Stress and Pain in Iraq: 'My Guys. All Shot Up'

By Steele, Dennis | Army, September 2004 | Go to article overview
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Stress and Pain in Iraq: 'My Guys. All Shot Up'


Steele, Dennis, Army


On the the afternoon of April 4, Task Force Lancer-formed around the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 1st Cavalry Division-officially assumed responsibility for Sadr City, the poorest and filthiest section of Baghdad. By nightfall, it would be the deadliest.

Survivors call that day "Black Sunday."

Ambushes erupted before 5 P.M. and continued into the night, killing seven task force members, four of them from Company A, 2-5 Cavalry. (A fifth soldiet from the company was killed soon thereafter.) Alpha Company also suffered 38 of the 52 soldiers from TF Lancer wounded in action (WIA) on April 4. In the span of a couple of hours, A/2-5 Cavalry became the hardest hit company in the 1st Cavalry Division, and First Platoon sergeant SFC Reginald Butler found himself with the hardest hit platoon in the company. He began the day with 37 men; 20 were still standing that night.

"I was living my worst nightmare, and I've been trying to wake up from it since," he said. "But I don't think that's going to happen any time soon."

It was the expression in SFC Butler's eyes that told how bad it had been and still was several weeks later. His unit's first month in Iraq had been hard and bloody from the getgo, and his eyes showed weariness and pain when he talked about it. Recalling events, he seemed to reach into a locked-up place within himself, one that few other than those who have experienced the intimacy of small-unit combat leadership can fathom: a place of heavy responsibility and deep sorrow. He had lost soldiers.

I met SFC Butler at the end of April soon after I hooked up with A/2-5 Cavalry to be embedded media with the company. When I walked into Alpha Company's barracks on Forward Operating Base (FOB) War Eagle, a three-high stack of duffel bags lined the hallway outside the command post.

"We're shipping those to the WIAs who probably won't be coming back," the admin NCO explained. "The stuff belonging to the KIAs (killed in action) has already gone back."

The 1st BCT command sergeant major, CSM Stanley Small, told me that I should go with A/2-5 "because they've had it pretty rough, and people need to know what it's like on this side of the river."

He was talking about Baghdad east of the Tigris-one bridge and a few miles from the relative safety of the Green Zone, the fortified and insulated area where the then-Coalition Provisional Authority had its headquarters.

"Somebody will call me and ask for details about 'the contact' we had over here the night before," CSM Small said. "THE contact?" he continued. " I have to keep asking, 'Which contact?' We might have had 15, 20 or 25 contacts that night. They just don't know how things are over here."

Like the rest of TF Lancer, Alpha Company had been in a fight almost every day for nearly a month since Black Sunday with little rest and no respite.

FOB War Eagle sits on the edge of Sadr City, so even a normal presence patrol, civil-assistance mission or supply run could get smacked by an ambush or an improvised explosive device two minutes outside the gate.

"War Eagle? There isn't any more War Eagle. They shot that eagle a long time ago," said PFC Erick Trevino from Company B, 1st Battalion 12th Cavalry, another TF Lancer element. "It's only war now."

Night missions practically guaranteed skirmishes. U.S. soldiers pretty much presented themselves as bait to draw out enemy fighters so they could leverage their night-vision advantage and engage small bands of the Mahdi army from their M2A3 Bradley fighting vehicles, which were rigged with reactive armor. It was more or less movement to contact tactics, except that much of the time there was no movement involved. Soldiers parked their Bradleys, scanned with thermal sights and waited. Sooner or later, the Mahdi army would come to them.

"You'll see a bunch of guys on the thermals coming toward you with weapons slung on their shoulders," a soldier said.

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