At Lonely Iraq Outpost, GIs Stay As Hope Fades

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Wall Street Journal
May 3, 2007
Pg. 1

U.S. Soldiers Persevere Despite Snipers, Ambush
By Greg Jaffe
TARMIYAH, Iraq -- For U.S. troops, just walking a simple foot patrol through this small, trash-strewn city 30 miles north of Baghdad has become unthinkable.
If the Americans spend longer than 10 minutes in one place, a sniper will track them down and begin shooting.
"It is getting to the point where we really can't interact with the people," says Lt. Cody Wallace, executive officer of the unit that patrols the city. Even the local police chief who oversees the area that includes Tarmiyah refuses to set foot in the town.
As U.S. and Iraqi troops have surged into Baghdad in a quest to bring stability there, enemy fighters have moved into the surrounding towns. U.S. commanders in these areas lack the manpower to defeat insurgents or protect the locals. On most days there are fewer than 50 U.S. troops in Tarmiyah, a city of about 30,000, many of them angry and disenfranchised Sunnis. Their goal is to keep the enemy off-balance, with periodic raids. It's the best they can hope for under the new U.S. "surge strategy," which some U.S. officers in Iraq say does little more than chase insurgents from one part of the country to another.
The experience of the soldiers from the Second Battalion, Eighth Cavalry Regiment's Demon Company here is a window into what motivates troops in a war that an increasing number of Americans have concluded is a lost cause. Few of the soldiers in Tarmiyah expect to change the city, where support for the insurgency is strong and hostility to the U.S. presence is often overt. Instead they persevere for each other.
In mid-February a massive truck bomb sheared off the front of the soldiers' base in Tarmiyah, sending concrete and glass flying through the air like daggers. The soldiers at the small outpost spent the next four hours fighting for their lives against a force of 70 to 80 insurgents.
After the battle, the troops got a few weeks to heal. Those healthy enough to fight returned to a new patrol base that is so close to the ruins of their old building that soldiers on roof guard duty can look down on the spot where they faced down death. Today most still have glass and shrapnel embedded in their skin from the February ambush.
None of the soldiers in Tarmiyah talk about winning anymore. But even some of the most severely wounded soldiers from that attack argued with their commanders and doctors to return to the patrol base with their fellow troops. "Is what we lost worth it? Not even a little bit," says Staff Sgt. Chad Stallings. But like many of those badly wounded in the blast, he has returned to the base.
"I am not ever going to change the world, but at least I can be there for my soldiers," says the lanky 25-year-old sergeant from Dexter, Mo.
In spring 2006 Tarmiyah, on the surface at least, was a much more peaceful place. U.S. and Iraqi troops surrounded the city with razor wire, set up the patrol base in the city, and began a $16 million campaign to rebuild the city's schools, clinics and sewer system. Soldiers often referred to the city, located 30 miles north of Baghdad, as the "petting zoo," a nod to the number of top generals who came to see what U.S. commanders considered a success story.
Last summer Tarmiyah began to fall apart. A battalion of about 300 to 400 Iraqi army soldiers that had been based in the city was transferred to Baghdad to support the new U.S.-Iraqi effort to stabilize the capital. At the same time, some 6,000 to 10,000 angry Sunnis, driven from their homes in Baghdad by Shiite militia forces, began streaming into this largely Sunni city. Sunni insurgents, affiliated with al Qaeda in Iraq, joined them.
Insurgents began extorting money from Iraqi contractors working for the Americans. And in December, the 150-man Tarmiyah police force, which shared the patrol base with American troops, drew their weapons, saying they were going out on a patrol, and never returned.
The three dozen soldiers from Demon Company were the only security forces left in the city. The soldiers typically spent four days at the patrol base, a spartan outpost without running water or hot food, and then rotated back to Camp Taji, a big U.S. base about 15 miles away, for four days. In February, Staff Sgt. James Copeland -- a broad-shouldered 30-year-old who has a tattoo of a skeletal Uncle Sam flashing his middle fingers snaking up his right arm -- was named acting platoon sergeant of one of Demon Company's four platoons.
Sgt. Copeland couldn't believe how far he had come. When he enlisted in 1997, he was working at a McDonald's in Hutchinson, Kan. He was then 20 years old, newly married and the father of an infant daughter. "Wow. Who would have thought that I would be a platoon sergeant," he wrote in early February in the journal he kept under his bunk. "If I stay out of trouble maybe someday I will make sergeant major. I have so much to learn."
On Feb. 16, Sgt. Copeland's platoon rolled out to Tarmiyah for a four-day rotation. The soldiers noticed that something seemed wrong in the city. On the roof of one house near the patrol base, they spotted a man tossing homing pigeons and waving a blue flag. Pigeons are often used by insurgents to send signals about the location of U.S. troops. A pickup truck rolled past with two children in the back, banging on metal propane canisters with sticks. The soldiers assumed the clanging was another signal.
The following day, the markets were empty. As U.S. troops walked through the city, fellow soldiers watched over them from a rooftop. One was Pfc. Justin Paton, a big, gregarious soldier from rural Michigan, who the troops nicknamed "Cornfed." Out of nowhere, the soldiers heard the crack of an enemy sniper rifle. "Paton's down!" screamed a soldier.
Sgt. Copeland, the second-in-command of the platoon, sprinted to the roof. The 24-year-old private's chest had collapsed and blood was spilling into his lungs, suffocating him. The troops loaded Pfc. Paton into a Humvee, and sped off with the doors still open and Pfc. Paton's 6-foot-3 frame dangling part of the way out of the truck. He died an hour later.
Sgt. Copeland told one of his soldiers to wash the blood out of the Humvee and collect Pfc. Paton's personal items -- a few letters, a Timex watch and an iPod. He then retreated to the empty detainee-holding area to get away from everyone and cry. "I can't believe this happened," he scribbled in red ink in his journal. "I wish it was me and not him."
Commanders at Camp Taji asked the platoon if they wanted to cut short their stay and come back to the big base. Pfc. Paton was the unit's first fatality and his death shattered the feeling of invincibility many of the young soldiers felt.
Sgt. Copeland discussed the offer with Lt. Shawn Jokinen, the platoon's 27-year-old leader. They decided to finish their four-day stint.
The events that followed were pieced together in interviews with some two dozen Demon Company soldiers and U.S. Army records.
The following day, the soldiers got a tip telling them where the sniper who shot Pfc. Paton lived. At 2 a.m. on Feb. 19, they raided the house and two others, arresting seven men. The soldiers returned to the patrol base around 5 a.m. elated and exhausted.
Most of the soldiers went to sleep. Sgt. Copeland wrote a note to himself to buy a phone card when he got back to Camp Taji and call his 10-year-old daughter. At 6:50 a.m., he checked the time on Pfc. Paton's watch, which had been placed under his cot for safekeeping.
A few minutes later the soldiers woke to the sound of bullets pinging off the patrol base, followed by a frantic scream. "Get your s -- on!" Sgt. Copeland yelled. "They've breached the compound!"
A truck loaded with more than 1,000 pounds of explosives had, seconds earlier, smashed through the front gate of the patrol base. Sgt. Copeland, the laces still flapping on his untied boots, started to wake the troops. Lt. Jokinen fired a couple of shots at the driver.
The truck exploded and everything went black.
The blast killed Sgt. Pedro Colon, a 26-year-old soldier from the Bronx. Spc. Montrel McArn, who a few minutes earlier had been playing video games, was hit by shrapnel that sliced off half of his face and part of his skull, say soldiers.
Sgt. Copeland, his back and neck peppered with glass, quickly told his troops to search the compound for insurgents. Troops who were too hurt to fight were led over to a small one-story command-post building next to the patrol base.
At the command post a 20-year-old soldier was working feverishly to get the base's radios, which had been knocked out by the blast, running so the soldiers could call for help. A piece of glass was sticking out of his ear.
Pfc. Trent Gray, a 20-year-old from eastern Kentucky coal country, was sitting on the floor with the other severely wounded troops. "The blood wasn't just dripping from my head. It was squirting, pumping through my fingers," he says. He told himself that if the enemy made it into the compound he would kill himself with his 9mm pistol. "I don't want to get my head cut off and have my wife watch it on the Internet," he recalls thinking.
Lt. Jokinen, the platoon leader, looked otherworldly. His face was coated in white dust and streaked with crimson red blood. He had a concussion and was mumbling incoherently.
Sgt. Copeland grabbed Lt. Jokinen's body armor and Pfc. Gray's machine gun and led a group of soldiers to the roof of the patrol base to try to hold off the enemy until help arrived. They began firing at enemy fighters running through the streets, and shot into buildings where they thought they were taking fire.
Finally around 8:15 a.m. the soldiers got a hand-held radio working and rushed it to the roof. With the radio the troops could direct the Apache attack helicopters circling overhead to enemy positions.
Lt. Clint Burleson, one of the Apache pilots, began talking to a sergeant on the patrol-base roof. The soldier sounded "disconnected and out of it," Lt. Burleson recalls. "His voice was creaky like he had been crying."
"Hey, buddy, if you can point me in the direction that you are taking fire from, I will make it stop," Lt. Burleson told the sergeant, who calmed down. The Apaches began blasting away.
The enemy fire gradually died down. Around 11 a.m. the soldiers on the roof were relieved by fresh troops from Camp Taji. Sgt. Copeland searched through the rubble by his bunk for his journal, which he found buried near his cot, and Pfc. Paton's watch, which he couldn't find.
As the adrenaline faded, the troops began to experience pain from the shards of glass and metal that had sliced their faces, backs, arms and feet. A few were overcome by fear. Sgt. Brandon Benton, a 23-year-old from Sacramento, Calif., threw up and then tried to cover it up with a sandbag so that no one would slip.
Sgt. Copeland held his emotions in check until he was ushered into the hospital at Camp Taji. He pulled off his shirt, revealing his back which was peppered with fragments of glass.
"How did you get wounded?" a doctor asked him.
He didn't answer. For the first time that day, Sgt. Copeland says, he began to sob.
The troops from Demon Company got about three weeks to heal and receive new equipment at Camp Taji before they were sent back to Tarmiyah.
The first few days in their new home -- a girls' school about 300 yards from the old patrol base -- were harrowing. They were hit regularly with machine-gun fire, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Some soldiers slept in their boots and others wore their bullet-proof vests to bed.
Many of the soldiers were angry at the people of Tarmiyah who they thought seemed to know a big attack was coming, but never told the Americans. "Right after the incident I was filled with a lot of hate," says Sgt. Copeland.
As his anger died down, Sgt. Copeland says he began to wonder what purpose he and his fellow soldiers were serving in the city. "The people here are not even trying to help themselves," he says. "Someone threatens them and they just cower."
U.S. commanders say they are reluctant to give up the patrol base in the city out of concern that it will look like they have been driven out by the enemy. "If we're not out here, they have won," says Sgt. Jason Fisher, a 24-year-old soldier who fought for hours from the roof of the old base.
An Iraqi battalion made up of about 300 to 400 soldiers is expected to arrive in Tarmiyah later this summer to help with security. Until then, the goal is to just hang on and, as much as possible, keep the enemy from completely taking over.
In the evenings, soldiers at the base pass the time playing cards by the light of chemical glow-sticks, and cook Ramen noodles on a small campfire in the courtyard. Sometimes they set ambushes in an effort to catch insurgents planting roadside bombs. A few days a week, they drive by the ruins of their old patrol base, shooing away locals who spray anti-American graffiti on the walls and steal bricks and metal rods for their own construction projects.
In late March, a small team of Demon Company soldiers hid out in a half-finished house hoping to ambush insurgents laying bombs on a road on the outskirts of Tarmiyah. The insurgents never showed up. But after a few hours, some local laborers arrived to work on the house. The U.S. soldiers searched them for weapons and then escorted them to the top floor of the house to wait for a couple of hours. Sgt. Copeland and Sgt. Fisher offered the workers a strawberry breakfast bar and began to chat with them with the help of their interpreter.
The laborers, who had been driven from Baghdad by Shiite militias, told them that most people in the town hated the Americans and believed that they were siding with the Shiites.
"You should be in the Shiite areas too. Not just the Sunni ones," said one of the men, named Mohammed. Sgt. Copeland and Sgt. Fisher tried to reassure the laborers.
"We are not siding with anyone," Sgt. Fisher said. "We just want everyone to live in peace so we can go home."
The attack that eroded the troops' faith in Tarmiyah seems to have made some of them more willing to fight for each other. Before the Feb. 19 attack, Sgt. Benton, who had vomited when the fighting was done, insisted to superiors that he shouldn't even be in Iraq. The 23-year-old's enlistment contract ended in November, but the Army, which is short of sergeants, made him finish his one-year tour as part of its "stop loss" policy. Sgt. Benton was furious, and in early February his superiors threatened in writing to demote him unless his performance improved.
"I have to undo a lot of stupid things I have done," he says today. "I have a strong bond with this platoon. I don't want to leave. And if I die out here I don't want to be remembered as the s -- head that everyone had to think of something nice to say about at my memorial service."
By mid-March, eight soldiers still hadn't returned to the patrol base. Pfc. Gray, whose temporal artery was spurting blood after the explosion, put off returning until Sgt. Stallings, his section leader, was ready to go back. "We've got a bond. We were blown up together," Pfc. Gray says. "Plus he makes me laugh, so that I am not thinking about getting blown up into a million little pieces." The two were cleared by doctors and returned together in late March.
The night before his doctor's appointment certifying him as healthy, Pfc. Gray says he couldn't sleep. The 20-year-old watched three movies on his DVD player and talked on the phone to his wife, who is pregnant with their first child.
He fell asleep around 5 a.m. and was jolted awake by a nightmare two hours later. In the dream, Sgt. Copeland was screaming that someone had breached the gate of their old patrol base. Pfc. Gray says he frantically tried to lace up his shoes. But he couldn't get them tied. The louder Sgt. Copeland screamed, the more he fumbled.
Early last month, Pfc. Gray decided he wasn't ready to stay at the outpost. "I had a really hard time," he wrote in an email. At his request, Pfc. Gray says his bosses assigned him to a headquarters job at Camp Taji. He says he hopes it will be "for a month or so until I feel better."
Sgt. Stallings, his friend who carries shrapnel in his body from a 2004 rocket-propelled grenade attack and glass from the February explosion, stayed.
The hardest decision for commanders was whether to let Lt. Jokinen, the platoon leader, go back with his troops. Today he is virtually deaf in one ear and seems to have limited hearing in the other one. He has to turn his head to hear.
At Camp Taji, Lt. Jokinen, who is married with two young children, says he had a hard time sleeping. When a rocket slammed into Camp Taji, he says he was overcome by a feeling of helplessness -- similar to what he felt in the immediate aftermath of the attack, when a bad concussion left him disoriented and afraid.
Last month, Lt. Jokinen returned to the Tarmiyah outpost. His superiors "wanted me to go on leave and rest up some more, but I had to get back out there with my platoon," he wrote in an email. "I also needed to prove to myself that I did not lose the ability to be a soldier and to lead. I needed to get over the wall of fear and get my confidence back."
Despite his misgivings about the mission in Tarmiyah, Sgt. Copeland says he never doubted that he would return with his troops. "I don't deploy for the Iraqi people," he says. "We all come here to fight for the guys on our left and our right."