavalry Regiment. Even during a rough deployment to Afghanistan’s Nuristan province in 2010, when he rode his men to rebuild the damaged and dysfunctional combat outpost they’d inherited, his sense of mission never wavered.

But when he landed in early 2011 at the 101st Warrior Transition Battalion after he got hit by an incoming mortar round that tore a hole through his upper chest and left shoulder, Gatewood felt isolated.

His career was over, his rank no longer mattered and Gatewood, under medical treatment, became addicted to painkillers. It took years to get off the opioids and even longer to regain use of his left arm. His nerves — well, those are a work in progress, he said.

But more than anything, Gatewood felt disconnected from the one place in the world where he was most comfortable: his unit in the 101st.

Coming back to those memorials is like coming home.

Epilogue

The month of July was homecoming month for the Rakkasans, and one by one, units continue to trickle in.

William Bay’s D Company returned July 13.

Jasmin Bays is daily taking comfort from members of her husband’s unit — past and current — who have reached out to embrace her.

She posts on Facebook and she receives an outpouring in return. As one of his former colleagues wrote: “When a heart breaks, it takes a lot of people to keep it beating sometimes.”

cahn.dianna@stripes.com
Twitter: @DiannaCahn