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She knew what they had come to tell her

Times Staff Writer

SGT. 1st Class Greg Sutton was an Army casualty assistance officer at Ft. Sill, Okla., one of the soldiers who deliver the dreaded knock on the door. For most of a year, he witnessed the devastation war can inflict on a family.

When he held the hand of a grieving widow or looked into the face of a confused child, it was hard not to imagine the scene playing out in his own living room on their peaceful street in Lawton. He tried to prepare his wife, just in case.

“Don’t worry. The Army will take care of you,” he would say, even though she didn’t want to hear it.

But there is no preparing for such news. So when the knock came last month on Joane Sutton’s door, she was as devastated as any of the other wives who have staggered under the weight of war’s grief.

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Greg Sutton was one of several soldiers at Ft. Sill to volunteer for casualty officer duty, an assignment that lasts just one year because of the emotional stress involved. His superiors chose him for his even temper and pleasant demeanor. But casualty officers don’t deploy. And any soldier will tell you that a trained warrior who sits out a war is like a trained athlete who sits out a championship. After 16 years in the Army, Sutton, a 38-year-old father of four, had served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but not in Iraq. He wanted to go.

His decision took him from the friendly camaraderie of his basement office to one of the most dangerous assignments in Baghdad.

Sutton was a specialist in calling in air support during combat operations, and the Army command needed one to join a Military Transition Team, or MiTT -- small, specialized squads assembled from throughout the force to mentor and train Iraqi units. It would put him in the thick of it, embedded not with a battalion of skilled Americans but untested Iraqi soldiers who are prime insurgent targets. Late last year, Sutton volunteered.

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Every soldier prepares for the possibility of death, but few can envision the ritual that follows as well as Sutton could: the face at the door, twisted in agony before a word is said. The pained questions about the remains, so difficult to answer. The folded flag. The daunting stack of military paperwork. The numbed stare.

He didn’t tell his wife right away. He started bringing home Army support literature written for widows. She figured it out soon enough.

“I would get mad and ask him what I was supposed to do with it. He told me to keep it just in case,” said Joane, 26, the mother of Sutton’s youngest children, 3-year-old Cailee and 18-month-old Greg II. Sari, 15, and Andrew, 14, are from a previous marriage. “He wondered how I would take it if it were me. I told him never to say that because it would never be me.”

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ON one of his last days at Ft. Sill, Sutton’s friends gave him a going-away party at Ryan’s, a steakhouse with a big buffet.

The casualty assistance unit was a tightly knit outfit, doing their grim duty in what used to be the morgue of a converted Army hospital. They kept things light for sanity’s sake -- whose turn was it to bring the doughnuts? Every chance they got, they went bowling; Sutton’s average was a more-than-respectable 220.

“The job we do here gets disheartening, but Greg always had something to say to cheer us up,” recalled Sutton’s friend Stefan Ohlenmacher, one of several civilians in the unit.

Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Plumey was Sutton’s partner and the casualty officer who trained him. They were professional twins -- same rank, same artillery skills needed for the MiTT. But Plumey had done two tours in Iraq and, after 20 years in the Army, wanted to retire.

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The story got around that Plumey had been ordered to Iraq and that Sutton had taken his place. News outlets, including The Times, wrote about Sutton as the volunteer who did a buddy a favor that cost him his life.

But Army officials later said it didn’t happen that way; the command had not asked for a specific soldier, only offered a job description. Either man would have fit the bill. If no one had volunteered, someone would have been ordered to go.

Sutton was hoping for a promotion to first sergeant, and a year in Iraq would enhance his chance. He also wanted to do his part in a war that had taken so many of his comrades.

He e-mailed his family from Ft. Riley, Kan., where he went to train: “I really miss you guys and I promise I will do everything in my power to come home safe.... Do not be scared for me, because I believe GOD has me in his hands.”

By spring he was in Baghdad.

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FOR his 11-member team, the mission was to pair up with an Iraqi Kurdish unit brought to Baghdad to assist in the troop “surge” ordered by President Bush.

Sutton’s job was to call in support when the team came into enemy contact. He developed strong ties with the Kurdish soldiers. “They listened to his advice. He kept them on the straight and narrow,” said team leader Maj. Alex Stephenson.

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The 11 of them shared a little house in the west Rasheed district of Baghdad, directly south of the Green Zone. Jogging was dangerous because of snipers, so they bench-pressed weights; Sutton was aiming for 300 pounds.

Four or five to a room made for “one big dysfunctional family,” and they bickered like brothers -- whose sock was on whose side. One day Sutton and Capt. Dave Marshall literally drew a line down the middle of the room. It didn’t matter, Sutton’s stuff somehow wound up on the wrong side anyway, Stephenson said. “It was always hilarious.”

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THE team’s 90-day rotation was nearly up. It was June 6, their last full day in Baghdad before moving to their next combat assignment. Attacks on U.S. forces had increased; the surge had quadrupled the number in the area, and more soldiers equal more targets. But on the whole, violence was ebbing. They had managed to reduce the number of civilian killings and keep Shiite Muslim militias from driving out Sunni Muslims, Stephenson said.

Around 4 p.m., they prepared for a final patrol before handing off to the MiTT team that had arrived to take over. For security reasons, the men were discouraged from calling home before a mission, but Sutton did it anyway. More than once, Stephenson had walked the camp perimeter at 2 a.m. to find him perched on a Humvee, talking to his kids.

“We had to be up at 0600 so I knew he’d have to be tired, but he never complained and it never impaired his performance, so I let him do it,” he said.

They climbed into six Humvees at 4:05, three from their team and three from the new team in trail. Stephenson was the patrol commander in the lead vehicle, with Marshall at the wheel and Sutton in the gunner’s turret manning the M-240B machine gun. This was to be a quick patrol, part of the handoff.

Ten minutes later, a massive roadside bomb ripped out the back half of the lead Humvee. The fuel tank ruptured; the vehicle exploded in flames.

The blast left Stephenson disoriented and temporarily deaf, but he remembers looking over his shoulder and seeing that Sutton was dead, still harnessed in the hatch. Gunners in the rear of the convoy were firing at the attacker who had detonated the bomb. He escaped around a corner.

Two medics pulled Sutton from the burning wreckage and laid him on the ground. Stephenson screamed for something to cover the body. He didn’t want another American soldier killed in action winding up on an enemy website. A medic was already on the way with a body bag.

For the next few weeks when Stephenson took a head count, he would look for 11, then remember there were only 10.

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BACK in Lawton, Joane had hung up the phone after her husband’s call not a half-hour before, around 7 a.m. His two-week leave was still five months away, but he was thinking about it already. They were planning to take the kids to Sea World in San Antonio. He wanted her to make sure it would be open.

Remember that as a Casualty Assistance Officer you represent the Secretary of the Army and you must be the embodiment of the professional soldier in deportment and demeanor.... The Class A uniform will be worn on the first visit. --The Army Casualty Assistance Officer Training Program

Joane happened to look out her window later that afternoon and saw two soldiers in Army dress walking toward the house next door. No, wait, the squared shoulders and shiny gold buttons were steering toward her house. Was this some sort of a joke?

Your first visit to the NOK [next of kin] is going to be the most difficult.... You may be the only one with a clear head at this time.

They knocked. There it was. Her body went numb, but she managed to invite them in, even moved a pillow on the couch so they could sit. They were speaking, but she didn’t hear most of what they said.

From the moment they had met, she could see that Greg was Army through and through -- a military brat who grew up around Ft. Bragg, son of a paratrooper. He had even convinced her to enlist before they married, but she flunked out of basic training. The sit-ups. He was just as glad, because soon the war came, and then the children. One soldier in the family was enough.

Stephenson remembered overhearing Sutton say how proud he was to be part of the MiTT team. Training Iraqis to defend their own country so the Americans wouldn’t have to -- it was the kind of thing he could tell his grandkids about.

One of the first questions the NOK will ask will concern the arrival of the remains. This is a crucial factor to the NOK. It is important to verify the status of the remains before arriving for the visit.

It took less than a week for his body to reach home. Joane wanted to see her husband one last time. He had taken the worst of the blast, and a funeral director decided on a closed casket. The casualty officer assigned to the case -- he wasn’t anyone she knew -- dodged questions about Greg’s wounds, trying to spare her an awful memory. But she was determined. Finally, they took her to see him. His body was arranged in full dress and ribbons. His head was covered, but she could at least hold his hand.

At the earliest opportunity, review the sequence of events of the funeral service. Remain aware of the stress the NOK is experiencing. Well-planned services will be noticed and appreciated by all.

At the chapel service on Ft. Sill, they had a slide show instead of a eulogy. Cailee called out “Daddy!” when she saw his picture.

Sutton had wanted to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. His friend and bowling buddy Gabby Galloway drove a carload of close friends 1,600 miles from Oklahoma. They plan to go back next June 6, the anniversary of his death.

An honor guard fired a three-gun volley. A bugler played taps. Joane accepted the flag. In the casket with him were some stuffed animals. Also some Vienna sausage and beef jerky, his favorites. The children hadn’t mailed their Father’s Day drawings yet, so they put those in, too.

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faye.fiore@latimes.com


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