THE battalion commander rose to address the families of soldiers bound for Iraq. Lt. Col. Mark Stock was responsible for the safety of 820 paratroopers and, ultimately, the life trajectories of hundreds of toddlers, spouses and parents squeezed into the pews of a base chapel.
There was no easy way to say what had to be said.
Stock uttered a single word: “Casualties.”
The families fell silent, except for the sudden stab of a baby’s cry.
“It’s not something we like to talk about,” said Stock, his forehead slick with sweat in the stifling heat of the chapel. “It’s certainly something that makes us all uncomfortable. But it’s important.... This is the down and dirty.”
So he told them: how a spouse is always told face to face, never by phone or e-mail, that a soldier has died. How phone lines and e-mail servers are shut down on bases in Iraq when someone is killed. How a wounded soldier is allowed to call home, and how someone at Ft. Bragg will nonetheless read a family member the official account from Iraq describing how a soldier was injured 6,500 miles away.
And this: how everyone in Stock’s battalion should have completed a will, a power of attorney, a military life insurance certificate and a DD Form 93. This form designates beneficiaries for military insurance and the “death gratuity” paid to the families of the fallen.
What thoughts occupy the minds of soldiers, and their loved ones, as they ship out for war? How does a family prepare for an endeavor in which death or disfigurement is not merely an occupational hazard, but an actuarial certainty for a small but predictable number?
How does a commander motivate his troops for a war that a majority of Americans, according to opinion polls, has written off as a lost cause built on half-truths -- a war that even some retired generals who fought in it have called a calamity of historic proportions?
Stock’s “White Devil” battalion -- the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division -- was making its final, hectic preparations before shipping out this month. The Army battalion is part of the first brigade to be sent to Iraq since five brigades arrived this spring after President Bush ordered an increase of 28,500 troops to stabilize areas overrun by insurgents.
In mid-September, commanders will report to Congress on the progress of the troop buildup. But the White Devils’ deployment is a reminder that no matter how the “surge” is evaluated, the war slogs on, taking a private toll on soldiers and their families.
IN a rear pew, seated with his wife and young son and other families of Bravo Company, one of six companies in the battalion, Staff Sgt. Mike McKenzie, 32, had already held “The Talk” with his wife, Leah. He told her he wanted to be buried by paratroopers. He wanted a battle buddy to accompany his body home. He wanted paratrooper pallbearers, a paratrooper firing party, full military honors, two buglers echoing taps and a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace.”
He would be laid out in his Class A dress greens. “With my jump boots on,” he told Leah.
In the pews where Foxtrot Company sat, the commander, Capt. Kevin Agness, had already held “The Arlington Talk” with his wife, Chiara. He told her he wanted to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
As the final two weeks of the yearlong preparation for deployment unfolded, no one could escape news of casualties.
Paratroopers at a base mess hall quietly laid down their forks one hot morning as TV sets blared the news that the body of a kidnapped U.S. soldier from Ft. Drum, N.Y., had been pulled from the Euphrates River. A plaque on the mess hall wall listed the names of Ft. Bragg paratroopers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it was out of date because the deaths had been coming too fast.
The next day, White Devil soldiers attended a service for 82nd Airborne soldiers killed. The total came to 112, with the two latest deaths announced the day before. A firing party let out 21 crisp shots. Taps was sounded, and the division chorus sang “The Last Full Measure of Devotion” as parents and spouses of the dead sobbed into their hands.
A headline on the lead story in that week’s Paraglide, the post weekly, read: “Bragg Troops Killed in Combat.” The story described how one of them had played tic-tac-toe nearly every day with his young daughters back home, e-mailing the moves from the Middle East. In the next issue, the lead Paraglide headline read: “Four Soldiers Die in Combat.”
With just over a week to go, Stock, fit and sturdy at 40, hustled across the sun-baked parade grounds known as Devil Field. He could not afford to dwell on casualties. As battalion commander, he had to get 795 men and 25 women ready for a war half a world away.
Stock had endless checklists, paperwork, meetings and orders to complete. His troops were making their final parachute jumps, getting their shots, stowing their gear, taking physicals, working out and training. They were filling out paperwork for extra pay: $250 a month family separation allowance, $225 a month hostile fire pay, $400,000 paid life insurance.
As the days went by, Stock told his men to spend as much time as possible with their families. Many had deployed two or three times before, and they knew the drill. But this time, it would be 15 months, up from 12 months for previous deployments.
Battalion soldiers who have served in Iraq know the blurry outlines of their mission: Secure their area of operations, pursue and destroy insurgents and terrorists, and buy time for the elected government and its U.S.-trained security forces to one day stabilize Iraq on their own.
But they also understand the realities of Iraq: the police force infested with Shiite militiamen and death squads; the government dominated by hard-line, pro-Iranian Shiites and poisonously cleaved along tribal and religious lines; the army infiltrated by insurgents and militiamen, badly led and poorly supplied.
Whatever opinions Stock held about what commanders call GWOT -- pronounced jee-whot, or the “global war on terror” -- he kept to himself.
“I don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about how we got into Iraq,” he said. His immediate concern was his paratroopers, many of whom he knew personally; he considered them family.
“A soldier’s courage is reborn daily,” he said. “You have to keep explaining to them what they’re doing and why what they’re doing is important -- for the long-term good of the nation, for their buddies, for the fight at hand, for the good of the Iraqi people. They have to understand it. They have to believe it.”
Stock is a West Point graduate, class of ’89. He took Arabic classes at a time when the military was focused on the Soviet Union. His father, an Air Force major, was assistant air attache in Moscow. Stock remembers being inspired by the sight of troops marching -- not U.S. troops, but Soviet soldiers practicing late at night for a May Day parade.
Instead of a honeymoon, Stock took his bride, Liz, to Ft. Benning, Ga., in 1989 to attend special training sessions. The honeymoon to Florida was put off for a month.
“She had no idea what she was getting into,” Stock said.
“I was so crazy in love with Mark I would have gone anywhere with him,” Liz said, eliciting a sheepish grin from her husband in their living room in the officer’s section of Ft. Bragg.
Stock has been deployed to the Balkans and to Iraq. Liz wrote him every day when he was in Iraq.
“It never gets easier,” she said. “The hardest part is not having a partner.”
Liz, 39, gave Stock his final “honey do” list: Clean out the basement, have the cars registered and serviced. The couple kept a thick “smart book” binder, a detailed compendium of the hundreds of bills, legal documents and appointments that had to be attended to.
The couple’s daughter, Sarah, 15, and son, Austin, 13, listened as their parents reviewed their last-minute checklists.
Austin did not recognize his father when Stock returned from the Balkans 11 years ago. Sarah recalled her mother fixating on news reports from Iraq in 2004, and both knew they would become news junkies again this time.
Sarah also knew that her father would be the one to electronically deposit an allowance into her account, even from Iraq. Her mother confesses that she is computer-challenged.
EIGHT days before the first planes would leave for the Middle East, the family hosted the battalion’s “Hail and Farewell” party, the traditional welcome to new officers and send-off for officers departing the unit.
Stock presided in his backyard. He is a gifted public speaker blessed with comic timing. He read from index cards written by battalion members, each one listing mock hobbies for officers.
“Playing with sheep,” he announced, listing the “hobby” of a red-faced officer.
“Shopping at Baby Gap,” he said of a muscular officer whose pectorals and biceps were straining against his fitted shirt.
That same week, Stock required his paratroopers to attend a briefing on the rules of engagement and the law of war. “This is important [stuff]!” he said by way of introduction. “We have to maintain the moral high ground.”
Capt. Eric Widmar, a legal staffer conducting the session, posed a question: “The enemy doesn’t follow the rules, so why the hell should we?”
A soldier yelled out: “To keep our asses out of jail!”
“Not to look bad to the world, sir!” another said.
And another: “To win hearts and minds!”
Widmar told them they had to follow the rules because it was right, because it affirmed American values, and because it denied the enemy a powerful propaganda weapon.
“Abu Ghraib was, what, four years ago, but we still can’t get out from under that cloud,” he said.
Widmar described the proper treatment of detainees and of women in Arab culture. He said detainees were more valuable alive than dead because of the intelligence they might provide. He discussed the distinctions among a hostile force, a hostile act and hostile intent. He stressed the obligation to challenge an unlawful order, especially in the heat of combat. He described how to behave as a prisoner of war, but said flatly that a POW’s chances of survival in Iraq are just about zero.
The briefing was right after lunch, and a few paratroopers dozed off. A sergeant grabbed them roughly and forced them to stand against a wall, arms outstretched.
The next morning, Stock attended a mess hall prayer breakfast organized by a chaplain, Col. Pat Hash. It was titled “The Morality of War: Balancing Faith and Killing.”
Though the Bible says “Thou shalt not kill,” Hash said, killing is justified in a “righteous war” when a soldier is acting as “an agent of the state.”
“War can be morally permissible,” he said. “And there are times when it is morally, legally and ethically right to kill another human being.”
The chaplain mentioned something a sergeant in Afghanistan told him shortly after killing an insurgent: “Killing is not hard. It happens very quickly.”
Though the sergeant was conflicted about killing another human being, Hash said, he was relieved that he had eliminated the enemy before the man could kill any of the sergeant’s men.
Like all soldiers, the paratroopers were, in effect, trained killers -- killers with a purpose. It was the responsibility of commanders like Stock to manage that coiled violence. It was the chaplain’s job to assure everyone that they were doing the right thing, the moral thing.
When Hash had finished, there were no questions. The paratroopers bowed their heads in prayer, then went back to their breakfasts. Above their heads, TV sets suspended from the mess hall ceilings delivered more reports of Americans killed in Iraq.
CAPT. Agness, the Foxtrot Company commander, had a ritual when he got to his home in Fayetteville every night: Let the family dog, Emma, leap into his lap. Rub Emma’s belly. Then coo and play with his 3-month-old daughter, Gabriella. Have dinner with his wife, Chiara. Give Gabriella a bath and put her to bed.
On this night, Agness was beat. He had been working since before dawn, helping 130 soldiers in his company get ready to deploy. He had brought home a thick sheaf of paperwork that had to be finished by morning. At his office, Agness maintained an exhaustive checklist of chores to be completed by every soldier and spouse before deployment. It was 175 items long:
“Have children been included in the discussion on where the service member is going, and why? Does spouse know the various ways to communicate with the service member? Who will spouse call if an appliance needs repair? Do you and your spouse have a will ... ?”
This was in addition to a 56-page “Task Force Devil Deployment Guide.”
“Everybody’s anxious. Everybody’s on edge,” Agness said. “Chiara and I are getting short with each other. We try to catch ourselves.”
Chiara, 31, was cooking risotto, and the kitchen smelled of garlic and basil. She had met Kevin when he was stationed near her home in northern Italy. They made a fine couple, Kevin with his slight build and dry wit, Chiara with her extroverted personality and lilting Italian accent.
Kevin was born at Ft. Bragg, the son of a lieutenant colonel. He was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan last year. Chiara is still learning about military life and deployment as she leads the company family readiness group, a support group. A sign at home reads: “Home is Where the Army Sends Us.”
Chiara believes in confronting the realities of separation and thinks that some wives live in denial. “It’s sad -- they just refuse to deal with it till the plane pulls away,” she said. “And then they’re lost.”
Chiara had videotaped Kevin reading the baby’s bedtime stories so that Gabriella would remember Daddy. She bought webcams so the family could see one another over the Internet.
Agness is 30, a crusty veteran to the 18- to 20-year-olds in his company. To them, he was part father figure, part high school teacher. He urged them to fill out their death beneficiary forms, and he posted useful Arabic words and phrases at company headquarters: “Stop.” “Go.” “Where is your ID?” “Do you need help?”
The unit had been disrupted by four soldiers who had used drugs. Agness didn’t want any of them deploying. During the final week, he filled out voluminous paperwork to discharge them. Two other soldiers were suicidal and in such serious psychological distress that they were being medically discharged.
The captain also arranged to put several soldiers on the last flights out so they could attend a child’s high school graduation or the birth of a child. His executive officer, Lt. Brad Hamrick, got to see his son’s birth when his wife delivered 13 days early.
Agness gathered his soldiers for a final formation at Ft. Bragg. He spoke of loyalty and teamwork. He warned them to be ready for Iraq, physically and emotionally.
“You’re going to be emotionally distraught and stretched,” he told them. “Time to get your game face on.”
He felt obliged to mention casualties. The 112 deaths from the 82nd Airborne in GWOT, he told the company, were out of 13,000 division soldiers who have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. The odds were on their side.
The soldiers remained at attention, eyes straight ahead.
THE pre-deployment brigade picnic was held on Devil Field, under tents in the blazing sun a week before the first plane would leave. Hundreds of paratroopers, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, their tattooed arms bared, brought wives and children.
A few young men limped or walked on crutches, recovering from jump mishaps. Some would miss the deployment; others would be delayed. In the coming months, there would be other young men on crutches, wounded in Iraq. And there was a very real chance that some of the men pushing baby carriages on this day would not return.
Stock felt an enormous responsibility to bring all his soldiers home safely. “I don’t walk around every day feeling overwhelmed, because I couldn’t function,” he said. “But, yes, it’s a huge responsibility.”
It was worst on the families, he said -- the tension, the worrying, the sense of dislocation and loss. But his soldiers were feeling it too.
“Their anxieties and fears are highest right now, just before deployment,” he said. “They’re seeing the media and hearing the stories about what’s going on over there, and it gets magnified, and they hit the ground in a very high state of alert.”
Three days before the first planeloads were to leave, Stock led his battalion on a four-mile run that ended on Devil Field at dawn. Stock was a year into his first battalion command, and he reveled in the opportunity to lead. “I love what I’m doing!” he hollered at his paratroopers as they stood huffing and sweating at the end of the run.
Stock had been thinking about “awe-inspiring things to say” to his battalion for their final gathering before flying to Kuwait en route to Iraq. Soldiers need a purpose, a cause, a reason to risk their lives -- something less ephemeral than the camaraderie and the shared destiny with the soldier beside them. Their training had been designed to bring them to this moment: The drills. The lectures. The firing range. The counterinsurgency doctrine. The lawyers lecturing on when to kill, and the chaplains on why.
Stock spoke of perseverance, morality and courage, and of treating the Iraqi people honorably.
“They don’t have to love us,” he said, “but they damn well better hate those insurgents who are undermining their government. Got it?”
“Hoo-ah!” the troops responded.
“Understand why we’re going,” Stock said, “why the freedoms we have and the country we have are precious things.... Look out for your airborne buddy, and never leave a fallen comrade.”
When the day came to get on the plane, Stock said his goodbyes to Liz, Sarah and Austin at home. He hated long farewells, especially the kind on previous deployments, when the family said a tearful goodbye, but then a delay had them awkwardly saying it all over again.
Later that day at nearby Pope Air Force Base, the battalion chaplain, 1st Lt. Jeff Smith, prayed with paratroopers waiting to board their plane. Smith considered it his job to “help the trigger pullers pull the trigger with the least amount of emotional backlash.”
He prayed for God to “straighten our bullets so they might hit the flesh of our enemies and kill them instantly.” The paratroopers listened with their eyes squeezed shut and their heads bowed and their weapons on the floor.
At the emptied Foxtrot headquarters near Devil Field, Agness and his last few soldiers were delayed by a bomb scare. Someone had found a cellphone attached to wires and a box in a dumpster. It turned out to be a roadside bomb simulator used in training.
Chiara had driven Kevin to the headquarters in the couple’s black pickup, the baby strapped in her car seat. Chiara carried a small camouflage-pattern bag printed with “Army Wife.”
The other wives and children, their faces streaked with tears, got back in their cars and pulled away from Devil Field as soldiers boarded buses for the flight line, where families were not allowed. Chiara held on, and she and Kevin had several goodbyes. Through her tears, Chiara smiled and made a little joke: “Promise you’ll stay in the office 24/7 except to go to the bathroom.”
The captain embraced his wife again and whispered something. One more kiss, and he turned toward the bus, wiping his eyes. He moved slowly, hauling his heavy duffel and rucksack and weapon.
In that private moment, he had whispered to his wife: “Be strong.”
Chiara wept. She got back into the pickup and buckled up the baby. She lifted Gabriella’s chubby hand and waved it and murmured, “Bye-bye, Daddy. Bye-bye, Daddy.”
The captain and his men hoisted their gear onto a truck and climbed aboard the bus. Chiara took photographs until the bus had disappeared and Devil Field was empty.