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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.

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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.

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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.”