A Salute For His Wounded, A Last Touch For His Dead

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
April 2, 2007
Pg. 1

By Richard A. Oppel Jr.
BAQUBA, Iraq, March 31 — In the last moments of his life, Sgt. First Class Benjamin L. Sebban saw the flatbed truck speed into the concertina wire guarding his small Army patrol base near Baquba.
“Everybody get down! Get down!” he screamed. Soldiers dropped to the ground.
A combination of the strong wire and muddy gravel stopped the bomber, who then detonated explosives packed into the truck bed. A 50-foot-wide fireball enveloped the base, an L-shaped school that weeks earlier had served as an insurgent hide-out. Soldiers were slammed into walls and windows, they later recalled, battered by pieces of brick and glass turned into shrapnel.
Unaware of a deep wound beneath his body armor, Sergeant Sebban, a 29-year-old medic, shook off the blast and staggered to his first-aid station to treat casualties, other soldiers recalled. “Let’s get ready!” he shouted, one soldier said. Then he collapsed. He bled to death even before the evacuation helicopter arrived to carry him away, 17 minutes after the 6 p.m. attack.
At almost precisely the same time another helicopter landed in Baquba. It carried Col. David Sutherland, commander of the American combat brigade in Diyala Province. He was returning from the large military base in Balad, where he had visited wounded soldiers and gone to the morgue, where he saluted and then prayed as he placed his hands on a long black body bag containing the body of a military policeman killed that day by a sniper in Baquba.
It had been a long day for Colonel Sutherland and his brigade chaplain, Maj. Charlie Fenton, who have taken it on themselves to visit every dead and badly wounded soldier in the 5,000-strong unit, the Third Brigade Combat Team of the First Cavalry Division.
But it was still not over. After arriving in Baquba, Major Fenton walked into the brigade headquarters and heard Colonel Sutherland on a loudspeaker informing officers that a soldier from another brigade had committed suicide in Muqdadiya. Then he was handed a list of nine new casualties, the dead and the wounded. At the top was Sergeant Sebban. Four hours later, he and Colonel Sutherland climbed into another helicopter, bound once again for Balad. “We’ve never had to see this many at once,” Major Fenton said as he walked in darkness in helmet and body armor to the landing pad just after 11 p.m., trailed by soldiers grasping stacks of Purple Hearts in navy blue leather cases.
The two officers have made the round trip to Balad more than 70 times since arriving in October. But on that day, March 17, the brigade suffered its highest daily toll, with two dead and 14 wounded.
Altogether, the unit has seen 39 soldiers die in five months, more in that brief span than the number killed in any brigade that preceded it in yearlong deployments here. Names of the dead are written on a piece of metal affixed to a tall concrete barrier on Forward Operating Base Warhorse, near Baquba. With the death of Sergeant Sebban, the barrier ran out of space. A new barrier was just erected next to it.
A Vicious Battleground
Once described by the American military as comparatively stable, Diyala, which is roughly the size of Maryland, has been transformed into a fierce battleground as vicious in many places as the most dangerous parts of Anbar Province, the volatile Sunni area in western Iraq. It has been besieged by Sunni militants and extremists trying to eradicate Shiites and establish a Taliban-like sanctuary, and by Shiite militias, who have allies in the provincial government and security forces that are Shiite-dominated even though Sunnis make up a majority of the population.
More than a year ago the American military decided to cut back drastically the number of troops in Diyala. But that plan is now in reverse, as new troops move back into Baquba, the provincial capital, trying to quell the bitter fighting as part of the plan to put more troops in Iraq.
The casualties are taking a tremendous emotional toll on the brigade. Major Fenton, 48, recently sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. He likes to say a unique psalm or Bible verse when he visits each dead soldier, but he says he has almost run out of suitable Scripture.
The troops ache and rage over the loss of friends. After Sergeant Sebban was killed, “I was just mad,” said Sgt. Roy Mitchell, who was wounded slightly in the attack. “I had in my mind, the first person I saw, I was going to shoot them.”
For some, grief is compounded because they feel no one back home grasps the perils they endure. “We’ve just got a lot of guys dying,” said one combat soldier who did not want his name published. “This country is not getting any better. Nobody really understands what’s going on.”
At a cramped and dark outpost in southern Baquba, Pvt. Jason Myers said that with friends shot by snipers or blown up by mortars and roadside bombs there was little time to mourn, until the deployment was over. “I’m going to go home, get really drunk, and cry a lot,” he said.
Colonel Sutherland, 45, broke down after the 20th brigade soldier was killed earlier this year. “I went into a deep sorrow,” he said. “I was wallowing about in self-pity, worrying about the dead, worrying about those who have no worries. I was overwhelmed. At no point did I doubt our mission, but I couldn’t sleep that night.”
After talking to his wife and his commanding general, he said, he steeled himself with the realization that it was those whom the dead leave behind who need to be cared for.
“It was an epiphany,” he said. “I needed this brigade to go on, and these soldiers needed to go on, for the living. Our reactions need to be for the people here, who need me and my soldiers to make the right decisions.”
Laying his hands on the bodies of dead soldiers before they are flown out of Iraq is a crucial part of saying goodbye, he said, a way to tell friends and families he was with them. “I put my hands on every one of them,” he said.
Of the hundreds of thousands of American troops who have deployed to Iraq in four years of war, more than 3,200 have been killed. But those numbers understate the mortal risk faced by those in dangerous regions like Diyala. The primary combat unit in Baquba since November, the 1-12 Combined Arms Battalion, has seen 21 soldiers killed in five months, out of close to 1,000. An additional 93 have been wounded. The battalion’s deployment is less than half over.
“Crying doesn’t make me any less of a man,” said the 1-12 commander, Lt. Col. Morris Goins, who tears up as he recounts how one of his soldiers drowned in a canal, trapped in his Bradley fighting vehicle. “To not show emotion, you’re an idiot, or you’re living a pipe dream. If someone were to tell me not to show emotion, I’d hit them in the lip.”
Settling Into a Nightmare
Sergeant Sebban was in charge of the first-aid station for Charlie Troop, of the Fifth Squadron of the 73rd Cavalry Regiment. Handpicked from a large battalion of airborne troops, the squadron’s 300 highly conditioned soldiers spend most of their time in small patrol bases or on long foot patrols. The unit is small, and its soldiers have been together for years. The bonds are tight.
Last month, most of the squadron moved from its base in Kirkush near the Iranian border to small bases around the eastern edge of Baquba. Charlie Troop set up a base in As Sadah, a bleak, rural village four miles northeast of Baquba, where the residents were being killed and terrorized by Sunni extremists and Shiite militias, as well as by the Iraqi Army soldiers who were supposed to be protecting them.
One Iraqi Army officer, a Shiite, had been ridding the area of Sunnis, telling them, “If you don’t leave this area, we’ll come back and kill you,” said the most senior enlisted man in Charlie Troop, First Sgt. John Coomer. Troops said many Sunnis in the area had turned to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia to protect them from Shiite soldiers.
In turn, Sunni fighters had begun attacking Iraqi soldiers, fueling more attacks on Sunnis. Iraqi soldiers stationed at a checkpoint on the main road between As Sadah and Baquba tried to kill Sunni villagers as they dashed to Baquba to get food or medical treatment, American troops said.
In response, Capt. Jesse Stewart, commander of Charlie Troop, put his own soldiers on the checkpoint for two hours each morning and two hours each afternoon so villagers could come and go without fear of being killed. The first morning 450 villagers fled, Captain Stewart said, but only about 50 came back.
It was into this nightmarish situation that Sergeant Sebban and the rest of his troops settled, establishing a base in a schoolhouse that had previously been a staging area for Al Qaeda operations in northern Baquba.
As the troops began to go out on wearying foot patrols, Sergeant Sebban resumed one of his obsessions: caring for soldiers’ feet, a crucial task for a unit that conducts such long missions. He was especially concerned about trench foot, in which skin peels off wet feet in cold temperatures, as well as stress fractures and rashes.
As daylight began to fade on the evening of March 17, about 60 members of Charlie Troop waited for hot meals being trucked to As Sadah from Forward Operating Base Warhorse, a respite from plastic bags of prepared food. Some soldiers played cards or read books.
Specialist Jason Miera had just finished a set of pull-ups when he heard Sergeant Sebban scream to get down. “I heard him clear as day,” he said.
Immediately, he said, came the bright yellow explosion, followed by a thick ball of dust. “You couldn’t see one foot in front of your face.”
Five men from Charlie Troop, interviewed separately, all recalled that Sergeant Sebban yelled the warning that allowed some soldiers to take cover. Lt. Col. Andrew Poppas, the squadron commander, said Sergeant Sebban faced an instantaneous decision: to dive for cover and save himself or to shout a warning to others.
“He never sought cover for himself,” Colonel Poppas said.
The Wounded and the Weeping
Colonel Sutherland and Major Fenton’s two-and-a-half hour visit to Balad had followed a familiar routine, starting at the hospital, where they passed out Purple Hearts and consoled the wounded. Near the entrance they encountered a weeping first sergeant, who was in charge of the military policeman killed earlier in the day. “He was in the fight; he was on his 240 Bravo,” the sergeant said, referring to the dead soldier’s machine gun.
One wounded soldier, choking back tears, told the two officers he was shot in the lower back just as he warned his troops to spread out, so as not to present an easy target. “I looked back to tell my guys to stagger, and I got hit right away.”
Next, Colonel Sutherland and Major Fenton boarded a bus to the morgue. The routine was interrupted, though, when Major Fenton saw seven soldiers in the hospital parking lot.
One of the men, with a bushy red flattop, was shaking and crying. They were friends of the military policeman killed earlier in the day. Major Fenton and the colonel walked to group, where they prayed and told the troops it was all right to grieve.
In the military, “cultural norms, if you will, checkmate a lot of guys from healthy grieving,” Major Fenton said. “One of the jobs I have is to give them permission to do that.”
Major Fenton endured much grief even before deploying. While a chaplain at Arlington National Cemetery, he grew close to his driver, Cpl. William Long, who shuttled him from funeral to funeral. Corporal Long volunteered for Iraq, and was killed in June 2005.
“I wish I had talked him into not volunteering,” Major Fenton said. He said he also wished he had talked him into marrying his fiancée.
Major Fenton later adopted another soldier from Arlington. Eventually, he introduced his new son to Corporal Long’s former fiancée. They are now engaged.
Before deploying, Major Fenton worried how he would do. “I was self-medicating with alcohol, and became a crying drunk.” But arriving in Iraq seemed to lift the demons. “Something about having to do the job gave me strength.”
Then, a few weeks after getting here, he was shaken when he noticed Corporal Long’s name on the tall concrete memorial barrier. He had visited it before, never noticing the name.
Along with the brigade’s rising casualties, it led him to seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Sometimes you see four or five amputees, with no arms, no legs, or none of either,” Major Fenton said. “When the bed sheet lies flat and then angles up at the waist, it’s a horrific thing.”
Lying in bed at night, Major Fenton grows anxious when he hears footsteps crunch the gravel outside, fearing another death. One officer who lives nearby, Maj. Charles Poche, says a greeting when passing, to assure Major Fenton that grim news is not at his doorstep. “I usually tell him to go to bed,” Major Poche said.
A Purple Heart on a Body Bag
After visiting with the seven soldiers in the parking lot, Major Fenton and Colonel Sutherland boarded the bus for the morgue. Major Fenton visited the body of the M.P. alone, then Colonel Sutherland and a few other soldiers walked inside. Major Fenton said a psalm, the soldiers give a long salute, and Colonel Sutherland rested his hands on the body bag and prayed before placing a Purple Heart on top. “I talk to the soldiers, and I let them know that their buddies are going to be O.K.,” Colonel Sutherland said in an interview later.
In some months the military hospital in Balad sees more than 500 wounded soldiers from northern Iraq alone, said Staff Sgt. Tanisha Denton. Sergeant Denton offered Colonel Sutherland and his soldiers a familiar admonition: “Don’t take offense, but I don’t want to see any of you back here for a while.” But five and a half hours later they were back. Five soldiers wounded at As Sadah arrived, as well as three from the Fifth Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment shot on patrol in Baquba.
Colonel Sutherland moved from patient to patient, seeing newly wounded soldiers who now lie next to patients he visited just a few hours earlier.
After pinning a Purple Heart to their pillow or shirt, he told them that their buddies were praying for them and that they should call their families. He said it was all right to be scared, and that they should do what the doctors say. Drawing on his experience as an open-heart surgery patient three years ago, he told one soldier just out of surgery that it was natural to feel cold, a byproduct of the anesthesia.
“They are now understanding that they are mortal, at 23 or 24 years old,” he said. “I tell them they are going to go through drama in their heads. They have given enough to everybody else. They should just worry about themselves and their families.”
There was another stop this night. The soldiers boarded a bus bound for the morgue, where Sergeant Sebban lay in a body bag. They were joined by several soldiers who were close to the sergeant. They performed the same ritual they did earlier in the day, and boarded the bus again. Driving back to the hospital, the ride was quiet.