11 Days Till Baghdad

February 25th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: 11 Days Till Baghdad

Washington Post
February 25, 2007
Pg. 1

Crucial to the President's New Strategy for Iraq, A Commander and His Soldiers Head Into War
By David Finkel, Washington Post Staff Writer
FORT RILEY, Kan. -- Their camouflage on, their wives carrying infants, their older children carrying flags, the soldiers of George W. Bush's surge crowded into a gymnasium for their brigade deployment ceremony, a last public viewing before they disappeared into Iraq.
Baghdad, long an abstraction, was now imminent. Of the 21,500 additional troops President Bush decided to send to Iraq in the coming months, about 3,500 were coming from here. "Are you frightened?" a TV reporter called out. "I'm confident," one of those soldiers replied. An enormous American flag hung on the back wall. A military band lined up in formation. "Ready to go," another soldier said.
Outside, snow was coming toward this isolated place. Inside, as the bleachers filled and the doors swung closed against the cold, a 41-year-old soldier near the middle of the floor began clapping his hands in anticipation.
And now waved at his wife and children.
And now took his position in front of the soldiers he would soon be leading into combat.
This was Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, the commander of an Army battalion called the 2-16 -- the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. The unit has 800 soldiers, most in their late teens and deploying to Iraq for the first time under the command of a man who, in this gymnasium filled with believers, was among the biggest believers of all.
"We are America," is how Kauzlarich would describe his belief a few days later, just before boarding a plane that would take him and his soldiers for a year's deployment into the center of an increasingly unpopular war. "This nation can do anything that it wants to do."
Down the hill, in another part of Fort Riley, a different ceremony was underway. That one, a private memorial service, was for a 21-year-old sergeant from a different battalion who five days before was traveling through northern Iraq when a makeshift bomb detonated near his vehicle, making him one of 25 American troops to die that day in the war.
The ceremony in the gym was a celebration, however, and now, from the band, came a stirring series of notes from a trumpet, followed by a moment of quiet, interrupted by a single boom of a bass drum so sudden and explosive it caused people to flinch, including some of the soldiers.
Ralph Kauzlarich, who perhaps would be an American hero a year from now, or perhaps would be an American tragedy, didn't flinch, though. Instead, just for a moment, he smiled.
What is it like to be a soldier in an unpopular war? To be part of a troop increase that the American public is overwhelmingly against, and to lead 800 soldiers into a war being described as "barbaric" and a "meat grinder" and the result of a "failed policy" and down to "the last chance" and "lost"?
"What we're about to do is going to change every one of our lives," Kauzlarich told his command staff at a meeting the day after the ceremony, which had concluded with handshakes from people who would grab onto him and lock onto his eyes, as if they were already trying to remember the last time they saw Ralph Kauzlarich. "And it'll all be okay," he continued, "as long as we win."
So fiercely does Kauzlarich believe this -- that the war can be won and that it will be won -- it can seem as if he is the one grabbing onto something, in this case the idea that victory is a matter not only of strategy and tactics, but of sheer willpower as well. A true believer's certainty: This is Kauzlarich's, who at 8 years old announced to his family that when he grew up he wanted to be "a leader of men," became the youngest Eagle Scout ever in his home state of Montana, attended West Point, became an Army Ranger, served in Desert Storm, served in Afghanistan, played a controversial role in the Army review of the friendly-fire death of Cpl. Pat Tillman, served a special-operations tour in Iraq, has climbed steadily through the officer ranks, and has yet to experience military failure.
As one of his soldiers said: "He's the kind of guy you follow to hell and back. He's that kind of leader."
He has never lost a soldier under his command. "No, I have not had to contend with that yet," he said. He has never had a soldier of his even get hurt, has never loaded a wounded soldier of his onto a stretcher, or treated a bleeding soldier of his on a battlefield, or notified a family that their beloved child, or husband, or father, had died. "I've talked to families that have lost sons in combat," he said, but those conversations were well after the fact and didn't involve soldiers who were directly his.
That, he imagines, will change. "Statistically, there's probably a pretty good chance I'm going to lose men," he said, and like so many things that would happen in the 11 days between the deployment ceremony on Jan. 25 and his actual departure on Feb. 5, the statement seemed both factual and heartbreaking. Ironies and bittersweet juxtapositions are inescapable in wartime, and these days weren't any exception.
One day came news that two soldiers and 250 insurgents had died during all-day gun battles that were unusually fierce, even by the standards of Iraq; that was the day Kauzlarich, his wife and three children all put on matching outfits of blue jeans and white shirts and went to Sears for a family portrait.
Another day: "I looked at Ralph's body armor today, and picked it up, and felt it," Kauzlarich's father -- who had flown in with his wife to say goodbye, and had gone to his son's office, and had hoisted the armor, and had heard medics boast that they could get a wounded soldier to a hospital from anywhere in Baghdad in 15 minutes max, and had been spared the detail that snipers had begun aiming at soldiers' thighs in order to pierce the femoral artery -- said at dinner. There was ham. There were twice-baked potatoes. There was a Betty Crocker cookbook open on the counter. There was an apple crisp in the oven.
Earlier, out of his son's earshot, the father, whose name is also Ralph Kauzlarich, said: "I have feelings. I have fears. I know he could get injured. I know he could not get back. But I know what he feels, too. He believes this."
His eyes had gotten a little wet as he said this, but now, eyes back to dry, merely nodding, he ate ham and potatoes and listened as his son described the first time he had come under fire in Desert Storm, how he had thought he might die, how he hadn't.
"Okay, there's a reason I'm here," Kauzlarich said he decided that day, as his parents listened, and his wife, Stephanie, went to get the apple crisp out of the oven, and his 7-year-old daughter, Allie, climbed onto his lap for a hug, and his son Jacob, who was born just after Sept. 11, 2001, slid laughing across the floor on his belly. "I wasn't afraid of anything from that point on."

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