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One unit’s volatile year at war in Iraq

One Army unit's year-long combat tour, now in its final days, is a study in the banality of war: ordinary American lives confronted by moments of extraordinary violence, set against the backdrop of an inscrutable culture and an unfamiliar land.
Peace activist Cindy Sheehan, left, comforts Nina Nahvi, 18, of Arlington, Texas, during a war protest at their camp near President Bush’s ranch Nov. 26, 2005, in Crawford, Texas. Nahvi's brother, Army Spc. Russell Nahvi was killed in October in Iraq. Matt Slocum / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Long before he came to Iraq, Spec. Russell Nahvi hoped to save the world. In a spiral-bound notebook filled with math equations, he jotted his secret yearnings: "I PRAY one day I can make the world proud of me. I hope I can restore an unknown peace to wartorn nations, peoples, families, friends."

Nahvi's ambitions led him to a dark road on the outskirts of this town, where, on a patrol Oct. 19 a bomb hidden in a pothole dismembered him and incinerated his Humvee. Two other Americans were also killed. One soldier survived: a platoon sergeant who managed to wrench himself out of the vehicle, flames rolling off him.

Afterward, the Pentagon tersely attributed the soldiers' deaths to "enemy indirect fire." An officer handed Nahvi's mother, Nancy, a form asking if she wanted her 24-year-old son's body parts returned if they were recovered. President Bush sent his parents a three-paragraph condolence letter. It contained a typo: "God less you."

"It was just a grunt's death," said Nancy Nahvi, an Arlington, Tex., nurse, her voice tinged with bitterness.

Nahvi was assigned to the 5th Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, part of the 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga. The unit's year-long combat tour, now in its final days, is a study in the banality of war: ordinary American lives confronted by moments of extraordinary violence, set against the backdrop of an inscrutable culture and an unfamiliar land.

This account of the unit's year at war was drawn from soldiers' diaries, from correspondence and from interviews in Balad, in the heart of Iraq's Sunni Triangle, where the 5th Battalion is based. It also draws on interviews in the United States with relatives of the soldiers, as well as Vietnam veterans of the same battalion, many of whom sponsored troops in Iraq. The experience has reverberated in a profound way among soldiers and their families, much as it has divided the nation over the price of a war now nearing the end of its third year.

"What is the purpose of us really being over there?" asked Latisa Baker, whose husband, Staff Sgt. L.B. Baker, 38, of Belcher, La., was the sole survivor of the attack that killed Nahvi. As she spoke, Baker had just been released from an Army hospital in San Antonio. He sat stiffly on the couch in his redbrick house near Fort Stewart, nursing a beer, second-degree burns covering nearly 10 percent of his body.

"People dying every day, for what? That's the question: for what?" Latisa Baker said. "If you give me a reason for why we're really fighting, then maybe I can handle it a little better. But we really don't know."

"You know, when I was in Iraq I never even thought about why I was over there," Baker told his wife. "I was just doing my job."

‘Is this even a war?’

Balad is a washed-out agricultural city near the Tigris River, about 50 miles northwest of Baghdad. With 450 men, the 5th Battalion controlled a 300-square-mile area of 120,000 people that included the mostly Shiite Muslim city and dozens of Sunni Arab villages tucked into a fertile labyrinth of apple and date palm orchards, canals and winding tributaries.

The 5th Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment was deactivated as a unit designation after Vietnam. The battalion lay dormant for nearly four decades until July 21, 2004, when the Army revived the name and retrained an air defense unit to fight as scouts in Iraq. The Vietnam veterans who once served in the unit, many of whom were shunned after their own unpopular war, rallied behind the soldiers headed off to the Iraq war the following January.

"They're like our children," said Don Quick, a Methodist minister from Roanoke, Ala., who lost his left arm in Vietnam and heads the sponsorship program. "This is a terrible thing to say, but we want them to have what we didn't get."

To the veterans -- retired generals, former platoon sergeants, winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor -- Iraq was so different from Vietnam as to be scarcely recognizable.

From 1966 to 1971, the 5th Battalion had operated from improvised firebases dynamited out of the Vietnamese jungle; the soldiers moved on foot and in Huey helicopters. While out on patrol, the soldiers, roughly 80 percent of them draftees, often slept in burrowed trenches with dimensions of, as they put it, "2-by-2-by-you."

Perhaps the main difference between then and now was in the scope and ferocity of the killing: During its six years in Vietnam, the 5th Battalion lost 363 men, often in company- and battalion-size firefights with the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong irregulars. Through Monday, the 5th Battalion had lost seven soldiers in Balad in more than 11 months of fighting, six from one platoon.

After visiting the reactivated unit in Balad, retired Col. Charlie Baker wrote in a dispatch to his hometown paper: "If the enemy was hard to see in the early days of Vietnam, they are invisible in Iraq. I got there on April Fool's Day, and left in the middle of May. There was no war going on that I could see."

Eddie Ratcliffe, 59, a former sergeant from St. Simons Island, Ga., who had done three combat tours in Vietnam, asked the soldiers if he could send them anything. The soldiers, who lived in trailers and standing buildings on a base with an Internet caf, ESPN and, occasionally, steak and lobster, responded: "Sheets."

"Is this even a war?" Ratcliffe said he wondered.

Ratcliffe sponsored 1st Lt. Lamarius Workman, a stocky, 30-year-old platoon leader from Brunswick, Ga. Workman commanded Charlie Company's 3rd Platoon, a group of about two dozen also known as Combat Blue.

"I don't even know that it is a war," Workman said one August morning in his dank room, its chipped concrete walls covered with satellite images, maps and pinup calendars. He described Iraq as "a long, dull day" -- twice-a-day, four-hour patrols to search for insurgents he almost never saw.

Asked if the Americans were winning, Workman chuckled: "Hell, I don't know. I don't know what winning the war is."

‘Don’ blow’

Out on the flat expanses, along the rivers and canals, on the darkened roads and endless patrols, in the quiet of the battalion's solitary outpost, the war in Iraq possessed its own terrifying rhythms of violence.

On Feb. 13, while patrolling at 4:30 a.m., a Humvee from Workman's Combat Blue platoon rolled into a freezing canal. Three soldiers and an Air Force firefighter drowned. Workman emerged from the water covered in frost and nearly incoherent. Nahvi shimmied down a drainage pipe to pull out Workman and four other soldiers whom Nahvi then treated for hypothermia on the banks of the canal.

Insurgents frequently shelled Camp Paliwoda, the 5th Battalion's headquarters, with mortars and rockets. Sgt. Christopher Taylor, of Opelika, Ala., who was attached to the 5th Battalion, was killed July 24 when an 82mm shell exploded near him as he walked between his artillery position and a bunker.

As the year went on, roadside bomb attacks against the 5th Battalion mounted steadily: There were 22 in April, 27 in May, 21 in June, 47 in July.

The battalion encountered 50 in the first half of August.

"I keep on praying, Don't blow, Don't blow, please don't blow up!" Pfc. James E. Tickal, 24, of Oviedo, Fla., wrote in a leather-bound diary he kept in his Humvee.

On Aug. 26, while Workman was on leave, a bomb exploded beneath one of the Humvees, hurling the five-ton vehicle two feet into the air but causing no injuries.

The next day, the rattled soldiers crammed into a small room for a security briefing. The meeting was run by Baker, the laid-back platoon sergeant from a family of Louisiana musicians. On his wall, Baker kept an autographed black-and-white promotional photo of his sister Vickie, a Mississippi blues singer. On breaks, he smoked white-tipped Black & Mild cigars and wrote sad songs about Iraq in a green field notebook. After nearly 20 years in the Army, Baker was just months from retirement. He fantasized about what his life would be like: fishing for catfish in a pond near his family's Louisiana farm, playing trumpet and singing with his younger brother Luster's band, the Groove Crew.

In the meantime, he was trying to stay alive.

‘Ducking and rocking’
After the previous night's attack, Baker told the soldiers he had asked his superiors if they could run a mine sweeper over the road, which was cratered from dozens of bomb explosions. The platoon members believed other bombs lay buried there, waiting to go off. Baker said he was told the equipment was being used elsewhere.

He reported to his men: "I pretty much let 'em know that I'm getting tired of getting hit like this. I'm tired of getting hit and we returning fire, and we go in the area, and nobody knows what is going on. So let's just say, 'Screw it. We'll just keep . . . ducking and rocking, and it'll be fine.' "

Someday, said Sgt. Patrick Hagood, 24, of Anderson, S.C., that wasn't going to work anymore.

Hagood, soft-spoken and cerebral, was one of the battalion's rising stars. He had once been accepted at Morehouse College, the 138-year-old African American liberal arts school in Atlanta, but decided to join the Army because he had already made the commitment and didn't want to renege. Now he was planning to make the military a career, reasoning, "I could be around in college for four years, and I guarantee I'd never, ever, see guys risking their lives to save mine." He had recently bought a house near Fort Stewart and had gotten serious with his girlfriend, Merideth Sanford, a sales associate for a wireless telephone company.

Baker looked down at Hagood, who was sitting on a white plastic chair in full battle gear.

"Yeah," Baker said matter-of-factly. "One day somebody gonna get us."

Two weeks later, Combat Blue rolled out of the gates of Camp Paliwoda. Tickal, the platoon's medic, made a mental note of the date. "I remember thinking, 'Something bad always happens on September 11,' " he said.

The three Humvees hugged the middle of the two-lane road. Outside the inch-thick windows, the view was total darkness: orchards and empty fields, obscured by night. The damp air smelled sweet, like ripening fruit.

The Humvees crossed an overpass when suddenly an explosion -- a familiar orange fireball, followed immediately by a concussive blast -- ripped open the night. The bomb hit the trailing vehicle. The Humvee careened down a 15-foot embankment before rolling to a stop near a field.

Soldiers on the other two vehicles fired into the darkness with their heavy machine guns. Tickal ran to where the truck had disappeared from the road. He was met at top of the embankment by Sgt. Stanley Brooks, 23, of Orangeburg, S.C.

Brooks was covered in blood, Tickal recalled. He was racing back and forth atop the embankment "like a jackrabbit," talking a mile a minute and screaming: "My face! My face! My face!"

Tickal grabbed Brooks by the shoulders and stared. The right side of Brooks's face was splattered with shrapnel and glass. But his eyes were intact. Tickal asked about the other three soldiers in the Humvee.

"They're all dead," Brooks told him.

Tickal ran down the steep embankment, trying not to trip in the dark. He found Hagood lying on his side near the Humvee, his right foot nearly blown off, his head resting across the legs of Cpl. William Young, 24. Young's face was mangled and bloody. A piece of shrapnel had entered below his right eye, traveled through his nose and exited his left tear duct. Both men were alive: They had been pulled from the Humvee by the 20-year-old gunner, Pfc. Jose Rosario, of St. Croix, Virgin Islands, who was unharmed.

‘I’m gonna die’
Hagood and Young were screaming.

"I'm gonna die!" shouted Hagood, using an expletive, as blood pooled in the dirt beneath his foot.

Baker arrived just after Tickal. He straddled Hagood's legs so Hagood couldn't look at the gaping hole in his ankle.

"Man, shut up!" Baker recalled shouting at Hagood. "You gonna be all right. Don't worry about this, man! We got you. We got you. You're good. I got you, dawg, you good. Man, you ain't gonna die. You talking to me, right?"

Hagood continued to believe he was bleeding to death. He told Tickal to make sure he told Merideth he loved her. He asked him to give her a letter he had written in the event of his death.

Within minutes, however, Tickal had stanched the bleeding. Then the sky began to thump, and out of the darkness came a medevac helicopter. It landed on the other side of the road. The soldiers loaded Hagood, Young and Brooks on stretchers and placed them in the chopper, which flew them to the combat support hospital at the main air base in Balad.

The next day, the 5th Battalion's commander, Lt. Col. Jody L. Petery, went to visit the wounded soldiers. Hagood was sitting up in bed, heavily medicated but lucid, his foot wrapped in bandages, Petery recalled. He was still in pain. Petery praised him for a "great job" and told him he'd be okay; it appeared doctors would save his foot.

Hagood, whose military term was about to expire, told Petery he wanted to reenlist.

Petery, stunned, wasn't certain whether to believe him. Hagood was insistent. He would soon be transferred to Germany, and then to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for rehabilitation. Hagood told Petery he wanted to reenlist before he left Iraq.

Petery called back to Paliwoda and ordered a patrol to bring over a contract.

Hagood then raised his right hand while still seated in bed. Petery administered the soldier's oath of enlistment, pausing more frequently than normal because of Hagood's labored breathing:

"I, Patrick Hagood, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. . . .."

Petery, 41, grew up in rural Denver, Pa., (pop. 3,500). His father worked in a warehouse, his mother as an elementary school teacher. A good high school athlete, he had attended West Point only because his first choice, Penn State, had offered him a conditional baseball scholarship and he worried he would run out of money if he didn't make the team.

Petery found himself drawn to the military. "Soldiers are just exceptionally noble," he said.

Standing 6 feet 2, with glasses and close-cropped blond hair, Petery seldom raised his voice to his men. He said he was acutely aware of the complexity of his mission in Balad. In addition to fighting the insurgency, his soldiers were responsible for training an Iraqi army battalion, building irrigation systems, organizing local and national elections, supporting the city government and a host of other jobs to which Petery acknowledged he brought limited skills.

"I could use help from several different people over here," he said ruefully one day. "I've needed the National Organization for Women, in big numbers. I could really use Greenpeace, because I'm sick of these guys littering and throwing oil on the ground. But those folks don't want to come help us. I just don't understand it."

The war's multitude of profiteers infuriated Petery. He often halted patrols and ordered his soldiers to confiscate black-market gasoline, whose peddlers were as common as lampposts. The Americans gave away the contraband gas to passing motorists.

Petery believed he was making progress in Balad. But for every sign of that progress, there was inevitably a setback.

After Iraqi soldiers risked their lives to pull the bodies of the dead Americans from the canal in February, the relationship between the Americans and Iraqis in Balad was transformed. Nahvi had said of the Iraqis after that tragedy: "You always heard never to trust them, to never turn your back on them. I have a totally different perspective now. They were just so into it. They were crying for us. They were saying we were their brothers, too."

Bush cited the episode in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington as a sign of the Iraqi army's progress. The president quoted an Iraqi army commander, Maj. Mohammed Ali Abdul Mutalib, who had personally dredged the canal, and an American colonel who said he had seen "a glimpse" of Iraq's future.

Weeks later, unnoticed, the Iraqi commander was shot in the face and killed in Balad.

A crisis of trust

On July 29, a platoon from the 5th Battalion's Alpha Company entered a concrete block house south of Balad. A 15-year-old girl threw herself at the Americans.

Tugging at their arms, crying and nearly hysterical, she told them through an interpreter that her uncle, who lived in the house, had been plotting attacks against the Americans and beat her "like a dog."

"If we didn't take her from that house, there was no doubt in my mind she would be killed," said 1st Lt. Joshua Rambo, a 26-year-old platoon leader from Bossier City, La.

The decision ignited one of the 5th Battalion's worst crises. The girl was part of the al-Rafeat tribe, one of the largest in the region. Tribal custom forbade a virgin to leave her house unescorted. "This was unthinkable, for strangers to take come and take one of our women," said the tribal leader, Eifan Muslih Mehdi. "It is a stain on our honor. Take 1,000 men, but never a woman."

Petery was faced with an explosive situation. Keeping the girl would mean certain violence, he believed. But releasing her would be tantamount to a death sentence.

Petery and Mehdi compromised. The tribal leader agreed to take custody of the girl and guarantee her safety. To remove her from Camp Paliwoda, the Americans had to pry the wailing girl's fingers from a doorjamb.

The next day, Rambo's platoon went to check on the girl. They found her not at Mehdi's house but at her grandfather's, surrounded by relatives and wearing a full-length abaya that covered all but her face.

Now in a daze, the girl walked up to the Americans and pulled back her right sleeve, revealing a burn mark that "looked like the width of a bayonet, like somebody could have heated it up and stuck it on her arm," Rambo recalled. "It was a couple inches across the inside of her forearm. She said she had been blindfolded and forced to drink something hot that made her sick. And then she was burned."

Furious that Mehdi had lied and concerned that the girl had been tortured, Petery had her escorted to a Balad hospital.

The girl then changed her story: The Americans, she told her family, had given her a mysterious pill, then assaulted her.

Petery was now convinced the girl had been lying all along. His female interpreter, Thanna Azawi, an Iraqi American from Redford, Mich., said she believed the girl had been tortured by her family and changed her story. Petery said he had no choice but to release her back to her family. He called a meeting and asked Sunni tribal leaders to dispel rumors that the Americans had kidnapped the girl. The Iraqis refused.

"The complexities of the culture and tribal lives here exceed anything that anybody understands," Petery said. "We as Americans shouldn't feel guilty about not honoring everyone else's culture. There's got to be a point where we say, 'I got it. I respect your sovereignty, but your culture is wrong.' "

A depleted platoon

On. Sept. 29, insurgents set off three nearly simultaneous car bombs in central Balad. The attack killed 105 Iraqis, including the chief of police, Kathim Abdul Salman, who had run into a burning building to save a girl. Petery hurried downtown with his security detail. One soldier got out of his Humvee and stepped on a toddler's severed arm.

The casualties overwhelmed Balad's infrastructure. The most severely wounded were transported to the aid station at Paliwoda. "Blood covered the floors," recalled Tickal, the medic for Combat Blue. "People were screaming. Helicopters were circling, waiting to get the people out. I remember seeing one guy's arm. It was peeled like a glove. I stapled one guy's scalp back together. There was one woman, we were just waiting for her to pass. She looked like she was pregnant, but she wasn't. Her stomach had expanded from all the internal bleeding. Around 1 a.m. I walked away and I was thinking in my head, 'I don't want to ever experience that again.' "

Combat Blue was depleted. Hagood and Young had been sent back to the United States for rehabilitation. Tickal and a popular squad leader, Sgt. Rob Hammer, 32, of Sublette, Kan., were scheduled to go on home leave.

At the beginning of October, the battalion had three months left in Iraq. Baker shuffled Humvee assignments. He transferred Rosario, the 20-year-old gunner who had pulled Hagood and Young from the bombed Humvee, into his own vehicle. Rosario was the platoon's youngest soldier. "I wanted him close to me," Baker said.

Nahvi replaced Tickal. After starting the year with Combat Blue, Nahvi had been moved to another company in a reshuffling, but he was still popular in the platoon. Good-humored and curious, he practiced the Arabic alphabet in his journal and filled his room with books: "The Kite Runner," by Khaled Hosseini, "Naked Pictures of Famous People," by Jon Stewart, "Sympathy for the Devil," a Vietnam novel by Kent Anderson whose protagonist enlists while still in law school.

Nahvi had joined the army in 2003, months after attending a Dallas peace march. In one of the contradictions he seemed to embrace, he opposed the war but requested an assignment in Iraq, according to his younger sister, Nina. Nahvi had partied himself out of three Texas universities, much to the chagrin of his parents, Samad, an Iranian American civil engineer, and Nancy, but when he told them he had joined the military, they begged him to reconsider.

When begging failed, they tried to bribe him.

How much would it take, Nancy asked?

"Millions," Nahvi replied gleefully. "It would take millions."

"He never really gave us a reason," Nina Nahvi said. "He was like, 'There are many reasons.' I know he joined because he thought it would help him concentrate on stuff. He could never concentrate on school or on a job. He learned more discipline and it was going to help him pay for college and get rid of some debt he had at the time."

The army seemed to fulfill Nahvi's hunger for adventure, his quest for the higher purpose that had eluded him in college. "He grew in the military," Nina said. The last time she saw her brother, he reluctantly showed her a notation he had entered into his computer.

"Everything in my life is finally evening out," Nahvi wrote. "Everything is good. Is this what God does to people before they die?"

‘Partners in Peace’

On the night of Oct. 19, Baker was sitting in his room at Paliwoda, smoking a Black & Mild before a patrol. He looked out into the courtyard, where the men of Combat Blue were silently loading the Humvees with extra boxes of ammunition, ice for the coolers and bottles of water, Red Bull and Gatorade.

The platoon mounted up. Baker normally drove. It made him feel more in control and helped keep him awake, but for reasons he can no longer recall he turned over the wheel to Sgt. Arthur A. Mora Jr., 23, of Pico Rivera, Calif.

The Humvees rolled out the front gate, past a weather-beaten sign that displayed the American and Iraqi flags and read: "Partners in Peace, Balad, Iraq."

The first 20 minutes were uneventful. Baker sat next to Mora in the front passenger seat. Nahvi sat directly behind the driver in the rear. Rosario was in the gunner's turret in the middle of the vehicle.

The platoon traveled without headlights for stealth. The soldiers used night-vision goggles, the three-inch lenses protruding awkwardly from their heads. It was past curfew; there were no other vehicles on the road. The men bantered over the radio to stay alert. Baker noticed that on this night it was eerily quiet.

"Then the truck blew up," he said.

Baker felt instantly that he was on fire, he recalled. Flames erupted through the floorboard. They licked his uniform, his armored vest, his helmet. He turned to open the door and smashed his goggles against the window, breaking his nose. Somehow he opened the door and tumbled out. "I felt myself moving through fire, like it was trailing off me," he said. "I took my flak vest off and rolled into a ditch. When I lay down on my back I couldn't move no more, because my legs and my butt was burning too bad. And as I was laying there, I kept looking over my shoulder. I was looking at the truck burn."

The Humvee was engulfed in flames. Explosives experts later determined that the bomb had consisted of three artillery rounds "daisy-chained" together. It had detonated directly beneath the vehicle. Baker said he believed it exploded near the left side and that, as the only soldier seated on the right, he had been saved by those extra couple of feet.

Nahvi, Rosario and Mora were still inside the Humvee. Baker knew immediately that they were dead.

He ran his hands over his body. He had second-degree burns up the back of his legs, his buttocks, his lower back, his right hand and his face.

"Thank you Jesus," Baker muttered as he lay in the ditch. "Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus."

Redbud saplings and headstones

On Nov. 17, with barren branches swaying in the cold wind, 26 Eastern redbud saplings stood on a wide, green lawn next to a golf course at Fort Stewart. Each tree represented a 3rdInfantry Division soldier recently killed in Iraq.

A sidewalk ran between the two lines of newly planted saplings. Next to each tree, swatches of desert camouflage were placed atop small headstones. On each piece of fabric was sewn the dead soldier's last name and his rank insignia.

The soldiers' relatives sat beneath a blue-and-white-striped tent. A dozen Vietnam vets from the 5th Battalion huddled on metal bleachers. After the names of the soldiers were called out, one by one, the mourners approached the saplings.

The trees for Nahvi, Mora and Rosario had been planted next to each other. Nancy Nahvi, her light brown hair falling over her black dress, embraced Mora's mother, Sylvia.

After she returned home, the military returned Nahvi's possessions in two trunks, including his books, his clothes and his journal. Inside was a letter to be read in the event of his death. "You can still do something," Nahvi had written to his family and friends. "Make ME the catalyst for your own personal conquest. I would feel useful then."

Down the road from Fort Stewart, in a quiet subdivision later in the day of the ceremony, Baker sat at home, watching sitcoms.

He rarely went outside because doctors had told him to stay out of the sun. He wore a white-cloth glove to cover the burns on his right hand, which had bleached his dark skin.

The doctors had given Baker a painkiller, Percocet, but he was concerned about getting addicted and didn't like the side effects. "I just started drinking beer," he said, holding a bottle. "I just try to stay drunk, really. It doesn't hurt to move, but I always know sooner or later I'm gonna have to get in the shower and re-dress it."

Once he recovers, Baker said, he and Latisa plan to move to Louisiana to be closer to his family. Ultimately, he said, he wants to work with troubled teenagers and open a blues club where his family could play. He said he intended to stay in touch with the families of Nahvi, Rosario and Mora for the rest of his life.

"Apparently it ain't my time yet to die," he said.

In Balad, Tickal returned from home leave. For days, people told him how lucky he had been, how it should have been him in the Humvee, not Nahvi.

"I don't think of it as luck. I can't," he wrote in an e-mail. "I feel kind of sorry. Ya know. I miss my 'brothers.' "

Combat Blue no longer existed, Tickal wrote. There were no longer enough soldiers to patrol as a platoon.