Kelly Kennedy / Army Times – 2007-12-21 22:46:30
Picking Up the Pieces:
Charlie 1-26 Comes Home from War
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ADHAMIYA. Iraq (December 15, 2007) — For 12 months, Spc. Tyler Holladay, 22, patrolled the violent streets of Adhamiya, Iraq. He raced to strap tourniquets on wounded buddies to save their arms and legs. He picked out pieces of shrapnel and performed battlefield tracheotomies to open airways.
As a medic, he’d seen more than enough to know he wanted to avoid bullets, grenades and roadside bombs – especially roadside bombs. Back in March, when a military police company had hit a daisy-chain of roadside bombs, Holladay helped fill body bags with the liquefied remains of fellow soldiers.
“That was the day I thought, ‘You’re not only going to die here, you’re going to be disfigured,'” he said. “‘It’s going to hurt. It’s going to be quick. And it’s going to be messy.'”
Now it was the last day of July 2007, almost exactly a year since he took up residence at Combat Outpost Apache in Adhamiya, one of Baghdad’s worst neighborhoods, and Holladay was out on patrol with Alpha Company. The platoon was searching an abandoned car. Normally, they would have first surrounded it with Bradleys to keep themselves safe from snipers, but not this time. They were in a hurry and had only one Bradley on the patrol.
“I’m on one knee between the car and a wall,” Holladay said. “I take two steps back, and I’m joking about a girl, and all of a sudden, I heard a loud bang. I looked down and realized I’d been shot.”
The bullet entered through his back and exited through his stomach. He understood instantly that he had a stomach wound – on a soldier’s most-feared list, it stands just behind a sucking chest wound. He also knew he would have to treat it himself.
“My gunner was looking at me with a dry Curlex bandage,” Holladay said. “I needed a wet dressing. I had him treat my back while I concentrated on the front.”
He could tell his large and small intestines had been hit.
“I realized my stomach was filling up, so I had some internal bleeding,” he said. “I knew what the chances for survival were. I was really scared.”
As he started to fade out, he asked his gunner to relay a message to the other medics: “I love them and I’ll miss them.”
“Probably the greatest feeling in my life was to wake up,” Holladay said. Doctors at a military hospital in Baghdad had stitched his intestines back together. He couldn’t eat for several days, but would require no further surgery.
Holladay was the last member of 1-26 wounded in Adhamiya. In 15 months, 31 men from 1-26 were killed and 122 wounded, making it the hardest-hit battalion since the Vietnam War. Charlie Company suffered the most, with 14 men killed – most of them in Adhamiya, one attached to another company. Holladay had served as one of Charlie’s medics, but he remained at Apache when the company moved to the base established at the old Ministry of Defense.
“I could never get away from Sector 19,” he said, referring to Adhamiya’s roughest area. “And sure as hell, I got shot in Sector 19.”
HARD MEMORIES, BAD DREAMS
None of the men of Charlie 1-26 will ever get away from Adhamiya completely. The memories of what they saw, did and endured will stay with them forever, as with any combat veteran. Memories of the deaths of their friends, as well as of the insurgents they had to kill, are engraved in their psyches, waiting to be triggered by a car horn in a traffic jam, a popping balloon, a familiar face in an old photograph or dreams that can’t be shaken.
Some will try to forget with drugs or alcohol. Some will let anger or guilt infect relationships with their spouses and families. Some will battle depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Many will experience short-term memory loss or uncontrollable emotions, possibly as a result of undiagnosed traumatic brain injuries.
A few may take their own lives. In 2006, suicide rates for soldiers leapt to a 26-year high with 99 deaths, one-fourth of them by troops diagnosed with PTSD, according to the Defense Department. Statistically, male veterans commit suicide at twice the rate of their nonveteran peers.
Defense Department research shows one-third of Iraq war veterans have sought help for mental health issues, and officials estimate 150,000 troops have suffered concussions – mild traumatic brain injuries – since the war in Iraq began.
‘WE DID MAKE A DIFFERENCE’
As Holladay recuperated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., he worried about getting released in time to see his friends return to Schweinfurt, Germany, 1-26’s home as part of the 1st Infantry Division.
With his medical training, he understood what could lie ahead for his friends. In Iraq, he’d seen loud guys suddenly become quiet as they tried to deal with the stress. He knew his friends had memorized the series of questions and answers medics ask to check for TBI. He worried they would come home and drink too much and drive too fast. He worried that, away from the constant close contact they’d had with other soldiers at Apache, his friends would fall apart.
“I needed to see everybody’s face and see that they were really OK,” he said. “They’ll cope with it for the rest of their lives.”
Each Charlie Company soldier who patrolled the streets of Adhamiya experienced the blast of a roadside bomb at least twice – some as many as a dozen times, according to the soldiers. The blasts left them bleeding from the ears, suffering violent headaches or unable to concentrate. Each had experienced the death of a friend. And most had returned fire on the enemy.
As they redeployed, they would go through several briefings: a screening for traumatic brain injury. A questionnaire for post-traumatic stress disorder. A session with a mental health therapist about warning signs. They would rush through, wanting only more time with their families or more time with their friends in the barracks. At least two would be diagnosed with TBI.
At the battalion level, officers called the unit’s presence in Adhamiya a success story, and cited the 27 high-value targets they caught, the 47 weapons caches they found, the 850 or so combat awards they earned and the hundreds of tips they received from Iraqis – though the tips often came after the fact.
“[The soldiers] may not see it, but I think if you do look at the big picture, they’ll see we did make a difference,” said Capt. Cecil Strickland, Charlie Company commander.
Adhamiya did not change drastically until after Charlie lost five men to an improvised explosive device on June 21, and someone higher up the chain sent a 1,000-man battalion to cover an area Charlie Company had been patrolling with 110.
“Everybody started paying attention: ‘Oh my God. There’s only three platoons in Adhamiya,'” Strickland said.
But he’s proud of those three platoons.
“We were catching bad guys left and right – almost nightly,” he said. “Each of my platoons had a different personality. If I wanted to find somebody, it was 3rd Platoon. If I wanted to find something, it was 2nd Platoon. If I wanted to lay the smack down, it was 1st Platoon.”
GETTING IT OUT OF THEIR SYSTEMS
They came home to Germany from Iraq in October, each flight delivering another wave of soldiers to the gymnasium at Conn Barracks, where a smoke machine and screams from friends and family filled the air around them. Then, and only then, came the freedom to go where they wanted for the first time in 15 months. No body armor, no bombs, no port-a-johns.
No one knew quite what awaited him, but each scattered to find out.
Within 24 hours, several soldiers lined up at the military police station in Schweinfurt. Some scouts had gotten into a fistfight with a civilian who questioned their role in Iraq. Within days, other soldiers refused to show up at formation – mostly because they were hung over. Strickland smiled a little at his men’s sudden change from trusted battle-proven veterans to 20-year-old troublemakers.
“Personally, I think there should be a cooling-off area,” he said. “Isolate them in a controlled environment: ‘Here’s your beer. Try to get it out of your systems.'”
But sitting in his new office – he took over as Charlie’s commander midtour – Strickland worked to get the experience out of his system, too. “When I do think about it, I mentally go off somewhere,” he said. “You’re trying to give a general overview of what happened, but it’s a microscopic detail running through your mind.”
And there’s always something to remind him. “Two nights ago, I got a call asking for [Spc. Gabriel] Garcia to escort [Sgt. Alphonso] Montenegro’s remains,” he said. “They finally put the pieces together.” Montenegro was among the five killed by the IED on June 21.
Just before Halloween, Capt. Mike Baka’s daughter tore off the last link of a paper chain that had helped her count the days until her daddy came home. Elizabeth, 3, had wanted to know if he’d come home faster if she yanked apart all the links. She had slept on the floor of her mother’s bedroom since he left 15 months before, and she’d prayed every night for the 14 men who had died in his company.
“What happened to some of daddy’s friends while they were gone?” asked Cathy Baka.
“They were killed,” Elizabeth answered. But then Cathy Baka shook her head in sudden awe of the life ahead for her family.
“How do you explain death to a 3-year-old?” she said.
The Bakas met when both were cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Cathy Baka later resigned her commission to raise a family. In eight years of marriage, the couple has spent just four together.
“It’s hard,” she said. “Feeling alone. Nighttime. Being an ocean away.” From across that ocean, she watched for signs of problems. “I always ask him point-blank,” she said. “I know he’s suffered from PTSD.”
Baka served as company commander for the first nine months of Charlie’s deployment before moving to the battalion S-1 shop. When he came home, Cathy and Elizabeth, with 10-month-old Hannah, met him at the gym, all grins and tears.
When it got hard in Iraq – when he’d lost a soldier – he would call his wife.
“She’s the one person I could talk with or cry with on the phone, other than the moms,” he said. “It wasn’t until after I talked with the family that I had the emotional release. I’d ask them what they know. A lot of times, it’s nothing. It’s bare bones. I’d say, ‘Do you want to know more?’ I haven’t talked to a family yet that didn’t want to know.”
He plans to honor, in his own way, the soldiers of the company he commanded who gave their lives in Iraq; he plans to visit each of the 14 graves.
EMPTINESS AT HOME AND AT HEART
Sgt. Erik Osterman picked up his 2005 Jeep from the shop – it needed a fresh battery – and then puttered down the Autobahn at 55 mph to break it in. Puffs of smoke trailed behind him. Home wasn’t quite that yet. Home. His wife, Sgt. 1st Class Tonya Osterman, was still in Iraq, and the house was empty.
They met on a previous deployment in Samarra, where they’d seen each other often. They married March 25, 2005. But this trip lacked the closeness they’d found in Samarra. He deployed in August 2006, and she deployed a month later. Even though they were both in Iraq, they rarely saw each other.
“It’s impossible,” he said. “You can send e-mails. But not everywhere in Iraq has nonsecure Internet and not everybody has cell phones. For the first six months, she was in Ramadi, and I couldn’t get through to her.” For five months, they didn’t speak on the phone, he said.
No one was at their off-post home to take care of bills or make sure the pipes hadn’t burst. No one was home to send care packages. When Tonya Osterman found out she was pregnant after R&R in the spring, the Army sent her home. But when she lost the baby, they sent her back to Baghdad in July.
“After she miscarried, the sergeant major put me on a bird to see her,” Osterman said. But then the communications problems started again. The Iraqi cell phones inevitably cut out after 30 minutes. They were both stressed out, and the phone calls often ended in tears. Both were diagnosed with PTSD after Samarra.
As he waited for her to come home around Thanksgiving, he did the same thing he did in Iraq to calm himself: He tried to take care of everybody else. He helped with a soldier’s promotion. He listened to his guys talk about what they’d seen in Iraq.
“When I see another guy from the company, I appreciate everything a little more,” he said. “Just know that each soldier fought for something. They fought for what they believe in.”
They fought for each other.
In the barracks, German workers moved heavy boxes to the windows with hydraulic lifts. The guys had moved out before leaving for Iraq, so they returned to empty barracks. Spc. Gerry DeNardi pulled out clothes he hadn’t seen in more than a year – including his favorite moccasins. He unloaded the futon couch, mounted speakers on the walls and set up his new projection TV. As he worked, guys poked their heads in the door about every three minutes to see what he was doing that night.
“Camaraderie at Apache was just the coolest,” he said. “Everybody was everybody else’s best friend. I don’t ever want to leave them.”
But he thinks about the friends who left him. One evening, he had a buddy tattoo “strength” and “honor” down the insides of his forearms – just as Sgt. Willsun Mock had done before he died Oct. 22, 2006, from a roadside bomb.
And he remembers June 21, the day five friends died when a deep-buried IED destroyed a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
“I try not to think about that day, but everything I do brings it up,” DeNardi said. Because he organized the singing and playing, he couldn’t do either without remembering a friend. But his anger had mellowed into sadness.
He doesn’t believe Adhamiya was worth their loss. The Iraqis need to fight for themselves, he said, and he didn’t see that.
He plans to get out of the military to become a history teacher.
“When I look back, nothing can stop me,” DeNardi said. “I’m lucky I made it through Adhamiya – Iraq. I’m not going to waste the rest of my life sitting around in a hammock.”
At his apartment, Sgt. Ely Chagoya pulled out his guitar. After months of not playing, emotion seeped from the guitar to his fingers and up through his voice. He sang a mournful piece he wrote in Spanish about a homeless man who returned to the same park bench each day; that was where his lover said to meet her, and he waited his whole life. But feeling the emotions behind his song scared him. “The moment you start feeling is the moment you’ll start remembering,” he said.
He worried about his family. The last he had heard, his brother and sister were being deported. His parents, originally from Mexico, had their green cards, and Chagoya had been born in the States, but his siblings had not. “I feel like I’m fighting for our freedom, but there’s none for me,” he said. “I got the news at Apache. I just wanted to turn in my weapon and quit.”
But he wouldn’t quit his friends. “My main mission was to bring my soldiers back,” he said. “That’s why I went out.”
Spc. Armando Cardenas hit the dance floor at a local club, solemn-faced as he moved to the merengue, sharply dressed, eyes flashing behind his scholarly wire glasses. He and Chagoya took over the floor, switched out partners, and danced as if the sound of salsa hadn’t brought tears a week before as they thought about their buddy Mock. Mock had loved to dance. Chagoya danced, smooth and elegant, the star of the show, as Cardenas sat on a low couch to watch. His eyes grew even darker as he remembered.
“There’s always somebody missing,” he said. “Mock and Montenegro. Nobody really says it, but it’s on everybody’s mind. They’re not here.”
NO MORE WAR STORIES
Sgt. Jake Richardson walked into the gym hoping his wife would be there. She had promised to buy the tickets to Germany from Arizona. They’d married at the end of 2005 so he could bring her to Germany before he deployed.
“She was really nice,” he said. “Real patient with a sweet attitude. She was a little bit shy at first.” They dated for eight months. “She wanted to be here with me.” But the day she arrived in Germany, he found out he was deploying. They had a long talk about how hard it would be.
Soon, they found out she was pregnant, and he went home on leave for the birth of their daughter, Sedona, in April.
But when he returned to Iraq, things changed. He called home and the phone had been shut off. His bank account had been emptied out. She moved back to Arizona, leaving him to pay for two apartments. When he contacted his chain of command and legal services, they left him on his own, saying he could not return home to fix the situation. And, like most soldiers, he had given his wife a power of attorney.
She wasn’t at the gym.
“I thought she was trying to surprise me,” he said. “I just don’t want to accept this.” When he asked what was going on, he said she told him she didn’t want to talk about it.
When he arrived at his apartment, it was empty. Totally empty. All his photographs, all his clothing, all the wedding gifts and dishes – the whole little world they’d built together was gone.
“I have two pairs of pants,” Richardson said. At night, instead of celebrating his return home, he stares at the photos he had with him in Iraq of his wife and his little girl, and he tries to figure out what he’s going to do next.
Staff Sgt. Robin Johnson, 29, jumps up as his wife Jeana comes in the front door of his apartment with the stroller. When he left from R&R just after she was born, his daughter Mia weighed six pounds. Now she crawls to him. He plays with their son, Sean, 2, on the floor and beams at his wife, who understands where he’s been. They met on his last deployment in Samarra, when she was a medic and he was a self-described schmuck.
She worked at the aide station, one of several female soldiers who would go out on patrol with the infantry guys, and he didn’t think she could hold her own.
“They told me I had to go get the medic. When I saw it was her, I was pissed,” Johnson said, grinning. “The whole time I refused to talk to her.” He spent the whole patrol “sulking because I had to work with a female.” They were engaged four months later. Now, she watches carefully for signs of PTSD, and he continues to try to watch out for 2nd Platoon.
“The biggest thing is really staying close with each other,” he said. “No one can handle it by themselves.”
Every time he sees someone who was at Apache – at the gym, walking past the PX – he calls him “brother” and gives him a hug. He knows they had his back, and he said Spc. Ross McGinnis proved it when he gave up his life by throwing himself on a grenade to save four friends.
“We all say, ‘I don’t know what I would have done,'” he said. “But every single one was willing to die for somebody else.”
That makes it all the harder to come back and feel like the war will never be won.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to end,” he said. “For every one we kill, three more are going to pop up. We can defeat each network, but they’ll just go somewhere else. We used to make fun of the soldiers in Baghdad when we were in Fallujah and Samarra. Then it was Ramadi. Now it’s Baghdad. It’s almost like we’re chasing our tails.” For a time, he said, soldiers will make an area better, but the Iraqi people “don’t keep it better.”
Sgt. 1st Class Tim Ybay moved into his new office as first sergeant of Charlie Company. Three of the company’s platoon sergeants had moved into first sergeant positions within the battalion. Ybay had taken on other responsibilities as well: helping with his children’s homework. While he was in Iraq, Timothy, 12, Aryana, 8, and Tyler, 5, sent e-mails and drawings, while his wife, Maybelline, made sure he could talk to them on the phone.
“I never threw those pictures away,” Ybay said. “That tears me up. My son – he really surprised me. He’s getting tall.”
But his surrogate family was still on his mind, as were the nine men who died in his platoon.
“First Sergeant [Kenneth] Hendrix said, ‘Let’s do a prayer for the soldiers we lost,’ the day we flew out of Taji,” Ybay said, speaking of the Army camp outside Baghdad. “That hurt me a lot. I’m coming home and my battle buddies weren’t. I say a prayer for them every night.”
The deployment taught him a lesson with actions that he said Staff Sgt. Garth Sizemore had tried to teach him with words. Sizemore was fatally shot Oct. 16, 2006.
“He would always say, ‘Enough of the war stories,'” Ybay said. “I didn’t understand that until this deployment. You talk about the good times.”
He learned other lessons: Deployments should not last longer than a year, and soldiers should have more time off. And he was upset when the platoon was split apart after they refused to go out on a mission.
“I understand where the commander’s coming from,” he said. “But it did hurt. I would like to come back in formation with all my guys – they did outstanding. I’m proud of them.”
When they’d regained some sense of self, Charlie Company crowded into the local clubs. They gathered in groups, toasting each other and their 14 friends. They ordered beers and passed around shots and acted as if they had been away from each other for years rather than hours. They talked about old times like grizzled old men at the VFW.
They drank their beer, arms wrapped around each other. They told endless stories. They’d heard them all before but they couldn’t help but listen: chasing down that moped with a Bradley. The rocket battle with an insurgent. Karaoke in the basement at Apache. They comforted each other as they cried thinking about the 14 men who should have been there with them.
Remember how Pfc. Daniel Agami gave up his clothes when Johnson’s laundry got lost?
How Pfc. Alberto Garcia learned to play Johnny Cash songs within a week of picking up a guitar?
Remember when Pfc. Anthony Hebert wore that purple wig all day on patrol?
And how McGinnis could always make us laugh?
The Shrapnel Was Bad: The Army Hospital Was Worse
The grenade clanked off the Humvee turret and then dropped inside. The explosion drove shrapnel into every limb of Staff Sgt. Ian Newland’s body. Hours after the incident, he arrived at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Every soldier believes that if he makes it to an Army hospital, he’s going to be treated to the best care.
But just two days later, Dec. 6, 2006, the hospital sent Newland home – doped up on morphine, his left hand a useless claw, and nerve damage so bad to his left leg he could barely walk.
“They told me they needed the bed,” said Newland, who then lived in Schweinfurt, headquarters of 1st Infantry Division.
He was not told when he was discharged that a scan showed he also had suffered traumatic brain injury, and so did not understand why he stuttered, had blurry vision and experienced short-term memory loss.
There was no homecoming for this wounded soldier, who arrived from Iraq with a Purple Heart pinned to his blanket. He had no key to his house, so the fire department broke in for him – and later sent a bill for the job.
And when he finally got inside his house, it was empty – his wife, Erin, was in the States for Thanksgiving, unaware that her husband had been seriously wounded in combat.
“I didn’t even get a call from the unit,” Erin Newland said. “Before I left, I gave the unit all my phone numbers, but they didn’t call.”
She was shopping in a Wal-Mart in Minnesota when Ian’s aunt called her: “He’s been in an accident. You need to call his dad.”
She immediately tried to get back to Germany. But tickets for her and her two toddlers would cost $6,000. She contacted the Army and requested to be put on the priority list for a space-available flight.
“They told me I had to have a commander’s note,” she said. She would spend days getting back to Germany – the unit never did send the paperwork she needed for the priority list. At home, Ian dug through a bag the nurses had sent with him, hoping for a prescription for pain medicine and directions for care. He found a shaving kit and no further information.
“When the pain got so bad it was intolerable, I went to the health clinic,” he said. “They said, ‘There’s a phone right there. You need to make an appointment.'”
It would be a week before anyone could see him at the clinic in Schweinfurt.
“I pulled the Spec-4 through the window and threw him on the floor,” Newland said. “They told me I had mental health issues. But there was no psychiatrist [in Schweinfurt]. I was like, ‘I’m bleeding in your clinic here.'”
Newland informed his command he planned to blow up the health clinic. That got an ear.
“I went straight to the Schweinfurt commander,” he said, describing all the shortcomings he and fellow wounded had endured in trying to get proper medical care.
“I told them, ‘You know my guys are in a high-conflict area. You’ve got guys living in the barracks in wheelchairs,'” he said. “I skipped every chain of command possible.” Still, he said, “nothing was done.”
Newland took it upon himself to care for the wounded at Conn Barracks in Schweinfurt, keeping their appointments marked on a dry-erase board. But his own issues soon took over. He went to Washington, D.C., for the funeral of Spc. Ross McGinnis, at Arlington National Cemetery. McGinnis, a fellow member of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, had thrown himself on a grenade, saving Newland and three others in the Humvee. For that, McGinnis has been nominated for a Medal of Honor.
“When I got back from Arlington, I was suicidal,” Newland said, explaining he felt guilty about McGinnis’ loss. “I called the health clinic and asked if I could check myself in. They told me to go to the German emergency room.”
Finally, he said, the Army medical system hooked him up with a civilian social worker – who specialized in families and kids.
“I told her about the bodies we found in Adhamiya, and she started crying,” Newland said. “I called the mental health commander and I went nuts. ‘When 1-26 gets back, if you don’t have a plethora of mental health options, you’re going to have problems.'”
Newland said the Army then sent him to group therapy. It consisted of him and one other person. The other guy, not a combat veteran, said he couldn’t relate at all and stopped going. So did Newland.
Then, he said, he went to the 5th Corps commander at the time, Lt. Gen. James Thurman. Newland’s concerns were forwarded to the Schweinfurt health clinic, but this time under authority of 5th Corps.
“The context of Ian’s complaints were very appropriate,” said Maj. Daniel Ducker, health clinic commander. “We thought, ‘Let’s take action.'”
Because of Newland’s complaints, and because of the scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that showed injured soldiers across the States were not being properly cared for, Ducker said, Schweinfurt received a social-work case manager to schedule wounded soldiers’ appointments and ensure they get the help they need. The case manager has a background in traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, two common conditions soldiers face as they return from Iraq.
Meanwhile, the medical command formed a warrior transition brigade, as was being done Army-wide, with soldiers who specifically look after the dozens of injured soldiers in Schweinfurt and the rest of Germany.
And the Schweinfurt health clinic added another physical therapist and one full-time psychologist.
“We never had them before,” Ducker said. “Now we have a full staff.”
Rear detachment commander Capt. Jacob White said that as 1-26 members went through tough times in Adhamiya, they started getting what they needed in Schweinfurt. And 1-26 officials started keeping better track of the wounded by keeping a liaison at the hospital.
“They get a copy of the manifest, so they know when our guys are coming in,” he said. “And there are no more guys in wheelchairs in the barracks.”
Lt. Col Bob Whittle, Task Force Guardian – or rear detachment – commander for the 1st Infantry Division, said Newland caused a lot of change.
“Ian was early in the deployment,” he said. “It was a symptom of an issue, and they fixed it.”
But for Newland, it was too late. With his wounds, he could have reclassified into a desk job and stayed in the military.
He left the Army and now lives in Colorado, where he plans to go to school.
“I was just so down,” he said. “I loved the Army. But after the way I was treated, I was done.”
”You Made Mommy Cry”
The first time Capt. Mike Baka called home from Iraq, his 3-year-old daughter Elizabeth put him in Time Out.
“You made Mommy cry,” she accused.
Over the course of her husband’s deployment, Cathy Baka would cry again and again as she tried to comfort the families of the soldiers killed while serving with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, her husband’s unit.
Mike Baka commanded Charlie 1-26 for eight of the unit’s 15 months in Iraq, as they battled their way through the insurgent-filled streets of Adhamiya in northeastern Baghdad. Part of the 1st Infantry Division, Charlie 1-26 would come home as the hardest hit Army company in the Iraq war, losing 14 men to snipers, mortar rounds and roadside bombs. As commander’s wife, Cathy Baka volunteered to lead the Family Readiness Group in the soldiers’ home, Schweinfurt, Germany.
At first, she concentrated on teaching the wives of her husband’s infantrymen how to read an Army pay statement, or how to pay an electric bill in Germany. She talked to her husband each night, and she’d pass on messages for the soldiers, or let Mike Baka know when one of the wives was having problems so he could talk to the husband. But she also set up sessions to explain how the wives would be notified if their husbands died in combat – by Army casualty notification officers.
Until then, it hadn’t occurred to her that someone would have to tell the rest of the families.
Normally, someone from the rear detachment would call each person in the Family Readiness Group and read a formal statement. But the Charlie Company wives – Charlie’s Angels – decided they wanted more than that.
At first, the women acted as a support group. When someone was killed in Iraq, the unit would go into blackout mode until immediate family members were notified. Though that common practice was designed to prevent family members from learning about a soldier’s death unofficially, such as via e-mail or an Internet posting, it caused great anxiety at home. The sudden silence – no phone calls from a spouse or other unit members, no e-mails or other communication – left a sense of foreboding.
“Family members would see MySpace go quiet,” Baka said. “They’d call and I’d say, ‘I just heard from Mike,’ or, ‘I haven’t heard from Mike either, so let’s just pray.'”
Mike Baka called her every night, and she often knew when something had happened before anyone else did. She was his support system, his way of letting out emotions before having to face his men. The couple met at West Point where they both were cadets and married eight years ago. When Cathy gave birth to Elizabeth, her first child, she resigned her commission to take care of the family, which now includes a second daughter, Hannah.
“We pretty much talk about everything,” she said. “Maybe too much. But it helped me support the families.”
She worked harder to make sure the families felt informed, creating newsletters with photo pages and, eventually, memorials.
though she spent time trying to ready herself for the shock of a lost young man, the first death caught her by surprise.
Staff Sgt. Garth Sizemore was fatally shot Oct. 17, three months into Charlie 1-26’s deployment. Though the Army notified Sizemore’s wife, Lena, Cathy Baka called the wives of all of his friends.
“I knew Sizemore and Lena very well,” Baka said. “I probably cried on two or three calls. I was not prepared for Lena.”
Lena Sizemore had gone to all the monthly Family Readiness Group meetings and was a favorite among the Charlie Company wives. Two of them immediately rushed to be by her side.
“Lena was loved by everyone,” Baka said. “We were her friends, and we were there.”
As the deaths became more common, Cathy Baka received phone calls from scared family members.
The focus of the family group changed to grief counseling. As she continued making notification calls, she faced other challenges. Couples went through divorces. Wounded soldiers returned to Schweinfurt. The battalion commander’s 15-year-old son died from a heart condition.
“Life goes on,” she said, “but when something happens during a war, it’s intensified.”
In March, her husband moved to Headquarters Company, and the position of Family Readiness Group leader moved to the new commander’s wife, Bettie Strickland. But after yet another death, the two women worked together. For Cathy Baka, Charlie Company was still family.
Staff Sgt. Ian Newland promised after Pfc. Ross McGinnis died to save his life that he would never waste the gift.
“I very easily could have died that day,” Newland said. “But my children still have a father. I try to live each day to its fullest potential because of what he did for me.”
On Dec. 4, 2006, an insurgent tossed a hand grenade through the turret of the Humvee in which McGinnis, 19, was manning the .50-caliber machine gun. McGinnis could have followed training procedures and jumped from the turret and saved himself. Instead, he threw himself on the grenade and absorbed the blast, saving four men, including Newland. For his heroic actions, McGinnis has been nominated for the Medal of Honor.
But Newland said that though his friend’s sacrifice allowed him to live, he does so with guilt and pain that have made it difficult to honor his promise.
“I thought I could have done more,” Newland said during an interview at his Colorado home. “Every second, I was reliving it. All of a sudden, I’m in the Humvee again and the grenade goes off.”
He traveled to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia outside Washington, D.C., for McGinnis’ funeral services, and there he met McGinnis’ family.
“They were so loving and so compassionate,” Newland said. “I thought it was hard losing my soldier – this was just too much. But his dad grabbed me and said, ‘You don’t owe my son anything.'”
Growing up in Ohio, Newland had the sort of tough life that leads many to military service as a way out. He came from an alcoholic family and was ashamed of the welfare-status existence he led before he joined the Army even though he was working two jobs. He excelled as an infantryman and loved the soldier’s life. But after the grenade embedded hundreds of pieces of shrapnel throughout his limbs, causing nerve damage that forces him to walk with a cane and leaving him without the use of three fingers, he found himself at the bottom again.
“After I was wounded, I had nowhere to turn,” he said. No one told him about the Wounded Warriors program. He had been booted out of Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany, still heavily medicated and with no instructions about future treatment. And no one bothered to tell him he had been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. he fought for benefits and treatment; he worked to make sure the other wounded soldiers living in the barracks made their appointments and got what they needed. And he started to fall apart. So did his marriage as he tried to deal with his problems with alcohol.
“I was messing with her really bad,” Newland said. “I’d been battling every day, screaming at officers, and then I’d come home to Erin.”
“I said, ‘I can’t handle this,'” his wife, Erin Newland, said. “‘I’m done. I just can’t take this anymore.'”
Instead, she went online and did some research, and she talked to the family therapist who had been assigned to take care of her husband’s post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I learned to not get into it with him and not get mad,” she said. “Instead, I’d just need to let him do his ranting and raving.”
“She was able to identify when I was getting angry, and she would back off,” he said. “If I wasn’t in a strong marriage, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”
But he kept getting slapped down. Pfc. Chad Marsh’s family asked him to fly back with the soldier’s remains from Germany to Wichita, Kan. Marsh died Feb. 21 in an IED blast, and he had been one of Newland’s soldiers.
“Mortuary affairs said I couldn’t do it again because it wasn’t the image the Army wanted to present,” Newland said.
Then he found out about his disability rating of 80 percent: $800 a month for a family of four. He had to create a new life for himself.
He started looking for civilian work at Fort Carson, Colo. “I wanted to go somewhere I could find work and that was beautiful,” he said. He’d never been to Colorado before. “As soon as I saw the mountains, I was sold.” But after spending the last of his savings to fly out there from Germany, a mortgage broker who had promised to help with a home loan dropped him because of his financial situation. Even after he found a job, the bank said no. “At that point, I realized things were going to hell,” he said. “They shot me down after telling me to fly out.”
Desperate, he went to the chapel at Fort Carson and he prayed. As he left, downtrodden, another veteran stopped him and asked what was wrong. He hooked Newland up with Mike Conklin.
Conklin founded an organization called Sentinels of Freedom that is designed to help wounded veterans build a future by finding them jobs and making sure their education is paid for up to the doctorate level.
After talking with Newland on the phone from California, Conklin said, “I’m getting on a plane, and I’ll meet you there.”
For Newland, who had dropped out of high school, it was beyond anything he could have hoped for.
“I’ve never had anything given to me,” he said. “I’ve had to work for everything. But I could not accept an uncertain future with my children.”
On Father’s Day, he found out he had been accepted in the Sentinels of Freedom program.
“Mike Conklin is an angel,” Newland said.
A TIME TO HEAL
Sunlight filters through skylights into the dining area of the Newlands’ new home, which smells of fresh paint and new furniture – all donated. It’s October, and golden aspens up and down the lane mix with red oaks. Haley, 5, and Dryden, 3, play on a swing set in the backyard, which also has been furnished with deck furniture and a barbecue grill capable of serving a football team.
For four years, Sentinels will pay the rent on the house, and then the Newlands have the option to buy it. ReMax real estate found a job for Newland in their technology department. He’s received a scholarship from Jones International University. He has a mentor team of 10 professionals, including a retired Army colonel.
“This has been a huge lifestyle change,” he said.
And life, in many ways, is easier. But not easy. At lunch one day, his children grabbed balloons. “Daddy doesn’t like balloons,” Haley said. In the car on the way home, Dryden’s popped. “It’s lucky we were stopped,” Erin Newland said. “We would have swerved off the road.” In an instant, a child’s toy morphed into a grenade. Newland has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and loud noises can trigger war-zone memories.
In the evenings, Erin Newland takes Ian through his physical therapy. “I can still feel every piece of shrapnel,” he said. “I can’t even describe the pain.”
As he plays with his children, he winces when Dryden climbs over the wrong leg. But he smiles when Haley asks visitors to push her on the swing. And he laughs when his wife calls him a “pogue” – military banter for someone who doesn’t patrol.
“She’s more infantry than I am,” he said.
But he traveled alone when he again flew to Arlington one year after McGinnis died. There, he met up with his full chain of command. Former battalion commander Lt. Col. Eric Schacht pinned former Charlie Company commander Capt. Mike Baka with the gold oak leaves that came with his promotion to major.
They held the ceremony on a cold December day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Then, with others who had come to pay their respects, they walked to McGinnis’ grave.
“Whenever he was around, we were laughing, smiling,” Newland said.
Slowly, painfully, he knelt on the grave to spend some time with his friend.