[Vision2020] "I've seen enough. I've done enough."
thansen at moscow.com
Tue Dec 4 16:43:57 PST 2007
>From the December 10, 2007 edition of the Army Times -
"I've seen enough. I've done enough."
For many in Charlie 1-26, the worst was still to come
Stories by Kelly Kennedy - kellykennedy at militarytimes.com
Website of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment "Blue Spaders"
Every time they learned to evade the insurgents' methods of attack, the
insurgents changed their methods. For the first five months, the Iraqis hit
Charlie Company with snipers and firefights.
"I can't even tell you how many bullet rounds I heard popping off my
gunner's turret," Staff Sgt. Robin Johnson said. But after the unit lost
Staff Sgt. Garth Sizemore to a sniper's bullet Oct. 17, 2006, as he
patrolled on foot, the soldiers learned to stand behind vehicles, not to
stand in hallways or doorways, to watch the rooftops.
For several months after they arrived in Baghdad in August 2006, Charlie
Company stayed at Combat Outpost Apache in the insurgent stronghold of
Adhamiya only while they conducted day patrols. When they rotated to the
night shift, they stayed at Forward Operating Base Loyalty and drove the 45
minutes into Adhamiya. At Loyalty, they could go to the gym, the store and
the air-conditioned dining facility with its five flavors of Baskin Robbins
ice cream and all-you-can-eat buffets. Apache, with only one building for
the American soldiers, offered little but the safety of a shorter drive.
But when Sgt. Willsun Mock died five days later after his Humvee triggered a
roadside bomb during the trip to Adhamiya, the company commander moved his
men to COP Apache permanently.
Then the insurgents started with grenades. Spc. Ross McGinnis was killed
Dec. 4 when a grenade was tossed into the turret of his vehicle; he threw
himself on it to save four friends.
"So we covered the turrets," Johnson said. They put up guards that deflected
the grenades but still allowed the gunner to operate.
Then the insurgents began planting bigger improvised explosive devices - and
more of them. One platoon ran over four IEDs within 24 hours. On Jan. 22,
Pfc. Ryan Hill died when an IED exploded near his humvee.
So the soldiers began relying more on their heavily armored Bradley Fighting
"That was our fortress," said Johnson, an even-keeled noncommissioned
officer the younger soldiers trusted for advice. "We were fearless in that
If the guys were in a Bradley when an IED erupted, they walked away. So
rather than patrol only in humvees, they went outside the wire with Bradleys
at the front and tail, humvees in the middle.
Death and corruption
Now it was January, and as the chill wind of Adhamiya's desert nights
slipped through the unheated building where they slept, the soldiers of
Charlie Company knew they still faced at least six more months in Iraq. Over
that span they would watch two commanders leave, see nine more soldiers die,
give up faith in their best defenses against the insurgents, refuse a combat
mission and have three more misery-filled months slapped onto their
When the soldiers of 1-26 finally got to go home in October, the war had hit
them harder than any other battalion since Vietnam.
In January, though, they knew only that they had to summon the courage to go
out again. And again. The deaths, as well as broken bones, burned bodies and
smashed limbs, scared them, and the young soldiers found that while the
number of attacks against civilian Iraqis declined, the number of attacks
against them increased.
The soldiers of Charlie 1-26 were convinced the Iraqi Army troops they
worked with, Shiite forces already despised by the majority of Sunni
residents of the area, were untrustworthy and knew more about the attacks
than they let on.
"The corruption in the Shiite military was horrendous," said Capt. Mike
Baka, commander of Charlie Company.
But within Charlie 1-26, the men learned to count on each other like family
and to grieve for each other like brothers.
Of the 140 men, 95 hadn't yet achieved the rank of sergeant, and most were
younger than 25. Even after 14 hours of patrolling, laughter rang through
their crude quarters at the Apache building - especially in the dining room.
First Sgt. Kenneth Hendrix made sure Girl Scout cookies graced every table,
and spent his own paycheck on video games and movies for the troops, with
the teasing reminder that first sergeants make much more than privates.
Chaplain (Capt.) Ed Choi organized tournaments - spades and dominoes - and
conducted religious services there every Tuesday. Sgt. William Redding, the
cook, made Black Forest cakes to remind them of their home post in
Schweinfurt, Germany, where they were part of the 1st Infantry Division -
the Big Red One. Without contractors to serve up lobster and steaks as they
did in the dining facilities at FOB Loyalty, Redding offered a continuous
supply of Pop-Tarts and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches to the guys going
out on patrol three and four times a day. Another soldier clipped hair once
a week in the hallway, creating a community barber-shop atmosphere.
Spc. Gerry DeNardi, 20, served as the company cruise director. Artistic and
moody, he worried before his deployment that he might be the guy whose
courage left him in the midst of battle. Because of his own fears, he wanted
to make everyone else forget Adhamiya, too. So every evening, he'd break out
his guitar and sing the silly songs he made up about his teammates. At 2
a.m., in the dusty dank basement where the soldiers slept at Apache, DeNardi
led them in karaoke.
"There's nothing better than listening to a bunch of soldiers singing
Britney Spears at the top of their girly lungs," he said. Really, it was
more of a warble, but it carried through the building.
DeNardi joined the Army for the same reason so many other young men enlist.
"My plans consisted of lying in a hammock," he said. "I needed time to
figure out what I wanted. And I don't think you can say you're an American
or you're a patriot without serving."
But the bodies and violence shook him. He and Sgt. Ryan Wood talked about
the politics behind this war - and complained that Americans knew more about
Britney Spears than Iraq. Wood, wiry in a way more Billy Idol than Rambo,
had already decided he wanted out of the Army.
"I've seen enough. I've done enough," he said.
During a 2004 deployment with Charlie Company in Samarra, Wood watched as
his platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Jorge Diaz, shot and killed a zip-tied
Iraqi civilian. Wood turned Diaz in; the platoon sergeant was sentenced to
eight years in jail and a dishonorable discharge, ending his 17-year Army
DeNardi and Wood both complained that the surge - five additional combat
brigades sent into Baghdad - hadn't reached Adhamiya, where Charlie 1-26
patrolled one of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods. And they didn't
understand why they couldn't attack the Abu Hanifa Mosque, even when they
could see insurgents shooting at them from the holy site. Politics, they
said, held them back. Politics meant they had to ask permission from the
Iraqi government. Politics dictated that they provide comfort to known
"They won't let us do our jobs," DeNardi said. "You have to finish the war
part before you can start the peace part."
Together, DeNardi and Wood wrote "Adhamiya Blues," and they had to sing it
together because DeNardi knew the music and Wood knew the lyrics:
War, it degrades the heart and poisons the mind
And we're tossed aside by governments' lies.
But we continue to grieve.
Politics would soon become an issue within Charlie Company, too.
Unwelcome change of command
Baka knew since before he left Germany that he would give up command of
Charlie Company while in Iraq. Army leadership wanted to give as many
commanders as possible experience leading in combat by rotating them through
companies, and after 24 months as company commander, Baka's time was up.
Yanking respected commanders out midtour can set back a combat unit, and so
it was with Charlie 1-26.
"When you leave and they trust you, they feel slighted," Baka said of his
men. "If you have a company like mine, you don't take out the team captain
and expect the rest of the team to operate."
Baka spent the majority of his time out on patrol with his guys, often
participating in firefights. Most days, he didn't take a break - just hopped
in a vehicle with the next group going out.
But when Capt. Cecil Strickland arrived to replace him seven months into the
deployment, the mission changed. So did the leadership style. Baka had
treated his men like friends, but Strickland, a former enlisted soldier who
had always dreamed of commanding a rifle company, kept a certain distance
between his officers and soldiers.
The men missed their old commander.
"We didn't want him to leave," Johnson said. "[Strickland's] a totally
different leader. He leads through planning. Baka leads through execution."
"Mike's very charismatic," Strickland said. "There's always going to be that
bond with Charlie Company. I'm a fool if I think I'm going to walk in and
say, 'Cut ties. You're mine now.'"
But as the surge took hold last spring, Strickland said he was required to
plan more night raids in search of high-value targets and coordinate joint
raids with special operations units. That meant he spent most of his time in
the operations room, planning missions. He went out on four or five patrols
a week, compared to Baka's daily patrols.
Strickland had tried to get to know the guys before he arrived, but it was
hard because he had spent little time in Adhamiya, having served with the
battalion at another FOB. It became even harder to bond when, four days
after the March 9 change-of-command ceremony, he lost his first soldier.
'Something was going to happen'
On March 13, Sgt. Ely Chagoya went out on patrol with Pfc. Alberto Garcia
Jr. Garcia was the good soldier, always carrying a Bible and always the one
to get a job done without being asked, said his boss, Sgt. Jake Richardson.
But he had a playful side, too. A week after Garcia touched a guitar for the
first time, Richardson heard somebody playing Johnny Cash. Garcia had
already bought himself a guitar and learned to play it.
But March 13, some of the Charlie 1-26 soldiers had a bad feeling. Including
"We would get hunches: 'I don't feel like going on this street,'" Chagoya
said. "'I know this mission I'm not going to come back.' When it's more than
one of the guys saying it, we knew something was going to happen."
And it did. The explosion killed Garcia, 23, and left Richardson and Chagoya
Like Garcia, Chagoya played guitar, but soon stopped. "I quit playing over
there because I feel when I play," he said. "I decided to block everything
and not feel so much. But when you stop yourself from feeling, it goes all
the way around: You don't feel good. You don't feel bad."
Chagoya said he tried to combat his angst by getting to know his friends
better. "When you go outside the wire, you don't know if you'll see them
The IEDs only grew more frequent - and bigger. At first, they'd just blow
out the tire of a humvee. Now the guys waited for the big one - the one that
would count as a catastrophic loss. A catastrophic loss is the military term
for a vehicle destroyed with loss of its crew. On May 14, they moved closer
to that gruesome mark when yet another Humvee hit an IED.
The IED hit the fuel tank, causing it to erupt in flames. Staff Sgt. Juan
Campos and his men leaped from the vehicle, but they were ablaze. Other
soldiers dodged small-arms fire to try to put the flames out as the men
screamed. Pfc. Nicholas Hartge died that day. Campos died two weeks later at
the burn center at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. Three other soldiers
suffered burns over 70 percent of their bodies.
After that, Charlie Company patrolled in Bradleys. But now, anger motivated
them as much as the mission. Anger made them fearless - and sometimes
reckless. It made them not themselves.
Three weeks after the humvee explosion, 2nd Platoon went looking for a
high-value target: the triggerman who set off the IED that killed Hartge and
DeNardi and Staff Sgt. Vincent Clinard saw the guy outside a building.
DeNardi grabbed an Iraqi Army 9mm Glock, and he and Clinard raced after
Hartge's accused killer. "We jumped a fence, but Clinard got caught up on a
wall," DeNardi said. "I ran inside and ran right into the guy coming down
the stairs. I forced my gun into his eye socket, and that was when he
"I wanted to kill him so bad," DeNardi said. "Instead, I pretty much crushed
his eye socket. I got promoted to specialist like five minutes later."
Charlie Company kept going out - three and four patrols per soldier per day.
The feel of each patrol could be entirely different: searching for IEDs and
blasting them with the bomb squad in the morning, then checking in with the
neighbors in the afternoon to see if they had everything they needed, or if,
by chance, they knew anything about the IED that had been found down the
street. Charlie Company handed out chem lights and soccer balls, and they
secured areas so schools could be built.
But they couldn't get past the feeling that something worse loomed.
'Nobody was coming back'
On the morning of June 21, Chagoya's Bradley came in the gate at Apache as
Spc. Daniel Agami's went out. The two gunners grinned at each other and
lifted their chins in greeting.
"We passed them and said, 'What's up?'" Chagoya said. "That's the last time
we said, 'What's up.'"
Within an hour, everyone heard the deep thud of an explosion. Faces
immediately went grim, and then the call came in. Wood's Bradley had hit an
IED. It had flipped over. It was on fire. Six men were trapped inside.
DeNardi had the day off, but this was 2nd Platoon - his platoon. He raced to
the gate, screaming at the guards to let him out.
"Open the door!" he yelled. "I can run it!" When the guards refused to let
him out, he fired off a couple of rounds toward the Abu Hanifa Mosque.
That's where the explosion had come from. Then he ran back to the main
building. He saw a guy sitting outside, not geared up, and said, "Where the
f---k's the [quick reaction force]?'"
The soldier answered, "I don't know. Go find it."
DeNardi said he clocked him in the head with his Kevlar helmet and then ran
to find Johnson, who immediately loaded up four humvees with Charlie
Company's scout platoon and pulled out of the compound.
Spc. Tyler Holladay and the other medics prepared the aide station, while
everyone left at Apache set up stretchers and tried to create enough shade
for a large number of casualties. Apache baked in 111-degree heat that day,
and medics distributed water as everyone waited.
For an hour.
Then 30 more minutes.
"You pretty much knew nobody was coming back," Holladay said. "But we
thought they were still trapped, still fighting."
Several soldiers, including DeNardi, sat with the guards at the gate
listening to the radio.
"This is taking way too long," a soldier in the aide station said. "They
should have been here by now."
They busied themselves with a wounded Iraqi girl. The blast had killed three
children and an Iraqi woman in homes nearby.
"I don't even care," Spc. Armando Cardenas said. "I know that's wrong, but
they knew it was there. There's no way they didn't know it was there."
The bomb was within 300 yards of an Iraqi Army checkpoint, and it was big
enough to flip a 30-ton Bradley upside-down and leave a hole the size of a
humvee. Somebody had spent some time digging, and somebody had seen it.
Outside the gate, small-arms fire sounded continuously as U.S. helicopters
flew overhead waiting to evacuate the wounded. They shot off flares as the
insurgents tried to shoot them down.
Then, another explosion.
Choi's truck had been hit by yet another IED. The blast broke both of his
truck commander's legs. Choi had been responding to Charlie's call for help
with the 554th Military Police Company, 95th Military Police Battalion.
More gunfire. Still no word on Wood's men. Charlie Company lined up against
the wall with arms around each other, smoking cigarettes, trying to believe.
But DeNardi had been listening to the radio. He stalked past and hurled a
magazine into a wall. "They're all gone," he said, and kept walking.
An RPG hit the driver's side of one of the MP vehicles, decapitating Spc.
Karen Clifton, a 22-year-old soldier from Fort Myers, Fla., who had hoped
someday to be a state trooper. Four more MPs came into Apache to be treated
for smoke inhalation.
As wave after wave of despair hit Apache, Baka got the news back at the S-3
shop at nearby Camp Taji.
"I looked at my NCO," he said. "I knew it was Charlie."
When he heard Wood's name, he whipped his soft cap against the wall. The
ballistic eye protection inside shattered. "I was able to get some soldiers
out of this fight because of [Expiration Time of Service] dates," he said.
"Wood was one I couldn't." Wood had been stop-lossed, ordered to serve
beyond the date he otherwise was supposed to be discharged from the Army.
As he waited for more news, Baka learned a dear friend, Maj. Sid Brookshire,
had been killed the day before by an IED in Baghdad.
"It was the worst day in our history," Baka said.
Johnson and his QRF arrived at Wood's Bradley in time to see medic Pfc.
Timothy Ray trying to get past flames and gunfire to get to the vehicle. But
the flames were too hot and too high. Johnson's best friend, Agami,
struggled to get out from underneath the 30-ton Bradley, which was resting
on his legs.
"The turret came off the Bradley," Johnson said. "[The guys] had to watch
Agami try to get out of that hatch for 10 minutes. I'm never going to forget
seeing him like that."
The 25-year-old soldier from Coconut Creek, Fla., burned alive as he tried
At Apache, Strickland ordered all of Charlie Company to go inside the main
building. Sgt. Erik Osterman remained outside to clean the blood out of the
vehicles. The medics handed out body bags.
"We have to identify the bodies," Holladay said grimly as he prepared the
paperwork for the task. Then later, "I will never forget the smell of burnt
flesh, their facial expressions. These are my friends."
In the aide station, the medics worked on Choi, who let out anguished howls.
"Jeez, Chaps," a medic said. "Your worst injury is the IV."
But the attempt at humor couldn't soften the real pain. Choi had a deep
contusion to one leg from the IED, but, worse, he faced the task of
explaining to Charlie Company why his God had let five of their friends die.
Choi didn't understand himself.
Far from done in Iraq
Choi gathered Charlie Company in the dining hall, crying and hugging each
one of them. The soldiers entered the room flinging down body armor with
their jaws set in anger and grief.
"Nobody wanted to hear what he had to say," Johnson said. "Something like
this happens, the last thing you want to do is talk about God. You want to
hurt. You want to feel that pain. God? I hated him right then."
But then they remembered each other. In their misery, they reached out. They
streamed out of the dining room to huddle in tight groups.
"I love you, man."
"We're going to be OK."
"They're watching out for us now."
That day, 2nd Platoon lost Agami, Wood, Pfc. Anthony Hebert, Spc. Thomas
Leemhuis and Sgt. Alphonso Montenegro, as well as an Iraqi interpreter who
can't be named because the families of Iraqis who work with Americans are
As the guys mourned, Choi and Lt. Col. Eric Schacht, 1-26's battalion
commander, loaded a helicopter to head back to Taji. as the helicopter
lifted off, more bad news waited for Schacht. Back home in Schweinfurt, on
the same day he lost five Charlie 1-26 soldiers, his 15-year-old son Justin
had arrived home from a youth group trip to Italy. The mop-haired rosy-faced
kid grabbed a quick snack - then choked to death. Choi accompanied Schacht
back to Alexandria, Va., to perform memorial services.
With the battalion commander gone, Charlie's status was in limbo, but the
patrols continued. Second Platoon took a couple of days off at Camp Taji.
Standing in the music section of the PX, DeNardi bounced in a tense display
of anger when he spoke, fists tight.
"Why can't we just flatten them?" he said. "Why won't they let us do our
job? We need to do like Samarra and tell everyone they have 24 hours to
leave, and then kill everything that moves after that."
Soon, the 1-26 commanders realized they had to get Charlie out of Adhamiya -
to a less volatile area of Iraq - to keep them from getting in trouble and
from hurting anyone in anger.
At Taji, the guys went to mental health and tried to regroup. But no one
could sleep. When they did, the nightmares seemed as bad as June 21 itself.
Their tour had been extended from 12 months to 15 months. They had been
scheduled to go home June 20.
They still had four months to go.
"Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil
and steady dedication of a lifetime."
--Adlai E. Stevenson, Jr.
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