A look inside a National Guard unit known for valor, dysfunction
Reporting from Greenfield, Calif. -- The story of the California Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion of the 184th Infantry Regiment is mostly in the record books now: 17 soldiers killed, more than 100 wounded, 11 Army Commendations for Valor, more than 80 Purple Hearts.
Lt. Col. Patrick Frey knows there is still one chapter to be written — his own.
It’s been seven years since he took command of the 1-184 and led more than 700 soldiers into combat in Baghdad. A schoolteacher back home, Frey became the face of a grand military experiment — to move the National Guard’s “weekend warriors” from the reserve to the combat front.
He had no way of knowing that his elite battalion would become an emblem of all that was ambitious and flawed about Iraq, or that the war would nearly bring him to his knees.
By all accounts, the vast majority of Frey’s soldiers — a lawyer, a plumber, a marketing executive, a number of veteran cops — performed valiantly in a combustible corner of Baghdad.
But the battalion was also singled out by the military, Frey said, as a case study in dysfunction. Frey’s soldiers engaged in petty turf wars with rival units. One was caught patrolling the streets of Baghdad with a Samurai sword swinging from his belt; another kept a “death list” that included some of his own.
Then, what had begun with small-time transgressions gave way to a sordid night in a dark field — to allegations that 1-184 soldiers abused innocent Iraqis. Twelve soldiers were charged. The “Big Army” — the full-timers and the war’s field commanders — also zeroed in on Frey himself.
The trials of Frey and his battalion were national news, but he steadfastly maintained his silence. Now, he believes, it is time to tell the rest of the story. He’s just not sure how it goes.
He knows this much: He is not the same man who left for war. He rails against a military that he contends hung him out to dry for the sins of others; then, in the next breath, he torments himself with questions about how a 32-year military career could have ended in disgrace.
“A man’s reputation is like his shadow,” said Frey, now 56. “It ain’t him — but … damn, it’s pretty close.”
The walls of his farmhouse offer no hint of his years in uniform — as a grunt, a Ranger, a Marine, a rifle company commander, a lieutenant colonel. There is no uniform hanging in his closet.
“I ain’t got a place anymore,” he said. “I love soldiers. I love soldiering. But it’s over.”
Lure of the military
Frey got his first taste of war in Vietnam, he said, then fought for the white-minority government in the Rhodesian civil war — not for ideological reasons but because he felt that riding with a modern army on horseback would be a thrilling adventure. He came home, married his high school sweetheart and enlisted in the Army, rising to first lieutenant.
Even after he switched professions and became a special education teacher, his yearning for the military never ebbed, he said. After he and his wife, Lynne, moved to California with their young son, he rose to lieutenant colonel in the Reserves.
In the spring of 2004, an opportunity sprang up: The 1-184 had an opening in the battalion commander’s spot. Headquartered in Modesto, the 1-184 was nimble and dynamic, with weapons and training rarely offered to the Guard, and was deep into the pipeline of units headed for Iraq.
In peacetime, the guard had been used primarily in domestic missions. By the time Frey took command, Guard troops made up more than half the combat forces in Iraq. The transformation had not been seamless.
Shortages hamstrung every aspect of training; with no Arabic speakers available, trainers spoke Spanish to simulate a language barrier — failing to recognize that many of the 1-184 soldiers, being from Southern California, were fluent in Spanish.
Some of Frey’s troops were soon in revolt; several told The Times then that their training was so poor that they feared their casualty rate would be needlessly high. Frey said he was incensed that they had taken their concerns outside the family — even if, privately, he agreed with them.
There were questions about Frey himself. After he clashed with trainers at a combat training course, an Army general declared that Frey would “get soldiers killed,” according to one document. Records show that commanders were concerned with the 1-184’s swagger, with the battalion’s focus on all-out war versus rebuilding Iraq.
Frey carried a tomahawk to foster what he called “the warrior spirit,” producing it for his soldiers and demanding: “Where’s your weapon?”
The soldiers loved it. “If we were storming the gates of hell with water pistols, and he was leading the charge, I’d be right behind him,” said Spc. Jeff Sinclair, a Modesto father of three who became Frey’s personal security officer in Iraq.
The Army, however, was perturbed. “The world revolves around Pat Frey,” then-Brig. Gen. Joseph J. Chaves told investigators.
Despite the questions, delaying the battalion’s deployment was viewed as an unaffordable luxury. The 1-184, as Chaves told investigators, was “heading out the door.” In the end, the generals determined that Frey was “a great patriot” and that his soldiers would follow him anywhere.
In January 2005, the 1-184 was on its way to Baghdad.
‘No new enemies’
The 1-184 was assigned to a sector along the Tigris River that was believed to be relatively safe. “We were given this vague, weak guiding principle: Make no new enemies,” Frey said. In the coming year, attacks on troops would rise by nearly a third and the number of roadside bombs would double.
Two nights after the 1-184 took over the sector, a roadside bomb blew up next to a convoy of trucks. Within a month, the unit lost its first soldier, killed as he patrolled the roof of a police station.
The 1-184 seized bomb detonators and bottles of ether at checkpoints. Locals complained after Frey’s soldiers forced an Iraqi civilian to drag a dog’s carcass off a road because of concerns — unfounded — that it concealed a bomb.
At a memorial for a soldier killed by a sniper, Frey spoke to his men of brotherhood, loss and determination. Before he was done, he was pounding his fist on the podium, summoning a wrathful God. They would see the face of their fallen comrade, he told them, “in the fire we bring down on our enemies.”
Some Army commanders saw that attitude spread through the battalion. In one case, 1-184 soldiers asked for a Hellfire missile to destroy a house where they thought a Baath Party “boss” was hiding. The man turned out to be “a nobody,” said Sgt. Maj. Gary J. Coker, the Army’s watchdog in the field.
“It was them against the world,” Coker said. “They were trying to fight World War III.”
Frey, meanwhile, said he became incensed at the effectiveness of insurgents’ roadside bombs and what he viewed as the Army’s sluggish response. To prove the value of old-fashioned foot patrols, he said, he walked the 22-mile perimeter of his sector.
Frey declared the operation a great success; the Army — though it has since begun using more foot patrols — regarded it as a stunt. Frey was coming to be viewed, one of his soldiers said, “as an incorrigible dog who is told to sit and never quite puts his ass on the ground.”
Then, one summer night, a group of Frey’s soldiers detained four men near a power plant. The troops found no weapons — nothing linking them to the insurgency. But according to records and interviews, two detainees were handcuffed and blindfolded; one was shot with a stun gun and kicked in the genitals. The incident was captured on videotape.
Frey alerted his superiors, but the Army launched an investigation into the 1-184’s “command climate” — into Frey himself. “We knew someone was going down,” said Maj. Danjel Bout. “But I didn’t think for a second it was going to be him.”
In today’s corporate-style Army, Frey had stood out from the start. He was a throwback who believed his position required a certain amount of bravado and showmanship; he was known to climb atop his Humvee to recite Shakespeare and Poe. The Army concluded that he was “disdainful of higher authority” and “rooted in fantastic notions of adventure and glory.”
In a detailed rebuttal, Frey wrote that his battalion “stood astride very deadly terrain and requited its duties with mercy, honor, valor, elan and superb professionalism.” The abuse of detainees, he wrote, was “an anomaly.”
But in the end, Frey said: “They cut my head off.”
“He believes in something,” said Bout, “that doesn’t exist anymore.”
Frey was relieved of his command near the end of 2005. The battalion rebuilt itself under a new commander.
When Iraqis ratified a Constitution and voted in parliamentary elections, the 1-184 stood guard. They met kids with impacted teeth and unhealed wounds, and figured out how to get them dental care and antibiotics. They welded together a hand-powered tricycle for an Iraqi who was born with severe deformities.
The Guard soldiers were older than their active-duty counterparts and, as Frey had predicted, their life experience became a vital asset. The 1-184 was peppered with veteran cops who helped professionalize Iraqi police, teaching them to patrol with their fingers next to, but not on, their triggers. Soldiers who were Central Valley engineers advised farmers on irrigation projects.
By the time the tour was up in early 2006, the 1-184 had completed nearly 7,000 combat patrols and captured scores of insurgents. All the while, violence raged around them. Seventeen soldiers attached to the battalion were killed, the most combat casualties of any California unit since the Korean War. When they got home, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared them “true action heroes.”
Frey wasn’t around to see it.
A new life
Frey retired with an honorable discharge. He will soon be eligible for a full pension. For that, he said, he is grateful.
But he returned to California, he said, not to parades but to stony silence from the military. He began drinking too much, he said. He developed a taste for the pain pills the Army had given him for a combat injury that required neck-fusion surgery.
He pined for an apology. The closest he came was in a brief conversation with Maj. Gen. Jeff Gidley, then commander of the California Army National Guard. Gidley, now retired, said he confided that day that Frey, though not without flaw as a commander, had “paid the price” for the mistakes of others. (None of Frey’s other commanders would comment for this article.)
Frey said he decided to wait for his soldiers to contact him, not the other way around. But he didn’t hear from many. “I guess they just got busy,” he said. A former officer did call once — to report that the saga of the 1-184 was being cited in an Army training course to instruct fledgling officers what to do if the bottom fell out of their battalions. “We’re the case study,” Frey said, “in dysfunction.”
But in the years since, Frey has discovered that being “just a school teacher,” as he once wrote in his journal, may have been his greatest skill all along.
Frey and his wife live on an old farm, a rugged 10 acres an hour’s drive inland from Monterey, which they share with four cats, two dogs and two donkeys. At its heart is a farmhouse the Freys have been modernizing.
One recent morning, Frey rumbled toward his school in Salinas, down a steep mountain pass and through the area’s famously fertile farms — strawberries and cabbage sprouting through dirt so rich it’s almost black.
After an 80-minute commute, he pulled into Everett Alvarez High School and made his way to classroom 601, where there was an “Eagle Pride” pennant and a poem stapled to the wall that said: “It takes life to love life.”
He’s supposed to teach students with learning disabilities, but his classroom has become a refuge for students who bomb out of other classes for any reason.
His glasses perched atop his balding head, Frey led a zigzagging lesson, teaching his students to put periods in “p.m.” and “a.m.” and that female peafowl are called peahens. He kept teaching during a fire drill, gathering his students around him on a baseball field.
Back indoors, he lectured about the nature of irony. After reading one story, he begged a student to tell him why it was ironic. “Because they went out to catch a dolphin and wound up setting a dolphin free?” she asked. Frey pumped his fists.
By the end of the day, a thunderstorm moved in, pelting the metal roof of the classroom. Frey read his students “Macbeth,” at one point dropping to his knees to preach about the power of Shakespeare.
“What a rip-snortin’ play,” he said.
When the bell rang, Frey waved his copy of “Macbeth” over his head as the students made for the door.
“Look at man,” he shouted after them, “trying to mess with fate.”