On the eve of their return to the front lines south of Baghdad, soldiers with the 3rd Infantry Division's battle-hardened 3-7th Cavalry Squadron ate a hot meal, loaded up fresh supplies and ammunition, and mapped out their next mission.
In breaks from their work, they shared their feelings about being in combat - most for the first time - and the images and moments in Iraq that have changed their lives. From a troop commander to a fuel-truck driver, they spoke of their families, their faith, and their will to survive in what for many is an utterly strange, desperate, and hostile land.
Staff Sgt. Charles Kilgore from Fayetteville, N.C., is a tank commander in 3-7th's Bonecrusher Troop. His M1A1 tank was destroyed in a firefight near the city of Najaf last week. Treated for smoke inhalation, he is back with his troop trying on a new chemical protective suit because his old one burned in battle.
"It was really hard for us to see, so the first indication I had that anything happened was the splashes of sparks from metal hitting metal. I was standing up in the hatch, so I bailed and scrambled inside as fast as I could. I heard the panels blowing off the tank and the ammo cooking off. I tried to shut the hatch all the way but I couldn't, and fire came shooting in and my sleeve caught on fire. The tank started to fill with smoke, and we were all scared and yelling. My helmet cord came undone, so I had to scream to everyone to shut up and get down. Suddenly, we all calmed down at once. After the ammo burned off, I cracked the hatch and looked out.
"It was very strange. The sky was red and hazy, and it was quiet. We were in a perfect bubble of calm. It was like the battle had just passed by us. Later I found out everyone thought we were dead.
"I'm less confident now, and certainly less complacent. This is a crapshoot. A guy can pop up with an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] and hit you from a foxhole 20 meters away. We weren't expecting these people to fight this hard. We underestimated them really badly."
Staff Sgt. Jim Mahan, from Iowa, La., was called in from Fort Knox to fill a shortage in 3rd Infantry Division ranks. He still had jet lag when he joined the Bonecrusher unit on March 20, only hours before the cavalry squadron crossed the Kuwaiti border. He was put on a 14-hour resupply mission, to provide security for Black Hawk helicopters that flew North into Iraq to refuel the 3-7th's Kiowa scouts. Soon afterward, he found himself stranded in enemy territory.
"It was called a 'wet hawk' mission, referring to the fuel on the Black Hawks. After the refueling, the Black Hawk pilots decided we needed to get off, and left us there. I don't know why. There were four Kiowas there from Demon Troop, but they only have two seats and had no room for us. The pilots gave us food and water and radioed for transportation. They found some ADA [air defense artillery] guys to give us a ride, and we rode with them for a day until their Linebacker vehicles broke down. They decided to wait until someone found them.
"I didn't feel that was safe because there were all these Iraqis driving around in trucks. So myself and my three guys left and started walking. We walked mostly at night, staying back from the road. We came close to Iraqi fighters, but we didn't engage them because we were afraid of being overwhelmed. We ran out of food and water, until we found some bottles from a pallet that had fallen off a truck. Finally, we got a ride with a company from the 101st Airborne Division. We caught up with the 3-7th after seven days, and I found out I was listed as MIA [missing in action]. It was pretty wild. We decided we are going to write a book called 'Wet Hawk Gone.'
"For me, it was a serious wake-up call. You have to pay attention all the time. I don't take anything for granted anymore. You think, you pull the trigger and the gun will go off. You get on a helicopter and it will drop you at the right spot. I don't even take eating and drinking for granted."
Maj. Brad Gavle is in charge of operations for the 3-7th Cavalry. A Gulf War veteran, he's from Decorah, Iowa. His wife is an intelligence officer and is also deployed. He misses his four-year-old daughter, who is being cared for by his sister-in-law. He's sitting in the 3-7th's tactical operations center, which is bustling with officers combing over maps. He holds a cup and in between sentences spits in the juice from his chewing tobacco.
"My goal is to get my soldiers home safe and to see my little girl and become a family again. When I talk to my daughter, I tell her I am in the 'field.' She understands 'field.' She loves Scooby-doo. The other day I was talking with her on the phone. 'Guess what we named our Bradley?'
I said. 'You mean your little tank, Bradley?' she asked.
'Yes. We named it Scooby-doo.'
'Daddy, Scooby-doo is not a good name for a Bradley!' "
Staff Sgt. Larry Hill works with the 123rd Signal Battalion. He's from Atlanta, and has two young sons. His wife is expecting a baby girl in June. He was told he would never see combat, but has spent the last several days fighting through ambushes with the 3-7th. He sits in his communications van working on a radio handset while we talk.
"We almost died out there and now we have to go back [into battle]. I'm thinking, I might not see my wife and kids anymore. It has me writing 'if-I-don't-make-it' letters.
"I have a more personal relationship with God now. I've been talking with Him every day and thinking about the afterlife. If I kill somebody, will God shun me, or embrace me? Is God behind this war?"
Pfc. Jeremiah Stoppel is a fuel truck driver with Alpha Co. 703rd Battalion. His supply convoy lost vehicles to enemy fire as it followed the 3-7th into battle. A Lutheran, he is from Lincoln, Neb. He stands near the cab of his truck, rubs his coarsely sheared hair and looks down as he speaks.
"I was very unclear on whether this war was necessary, and how it would square with my faith.
"During the thickest part of the fighting the other day, I was regretting my decision to join the Army. Saddam's radio station was broadcasting that we were going to commit genocide, and here we were killing all these people. But then it started raining, just a few drops. I felt like the Holy Spirit was touching me and letting me know it was all right."
Capt. James Schwartz commands the Alpha Company of the 1-9 Field Artillery. Images that stick in his mind are of Iraqi children begging for food, and civilians caught in crossfire.
"It made me mad that the enemy posted themselves so close to civilians. They were using people's houses as hideouts and not caring whether or not we shot them. I was sitting in a rice paddy two kilometers from where Bonecrusher Troop got attacked, and the farmers were shouting at me 'I got wife and kids! I got wife and kids!' So I shot my artillery and left because once my position was compromised, civilians would be caught up in it. We are not here to hurt civilians."
Capt. Gary O'Sullivan is the commander of 3-7th's Bonecrusher Troop, which has just encountered some of the war's heaviest fighting. It was the first time he saw combat. Born in Jamaica, he considers Miami, Fla., home. He has two children, a 12-year-old son, Brendan, and a 7-year-old daughter, Krysten.
"After being in constant contact for three to four days, that was a low point. I had barely eaten anything, just a piece of an MRE here and there, and didn't eat at all was getting dehydrated. We were spent, drained. A little rest has done us good. Now we're getting the word to go, so everyone inside is getting ready to go back into it. We know we are in it 'til the end. We're killing a lot of people, but they are trying to kill us, so we're in that mindset already. I think of my family, but I can't dwell on them. I can't get distracted and take my mind off what I'm doing. I want to complete the mission and bring all the soldiers back, and whether that's possible or feasible I don't know."
Sgt. Lonnie Shumate is shaved bald and wears black-rimmed glasses with a strap tight around his head. He's a 3-7th soldier who rides in a "soft-skinned" Humvee, which is easy to penetrate by small arms fire. Standing outside a tent under a star-strewn sky, he speaks of a frightening standstill during a battle and his personal survival strategies.
"It was weird. One day there was a sandstorm.... I thought it was the end of the world. You could close your eyes or open them and it looked black just the same. You could hear artillery in the background and Arab music. We were on our way to an attack position and just had to sit there. I felt helpless. I was in a soft Humvee with no protection and our night vision goggles didn't work. I was praying it would get daylight quick.
"Now, whenever I ride in the Humvee, I sit with my body twisted so if I do get hit the round will go into the rifle plate....We put sandbags on the floor so our feet won't get blown off. Then you squish your neck down into the collar of your frag vest so less of you is exposed. A lot of people are joking now, but I know they are nervous about going forward."
Pfc. Ryan Koeth of Columbus, Ohio, is a fuel-truck driver with the Alpha Company, 703rd Battalion. "You wake up some mornings and you're proud as hell of being in the Army, and the other days you just want to zip up your sleeping bag and dream that you're back in Ohio."
Sgt. First Class Robert Daniels works with the military intelligence staff of the 3-7th Cavalry. He has been in the Army for 21 years, and was a tank commander in the 1991 Gulf War. He plans to retire and move to Houston if the Army lifts "stop-loss" restrictions that are blocking some personnel from departing the service. He has a son in college.
"I'd rather be here than [have] my son [here]. At least I know he's safe. Hopefully we'll get it done right this time so no one has to come back. But I think we've lost momentum. Basically, we outran our supply and logistics, the same way it happened in Desert Storm. So it will probably give the Iraqis some time to get better prepared. I wish we'd get moving because the longer we're here, soldiers start doing crazy things like playing with their guns. They lose focus and start letting their guard down. I think we underestimated his [Saddam Hussein's] grip on the society."
SPC Stephen Cunningham is a young crew chief with the Cavalry's Eagle Troop. A self-described "military brat," he's from Los Angeles. Tall and gangly, he is doing maintenance on a scout helicopter named Enigma. "My biggest eye-opener was when our back was to the Euphrates and the friendly mortars were landing really close. That made me realize I may not go home. My wife is pregnant now, and I don't like being away. I enjoy being in the military, but I'm going to see how I react to my baby before I decide to reenlist.
"I've aged a lot."