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Sgt. Stephen Battisto, left, and other men of Crazy Horse Troop, 4th Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment before a mission in March out of Kirkuk’s Forward Operating Base Warrior.

Sgt. Stephen Battisto, left, and other men of Crazy Horse Troop, 4th Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment before a mission in March out of Kirkuk’s Forward Operating Base Warrior. (Geoff Ziezulewicz / S&S)

Sgt. Stephen Battisto, left, and other men of Crazy Horse Troop, 4th Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment before a mission in March out of Kirkuk’s Forward Operating Base Warrior.

Sgt. Stephen Battisto, left, and other men of Crazy Horse Troop, 4th Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment before a mission in March out of Kirkuk’s Forward Operating Base Warrior. (Geoff Ziezulewicz / S&S)

Sgt. Stephen Battisto said leaving your guys behind and getting out of the war zone mid-deployment, for leave or injuries, is excruciating. “I never felt so wrong as a person, because I was not there for these guys.”

Sgt. Stephen Battisto said leaving your guys behind and getting out of the war zone mid-deployment, for leave or injuries, is excruciating. “I never felt so wrong as a person, because I was not there for these guys.” (Geoff Ziezulewicz / S&S)

Sgt. Bradley Brackett, right, and Staff Sgt. David Earls on patrol in Kirkuk. Brackett, Earls and the other men of Crazy Horse Troop, 4th Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment who deployed together last time to Iraq say an unbreakable bond forms between guys in their situation. “You may not like the person, but you’ll work with this person and give your life for this man, every time,” Brackett said.

Sgt. Bradley Brackett, right, and Staff Sgt. David Earls on patrol in Kirkuk. Brackett, Earls and the other men of Crazy Horse Troop, 4th Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment who deployed together last time to Iraq say an unbreakable bond forms between guys in their situation. “You may not like the person, but you’ll work with this person and give your life for this man, every time,” Brackett said. (Geoff Ziezulewicz / S&S)

Spc. Patrick Maurer, right, and Sgt. Bradley Brackett, both of Crazy Horse Troop, 4th Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, hang out during a mission earlier this year near Kirkuk, Iraq. Brackett, Maurer and other troops soldiers said the bond of brotherhood they’ve formed while on two deployments is unlike anything else. “I have an identical twin brothers, we’ve been close our whole life,” Brackett said. “He wouldn’t understand. He’s not been in.”

Spc. Patrick Maurer, right, and Sgt. Bradley Brackett, both of Crazy Horse Troop, 4th Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, hang out during a mission earlier this year near Kirkuk, Iraq. Brackett, Maurer and other troops soldiers said the bond of brotherhood they’ve formed while on two deployments is unlike anything else. “I have an identical twin brothers, we’ve been close our whole life,” Brackett said. “He wouldn’t understand. He’s not been in.” (Geoff Ziezulewicz / S&S)

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Call it what you want. Band of Brothers. The Brotherhood of Combat. It’s a familiar concept these days as America’s sons and daughters fight on two fronts. Even for people who don’t fight the wars.

It’s an unbreakable trust and kinship forged as men push their brains and bodies to the limits each day, together, in an environment that won’t forgive them should one man mess up. One guy keeps the next guy going, to keep all the brothers from falling.

That bond is found in shared sweat, blood and Gatorade, and in a can of chew passed around before a patrol, be it on an unfathomably smelly Baghdad street or high in the Afghan mountains.

It has been marketed and sold to the American public in films and video games. It’s widely known, but few actually know it.

Spc. Patrick Maurer knew it one day in Iraq during his last deployment, from October 2006 to January 2008, that saw him and his boys, among other missions, taking back Baghdad’s hellacious Haifa Street.

It’s not just him, he said. All the guys in Crazy Horse Troop, 4th Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment are tight. Maurer just learned it one day in Iraq.

"As soon as we dismounted, my driver was an older person, having issues off the bat," the 22-year-old said during a break in a patrol in Kirkuk earlier this year, his second deployment. "He was like, ‘Maurer, I can’t carry this 240, carry it for me.’ I was carrying all the ammo, but I was like, ‘No problem.’ "

Right after that, the soldiers were attacked, Maurer said. Explosions were going off all around them.

"These guys grabbed me and we hauled ass into a building," he said. "These guys are high speed as hell. They’ll protect me in any situation. I was confused during my first deployment and these guys were on it.

"I felt completely confident that I would get through that night," he said. "No issues."

Everyone in Maurer’s troop are his guys. But Staff Sgt. David Earls, Sgt. Stephen Battisto and Sgt. Bradley Brackett are his boys.

They’re on their second deployment together, building on the friendship and trust they developed during their last trip, when Iraq was a lot different.

To hear them tell it, they’re good to go as long as they’re side by side.

"When I’m with one of these guys, I feel safe," said Brackett, 24. "Just one of them. When I’m with them all, I’m invincible, you know what I’m saying? That’s how cool it is."

"They’re like my brothers," Earls, 29, said. "If something happens to them, I feel extremely sorry for the person who does something to them."

"Inside and outside Iraq, if they call me with a problem, I don’t care if it’s two or three in the morning, I’ll get up," he said. "I don’t care if it’s just ‘I need someone to talk to,’ or you need a ride from San Antonio. I’ll do it."

In and out of combat, Maurer, Earls, Brackett and Battisto have been there for each other. Putting your life in another man’s hands, and putting his life on you, does that.

"There have been times when they’ve come over in the middle of the night," Battisto, 23, said. "I was a complete mess and they came over and we spent four or five hours jamming on the guitar or playing ‘Call of Duty.’ "

"Drinking," Brackett adds.

"Yeah," Battisto says, laughing. "Drinking."

While the whole troop is a family, those outside can never get it, Brackett said.

"They’ll never understand unless they’re in it," he said. "Never. I have an identical twin brother, we’ve been close our whole life. He wouldn’t understand. He’s not been in."

It’s beyond friendship, Brackett said.

"You may not like the person," he said. "But you’ll work with this person and give your life for this man, every time. It doesn’t matter if you hang out on the weekends."

Bonding on Haifa Street

Battisto, Brackett, Earls and Maurer met each other in 2005.

"I hated this man for the longest time!" Maurer said with a smile, pointing at a grinning Earls. "He came to the troop and was my TC (truck commander), and I was like, ‘Oh, this’ll be fun.’ "

Maurer launches into his Earls impression from back then.

"Maurer! What the hell are you doing?"

"I’m standing."

"Shut up!"

Brackett, Earls and Battisto crack up. Maurer’s the funny guy.

"It was just like, him messing with me all the time," Maurer said. "I was told when he came to the troop that I was going to have to help him become part of the platoon. It’s the complete opposite. This man squared me away in every way possible for the longest time."

They did a lot of things during their last deployment, but they speak most proudly of taking it to the gangs of Haifa Street.

"We went out and found the enemy, and destroyed the enemy," Earls said flatly. "It was just different groups on the street, a lot of murders. When we took the street over in January, there were 77 murders per month. When we got done in February with that mission, there were two murders in one month.

"When you see kids not scared to go outside, you know you did your job," he said. "You took out the threat. Not just for yourself, but for innocent people."

Battisto earned the Bronze Star with "V" for valor for a particularly hellish encounter, when he saved the troop commander’s life.

“We were being ambushed in an alley,” Maurer recalled. “We took contact by a man holding a child in front of him, spraying AK down the alley. Our commander was like, ‘Don’t spray, take precision shots.’ ”

The soldiers followed the man into a smaller part of the alley, where he disappeared.

“We moved forward a little bit … people heard a grenade hit the ground,” he said. “Sgt. Battisto out of nowhere grabs our commander and shielded him. The commander still took shrapnel, but he saved his life, bottom line.”

Retired Lt. Gen. Robert Foley was a young captain in charge of a rifle company in Vietnam. A Medal of Honor recipient, he knows a thing or two about heroism and the bonds of war.

“I kept asking myself as a company commander in Vietnam: What is it that motivates these soldiers to do what they have to do every day on the battlefield? We were going on combat assaults, we had stay-behind ambushes, we had requirements for soldiers to go down into tunnels — we called them tunnel rats. You know, I never ran out of volunteers? And it was always a volunteer that had to be a tunnel rat. But soldiers would come runnin’ up, and say, ‘Sir? I got it. My turn.’ ”

Moving on

The guys know it won’t be like this forever. Life has other plans for each of them.

“I don’t want to sound like [a jerk] or anything, but I just had a kid and got married,” Maurer said. “It’s put a lot of things in perspective for me. As much as I love these guys and I’d love to be there for them, I also want to be there for my child and my wife. I’ve seen how a lot of these guys grow up in the military, and they don’t get to see their kids or their wife because they’re always deployed.”

“I plan on getting out and maybe, you know, joining another part of the military,” Maurer adds, trailing off.

Brackett eggs Maurer on.

“Just go ahead and tell them.”

“Air Force,” Maurer says.

Everyone laughs. Much of Maurer’s family is Air Force.

“Even when he leaves, we’ll still see him, we’ll still talk to him,” Earls said. “We’ll keep in touch no matter what.”

Battisto, Brackett, Earls and Maurer saw the same bonds among their sergeants as younger soldiers during their last deployment.

“I’m about to make my sergeant stripes, and I realize how important being an NCO is,” Maurer said. “You have to pass on that knowledge you’ve gained in the past.”

“You have to pass on that friendship, that trust, so that this kind of connection here never fades,” he said. “It’s our job to make sure that trust and that connection travels on.

“I never understood it until now.”

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