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Memories Don’t Die So Easily

Times Staff Writer

A man staggers from his exploding car after running a checkpoint but returns for the limp body of a woman.

A mother and 6-year-old child lie curled up in the cab of a civilian truck, riddled with bullets.

A major trudges toward the body of what appears to be a fallen Iraqi soldier, only to find a U.S. captain cut down by fire the senior officer commanded.

These are the enduring images of war. They’re what remains after all the tales of sophisticated machinery and well-wrought plans are told, after combat patches fade. They’re what soldiers of Cyclone Company, and those who led them, will carry home from the war in Iraq.

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Cyclone Company, part of the U.S. Army’s 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, came into Iraq with 77 soldiers. Some were barely out of boot camp. Others had more than a decade of service. Some joined because there weren’t any other jobs. Others joined because it was a family tradition.

They weathered a brutal 48-hour convoy through untracked desert and were greeted in the small Euphrates River city of Najaf, in central Iraq, by a withering mortar attack and snipers. They fought their way out of an ambush south of Baghdad and fended off rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, to take the entrance to one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces.

The 14 tanks of Cyclone Company logged an average of 800 miles and moved farther in two days than most tank units did in months during World War II. They blew up 40 tanks, 59 armored personnel carriers, 21 artillery pieces and more than 40 trucks, and took 32 prisoners, according to tentative tallies.

Everyone from Cyclone’s mechanics to its tank commanders will get a combat patch when they get back to Ft. Stewart, Ga., home to the 3rd Infantry Division. Three Cyclone soldiers are under consideration for bronze stars with a “V” for valor, an uncommon medal in any war. The company’s commander is up for a silver star.

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The Cyclone Company that is settling into routine policing work in Baghdad’s restive streets is not the same Cyclone Company that Capt. Steven T. Barry inherited in October and commanded through drill after drill in the deserts of Kuwait before leading it into Iraq.

“You definitely see some changes,” said Barry, 29, a former high school athlete from central New Jersey who graduated from West Point as the top-ranking history major. “I think for some, it hasn’t sunk in yet,” he added. “Now, we’ll have time to think about it.”

Spc. Jarrid Lott, a 28-year-old tank driver, has been doing some thinking already. “I’ve seen a car blow up and then a guy run back and grab his wife from the seat and we couldn’t do anything about it,” Lott said. “I saw people taking pictures of dead people. I thought: That’s disgusting. I asked my tank commander, ‘Why are you doing that?’ He said, ‘If my son says he wants to join the Army, I’ll show him this [photograph] and tell him this is what the Army does.’ ”

Lott, a native of Redding, Calif., who joined the Army to pay off $32,000 in student loans for his bachelor’s degrees in psychology and social science, sat on a tank nicknamed “Cycho” and declared that his killing days are over. He won’t reenlist after serving three more years. His wife, Sheri, a graduate student in Portland, Ore., is expecting their first child this summer. While he was gone, Sheri found out she’s having a girl. The baby is kicking. They’ll name her Kara Lyn.

Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Lujan, a hard-laughing and hard-driving platoon sergeant, will take home a Republican Guard uniform, some Iraqi dinars and two indelible memories. One is the arduous trek across the desert into battle. The other: “Some of the people I killed who I didn’t know if they were innocent or not. That won’t leave me,” he said.

Last week, on a dark bridge across the Tigris River, Lujan gave the order to shoot the cab of a truck that looked like a military vehicle and whose driver was not heeding warning shots at the checkpoint. When first light came, Lujan, a father of two girls, found a woman and child dead in the cab. Everyone else who had been in the truck -- mostly men -- had fled.

Lujan doesn’t know what happened to the victims’ bodies. “Who picked them up? Who buried them?” he wonders.

“I’ve reconciled myself,” Lujan said. “We did the right thing, even though it was wrong.”

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Lujan, 36, is under consideration for a bronze star for destroying three Iraqi armored vehicles that were tearing into his platoon two weeks ago at an ambush on Highway 1 south of Baghdad. Barry said intelligence later showed that the rout of the ambushers prevented the Republican Guard’s Medina Division from following orders to move up to Baghdad to protect the capital, which was taken by U.S. troops several days later.

Maj. Kent Rideout, 39, executive officer for the 4th Battalion, worked on the documentation for Cyclone Company’s awards Wednesday. But his mind was on the worst day of his career.

Rideout gave the orders that killed Capt. Ed Korn, 31, of Savannah, Ga., who had strayed across enemy lines without Rideout’s knowledge. “I’ve replayed it over in my mind a hundred times, and I still would do it the same way,” Rideout said.

The incident occurred April 4 as Rideout’s unit and others were attacking Iraqi positions on a two-lane road about 15 miles southeast of Baghdad. The convoy of American tanks and armored vehicles was stopped on the road when Rideout and others spotted an Iraqi tank, a Russian-made T-72, apparently missed by other U.S. units that had driven through. They fired and blew it up.

While the vehicle was exploding and burning, Korn and a sergeant apparently dismounted and walked to the tree line near the tank, searching for Iraqi positions, Rideout said.

At some point, Korn spotted a second tank and sent the sergeant back for an antitank rocket before going on alone. Korn had on a brown T-shirt, a flak vest that was left open, and no helmet, according to Rideout, who was scanning the tree line for more Iraqi positions.

“Out of the corner of my eyes I saw behind the tank what looked to be an old campfire,” Rideout said. “I could see tea or coffee steaming, sleeping bags, chickens. It had all the hallmarks of a place where people were living. I put two and two together that this was a place a tank crew was living. All of a sudden we saw movement. Someone dropped down, like he was going to fire, and then stood up and got behind another T-72.”

A Bradley fighting vehicle commander spotted the same movement and signaled it to Rideout. “I looked that way, and he nods like he sees it too,” Rideout said. Rideout’s driver, Spc. John Durst, 24, of Grantsville, Md., poked his head out of the tank’s hatch and leveled his M-16, telling his commander he saw an enemy.

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“I said, ‘Yeah, I see it too, engage,’ ” Rideout recalled. “He fired one shot. I’ll never get over it. It was 200 to 250 yards away. He dropped him. I slapped him on the head and said, ‘That’s the greatest shot I’ve ever seen.’ ”

The greatest shot Rideout had ever seen hit Korn, a Desert Storm veteran who left Ft. Knox, Ky., to volunteer for war duty in March and had impressed Rideout with his battlefield knowledge.

A Bradley from Korn’s unit then opened fire on the second Iraqi tank. Some of those 25-millimeter rounds apparently hit Korn directly or ricocheted off the tank, Rideout said. They cut the young captain in half.

When someone came to Rideout to say Korn was in the tree line, Rideout ordered a cease-fire and led a search party. He headed toward what he assumed was the body of an Iraqi soldier. He told himself that Korn was fine and had made it back.

“As we got closer, we realized it was Ed Korn,” Rideout said. “It was gruesome. You look at that and you say, I don’t know if I could’ve done anything different. He had no appearance to us that he was an American soldier.

“This was the worst day of my Army career. No doubt, the worst day. I get to go home with that. I get to live with that the rest of my life.”

For some of the younger men of Cyclone Company, it is hard to piece together war memories into a coherent story. “Did this look like a war to you?” asked Spc. Royce Arcay, 26. “I’ve never been to a war, but it sure didn’t seem like what they put on TV.... It’s just kind of weird looking at dead bodies. They don’t look real. I never thought I’d see dead bodies like that, or body parts.”

Bodies killed by the powerful 120-millimeter main guns of an Abrams M-1A1 tank, or its mounted machine guns, don’t lie in quiet repose with neat red circles for wounds. They are mangled, blown apart and burned beyond recognition.

Tank crews often could not escape their handiwork. Some of the Iraqis they killed lay pinned in blasted vehicles that the Americans used as roadblocks. Day and night, tank crews stood guard just yards away. On one bridge in Baghdad, a dead Iraqi soldier pinned in a jeep became known as “Mr. Bubble-Guts,” a macabre nickname that seemed to help some get by the horror of his daily decay.

It didn’t work for Lott. “I’m going to have nightmares,” he said. “Last night I kept dreaming that I wanted to wake up, but I went from dream to dream to dream. When we’re getting on that plane, do you know how that’s going to feel? Just getting on the plane, going home?”

Cyclone Company will be in Iraq for weeks before Lott’s question can be answered.

In the meantime, the soldiers take a measure of war and plan for their future as combat veterans.

Staff Sgt. Charles Wooten, 36, of Meridian, Miss., who is up for a Purple Heart, will leave the Army after 15 years and two wars in the Persian Gulf. He’ll hunt raccoons with his hounds and show pictures of the fist-size dents and confetti punctures left in his tank and point to the eye that took shrapnel but is now healed.

“I thought there were going to be more casualties,” Wooten said. “I was scared of RPGs, but I didn’t think it would be this bad.”

Barry will get command of a headquarters company, then he has a full-ride graduate scholarship to either Harvard, Yale, Duke or the University of Pennsylvania. He’ll probably choose Pennsylvania because it’s closer to his hometown and his girlfriend. After that, he’ll finish a dissertation at West Point, where he’ll teach military history.

Lujan will go to the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, Calif., where he’ll critique training exercises. He said he’ll put in seven more years to reach retirement, then settle down anywhere but his hometown of Albuquerque.

Arcay, who joined the Army when he became depressed over a broken romance, has had enough of war. He’ll leave the military after his hitch is up.

Rideout will take a job as a ground liaison officer to the Navy in San Diego. When he gets back to Ft. Stewart, he’ll look up Korn’s mother and explain what happened, and hope she’ll understand.

Like much of the rest of Cyclone Company, Sgt. Arnoldo Spangaro, 29, a native of Cape Coral, Fla., has a simpler short-term plan.

He’ll start the process of moving his family to Ft. Stewart from Colorado. He’ll watch his 8-year-old stepson, Taylor, play soccer. He’ll push his 4-year-old daughter, Madison, on a swing.

“She doesn’t like to stop on the swing,” Spangaro said. “I’ll probably be there for four hours.”

The trick, he says, is to switch arms so you don’t get tired. Even a gunner’s arm needs to rest.


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