Shipping Out

Shipping Out
October 28th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: Shipping Out

Shipping Out
Washington Post
October 28, 2007
Pg. 1

From Childhood, Two Brothers Knew They Would Serve as Soldiers. Now They Are Headed to Iraq, Facing the Uncertainty of War Together.
By Peter Slevin, Washington Post Staff Writer
SALEM, Ind. -- Brett and Kurtis Walters played army in the woods as kids. They dueled at video games and spent untold hours debating who was stronger and cooler, Superman or Batman. Years later, they are still giving each other grief. Kurt still favors Batman, and Brett recently proved his allegiance to the Man of Steel by having a stylized "S" tattooed onto his back.
Brothers and best friends who work together and hang together, Brett and Kurt will soon head to Iraq together, soldiers in the same nine-member Indiana National Guard squad. When they contemplate what they will find in the unpredictable dust of Anbar province and how the fight will change them, they talk in the terms of the comic books of their adolescence.
The bad guys can't get him, Brett, 22, told his worried 19-year-old wife, because they have no kryptonite.
"And what if I lose Kurt over there?" Brett asked. "We don't talk about it in a serious manner. It's, 'Dude, if you die, I'm taking all your DVDs.' I told him, 'If you die, I get your truck.' "
As the U.S.-led battle for Iraq's future rumbles toward the five-year mark, the Walters brothers are among the thousands of part-time warriors who will quit their civilian lives and their home towns to spend 10 months in a parallel reality. Four state Guard brigades, among them Indiana's 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, will mobilize in early December, the next wave of deployment to support President Bush's plan for keeping at least 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through next year.
More than 3,400 Indiana soldiers are training now for the war, a conflict more complicated, more unpredictable and less popular than at any time since the March 2003 invasion. When the troops -- farmers and factory workers, students and executives, sons and daughters -- ship out, they and the communities they leave behind will be braced for the worst. "This is a tougher mission," said Col. Courtney Carr, commander of the Indiana brigade. "There's a good chance that not all our soldiers will come back."
To prepare, soldiers are taking leave from work and school to practice convoy security and urban-warfare skills amid the foggy cacophony of mock Iraqi towns complete with minarets and clusters of beseeching citizens. They are studying how to recognize roadside bombs and escape from charred Humvees. And they are learning to fire every weapon in case a squadmate is felled in battle, an acknowledgment that rising casualties create fresh necessities.
Whatever the rest of the country, and their neighbors, think of the worthiness of this war, Indiana's soldiers say they have plenty of motivation -- a mixture of loyalty to their country, devotion to their comrades and determination to succeed.
"When the big game comes," Sgt. 1st Class John Ingle said one day at the Salem armory, "you want to get in there and see if you've got it."
Panic in a Humvee
From behind the doors of a Humvee carcass spinning on a spit, the grunts and curses sound like the muffled audio of a wrestling match. Soldiers in fatigues, upside down and discombobulated, still strapped into their seats, struggle to unharness themselves from the make-believe wreckage of a roadside bomb.
Minutes pass. First two, then four, then six, an eternity in a battlefield emergency. Sgt. Shaun White finally becomes the first to emerge through the only unlocked door. He closes it behind him and moves to take a crouching position against enemy fire.
"Hey, hey, HEY!" shouts Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Sheets, a trainer leading the exercise. "Your buddy's in there!"
After the soldiers spill out, the Humvee is righted and the next squad piles in. Sheets takes a break and offers a simple equation: If a Humvee rolls over in Iraq, soldiers will die.
Stationed nearby in case of trouble, medic Jeremy Thompson watches.
"I've heard more cuss words today than I have in my entire life," Thompson says. "A lot of panic, more than you'd think."
This is not the National Guard of the early 1990s, when Indiana veterans remember drill weekends as little more than bull sessions broken by sporadic bouts of push-ups. Back then, fuel for the vehicles and ammunition for the weapons were limited. The notion of overseas combat was at best abstract.
More than 60 percent of the Indiana soldiers, who range from teenagers barely out of high school to veterans topping 50, have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some crossed into Iraq in March 2003 with the invasion force that toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, while others, such as the Walters brothers, guarded Afghan bases. But few have experienced the steadily morphing insurgency, with its elusive enemy and complex rules of engagement.
National Guard armories scattered around the state draw soldiers from all over -- urban Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, college towns and regional centers, and sleepy burgs such as Salem, bounded by cornfields and serenaded by freight-train whistles and Friday-night football crowds.
In a place where military tradition is strong and Guard membership is a matter of pride and opportunity, the 76th Brigade includes father-son, father-daughter and husband-wife pairs who will deploy together. A 47-year-old letter carrier and pastor joined the Guard as a paymaster when he learned that his 21-year-old son would deploy. Now the son is staying home to attend college under a ROTC provision, and the father is heading to Iraq.
Kurt and Brett Walters, born 18 months apart to a military mother who enlisted when she was 17, said they always knew they would join. Their mother, Dani Sabens, was a big part of that certainty. She spent 28 years in uniform, mostly working supply and logistics and looking after her soldiers. Three years after formally retiring as a master sergeant, she still works at Camp Atterbury, the state's principal training facility.
"She always joked with us that when we were born, she forged our names on the forms," said Brett, who remembers the way his mother would come straight from work and head with them to the grocery store, still wearing her fatigues.
"Even as a little kid, I would see all the other kids staring at my mom with that look on their faces," Brett said. "I always wanted to be an inspiration like that."
Kurt was asleep one January morning in 2001, a few days after his 17th birthday, when Sabens woke him up and said they had to get going to the Salem armory. Sleepily, he asked why.
"We're going to enlist," she said.
"Okay," he replied. "Let's go."
"It wasn't like she made us," Kurt, a 23-year-old sergeant, says now. "We wanted to. We wanted to serve our country and protect the people we knew. We were going. As soon as we were running around as kids, we were wearing Army clothes. We'd go up in the woods and pretend the trees were the enemy and beat the hell out of them."
Sabens considers military service an elemental act of patriotism. She also liked the idea that her boys would collect their own paychecks, attend college tuition-free and, in boot camp, "grow up and become men."
"I told them throughout their early life I didn't care which service they joined," she said, "as long as they wore a pair of boots."
Simulated Chaos
To prepare for duty protecting military convoys in Iraq -- scouting routes and escorting supply trucks through the gantlet of roadside bombs -- Indiana soldiers training at Fort Knox sat at large computer consoles that simulated the view of Iraq from inside a Humvee. A driver and a radio man sat next to a gunner operating a .50-caliber machine gun whose trigger and sight were linked with the events on the screen.
Vehicles and people appeared, variously innocent and suspect, as the driver worked the accelerator, brake and wheel. The anxious gunner faced decisions -- when to shoot, when to hold his fire. Soon enough, a trainer operating the master controls made an insurgent's rocket hit home, blasting the Humvee's mock windshield and spattering it with red video blood.
The computers are programmed to simulate convoys, patrols and ambushes, explained Rick Talbott, a retired Army reservist who manned the control consoles and led the soldiers through after-action discussions. He pointed to his video screen, which tracked convoys moving from desert landscapes and airfields to labyrinthine city neighborhoods in ever more complex maneuvers.
"They learn from their mistakes," Talbott said. "Take out one of their vehicles, we see how they react to it. You can't sit there and be totally engulfed by fire from the roofs. They have to plan an exit strategy."
Across the room, in near darkness, another set of computers allowed soldiers to maneuver on foot through urban landscapes alongside their squadmates, each with a 360-degree view of the battlefield. Beyond a partition, trainers at consoles of their own played the roles of guerrillas, typically hurrying through the streets carrying AK-47s or satchel charges.
Squad members called out their positions and movements in voices steadily louder and more urgent.
October 28th, 2007  
Team Infidel
"Keep your eyes open for strange vehicles, strange packages, people running away from a vehicle! Scan your rooftops, too," Sgt. Benjamin Bennett instructed. A soldier yelled to a buddy: "Turn around! You've got a guy crawling up behind you!"
Boom. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded on the screen.
"Jesus Christ," one soldier muttered. "Wiped us all out."
Five screens went black, and white letters appeared: "You are dead."
Don't Forget the Xbox
It didn't take a war, Kurt Walters learned, for Army life to change him.
He was more serious about football than his studies at Salem High School, 30 miles northwest of Louisville. After graduation in 2003, he headed to boot camp, where he worked hard and made closer friends than he had imagined he would, "because of what we went through."
"You come back," Kurt said, "and get together with your friends and drink beer, and you realize how immature they are -- and you were."
"And are," added Chelsea Walters, 21, his wife. The couple started dating three years ago and married last year.
For the Walters brothers, preparing for Iraq means arranging leave from their jobs as guards in a Kentucky psychiatric detention center and making sure the mortgage payments will be drawn from their combat pay. It means getting new laptops equipped with webcams and arranging to have an Xbox 360 in their Iraq hooches to play Guitar Hero II and Halo 3.
It also means squeezing in some fishing and drinking.
A frequent companion is Joe Steepleton, who sometimes seems like the third Walters brother. They met as teenagers working at Hardee's. A motorcycle accident that shattered his wrist required four pins and a metal plate and kept him out of the Marines. Now 24, married and a father, Steepleton oversees liquor supplies at a casino in nearby French Lick. The deployments -- Kurt and Brett served in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005 -- leave him worried, feeling as though he has no friend to call on his days off.
"I think he gets more emotional in missing him than I do," Chelsea said of Steepleton's friendship with Kurt. "They're the married couple."
As the clock ticks down again, Steepleton aims "just to hang out and have a good time, man, because you never know if it's the last time you'll see them. I try not to think about it, but I know it could happen. But we have a motto: You live for the day."
'It's for Keeps'
"When you know you're going to be going, the intensity level goes up. It's for keeps," said Todd Baker, commander of Salem-based Charlie Company and a radio account executive in civilian life. "If we don't do our jobs, soldiers are going to suffer."
Bandages and tourniquets, to take one example, are no longer Boy Scout stuff. "That could be saving my buddy's life," Baker said. "I want my buddy to be able to save my life."
Baker is also the training officer for the 1st Battalion, 152nd Cavalry (RTSA), based in New Albany, just north of the Ohio River. The battalion, which includes Charlie Company, the Walterses' unit, is not only cranking back into wartime mode just two years after returning from Afghanistan. It also has the added task of transforming itself from a standard cavalry unit into a faster, more versatile unit known by the acronym RSTA, for reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition.
Typically, such a transition would mean sending soldiers to Army schools, but Baker and his colleagues were forced to develop their own model because classrooms across the country are full and time is short. The Indiana warriors, summoned to reinforce an overstretched active-duty military, are headed back to the combat zone two years sooner than commanders had anticipated.
Because the classrooms are so full, Baker said, "it probably would have taken four or five years to get our soldiers qualified."
In any army, the hardest aspects of training to master and quantify are leadership and cohesion. Sgt. 1st Class Ingle, a combat veteran, believes that his men will be prepared to fight and to watch one another's backs. Yet he wonders how they will react if one of them is killed.
He wonders what will go through his own mind.
"I'm not worried about anything except that," said Ingle, 33, a divorced father of two. "All these guys standing on this drill floor, I know their parents, their brothers, sisters and wives. I'm not worried about getting killed. I've led a good . . . life. There are those that haven't. They're just kids."
'Don't Be a Hero'
Kurt and Chelsea had a baby boy named Brayden in September. Brett and his wife, Danniel, are expecting a girl any day now. They will name her Alexis Gabrielle, a combination of Brett's middle name and the name of a character from "Desperate Housewives."
Brett is also trying to scrape together at least $800 to adopt Danniel's 5-year-old daughter, Brooklyn, before he deploys.
The couple had what he calls a "put-together wedding" with family during the summer. They will have "her wedding" when he returns. He has promised to salt away between $2,000 and $5,000 to pay for it.
When they discussed her desire to be married ahead of his deployment, she said she wanted things in order for the baby. He teased her that it was only about the life insurance. But death is not a topic they often raise with each other.
"I try to avoid it and go in the kitchen," Danniel said one recent night as Brett read a bedtime story to Brooklyn. "We don't talk about what if this happens, what if that happens. We talk about what I'm going to do when he's overseas."
One thing she will do is paint their new place, a two-bedroom house built in 1889 and bought for $59,000. She told Brett he could choose the color of one room, but after joking that he prefers black, he left the choice to her.
Danniel, for her part, is expecting to spend plenty of time with Chelsea. The two women are close. They waitressed together and worked in the same nursing home and may do so again.
"We call and grump together all the time," Danniel said. "If I have a bad day, I'll call and grump to her and she'll grump to me."
The year of call-up should be excellent for their bank accounts. Brett said he makes "maybe $20,000" with overtime at the psychiatric facility. In Iraq, he expects to pocket at least $40,000, helped by state and federal tax breaks. He will reenlist while there, sheltering his $15,000 bonus from taxes.
Brett will put $1,200 a month into Danniel's account, the rest into his own.
"I said I don't want access to it," Danniel explained. "I'm a girl. I'll spend too much."
Those in the group are still a few weeks from saying goodbye to one another for the next major training. After mobilizing to Camp Atterbury in December, the soldiers will make it home for Christmas before leaving in early January for Fort Stewart, Ga., and two months later for Iraq.
The Walters brothers are already planning a celebratory road trip for their return, with a few Charlie Company friends and maybe Steepleton, if he can afford it. Kurt, who wears a ball cap that says TKB, for Tappa Kegga Beer, figures on buying a Harley and heading west, rumbling to California and the Pacific Northwest before turning east and then south, through Montana toward Texas, Florida and the Carolinas.
"After we've been over there, we're going to need some time to wind down," said Kurt, who figures the trip will take a month.
"I told Chelsea it's either that or I can stay right here and act like a freak."
Sabens, as a soldier and a mother, is trying not to let her fretting diminish her pride.
She is troubled by her sons' decision to be in the same squad. She understands their drive to serve together, and she knows how important they were to each other in Afghanistan, but it is hard not to think of losing them both. At work, she reads the Pentagon casualty reports.
"I tell my kids, 'When you go over there don't be a hero,' " Sabens said. " 'Keep your eyes open, keep your head down and your ears open, too, because your ears tell you a bunch of stuff. If your buddy goes down, don't go rushing out there, because you're going down, too. Look first.' "
Sabens has been checking job postings at KBR, the military contractor. When her sons are settled in Iraq, she intends to look for a KBR job at their base for an experienced Army problem-solver who just happens to be a mom.
One recent night at Wild Bill's Saloon in Salem, drinking beer and shots called a "red-headed slut," Brett described a trip home on leave from Afghanistan. Wearing his Army uniform, he met with a third-grade class. Those moments with the schoolchildren echoed his memories and his dreams.
"The way they looked at me -- I loved that look on their faces," Brett said. "Just to stand up for your country is the best thing in the world. I try not to think of how popular or unpopular [the war] is. I don't know what started it or what'll end it, but it's what we've got to do."
Soon the brothers expect to be in the Iraqi desert, where for all the ribbing and the joking, one of their primary goals will be to stay alive. As Brett said: "We've got new kids. We've got to stick around for at least a couple more years."
Whatever happens, they figure to be in it together.
"When we get bored," Brett said, "I'll tell him Superman can beat the crap out of Batman."
October 28th, 2007  
Nice read, though it smarts a personal wound.
Shipping Out

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