Soldier going home calls Iraq “a quagmire”

A boom echoes through the Iraqi city of Ar Ramadi, bringing the men of Bravo Company out of their bunks. “Mortars!” yells one soldier, and the members of Third Squad, First Platoon – they call themselves the Ghost Squad – ride out into the night, looking for the attack’s source. Another blast rattles the city. “It hit the bridge,” reports Sp/4 Patrick McDonald, always as calm as Canada, where he was born. “A big shower of sparks.”

The radio crackles: sentries at a Bravo Company lookout post have spotted the attackers in the darkness on the opposite bank of the Euphrates. The squad’s two Humvees stop at a sheltered spot by the river, near the observation post. Everyone scans the far shore, some 400 yards distant, using night-vision goggles. “There they are,” says one of the men. “I count seven.”

The enemy shoots first. The muzzle flashes of their AK-47s, invisible to the naked eye, show as flaring eruptions of light in the goggles’ green view. The squad replies with M-16s and 50-caliber machine guns. Someone curses and shouts: “RPG!” The attackers have sent a rocket-propelled grenade whooshing over the Americans’ heads. McDonald fires back with an AT-4 antitank weapon, a rocket designed to spray shrapnel over a “kill radius” of 35 yards on impact. More gunfire, another AT-4. The smell of cordite mixes with the dank breeze from the river. After 15 minutes of fighting, the sentry post calls to say the attackers have fled. The squad is pumped. They won, and none of them is hurt. There’s no telling how many casualties the enemy took, but that’s expected. Sp/4 Robenson Jean, 23, fondles “Lucy,” his M240 machine gun. “Ghost Squad took care of it, man!” he crows. “You gotta love it – especially being a citizen soldier!”

Don’t call him a weekend warrior. Jean and his squad mates belong to the Florida National Guard – First Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, the 1-124th, for short. Their Iraqi “weekend” has lasted five months, and Monday keeps getting postponed. The 1-124th was originally scheduled to go home in July. Then October. Then December. The latest order says it’s March 11, 2004, nearly 15 months after the unit was called up in January of this year. “The National Guard has a harder time than the regular Army in this kind of deployment,” says the First Platoon’s leader, Sgt. 1/c William Sanchez, 33, a 14-year veteran of the regular Army. “A lot of guys have left their families at moment’s notice, their wives pregnant, newborn babies, new jobs, new houses.” Birthdays and graduations have come and gone; marriages have fallen apart. McDonald’s computer consulting firm has gone bankrupt in his absence. In August, Sanchez missed his own son’s birth.

The National Guard is carrying an unprecedented share of America’s military burden. Almost without notice, its responsibilities have shifted from handling occasional stateside emergencies like floods and hurricanes to serving lengthy tours on the world’s battlefields. The Pentagon says it has some 28,000 Reservists and Guard members in Iraq, and their work is far from over. They came from civilian jobs like police work and construction contracting – skills that are particularly needed for the reconstruction. But even when one of their successes gets mentioned in the press, Guard members complain, the credit goes to the regular military. Jean, Sanchez and McDonald are based in the bloodiest part of postwar Iraq: the Sunni Triangle. Of the First Battalion’s 510 members, 41 have qualified for Purple Hearts. Even so, it took months of struggling against the bureaucracy for Guard members to receive hazardous-duty pay, hostile-fire benefits and tax exemptions for serving in a combat zone. They can’t help resenting such treatment. “Out of 130,000 U.S. regular troops in this country, we do all the dirty work,” says Jean.

The others in Ghost Squad call Jean the “Last Haitian Hero.” The 6-foot-3 machine gunner was 9 when his mother took him to America, 14 years ago. When the Guard called him up, he was supporting himself as a security guard while studying for a degree in international business. Like many young Guard members, he had enlisted to get help paying for college. His grades weren’t good enough to win a scholarship. “In high school I kind of messed up,” he confesses.

He claims he’s not afraid to be in Iraq. “God is around me,” Jean declares. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I got your back. Just go out there, do the missions, it all be OK’.” Why is Jean in Iraq? He stands up straight and declares: “We’re doing something for the country. It’s fun trying to help the Iraqis.” His buddies hoot in derision: “How’s it gonna be when they try to kill you?” He shakes his head. “I don’t trust the hajis,” he says later, using the GI slang term for the locals. “If they do something I’ll pop one of them.”

Hostility thrives in a place like Ar Ramadi. It’s a guerrilla’s paradise of deserted factories, twisted alleyways and overgrown vacant lots on the banks of the Euphrates. When the Guardsmen first arrived, they gave the name RPG Alley to the winding asphalt road beside the river, in honor of the many ambushes they encountered there. These days they call it IED Alley, for the constant danger of “improvised explosive devices” – military jargon for roadside bombs. At first Bravo Company based itself downtown, at a government building they nicknamed “the Mayor’s Cell,” but one day in June a local protest march got out of hand.

Youngsters began tossing grenades into the compound, and locals with guns took potshots at the soldiers. The Americans hunkered down for hours, holding their fire while the attacks continued. They didn’t want to kill civilians, and TV cameramen from Al-Jazeera were filming it all, says McDonald, who was wounded twice by shrapnel that day. Finally the Americans shot back. They estimate that as many as 15 Iraqis were wounded and three were killed, but they can’t be sure. The retreating survivors took their casualties with them.

Soon afterward Bravo Company relocated to a sandstone palace once owned by Saddam Hussein on the edge of town. It’s safer but more isolated, making the job of winning hearts and minds that much harder. The rooms are jammed with black metal bunk beds, 20 or 30 to a room, amid a jumble of backpacks, clothes, cardboard boxes with U.S. postal stickers, machine guns, boots, plastic coolers. Each room has a chest freezer for cold drinks and at least one big TV. One popular videotape is a kind of home movie the men shot a few weeks ago after two Iraqis had blown themselves up trying to plant an IED on a local street. The camera slowly surveys the scene, panning from one severed body part to another. The consensus among viewers is that the bombers got what they deserved.

Practically every Bravo member seems to have a computer. With phones rarely available, e-mail keeps them in touch with their families. McDonald is the one who set up the Internet connection that makes it possible. In civilian life he runs a multimillion-dollar firm with a staff of 55, advising African clients on using their computers. He used to, anyway. The business fell apart without him. “You can’t manage a business that you can’t communicate with,” he says. “We simply lost everything.” The Guard gave him a hardship leave and was in the process of releasing him from active duty, but he wanted to stay in Iraq and help make it a better place. “I didn’t have orders, so it took me two weeks to come back,” he says. “I had to argue with the Air Force till they put me on a plane.”

Not everyone shares that sense of commitment. “I have no idea why we’re here,” says Sp/4 Jeremy Polston, 28, an insurance broker from Lake Worth. “During the day people wave and smile. But what’s to say that they’re not laying an IED 30 minutes later?” A former Marine and a self-described “Bush Republican,” he carries a piece of shrapnel in his leg from a recent bomb blast. Doctors couldn’t remove the metal because it’s too close to a vital artery. A sign hangs above his bunk: one weekend a month my a—! Nearby, Sp/4 Anthony Brzenski is packing. A sheriff in Palm Beach County, he’s heading home on leave – to finalize his divorce. He calls Iraq “a quagmire.” Isn’t he worried about getting in trouble for talking that way in public? He laughs. “What are they gonna do, send me to Iraq?”

Sergeant Sanchez appreciates his men’s frustration. He has served in the Rangers and the 82d Airborne and has seen his share of combat – the invasion of Panama, drug-interdiction missions in Latin America, the first gulf war. This assignment, he says, is more dangerous: “The enemy is invisible. He hits you and he runs and disappears into the ground.” All the same, Sanchez is proud of the Guard’s record in Iraq. Professional military units have begun requesting the battalion’s help because of its experience in urban warfare. Most recently, the 1-124th worked with Delta Force commandos and British Special Forces to capture a key member of Ansar Al-Islam, the Iraqi affiliate of Al Qaeda. A soldier from the British SAS died in the raid, but all the Guardsmen came back alive – and they were the ones who made the catch.

Half an hour after the fire fight by the river, Ghost Squad is called out again. Three Bravo members, returning to base from lookout duty, have been wounded by an IED. The squad finds the injured men getting first aid for shrapnel wounds in the parking lot of the city’s main hospital. Although the bomb went off barely 100 yards from the hospital’s entrance, the Iraqi police officers guarding the door seem not to have noticed anyone planting the explosives. Sanchez shoves past an Iraqi cop who strays into his path. “They were covering for their own,” says another frustrated soldier. “F— ’em. Kill ’em all.” The Guardsmen investigate the scene and search a nearby house but find no one. Sometimes Sanchez misses the early days, when the war seemed easier to understand. “When we first got here, it was black and white,” he says. “Now everything is gray.”

The sense of twilight keeps getting deeper. A few nights later, Sanchez’s platoon is in the village of Khaldiya, about 20 miles east of Ar Ramadi, helping the First Infantry Division run house-to-house searches. Intelligence reports say Baath loyalists are in the village, organizing anti-U.S. attacks. Polston is standing by when the Americans knock on one locked front door. Through a crack in the side of the unfinished house, he sees a bearded man inside holding an AK-47. Polston fires a three-round burst into the room from his squad automatic weapon, and the man falls. The man’s wife and two small children are screaming. “I shot him,” says Polston. “He had a weapon.” Medics are easing the wounded Iraqi onto a stretcher. “This is the fifth guy I’ve shot,” says Polston. “I did what I had to do.” He has protected his friends. Maybe they will all get home alive.

Courtesy Josh Kirby and