Complex man, complex life

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

In his final months in Iraq, love came unexpectedly to Maj. Steven Hutchison.

His 11-man crew was running errands on an Army base near Basra when Hutchison ordered a lunch break.

The transition team, whose job was to train Iraqi police and soldiers, pulled their armored vehicles into the base's Subway restaurant and ordered sandwiches.

Hutchison paid, as was his wont, and gave the thumbs up to roll out, team members recall. But the logistics advisor threw back a thumbs down.

Soldiers had gathered around the back of one vehicle and were playing with a scrawny yellow puppy, one of the many strays that wander Iraqi streets.

New mission, Hutchison barked. He took the 1-month-old puppy back to his armored vehicle, fed her his turkey sandwich and gave her water from his bottle.

"Maj. Hutchison was hooked," Sgt. Andrew Hunt later wrote in an e-mail to Hutchison's family. "She slept in his bed with him at night" and napped under his bed during the day, Hunt wrote. "She rode in his lap the entire day while we visited our Iraqi counterparts at several locations."

Hutchison was not a typical soldier. For starters, he was 60. Born in Cincinnati, he grew up in Long Beach and attended Wilson High before enlisting in the Army in 1966. He served two tours in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne and was awarded a Bronze Star.

Along with his chest full of medals, he had a doctorate in psychology. After a 22-year military career, he received the degree from the University of Delaware and then taught organizational psychology at Loyola Marymount University, Claremont McKenna College and Cal State Long Beach. Among the 29 publications listed on his resume was this one: "What ego-strength, hardiness, self-esteem, self-efficacy, optimism and maladjustment have in common: Health-related personality constructs or neuroticism revisited?"

He was gruff and private, not exactly a family man, said his younger brother Richard Hutchison of Mesa, Ariz. He had been married four times and was estranged from his two adult daughters. The military had always been his real family.

When his fourth wife, Kandy Rhode, died of cancer in 2006, Hutchison was devastated. He put his house in Scottsdale, Ariz., on the market and signed up for the Army's Retiree Recall program, which brings back former soldiers -- up to 64 years old -- who want another shot at active duty.

The decision shocked many in his family.

"He was the most liberal man I know," recalled his niece Laurie Hutchison. "Everybody said, 'Why are you going back into the military to fight for this cause that most liberals wouldn't be for?' But he had a bleeding heart for all those Iraqi and Afghani people, and he felt passionately that many people don't see the human side of why we're there."

Hutchison was sent to Ft. Riley, Kan., where the Army's transition teams train before deployment. When he arrived, duffel bag slung over his shoulder, his team members were skeptical; most were three decades his junior.

"I immediately said to myself, 'Are we that desperate that we have to put old people on a transition team?' " Elext Holmes, the team's logistics advisor, recalled at Hutchison's memorial service.

But his men quickly came to respect his quiet leadership. Hutchison never told anyone what to do, but his actions set a high standard. He was always the first to volunteer for grunt work around the base. And after returning from an exhausting patrol, he'd casually ask who wanted to join him for a run.

"He was a psychology professor, and he knew what he was doing," Holmes said.

Hutchison spent the first year of his two-year tour in Afghanistan, the second in Iraq. He was based at Ft. Riley and assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division.

His team in Iraq called him "the stubborn old goat." He was set in his ways, had little patience for "New Army" rules, and occasionally ignored some, his family and team members said.

The free thinker in him came out in odd ways, including the old-school purple short-shorts he insisted on wearing on his morning jogs around the base. More than once, he was ordered to change into his government-issued training gear. Within a few days, he'd be spotted again -- a 6-foot-4 gray-haired man running in the purple short-shorts.

Push eventually came to shove with his superiors over Laia, the name Hutchison gave the puppy his team had adopted as its mascot. Central Command does not allow service members to keep indigenous pets; strays were generally put down the same day they were caught. Several times, Hutchison's senior officers ordered him to get rid of the dog.

Hutchison repeatedly defied the orders, risking punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, his team members recall. He hid Laia in his tent or sent her to another base when his superiors were in the area.

On May 10, Hutchison left Laia behind when he went out on patrol with his team in Al Farr, Iraq, near Basra. A roadside bomb detonated near his vehicle, and Hutchison died of shrapnel wounds.

He was a month short of his 61st birthday, making him the oldest U.S. casualty in Iraq, according to the Department of Defense.

After a memorial service at Ft. Riley, he was buried in Scottsdale on May 19, and is survived by his mother, brother, a half brother, a half sister and his two daughters.

After Hutchison's death, Hunt asked a senior officer -- the same man who had ordered Hutchison to get rid of Laia -- if they could arrange to send her to the United States as a tribute to the major.

"Just get her out of here and don't let me see her," the officer said, according to Hunt's e-mails.

To arrange for the trip, Hunt worked with the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and SPCA International's Baghdad Pups program, which has resettled 146 dogs and cats since it began in February 2008, according to SPCA spokeswoman Stephanie Scroggs. It costs an average of $4,000 for the nonprofit organization to rescue each pet.

Laia, who suffered a setback recently when she lost a leg to infection, is now living in Michigan with the family of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent who worked in Iraq with Hutchison's team. Hutchison's brother Richard plans to visit her soon; his mother already has.

"She has grown immensely since we had last seen her," Hunt told Hutchison's family in a recent e-mail. "Like Maj. Hutchison, you cannot tell Laia what to do."


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