BAGHDAD, Iraq — These guys know this is no time to take chances. Just a week away from going home — the 82nd Airborne’s 2nd Brigade, 2nd Battalion, Alpha Company is conducting what could be its final mission in Iraq. It’s called Operation Tidal Wave and involves nearly 4,000 soldiers sweeping for weapons and information in the rural neighborhoods south of Baghdad.
As dawn breaks, Lt. Francis Schafer sends his platoon down a muddy road to search houses and bring all the residents to a common area. There he will stand on top of a Humvee and (with the aid of a translator) read a pamphlet that asks them to report insurgent activity. Otherwise he says the coalition can’t properly bring them the basic services they needs like water and electricity.
Despite the early hour, as they gather in the dirt yard of the first house, no one seems particularly annoyed. Women spread blankets on the ground, where they sit with their children. Other women bring out wooden benches from the house for the men to sit on. But when Schafer begins to speak, the women and children are told to go inside while the men stay to deal with this business of occupation.
They listen patiently until the lieutenant is finished, then let loose with a myriad of complaints about everything from the lack of kerosene and propane to the unannounced searches of their homes. Schafer nervously pops off the cover from the scope of his M4 rifle and unconsciously cleans the rubber eyecup with his fingertip.
He was not expecting this to turn into a public forum, and he doesn’t have many answers for their concerns. He tells them through the translator that democracy takes time. If they’re not getting enough propane and kerosene, they need to hold their neighborhood council representatives accountable.
They look as if they don’t grasp the concept — as if it were lost in the translation. As Kiowa OH-58 helicopters and F-18 Hornet fighter jets buzz overhead in a deafening posture of intimidation — what U.S. officers like to call a “show of force” — Schafer, though diligently doing his job, looks as if he would like to be anywhere else but here; preferably back home in Atlanta going for a long run.
Army realizes difficulties of returning to civilian life
Alpha Company has been here nearly a year. In a week, they will leave Iraq behind. But what they’ve seen here, what they’ve had to do here, goes home with them — roadside bombs in Baghdad, close combat in Samawa, killing and being killed.
But the Army realizes it can no longer just put its soldiers on a plane in a war zone and hope they can flip off the warrior switch on the long ride back to the home front.
This became tragically clear in the summer of 2003, when three Special Forces soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., murdered their wives shortly after returning from Afghanistan. Two went on to kill themselves after the murders.
These incidents helped prompt the Army to do more to help troops begin to make the transition back to peacetime even before they leave the war zone.
The Army now requires returning soldiers to go through several stages of decompression, classes and counseling taught by their leaders to help them adjust to the changes in themselves and their families.
In a cramped room at Camp Falcon in Baghdad, platoon Staff Sgt. Alexander Aguilastratt tells his guys what they already know.
“You’ve been close-up with the enemy,” he said. The men nod in agreement. He continued, “You looked him in the eyes and shot him in the head — but you have to turn off the switch when you get back because you’re going to be dealing with American civilians. Dealing with families. We can’t be the same killers we’ve been all this time. It’s time for us to go home.”
Aguilastratt was speaking from the heart. He knows the cost of war, as do all the eyes upon him.
“One of the most difficult things I’ve ever seen,” he said to me later, “one of my soldiers, one of my personal friends, who was Christopher Sisson, being killed in a helicopter accident and not being able to do anything.”
Pfc. Christopher Sisson, he said, saved his life in the southern city of Samawa during the war. When the platoon came under attack, Sisson moved to a high position with the squad assault weapon and held off Iraqi fighters until the platoon could regroup and counterattack.
After Sisson was killed, Aguilastratt wanted to show him proper respect by cleaning the blood from his gear and uniform.
“Nobody else was going to be allowed to touch his gear,” Aguilastratt said.
“He was an airborne soldier ,and he was going to be honored by airborne troopers. Nobody else.”
These sentiments, soldiers know, can only fully be comprehended by those they’ve bonded with under fire. After the thrill of going home fades, they can begin to feel isolated or angry.
Support at home
So in addition to counseling before leaving Iraq, the soldiers of the 82nd will also be required to report to Fort Bragg every day for a week before they’re given leave. This way their commanding officers can spot problems with their men and help them get the proper resources before the problem gets bigger or turns violent.
Twenty-four-year-old Spec. Ryan Norris of Milwaukee, Wisc., is older than most of the other soldiers in his platoon. He says he was working mostly dead-end jobs, waiting tables, bartending, before enlisting in the Army two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Iraq, he said, has changed him.
“When I was 17 and still in high school, I never thought I’d ever see anybody die. I thought I’d just live a normal life, get a job somewhere. You know, work in an office and wear a tie,” he shrugged, “and now that I’m out here doing this I’ve seen parts of the world I never wanted to see. I’ve seen acts of violence that I never thought I was going to see, and it changes the way you view things.”
After a year in Iraq, Alpha Company commander Capt. Tyson Voekel knows his guys have a lot of issues to work through. But he feels as responsible for their well-being when they get home as he does when they’re on a mission here.
“We’re just trying to get our guys to think about these things now,” he said, in between briefing the officers who will replace him here, “everything from getting their car licenses renewed, to divorce, to financial problems — those are all things waiting for us when we get home. That’s just a whole other battle.”
Finally heading back
But it’s a battle he thinks his guys will win. This is the day the men of Alpha Company thought would never come — the day they get to go home. The collections of the last year of their lives are stuffed inside a large duffel bag and olive green rucksack. They load their gear, then themselves.
There is no hooting or hollering yet. It is all a very sober affair.
They may be thinking about what lies ahead, or they may just be numb. They were told they were going home twice before, only to have the promise snatched back from them. This time it seems for real.
Voekel checks his clipboard before the trucks pull out. He says his men will be fine after they leave here. The same discipline, he believes, that enabled them to shoulder the burdens of war will help them to live with its memories in peace.
NBC's Kevin Sites is reporting from Baghdad. More of his reports from Iraq can be found on his personal blog www.kevinsites.net .