Kelly Kennedy / Army Times – 2007-12-21 22:38:33
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COMBAT OUTPOST APACHE (December 17, 2007) — As they started loading into the Bradley fighting vehicle to roll out of Combat Outpost Apache, the soldiers laughed as if they weren’t afraid. As if each, at least twice, hadn’t felt the shocking heat and been deafened by the roar of roadside bombs. As if they hadn’t already lost eight friends to improvised explosive devices and snipers and grenades.
These soldiers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, laughed because it gave them courage to step back into the Bradleys. If they didn’t go, somebody else would have to.
“Somewhere on that street there’s an IED,” Sgt. 1st Class Tim Ybay told 2nd Platoon on June 20, briefing them just before they patrolled the streets of Adhamiya, Iraq, as they had been doing for 10 months.
“I’ll find it!” shouted Bradley driver Spc. Ernesto Martin.
Not that day. Not that soldier. But others riding on that patrol would be among five to die the next day, when an IED flipped their 30-ton Bradley upside-down like a cheap toy and set it ablaze.
The surviving platoon members comforted each other that their friends died looking out for their brothers. They told each other they would have done the same. They cried and beat their fists into walls. They knelt in the sand and bent their heads and tried to convince themselves Iraq was worth it.
But that was hard because they no longer believed they were fighting for Iraq. They had, once, a long time ago. Before they had seen the Iraqi bodies with their heads dipped in acid, before the children tossed grenades at them. Now the locals refused even to acknowledge dead neighbors sprawled on their sidewalks.
The soldiers of Charlie Company had given up fighting for the Iraqis. They fought for each other.
And so that day, they forced aside the last moments of their friends’ lives, moments filled with chaos and agony and pain and blood.
They remembered them laughing.
Over 15 months, the war would kill 13 men from Charlie 1-26, more than any other Army company sent to Iraq, according to their battalion commander.
The group of 190 would earn at least 95 combat awards. They were part of Task Force 1-26, some 820 troops, who would find 47 weapons caches, capture more than 300 insurgents, including high-value targets, and find hundreds of explosive devices. But 122 men would receive Purple Hearts and 31 would die, more than in any Army battalion since Vietnam.
One respected sergeant in Alpha Company would kill himself. A Charlie Company soldier would go home with three Purple Hearts and a lost dream. A buddy would be nominated for the Medal of Honor after saving four of his brothers. And there would be one brief mutiny.
Still, numbers don’t tell the story.
‘JUST BLOOD EVERYWHERE’
In its glory days, the mansions of Saddam Hussein’s favorite minions rose from the dust of Adhamiya, an ancient neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad. Army generals and Sunni leaders shared the area near Baghdad’s most important Sunni mosque, Abu Hanifa.
Adhamiya was the last neighborhood to fall when U.S. forces tore into Baghdad in 2003, and anti-American slogans still emblazon bullet-pocked walls.
For the eight months prior to 1-26’s arrival, no Americans had patrolled its winding streets. A mostly Shiite Iraqi army kept watch over the neighborhood, and Sunni citizens suffered corruption and violent reprisals.
Those conditions left Adhamiya in anarchy, and seared images of hatred and suffering into the minds of the young men of Charlie Company.
When they arrived in August 2006, soldiers with 1-26 found about 250 dead Iraqi civilians a month. Many of the soldiers, including Staff Sgt. Ian Newland, 27, had deployed with the unit to Samarra in 2004, but that hadn’t prepared them for Adhamiya.
They arrived upbeat and confident they could make a difference. Such expectations eroded every time they went outside the wire.
“This deployment, every patrol you’re finding dead people,” Newland said. “It’s like one to 12 a patrol. Their eyes are gouged out. Their arms are broken. We saw a kid who had been shot 10 to 15 times.”
Another man had been shot through both hands and his shoulders.
“They laid him out like Jesus,” Newland said. “Just blood everywhere. That sticks with you.”
Newland joined the Army in 2002 to escape a life of poverty in Dayton, Ohio. He had dropped out of high school in 10th grade, and then lived on welfare with his wife and young daughter while working two jobs.
In the Army, he emerged as one of the brightest, making staff sergeant in four years. As team leader, he made soldiers who got in trouble write papers about World War II hero Audie Murphy or the carbine system.
Charlie 1-26 slept 25 to a room in a decrepit and sour-smelling basement. Tiles hung from the ceiling, leaving dust on their faces when they woke in the mornings. They patrolled all day in full body armor, but could shower only every two or three days. For the first couple of months of deployment they had only port-a-johns in the 117-degree heat.
“I thought it was a dump,” said Sgt. Shawn Ladue, 27. “Every time it’d rain, we’d get that stagnant-ass water in the basement.”
Ladue joined the Army in 1997 after dropping out of high school in Phoenix, got out of the military a couple years later to learn a civilian trade, bounced around from auto mechanic school to community college, and signed back up in 2004. His career as an infantryman would end permanently in Adhamiya.
NOT LIKE TRAINING
Nothing prepared Charlie Company for Adhamiya. They’d spent a week at Hohenfels training center in Germany learning to work with interpreters.
During the training, Capt. Mike Baka would talk to “the mayor” of a mock town, and an IED would go off nearby.
“I thought, ‘No way is it going to be like this,'” Baka said. “I was exactly wrong.”
Beyond that, the West Point grad said he was never trained in counterinsurgency methods. None, not even Baka, had read Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency manual. But he had taken a year of Arabic in college, and he understood he had to interact with the locals to make it work.
At Apache, he’d roll into Adhamiya with one platoon, get back, and immediately roll out with a different platoon.
“I wanted to show a little bit of love for the platoons, but also to talk to the people,” he said. He’d play chess with the locals or talk with them about their families. But if he stayed too long, they would inevitably catch sniper fire.
“It was a rare day if we didn’t see [Iraqis] get killed or severely injured,” he said. “It was almost like they were testing us. We’d be two streets away, and shots would ring out. It was always gunshot wounds to their heads.”
One day, local Iraqis covered a body on the sidewalk with cardboard.
“But he jerked back up – he was still alive,” Baka said.
Sgt. Kevin Guenther, Baka’s medic, performed a tracheotomy on the man.
“The people all gathered around to watch, but no one tried to do anything,” Baka said. “I actually got really angry. This man was left for dead. No one here will even call an ambulance. They were more concerned about the three or four men we were questioning.”
The man died about half an hour later. He’d been shot in the head.
The soldiers were tasked with joint patrols with the Iraqi army, but the Iraqi army didn’t go out enough for there to be much “joint” involved.
“They’d set up a mission with us, but then they’d have an excuse: ‘No gas.’ ‘It’s too dangerous.’ ‘We don’t have enough guys,'” said Spc. Gerry DeNardi, 20, the company smart aleck with high cheekbones and a mop of hair bleached by the sun.
“We had to pick up an Iraqi body once at Remy [Street] because they said they were out of gas, but then they rolled past us as we were coming back in.”
Most of the soldiers were Shiite.
“To join the army, you had to go to western Baghdad,” Baka explained. “No Sunnis would go there. But the corruption in the Shia military was horrendous.”
The Iraqi army would trash Sunni houses, take people into custody who hadn’t done anything wrong and forcefully demand bribes, Baka said.
‘HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?’
Charlie Company patrolled constantly – each guy went out three or four times a day, with a one-and-a-half-hour break between patrols.
The soldiers teased each other just as constantly, a way to break the relentless stress and fear.
Pfc. Ross McGinnis, the youngest member of the company at 19, at first annoyed just about everyone.
“He just wanted to learn so much,” said his team leader, Newland. “He was always on and intense. But then he was so much fun.”
McGinnis spent weekends with Newland and his family in Schweinfurt, playing with Newland’s children, Dryden and Haley, and trying to answer Newland’s plethora of Army trivia questions.
He soon emerged as a joker – big brown eyes flashing above a bigger grin. In Iraq, he recorded a mock interview with a friend who had been slightly wounded – asking in his best Dan Rather voice, without a trace of a grin, “How does that make you feel?”
As he became more confident in his job as a .50-cal gunner, he bragged. Sitting on the edge of his humvee, he held up the round from an M4 – about two inches long – and then the .50-cal round, twice as long, twice as thick.
“This is your round,” he chanted, holding up the tiny bullet. “And this is my round. Your round. My round.”
Another day, Sgt. Ely Chagoya, 31, decided to drill his team on how quickly they could take apart and reassemble their night-vision goggles – blindfolded.
As he demonstrated, he could hear giggling, and then a flash went off. It was a digital camera.
“Man, I knew they were up to something,” Chagoya said, shaking his head. “They showed me the picture, and I see the ass of McGinnis right next to my head.”
McGinnis was probably the only private who could tease Chagoya about being a former Marine. A grenade had gone off underneath Baka’s humvee, and a dud landed in a humvee on another occasion, so the platoon spent a week tossing tennis balls at vehicles and trying to deflect them, or, failing that, diving out of the humvees.
“Marine! You will jump on that grenade!” McGinnis yelled at Chagoya, impersonating a Marine drill instructor. Then McGinnis laughed and said, “F— that! I’d be like, ‘See ya!'”
The jokes couldn’t keep reality at bay.
On Oct. 17, about two months into the deployment, Charlie Company lost its first man when a sniper shot Staff Sgt. Garth Sizemore in the stomach as 2nd Platoon was en route to Forward Operating Base after patrol in Adhamiya.
“I started to wise up after that,” Ladue said. “Before, it was just driving around in a hot-ass truck.”
Some of the guys channeled their emotions into unlikely jobs. For Sgt. Erik Osterman, that meant cleaning out the humvees and Bradleys that came back to Apache after Americans had died in them.
Osterman, a former bartender and concealed-carry weapons permit instructor with an intense gaze, said he made the decision instinctively.
He would do it so his troops would not have to.
Osterman asked the first sergeant to get him every time a truck needed to be cleaned out, and then he’d send the guys off on errands while he hosed out the blood. The cook supplied him with scrubbies and bleach.
He would do it in an attempt to erase any reminder of death when his troops went back outside the wire in the same vehicles.
“They’re not going to roll like that,” Osterman said. “That would be all they see.”
Charlie Company spent a lot of time trying not to think about what had happened, but they still had to pump themselves up for the fight.
They watched “300” and “Gladiator” – Sgt. Willsun Mock went so far as to have “Strength” and “Honor” tattooed from the inside of his elbows to his wrists.
“Instead of a handshake, he’d grab your wrist like the Romans and say, ‘Strength. Honor,'” Staff Sgt. Robin Johnson said. “And he meant it. He liked the Roman warriors, and I liked the Spartans. We’d go back and forth over who was the best.”
Ybay, 38 and the father figure of the company with 14 years in the Army, called Johnson, Mock and Spc. Daniel Agami the “Three Musketeers,” but Johnson said they were more like brothers. They spent all their waking hours together – including several a day lifting weights.
“We were going to gain 15 pounds, cut up and shred down,” said Johnson, his accent giving away his South Boston roots.
He and Mock were both fiercely Irish, with the Claddagh rings and Irish knots to prove it.
Chagoya and Mock were also close.
“He loved to dance salsa, merengue,” Chagoya said. “I’d be dancing with a girl and he’d stop me: ‘Hey Gunny – teach me another step.’ This little white boy trying to dance salsa at the club. That was Mock.”
On Oct. 22, Mock became the second Charlie soldier killed when an IED hit his humvee near Loyalty.
For a month, Johnson stopped working out, refusing to move except to go on patrol or eat.
“I went into complete ‘I don’t care’ mode,” he said. “But then Agami said, ‘Will’s laughing at us.'”
HARD-EARNED TICKET HOME
Ladue earned his first Purple Heart in late October, when 3rd Platoon made a traffic stop on a car with three young men in it.
“We caught a lot of bad guys by pulling over vehicles with more than two young guys in there,” he said. This time, all they found was a big bag of worthless Iraqi money.
Then Ladue heard a bullet rushing toward him.
“It sounded fast and just whizzing,” he said. “I froze. It hit me. I just felt a sharp burning pain.”
He didn’t fall after the bullet hit him in the shoulder: He turned around and started shooting at a building.
“Then the little voice of reason said, ‘Hey dumb-ass. You just got shot,'” he said.
He spent two days at the military hospital in Baghdad and then was sent back to Adhamiya. He was there Nov. 5, when an Iraqi court found Saddam Hussein guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to death by hanging. Gen. Petraeus praised the Iraqi people because Baghdad remained quiet following the announcement.
Except for Adhamiya.
“We started hearing gunfire as soon as the verdict was announced,” Ybay said. Then insurgents attacked Apache.
“We were hopping to fight,” Chagoya said. “We could tell who the enemy was. They gave us a little fight – about three hours.”
Charlie troops put down the attack, then mounted up to engage insurgents outside the wire.
At Abu Hanifa mosque, they ran into small-arms fire, grenades and rocket-propelled grenade rounds, but 2nd Platoon took out several insurgents and had no losses.
First Platoon followed and during a night search found a house with 40 men hiding inside. One of them had a shotgun, and as the man kicked the gate open, Newland shot him in the head with a 25mm high-explosive round from his Bradley.
“We refer to him as ‘split face,’ because that’s what happened,” Newland said. “He started puking out of his neck. It was pretty nasty.”
The day ended with 38 dead insurgents and 10 wounded, with no U.S. casualties. But the danger that U.S. troops faced hardly subsided.
On a night patrol a few days before Thanksgiving, Ladue and his crew drove past Abu Hanifa and the new graveyard that had been dug in a children’s soccer field. Near it ran a trench.
“We always talked about how they would put an IED there,” Ladue said.
As he thought about the probability, the IED went off. “I tasted engine oil,” Ladue said. “I couldn’t see nothing. My gunner, [Pfc. Eduardo] Gutierrez, started shooting at the mosque.”
Then he heard the driver, Spc. Matthew Yearwood, screaming, “My legs! My legs!” The steering column had collapsed on him. “Get us the f— out of here,” Ladue yelled over the radio.
The other humvees pushed them back to Apache. Yearwood was not seriously injured, but Ladue had a massive concussion – and his second Purple Heart.
“Everybody walked away from that,” Ladue said. “It scared us. The next time we went out, we were terrified.”
That next time was Thanksgiving night. Ladue asked Staff Sgt. Christopher Cunningham to take the lead truck. “I took [the middle position] because my driver, especially, and I were pretty spooked.”
During the first three hours of patrol, they drove past the cemetery where they had been blown up a couple of days before.
“We went right over it,” Ladue said. “I was going out of my mind I was so scared.”
During break, his buddy Staff Sgt. Juan Campos gave him a hard time, but Ladue wasn’t in a state to be teased.
“It kind of hurt when he said, ‘Quit being a pussy,'” Ladue said. “Me and Juan didn’t talk to each other the rest of the break.”
They drove into the market area – usually fairly safe, so Ladue felt relieved. Then the explosion hit. “Not again! Not again!” Yearwood screamed.
Ladue stuck his M4 out the blown-open door of his humvee. He let off one round, and then the pain hit.
“Oh, I’m f—–d up! Oh, I’m f—–d up!”
The IED had blown a hole through his foot, leaving it a bloody mass of smashed bone and pulp.
Campos was the first to reach the Humvee. “I didn’t mean it, man,” Campos said. “I’m sorry.”
That was the last time Ladue would see his friend.
“I just remember arriving at the Green Zone, under a thin-ass blanket, freezing,” Ladue said. “After that, things got a little fuzzy.” He would get his third Purple Heart, and that was his ticket out of the war zone.
‘THE GRENADE IS IN THE TRUCK!’
On Dec. 4, 1st Platoon rolled out of Apache looking for a place to put a generator to provide electricity for 100 homes. As the six-truck convoy rode through the narrow alleyways of Adhamiyah, McGinnis, in the turret of the last Humvee, manned his .50-cal as usual.
Sgt. 1st Class Cedric Thomas served as truck commander, Sgt. Lyle Buehler drove, and Newland and medic Pfc. Sean Lawson rode in the back.
“Grenade!” McGinnis yelled after someone dropped one from a rooftop. “The grenade is in the truck!”
McGinnis could have leapt from his turret. Instead, he tried to catch the grenade, just as he had done with Chagoya and others when the platoon practiced with tennis balls. As it ricocheted around the turret, he fumbled and the grenade dropped into the Humvee.
“When he yelled ‘grenade,’ I wasn’t even alarmed because we’d seen so many,” Newland said. “Then I saw it. It was next to me.”
McGinnis quickly dropped into the humvee and smothered the grenade with his body. “I heard him say, ‘It’s right here,'” Newland said.
McGinnis absorbed the brunt of the explosion.
Through the smoke and confusion, Newland didn’t yet understand what had happened.
Thomas saw a man on the roof of a building and started shooting as Newland reached for McGinnis. “I remember seeing his eyes moving around,” Newland said. “I grabbed his hand and started praying.”
Then he realized he also was injured. Newland looked down through the cloud of black smoke.
“It was like a horror movie watching blood come out of my side,” he said.
His jaw hurt – a 4-inch piece of shrapnel had cracked it and he couldn’t think of anything but the pain. Then the pain flowed everywhere.
“When I took my glove off, I thought my hand was coming with it,” he said. Shrapnel had dug into the nerves of his forearm, causing him to lose the use of three fingers.
Then he saw his leg was bleeding. He tried to hold a pressure bandage on the inside of his thigh, but blood gushed out between his fingers.
“It was squirting me in the face,” he said. “I realized I needed a tourniquet. I got about three turns in, but it was just so painful.”
The blast had blown open all four combat-locked doors, and Thomas and Buehler had shrapnel wounds.
“I heard voices outside the humvee and thought, ‘I’m going to get grabbed out of here and get my head cut off on the Internet,'” Newland said. “There was dark, dark blood coming out of my thigh. I told [Thomas], ‘I’m going to die right now if we don’t get back to the aid station.'”
He felt dizzy and knew he was dying.
“I bled out,” he said. When he woke up, he was on a table in the aide station back at Apache.
“Don’t mess with me,” he said to the medics. “Did it hit the artery?”
Baka pushed him back down on the table as a medic injected him with morphine. Then Newland saw McGinnis on a table nearby. The grenade had exploded at his lower back and sent shrapnel up into his sides.
“What’s up with Ross?” Newland said. “Why isn’t anybody working on him?”
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. 20, Pfc. Ryan Hill died when an IED exploded under his humvee.
So the soldiers began relying more on their heavily armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
“That was our fortress,” said Johnson, an even-keeled noncommissioned officer the younger soldiers trusted for advice. “We were fearless in that Bradley.”
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 deployment.
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 career.
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 insurgents.
“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 21 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 8 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 Chagoya.
“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 heartbroken.
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 again.”
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 Campos.
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 started crying.
“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.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.
Another explosion. More gunfire. A call for help from members of the 554th Military Police Company, 95th Military Police Battalion.
An RPG hit the driver’s side of one an MP vehicle, 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.
Then, another explosion. This one hit another MP vehicle racing to help those in Clifton’s truck. . The blast broke both of his truck commander’s legs. Choi was in the same truck and now was a casualty himself.
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 to escape.
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 often killed.
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 died of a heart condition. 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.
Spc. Gerry DeNardi stood at the on-base Burger King, just a few miles from downtown Baghdad, hoping for a quick taste of home.
Camp Taji encompasses miles of scrapped Iraqi tanks, a busy U.S. airstrip and thousands of soldiers living in row upon row of identical trailers. Several fast-food stands, a PX and a dining facility the size of a football field compose Taji’s social hub.
The base had been struck by an occasional mortar round, and a rocket had hit the airfield two weeks before and killed an American helicopter pilot. But the quiet base brought on a sense of being far from roadside bombs, far from rocket-propelled grenades and far from the daily gunfire that rained down on the soldiers of Charlie 1-26 as they patrolled Adhamiya, a violent Sunni neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad.
Just two weeks earlier, the 20-year-old DeNardi had lost five good friends, killed together as they rode in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle that rolled over a powerful roadside bomb.
As DeNardi walked up the three wood steps to the outdoor stand to pick up his burger, the siren wailed.
Wah! Wah! Wah! “Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!”
The alarms went off all the time – often after the mortar round or rocket had struck nothing but sand, miles from anything important. Many soldiers and others at Taji had taken to ignoring the warnings. DeNardi glanced around at the picnic tables to make sure everyone was still eating. They were. The foreign nationals who worked the fast-food stands hadn’t left; so he went back to get the burger he had paid for.
The mortar round hit before he could pick up his order.
“I turned around and all of Burger King and me went flying,” DeNardi said.
He’d lived through daily explosions in 11 months with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, at nearby Combat Outpost Apache, a no-frills fortress smack in the middle of Adhamiya’s hostile streets. He had rushed through flames to try to save friends and carried others to the aide station only to watch them die.
“I’m not getting killed at Burger King,” he thought, and he dived for a concrete bunker. People were screaming. DeNardi saw a worker from Cinnabon hobbling around, so he climbed out of the bunker, pulled shrapnel out of the man’s leg and bandaged him. The Pizza Hut manager was crying and said two more foreign workers were injured behind her stand – near the Burger King.
“Lightning doesn’t strike twice,” DeNardi said, “so I went back. But there were body parts everywhere.” The first man’s leg had been blown off, his other leg was barely attached and he had a chest wound. “He was going to die,” DeNardi said.
The other wounded man had shrapnel to his neck. DeNardi peeled off his own shirt and fashioned a bandage out of it as other soldiers started streaming in to help.
Then, “all clear” sounded over the loudspeakers as medics arrived and took over.
“I’m covered in blood, but I still have my hamburger receipt,” DeNardi said. “I went back to Burger King the next day, but they wouldn’t give me my burger.”
For all his dark humor, the “Hero of Burger King,” as fellow soldiers teasingly called him, was deeply rattled by the carnage of the explosion at the fast-food court. At Apache, he expected trouble. But not at Burger King.
“That affected me,” he said. For the next few days, he said, he slept in the open-ended concrete bunkers positioned between the housing units.
It was just another bad day to add to many – and DeNardi’s platoon had already faced misery that seemed unbearable. When five soldiers with 2nd Platoon were trapped June 21 after a deep-buried roadside bomb flipped their Bradley upside-down, several men rushed to save the gunner, Spc. Daniel Agami, pinned beneath the 30-ton vehicle. But they could only watch – and listen to him scream – as he burned alive. The Bradley was far too heavy to lift, and the flames were too high to even get close. The four others died inside the vehicle. Second Platoon already had lost four of its 45 men since deploying to Adhamiya 11 months before. June 21 shattered them.
Though their commanders moved them from the combat outpost to safer quarters, members of 2nd Platoon would stage a revolt they viewed as a life-or-death act of defiance. With all they had done and all they had seen, they now were consumed with an anger that ate at the memory of the good men they were when they arrived in Iraq.
PRIMED FOR REVENGE
After June 21, most of Charlie Company moved out of COP Apache, their makeshift home on the grounds of one of Saddam Hussein’s son’s palaces. At Taji, the company would try to recover for a new mission.
Sgt. 1st Class Tim Ybay, 38, served as 2nd Platoon’s platoon sergeant, but also its father figure. The former drill sergeant teased constantly and tried to treat his men like family. At memorial services for lost soldiers, he cried the loudest. He’d been on patrol June 21 when the five 2nd Platoon soldiers died in the Bradley. When he came back, his grieving platoon circled him as the weight of the loss forced him to his knees in the sand. He’d promised to bring all his boys home.
Now he would concentrate on the ones that remained.
“I knew after losing those five guys, my platoon had to get out of there,” he said. “These were the guys they slept with, joked with, worked out with. I don’t think they’d be able to accomplish the mission.”
The tears came again as he spoke, and he looked away.
“And I was having a hard time losing my guys.”
At Taji, the company had a week off. DeNardi looked more surfer than soldier after a couple of days at the pool. Ybay and his sergeants sat at the picnic tables drinking frozen coffee concoctions. The guys bought Persian carpets and brass lamps to send home as souvenirs – as if Taji were a vacation spot. But the anger over Adhamiya emerged even poolside, and erupted at the mental health clinic, which they visited in groups.
“You never really get over the anger,” said Staff Sgt. Robin Johnson, a member of Charlie’s scout platoon who had been especially close to Agami. “It just kind of becomes everything you are. You become pissed off at everything. We wanted to destroy everything in our paths, but they wanted us to keep building sewer systems and handing out teddy bears.”
Some of the younger members of the platoon were particularly disillusioned.
Spc. Armando Cardenas, 21, had taken honors classes in high school but feared college would bore him. He wanted something challenging and found it in the Army, in Iraq. As a soldier, he was the guy who leaped out of a truck to chase an insurgent, or instantly returned fire with an uncanny ability to tell where the rounds came from. When a friend, Pfc. Ryan Hill, was killed in battle, Cardenas helped carry him back.
But Cardenas’ anger was just as quick as his heroics.
He said the platoon had been waiting for June 21 – that they had known they would eventually hit a big IED and have a catastrophic loss.
Cardenas wanted revenge. “But they don’t let us take care of the people responsible,” he said. “It was a slap in the face.”
Adhamiya remained under the control of 1-26, but the brass moved Charlie 1-26 to another combat outpost, Old Mod – so called because it used to house Iraq’s Ministry of Defense – in a calmer area on the outskirts of Adhamiya. From there, they patrolled Kadhamiya.
“If my guys had stayed at Adhamiya, they would have taken the gloves off,” said Capt. Cecil Strickland, Charlie’s company commander. “We were afraid somebody was going to get in trouble.”
There had been close calls before. DeNardi had to fight back a strong desire to kill an Iraqi – accused of triggering an IED that killed two Charlie Company soldiers – as he held a 9mm Glock handgun to the man’s eye socket.
And Cardenas and Staff Sgt. John Gregory had been ordered to the Green Zone to talk to an investigator after they roughed up two insurgents. A week after Pfc. Ross McGinnis fatally threw himself on a grenade to save four friends, Cardenas and Gregory had chased a couple of guys on a scooter and managed to stop them. Cardenas kicked over a wooden box the two Iraqis stood next to.
“There was a grenade full of nails,” Cardenas said. “We had to go see a major about detainee abuse. We told him [the Iraqis] didn’t want to get in the Bradley.”
Nothing came of the investigation.
Such incidents belied the squared-away record Charlie 1-26 posted during its deployment to Iraq. In 15 months, they had one incident when two soldiers were caught with alcohol, Strickland said, but that was all.
“I think the performance comes from the level of discipline,” Strickland said. “And the discipline comes from the hardship. They’re a little bit more mature than a lot of other units.”
In Shiite Kadhamiya, Charlie Company found paved, clean streets. In Sunni Adhamiya, so many garbage collectors had been killed that the Shiite government workers refused to go there. “It was one road and one river away from Adhamiya,” DeNardi said. “But there was civilization on one side and chaos on the other.”
SSUICIDE AND A TWIST OF FATE
Lt. Col. John Reynolds replaced Lt. Col. Eric Schacht as battalion commander July 8. Schacht left after his son died of a heart condition in Germany, the same day Charlie Company lost five men in the Bradley. Even with the high operations tempo and the loss of so many men, Reynolds called the changeover “easy.”
“It was the best transition you could get,” he said.
But within days, he would lose five men, including a respected senior non-commissioned officer. Master Sgt. Jeffrey McKinney, Alpha Company’s first sergeant, was known as a family man and as a good leader because he was intelligent and could explain things well. But Staff Sgt. Jeremy Rausch of Charlie Company’s 1st Platoon, a good friend of McKinney’s, said McKinney told him he felt he was letting his men down in Adhamiya.
“First Sergeant McKinney was kind of a perfectionist and this was bothering him very much,” Rausch said. On July 11, McKinney was ordered to lead his men on a foot patrol to clear the roads of IEDs. Everyone at Apache heard the call come in from Adhamiya, where Alpha Company had picked up the same streets Charlie had left. Charlie’s 1st Platoon had also remained behind, and Rausch said he would never forget the fear he heard in McKinney’s driver’s voice:
“This is Apache seven delta,” McKinney’s driver said in a panicked voice over the radio. “Apache seven just shot himself. He just shot himself. Apache seven shot himself.”
Rausch said there was no misunderstanding what had happened.
According to Charlie Company soldiers, McKinney said, “I can’t take it anymore,” and fired a round. Then he pointed his M4 under his chin and killed himself in front of three of his men.
At Old Mod, Charlie Company was called back in for weapons training, DeNardi said. They were told it was an accident. Then they were told it was under investigation. And then they were told it was a suicide. Reynolds confirmed that McKinney took his own life.
A week later, without their beloved first sergeant, Alpha Company would experience its first catastrophic loss on a mission that, but for a change in weather, was supposed to go to Charlie Company.
On July 17, Charlie’s 2nd Platoon was refitting at Taji when they got a call to go back to Adhamiya. They were to patrol Route Southern Comfort, which had been black – off-limits – for months. Charlie Company knew a 500-pound bomb lay on that route, and they’d been ordered not to travel it. “Will there be route clearance?” 2nd Platoon asked. “Yes,” they were told. “Then we’ll go.”
But the mission was canceled. The medevac crews couldn’t fly because of a dust storm, and the Iraqi Army wasn’t ready for the mission. Second Platoon went to bed.
They woke to the news that Alpha Company had gone on the mission instead and one of their Bradleys rolled over the 500-pound IED. The Bradley flipped. The explosion and flames killed everybody inside. Alpha Company lost four soldiers: Spc. Zachary Clouser, Spc. Richard Gilmore, Spc. Daniel Gomez and Sgt. 1st Class Luis Gutierrez-Rosales.
“There was no chance,” said Johnson, whose scouts remained at Apache and served as the quick-reaction force that day. “It was eerily the same as June 21. You roll up on that, and it looked the same.”
The guys from Charlie Company couldn’t help but think about the similarities – and that it could have been them.
“Just the fact that there was another Bradley incident mentally screwed up 2nd Platoon,” Strickland said. “It was almost like it had happened to them.”
The battalion gave 2nd Platoon the day to recover. then they were scheduled to go back out on patrol in Adhamiya on July 18.
But when Strickland returned from a mission, he learned 2nd Platoon had failed to roll.
“A scheduled patrol is a direct order from me,” Strickland said.
“‘They’re not coming,'” Strickland said he was told. “So I called the platoon sergeant and talked to him. ‘Remind your guys: These are some of the things that could happen if they refuse to go out.’ I was irritated they were thumbing their noses. I was determined to get them down there.”
But, he said, he didn’t know the whole platoon, except for Ybay, had taken sleeping medications prescribed by mental health that day, according to Ybay.
Strickland didn’t know mental health leaders had talked to 2nd Platoon about “doing the right thing.”
He didn’t know 2nd Platoon had gathered for a meeting and determined they could no longer function professionally in Adhamiya – that several platoon members were afraid their anger could set loose a massacre.
“We said, ‘No.’ If you make us go there, we’re going to light up everything,” DeNardi said. “There’s a thousand platoons. Not us. We’re not going.”
They decided as a platoon that they were done, DeNardi and Cardenas said, as did several other members of 2nd Platoon. At mental health, guys had told the therapist, “I’m going to murder someone.” And the therapist said, “There comes a time when you have to stand up,” 2nd Platoon members remembered. For the sake of not going to jail, the platoon decided they had to be “unplugged.”
Ybay had gone to battalion to speak up for his guys and ask for more time. But when he came back, it was with orders to report to Old Mod.
Ybay said he tried to persuade his men to go out, but he could see they were not ready.
“It was like a scab that wouldn’t heal up,” Ybay said. “I couldn’t force them to go out. Listening to them in the mental health session, I could hear they’re not ready.”
At 2 a.m, Ybay said, he’d found his men sitting outside smoking cigarettes. They could not sleep. Some of them were taking as many as 10 sleeping pills and still could not rest. The images of their dead friends haunted them. The need for revenge ravaged them.
But Ybay was still disappointed in his men. “I had a mission,” he said. “The company had a mission. We still had to execute. But I understood their side, too.”
Somehow, the full course of events didn’t make it to Strickland. All he knew, the commander said, was his men had refused an order, and he was determined to get them to Apache.
“When you’re given an order, you’ve got to execute,” Strickland said. “Being told, ‘They’re not coming,’ versus, ‘They’re taking meds and went to mental health,’ are different things. It was just this weird situation where almost nothing connected.”
A REVOLT IN THE RANKS
“They called it an act of mutiny,” Cardenas said, still enraged that the men he considered heroes were, in his mind, slandered. “The sergeant major and the battalion commander said we were unprofessional. They said they were disappointed in us and would never forget our actions for the rest of their lives.”
But no judicial action ever came of it.
“Captain Strickland read us our rights,” DeNardi said. “We had 15 yes-or-no questions, and no matter how you answered them, it looked like you disobeyed an order. No one asked what happened. And there’s no record – no article 15. Nothing to show it happened.”
After the members of 2nd Platoon had spent a year fighting for each other and watching their buddies die, battalion leaders began breaking up the platoon. Seven noncommissioned officers were told they were being relieved for cause and moved out of the unit. Three noncommissioned officers stayed at Old Mod. Two, including Sgt. Derrick Jorcke, would remain in Iraq for one month after 2nd Platoon went home in October because they had been moved to different battalions in different areas of Iraq.
“In a way, they were put someplace where they wouldn’t have to go out again,” Johnson said. “But as an NCO, they took these guys’ leaders away and put them with people they didn’t know and trust. You knew 2nd Platoon would die for you without a second’s hesitation. That’s what made them so great. These guys need each other.”
Then, they were all flagged: No promotions. No awards. No favorable actions.
“We had PFCs miss [promotion to] specialist for two months,” DeNardi said. “Bronze Stars and [Army Commendation Medals] were put on hold. You’re talking about heroes like Cardenas. These are guys who save lives and they can’t get awards.”
“I didn’t want to punish them,” Strickland said. “I understood what was going on. But they had to understand you couldn’t do something like that and have nothing happen.”
And things could not continue as they had. Strickland could not operate for three more months with a platoon that refused to go out.
“Within the company, we made some adjustments,” Strickland said. “They needed a fresh start. After looking into it, I didn’t feel the need to punish anybody.” However, he left the flags in place.
“If anything was going to be punishment, that was it,” he said. For at least one soldier, that meant going through a promotion board again. Jorcke lost his promotion table status, but Strickland signed a memo re-establishing it. “I’ve tried to fix those issues. Almost everybody else has been promoted except one guy.” Jorcke made his E-6 on Nov. 1.
Even after the “mutiny,” Strickland said, he had a great deal of admiration for his soldiers.
“I understood why they did what they did,” he said. “Some of the NCOs, I was disappointed in them because they failed to lead their soldiers through difficult times. They let their soldiers influence their decisions. But on a personal level, I applauded their decision because they stood behind their soldiers. I was disappointed, but I thought they had great courage. It was truly a Jekyll/Hyde moment for me.”
And though they were horrified at being torn away from each other, the soldiers themselves were conflicted about the outcome.
“For us being disbanded, now we definitely had unfinished business,” Jorcke said. “If we’d cleared Adhamiya, we could have said, ‘I left Iraq and my buddies didn’t die in vain.
“But in a way, the disbanding was good,” he said. “We – what was left of the platoon – got to come back home alive.”