The war you didn’t see
LAST MONTH I returned from Iraq, swapping my desert camouflage for a suit and tie to resume my desk job at a Century City firm. For the first time in 18 months I was separated from my battalion, the 1st of the 184th Infantry Regiment, which was among the first California Army National Guard units to be sent into combat since the Korean War.
From the first weeks of our mobilization in August 2004, we were in the spotlight. We were the battalion “mired in scandal.” We were, according to the disgruntled, poor in training and morale. Once in Iraq, we were the battalion that suffered casualties seemingly faster than anyone could count: 17 killed in action and nearly 100 wounded in 12 months. We were the battalion whose commander, Col. William W. Wood, became the highest-ranking soldier to die in action. Our previous commander was relieved of duty after a scandal involving the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Even as we rolled out each day to confront terrorists, we were known at home primarily for things that had nothing to do with the job we did or how we did it.
Over the course of 18 months, the 600 soldiers of the 184th experienced almost every high and low a band of brothers could, from great distinction to shocking heartbreak. But what never made it into print were the things that will mark our hearts until well after we become the old-timers down at the VFW.
We served with honor. We served with valor. We earned distinction.
Google us to find the litany of supposed woe. But if you want to know the real story of our battalion, go find Sgt. Thomas Kruger and ask him about April 5, 2005.
On that bright spring morning, with his legs shattered, Kruger dragged himself across 100 feet of debris and shrapnel to reach Cpl. Glenn Watkins, who had been mortally wounded moments earlier by the same ghastly roadside bomb.
You might also ask anyone from our ranks about Staff Sgt. Steve Nunez. Broken and bloodied by an IED, he was ordered home to recuperate after refusing to go voluntarily. He rejoined us to carry the fight forward, refusing the chance to stay home.
There were no front-page headlines for Kruger, Nunez or even Sgt. 1st Class Tom Stone, who covered a wounded subordinate’s body with his own to protect that soldier from a secondary attack that could have come at any moment.
Stone, a Los Angeles Police Department officer, and Kruger, a paramedic on movie sets, were awarded Bronze Stars for their valor. Nunez, a Riverside metalworker, received our awe and admiration, and I hope yours too.
Equally deserving of recognition were Sgt. 1st Class Chris Chebatah and 1st Lt. Ky Cheng. One terrible September night, an armored personnel carrier in their patrol was destroyed by a tremendous blast and flipped, pinning a soldier. Even while taking enemy fire and directing the care for casualties around them, they rigged a chain to pull the 10-ton vehicle off him. The effort was successful but ultimately futile.
So far, 14 of our soldiers have been decorated for valor and another 48 have earned the Bronze Star for service. But that cannot be found in print.
Our unit -- supposedly just a band of weekend warriors from the National Guard -- was selected by the Army’s renowned 3rd Infantry Division to take on its primary challenge: taking control of a sector of south Baghdad that was home to leading Baathists and Al Qaeda fanatics. In that capacity, we conducted more than 7,000 combat patrols totaling nearly half a million man-hours. We captured more insurgents in one month than did whole brigades. We stand nominated (with the rest of our brigade) for a Valorous Unit Award.
But instead, people who didn’t know the first thing about us trumpeted the misdeeds of a handful of young men who scoffed at the concepts of honor and duty that our commander invoked.
At dawn on the June day that that story broke, we awakened to the deep reverberation of a complex attack -- five car bombs and at least three subsequent ambushes designed to hit those who responded -- in an adjacent sector. The 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment was in a hot fight. Our Alpha Company -- a part of our battalion, based in Fullerton -- rallied to 3-7’s aid. The company fought through ambushes to find, kill and capture terrorists. For a few hours, the men of Killer Company, as we call Alpha, were heroes.
But that night, amid rumor and whisper, the Alpha soldiers were taken off patrol and isolated. Within days we knew the ugly story. Months earlier, it seems, shortly after we arrived in Iraq, a few of Alpha’s young NCOs had abused a group of Iraqi detainees.
It was immature, nasty, stupid stuff -- using stun guns on the genitals of men allegedly caught trying to attack a power plant. The men they tortured were later released, as are so many of the suspected terrorists caught in country. In the investigation that followed, nine others were accused of lesser misdeeds -- taking photographs of themselves with detainees and the like -- in which no physical harm came to anyone.
The Army PR machine touted the news, almost proudly, much like “Access Hollywood” touts B-list celebrity gossip: “Baghdad Troops to Face Court-Martial for Detainee Abuse.” Before long, word leaked out that they were ours. What was not said was that it was one of the soldiers in our own battalion who had found the video of the abuse and turned it in to our commander.
Lots of folks had lots of theories about why the Army made such a big deal of it. Mine is that the Army wanted to get out in front of “another Abu Ghraib,” and a group of “nasty Guard” soldiers made good poster children. It was sound PR, but lousy teamwork.
Whatever the case, in the end, only three went to prison for their role in the abuse, all for short terms. The others received minor administrative punishments, and our commander -- a schoolteacher, poet and a man of noble values -- was sent elsewhere. The facts did not live up to the hype, but the hype was what we, and you, were left with.
While our Delta Company patrolled a stretch of Baghdad road where five of our soldiers were eventually killed, people who had never set foot in Iraq were quoted about our performance. People who rarely left the safety of an operations base damaged our reputations. We never flinched in a fight, but we were smeared nonetheless.
What none of us could explain was why no reporter actually met a single 184th soldier in Iraq until November. Even that only came after the tragic death of our new commander, Col. Wood, an amazing active-duty officer who held us together and made us strong again. Whether it was some form of politics or simply the realities of journalism in war, I do not know. The hype was all that mattered.
During my tour, I was blessed -- or perhaps cursed -- with a “utility infielder” role, serving in a variety of positions that gave me a diverse look at the lives of soldiers and Iraqis alike.
I patrolled the streets of Baghdad’s elite Karrada neighborhood and its insurgent-rich Doura sector, shaking people’s hands and learning their problems. I lived and worked alongside American contractors upgrading a key power plant. I trained Iraqi police, saw their enthusiasm and came to understand their different approach to things. I worked as a junior officer on our battalion staff, witnessing how the decisions governing the street fight were shaped. I was shot at and attacked with IEDs.
I saw the successes. I struggled with the failures. But most important, I saw people who once had nothing now bursting with hope and thanks.
While I was in Iraq, I read Walter Isaacson’s remarkable biography, “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.” I was reminded of the passion and determination of our founding fathers, and of the long years they experienced between independence and the founding of the government we enjoy today. Franklin and company recognized the importance of having a fully informed American constituency involved in making the decisions of government.
When it comes to Iraq, in my experience, that constituency is poorly served.