by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & J & lt;/span & oseph DeWolf went on a cruise to Mexico last week. & r & & r & DeWolf is a warrior home from battle and, sure, his boat ride from Galveston to Cozumel may not sound like the typical epic Homeric odyssey. But perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to say the voyage is part of a larger journey to figure out where he fits in the world -- a voyage undertaken by many soldiers home from Iraq.
Over there, American soldiers are the outsiders, targets of gunfire and bombs. They patrol in a theater that is not quite a war... and yet is certainly not at peace. It is sometimes hard to get a clear sense of who is the enemy, what is the mission and how will it be accomplished, exactly, by Americans who carry guns, not hammers, and build forts, not factories.
And when these soldiers come home, the populace often doesn't understand all the shades of gray.
Take the cruise. "The boat was full of senior citizens, I can tell you that much," DeWolf, a 1997 graduate of Colfax High School, says over a cell phone from Texas. "I spent a lot of time in the casino."
His wife, Christina, "made me wear my dress uniform for the formal event."
So here was the burly military man, standing out and drawing every eye. And soon he was swarmed with people wanting to shake his hand.
"The appreciation is nice, but when you are the only one in a military uniform on the boat it can get pretty overwhelming. After a point I just wanted people to leave me alone."
Staff Sgt. DeWolf, a tank commander twice deployed to Iraq, is still adjusting. He was evacuated from Baghdad in July when a particularly huge explosion -- one of 14 he experienced -- engulfed his M1A2 Abrams battle tank. The blast knocked DeWolf unconscious and broke his jaw.
He was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and, while they were at it, the Army docs took a look at his combat experiences and ordered up some treatment for post-traumatic stress. DeWolf has been home in Texas since August, visiting doctors and counselors, performing some light duty and taking plenty of time to decompress and reflect. He shared his thoughts over several long telephone exchanges almost exactly four years after I first interviewed him.
DeWolf may be the only soldier in the universe to compare rolling a battle tank into Fallujah with driving up to Spokane from the Palouse.
In both places, he says, it's as if the city core suddenly appears after you creep up on it and cross a river.
"You know how you cross that bridge and then you are right in downtown Spokane?" he asks about coming up from Colfax on Highway 195. "That's how Fallujah was."
The description came in a 2004 interview when DeWolf had returned from the first year of the Iraq War. He relayed his experiences with a tone of amazement and even fun. Not ha-ha funny. It more had the flavor of trying to explain the crazy-weird things you see in a war, like a Carl's Jr. lunch truck being blown up by insurgents and left afire in a traffic circle.
Four years later, DeWolf doesn't sound like that.
Though only 29, his voice on the telephone sounds weary, older, after an extended second deployment. The flavor of this tour, he says, was "pretty sour."
In October 2006, DeWolf was deployed a second time -- assigned to the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division at FOB Rustimiyah and one of its outposts, the wistfully named FOB Hope in eastern Baghdad. Hope is about 500 feet from the gates of Sadr City, the teeming Baghdad slum controlled by the Mahdi Army. The Jaish-al-Mahdi, as it is also known, is a powerful Shiite militia loyal to the rebellious young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
During the intense deployment, DeWolf lost nine or 10 friends to explosions, snipers or firefights, he says, and was himself blown up 14 times by bombs that detonated outside his tank or Humvee.
The combat stressors of his second deployment were compounded by a growing sense of futility.
"I didn't see any change at all" in Iraq, DeWolf says, adding later, "On the eastern side of Baghdad we were thrown into a no-win situation. Maybe I'm wrong (but) maybe we shouldn't have as much American presence there.
"From the friends I lost this time ... personally, if I died in Iraq I would want my friends to go home and forget about that place," he says.
While it's terrible that so many Iraqis are dying violently, they have a police and an army. "My personal opinion: I'd just as soon get out of there," he says.
Jaish-al-Mahdi has pretty much become the working government in Sadr City, DeWolf says, and doesn't appear to want or need American help. In fact, the U.S. forces and the Mahdi Army, which in the past hasn't been shy about engaging U.S. troops in full-on combat, had a tense sort of "don't mess with me, I won't mess with you" relationship even before it was formalized into cease-fire called by al-Sadr last August. The cease-fire came on the eve of the progress report Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker (a Spokane native) gave to Congress last fall and has recently been extended another half year.
In the absence of a reliable government, the Mahdi Army has taken over many municipal services -- distributing food to the hungry in the slum, DeWolf says, and even fixing the streets. "I compare them to the mafia," he says. "They go around and talk to store owners and smile and shake hands ... but if you don't do what they want, they kill you."
A story out of Baghdad last year shows the power al-Sadr can wield via his militia. On the first day of summer, the Jaish-al-Mahdi paid visits to the city's ice factories -- ice being an increasingly valuable daily commodity in a hot city with unreliable electricity. Al-Sadr decreed that, in his territory, the standard 55-pound block of ice should cost no more than 4,000 Iraqi dinars (about $3), or one-third less than elsewhere in the capital. This sort of clout wins al-Sadr the loyalty of Baghdad's Shia poor.
"It seemed like we were kind of not needed around there," DeWolf says. "I just rode around in my tank and felt like a rolling bomb squad. It felt useless."
As the Mahdis were strengthening their grip on Sadr City, "I was just doing the same mission the whole time -- driving around and hoping not to get blown up." DeWolf says.
"I hate to freaking make a pact with the devil, but I think it's keeping a lot of people alive," he says.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & hared danger strengthens bonds, and danger on DeWolf's second tour wasn't long in coming.
This was the first bomb to hit him in Baghdad: DeWolf had come rolling out of FOB Rustimiyah at dusk, leading a convoy of four Humvees. ("I was senior tank commander, so I always rode in the lead," he says.) The twice-daily mission was to drive around for a while, show the flag and remind residents and militiamen the U.S. Army was back in the neighborhood.
"We had come around a corner by a soccer field. It was not an area we usually patrolled," DeWolf says. The beaten-dirt soccer pitch with two forlorn nets was on the right side of the street, half-built houses with their piles of brick crowding the left. The dark street was spooky-empty.
"One of the key things is: Where there are people, there is safety," DeWolf says.
In this, he is citing the sort of detail soldiers often learn the hard way about the lay of the land in Iraq. We read plenty of stories about suicide bombers and civilian-killing car bombs taking their terrible toll on ordinary people and soldiers alike in Baghdad, but DeWolf also says this: "In Iraq, they don't put IEDs in a crowded market or by businesses they don't want damaged."
"They" could be anybody who controls a neighborhood -- the identity and agenda of "the enemy" remains fluid and ambiguous five years after the invasion of Iraq. In DeWolf's case, "they" is most likely the Mahdi Army.
Moments after rounding the corner, DeWolf saw what he was looking for -- people mingling in the yellow light spilling out of open shops a couple of blocks ahead.
"So we're rolling up the road, three guys in a Humvee with dim-ass headlights," he says, the gunner shining a spotlight from the turret to help guide the way. And then a disembodied flame appears -- at first without any sense of scale or distance. Faster than comprehension, it streaks across the street.
"I saw a red flash. Then wham! The projectile hit right under my seat. What saved me was the battery box. It threw my legs up," DeWolf says.
All three were hit with shrapnel, plus they suffered burns from acid that had sprayed out of the exploded batteries.
"I couldn't see at first because battery acid shot all over my goggles," DeWolf says. "I asked my two guys if they were all right, then I checked myself. I knew my legs were bleeding, and when I checked to see if I could move them, a couple of cables started sparking and started a little fire."
The other Humvees pulled up to form a protective bracket, and DeWolf and his crew -- Spc. Jeramy Wallace and Sgt. Jeremy Nunn -- began to attach a towline.
"Down that alleyway that was lit up and filled with people? Suddenly that whole alleyway went dark," DeWolf says.
The soldiers knew something was coming. IED hits are typically followed by RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) or a second IED, DeWolf says.
This time there was only sporadic fire from AK-47s. Wallace, despite an injured hand, and another Humvee gunner spotted the muzzle flashes and returned fire with their .50-caliber machine guns.
And just as quickly as it erupted, the firefight came to a sudden halt as the patrol rolled away, disabled Humvee in tow.
It was, ultimately, just another night on the fringe of Sadr City. Explosions, firefights, adrenaline rush... and nothing that was really changed. It was the pattern of this deployment.
"As an army, we are just growing tired of it. It's taking a toll," DeWolf says.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & f the double handful of friends DeWolf has lost, two are searing, he says. Almost exactly a year ago, on March 15, a fellow sergeant and especially good friend, Terry Prater, died in a Baghdad explosion that killed seven soldiers.
The Department of Defense news release mentioned a bomb going off outside the soldiers' vehicle. There's more to the story, and it infuriates DeWolf.
"There was a little IED. (Higher commanders) try to have us do our own forensics on IEDs for post-blast analysis. So you are ordered to get out and take a picture of the hole and measure the depth.
"There was a little IED. And then there was a bigger IED, booby-trapped, and that's how seven guys died. The American public never hears about that," he says.
There is a disconnect, DeWolf says, between the realities on the street and the view from above. What was the point of standing over a crater and playing CSI? he asked.
"I was forever questioning about that one. Where does all this evidence go? We don't seem to be getting results," in terms of fewer IEDs, he says.
A second death, the shooting death of Spc. Gabriel Figueroa April 3, left DeWolf white-hot angry for a long time, he says. The 20-year-old medic was killed as the battalion was trying to make inroads with locals by going out on meet-and-greets.
Half the soldiers in the platoon would leave their Humvees and work the sidewalks to "shake hands and hug babies. Our goal was to try and get to know everybody in the neighborhood," DeWolf says. "The mission was to go around the neighborhoods and schools and make nice. The first day, Fig got shot. He was handing out stuffed animals to kids. Handing out stuffed animals his parents had donated."
He and his soldiers felt eaten up inside, DeWolf says, first, because of Figueroa's good nature -- "There was no way you could not like that guy" -- and second, the fact that the shooter didn't care that children were in his line of fire. Finally, he's angry because the platoon was respectful of Iraqis.
"We weren't the type of platoon where we'd get out and slap people around for no reason. We were hugged up against Sadr City and I wanted to keep my soldiers safe. We wanted to be laid back and easy to get along with so we didn't have to worry about firefights when we rolled through."
After Figueroa's death, the platoon sergeants consulted and decided, "If this is the way they want it, we will roll heavy. I went back there with my tank and I didn't feel like making friends," DeWolf says.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he type of bomb that blew up his Humvee in that first attack used to be called a shaped charge -- an explosive shaped in such a way that the force of the blast is focused in one direction. Think of a blowtorch when it ignites. The military, in its never-ending quest for acronyms now calls them EFPs (explosively formed penetrators).
"An EFP can go through a lot of stuff. (In November) this was the first time I had ever heard of one," DeWolf says. "When they did post-blast analysis they found out it skimmed right under the Humvee. We got lucky."
Lucky, that is, until the next 13 grew more and more powerful. The 1/8 Cav rode in M1A2 Abrams tanks with armored skirting to the sides. The military is hastily upgrading the M1A2s with protections for urban warfare, but DeWolf's unit didn't have these packages even though they were in one of the most prolific areas for IEDs. Even so, the tankers felt pretty invincible, driving what DeWolf calls, "the most badass, well-protected vehicle in the army."
As last year progressed, the EFPs grew more and more into a threat to punch through the stout shell of the battle tank.
By May: "There was an incident where a tank driver lost both arms to an EFP."
By June: "There was an incident that injured my platoon sergeant."
By July: "We had just completed a raid and were escorting the infantry guys back. I was the second tank in that convoy, went around the corner by a gas station," DeWolf says... and the rest is hazy.
His 14th and final EFP was monstrous. It blew the side skirt armor off both sides of the tank and hurled the heavy steel nearly two football fields. It punched a 12-inch hole through the tank wall. DeWolf was briefly unconscious in the turret with a broken jaw, and he and the driver, Spc. Wallace, were both dazed even as they drove the wounded tank back to base.
"I had ringing in my ears, I had a real bad headache, blurry vision, slurred speech," DeWolf says. "I woke up the next morning and felt drunk -- I ended up throwing up a lot." His company's 1st Sergeant recognized the possibility of TBI and had DeWolf flown to the main hospital at Balad immediately. "An MRI showed swelling on the right side of my brain and they rushed me to Landstuhl (Germany)."
Looking back, he says, frequent headaches may have been a sign of TBI all through the deployment, but he put it down to other things.
"I felt symptoms before but thought I was coming off an adrenaline rush. Some of the IEDs were followed by 20-minute firefights and the adrenaline's going and you're shooting and looking all around. The headaches ... I figured maybe I didn't drink enough water that day," he says.
He still gets headaches and sometimes the nausea and the blurred vision. The thing with TBI is there's no operation, no meds that make it get better.
"TBI? ... honestly all my docs told me the main thing is time," DeWolf says. "Basically don't be put in stressful situations ... basically relax and take time for the brain to heal."
He could still be six months away from anything more than light duty, doctors recently told him. And DeWolf wonders why his crew members, who went through all the same engagements, aren't getting this, too. The answer comes quick enough: Thinking of the realities of what soldiers experience in Iraq, "You'd have to take everybody. They'd have the whole army."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & espite his frustrations, DeWolf reenlisted for another six years while in Iraq. He had considered leaving the military and trying for a job with the Texas State Patrol, but in the end, he says, it came down to battle buddies. "Honestly, I thought I would miss it after a while. The camaraderie and everything ... you can't get that anywhere else."
DeWolf doesn't want to come across like he was mopey over in Sadr City, driving around and getting blown up all the time. He was, in fact, engaged in his duties.
With EFPs the main threat to American lives, "Being a rolling bomb squad did feel useless, but I was commanding the most badass, well-protected vehicle in the army so I felt I had a responsibility to put myself in harm's way to try to find IEDs before they hit lighter-skinned vehicles.
"It was scary as hell every day. You just smoke a lot of cigarettes," DeWolf says.
"I think it's pretty pointless," he says of the war, "but I signed up for it."
DIED IN IRAQ
Spec. Ryan M. Bell
Died: March 5, 2007
Incident: A bomb exploded outside a military vehicle near Samarra, killing Bell and five others instantly. A seventh died later.
About: Bell grew up in Colville, was an exceptional student-athlete at Riverside Military Academy in Georgia, aspired to use Army training and the GI Bill to become a doctor. Trouble with his e-mail account led Bell to phone home regularly, talking to his dad two days before the explosion. Even a year later, "I keep expecting to pick up the telephone and hear his voice," his stepmother, Ginger, says, adding Bell married just weeks before deployment. "They weren't married very long. I remember just seeing the look on his face, how happy he was." (Kevin Taylor)
Sgt. Damien T. Ficek
DIED: December 30, 2004
INCIDENT: Killed during an attack while on patrol in Baghdad.
ABOUT: Ficek liked physical action. He was on his high school football team and wrestling squad and rode BMX bikes for fun. Then in fall 2003, he withdrew from Washington State University when his National Guard unit was activated. He left his wife Kyla and went to Iraq. A few months before his death, he sent an email to a friend, saying he was looking forward to returning home and starting a family. "He was a giver," says his aunt, Joani Dufourd. "He was not so much focused on his own destiny but on how he could affect people around him." (AP)
Sgt. Curt E. Jordan Jr.
Died: December 28, 2003
Incident: Died from illness apparently related to chemical exposure near Bayji, family says.
About: Jordan graduated from high school in the Spokane Valley and joined the Army a few years later, in 2000. He later re-enlisted for a stint that was to end in early 2005 and ultimately planned to leave the military because it was taking him away from family. Days before he died, he got to visit with relatives by satellite phone. "He got to see us," his mother said later. "I can close my eyes and I can see him." Jordan's brother, Army Spc. Adam Jordan, was stationed only 10 miles away when Jordan died. (Associated Press)
Spec. James D. Riekena
Redmond, Wash./Post Falls, Idaho
DIED: January 14, 2007
INCIDENT: Killed when an IED exploded near his vehicle in central Baghdad.
ABOUT: "When JD and I used to sit and talk ... (between deployments) some things he was required to do bothered him - the raids and having to shoot at other people," his mom, Patricia, says. After high school Riekena moved from Renton to Post Falls, joined the Idaho National Guard and spent 2005 in Iraq. Bilingual, he volunteered for a second deployment with the short-handed Puerto Rico National Guard. "He worried about guys with families. He said 'If I die, you'll miss me, but I don't have kids, I don't have a wife to worry about,'" his mother says. (KT)
Cpl. Llythaniele Fender
Medical Lake, Washington
Died: June 10, 2007
Incident: Killed by a makeshift bomb in Karbala.
About: Fender moved to Medical Lake after finishing high school in Iowa. He quickly enlisted in Army. In Iraq, Fender and a couple of soldiers gave out Pop-Tarts to children, then bought several more cases when they ran out. "He was a wonderful son and brother with a huge heart who served his country with great pride," says his mother, Ellen. (AP)
Sgt. Dariek E. Dehn
DIED: June 2, 2007
INCIDENT: Killed by a makeshift bomb in Sharqat.
ABOUT: Dehn grew up as the fifth of six children in rural Spokane County. He enlisted, spent about a year in Korea, where he met his wife, then came back to the States before being sent to Iraq. "The Army formed a direction for him, he was really proud of being a soldier," his sister says. During one visit home, he told relatives about some close calls he'd had. "That was kind of his way of preparing if something was to happen," she says. (AP)
Cpl. Darrel J. Morris
DIED: January 21, 2007
INCIDENT: Killed while conducting combat operations in Anbar Province.
ABOUT: At 9, Morris and his younger sister were abandoned by their drug-addled mother and left to fend for themselves. When they ate all the food in the house, Morris tried to hold a garage sale to buy more. Soon, the children ended up in the care of an aunt and uncle in Spokane. Morris went on to graduate from Ferris High School before joining the Marines. After being shot by a small firearm during his first deployment to Iraq, Morris received a Purple Heart. He recovered and returned to duty. "We raised him to want to help, to do better and to do more," says aunt Kim Coles. (AP)
Sgt. Jacob H. Demand
Died: September 14, 2004
Incident: Killed during an attack on his patrol in Mosul.
About: Demand was a fixture on the high school teams - football, basketball, baseball - and loved hunting and fishing. He joined the Army two weeks after graduating in 1995. When he joined the Army, his mother recalled, "the world was a little safer at that point in time. His goals in life were to be in the Army a little while and then to be in the U.S. Forest Service." He had three children, daughter Reanne and sons Josh and Seth. (AP)
Spec. Robert T. Benson
DIED: November 4, 2003
INCIDENT: Killed by a "non-hostile" gunshot wound in Baghdad.
ABOUT: He was born in Coeur d'Alene and attended Shadle Park High School in Spokane. He transferred his senior year to North Central High School, graduated in 2001, then joined the Army in July of that year. Months later, in December, he married a high school classmate, Aimee Hiatt. "I wish Bobby could have had children," his stepsister said. "I wish he could have seen his brothers and sisters get married." (AP)
Spec. Kelly B. Grothe
DIED: May 3, 2007
INCIDENT: Killed when his armored personnel carrier was struck by a makeshift bomb in Ramadi.
ABOUT: Friends still post messages to Grothe on his MySpace.com page. "I love you and I miss you everyday," one wrote earlier this month. According to the site, he attended Central Valley High School before becoming a soldier. He posted a survey on the page answering a series of questions about himself. Heritage: "Mostly German." The shoes you wore today: "Desert combat boots." Your weakness: "Hmm maybe I'll tell ya, maybe I wont." Later, toward the end was a question about how he wanted to die. "Well I dont really want to but I guess if I have to I want to go really, really quick." (Jacob Fries)
Spec. Blain M. Ebert
DIED: November 22, 2004
INCIDENT: Shot by a sniper in Baghdad.
ABOUT: Weeks after arriving, Ebert asked people in Washtucna for clothes and shoes for Iraqi children. The town responded, mailing box after box. "In his eyes, love and the future of Iraq were going to come through the Iraqi children," says his father. Reared on the family's wheat farm, Ebert enlisted soon after high school. In Iraq, he was injured when a car bomb exploded near his tank, but after a couple weeks of desk work, he asked "to be sent back out there" on combat duty, his father says. (AP)
Capt. Luke C. Wullenwaber
DIED: November 16, 2004
INCIDENT: Killed when a makeshift bomb detonated near his vehicle in Khaladiyah
ABOUT: As a standout football player at Lewiston High School, Wullenwaber set the school record of six quarterback sacks in one game. "Everything in his life was full-bore, 100 percent," says football coach Nick Menegas, who used video of Wullenwaber on the field in his summer football camps. "He was an immense inspiration to all of us. Everyone marvels at the overachieving that he demonstrates on every down." (AP)
Sgt. Jeffrey R. Shaver
DIED: May 12, 2004
INCIDENT: Killed when his vehicle struck a makeshift bomb in Baghdad.
ABOUT: After graduating from Newport High School, he moved to the Spokane area and became a fitness instructor. He joined the National Guard in 1999 and trained to become a medic. He moved to Western Washington in 2002 to be closer to his mother and sisters. There he worked for Bryman College, helping students find jobs in the medical field. Then his unit was called up. Shaver hoped to use his own medical training to help Iraqis in his off time. "Jeff could make you feel like you were his best friend, and you were," says a friend. (AP)
Sgt. Timothy C. Kiser
Tehama, Calif. / Idaho National Guard
DIED: April 28, 2005
Incident: Killed when a shaped charge blasted through the door of the Humvee he was driving
About: An optimist with a sense of humor, Kiser enjoyed joking with the Iraqi children, and loved to give them treats, says his wife Rhonda. He was laughing at a joke when he died, survivors of the blast say. Kiser joined the California National Guard at 35 hoping to become a physician's assistant. Instead he was attached as a replacement soldier to a company of North Idaho soldiers and became a popular figure. A recording of Kiser singing "Amazing Grace," made after his first IED experience some days earlier, was played at his memorial service in Iraq. (AP/KT)
Pfc. Charles B. Hester
DIED: May 26, 2007
INCIDENT: Killed when he drove his Stryker vehicle between troops on the ground and an IED in Baghdad.
ABOUT: Though Cataldo is Hester's address of record, he grew up on Washington's Kitsap Peninsula with family in Bremerton and Poulsbo. He was married to Roxanne Slate and had a daughter, Elizabeth, who was 3 years old at the time of his death. Hester, a member of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. His mother Jody Flanig told the Kitsap Sun Hester drove his Stryker between the enemy and his fellow soldiers to give them cover at the time he was killed. (SUN)
Pfc. Christopher J. Reed
DIED: July 10, 2004
INCIDENT: Killed in a vehicle accident in Anbar province.
ABOUT: Reed loved hunting and fishing with his brother and hoped to use his military experience to get a job with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. He had been in Iraq only three weeks when the vehicle he was riding in overturned. "He'd basically just gotten there," says his brother Brian. "When it came to his family, he put them before everything else," says friend Beth Pratt, who remembered him as a lively presence. "Even when there was nothing to do Chris would turn a boring evening into an unforgettable memory." (AP)
Sgt. James E. Craig
DIED: January 28, 2008
INCIDENT: Killed when his unit encountered a makeshift bomb during convoy operations in Mosul.
ABOUT: Shortly after graduation, Craig joined the Army infantry and got to live in Alaska and Colorado, an obituary notice says. After serving two tours in Iraq, James married Natalie Timmerman. Four short months later, James left for his third tour. "He had a contagious personality, always making new friends," the notice says. "He loved the Lord with all of his heart and lived to serve Him." (JF)
Sgt. Maj. Bradly D. Conner
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho
DIED: May 9, 2007
INCIDENT: Killed when a makeshift bomb detonated near his vehicle in Al-Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.
ABOUT: He had three children - Aaron, now 15, Katie, 13, and Rachel, 6, - and he loved being a father, says his mother, Kay Conner. "That's why he was doing what he did. He firmly believed in the need to defend our country and he believed in what they were doing in Iraq." He was very athletic, played football and basketball and graduated from Kellogg High School. In 1987, he enlisted in the Army and later received several honors, including three Bronze Stars, three Meritorious Service medals and a Purple Heart. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on June 1, 2007. (JF)
Sgt. Darren D. VanKomen
DIED: Dec. 21, 2004
INCIDENT: One of 14 soldiers killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest packed with ball bearings in a dining tent on an American base in Mosul.
ABOUT: A popular soldier known in his Stryker Brigade unit as Sergeant V, VanKomen's tribute of an upended rifle, desert combat boots and dog tags during a group memorial service was topped with a navy blue Cavalry Stetson instead of a tan combat helmet. He first enlisted in 1991, a couple years after graduating from Culdesac High School. VanKomen tried civilian life twice, but kept returning to the military. He is survived by his wife Stephaine and a stepdaughter, Chelsea. His package of Christmas presents arrived 30 minutes after the news of his death. (KT)
EDITOR'S NOTE: Using official records and news reports, The Inlander tried to identify all local soldiers killed in Iraq. If we missed any, please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The decision to exclude casualties from Afghanistan was not to lessen the importance of their sacrifice. Our focus here, however, was to examine Iraq five years after the invasion.
VOICES: WHAT PEOPLE THINK NOW
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & urious that sand is the material that transforms into glass, because when it comes to finding a window into Iraq after five years of war and occupation, the future is clear ... as sand.
The war has touched many in this area via death or injury, marriage or divorce. It has been a through-the-looking-glass experience.
In a presidential election year, Republican John McCain says the U.S. needs to stay, possibly for 100 years. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama say the country needs to find a way out soon.
One local National Guard officer says, "John McCain has got it to a tee -- we have to stay there."
"McCain's an idiot," a journalist who has made eight trips to Iraq retorts with equal certainty.
And round and round it goes. Iraq, viewed through the lens of people who have been there, is a shape-shifter of a country. There is progress. There is not. It will work as three states, or two states, or (and not many are sanguine about this) as one state.
We at The Inlander can make no sense of it. We merely offer snippets of conversations:
Brigadier Gen. Alan Gayhart
Idaho National Guard
Notable: He pulled wildly disparate factions into a working provincial government while commanding a brigade in northern Iraq's capital Kirkuk in 2005.
"Six or eight months after I came back, I read the government had fallen apart." A new unit, one with less interest in civil affairs, had taken over. "They were strictly war fighters whereas we did both."
While frustrated by the annual reinvention of the wheel when units rotate in, and by the ineffectiveness and corruption of the central government, he takes a longer view. "We look at this through Western eyes. We sign agreements and think, 'Well, come on now.' But they have grievances that go back centuries."
The good news: "I have been getting calls from the State Department asking what tools we used to form the government, what agreements we had to reach.
"Our soldiers performed magnificently over there." Nine died in the deployment. "I carry those soldiers around with me every day."
Formerly intake counselor, Spokane VA
"Once the invasion started and those men got home we were just swamped at the VA," says McInroe, the intake counselor for the Spokane Veterans' Administration hospital until last month. "There were over 900 that I personally interviewed."
Seventy percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, "come through the door reporting lower back pain. An increasing cause of disability is that damn personal body armor -- it's too much of a load."
The basic vest with ceramic plates weighs 38 pounds. As the war drags on, soldiers have been ordered to wear side panels, throat panels and crotch panels. Back and spine problems are especially apparent in soldiers who have served multiple deployments, McInroe says.
"These kids are poor. This is another working class army. And one of the real ironies coming out of this war is working class kids depend on their backs to make a living, and now the government is ruining their backs," McInroe says.
John Custer/Ben Gittings
Veterans Service Officers, Spokane
Notable: Both were reprimanded by the VA, which they take as a compliment for aggressive advocacy on behalf of wounded veterans.
"What we are seeing is back injuries, the lower vertebras breaking down, and hearing loss and vision problems from extended use of night-vision goggles," Custer says. That's not even counting combat wounds. The pair recently assessed Reservists in the 321st Engineer Battalion, deployed on bomb-clearing missions last year, and found "an 87 percent casualty rate. That's 87 percent with compensatable claims -- mostly it's hearing loss and lower back issues," Custer says.
Such a high casualty rate has swamped claim adjudicators and Gittings, who was severely wounded in Korea, says a big part of his job is dogging the details -- fighting denials when the evidence shows the adjudicator "didn't even look at the file."
Member, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Hailey, Idaho
Notable: She is perhaps the only veteran publicly against the war in Idaho.
Her "deep breath" moment of openly opposing the war came last summer during a peace rally in North Carolina where there were a lot of Quakers -- older, quiet. "Then I saw these young guys making strong statements and giving first-hand accounts. People standing on a street have limited effectiveness, but veterans saying 'this is what I saw,' particularly if what they saw was illegal, somebody has to answer.
"Service to your country can mean letting your country know when it's going in the wrong direction ... I'm not sure what part of that people aren't understanding."
Boundary County deputy sheriff
Squad leader with Idaho National Guard
Notable: His squad found and arrested one of Saddam's two-star generals who had been sought for two years.
Who is the enemy? "I've been shot at by the Iraqi Army more than anybody over there."
Is there progress? "In my opinion, no. The fact that it's gone so long -- and we've taken down key people and found a lot of weapons caches -- and there's still not super stability. If (new troops) are running the same mission we ran five years ago ... to me, I don't see that as progress."
The experience was a lot like his day job: "There was a lot of searching of vehicles and searching individuals. Over here it's 'I only had two beers,' over there it's 'I was in Kirkuk buying a cow.'"
Eight trips to Iraq since 2005
Notable: He was kicked out of Iraq by the 4th Infantry Division for writing (inadvertently, Axe says) about classified IED blocker. Returned under British permission.
Who is the enemy? "The enemy is instability." Just as many soldiers do, Axe points out "the enemy" can be local thugs, feuding tribesmen, Saddam loyalists and on and on. "It is all contextual and situational. In the big picture, the enemy is instability."
Axe quit a newspaper job to cover the war and didn't care about the politics or morality. "In fact I tended to be pro-war because I was having fun -- I liked the war." It was a grand adventure going to dangerous places. Then Axe covered a huge battle in Afghanistan (where the war's very different than that in Iraq, he says). "What's not fun is watching young guys die, then going to the memorial service and watching their friends weep. It's hard to watch a whole army cry. ... The fun sort of wore off.
"I began to care more about what is this all about, are we making a difference? I used to say I didn't care about politics, but war is politics."
Peace and Justice Action League, Spokane
1st Lieutenant in Vietnam
Notable: His comment on discovering the FBI had infiltrated PJALS, "At least we know somebody was reading our Website."
"I feel for the members of the military. They are just thrown again and again and again back into danger. Anybody who says they were in Vietnam for two years, well, that was their choice. Also the conditions (in Iraq) are more stressful. Anybody who gets into a truck or a Humvee is exposed to IEDs. It doesn't matter if you are a cook or an infantryman."
PJALS has organized a rally Saturday (2 pm at the Federal Courthouse plaza) to observe the upcoming fifth anniversary of the Iraq War.
Cpt. Kory Turnbow
Idaho National Guard
Notable: He survived an assassination attempt, possibly from an Iraqi Army colonel upset at not getting a lucrative contract.
He was a husband, a law student and eager soldier when deployed to Iraq in late 2004.
Now, "I'm fresh off a divorce, sold the house. Graduated law school but I just couldn't bring myself to drink the punch ... I realized that's not my path in life. I'm still trying to decide what that path is." He's still an eager soldier.
On the war, "My peers want to blame the media for only reporting death and casualties and not the good news. I wonder if they were in the same war I was. Sure, there was good news -- we built a daycare/kindergarten in Taza. A couple of months later, a bomb leveled it at 2 in the morning. We installed a well in a little village ... but nobody can acquire the parts to fix it. It's been a slog."
There's a toll of multiple deployments (and related issues such as stop-loss, where the military can force a soldier to stay in past the end of an enlistment contract). "Families can only take so much of that. ... Well, the fact of the matter is, a lot of families have been shaken apart by this."