1.2.05 Taza, Iraq: Where bombers spin brodies and a sheep is slaughtered
It was mid-morning on the first Sunday of 2005, and Capt. Kory Turnbow, new to Iraq, already had his hands full. He’d been assigned to live at an Iraqi army barracks even though he spoke no Arabic. On this day, he was taking a brigade-level staffer on a meet-and-greet, driving a sluggish Toyota Land Cruiser — top heavy with protective glass — through a scrungey industrial neighborhood in an unfamiliar city and was trying to keep control of his four-rig convoy via walkie-talkie because there was no radio in the car.
And then there was the lowboy coming the other way, carrying a massive load and crowding the decayed asphalt street.
So much had changed. Turnbow was studying law at the University of Idaho when the Idaho National Guard’s 116th Brigade Combat Team was mobilized for active duty in 2004. The 29-year-old, trim and bespectacled with receding hair, had arrived in Iraq by Christmas as the eager commander of Bravo Company, made up of 96 soldiers, from teens to gray-hairs; people who are teachers, grocers, farmers, firefighters, painters, students and cops from Moscow, Orofino and Grangeville. Once in Iraq, though, the company was broken up and its platoons scattered to several different bases. Most wound up “behind the wire” at FOBs (forward operating bases) isolated by blast walls and razor wire throughout northern Iraq — or southern Kurdistan as the locally dominant Kurds insist it be called.
Turnbow himself was detailed to a special missions team and was sent “outside the wire” to an Iraqi Army barracks of 15 soldiers in Taza, a city of 30,000 just south of Kirkuk. In a rare circumstance among American soldiers, he was immersed in a fuller version of life in Iraq. Like much of the country where Americans don’t live, the Iraqi barracks typically went without electricity for 18 hours a day and was a place where soldiers would “turn on the tap and hope something good came out,” Turnbow says.
He was still adjusting to his first week at Taza and had driven up to the main American base at Kirkuk that morning to pick up his first sergeant, Guy VonBargen, and the brigade’s master sergeant. Their mission was to meet some local contractors and eyeball potential reconstruction sites in the nearby cities of Daquq and Laylan.
“It was supposed to be an easy one,” Turnbow says. He was on his way back through Taza after picking up his passengers when everything changed.
On the way north that morning, Taza’s jumbled industrial area was a noisy hive of diesel-spewing trucks in motion and sparks flying from cutting torches and grinders.
“There is junk everywhere,” Turnbow says, describing a Third World chaos of sheds and shanties and factories that are little more than metal roofs on posts. Trucks, crates, barrels, piles of steel, noise, oil, glittering shards of glass and flakes of rust smother the forsaken soil.
Scrap metal was selling for $165 a ton in Iran, just to the east, and there was a bustling trade cutting apart the ribs of ruined buildings, the spines of blown-up bridges. Even the unexploded bombs and artillery shells that litter Iraq — a deadly tide line of detritus in a country lapped by the waves of war — were cut up and sold.
The trade in explosive materials recovered from these bombs, or in whole bombs, was even more lucrative — booming, one could say — and far more black-market.
As the small convoy of three gun trucks and the Land Cruiser nosed south, Turnbow was suddenly alarmed to notice the industrial area empty and still.
“That tells you somebody went around and warned people to clear out because they were going to blow something up,” Turnbow says.
At the moment, the lowboy kept him preoccupied.
“Did you ever see pictures of that ‘Mother of All Generators’ they took down to Baghdad?” Turnbow asks. “This was just like it.”
The giant machine perched on its trailer was taking up a lot of road as it inched along, and was obscuring much of Turnbow’s view. It was only after the Land Cruiser cleared the truck that:
“We were on it.”
There, 10 feet away, was a white Mitsubishi taxi parked by the side of the road with its hood up and nobody around. “My first sergeant was in the passenger seat and he said ‘Oh, fu…’ but he didn’t even have time to finish before it touched off,” Turnbow says.
In his journal, Turnbow wrote this account:
“I looked right just in time to see a flash of light come from the side of the road, followed by a gigantic dust ball encroaching on my entire viewing area. This was followed by a ka-boom like I’ve never heard before. Simultaneous with the noise, giant pieces of steel shrapnel started flying through the air, puncturing the Toyota in all manner of places. The passenger side tires were blown out and a giant piece struck the windshield, finishing off the outer layer for good. … I was able to push it 500-750 meters down the road from the blast before the Toyota finally gave up. … Somehow this little car absorbed the blast of 2 or 3 130 mm shells …”
It’s the aftermath that is the worst part, Turnbow says, when you have time to go over the details: Were there two shells or three? What was their caliber? How does a young guy from Post Falls get his head around the idea that someone deliberately just tried to blow him to bits?
“And the worst part is, I’m thinking it’s January 2nd and I have 10 more months of this,” Turnbow says.
Whoever blew up the taxi had a fairly short window — it was roughly an hour to get to Kirkuk and back, Turnbow estimates. “They worked fast, likely started the setup immediately after we passed through the first time,” he says. Perhaps in haste, the Chinese-made shells, the equivalent of American 155-mm artillery rounds, were positioned so that the main force of the blast went straight through the Mitsubishi’s roof.
“If somebody had just put a little weight on those shells, the force of the blast would have come sideways, and I wouldn’t be here,” Turnbow says.
As the powerful fist of fire and dust, noise and steel slammed the Land Cruiser, Turnbow’s head snapped around. “I happened to look to my left and saw a white Toyota pickup, mid-’80s, do a victory donut and then take off.”
It was the bombers, he’s pretty certain, spinning brodies to celebrate the hit.
People who set off the remotely detonated IEDs often videotape the explosion, and it’s a sick realization that somebody’s got a thumb on the button and everybody’s watching you drive, unaware, to your doom.
In the minutes after the explosion, the apparent abandonment of the industrial area was shown to be false. Workers had stayed to watch the show; over here and over there, heads began to peep out from behind the helter-skelter of sheet-metal shanties, which had sprung up like clusters of rust-streaked mushrooms from the oil-soaked ground.
Turnbow, even as he was horsing the mortally wounded Land Cruiser out of the blast, was on his handheld radio setting up a perimeter, checking for injuries (there were none) and calling for help. Then, on an impulse, he got on his cell phone and called the Iraqi Army barracks.
The Iraqi commander he was just getting to know, Capt. Ehsahn (like many Muslims, he uses one name), had troops there in six minutes. The coalition took 45.
“They pulled my fat out of the fire more than once,” Turnbow says of the Iraqi Army.
Following standard drill, the soldiers hunkered behind their rigs, waiting to see if there would be a second bomb or a rush of small-arms fire. Tense minutes clicked by — five, 10, 15 — and all remained quiet, the small circle of soldiers watching the workers who were watching them.
“The individuals I talked to at that point all had smiles on their faces,” Turnbow says. He coldly stalked the junkyards with Capt. Ehsahn and interpreters, questioning the smiling people who stayed to see if he would die.
He ended his journal entry for the day with the words: “Dirty bastards.”
After five hours of interrogation with little to show for it except the name of the taxi’s owner, Turnbow went back to the Iraqi barracks where there was one more surprise. Capt. Ehsahn ordered a sheep to be purchased and had it butchered in the ritual manner. It was for Turnbow.
“When Allah spares you, you slaughter a sheep,” Turnbow says.
Capt. Kory Turnbow of the Idaho National Guard was nearly blown to bits in his first week in Iraq (see story, page 15). The 29-year-old law student and Pullman resident is not alone in having had a close encounter with an IED. Every local soldier who spent 2005 in Iraq with the Idaho National Guard has a bomb story. All are as intense as Turnbow’s, and in almost every case, the bombers were never caught.
There were a lot more bombs than we’ve heard about.
Sergeant First Class Kevin Kincheloe, 47, a platoon leader and high school teacher from Harrison, was stationed at FOB McHenry, a rough little fort in one of Iraq’s bad neighborhoods — the tip of the Sunni Triangle near Hawijah.
“The battalion that was there before us, the 1-27th Infantry, had 130-some IEDs go off against them during their year,” Kincheloe says. “We had 900-plus.”
Welcome to Iraq.
Two years ago this month, hundreds of residents of rural Idaho, Montana and Oregon were tapped on the shoulder by Uncle Sam and pulled out of their ordinary lives to become full-time soldiers.
The voices of these citizen-soldiers recounting their observations and experiences are, perhaps shamefully, too seldom heard.
The Idaho National Guard’s 116th Brigade Combat Team — some 1,600 strong — was “federalized” on May 8, 2004, to prepare for a year in Iraq. After years of downsizing, America’s all-volunteer military was stretched past its limits with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the National Guard was being activated for overseas combat on a scale not seen in half a century.
In this group were roughly 200 from North Idaho whose deployment swept across the state’s panhandle, from Grangeville to Bonners Ferry, in a way that touched many.
Tiny Kootenai High School near the town of Harrison had two teachers called away. A farmer near Grangeville left his crops in someone else’s hands. A Post Falls bank lost its manager. The Fighting Creek landfill was short a worker. Customers of a Coeur d’Alene mechanic found someone else to fix their cars. A college student from Bonners Ferry finished her senior project in Iraq. The clerk at the Flying J who poured you that overstrong coffee at 2 am was gone, too.
They are all neighbors, called away to a distant war.
So what did they see during 2005? How did they fare?
Like Turnbow, they discovered a war fought in the middle of a civilian populace with no visible enemy and no clear front, where you can’t shoot back without evidence that you have the right target.
“It’s so frustrating. People get hurt, or you get blown up and there’s nobody to take it out on,” says 1st Sgt. Michael Kish, 35, a full-time National Guardsman from Coeur d’Alene. “You’ve got to always be the calm, cool, collected guy.
“Let’s say you’ve got Joe Farmer out in a field when an IED goes off. Did Joe Farmer just happen to be on his tractor, or did he see who set it off, or did he set it off?” Kish asks.
In the shock and high-voltage adrenaline rush of surviving a bomb, solders are tempted to shoot at the first visible target.
“You really had to concentrate on remembering these guys are human beings and not everybody is out to kill you,” Kish says.
And when it comes to the enemy, Turnbow’s story also reveals it’s often not who we think it is.
Who is the AIF? (Part One)
By using the vague acronym AIF (“anti-Iraqi forces”), the military concedes that there is no single, clear-cut enemy in Iraq. Sometimes the enemy is surprising.
Turnbow has a good idea who tried to blow him up last year in northern Iraq — and it wasn’t someone on the usual list of Al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam, Islamists, jihaddis, Wahabbis, Baathists, Saddam loyalists or common criminals.
His hunch is: “Colonel Faisal of the Iraqi Army. He’s the battalion commander at Taza and an individual I worked very closely with,” Turnbow says. “I was never able to substantiate that with enough proof to reel him in, but I think I came close.”
As a former member of the Iraqi special forces, Faisal had the know-how to set up a car bomb; he had knowledge of Turnbow’s movements; and, after two quick disputes with Turnbow involving a contract to feed the local Iraqi troops for a year, Faisal may have had sufficient motive. Turnbow says that Faisal created a side company and put in a bid, which was rejected because it wasn’t competitive. Then Turnbow learned Faisal was strong-arming the winning bidder.
“First I reject his bid on the food contract, then I have the nerve to inquire why my contractor is being shook down after leaving the gate and being paid. I think these factors led to his desire for my life,” Turnbow says.
Was Faisal behind the bombing? If so, was he acting out of greed, or did he have an extended family to support?
Turnbow came away from Iraq with far more questions than answers — on this matter, as well as larger ones. He served the remainder of his year without incident.
“The contractor I had I was happy with,” Turnbow says. And this was a good thing because Turnbow ate the same food as the 15 Iraqi soldiers in those barracks. “Except for Monday. Monday was an MRE day for me because they had chicken livers. A plate of chicken livers is only so good. I only ate it one Monday.”
Layers of Ambiguity
Almost every local soldier encountered the ambiguous nature of not knowing who’s who or where their loyalties lie in Iraq.
Soldiers from grunts to generals who had conversations with The Inlander for this story say that there is no sense of an Iraqi national identity — at least in northern Iraq.
Family comes first, followed by loyalties to the tribe. Next comes loyalty to ethnicity and sect — Sunni Arab over Shia Arab, for instance, but both over a Sunni Kurd. The Kurds are also split between loyalties to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) or the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) — which were fighting a bitter civil war until they were convinced to join forces against Saddam just months before the invasion.
Working these social fissures to ever-finer lines, Idaho soldiers began to figure out the power players, the back-stabbers, movers and shakers around Riyadh.
“If we were able to speak the language, we would decipher these layers so much more quickly.” Kish says.
Kincheloe recommends that units bound for Iraq get intensive training in Arabic, Iraqi history and culture here in the States. Once overseas, detachments from the units they are replacing can give the ground-specific tactical training. It’d be a lot more practical than what the 116th got, he and others say.
“I went over there expecting Fallujah every day. [But] a lot of the job is a humanitarian mission,” Kish says. “When we trained to go to Iraq, we trained to fight in the streets every day… which gives you the expectation everyone you meet wants to kill you. And that’s not true.”
“The situation over there changes so much. It’s so fluid,” that training was outdated by the time they arrived, Kincheloe says.
Especially when it came to IEDs, says Spc. Nick Dahmen-Bosse, a 23-year-old from Moscow who joined the Guard to attend the University of Idaho. Dahmen-Bosse nearly lost his legs and was awarded the Purple Heart after surviving a deadly IED blast.
For example, the 116th trained for foot patrols and for encountering IEDs set off by detonation cord. In Iraq, soldiers almost always patrolled in Humvees, and IEDs went off by remote control. “All that training was worthless when we got over there,” Dahmen-Bosse says.
And even his brigadier general agrees… although not as bluntly.
“In some respects, our training focused on us fighting the Baghdad battle. When we hit Kirkuk, it was so unique,” says Gen. Alan Gayhart, the commander of the 116th BCT.
Only near the end of the deployment did soldiers begin to get a clear sense of the political and social landscape they’d been thrown into, Kish says. “But who wants to stay there two years?”
After working through the language, culture and local history barriers, surprising conclusions emerged.
“This is an economy-driven insurgency,” Turnbow says, citing 80 percent unemployment for people in the middle of a conflict where both sides pay cash for odd jobs.
The Wild West
Of the forward operating bases established in the Kirkuk sector since the 2003 invasion, FOB McHenry has been the most active and suffered the most casualties.
The 116th Brigade Combat Team had nine soldiers die, and all four of the combat-related deaths came at McHenry. In keeping with the trend, according to a recent Washington Post story, the 101st Airborne, which relieved the 116th BCT, has lost 11 soldiers since November — 10 of them at McHenry.
“We were the Wild West,” Kish says. The locals in Charlie Company, augmented by a platoon of Turnbow’s from the Moscow armory, were stationed at McHenry as part of Task Force Griz. The task force was built around an infantry battalion from the Montana National Guard and, instead of going by number as TF 1-163, they called themselves “TF Griz” after the University of Montana mascot. They even stenciled a snarling grizzly on their Humvee doors.
The fort is located in the tip of the Sunni Triangle, roughly 40 miles west of Kirkuk and near the city of al-Hawijah. The Arab city, dominated by the powerful Obeidi tribe, enjoyed favor during Saddam’s rule and supplied enough of his senior military officers that several were on the infamous deck of cards listing Iraq’s most-wanted.
McHenry is built on a 50-acre field purchased from a farmer after the invasion. Gravel has been spread by the truckload, but during rain-soaked winters, the indigenous mud rises with its own brand of insurgency, as a journal entry by Kish explains:
“It is slimy, pasty, weighs more than I do… sticks to your boots, gathers rocks and won’t come off until you pound your boots against a wall or a tire. If you try to wipe it, it seems to reproduce.”
When patrolling off the paved roads, “We spent hours getting stuck, getting unstuck, getting stuck again,” says Kincheloe. The FOB is still crude. Speculation is rampant that the military plans to turn it over to Iraqis and so the Pentagon doesn’t want to spend much money on it.
The Montanans patrolled Hawijah — a hotbed of anti-American resistance and close enough that the FOB is in mortar range. The mechanic shop — always lit up and with a giant roof — was used by enemy mortar teams to help them find their targets.
Twelve miles down the road, on the other side of McHenry, is the smaller city of Riyadh. More like a farm town, Riyadh was less hostile than Hawijah, and the Idahoans in Charlie Company who patrolled there even made friends. Locals didn’t like the occupation, but they also didn’t like the insurgents.
“They wanted to take control and do things on their own,” Dahmen-Bosse says.
The surrounding countryside — with rolling farm fields and an extensive irrigation canal network — reminded some local soldiers of the area around Moses Lake.
“The crops make California look sad,” says Kincheloe who grew a vegetable garden in a shrapnel-catching Hesko barrier with sheep and water buffalo manure picked up on patrol. “But they still use 4,000-year-old techniques.”
Who is the AIF? (Part Two)
The presence of Islamic extremist terrorists is largely overstated, even around a city as hostile to Americans as Hawijah. Enemies, at least around FOB McHenry, are primarily locals with homegrown agendas.
There was at least one attack that bore the hallmark of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Suicide bombers — almost unheard of around Hawijah — set off three car bombs at 9 am on June 8 near Iraqi Army recruiting stations and checkpoints. The explosions were followed by small-arms fire. There were at least 17 dead, nearly 40 wounded, including many civilians.
Even though “We emptied the FOB,” to try and catch the attackers and rush medical supplies to the hospital, Kish says it was the Americans who got the death stares from locals.
Yet a funny thing happened the next day. A local man strongly suspected of being an IED maker drove out to the base and led soldiers to a secret bunker. There were seven underground rooms stuffed with bombs, shells and rockets. Soldiers set up camp and spent several days clearing out the stash.
“He said he didn’t care if they blow us up, but not when it’s their own people,” Kish says.
Kincheloe says the larger lesson that came out of this was the realization that Americans never found weapons stashes without a local tipoff. The military’s insistence on midnight house raids is pointless, he says. Contraband, especially explosives, is never kept in houses; besides, constant raids anger ordinary people. Iraqis become less and less inclined to view Americans as liberators when they keep crashing down the front door.
“Where Do All These Damn Bombs Come From?”
Turnbow remembers asking this question the day his Land Cruiser was shredded.
“It’s kind of embarrassing. [Shells] were literally on the side of the road in the industrial area, and they weren’t even making an attempt to hide the stuff,” he says.
A sweep of the Taza industrial area turned up 25 tons of ordnance… and a complication. The bombs weren’t there because people hated Americans. The bombs were there because in a Coeur d’Alene-sized city with jobs for only two of every 10, people needed money. The scrap metal trade with Iran was just too lucrative at $165 a ton.
When Saddam’s northern armies melted away during the invasion, the former dictator’s ammunition stockpiles were briefly unguarded. The stockpiles were looted, and shells and bombs began turning up at local marketplaces.
Scrap dealers drill into the shells, then heat things up until the explosives liquefy and can be poured out. It’s a crude process, and it doesn’t always go as planned.
People who want to blow up Americans could just toss a few bombs into a pickup truck — nobody is keeping count — or approach the owner of a particular scrap pile for permission.
“If he was sympathetic, he may just give it to you. Or you could pay the scrap value,” Turnbow says. “A commodity is exactly what it was. People had more interest in the scrap value than in the explosive value.
“It gets back to: Who are we really fighting?”
One man’s contraband could be another’s next meal.
Sheriffs of Nottingham
Kish still has a card bearing the image of Thaer Hussein, who, along with his little brother Diya, a car dealer, was among the most wanted of bad guys around Riyadh.
Charlie Company soldiers insist Thaer Hussein was a simple thug who used his ill-gotten gains to help finance the insurgency. Yet despite a reward of $110,000, no one ever turned him in.
Chasing Thaer Hussein, who had one providential close call after another, became something of a yearlong drama for the local soldiers. One afternoon, soldiers at a traffic checkpoint (set up at random to try and surprise IED placers) had run across a suspicious character riding in a car. Like many Iraqis, the man had no ID.
“I’m from the next village,” he said. Soldiers zip-tied the man’s hands, placed him in a Humvee and went to the village to check out his story. The village mukthar (headsman) was asked if he knew the man.
“The mukthar was like 100 years old. He put his face right up to the guy, looked him over for a long time and said he didn’t know him,” Kish says. Red flags went off. Soldiers were certain now that the man was hiding something.
Just then, one of the village farmers hustled into the room and began berating the handcuffed man: “You lazy dog!
“I am sorry,” the farmer told the Americans. “I have hired this man to work in my fields, and he should be out there right now.”
Despite their suspicions, the Americans cut the man free.
“Well, the next day the mayor of Riyadh calls and asks us why did we let Thaer Hussein go?” Kish says. Given his close escapes, “People there saw him as Robin Hood.”
Which, of course, makes American soldiers the sheriffs of Nottingham.
Charlie Company really tried to make a difference, it seems. Some — such as Lt. Mike McDonald, a farmer from Grangeville working with local farmers to form an ag co-op — are cited even by Gen. Gayhart.
Lt. Steve Arnett, an engineer from Coeur d’Alene, was able to see that one of the early and much ballyhooed reconstruction projects after the invasion — a water treatment plant for Hawijah — was a sham. Impressive pipes went in, impressive pipes went out. “But there was no purifying going on,” Kish says. “Our guys, because of who they are, were able to see that.” A proposal was made, and funded, to make the plant actually work.
Time and again, in conversations about this deployment, the issue is raised that — even as combat infantry — the Idaho Guardsmen related to Iraqis in a unique and more humane way than active-duty soldiers. Observers emphasize that it’s a National Guard thing, a combat engineer thing — perhaps a rural Idaho thing.
“Is there a book written telling us how to fight a war like this?” Turnbow asks.
Actually, it should be out by June. Military historian Conrad Crane, an early critic of post-invasion planning, has been rushing to revise the military’s counter-insurgency handbook for the first time in more than 30 years. The regular Army, he says, is ill equipped to fight a war such as this.
“This is not a war, it’s a police action,” Turnbow says. “We [National Guardsmen] tend to talk more to people. Active duty rolls into town and they lay down the law. I think it gives more of an occupation feel… I don’t think the populace felt so occupied when we were there.”
Yet noting the bomb attack on himself and the 900-plus against Task Force Griz, Turnbow says, “No matter how much good you do, you’re always the Sheriff of Nottingham.”
“Everything Was Broken”
Even Gen. Gayhart was surprised. He went overseas expecting to be a general running a war. In photographs, he cuts a crisp military figure in desert fatigues and carries a pistol in a beautifully polished brown leather shoulder holster.
“I thought I would make a couple of social visits [with political leaders] and spend 95 percent of my time fighting, I guess,” Gayhart says. “Instead I spent the early morning hours worrying about ops, approving plans and reviewing the battlefield.”
The rest of his days, Gayhart says, were spent sorting through the layers of complexity, bitter history and political reality in northern Iraq, striving to convince a bewildering array of factions and interest groups to pull together to create a stable government.
There were roughly two-dozen combinations of ethnicity, religious affiliation, tribe or political faction that he eventually learned to identify, Gayhart says. Iraqi nationalism seemed a foreign concept, he says. There’s history behind that.
“Kirkuk is the only major city in Iraq that didn’t have a palace. Saddam wanted the place to go away,” Gayhart says, citing Saddam’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds, which included the use of chemical weapons on women and children.
“When we got there, 12,000 Kurd villages had been bulldozed off the face of the Earth. Kurds hid in forests on the Iranian border, so Saddam burned the forests. Saddam brought water to Sunni Arab farmers from Kurd areas.
“Across society, everything was broken,” Gayhart says.
The 116th was the rare National Guard unit to command a brigade-level sector in Iraq, and Gayhart says they did more than just raids and patrols. “My soldiers were instrumental in starting $500 million of reconstruction projects,” Gayhart says. “We did this pretty much independently.”
The projects — including Spc. Katy Studer of Bonners Ferry adapting her University of Idaho senior project for Kirkuk (designing women’s shelters) — caught the attention of the State Department, Gayhart says, and have since become models.
Is There Progress?
“You ask me a question I ask myself every day. I want to know how my story ends,” Turnbow says. “To be honest, I’m not sure how to answer.”
There may no longer be a nation of Iraq, he senses, noting that Iraqis cheer the misfortune of countrymen from a different sect or ethnicity. “It took a tyrant like Saddam to hold it together,” he says.
After a year of funding Iraqi Army and police projects, Turnbow believes nothing will change until Americans take their checkbook and leave, forcing Iraqis to act on their own.
“We are treating this like a colonial power,” Kincheloe says. “Drop the lines and let the people split up into three states.”
Gayhart sees forces moving in that direction, but he’s also skeptical. “The Shia take southern Iraq and the oil fields; Kurds take from the Tigris north and control the oil; the Sunni are stuck with Baghdad and western deserts? Obviously, that won’t go down without a fight,” the general says. He adds, “We didn’t want to be an occupier.”
And yet, American soldiers have been three years in Iraq — living in forts and still reacting to the local populace largely with suspicion.
Too much money is spent on military and security issues and not enough on clean water or reliable power for ordinary citizens, Turnbow says.
Resistance, in this atmosphere, is viewed with sympathy by fellow Iraqis.
“We have all this high-tech weaponry. I was talking to a guy one night who said he had sensors that could hear a mouse a mile away,” Kincheloe says. “We have M4s with holographic sights. We had these little remote controlled [spy] planes called Ravens that flew all over the place. Our answer to the IED is the 1114 Humvee.
“Despite all that, we weren’t able to catch these guys,” he says.
A Final Betrayal
Two days before Charlie Company left, a bomb went off in Riyadh that did more than rattle a passing convoy. It blew up a year’s worth of trust that local Iraqis could field reliable army and police units.
The North Idahoans worked hard with their Iraqi colleagues, even forming friendships, several soldiers say, and defending the Iraqis in the face of prejudice at McHenry.
Charlie Company would invite its Iraqi students back to the CHUs — a small gesture to return the hospitality Americans often received when visiting the locals, where a meal would appear or, at least, chai tea for everyone.
One of the other units at the FOB complained to Kish that it made them “uncomfortable” to have Iraqis treated so hospitably, which set Kish off on a rant about bigotry.
There were setbacks. One new Iraqi cop — smiling mischievously in the graduation photo — was arrested when it was learned insurgents were offering $500 to shoot an American and the new cop was asking around about buying a sniper’s rifle.
Iraqi cops and soldiers — police came from one tribe, army from another — were friendly to the Americans, though frustratingly passive about catching bad guys.
“We had black-listers going through all the time, and these guys would never stop them,” Kincheloe says, relating stories of tribal loyalties that stymied aggressive action.
All that paled on Oct. 24, when a U.S. patrol from McHenry rolled up to a checkpoint in Riyadh only to find 10 Iraqis hiding and two running away. A bomb, comprised of two 155-mm artillery rounds, went off inside the checkpoint barrier just as the Americans stopped.
The gunner in one of the Humvees “emptied two cans of .50-cal” around the town square, Kincheloe says. “It was frustration and rage” boiling over, he says. “Hawijah had issues all year. But… these were our guys, and we worked hard with them. Riyadh was a safe haven,” Kincheloe says. “This was a real sinking in my stomach.”
Recently, the town of Harrison held a dinner for Kincheloe, naming him citizen of the year. But with the ambiguous events of last year fresh in his mind, the dinner was sometimes awkward. “People would come up and shake my hand and say thanks. ‘Thanks for what?’ I wonder,” Kincheloe says.
Democracy is still an American (i.e., foreign) concept, and sewage still runs down the middle of streets, but “people have taken very well to the free market,” Turnbow says. Across the Kurdish north, “roadside Home Depots are going up everywhere. There are sinks, Western-style toilets, appliances, air conditioners…
“When we got there, Taza had six hours of electricity a day. When we left, Taza had six hours of electricity a day,” Turnbow says. “But now they have AC and a fridge, so those six hours are better.”
4.28.05 Riyahd, Iraq: A Sudden, Hard Rain
“I pray I do not lose any more. There is no acceptable loss as I used to believe … As I have seen men die and be injured, war is not glorious as I once thought – it is violent and unfair. I pray to God that my sons are never a part of one.”
First Sergeant Michael Kish, a 35-year-old full-time National Guard soldier from Coeur d’Alene, wrote the above to begin a long and painful entry in his journal about the death of Timothy Kiser.
It was about 1840 hours. “Just about dark — the time of night,” Kish says, “where you always see deer and you wonder, ‘Can I get a last shot off at that deer?’”
In this twilight, three guntrucks of IED hunters were wrapping up an exhausting yet ordinary patrol that had taken them nearly all the way to Kirkuk.
Spc. Timothy Kiser — a big, bluff 37-year-old real estate agent, father of four, formerly a truck driver, from Redding, Calif. — was at the wheel of the lead Humvee. It was a happy truck filled with laughter as it rolled through the gathering dark.
“There was a storm coming in,” Spc. Nick Dahmen-Bosse, the wiry 23-year-old gunner in Kiser’s Humvee, says. “The clouds were black. Thick black.”
The little convoy was humming along at perhaps 50 miles an hour. The military tries to maintain a speed limit of 35, but after even a short time in Iraq, soldiers equate speed with safety.
Plus, they were roughly three miles from their base, with its promise of hot food, cold showers and bed. The Humvee, a model 1025 with added armor, was approaching the last curve between the convoy and the fort. The road in this section could almost be called pretty, lined with tall reeds and some willows green with spring where it bent away from a large irrigation canal.
Right outside Kiser’s door in this blue twilight, a flash of light and a body-shaking boom erupted from two artillery shells hidden in the reeds.
“We hear a boom like we always hear a boom,” says Kish, who was attending a meeting back at [forward operating base] McHenry, where the explosion was clearly heard. “Then the patrol, Dog 32 or Dog 34, calls in an IED strike.”
It was routine by now. The other guntrucks braked to a hard stop short of the kill zone and watched Kiser’s Humvee roll out of the blast, gradually slow out on the road and pull into a field. “Everybody thought it was just vehicle damage,” Kish says. It seemed so normal.
Inside, it was anything but. The truck was filled with smoke, blood, exploding ammo, shouts; and Kiser, in the eyeblink of still laughing at a joke, was dead.
“He had a smile on his face when he died. I was glad he was not in pain,” Dahmen-Bosse says.
April 28 had been a rare, quiet day in a tough couple of months at McHenry. As winter’s cold rain — and even occasional snow — receded, the tempo of IEDs, sniper fire and sudden firefights picked up, especially in the restive city of Hawijah. Kurds who owned shops in the predominantly Arab city were murdered and their bodies dumped in the marketplace. The pace of nightly rocket and mortar attacks on the base also increased.
As the weather warmed, even the insects grew hostile. Tiny sand flies, which drill for blood much like mosquitoes, became buzzing nimbus clouds of infection. Only a third the size of a mosquito, a sand fly can bring on fevers of up to 104 degrees; some carry a parasite that may transmit a fatal form of the leprosy-like disease, leishmaniasis.
“I’d wake up with 50 or 60 bites,” Kish says. Last year, Hawijah had the highest rate of sand fly fever in all of Iraq, Stars and Stripes reports.
All these conditions conspired to make for a head-spinning change of pace.
“In March and April, somebody got hit every single day,” Kish says. “Every patrol that went out got hit by IEDs.”
Minor wounds were a given: “Guys were getting glass in the face, dust in their eyes” and would be bandaged up to go back to work, Kish says. Shrapnel was also causing more serious injuries — deep puncture wounds and slashes. The task force suffered 63 combat-related injuries, potential Purple Heart territory for roughly one in every 10 soldiers.
And with April came death. The task force lost soldiers from Montana and from Oregon as tension mounted for a promised “Battle of Hawijah.”
Sgt. First Class Robbie McNary, a 42-year-old father of three and cement truck driver from Lewistown, Mont., was leading a squad on March 31 to provide cover for soldiers dismantling an IED in Hawijah. When they came under fire, he led his men to a warehouse where the gunfire seemed to be coming from. He was crushed by a Humvee that was speeding in reverse to ram the warehouse’s steel door.
The morning of April 8, insurgents set off six IEDs on various routes into Hawijah. One went off under Staff Sgt. Kevin Davis’ Humvee, with shrapnel nearly severing the Oregon man’s leg. An advanced trauma life support team was in the area and raced to Davis’ aid. When medics tried to lift off a helicopter from FOB Warrior — a 12-minute flight — they discovered brigade commanders had changed communication codes that morning, and McHenry didn’t get the news. Soldiers spent 43 minutes working through the radio confusion before a helicopter was summoned. Davis, 41, died later in surgery. A father of three, he had been a juvenile detention officer in Lebanon, Ore.
The back-to-back deaths sobered and angered Kish. He and other soldiers were looking forward to some sort of an open “Battle of Hawijah,” but it never materialized. Insurgents stuck with hit-and-run tactics that better suited the disparity in weaponry and played to their strength of greater local knowledge.
Like sand fly bites, the insurgent tactics could be maddening. After a sniper bullet whanged off the pavement just short of where he and Sgt. First Class Kevin Kincheloe were standing while on patrol in Riyadh one day, Kish wrote:
“16-Apr-05: I am tired of getting shot at. I do not think I have written down all of them.”
Even the base was no haven. In the nights that followed the sniper attack, Kish heard the whistle of a mortar round which, he says, is a bad sound — indicating it’s right on top of you. The shell was a dud. Insurgent rocket teams scored several “air bursts” in which the rocket explodes before hitting the ground. One went off over a repair truck and wounded the mechanic on it. Another exploded above a CHU; shrapnel sprayed inside and injured three people sleeping there.
“They had no sandbags,” Kincheloe says. “The next day they had sandbags.” Photos from early in the year show sandbags stacked waist-high against the CHUs. Near the end of the tour, only the doors and the butt ends of air conditioners are visible.
And to top all this, Kish again was a sniper’s target during a night patrol in Riyadh.
“22-Apr-05: I am growing impatient with getting shot at, blown up and worrying about my guys. They should be at home… playing volleyball on the CdA beach instead of bleeding and sweating in the heat of Iraq. I still believe it is all worth it, just want to ensure all of my guys make it home and not draped w/a flag when they get off the plane.”
In this atmosphere, as danger levels were spiking, Timothy Kiser and the others in his truck were happy to at last get outside the wire and conduct long daily patrols as IED hunters.
“I’d rather be outside the wire. Inside, time comes to a standstill,” says Dahmen-Bosse, the young turret gunner. “All you can do is watch movies and play video games. After a while, you’ve watched all the movies and defeated the video games every way possible.”
All five soldiers inside the Humvee had been assigned to Charlie Co. 116 as last-minute replacements. Four — Dahmen-Bosse, Sgt. Damon Hall, the squad leader, Spc. Adam Bagley, the medic, and Spc. Jesse Ingram — were from Turnbow’s second platoon. At least these guys from the Moscow armory knew their fellow North Idahoans in Charlie Co. from Guard functions and the six months of training on the way to Iraq.
Kiser, who served a brief stint in the regular Army 20 years ago, joined the California National Guard at age 35 in hopes of medical training to become a physician’s assistant. He was sent overseas as a grunt with orders to join the 116th as a fill-in. It was in Kuwait just before Christmas when he walked up to Kish, saluted, yelled out his orders — “Sir!” — and joined the unit.
As late replacements, the guntruck crew felt like the tail in Pin The Tail on the Donkey, and for months they seemed to get the cruddy jobs in the duty rotations.
“We were more or less outcasts in that FOB,” Dahmen-Bosse says. “We did a lot of FOB security — sitting in a guard tower for eight hours. We did what they call FOB work, which is dishwashing. Our platoon got that a lot. We were a unit without a unit so to speak.”
Like outcasts anywhere, they became a tight little band. “Every night was movie night at our CHU,” Dahmen-Bosse says. They even threatened mutiny at news of a plan from somewhere on high to rotate medics.
“We insisted Bagley stay. He was our medic. We weren’t going to roll without him,” Dahmen-Bosse says. Bagley, as they all called him (some never learned his first name), knew his trade inside out, even though he was just 21. He pushed all the soldiers who had combat lifesaver training and made them feel more confident.
“All that plus he wanted to go outside the wire,” Dahmen-Bosse says. From a soldier, it’s high praise. “We put our feet down.”
Bagley became a regular at movie night where eight or more guys would crowd into the four-man CHU to watch DVDs of films or TV series on a large computer monitor. Kiser was a regular, too, even though he was 15 years older than the others.
“Kiser, he was with us a long time. He was a good guy — the guy who tried to lift everyone’s spirits,” Dahmen-Bosse says. “If someone was down because they had a problem at home or something happened that day, he’d come over and BS with you and just talk.”
He had a way to ease friction. When he was assigned to the squad, Sgt. Hall noted Kiser’s truck-driving experience and made him driver, bumping out Dahmen-Bosse. Hard feelings never developed.
The younger man volunteered to be gunner, which is no small act. “When IEDs go off it’s usually the gunner who gets killed,” Dahmen-Bosse says. Once the squad got outside the wire in March and April, Dahmen-Bosse and Kiser almost always rode together.
The squad was assigned long, daily missions scouring various roads for IEDs. Their travels took them to the outskirts of Kirkuk, 40 or so miles to the east. In normal conditions, you could drive it in less than an hour.
“We had guys on the ground the whole way. You’ve got to be on the ground to see the IEDs,” Dahmen-Bosse says. The patrols would dismount (a term soldiers use because A) that’s what the military calls it and B) it sounds way cooler than “get out of a Humvee”) at every canal, bridge, culvert, dirt pile, rock formation, suspicious hole in the ground, previous IED crater and pothole.
“There are a lot of potholes. The roads there are terrible,” Dahmen-Bosse says.
So, by and large, this meant walking to Kirkuk every day. Also, by and large, this is as real as it gets in Iraq in terms of facing the enemy. The bombs are it, detonated at a distance by foes seldom seen much less caught. The IEDs are often cleverly hidden, and pack increasing punch to get through Humvee armor. Sometimes the bombers add gasoline to the mix for terror purposes — setting the inside of a Humvee on fire, for instance. And the soldiers on foot, even as they peer into culverts or poke around holes, know that somebody, somewhere has a cell phone or garage door opener that could touch it off from afar.
The squad never got hit until mid-April, about the time Kish was getting regularly shot at and mortared. Kiser was driving a bunch of medics somewhere when the road exploded under the Humvee. Three artillery shells had been buried in the road, stacked one atop another, but only the top shell detonated.
Shrapnel, bits of pavement and rock, caused minor injuries and lacerations to the passengers and especially to the gunner that day, Sgt. Jason Kivett. In photographs, Kivett’s face is a crazy quilt of bandages.
“That was the first IED hit for us, personally,” says Dahmen-Bosse, who was not in the truck that day. “It didn’t phase Kiser in the sense of being scared, it was more like he was in shock at having witnessed it.”
It drove home the nature of the war in Iraq, soldiers driving rigs that are largely confined to roads against an enemy who thoroughly mines the roads.
“With IEDs, our mentality whenever we left the wire: We expected the worst,” Dahmen-Bosse says.
And every morning they rolled out, jacked on adrenaline, to hunt IEDs.
In the month of craziness, April 28 had been so quiet. The patrol was uneventful. The three trucks were nearly back at the fort. They were driving head-on towards an electrical storm that had boiled over the northwest horizon and was coming on hard.
“It was eerie. It was a black, weird, eerie night,” Kincheloe says. “The lightning was incredible. It’s more intense in Iraq. It’s so much closer to the ground.”
The thick black clouds crackled with spectacular bursts of lightning. It was wild enough that it prompted Dahmen-Bosse to scrunch his head down through the turret and share the amazement with the crew inside.
Talk in the truck quickly turned to lightning stories. There was a tale going around the FOBs, and it was sworn to be true, soldiers insist, that a lightning strike at least once had set off an IED.
“So we all started making jokes about wouldn’t it be funny if lightning set off IEDs,” Dahmen-Bosse says. “What if lightning struck and — boom, boom, boom — IEDs started going off on both sides of the road? It would make our patrol the next day so much easier.
“Right when we said that it went off. I thought ‘Damn, we did get hit. This f---ing sucks,’” Dahmen-Bosse says.
So many things happened at once: A shell that propelled directly through the driver’s door, killing Kiser instantly. Kish, who later helped remove Kiser’s body from the truck and place him in a casket, wrote this:
“Kiser was covered in shrapnel up his left side, front of neck torn away and the left side of his head gone. The radio stood in the way of SSG Hall, otherwise he would be dead also.”
The deadly hail of shrapnel and shards of the obliterated radio tore into — and sometimes through — all five people in the Humvee.
The bomb was comprised of a 152-mm shell and a 132-mm shell and was a shaped charge. When the military calls something a shaped charge, here’s what they mean: “Unlike my IED, which went off willy-nilly, you carve out some of the inside of the shell so you funnel the explosion, the flame, in one direction,” Turnbow says. Imagine a blowtorch when it suddenly whooshes to life.
Given his connection to the men on patrol, Turnbow was keenly interested in this IED. He and Kish note the bomb was expertly placed to hit a Humvee square in the door and “The AIF nailed it just right,” Kish adds.
Shrapnel was everywhere. “Some of the shrapnel above Bagley’s eye came out of me. There was a piece of me on the front of his (armored) vest. It fell off when he bent over to take care of Ingram,” Dahmen-Bosse says.
It’s one of the small, surreal moments that don’t go away after such an event. Outsiders like Kish and others were struck by the weird, smooth stop of the Humvee. It quickly became legend:
“Somehow Kiser, even though he was dead, kept the speeding vehicle from wrecking. The vehicle slowed down for 200 meters and rolled into a field. God saved the rest of the men through Kiser that day.”
It wasn’t like that, though.
Dahmen-Bosse, head scrunched through the turret opening, remembers looking down at Kiser and the squad leader. Everybody was laughing at the lightning joke. Then came the out-of-nowhere gut-punch of the concussion.
“Then I saw smoke. The smoke was coming from Ingram. Shrapnel had ripped open one of his magazines and set off the ammo. I saw Kiser’s hands on the wheel; then they fell down to his sides,” Dahmen-Bosse says. “I knew he was dead.”
Even with shrapnel and smoke and pieces of radio and a magazine full of ammo tinking off like crazy popcorn inside a driverless Humvee doing about 50 on a curve, everybody’s training kicked in.
“I went to stand up and look for who set it off,” Dahmen-Bosse says, reaching to jack a round into the .50-cal as he did so. “I was going to engage. But when I tried standing, I felt my legs go… [He waves his hands in the air like fish tails] I sat back down in the sling. I didn’t know I’d been hit. But I looked at my left leg and it was dangling, and I thought ‘Crap, that’ll probably come off.’ Then I looked at my right leg and saw blood beginning to pool. That’s when I stopped looking at my legs.”
Shrapnel mangled his lower left leg and punched completely through his left thigh, entering his right where steel met femur, smashing it to fragments.
Someone, probably Bagley, who was himself hit in five places, was shouting to see who was conscious, who was alive. The shouts almost immediately changed to “Grab the wheel! Grab the wheel!”
Ingram, although shrapnel tore a chunk out of one leg and broke his tibia — and with exploding ammo in his lap — shot an arm over the driver’s seat, pushed Kiser aside and steered the Humvee away from the irrigation canal. The canal was cement-lined and big and it was running deep.
Dahmen-Bosse doesn’t know how the guntruck came to a stop. “It didn’t feel like we were slowing down.”
But as soon as it jounced into the field, Bagley was out and dragging Ingram with him to start triage. Hall hustled to find another radio.
Dahmen-Bosse, despite two shattered legs, pulled himself out. He had just let go of the doorframe, bracing for the long fall to the ground, when “Bagley ran up and caught me.”
Two soldiers from the next truck, Scott Sollum and Frank Boguloski, pounded up to help out, cutting away Dahmen-Bosse’s pants and punching an IV into his arm. Hall reached a radio.
Less than two minutes had passed from the boom and the initial report of the IED until Hall’s next words changed everything:
“I have two WIA and one KIA. I need an ambulance and I need a helo right now.”
“Say again?” In the TOCC [the company’s command center, there was a heartbeat of disbelief. Then a galvanic jump into organized chaos. “We grabbed all our guys and our all gear and said, ‘We got to get ready to go. Two minutes or less,’” Kish says.
Casualties are called in by number, not by name. As Charlie Company’s soldiers punched their way into armored vests, grabbed weapons and ran for Humvees, Kish checked the battle roster.
Word was spreading that someone was dead. The company lined up in its guntrucks, idling at the gate, as fat raindrops began to fall, drumming on the steel.
Kish quietly passed the names along to the commander. “There was a quick, awkward moment of silence. Then I said OK, ‘We are ready to roll sir!’”
And then the storm hit.
“My Lord, it was one of the hardest rains I have ever seen. The winds whipped up to about 40 miles per hour, there were big old raindrops, lightning, and the rain made night-vision goggles useless,” Kish says. “I recommended we roll under white lights. If somebody wanted to blow us up in this weather, let them do it.”
The entire company rolled out, lights blazing, to reach their guys. A tree had been blown across the road, and Dahmen-Bosse and Ingram were gone by the time the obstacle was cleared.
A helicopter was beating west from Kirkuk, racing along the dark line of the approaching storm. A scout patrol had arrived with an ambulance. The bend in the road was crowded with Humvees and soldiers, and there was plenty of confusion: The wounded were to be airlifted; no the wounded should be driven to McHenry.
“I was hearing that on peoples’ radios,” Dahmen-Bosse says. He and Ingram were in the ambulance when the helicopter pilot began chewing out people on the ground.
“He said, ‘Screw this. I know there are guys seriously injured and we need to move them now!’” Dahmen-Bosse says.
In an almost impossibly tight spot, the pilot dropped the helicopter inches above the marshy canal banks, slid sideways under a power line and skidded to a halt on the road, thudding rotor blades only a foot or so away from various Humvees.
“The crew chief got out and was yelling ‘Load these guys now!’” Dahmen-Bosse says. The storm was upon them at last. It was beginning to rain.
That was a messed-up night,” Kincheloe says. “There was a sense of finality. Up to that point, we were pretty lucky… pretty unscathed. And it wasn’t just one guy — it was all five in the Humvee.”
The sudden absence of Ingram and Dahmen-Bosse, and the sudden loss of Kiser, seemed to leave the company in a vacuum. They decided to tow the Humvee back to base before removing Kiser’s body. “It was not going to be pretty,” Kish says. “We went to the maintenance shop and started cutting the door away.”
Everything seemed to be a half step out of normal.
“There were probably 12 guys all standing around in their battle-rattle. I’ll never forget it,” Kish says. Abruptly, “I gave my M-4 to the sergeant major and went through the back door to help the medics and got the full effect of what happened that day.”
Then came the rituals of finality. They cleaned up Kiser, checked a body bag and a casket out of supply.
“Guys began to cycle through and pay their respects,” Kish says. “Guys dropped off mementos. One guy dropped off his Ranger tabs; another, his jump wings.”
Turnbow had heard the news, and by morning drove to Warrior to visit his wounded soldiers. He recalls finding Dahmen-Bosse in the ER tent.
“I was looking down into this poor kid’s femur. He looked up at me and says:
“I tried, sir. I tried.”
“You tried to do what, Nick?”
“I tried to engage … but my legs didn’t work.”
Blowing out a long breath, Turnbow adds, “That’s going to stay with me the rest of my life.”
But then, “He asked me for his Superman comic books.”
Turns out, the comics were related to movie night. The crew had been watching Smallville when a debate began to rage about how closely the show followed the Superman story line. So Dahmen-Bosse had written his folks to send source material. The package had just arrived.
“He just had a stack delivered and didn’t even have a chance to crack them open. He got those comics post-haste,” Turnbow says.
“They came to me [months later] when I was in the States on convalescent leave,” Dahmen-Bosse says. “The guys really tried. They weren’t able to just come over to FOB Warrior — they had a mission the next morning. You can’t just stop when something like that happens.”
So all day, the remaining soldiers went over the old routes, twice passing the bend where the bomb changed everything.
As soon as they got back to McHenry, they volunteered for a second-straight mission that day, escorting people to Warrior.
They arrived with the bundle of comics and their bundles of concerns but, “They missed me by about two hours,” Dahmen-Bosse says. He and Ingram had been whisked away, starting a journey of 13 surgeries in five hospitals spanning three continents.
The remainder of the squad did, however, touch Kiser one last time. Before a phalanx of assembled soldiers late that night at Warrior, unit guidons snapping and everyone at silent attention, the small group slowly walked Kiser’s flag-draped coffin up the back ramp of a C-130 and sent him home.
The company said farewell a few days later, as Kish wrote:
“3-May-05: The memorial service was very military. Akers played music on his violin and we had a recording of Kiser singing ‘Amazing Grace’ he had done a week or so before he died.”
And out on the road?
“We cut those reeds down and burned them,” Kish says.
10.26.05 FOB McHenry: The Early Birds
Finally, by late October, the 101st Airborne got its orders to take over, and the Idahoans in Charlie Company knew the birds were coming — the big twin-rotor Chinook helicopters that would start them on a journey home.
They were ready. Not counting mid-tour leave, Charlie Co. had six days off all year, Michael Kish says. It was like working a never-ending green chain with patrols, raids, heat, bugs, chaos and craziness.
“The guys felt beat,” Kish says.
“Near the end of the tour, it got weird,” Kevin Kincheloe says. “We had a bunch of people leave early with medical issues. I lost nine guys in second platoon [out of 28]; and the turnover date for the 101st kept getting bumped back and bumped back. And our mission tempo picked up again at the end — guys felt fried and betrayed and nervous.”
Nobody wanted to be the last casualty.
Kish was told the helicopters would arrive in the evening and he, like many in the company, wanted to come to grips with the past year. He searched for a way to say goodbye to a place that was steeped in his sweat, adrenaline, fears, triumphs and blood.
It was important to say goodbye in just the right way.
Kish, a happy warrior eager to show the National Guard to be just as high-speed as the regular Army, had been tempered by injury and death. His journals reveal the complexities: “Cannot help but to feel a bit liberal on the war,” he wrote at one point. As First Sergeant, he felt the weight of 100 soldiers on his back, and to keep them safe he often had to play bad cop to the company commander’s good cop.
“I always had to be the jerk,” he says. But he also came away believing there is at least slim hope for the future, believing the Idaho soldiers established some small toehold.
Although quite different politically, Kincheloe is equally as complicated a figure as Kish and was also seeking time to reach terms with his departure. He opposes the war in Iraq but — and here is a nuance here few war opponents seem to understand — believes in the military and takes seriously his oath to serve his country. He was among the first to sign on for the deployment and was an excellent field soldier.
Kincheloe is less sanguine about the future, seeing the task force’s insistence on largely fruitless home-invasion raids as turning the local populace against the Americans while doing nothing to defeat the insurgency.
But he, like Kish, made friends in Iraq, and that complicates everything.
Their separate reveries didn’t last. An officer burst in on Kish to say the Chinooks had been moved up to 10:40 am. It was already quarter-after. Kish ran to tell the platoon sergeants and, even as he was leaving their quarters, heard an unmistakable sound: The Chinooks were already circling to land.
The soldiers jammed gear into their packs and raced to the landing pad. They were gone in minutes.
Kish and Kincheloe each wound up at the rear of the helicopter, sitting opposite each other and watching the landscape reel past through the open back ramp.
“A year of memories went flying by in that 15-minute flight,” Kincheloe says.
Kish makes reference to the moment in his final journal entry:
“We loaded onto the birds and Kinch and I sat at the back ramp. We lifted off and McHenry disappeared as we banked hard left. I felt a little sad to know it would be the last time I would see it. Especially saying goodbye in such a rush and not getting time to take a last look and leave on my terms. As we flew, the land looked pretty and so unharsh; as it often feels rough when you are on the ground. We flew over villages I knew and … the feeling of bittersweet grew. This was a place where so much happened in such little time and I learned so much and grew so much older.
“Iraq is … a piece of me not many will understand and I am leaving friends behind. I look back and want to believe we did well. … it may be years to truly tell. … For us, home is the next real stop and rebuilding and getting to know my wife again is the objective.
“I have dreams sometimes of IEDs and death, I hope my wife understands and she is not scared of it. Time heals, so does love.
First Sgt. MICHAEL KISH, 35, is still full-time in the Army National Guard. His gung-ho “We’re-as-good-as-active-duty” attitude has been tempered by the deaths, injuries and betrayals encountered in Iraq. His journals reveal a complex and observant man. Sometimes he wonders about going back. “Here you have work, you have home, you have to schedule fun time, me time. Over there it was so simple: It was stay alive and keep your buddy alive.” After 18 months of deployment, Kish and his wife have gone to marriage retreats to strengthen their bonds. They recently found out they are having twins. “And we just bought this house that I thought had so much room,” he says.
Spc. NICHOLAS DAHMEN-BOSSE, 23, joined the Guard while still in high school. It was a fun way to spend time, occasionally blow something up, and get help with college tuition. The bomb that shattered his legs has also exploded his plans to be a physical therapist. He is thinking about being a scuba diver.
Sergeant 1st Class KEVIN KINCHELOE joined the Marines as a young man and was bummed that he just missed Vietnam. Even though his politics have grown more liberal, Kincheloe scratched his warrior itch by spending much of his adult life in the National Guard. A strong sense of duty to his country (and to the soldiers in his platoon young enough to be his kids) prompted Kincheloe to volunteer for Iraq at age 47 — even though he thought the war was wrong. His platoon came through with one serious injury. He didn’t reenlist and is letting his hair grow long.
After living outside the wire in a lightly defended Iraqi barracks for a year, “Deep sleep is a luxury you can’t afford,” KORY TURNBOW says. He wakes at the slightest sound and can’t go back to sleep (“drives my wife crazy”). Instead, at 29, he sits through the rest of the night thinking about what to do after law school (he’ll graduate in another year), mentally reviews the family budget and searches for answers to the perhaps unanswerable questions he encountered in Iraq.