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Cover Story: Surviving Iraq

Combat is only half the battle

By Michael Altman · August 1st, 2007 · Cover Story
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  Combat is only half the battle - surviving Iraq
Sean Hughes

Combat is only half the battle - surviving Iraq



Lance Cpl. Andrew Hildebrand narrowly dodged insurgent rounds that burst through the walls into the kitchen of an Iraqi house. He and his team members simultaneously tried to elude ricochet from their own rounds; unlike the opposition, their unit's ammo was unable to pierce the walls. His back ground tightly into the floor. He lay waiting, his rifle pointed toward the door.

It was at that moment that he says he had to let go, hoping there was someone or something watching over him.

"God, take me or leave me alone," he recalled saying to himself.

Hildebrand, a Loveland resident, says he found peace on that floor.

The Columbus-headquartered Marine Reserve unit he and several others from Greater Cincinnati served in, however, would experience little tranquility.

On a long May 2005 night in Western Iraq, in the last house on the block, they became trapped in their first "major firefight" during which Lima Co. 25th Marines 3rd Battalion would lose their first two soldiers. A series of firefights over the four months that followed would result in a total of 23 of the company's men reported dead -- one of the highest body counts among active American units in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Fifty-nine out of 184 from their company would be awarded Purple Hearts for injury or death during service.

On this day, in the outdoor eating area at a Don Pablo's in suburban Columbus, the flesh of several survivors from Lima Co. is tanning under a very high sky.

It is just weeks after the second anniversary of that terrifying night when the wheels of tragedy were set in motion. Many of the soldiers -- now police officers, political consultants and students -- are draped comfortably in their chairs around the six or so square tables that have been lined end to end, forming one long table.

Their faces are meatier since the last time they saw each other, a result of beer consumption and their absence from the virtual around-the-clock sauna they faced in Iraq.

Their conversations are reflective of contemporary American lad culture -- which is to say they're heavy with Will Farrell references. The apparent ringleaders are now standing up at the center of the table pantomiming Ricky Bobby and his sidekick Cal Naughton Jr.'s "Shake and Bake" routine from Talladega Nights, inserting a baking sheet into an imaginary oven.

Others try to recall the four levels of "Irish bullshit" that some of them established one night in Iraq.

Thousands of miles away are the places where these relationships were first forged, where the bodies of Iraqis and their own comrades lay lifeless in houses and streets. Years have separated them from that night when everything changed, when they became profoundly more skeptical and less trusting.

"When we first went over, we were bright-eyed," says Sgt. Andrew Taylor, a Clifton resident who served in Lima Co. "We wanted to be liberators. Leaving (to come home), I was like, 'I don't care about the townspeople.' I stopped caring."

The first cut
The higher frequency of serious injury for Lima Co. coincides with a dangerous combination of factors. Short staffed, they were virtually the lone company operating in a region with extremely high insurgent activity, which created an opportunity for their unfortunate distinction, according to the Marines.

"I heard that there were supposed to be other companies, but we were undermanned," Hildebrand says.

Lima was often additionally called upon outside their area of operation, he said.

"It didn't matter what base we went to, it always felt like we were the main effort," Hildebrand says.

"If there was something happening in Western Iraq, we were doing it," says Sgt. Tyler Hamlet of Anderson Township.

Such was the case May 8, 2005. The Army had been taking sniper fire most of the day while setting up a bridge in Haditha, a city approximately 140 miles west of Baghdad.

Lima Co. was called on to help. They were to clear part of the city of insurgents who were hiding or just blending in. Everything was going according to plan until they reached what would be the last house.

Hildebrand says he was across the street when Staff Sgt. Anthony L. Goodwin went in. Upon entry, Goodwin was shot in the face by an insurgent who'd been hiding behind a closet door.

What happened next was a blur, Hildebrand says, but they had to get Goodwin's body out of there. The insurgents were barricaded in a crawl space.

"I don't know how we got pinned down," Hildebrand says. "Rounds just started coming everywhere."

At the end of the nightlong battle, in addition to the pair that was killed, at least six more company soldiers were badly wounded and forced to go home. Three days later an improvised explosive device blew up an Amtrak amphibious assault vehicle, killing six more and completing the wiping out of nearly an entire squad from Lima Co.

Then on Aug.

3 the largest hit was absorbed. Fourteen company members died in a roadside explosion south of Haditha. It was reported to be the deadliest attack against American Forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

This final major attack claimed the lives of Lance Cpl. Tim Bell, Jr. of West Chester, Lance Cpl. Michael Cifuentes of Fairfield and Cpl. David Kenneth Kreuter of Miami Township and Lance Cpl. Christopher Dyer of Evendale.

A seesaw battle
Operating out of Haditha, "Lucky Lima," as the company had been known before the crushing turn of events, was accustomed to being fired on daily by insurgents, who were mostly Syrian.

Located in Al Anbar, the largest Iraqi province, Haditha had traditionally been portrayed as a farming community on the Euphrates River. Now, though, it was more often compared to the Wild West due to its reputation as a lawless insurgent stronghold.

To understand Haditha's volatile atmosphere is to understand the nature of insurgency.

Those who have the task of quashing insurgencies are charged with a job comparable to catching roaches when the lights come on -- except roaches don't carry semiautomatic weapons and grenade launchers. Nor are they capable of roughing up anyone who informs an exterminator of their whereabouts.

Insurgency, a form of guerilla warfare, is a way of fighting war when one side is greatly outnumbered. A departure from conventional war -- in which opposing forces line up against each other -- insurgents use a fluid strategy. They attempt to capitalize on their mobility and use civilians as operatives, as well as various forms of ambush to fight a less mobile army.

Though this style of warfare often takes decades for insurgents to win, it's been used successfully, as in the case of Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist revolution, which took nearly a quarter of a century.

Insurgents' counter-traditional tactics involve measures to topple an enemy by first wearing it down, a proverbial "rope a dope" approach. A worn-down opposition is increasingly exposed as its weakened administrative device -- a government, for example -- makes the guerilla's own leadership more plausible to villagers whose hearts and minds they're trying to capture.

The insurgents' end is theoretically achieved when peasants of a village turn their support over, having been witness to a beaten opposition. One village or town at a time, insurgents try to gain control of the state.

Sgt. Taylor, who was active from late February until the last day of September 2005, described the largely Sunni villages that they patrolled -- in order to quell insurgencies and stifle any attraction the residents might have to joining rebellion -- as being populated by "isolationists." Despite the native people's distaste for outside contact, Taylor speculates that their cooperation with U.S. forces was rooted in foreseeable harm at the hands of insurgents.

A seesaw battle was waged between Lima Co. and Syrian insurgents, whom the Marines broadly referred to as "muj" (pronounced mooj) after mujahideen warriors associated with Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda.

The "muj" style of mobile tactics didn't deviate from traditional guerilla strategy, according to Jeffrey Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio.

"The (insurgents) have adapted to hit-and-run tactics and hiding behind civilians because they know that the U.S. rules of engagement are now worded to favor the insurgents," he says. "The insurgents move in and out and around (U.S. forces) because they cannot face our firepower in a stand-up fight. They intimidate the civilian population as well."

"The muj would come in when we left a town, and vice versa," Taylor says.

He explained that, due to their lack of true allegiance, some townspeople would help insurgents with information they'd picked up about soldiers' plans and whereabouts. Also helpful for insurgents who needed assistance was the offer of a $50 payday -- the going rate to set a road bomb.

Other tensions existed, however.

"The muj would beat them up and kill them if they didn't help," Taylor says.

"Once we left, bad things would happen if (civilians) would talk to us," Hildebrand says. "They would kill them or their family."

The insurgents' ability to blend into any town put U.S. forces at a major disadvantage. Marines said that working with soldiers from the Iraqi Army was crucial for this reason.

Mostly Shia from the south, some of the Iraqi Army had fought in Operation Desert Storm and even as far back as the Iran-Iraq war. They were considered largely beneficial to obtaining intelligence in the villages. In a way that U.S. forces could have never known, the native soldiers could assess townspeople, signals and even facial gestures in moments.

"After a few words and a look around -- real quick -- they knew if these guys were bad or not," Taylor says.

Pretend it's a game
Receiving few breaks for R&R, the Marines say they were indiscriminate about viewing every DVD they could get their hands on, including favorite collections of television shows The OC and Smallville.

One Marine says he hit Titleist golf balls off the dam near their base, thinking about his kinship with his father and about shooting a different kind of round back in southwestern Ohio. Still another said that the taste of a beer, often sent by a soldier's girlfriend from home -- though officially illegal in Iraq -- took him back, noting that drunkenness was a virtual impossibility due to the necessity to constantly stay alert.

Iraqi cigarettes were cleverly disguised to look like American brands but tasted "really bad," according to one soldier.

Sex -- at least with another person -- was not possible. His company was all male and there was a lack of attractive prospects in the towns.

"There were no women," Taylor says.

With a tone of bitter sarcasm, he recalls one 24-hour period of so-called rest for Lima Co. The hours evaporated quickly as the soldiers used the time to wash sweat-stiffened "cammies" (camouflage clothing) that would stand completely erect on their own due to days of hardened sweat. They then rewashed the uniforms after windswept sand muddied them while hanging on a clothesline.

On a short visit to Al Asad Air Base, described as a comfortable base further west of Haditha from Baghdad, some from Lima Co. became aggravated.

In contrast to the Iraq the soldiers had known, luxuries at Al Asad were in abundance, Taylor says --not the least of which were lavish athletic facilities and fancy drinks.

"There are a lot of clueless servicemen who get to go home and tell stories about drinking gourmet coffee," Taylor says. "Our reality was so the opposite, which is what pissed us off when we got to Al Asad."

The base had something else the Marines wanted: women. Female soldiers and workers.

"Another reason to hate the people at Al Asad," Taylor says, grinning.

Lima Co.'s operations eventually decreased due to casualties. Even being after "plussed up" with units from New Mexico, New York and some soldiers from Montana, they were running low on troops.

"We had taken so many hits after four months, I think our command didn't want us taking operations anymore," Taylor says.

Now used to persistent hostility, each Marine had adjusted in his own way. Some used the art of denial to preserve their sanity.

"We were constantly in firefights," Hildebrand recalls. "It got annoying. I treated firefights as fake. If I thought about it, I would freak myself out."

In an e-mail, Sgt. Hamlet says the first major attack robbed him of a sense of shock.

"Before the 'house' incident, some guys would see dead Iraqi bodies laying around after a firefight, and you could tell some of them were kind of shocked, like, 'Did that really just happen?' " Hamlet wrote. "But believe it or not, after the 'house' incident -- after just one night, after losing our first buddy -- nothing was shocking anymore. Bodies laying around meant nothing more to us than the sand we walked on."

Things had changed for the soldiers who had seen the front lines of battle as few have in their generation. The tone became existential.

"Why did I make it and that guy didn't?" Taylor asks. "All the close calls where we didn't get killed. Who lived and died was random."

'It comes back later'
Upon their return home, assimilation to what had once been so common and comfortable was initially difficult.

One soldier described a simple visit to a clothing store as particularly distressing. In a dressing room, he became overwhelmed by the sound system blaring Techno music while salespeople threw clothes over the door. He said he wanted to get far away from there.

Having been advised about post-traumatic stress disorder -- an anxiety-related malady first diagnosed as "shell shock" in veterans of the World War I -- Taylor says he and fellow Marines are aware that these psychological scars, including "survivor's guilt," often remain the longest, even compared to those who returned without their eyes, with much of the skin melted on their faces and arms and chunks of their hands blown off by mortar. He believes that several had already taken advantage of the counseling sessions that had been "pushed."

"The worst thing was seeing little kids that were either wounded or killed by insurgents," the boyish looking 29-year-old says. "I have been told that it comes back later. But right now I think more about the men. I look at terrorists like I look at a spider. Some of the things that terrorists are willing to do -- I don't feel bad about removing someone like that."

After the close of a week that saw the clamor in Washington over Iraq War funding reach a fever pitch, during which Democrats and Republicans publicly prescribed their brand of support for the troops, a monument honoring the living and dead of Lima Co. was dedicated on Memorial Day. The lone politician in attendance was Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman, who came in support of his son; now back, J.D. Coleman had served in 1st Platoon of Lima Co.

Decimated -- but not forlorn -- the troops and several hundred friends, family and other veterans watched the unveiling of the nearly 8-foot-tall, white granite tablets. Etched in black are the names of 184 Marine reserves. Separating the tablets are waist-high slabs of black granite marked with the phrase "Bound by War" engraved in white over "United in Peace."

"The vast majority of the guys I know know what they have done, what they are capable of doing," Taylor says. "They've shot people. There's no need to act tough. People are surprised that I'm not crazy. I don't go around talking shit or trying to act like a hard-ass."

Even as his words, loaded and introspective, float through the air like a day-old balloon, his voice doesn't appear to be coming from then or there. It seems to come from here and now.

Now, as he says, "I don't have anything to prove. Ever." ©

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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