When Mom Is Over There

By: Grey Eagle | 05 Mar 06

Female SoldierA Family Learns to Stay the Course and Prays for a Safe Return From Iraq

I am driving a hulking Expedition with a yellow ribbon on the bumper that says “Support Our Troops.” In the grocery store parking lot, a man nods at me. I’m walking to the shopping carts when it hits me. He thinks I’m a kindred spirit in a country that is losing its nerve. I should turn back and tell him that the truck isn’t mine, to clear up his misconception, but I don’t.

For one week I find myself pulled into the war effort. I am in Florida to help my brother juggle single parenthood while his wife is serving in Iraq. Jim lives in a cul-de-sac community outside Tampa where the garage doors flip up every night at 6 and swallow incoming cars. His girls are 10 and 9. We spend the week eating Cocoa Pebbles and watching “The Incredibles.” We hold dance parties in a bedroom where the stuffed animals are giving way to dreamy teen idol posters. We go to the mall and to the dentist. One night while I make dinner, the girls ride bikes outside in the waning winter dusk. It is a relief to be away from Washington, where politicians in marble hallways proclaim righteousness though they have never carried a canteen. Here in this linoleum kitchen, there is just a crayon calendar on the refrigerator marking the days until Mama comes home.

The yellow ribbon on the truck is the most outward sign of where this family stands on the war. And, of course, the quiet absence of Master Sgt. Angela Hull from the house.

In a breathless choreography of necessity, my brother cooks, cleans, folds mountains of laundry, carpools, grocery-shops, works full time as a technical writer for a defense contractor and tries to distract his daughters with amusing weekend activities like Celebration Station. He is trying to distract himself as much as the girls. “Worrying is not productive,” he says. Normally, I would tease him about such a statement. I would make a case for worry and why it’s only human. But I don’t dare now. I am too in awe of his composure. One morning I go into his bedroom closet to get the laundry and I’m greeted by the scent of Angela’s perfume, still on her clothes. I touch her blouses. How does he do it?

Angela is chief controller of the air-traffic control tower at Kirkuk Regional Air Base in northern Iraq. She did not graduate from the Air Force Academy or come from a long line of military heroes. Angela was 22 and working at the Stouffer’s frozen-food factory in her home town of Gaffney, S.C., in 1987 when she rebelled against the smallness of her life and joined the Air Force. She advanced the slow, hard way, from refueling aircraft at 30,000 feet to learning air-traffic control to commanding towers. In Kirkuk, she supervises 10 controllers in the base tower while serving as first sergeant to a squadron of 48.

Angela never uses the macho language of war or the slogans favored by those who took us there. She works 16 hours a day, six days a week and sleeps in a pod. In a photo she sent home, I can see her office and a chalkboard where someone in her unit has written, “Sgt. Hull, take a day off!” She earns $54,000 a year.

I don’t know where Angela stands on the war because we never talk about it. I remember once when Jim, Angela and the girls came to visit me in Washington not long after the United States invaded Iraq. It was a cold spring weekend, wet and gray, but we were excited tourists. We walked down to the White House to take pictures. Crossing through Lafayette Square, we came upon an antiwar protest. There were people shouting and jabbing signs in the air, and one of the sticks hit my niece, frightening her. I was furious at the protester, at the carelessness of his selfish passion. My brother, who is 6 feet 6 inches tall, wanted to slug the guy. Angela — calm and strong Angela — simply rounded us up and moved us along.

* * *

Jim says it’s good to keep a routine. The week of my visit, the holiday lights blink in the darkened Florida balm. Palm fronds brush against the plastic snowmen and wise men propped up in the cool night grass. At the kitchen table, my nieces dream up Christmas lists to e-mail to their mother, as if she will trudge out into the sands of Iraq and find a Wal-Mart.

Jourdan is 10 and long-legged. My brother seems not to notice that she is wearing cocktail outfits to school. Jourdan is spending hours in front of the mirror, hypnotized by her own reflection as Hilary Duff and Kelly Clarkson channel messages to her at ear-shattering decibels.

In the bedroom next door, childhood still reigns supreme. Chrislyn is barely 9 and a devout fan of SpongeBob and teddy bears that she names Zack and Champ. Chrislyn is as earnest and innocent as Jourdan is sophisticated and enterprising.

When Angela received her orders for Iraq last spring, my brother boiled down the situation this way: “There are bad people over there trying to hurt Americans and Iraqis,” he said. “Mommy has special gear that keeps her safe.” The girls were accustomed to Angela leaving for short stints but they knew this was different. In the way that children often seize on a grain of sand, they fixated on Angela’s living quarters. “Will you sleep in a hard tent?” Chrislyn asked, her blue eyes clouded by worry. Angela promised that she would be sleeping in a very hard tent. On the morning of her departure, the girls went to school and Angela went to Iraq.

Routines. We wake at 6 each morning, eat our breakfast and get ready for school. Usually my brother drops the kids on his way to work but now I do it, watching the girls’ colorful backpacks disappear in the sea of others. I ride around town in the truck with the yellow ribbon on the bumper. Jim says to check out the YMCA, a sprawling new facility for the sprawling new communities devouring the pastures. A woman on a stair climber is reading a book titled “What Would Jesus Eat?” We discuss Biblical dining habits and then I tell her that I’m from Washington. “State or D.C.?” she asks. A look of pity crosses her face. Quickly, I volunteer that I’m visiting my brother, whose wife is in Iraq. This wins her back.

All week, strange moments of charade occur. A neighbor across the street is waxing his car when he sees me coming out of the house. “Welcome home,” he says, waving his cloth in the air. He has mistaken me for Angela. I’m just the sister, I say. I wonder if Angela’s homecoming will be like this — a friendly neighbor welcoming her back as if she’s been away at a conference.

Her absence is banal and profound. She maintains a phantom presence over her motherless house. E-mails and digital photos zip back and forth. In one of the photos, Angela notices a lump on Jourdan’s forehead. She and my brother discuss the lump, and it’s decided that Jourdan needs to see a pediatrician.

On the morning of the appointment, my brother gulps down cereal while CNN reports that 10 Marines were killed outside Fallujah, blown up by a homemade explosive. Jim curses and says the insurgents are picking away at us with bombs set off with 25-cent oven timers. He lets the dog out. Pop-Tarts are toasting in the toaster. The first Hilary Duff song of the day is playing in a bedroom. I look at the TV, relieved not to hear the word Kirkuk.

Of all the postings Angela could have received, Kirkuk was among the least dangerous, but lately things have gotten testier. (”Sportier,” as Angela says.) The 101st Airborne Assault Division arrived at the base in October and has been deftly thwarting rocket attacks ever since. For safety reasons, Angela has yet to venture off base. Explosions rumble the furniture in her office. I wonder what worries her most today — the explosions or a small, shiny lump on the forehead of her 10-year-old.

I take Jourdan to the pediatrician’s office. She sits on crinkly white paper in an exam room. A nurse practitioner named Miss Yvonne looks at the lump. Using a rubber hammer, she checks Jourdan’s reflexes and then turns on a penlight and tells Jourdan to follow the beam with her eyes. “Tell me about these headaches you’ve been having,” Miss Yvonne says.

“I think they’re because I don’t drink enough water, and I am growing at a really fast rate,” Jourdan answers. Miss Yvonne finishes her exam. She doesn’t think there is anything to worry about. The minute I’m outside the office, I call my brother at work, and I can hear him typing an e-mail to Angela as we speak.

It’s mid-morning and we are late for school. We decide to stop at a convenience store on U.S. 301. We are not sticking to the routine. We go inside and peruse glossy teen magazines and the selection of snack cakes. The packaging is in Spanish because of all the Mexicans and Guatemalans who pick strawberries and tomatoes in the fields nearby. I share the sociology lesson with my niece. “Oh,” she replies, feigning interest. She picks up a double-pack of coconut creme-filled snowballs. Next, a big Coke, her eyes wandering to meet mine as she reaches inside the cooler. Her mom’s at war. What the hell.

School is an L-shaped set of flat buildings shaded by oaks. The office is in front. Jourdan and I stand there in the bright fluorescence with our sugar-crusted mouths. “See you at 3:30,” I say.

* * *

My brother is three years younger than me. He watches NASCAR and trades barbecue tips with someone on the Internet named Jurassic Pork. He washes the truck and cuts the grass on Saturday afternoons. Order is very important, which is funny, because as a boy he was gangly and calamitous, with an uncombed thicket of blond hair. Once he slipped from a boardwalk into a swamp full of alligators. Another time, he lit the gas stove and, whoosh, he had two charred haystacks for eyebrows.

We grew up in rural central Florida, when flocks of white birds would fill the sky as they left the backs of cattle that stood in soggy pastures. Our father worked in citrus. He couldn’t keep a job. After our mother decided to leave with us, I remember being so broke that we ate meat only once a week — Sunday — but what Jim remembers is how delicious Sunday dinners were, and that would be the difference between us our entire lives.

At 19, he joined the Air Force and saw the world, and now he is back beneath the dripping Spanish moss that shrouded our childhoods. His house is in a subdivision near the Alafia River in eastern Hillsborough County. The river is tannic and winding and beautiful but surrounded by subdivisions that keep hatching and expanding, beige on beige. One day I’m returning home with the girls and I pull into what I believe is our driveway. My nieces inform me that their house is in fact three doors down. “Do these houses all look alike?” I ask.

“Our light is different,” my younger niece says.

My brother loves the stability and sameness of these communities, a clue that he has not forgotten everything from our childhood. In Oklahoma they lived on Altus Air Force Base in a windswept brick ranch house with brown carpet, and every night an anemic bugle would sound taps over loudspeakers. During a bad plains drought, my brother torched his and a neighbor’s lawns during a barbecue mishap. Three Halloweens ago in Virginia, in a neighborhood of Special Forces, Navy and Air Force members, I remember all the children flying around the cul-de-sac in vampire and Shrek costumes as their dads prepared for the invasion of Iraq. The night was starry and perfect, for these children.

Now, Angela is there. Patience, President Bush says on the news, patience. Stay the course. His twin daughters are about the same age that Angela was when she was working at the Stouffer’s frozen-food factory and decided to enlist because good jobs were scarce in Gaffney, S.C. Now, Angela is high in a tower over the northern desert of Iraq, watching the red trails of rockets flare off in the distance. Patience, Angela, patience.

It is nearly bedtime. My brother turns off the TV. The sliding glass door is open and he pulls it closed, the small click of a lock echoing between us. One last time for the night, he goes to the computer to see if there is any news from Angela.

* * *

“Hey, baby,” my brother shouts into the phone on my last Saturday afternoon. Knowing it’s their mother, the girls come running.

“Mama,” Chrislyn says, “I got a new bear.”

Jourdan shares with her mother a dark tale from “Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul.” It has come to Angela’s attention, through more digital photos, that Jourdan is wearing blue eye shadow to school, and a mother-daughter conversation follows.

My brother gets back on the line, and the kids start arguing. He cups his hand over the phone and yells at them sharply, drawing a rebuke from Angela.

“Dammit, Ang,” Jim says, “I’m here with them 24-7 and you’re in the peace and quiet.”

We have to laugh at that one.

We decide to take a walk on the nature trail around the subdivision. Frogs grunt from the sludge of the creek, like kettledrums sounding off from the depths of the soupy algae. Jim tells the girls to stay on the paved trail. I whisper to him, “When we were kids, we played hopscotch over rattlesnake nests.”

The sky is obscured by palms and oaks; it feels as if we are alone in Florida’s last forest, until we hear the rush of the nearby interstate, cleverly hidden by landscaping. The girls race ahead. I have told them to bring their swimming suits. The subdivision has a pool, and though it is unheated, the gate is unlocked. We change into our suits. No one is saying the obvious, that the water is cold and that Angela would never allow this. But Angela is not here. We leap into the pool, cannonballs and jackknives. With chattering teeth, we make a pact never to tell Angela we went swimming in December.

We are warm and dry by the time we eat dinner. The girls sit at the kitchen table to write letters to their mother. Chrislyn picks up a pencil and stares out the window. A dreamer and sensitive soul, like her father when he was a boy. She looks down at her blank paper and begins. Dear Mom : If you read this carefully, you might actually hear my voice.

Since the war began I have read the U.S. casualty lists published in newspapers. When the photos of the dead are published in newspapers, I study the faces that are laid out like yearbook photos filling the pages of an endless year. Every picture has its own story but no future. The brim of an olive cap shields the impish eyes of a young Marine, now gone. Why do the names of their home towns seem so poetic? Mineral Bluff, Ga. Spooner, Wis. Angelina, Tex. Mechanicsville, Iowa. Zanesville, Ohio. Evening Shade, Ark. Valentine, Neb. When I see these photos, I imagine the knock on the door.

My brother never reads these lists. He never looks at the photos. Seeking out memorials is for those of us who live around the edges. Instead, Jim stands over his girls as they say their bedtime prayers, the same singsong prayers they have repeated since they could talk, about grandmas, papas, Todd their cat and baby Jesus, with one new addendum to their pajama pleadings. “Please keep Mama safe.”

By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 8, 2006


By: Grey Eagle | 05 Mar 06

Capt. Sarah PiroBuzzing over this northern Iraqi city in her Kiowa scout helicopter, a .50-caliber machine gun and rockets at the ready, Capt. Sarah Piro has proved so skillful in combat missions to support U.S. ground troops that she’s earned the nickname “Saint.” In recent months of fighting in Tall Afar, Piro, 26, of El Dorado Hills, Calif., has quietly sleuthed out targets, laid down suppressive fire for GIs in battle and chased insurgents through the narrow alleys of this medieval city — maneuvering all the while to avoid being shot out of the sky. In one incident, she limped back to base in a bullet-riddled helicopter, ran to another aircraft and returned to the fight 10 minutes later.

“They call her ‘Saint Piro’ — she’s just that good,” said her co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Todd Buckhouse, a 19-year Army veteran who has worked with Piro on two tours with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq.

“There was no one I wanted to hear more on a raid than her. She’s a spectacular Army aviator,” said Maj. Chris Kennedy, executive officer of the regiment, which is returning home this month.

Female helicopter pilots like Piro are demonstrating their valor in Iraq in one of the few direct combat roles women are officially allowed to perform in the military. Their missions often put them at risk of being hit by enemy machine-gun fire and rockets, and require them to shoot back. Piro’s unit, Outlaw Troop, lost three of its eight Kiowas after insurgents shot them down over Tall Afar, and four or five others were hit by enemy fire, U.S. officers said. On Piro’s first tour in Iraq, her wingman hit a wire and crashed into the Euphrates River. She and Buckhouse made an emergency landing and jumped into the water to try to save the two aviators, but they had already perished.

‘Still a long ways to go’

Despite the dangers, a growing number of women have chosen the job since the 1990s, and today about 9 percent of women in the Army are aviators. There are four female pilots in Piro’s troop of 33 soldiers. “I didn’t want to be a staff officer. I wanted to be an operator,” said Capt. Monica Strye, 29, of San Antonio, commander of Outlaw Troop. “I wanted to have more of a combat role.”

But while proving their competence in the air, female aviators say they still face obstacles from the predominantly male military on the ground. “It’s far better than when my mother was in the military, but we still have a long ways to go,” said Strye, whose mother was an Army nurse in Vietnam. “I know I constantly have to prove myself.”

And even as the 360-degree battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan are exposing women to combat as never before, policies excluding women from ground combat units have not been eased, but instead face increased scrutiny in Congress.

Under a law signed last month, the Defense Department must submit to Congress this year a report on the assignment of women, particularly in the Army, to ensure compliance with existing Pentagon policy, which was also codified by the law. The law requires that before opening any new positions to women, the Defense Department must tell Congress what justifies the change and observe a 30-day waiting period.

The legislation, while greatly watered down from earlier versions that would have rolled back opportunities for women, still limits the Pentagon’s flexibility in adjusting to new wartime realities, critics say. It was passed over the objections of Pentagon leaders, including Army Secretary Francis Harvey, who said the change was not necessary. “We have opinions on the law, but it’s now the law and we will abide by it,” Harvey said in an interview last month.

Congressional critics say the change sends the wrong message to women in the military, especially the thousands now serving in Iraq. Women make up about 15 percent of the active-duty members in the military. Tens of thousands of women have served in Iraq; 48 have been killed and more than 350 wounded in action, according to Pentagon figures.
At Outlaw Troop’s base outside Tall Afar, the flight line hummed with aircraft coming and going around the clock. Piro, Strye and other pilots fly demanding six- to eight-hour missions in full body armor.

Bravery and Determination

In between flights, Piro and Strye explained that they prefer the Kiowa over other helicopters because it offers them a combat role, plus greater freedom to maneuver. The aircraft, which carries Hellfire and 2.75-inch rockets and has a .50-caliber machine gun, is designed to work “at the tip of the spear” with small units such as tank, Bradley Fighting Vehicle and infantry platoons. “I chose the Kiowa because it works directly with ground units in the combined arms fight,” said Piro, a graduate of West Point, where she set a home run record.

The Kiowa’s reconnaissance role also appeals to the pilots because it gives them more autonomy. “I have freedom to maneuver on the battlefield and I pick a target,” said Strye, who flew hundreds of hours in combat with the 101st Airborne Division during the invasion of Iraq, including heavy fighting in Najaf, Karbala and Hilla. “I suppressed enemy mortar teams, called in indirect [fire] on buildings, using artillery or the Air Force to drop bombs on targets I identified.”

When Outlaw Troop arrived in Tall Afar last spring, the city was an insurgent stronghold and Army helicopters were constantly threatened by antiaircraft weapons set up by former Iraqi army air defense officers, regimental commanders said. “Flying fast over the city, you were guaranteed to be hit by small-arms fire,” said Strye.

One morning last summer, as dawn broke over Tall Afar’s labyrinthine Sarai neighborhood, Piro and Buckhouse were watching a building for an imminent raid. They spotted lookouts on a nearby school. “You get that little tingle in the back of your neck that says something isn’t right,” recalled Buckhouse, of Racine, Wis.

On the ground, assaulting U.S. ground troops were ambushed from the school and began taking heavy casualties. The fire had the GIs pinned down, and medics couldn’t evacuate the wounded. “Outlaw, we need a gun run south of the city,” came the radio call.

With Piro at the controls, the Kiowa swooped in from the south to attack with its machine gun. The aircraft was breaking away when suddenly it was hit by a barrage of fire. “We’re taking fire left,” Buckhouse called out. Piro heard the popping of bullets and felt the helicopter lurch. A round had hit the fuel cell, igniting it. An alarm bell went off in the cockpit.

“We’re losing fuel!” Piro said, as the Kiowa started to drop. Buckhouse thought they were about to crash when at the last minute the fuel cell sealed itself, keeping them aloft. Flying low and fast, they made it back to the base. When they landed, they saw the fuselage was split. Piro jumped out and rushed to prepare another aircraft for flight. Ten minutes later, she and Buckhouse took off for another five to six hours of combat.

“We needed to get back out there,” Piro said. “We were going to save a guy’s life.”
Such determination has won the female aviators kudos from cavalry troops on the ground, who said they’re glad to hear the women’s call signs. But women still face greater scrutiny and restrictions than their male counterparts, according to both men and women in Outlaw.

Fighting Discrimination

Soldiers who didn’t know the women would slight them over the radio, or defer to male aviators in mission briefings rather than the higher-ranking women, Buckhouse said. “If she had any emotion in her voice or even a crack, the guys [ground troops] would say, ‘Say again, you’re coming in soft.’ No one would ever tell that to a guy,” he said.
As an officer, Piro said, she walks a fine line between leading from the front and not offending male soldiers who want to pay her courtesies — by opening doors for her, for example.

Over dinner in a noisy chow hall, Strye agreed that despite their skill as combat pilots, women face restrictions that make it challenging for them to integrate themselves in mostly male units. One rule bars female and male aviators from entering each other’s quarters, while another policy requires escorts for women on base. While aimed at maintaining discipline, the segregation can be isolating, Strye said.

“If all the guys hang out and play poker in one of the guy’s rooms, and I’m not allowed in there, I’ll never be part of that group. I’ll always be on the outside,” which makes it harder to cope with the pressures of deployments, she said.

Implicit in the separation, Strye said, is a mistrust that grates on her as a professional. “You trust me to make combat decisions to defeat the enemy,” she said, “but don’t trust what I do when I go into another person’s ‘CHU,’ ” — a containerized housing unit.
Back home, the sense of standing apart follows the female war veterans as they reenter American society.

Strye recalls going out in Nashville after her first tour in Iraq and meeting men who didn’t know how to react to her as a combat helicopter pilot. “There’s an intimidation factor there. It’s not what they’re looking for,” she said.

Piro is undecided on whether she will stay in the Army. Strye plans to get out in 2007. “I don’t want it to be my entire identity. I don’t want to be put on a pedestal,” she said. “I just want to be Monica.”

By Ann Scott Tyson
The Washington Post

To Know The Man

By: Grey Eagle | 28 Feb 06

2nd Lt. Almar L. Fitzgerald

Marine 2nd Lt. Almar L. Fitzgerald

I was sent an article from the Marine Times (the Marines, you got a luv them, they are a brass balls group of men and women) by a Marine. It tells a personal and up close portrait of an officer, a soldier, a warrior. Christian Lowe does a fantastic job offering us a glimpse into the life and thoughts of this fallen soldier. But to cap this article off the Marine Times presents a video tribute (views on your computer) where this soldier speaks to us and makes the loss of this soldier, this Marine, this man even more touching. I really wanted to pass this on and share this with you.

Marine 2nd Lt. Almar Fitzgerald, 23, of Lexington, S.C.; assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Twentynine Palms, Calif.; attached to the 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward); died Feb. 21 at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, of wounds sustained Feb. 18 when an improvised explosive device detonated during combat operations against enemy forces in Ramadi, Iraq.

Memories of ‘Fitz’

By Christian Lowe
Marine Corps Times

Iraq was the last place I wanted to be on Christmas Eve. I felt pretty sure I wouldn’t see Santa flying across the starlit sky in this hellhole.

But then I quickly remembered not where I was, but whom I was with.

If the Marine next to me was going to suffer through a long, cold night in the cramped back seat of a Humvee, so would I. That’s what friends do, right?

I had first noticed him more than a year earlier, while photographer Rob Curtis and I were covering several young lieutenants for the Marine Corps Times documentary project “Class 186: The Making of a Marine Officer.”

He was a short, stocky African-American kid who seemed to know what he was doing in Officer Candidates School. I soon realized that he was more than just a hardheaded graduate of The Citadel — a school known for its rock-hard discipline. His deep smile told me that much.

In the back of the Humvee, 2nd Lt. Almar Fitzgerald — newly assigned platoon commander of Combined Anti-Armor Team Black with Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines — talked to me about his love of football when he played for his high school team back in Lexington, S.C.

Fitzgerald, 23, also admitted that during his youth he was a bit of a video game geek. It was hard to picture him spending his free time playing Nintendo, especially now in clear ballistic glasses, a camouflage helmet and chest rig filled with M16 magazines. But the stories he shared with me that Christmas Eve were my stocking-stuffers on that cold winter’s night.

Then, I thought back to the time I hung out with him on a Saturday afternoon at The Basic School early last year. I knocked on the door to his dorm-style barracks and walked into a Spartan room. I quickly noticed a huge flat-screen TV against one wall, Almar’s fingers clicking furiously at the controls of a PlayStation video game.

“You’re a total dork,” I told him as we recounted the story in Iraq. He leaned back against the stiff foam backrest of the Humvee seat, the antenna of his radio brushing against the corner of his mouth as he scrunched up another famous smile.

“I know,” he said with a deep, genuine laugh — the kind I’d heard often. Suddenly, it wasn’t so lonely and dark outside. The three other Marines in the vehicle laughed too — as much at the audacity of my infringement of their platoon commander’s stature as at the small window into his personality that was now revealed.

That’s one thing you could say about Almar, or “Fitz” as his friends called him: He felt a personal connection to his men, more than I’ve seen with other young officers. Some might say this is a leadership flaw — that an officer is supposed to maintain a cold detachment from the men he leads. This seemed impossible for Fitz. And I admired him for it.

The Marine Corps was supposed to be a steppingstone to greater things for Fitz. He talked about wanting to join the FBI or some other federal agency. But he loved the Marine Corps and the leathernecks who became his brothers in arms. His buddies from OCS and TBS — a group that had stuck close even from far-flung assignments— always said Fitz was the center of the fun, always the object of a pretty lady’s glance, always ready to back up his buddies if they needed help breaking the ice with the girls.

His instructors saw his potential and were at times frustrated with his performance. Fitz was always better in the field than in the classroom, and infantry was the perfect fit for him.

That’s why it is such a loss that he’s gone. He had so much more to do.

I spoke with Fitz’s platoon sergeant, Gunnery Sgt. Shelby Lasater, who was on patrol the night our friend got hit. His voice was shaky, even over the tinny signal of a satellite phone. I paled when I learned that one of his section leaders, Cpl. Matt Conley, was killed instantly in the Feb. 18 explosion that seriously wounded Fitz.

One thing you could say about Conley was that he knew the intricate streets of Ramadi like the back of his hand. Even in the darkest, scariest night, Conley kept his cool, never losing his bearing or his sense of direction. And Fitz was lucky to have had the privilege of leading such a fine Marine.

When I learned later that Fitz had died from his wounds, I felt heavy and sad. But I couldn’t help but think of the times we’d laughed together — or, more accurately, when I had laughed at him. His self-deprecating humor was infectious — even the hardest Marine would crack at his antics.

I thought about the time Almar told me how he steeled himself to discipline his Marines. It wasn’t by scanning a few pages of an officer handbook or conjuring up some careworn quote from Napoleon; instead, his method was a perfect hint of Fitz’s youth.

“I watch a couple episodes of ‘The OC,’” he said, chuckling a bit at the absurdity of using a TV series depicting the glitzy life of high school students in Southern California to bolster his courage. “It just always brings my emotions to the surface.” Again, another of his signature laughs.

Almar knew he had a lot to prove as a Marine officer. He didn’t do that well at TBS and eked by at the Infantry Officers Course. But he stuck with it, kept his head on straight and made it to the fleet. He probably got one of the toughest assignments for a “boot lieutenant” — the commander of a CAAT platoon is usually a senior second lieutenant or a first lieutenant. It meant his patrol speed would be 40 miles per hour rather than the slow progress of foot-mobile infantry, making mistakes harder to correct.

But when Fitz could have diverted most of his energy to ensure his own success, he always turned his efforts outward. He measured his accomplishment as a platoon commander with the achievement of his enlisted Marines. He always told his men he wanted them to work him out of a job.

“I want to get to the point where you’re running the patrols,” he told them at a pre-mission briefing one night. “I want to get so I’m just sitting in the back seat sipping mai tais.”

It wasn’t laziness or timidity that drove him to push his men to take control — it was a genuine desire to build them up, to make them better Marines.

Through it all, Fitz never lost sight of his roots. He spoke often of his family.

During our Christmas Eve patrol, Almar told me he snuck a couple hundred bucks to his mom over her objections so she could visit her sister during the holidays.

“My sister told me when she called she screamed like she’d won the lottery,” he said. That was Almar Fitzgerald: A solid Marine officer, a caring man and a friend to all who had the honor to be with him. The Marine Corps will be a lesser place without him. But as Marines are taught from day one, the service’s prestige is forged from the blood of its fallen brethren.

The Corps is lucky to list 2nd Lt. Almar Fitzgerald as part of its legacy. And both Rob and I are fortunate to have known Fitz as an officer and friend.

The author is a staff writer with Marine Corps Times. He and photographer Rob Curtis were embedded with Marine units in Iraq during December and January.

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Army MIA Soldiers from Vietnam War Identified

By: Grey Eagle | 15 Feb 06

The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of four U.S. servicemen, missing in action since the Vietnam War, have been identified. They will be returned to their families for burial with full military honors.They are: Maj. Jack L. Barker of Waycross, Ga.; Capt. John F. Dugan of Roselle, N.J.; Sgt. William E. Dillender of Naples, Fla.; and Pfc. John J. Chubb of Gardena, Calif. All were from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Chubb will be buried in Inglewood, Calif., on Feb. 18. Barker, Dugan and Dillender will be buried on April 12 in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington. D.C.On March 20, 1971, Barker and Dugan were piloting a UH-1H Huey helicopter with Dillender and Chubb on board. The aircraft was participating in a troop extraction mission in the Savannakhet Province of Laos. As the helicopter approached the landing zone, it was hit by heavy enemy ground fire.It exploded in the air and there were no survivors. Continued enemy activity in the area prevented any recovery attempts.

A refugee in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, showed an identification tag of Pfc. Chubb and a medallion to a U.S. interviewer in 1986. The medallion was reportedly recovered near the same general location from an F-105 crash site. However, the location and the aircraft type did not correlate with the missing aircraft and soldiers.

Between 1988 and 2001, joint U.S.-Lao People’s Democratic Republic teams, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), conducted four investigations and three excavations for these soldiers without positive results. An investigation team surveyed three crash sites in 2002 after interviewing local villagers from the province. The team recovered a fragment of human tooth and some crew-related artifacts from one of the crash sites.

In October and November 2004, another joint investigation team excavated the crash site and recovered additional human remains and crew-related evidence. The wreckage was of a UH-1H helicopter, and contained insignia worn by members of the 101st Airborne Division.

The remains included nine fragments of teeth that the forensic anthropologists at JPAC were able to match with detailed information from medical and dental records.

From the Vietnam War, 1,807 Americans are still unaccounted-for with 364 of those from Laos. Another 839 have been accounted-for in Southeast Asia with 208 of those from losses in Laos.


No Soldier Stands Alone In A Battlefield

By: Grey Eagle | 09 Feb 06

By Sue Diaz
The Christian Science Monitor
Mon Jan 23, 2006

 If I could, I’d begin this with my son’s account of what happened to him and the men of his Bravo Company unit at 14:30 on Dec. 22, 2005. Roman and his squad were on foot patrol somewhere in the south of Baghdad. An insurgents’ bomb exploded. That much I know. But I can only tell my side of this story right now. And it begins with a call from an Army captain.

“Is this Susan Diaz?” a man’s voice said when I answered the phone in my office here at home the day before Christmas Eve.

I’d just finished feeding Roman’s pet turtle in the guest bedroom down the hall. When he joined the Army three years ago after high school, Roman entrusted “SpongeBob” to our care. Now every morning before my workday begins, I drop several handfuls of arugula and baby lettuce leaves into the wooden enclosure Roman built for his old buddy.

The voice on the other end sounded like a telemarketer. I answered with a wary, “Y-y-e-ss.”

“Is your husband there?”

“He’s not available at the moment,” I said, rather than offer that he’d left for work an hour earlier and that I was home alone.

The man, all business, introduced himself - Captain Candrian, 101st Airborne - then went on to say that our son had “sustained injuries caused by an IED.”

I sat down. Slowly.

“That’s an ‘improvised explosive device,’ Ma’am.”

No need for that extra bit of information. These days those three letters are as familiar as PTA used to be.

Above the thumping of my heart I heard Captain Candrian relate details of what he called “the incident.” I switched the phone to my left hand, reached for the yellow legal pad I always keep handy, fumbled for a pen, and wrote down these words: Perforated eardrum. Peppered face. Treated at the aid station at Mamuhdiyah.

“Could you spell that, please?” I heard myself say. In everyday circumstances, I can be as ditzy as anyone. Ask my husband how many times he’s heard, “Seen my glasses anywhere?” But in this situation, my mind was surprisingly focused, almost as if spelling the aid station’s name correctly could somehow make right the rest of the story Captain Candrian was telling me.

“Does this mean Roman will get to come home?” I asked, hoping.

“No, Ma’am. His injuries are listed here as ‘not serious.’”

I wrote down “NOT SERIOUSLY INJURED” in big block letters. I underlined those words three times and drew a box around them.

“Your son should be back with his unit soon. But you might not hear from him for a few days, because of the, uh, news blackout over there.”

He rushed through the last part of that sentence.

“News blackout? What do you mean?”

The captain explained - reluctantly - that when soldiers from a unit have been killed, no one from that group is allowed to phone or e-mail until the next of kin have been notified.

“Oh,” I murmured as that sunk in. “Some soldiers died in the attack?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Do you know their names?”

“Yes, Ma’am. But I can’t tell you that.”

Roman had been promoted to sergeant - and squad leader - just before his second deployment began. When he was home on his last leave, I’d heard him talk with an almost paternal affection about the guys in his group. While stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., in the months before being deployed, he’d shared dinner at the homes of some of them, played cards with their parents, met their wives, high-fived their kids.

“It’s up to me now to make sure they all come home,” Roman had said of the eight men he’d been assigned to lead.

We eventually learned from the newspaper that the attack claimed two soldiers: Spc. William Lopez-Feliciano from Roman’s squad, and platoon leader, 1st Lt. Benjamin T. Britt.

The news blackout from within the unit ended on Christmas Eve with this e-mail from our son.

“Just wanted to send you guys a quick note and wish you Merry Christmas,” he wrote. “I love you both so much and rarely get a chance to tell you these days…. I really wish I could be back there to celebrate with you. If I concentrate real hard I can almost taste the shrimp you cook every year, Mom, even though it isn’t my favorite.”

I smiled at the wise-guy honesty of that last statement. It was so Roman.

He signed off with “Sgt. Diaz” and added this: “P.S. If you guys make it to church, say a prayer for the men of Bravo Company. It’s been a rough deployment so far. Any prayers are appreciated.”

That was it. No mention of “the incident.” Not a word about his injuries. And a telling silence on the subject of the fallen.

He doesn’t know we know, I realized.

We’ve since talked with him on the phone. “I can’t believe they did that!” he said when he heard - with his good ear - that the Army had called us. As far as he’s concerned right now, the less said, the better. It’s a matter of protection, I think. Ours certainly. And maybe his own, too.

My son has learned much about life the hard way lately. But it seems to me there’s something he doesn’t as yet completely comprehend or perhaps has come to understand far too well. It is this: When he and his men are out on a mission, they are not alone. Whether we agree with this war or not, those of us who love them are out there, too, moms and dads, kids and cousins, sisters and brothers, neighbors and friends.

Every time an insurgent bomb blows apart a Humvee or a squad on foot patrol, the shock waves from the blast reverberate in small towns like Wheeler, Texas, and big cities like San Diego. A young private takes a bullet; back at home his father’s heart bleeds. A soldier loses a leg; his wife struggles in the days that follow to simply keep putting one foot in front of the other. A sergeant’s eardrum is perforated; his mother hears the explosion in her dreams, time and time again. Truth is, the casualties of war go far beyond the numbers from the Pentagon. Love gives us no choice.

In a later e-mail Roman wrote, “I’m fine, functioning, and back at work with my men. Right where I belong.”

We are there too, Sgt. Diaz. We are there, too.

• Sue Diaz is a freelance writer. She has written a series of articles for the Monitor about her son’s military service.


Copyright © 2006 The Christian Science Monitor


Medics Earn Nickname “Charlie’s Angels” in Iraq

By: Grey Eagle | 09 Feb 06

The National Guard 

By First Class Mark A. Geiss
Williston, N.D.

Baqubah, Iraq (11/22/2004) — The sky was a beautiful blue. Not a cloud to be seen anywhere. Groves of date palms filled many of the spaces between the clumps of houses. Children were standing by the roadside waving, eagerly hoping for a piece of candy to be tossed from the caravan of vehicles slowly passing by their village. Heavy traffic flowed in both directions on the highway near Baqubah, Iraq. All the Soldiers’ eyes were either focused on the sides of the road or scanning rooftops and alleyways. These were Soldiers on a dangerous mission in a foreign and often hostile land. Every now and then they stole a peaceful thought about their awesome surroundings but were always careful not to lose focus.

The serenity is broken by a large explosion near the rear of the Army convoy. Every Soldier instinctively recoils as he feels the concussion envelop him. The Soldiers’ hearts are racing as they look around to see if their vehicle is the one that has been hit. A roadside bomb, or improvised explosive device (IED) has gone off. Sgt. 1st Class Mark Geiss, of Williston, looks in the side mirror to check on the last vehicle, which is directly behind him. He sees a large cloud of tan dust and black smoke. He wonders to himself, “Where is the last Humvee?”

Everyone holds their breath for what is probably only a few seconds but seems like forever. Finally a voice on the radio breaks the eerie silence following the deafening blast.

“We’ve been hit! We’ve been hit hard!” It is Sgt. 1st Class Richard Marschner, of Mandan, first platoon sergeant. He and his crew in the last Humvee are responsible for rear security for this combat patrol, which is on the road to search out and destroy IEDs. The Army calls them “Trailblazers.”

Geiss looks in the mirror again. He sees Marschner’s Humvee emerge from the cloud. Geiss surmises it can’t be too terribly bad; the Humvee is still driving and the radio is obviously working. There is hope that no one has been hurt.

The radio crackles again, “My gunner’s been hit! We need a medic!” All hope is instantly shattered. The sound of Marschner’s voice is serious and urgent. The Soldiers of C Company’s first platoon, 141st Engineer Combat Battalion, begin to say a silent prayer and hope it can’t be as bad as it sounds. But it is.

Everyone knows Marschner’s gunner is Sgt. Keith O’Donnell of Fargo. This wasn’t an unknown soldier. This was Keith. Keith O’Donnell ¨C the guy who would play his guitar outside the tent at night. The guy who could sing any song requested. The guy who everyone in the platoon turned to for training in infantry tactics and weapons. Keith O’Donnell seemed to be a natural-born soldier. Everyone counted on him when the chips were down.

Perhaps the North Dakota Guardsmen could have spotted the roadside bomb that severely disabled Marschner’s vehicle if they hadn’t been preoccupied. The Trailblazers are tasked with finding the roadside bombs before they are detonated on an unsuspecting convoy, or, as the Soldiers of C Company often say, “We try to find the IEDs before they find us.”

But on this beautiful day in April, first platoon was diverted from their tedious IED patrol to respond to a call from another unit, who had just moments before been hit by an IED and desperately needed medical treatment and a security team. Always willing to help out anyone in need, these North Dakotans didn’t hesitate for a second to answer the call.

The combat patrol had just picked up their speed. This may have contributed to missing the one that hit O’Donnell. But they wanted to get to the scene to help out as soon as possible. The platoon leader, 1st Lt. Donovan Blazek, of Bismarck, and each of his squad leaders were thinking about how to set up the security when they arrived at the IED attack that hit the other unit only a few kilometers away. For just a few minutes each of them lost their focus on their mission ¡ª finding IEDs before they find them. In their haste to help out fellow soldiers in distress the invisible enemy made his move.

It was a direct hit to the last Humvee. The shrapnel blew out several of the tires, destroyed the windshield and left gaping shrapnel holes all over the vehicle. Gravel and asphalt chunks were strewn across the hood and the top of the vehicle. Remarkably, only O’Donnell, who was manning the massive .50 caliber machine gun, was hit. The other three occupants suffered some temporary minor hearing loss but would be fine, at least physically. It would take the Soldiers considerably longer to heal emotionally.

Bravely driving through the chaos and terror, Spc. Justin Quinlen, of Bismarck, maneuvered the Humvee to the front of the convoy where the platoon’s combat medic, Sgt. Jessica Fisher, was located. He could hardly see out of the blast-proof windshield that had been pulverized but still held together. Small chunks of shrapnel pocked the armored glass. No doubt it had saved Quinlen’s life.

When the explosion came, Fisher had also been deep in thought, busy contemplating all of the possible scenarios she might face when she arrived on scene to help out the other unit. That all changed in a flash and a bang. Now she had to treat one of her own instead. Somehow the other unit would have to get by without her. O’Donnell needed immediate medical treatment if he was to live.

Before Quinlen even got to Fisher’s location, Marschner and Sgt. Todd Wanner, of Bismarck, who was riding in the back of the Humvee with O’Donnell, had begun to assess O’Donnell’s injuries. All United States Army Soldiers are trained in basic first aid. Wanner had additional training as a Combat Lifesaver: a step above first aid and a step below a medic.

As first platoon raced to the Troop Medical Clinic at Forward Operations Base Warhorse, north of Baqubah, Iraq, Fisher, Wanner and Marschner began the critical treatment that ultimately would save O’Donnell’s life. For all of the soldiers of C Company this was a horrifying and rude awakening to the realities of combat.


Angel Medics

Sgt. Angela Magnuson, Sgt. Kristen Pagel and Sgt. Jessica Fisher have a little fun posing as Charlie’s Angels between missions at Forward Operations Base Warhorse, near Baqubah, Iraq. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Mark Geiss.)


Charlie’s Angels. That’s what the Soldiers of “Charlie” Company call their medics Sgt. Jessica Fisher, Sgt. Kristen Pagel and Sgt. Angela Magnuson. Each of them has treated  and saved the lives of both Soldiers and civilians. Some of their patients were injured in automobile crashes, others in combat, and still others by criminal activity. Whenever tragedy strikes the Angels descend with their camouflaged first aid bags and put their healing powers to work.


Angel 1: Sgt. Jessica Fisher

Fisher grew up in Jamestown, N.D. She lives in Fargo, where she is studying to be a dental hygienist. She has plans to marry and raise a family when her combat duty is done. Fisher’s father also serves in the North Dakota Army National Guard and is retiring before the end of the year after having served 28 years in the defense of our country. He was activated in 1990 for the Gulf War and hopes his daughter can get the job done this time so the United States doesn’t have to come back yet again.

Within days of arriving in Iraq, this 26-year-old had already spent a very dark and scary night in March near Samarra, Iraq, trying desperately to save the life of an unknown soldier who was crushed when a Humvee rolled over. That soldier without a name would literally die in Fisher’s arms. He wore a wedding ring on his left hand. That he was married is all that Fisher would ever know about him. After the incident was over, the combat patrol returned to their base camp so Fisher could change into a clean uniform before going right back out on an IED patrol again.

Fisher initially had no fear when she was assigned to the Trailblazer mission. Her experiences have changed her, though. She no longer goes to the showers alone or anywhere else on the camp.

“I never go alone because if we got mortared or hurt no one would know,” she says.

She prays before and often during every mission. She tries to prepare herself for the stressful duty by listening to soft music and using a gentle body mist to relax her. After O’Donnell’s incident she felt nauseous before each mission and didn’t want to go back out. But she knew how much everyone counted on her, and she wouldn’t dare let them down.

“I remember going to chow, no one saying anything. I came back and puked my guts out,” Fisher said. “I hid tears behind my sunglasses” for several days.

Even though she finds it difficult being away from her family and friends, Fisher knows how crucial her role is in Iraq. She may be a medic but she is not only just a medic. She has found IEDs, as well. In fact, she says, “I am a Trailblazer first and a medic second.” She has also trained on all of the weapons in the company and can operate them if the need should ever arise.

Fisher looks forward to returning to North Dakota when her duty is done. She says she will no longer take freedom for granted. She misses the little things: “Going to Wal-Mart. Going to get milk. Going to get stamps at the post office. Mowing the grass. Just sitting on my steps and watching the sprinklers.”


Angel 2: Sgt. Angela Magnuson

Angela Magnuson grew up in Fingal, N.D. She lives in Aberdeen, S.D., where she is studying to be a laboratory technician. This 28-year-old single mother has aspirations of becoming a pharmacist or chiropractor “after I grow up.”

The most difficult part of serving in Iraq was leaving her 6-year-old daughter, Abigail.

“I can’t hold her. I can’t kiss her goodnight. I am missing out on her whole first year of school,” she said.

Still, Magnuson has no regrets.

“We’re doing a good job here. It is nerve-racking. We are doing a good thing here for the people and other Soldiers ¡ª keeping the roads safe. This makes me feel like I am an active part of history.”

Like Fisher, Magnuson has seen her share of both combat and non-combat injuries. In one of the first C Company missions ever to see combat, Spc. Kane Melling suffered minor shrapnel wounds to his face and head after a car bomb exploded right next to the Humvee in which he was the turret gunner. Magnuson said Melling was spared serious injury because of his Kevlar helmet and ballistic glasses he was wearing at the time.

Magnuson described the scene, “Very intense. Our guys were shooting into the trees. I was working under fire. We moved him (Melling) to the back of a 5-ton truck and treated him there while shooting was still going on. You can’t really think about what is going on around you. You just have to do it.”

On another occasion Magnuson treated an Iraqi civilian who was stabbed by another Iraqi that had recently been released from prison for committing murder. The Soldiers from third platoon were able to break up the fight and arrest the perpetrator while Magnuson went to work. The victim didn’t know it, but he was getting some of the best emergency medical care available anywhere in the country. There is no doubt it was awkward for him to be treated by a female in a land that views women as inferior. He didn’t complain, however, as she stopped the bleeding and bandaged the stab wound. Had Magnuson’s IED combat patrol not been driving by and seen the fight in progress, he probably would have died. When tragedy strikes, out of nowhere, an angel descends. Another life is saved.

There was one life, however, that Magnuson could not save. Monday, May 3, 2004, is a day that she will never forget. C Company lost one of their most beloved Soldiers, Spc. James Holmes of East Grand Forks. This time Magnuson was assigned to third platoon for the IED patrol. On this fateful day the bomb hunters became the hunted as a cowardly enemy insurgent scored a direct hit on the rear Humvee, exposing a weakness in the armor that had, until then, gone unnoticed. Holmes was the driver and took a direct hit. The IED was placed in the median of the four-lane divided highway and was remotely detonated. The triggerman was never seen.

Holmes had served in the Marine Corps and then joined the North Dakota Army National Guard when he moved from Arizona to Grand Forks to attend the University of North Dakota. When the 141st Battalion was activated for duty in Iraq, Holmes volunteered to go along to help fill a vacancy. Because he was a volunteer and didn’t have to be in Iraq, it makes his death even that much more tragic.

“It makes me feel that he sacrificed his life for all of us,” Magnuson said.

His name was Spc. James Holmes. But to those who knew him, he was affectionately called “Tugboat” because he was a large man who would pull his load and then some. He was a teddy bear kind of guy, but somehow the nickname “Tugboat” was more fitting. C Company Soldiers have since painted “Tugboat” on the side of the driver’s door of the Humvee he was driving the day he was killed.

Holmes didn’t say much after he was hit except, “I just can’t breath.” Already suffering from his fatal wounds he continued to drive the Humvee to safety. After about five minutes Holmes felt he had gone far enough to protect the other Soldiers of third platoon and stopped his vehicle. Knowing that Magnuson would have a difficult time removing his large frame from the vehicle in order to be treated, Holmes climbed out and lay down on the road.

Magnuson started removing his clothing to assess his injuries. She could see it was more serious than just getting the wind knocked out of him as he had told her. “He told me what he wanted. He didn’t want morphine for the pain. He didn’t want oxygen. He tried helping by holding the bandages in place.”

Holmes probably knew how seriously injured he was. He had served on an ambulance squad back in Arizona and had treated traumatic injuries himself. He helped talk Magnuson through it and keep her calm. He seemed more concerned for her than himself.

Despite Magnuson’s and Holmes’ heroic efforts and extraordinary teamwork, he would die five days later in a hospital in Germany with his parents at his bedside.

Magnuson remembers, “After that I wanted to go out even more. If something else happened I wanted to do it right this time. If there was another accident, I wanted to do everything right. I took it personally that I had failed him in some way.”

Of course, she had not failed him. Magnuson had done everything right. His life could not be saved. But at least she bought him an extra few days so that his parents could see him one last time. Again, an Angel descended.

Magnuson’s experiences in Iraq have given her a new outlook on life.

“I have learned not to take anything for granted. Nothing.”

She plans to vacation more and “not sweat the small stuff.” She hopes to get married and have three more children, backpack across Europe, scuba dive and just take every advantage that life has to offer.


Angel 3: Sgt. Kristen Pagel

Kristen Pagel lives in Fargo with her husband, Dave, stepson Ryan, and her 82-year-old grandmother, who is a veteran of World War II. Pagel’s grandmother served as a nurse who, among other duties, helped treat and clean up the concentration camps at the end of the war. She writes to Pagel twice a week because, as Pagel says, “She understands how important mail call is.”

Pagel serves as the senior medic for C Company. In addition to going out on combat patrols with the Trailblazers, she completes the scheduling for the medics, tracks Soldiers’ immunizations, illness and injuries, and monitors the mental health of all of the Soldiers in the unit.

“We (the medics) are the first line for combat stress or for troops to come talk to when they have problems back home.” She and her fellow Charlie’s Angels can then make a determination if the soldier needs to be referred to a therapist or psychiatrist in the mental health unit of the Troop Medical Clinic.

But Pagel has her own way of helping relieve the stress of living in a war zone.

“I make supper, bake cupcakes and little things like that. Giving (the Soldiers) candy, or rubbing them on the head, or giving them a hug seems to make a bigger difference than I would have thought. For the most part, the guys are all a bunch of big teddy bears that need attention and love and affection.”

For Pagel the hardest thing about being a medic is “the people you spend your days with are also the people you will have to treat.”

The Soldiers would not have it any other way. For them, they know they are going to receive quality medical treatment from people who know them and truly care about them rather than a medic who is a stranger that they may never have met.

However, one of Pagel’s most memorable moments treating an injury came when she had to treat the enemy. The Trailblazers had stopped along the road to check out a suspected IED when the insurgent ran up to the convoy of vehicles and began throwing grenades. Almost instantly, one of the second platoon gunners trained his weapon on the man and shot him twice; once in the leg and once in the arm. The gunner saved the lives of several Soldiers that day as three more hand grenades were found hidden on the insurgent while he was being bandaged.

Pagel set aside her emotions and began the medical intervention that would save the life of the very man who had just tried to kill her and her fellow troops. Although he had an arm and a leg amputated as a result of his wounds, he survived. Referring to the way he attacked the convoy, and the fact that he had more grenades hidden on him, Pagel said, “I don’t think he had any intentions of living.”

The medical care available to Iraqis is sometimes lacking. On another occasion, Pagel’s combat patrol came across a five-vehicle collision involving a child and one trapped occupant. Extrication equipment is rarely available in Iraq. Several civilians began trying to manually pull the car door off and then to pull the trapped man out of the car, ultimately causing him more pain and injury.

Once he was freed from the vehicle, Pagel attempted to start an I.V., but an Iraqi doctor arrived on the scene and refused to allow it. Pagel described the scene this way: “He (the doctor) was very rough with him when he helped me bandage his leg. He picked him up by the arms and legs and threw him into a sedan despite an obvious injury to one of his legs.”

Pagel is very protective of the medics that work for her.

“I mostly worry about the long-term effects this experience will have on the rest of the people I serve with. I guess I feel like I need to protect them as much as possible so they can go back and have a happy and fulfilling life without any emotional scars ¡­ images haunting them the rest of their lives.”

Pagel looks forward to returning home and her job as the finance manager for Luther Family Ford in Fargo. She hopes to be a general manager of a car dealership someday. She also looks forward to the day when the “children of Iraq will have a better life than their parents had.”

After spending more than eight months in the heat of Iraq one might think she would welcome the milder temperatures of North Dakota. However, when she retires she wants to live someplace in the southern United States “where the temperatures are warmer.”


AUTHOR’S NOTE: Sgt. Keith O’Donnell lived thanks to the heroics of his brothers in arms like Quinlen, Marschner and Wanner, and his Angel ¨C Sgt. Jessica Fisher. Today he is undergoing extensive surgeries and rehabilitation and is doing well. Everyone in first platoon hopes to one day hear his beautiful voice again.


The Story Of A Female Soldier

By: Grey Eagle | 08 Feb 06

The true story of Army SPC Michelle M. Witmer, assigned to the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Military Police Company.

On the night of April 9, 2003, Michelle’s squad was called in to help protect an Iraqi police station that was being overrun by insurgents. Michelle, who usually drove the vehicle, instead acted as gunner that night. Minutes before she headed out, she sent an e-mail to her twin sister Charity (a medic in Baghdad), about their sister Rachel, who was also an MP stationed with the 32nd MPC in Baghdad.

The e-mail said, “Hi, sweetie bear. I love you. We are about to head out. Things have gotten really bad. I’m really worried about Rachel. She is [patrolling] in a bad part of town. I hope you will be ok. I just want you to know I love you for ever.”

Michelle and Rachel saw each other before they left that evening, in vehicle convoys headed for different parts of the city. Here are their own words about the events of April 9, taken from e-mail messages and interviews.

Michelle wrote, “We had a briefing telling us to prepare ourselves as best as possible for what lies ahead. I guess every convoy that’s gone up north so far has taken fire or been ambushed. The question of whether we will or not is not even really a question, more like a guess as to when.”

Rachel said, “I was in a gunner truck. I remember looking over and seeing my sister as a gunner. That’s odd. She’s usually the driver. I smiled at her. She smiled back at me. To this day I will kick myself, I had an urge to run over to her and hug her and tell her to be safe.”

There was something different in Michelle’s face, Rachel says. “It was more stoic than usual and she just-I don’t know if people know what’s going to happen to them, but she just-she had this calm, stoic look on her face.” Then Michelle waved goodbye, and it was the last time Rachel saw her.

Looking back, Michelle’s sister Charity also noticed something different about her twin sibling. “She just was so-at peace with herself, and with life. And [in] retrospect it’s just incredible to me. It was like she knew.”

“As I understand it, the patrol that Michelle was with was three Humvees, and they found themselves in the middle of a three-block-long ambush. All hell broke loose and there was fire from every direction.”

Michelle returned fire with her 50-caliber rail-mounted machine gun. Although she wore extensive protective gear, a single enemy bullet found an Achilles heel, striking below her arm and piercing her heart.

When Michelle was killed, she was supposed to serve only five more days of patrol duty before preparing to leave Iraq.

Above: Michelle with children of Baghdad. A fellow MP, Shizuko Jackson, wrote: “The children LOVED Michelle, and they literally chanted her name every time we pulled up to the station, ‘Michelle! Michelle! Michelle!’ Months after we left Al-Quanat for another mission, whenever we came back to visit, the kids still remembered her and asked for her ‘Where is MY Michelle?!!” Left: Michelle and her sisters Rachel and Charity.

Not A Good Day To Die

By: Grey Eagle | 04 Feb 06

The Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant in the picture is Michael Burghard, part of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Team that is supporting 2nd Brigade 28th Infantry Division (Pennsylvania Army National Guard). - When I read this post from Sgt. Lori’s blog I immediately contacted her for permission to reprint it.  There are times when “The Finger” is the only appropriate expression required, this would be one of them.  Very inspiring story of courage and the military in Iraq. - Grey Eagle




Gunnery Sgt Michael Burghardt

Leading the fight is Gunnery Sgt Michael Burghardt, known as “Iron Mike” or just “Gunny”. He is on his third tour in Iraq. He had become a legend in the bomb disposal world after winning the Bronze Star for disabling 64 IEDs and destroying 1,548 pieces of ordnance during his second tour. Then, on September 19, he got blown up. He had arrived at a chaotic scene after a bomb had killed four US soldiers. He chose not to wear the bulky bomb protection suit. “You can’t react to any sniper fire and you get tunnel-vision,” he explains. So, protected by just a helmet and standard-issue flak jacket, he began what bomb disposal officers term “the longest walk”, stepping gingerly into a 5ft deep and 8ft wide crater. The earth shifted slightly and he saw a Senao base station with a wire leading from it. He cut the wire and used his 7in knife to probe the ground. “I found a piece of red detonating cord between my legs,” he says. “That’s when I knew I was screwed.”

Realizing he had been sucked into a trap, Sgt Burghardt, 35, yelled at everyone to stay back. At that moment, an insurgent, probably watching through binoculars, pressed a button on his mobile phone to detonate the secondary device below the sergeant’s feet. “A chill went up the back of my neck and then the bomb exploded,” he recalls. “As I was in the air I remember thinking, ‘I don’t believe they got me.’ I was just ticked off they were able to do it. Then I was lying on the road, not able to feel anything from the waist down.”

His colleagues cut off his trousers to see how badly he was hurt. None could believe his legs were still there. “My dad’s a Vietnam vet who’s paralyzed from the waist down,” says Sgt Burghardt. “I was lying there thinking I didn’t want to be in a wheelchair next to my dad and for him to see me like that. They started to cut away my pants and I felt a real sharp pain and blood trickling down. Then I wiggled my toes and I thought, ‘Good, I’m in business.’ As a stretcher was brought over, adrenaline and anger kicked in. “I decided to walk to the helicopter. I wasn’t going to let my team-mates see me being carried away on a stretcher.” He stood and gave the insurgents who had blown him up a one-fingered salute. “I flipped them one. It was like, ‘OK, I lost that round but I’ll be back next week’.”

Copies of a photograph depicting his defiance, taken by Jeff Bundy for the Omaha World-Herald, adorn the walls of homes across America and that of Col John Gronski, the brigade commander in Ramadi, who has hailed the image as an exemplar of the warrior spirit. Sgt Burghardt’s injuries — burns and wounds to his legs and buttocks — kept him off duty for nearly a month and could have earned him a ticket home. But, like his father — who was awarded a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for being wounded in action in Vietnam — he stayed in Ramadi to engage in the battle against insurgents who are forever coming up with more ingenious ways of killing Americans.


Reprinted From: http://sgtsledgehammer.blogspot.com/