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Surviving Iraq: A US Army grunt’s tale

Spc. Brian Hunsuck is the boy next door on the front lines: He lost a friend, nearly lost a leg, and still acts like Beaver Cleaver.

By Correspondent / March 25, 2009

On patrol: Army Spc. Brian Hunsuck is a veteran of two tours in Iraq. He lost a friend to a roadside bomb and nearly lost a leg in another bomb blast.

Tom A. Peter


Tom A. Peter spent a cumulative eight months during three embeds with the US Army’s 1-68 Combined Arms Battalion in Iraq between 2006 and 2008. He drew from his notebooks to profile a soldier he won’t forget.

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Driving through Baghdad on a patrol, US Army Spc. Brian Hunsuck and his crew scan side streets for insurgents and any unusual activities. As the driver peers across Specialist Hunsuck in the truck commander’s seat, he gets a whiff of something strange punctuating the stale Humvee air: cherries.

“What the ... ?” sniffs the befuddled driver, Pfc. David Wulff, who’s more used to the scent of diesel exhaust, burning trash, or sewage on his neighborhood prowls.

Private Wulff looks over at Hunsuck just in time to see him finish dabbing on a cherry lip-gloss that Wulff initially thinks may have sparkles.

Unashamed, Hunsuck explains: “Someone sent me this chap stick [in a care package], so I may as well use it.”

With his goofy Beaver Cleaver idiosyncrasies and his Boy Scout-like goodness, Hunsuck is all at once the most typical and atypical soldier one can expect to find on the American front lines. He joined the military straight out of high school not out of patriotism or even to “be all that he could be.” Largely he did it to get out of the house – knowing full well he’d probably be shipped to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Hunsuck is one of the tens of thousands of stereotypical kids next door who spent their first years outside the house on the front lines instead of a college campus. Now with all manner of harrowing and humorous war stories under his belt at the end of his second tour, his time in the Army is almost up. He’s preparing to start a normal life.

• • •

Hunsuck, a sci-fi fanatic and antique gun collector, arrived in Iraq still a teenager in early 2006 as violence was rising. His first post was in the rural Diyala Province north of Baghdad, which, as Al Qaeda in Iraq gained control, was becoming the main battlefield in the civil war.

Within a month, his Humvee struck a roadside bomb, injuring both him and the vehicle commander. Hunsuck remembers little from the event. But a fellow soldier coming to his aid was surprised that Hunsuck had the presence of mind to calmly help him cut off his seatbelt. Hunsuck’s wounds looked so bad, a medic later said, that he thought Hunsuck would lose his leg below the knee. But the shrapnel damage looked worse than it was – and Hunsuck made a full recovery without even leaving Iraq.

Hunsuck bounced back to the front where – in more macabre good fortune – he would become something of an accidental hero.

While on patrol through the countryside, Hunsuck’s Humvee came upon a van that sped away when its driver spotted the Humvee coming. Suspicious, Hunsuck’s commander ordered him to fire a warning shot in front of the vehicle. As Hunsuck’s staccato burst pierced the air, the van came to an awkward halt.

The soldiers approached the van at the ready and saw the driver slumped over, dead. Hunsuck’s warning shot had ricocheted off the road and hit the driver. But in another unpredictable trajectory of Hunsuck’s tale, it turned out that the driver had kidnapped several men who were bound and gagged in the back of the van.

The unintentional master stroke landed Hunsuck in hot water: A lethal warning shot is, on its face, inappropriate escalation of force. He and his unit faced a comprehensive investigation, which ultimately cleared Hunsuck of wrongdoing. “Death by warning shot” became a running joke in his platoon.

At that time, Hunsuck was among only 15 percent of US soldiers in Iraq who knew for certain they’d killed someone. But his feelings weren’t transparent: He didn’t regret it, nor was he cold about it. It was just something that happened.