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

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    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.
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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.

Baghdad

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.

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“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.

During that first tour, Hunsuck shared a Humvee with Spc. Luis “Toast” Santos, who quickly became best “frenimes” with Hunsuck. Specialist Santos might tell Hunsuck, for example, that their sergeant wanted him to clean out the Humvee. Hunsuck worked for hours until he discovered that the order was only a practical joke. In something like a sibling rivalry, Hunsuck would usually strike back at Santos in like fashion. Still, the two spent hours together every day, on guard duty or eating a quick lunch between missions.

One night that summer of 2006, Hunsuck was left at base to stand guard while Santos and others from the platoon went to monitor a dangerous area. Back at base, Hunsuck was sitting on a roof with another private when the radio crackled the news of a KIA – killed in action.

They waited in the plasma-like darkness of the rural Iraq night for 15 minutes. The next awful crackle: Toast was dead.

Silence descended – filled with muffled anger, melancholy, and the unfairness of it all.

• • •

In a military seldom like the rigid, no-nonsense forces seen in film and TV, Hunsuck, a “Battle Star Gallactica” fan, is the type of smart aleck that appears in many units. He does his job, but not without giving feedback. Simply put: Hunsuck doesn’t like taking orders.

“I don’t like to be told to do something if it’s retarded. So I’ll tell [superiors] ‘no,’ and Army guys don’t like that. That’s ... why I’m not set for the military,” says Hunsuck, whose father was a career Air Force officer.

His negative feelings are magnified by “stop loss” – the policy of forcing extended active duty on soldiers to fill personnel shortages. Under his recruitment agreement, Hunsuck would have never come to Iraq a second time.

Preparing to go on a mission last summer, Hunsuck, commanding a Humvee, was annoyed at the unexpected weight that comes with leadership – the extra 5 or 10 pounds of radio gear.

Riding shotgun, Hunsuck and Wulff chatted. Wulff said a younger friend was considering joining the Army and he hoped to set him straight about the realities of being a grunt. Hunsuck agreed, sarcastically recalling the Army’s seduction: “You get to fire guns and stay in shape.”

“If that’s what you want: Buy a gun and go to the gym,” said Wulff.

Assigned to base security, the crew spent hours circling their urban outpost in Baghdad, monitoring an area the size of four city blocks, often searching for cryptic targets – a white car passing out poisoned food or a woman with a large dress concealing an explosives belt.

Like so many military chores, one of the hardest is passing the time. Hunsuck developed an elaborate code to classify donkey carts. Based on the popular flatbed Bongo truck brand, a donkey cart is a “Bongo 1,” a donkey cart pulled by a horse is a “Bongo 1 upgrade.”

Aside from scanning for threats, they scouted – like teens cruising Main – for attractive “westernized chicks.” In a city where many women aren’t veiled, there’s actually hope of glimpsing a girl in form-fitting clothing. Before missions, Hunsuck’s crew set a “truck number” for how many attractive girls they thought they’d encounter.

“If you go over the truck number you get bonus points, but it’s not like we hand out cookies or anything,” said Hunsuck.

“Actually, I’ve got cookies [back at base],” noted Wulff.

“So do I,” said Hunsuck.

“Should we start bringing out cookies?” asked Wulff. It would go on for hours.

One girl, who was about Hunsuck’s age, managed to occupy his heart. When he led the convoy, he made certain to patrol her street, but because they spent most of the patrol driving, stopping only to pass out fliers or investigate something suspicious, Hunsuck’s “relationship” with his “girlfriend,” as he called her, was the equivalent of a junior-high crush; smiling, waving, never speaking. Hunsuck admitted that she waved at every passing US patrol, but said “she won’t be all happy until she sees me.”

When he returned to the US last month, he had 90 days to process out of the Army. He planned to return to civilian life. Though he’s not sure what he wants to do, he has a friend who is a prison guard who might be able to help with a job. He’s also considering police work.

“The military is a lot of what I am now. It’s a good start for life, because they give so much. And then,” says Hunsuck, his left bicep tattooed with a piece of angel-winged toast in honor of Toast, “they also take so much.”

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