When Soldiers Fall, Grief Binds A Unit's 2 Worlds

November 10th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: When Soldiers Fall, Grief Binds A Unit's 2 Worlds

New York Times
November 10, 2006
Pg. 1

By Michael Luo and Michael Wilson
BAGHDAD, Nov. 9 — Memorial services honoring fallen soldiers from the First Battalion, 22nd Infantry in Iraq used to require planning meetings of as long as 45 minutes. But at this point, they take barely five.
“We’re here again,” said Chaplain John Hill. A roadside bomb had killed yet another soldier from the battalion the day before. He began to recite the unit’s “memorial ceremony execution matrix,” a 40-item checklist of tasks that includes everything from collecting personal effects to finding a singer.
Lt. Col. Craig Osborne, the battalion’s commander, said, “Unfortunately, we’ve gotten, I won’t say, good at this,” and he wrapped up the meeting almost as soon as it began. “It’s become habitual.”
In October, 105 American troops were killed in Iraq, the most since January 2005. The spike in deaths, more than three years after the war began, became a major factor in the sweeping Democratic gains in Congress this week. Colonel Osborne’s soldiers alone lost nine comrades, just as the battalion was beginning to make preparations to return home later this month.
“When something like this happens, all you do is think about it,” said Sgt. First Class Robert Warman, who last month watched a Humvee carrying four soldiers get blown to bits in front of him when a huge bomb hidden in the road exploded. “You think about it when you go to the mess hall, when you go to take a shower, when you lay down to sleep. You think, and you think, and you think, and you cry.”
The 800-strong Army battalion, part of the First Brigade of the Fourth Infantry Division based in Fort Hood, Tex., has been patrolling a vast swath of land west of Baghdad riven by Sunni Arab insurgents.
The losses in the unit in October were the most suffered by any battalion or squadron, according to a New York Times database of war casualties compiled from information provided by the Pentagon.
Back home, among the soldiers’ wives, fear spread in ever-widening circles. News sped from a woman’s living room in Killeen, outside Fort Hood, to her friend across town and then across the country.
After hearing that a member of her husband’s unit had been killed, Debbie Borawski braced herself. She was so certain that an Army officer was going to arrive at her home that she called a friend to come and wait with her. “I pretty much almost blacked out, “ she said.
Hour by hour from her home in Fort Hood, she filters the news of every roadside bomb, every sniper attack. “Until you hear that he’s safe, it almost kills you,” she said. “It eats you away.”
In the battalion’s first tour in Iraq, when it aided in the eventual capture of Saddam Hussein in Tikrit, it lost a handful of soldiers. And until September, only 3 soldiers of the 800 in the battalion had been killed in combat during this tour. On Oct. 1, a platoon of soldiers from A Company set out to establish an observation post near a road that had been plagued by concealed bombs.
Specialist Heriberto Hernandez, 20, was among a group of soldiers in a Humvee that rolled up toward a bridge near where they would set up. Specialist Hernandez and another soldier got out, while Cpl. Chase A. Haag, 22, a carefree soldier from Portland, Ore., who was in the gunner’s hatch, continued down the road with two others. The explosion that followed detonated right below Corporal Haag. Specialist Hernandez said he could tell right away that his friend, one of the best gunners in the battalion, was gone.
Still, he gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until the medevac helicopter arrived. Specialist Zachary Mayhew, who was one of Corporal Haag’s closest confidants in the platoon, put a splint on his mangled leg.
“We got him out of there in 25 minutes,” Specialist Hernandez said. They learned later that their friend had died. That shook the younger soldiers in the platoon, who had protected themselves with an inflated sense of invincibility.
The young soldier’s death forced couples like Sgt. Joseph Wilson and his wife, Sara, to strip away denial from their conversations.
“He doesn’t really like to talk about it,” said Mrs. Wilson, 26, living in Arizona until her husband’s return. “I’ve kind of forced him to talk about things, especially Haag’s death. He gets upset and starts crying.”
A few days later, Sgt. Brandon S. Asbury, 21, part of the battalion’s forward support company, was shot and killed by a sniper. Less than two weeks afterward, a roadside bomb killed Second Lt. Johnny K. Craver, 37, from the battalion’s B Company. On Oct. 18, four soldiers — Cpl. Russell G. Culbertson III, 22; Specialist Joseph C. Dumas Jr., 25; Second Lt. Christopher E. Loudon, 23; and Cpl. David M. Unger, 21 — along with their Iraqi interpreter, were killed by a bomb blast that left a crater in the road 7 feet deep and 15 feet wide.
Sgt. Scott Borawski, 36, of C Company, was supposed to have been on that Humvee that day. But because he was busy with other duties, he was replaced by Corporal Unger of Headquarters Company, whom Sergeant Borawski and his wife had befriended back home at Fort Hood.
Debbie Borawski first thought her husband was among the dead, after a call from Corporal Unger’s grieving wife.
“I knew Scott was with them,” Mrs. Borawski, 40, said later. “I didn’t know he wasn’t with his crew.”
She struggled to focus on the new widow, now forced to raise her young son alone, on the other end of the line. “I was so much more worried about my husband,” she said. “I feel selfish saying this. But I ended up kind of shutting down.”
After the blast, it took Sergeant Borawski two days to gather himself enough to call his wife to tell her what had happened. He had hoped to avoid breaking down for his wife’s sake, but halfway through he did.
“I didn’t know if I should feel grateful for not being there, or remorseful,” he said.
The bomb attack, coming so soon after Corporal Haag’s death, shook Specialist Mayhew anew. Lieutenant Loudon was a high school friend of his. The pair came from the same tiny town of just 2,100 people in Pennsylvania. They played on the same soccer team. Their mothers were friends. Somehow they had wound up in the same battalion in Iraq.
Back in Pennsylvania, Specialist Mayhew’s mother, Beverly Fustine, attended the young lieutenant’s funeral.
She said she was “pretty much O.K.” before October but now needed medication to sleep at night.
“I’m scared to death,” she said. “Sometimes I even fear answering the door. But it can’t compare to the fear he must feel every day.”
On Oct. 22, as Colonel Osborne and his men were questioning a store owner about reports of a Sunni checkpoint stopping Shiites, a shot rang out. Specialist Nathaniel A. Aguirre, 21, a medic who had been making plans to enroll at Texas A&M University and sign up for ROTC after Iraq, lay motionless on the street. He was standing less than 20 feet from the battalion commander.
Sgt. Kenneth England and Colonel Osborne dragged his body behind a parked car and tried to revive him. Sergeant England shoved a tube into his nose to try to create an airway but after five minutes of work, he pronounced Specialist Aguirre dead.
Less than a half hour later, as they were still looking for the sniper, they heard the crack of another rifle shot. Word came over the radio that the gunner in one of the Humvees down the street, Specialist Matthew W. Creed, 23, had been hit.
Sergeant England again dashed out to try to save Specialist Creed, one of many soldiers in the battalion who was supposed to have left the Army but is in Iraq because of the Department of Defense’s stop-loss order. He could not save him either.
That night, Sergeant England called his wife, Vanessa, a pharmacy student in Oklahoma, as he always does.
“Hey baby,” he said and listened to her tell him about her day.
When it was his turn, he could only say that it had been bad. It was not until several days later that he shared a few details.
“I told her we lost two guys, and I was there,” he said. “She really doesn’t need to know there was a sniper 50 meters away from me.”
Several wives said they took for granted the misinformation coming from their own husbands, well-intentioned little lies to ease fears. The women gather bits of news from one another, within the longstanding Family Readiness Groups or through the less formal channels of MySpace accounts and cellphones.
Specialist Hernandez made his fiancée, Kathleen Soliz, promise not to watch the news. In October, she broke the promise.
“I try not to, but it’s just that forbidden fruit,” said Ms. Soliz, 20, of Austin. “I can’t help it. I want to see if things are getting progressively worse or better, what regions are in a bind, and how the forces are dealing with that. I don’t even know what area exactly he’s in, so I’m probably doing myself an injustice more than anything.”
For the soldiers struggling to cope back in Iraq, it is the quiet moments in between missions and hanging out with buddies that are the most difficult. On Nov. 1, they lost yet another soldier to yet another makeshift bomb.
Pfc. Shane Barrows, who was there when the four soldiers in the Humvee were killed last month, strums his guitar and sings to himself in his room. He and others spent hours afterward cleaning up the area, collecting remnants of their friends’ bodies and placing them gently in body bags.
On a recent morning, he closed his eyes and sang: “When you are reading the paper, will you remember them? Will you see their faces like I did? I will see them forever in my head.”

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