May 19, 2004
Far from Virginia
day, about 75 young men drive bulldozers and earth movers to fill in
gaps in a massive sand berm running the length of the border; U.S. officials
say this is where insurgents pour through on their way to join the fight
against American forces.
for the guardsmen is minimal, consisting mainly of a green, 5-ton dump
truck with a black Iraqi tank turret welded to the top. Normally, half
a dozen soldiers keep watch from the "Iron Maiden," as it
is called, while their colleagues perform their landscaping missions.
berm-mending project is one of several missions juggled by the 276th,
which is made up of college students, plumbers, police officers, bankers
and computer technicians. Other duties include the construction of roads
and buildings, and security patrols in the city of Mosul.
was on one such patrol that the battalion suffered its first casualty
in early April. A rocket-propelled grenade tore off the lower leg of
Pfc. Dean Schwartz, 23, and lightly injured two others. Pfc. Schwartz
is recovering at a military hospital in Germany and is due to come to
Walter Reed Hospital in Washington for rehabilitation.
commanders would not say exactly how many guardsmen are on duty in Iraq's
western desert, but the 276th is authorized to dispatch 528 soldiers.
many they are, they all long for home while they risk their lives to
protect it. Most say they were looking for "weekend warrior"
duty when they joined the guard -- a hurricane here, a flood there.
certainly didn't expect to be here in this desert as the spring blossoms
came to their hometowns in Virginia.
Kenny Ray Stanford, 40, from Jonesville, Va, watches the sun set near
the Syrian border as he cradles an M-16 and scans the distance for trouble.
But in his mind, the rangy soldier is 6,508 miles away.
seen a lot of beautiful sunrises and a lot of beautiful sunsets and
full moons while holding her hand," Spc. Stanford says of his wife,
Marsha, who normally rides along on the drive from Jonesville to their
jobs at Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, Va.
sunrise and sunset on this trip [to the Syrian border] brought me a
lot closer to her. No matter if it seems like we are a million miles
apart from each other, sometimes I still catch myself daydreaming about
in Virginia, Marsha Stanford now makes the 80-minute round trip alone
she gets home, she waits for her husband's daily call, setting her alarm
for 1 a.m. One morning, she heard the sound of explosions coming over
the phone as they talked.
you find somewhere it's quiet, where you are safe?" she remembers
is how it is here," he replied.
indeed, even in the Iraqi desert far from the battle fronts of Fallujah
and Najaf, the war is a deadly serious business. The guardsmen had been
on the border only two days when they saw Syrian forces across the line
with prominently displayed rocket-propelled grenades.
Marines died last month in an ambush in the border town of Husayba.
The militants exploded a roadside bomb to lure the troops from their
base and fired 24 mortar rounds at them as they began to respond.
with many of the missions our coalition forces are involved with, the
restoration of this earth berm is a significant effort to stop those
who would infiltrate across the border and cause instability in the
pursuit of security and self-government by the Iraqi people," says
Lt. Col. Edward Morgan, commander of the engineer battalion.
Spc. Robert Flowers, 23, from Bluefield, Va., the berm is a reminder
of the Great Wall of China.
the evening, in a throwback to the pioneers, the guardsmen circle their
Humvees and dump trucks like wagons to keep an eye out in every direction.
The cooks make breakfast in the dark, lit only by campfire. The desert
temperature dips near 30 degrees.
they all pray for their brothers who are engaging in another mission
of danger six hours to the south, near Mosul.
no longer the National Guard. We're the international guard. We went
from cutting trees and clearing trees out of the road to this,"
says Staff Sgt. Greg Morgan, sitting in the black-topped parking lot
of Saddam Hussein's former palace in Mosul.
40-year-old computer technician from Fredericksburg, who recently began
a one-year tour of duty with the 276th, has found a new job in Iraq
dealing with bombs: When soldiers find one of the enemy's deadly roadside
devices, it is the National Guardsmen of the 276th who are called to
John Williams, 21, says he first learned about the dangers that Iraq
presents 10 minutes after leaving the barracks on the way to secure
a town meeting in March.
soon as we get to this rural part of town, 'BOOM,' " he says. A
roadside device had exploded just behind the last vehicle in the convoy
-- fortunately, causing no injuries.
week later, Spc. Williams and a fellow soldier, Pfc. Brian Philpot,
helped find and destroy 33 undetonated bombs.
two are sure they didn't sign up for this. They are, in civilian life,
business students -- Spc. Williams at Virginia Commonwealth University,
and Pfc. Philpot at Northern Virginia Community College.
two months of training earlier this year at Fort Dix, N.J., they found
themselves part of a 276th team assisting an Army division root out
buried artillery shells -- one of many types of explosives used by insurgents
-- in farmland outside Mosul.
insurgents pack the shells with dynamite, then detonate them with a
night before their first mission, roommates Spc. Williams and Pfc. Philpot,
who are "battle buddies," laid out their gear before they
went to bed.
Williams cleaned his gun, including, delicately, each bullet. He remembers
setting out his earplugs.
a tough way to avoid borrowing thousands of dollars for a college education,
which both cited as their reason for signing up.
bomb call they answer sets their teeth on edge.
crazy how life is about quarters of inches and eighths of seconds,"
Spc. Williams says of the near miss on the road to Mosul in March. "I
was just shook."
that same day, as they returned to base, an Iraqi driver got too close
to their truck. Spc. Williams and Pfc. Philpot recall aiming at the
man behind the wheel and tightening their fingers on their triggers
before the driver raised both hands from the steering wheel.
just kept thinking about how I could have killed an innocent guy,"
says Spc. Williams, who lives in Newport News. "You can't let that
stuff eat at you. You'll just get really bitter when you get back."
Philpot, from Burke, says that first mission "made me think about
my chances of not making it home."
supposed to be doing missions every day. How am I going to keep surviving?"
casualties mounting daily for American troops in Iraq, just getting
around town is hard work for the engineers of the 276th. Roadside bombs,
rocket-propelled grenades and ambushes are all hazards of traveling
the streets of Mosul.
they go outside the gate," says Capt. Chris Doss, from Richmond,
who handles personnel matters for the 276th, "they have to be able
to pull the trigger. But when they come inside, they need to be able
each run, soldiers gather in a circle behind their barracks to go over
their game plan. After they review their route and worst-case scenarios,
Chaplain Eddie Barnett prays for their safe return:
God, we praise You for another day of life. Please, dear God, give us
wisdom and courage for our upcoming mission and Your divine protection
in traveling to our location and a safe return."
Denn Alaric, an 11-year police veteran from Blackstone, is commanding
a convoy to another base about an hour away when a soldier asks him
what to do if an Iraqi car gets too close to the convoy.
Alaric suggests the gunners in the back of the trucks gather piles of
rocks to keep on hand. "You do not engage a vehicle that is not
hostile. Throw rocks if you have to. I don't mean boulders," he
five-vehicle convoy will pass through a gauntlet of obstacles before
reaching its destination. Just outside the gate, bombs and small-arms
fire have been known to hit convoys. The traffic circle in central Mosul
-- where a U.S. soldier died from a roadside bomb a week before -- has
to be navigated again.
the way they pass through a bucolic landscape of Bedouin sheep herders
and dusty, smiling children. But seen through the window of an armor-fortified
Humvee, the postcard scenario becomes menacing.
Edward Morgan, the battalion's commander, looks out on the land. "Green
grass," he says, "populated by a few knuckleheads."
in his bunk after one such mission, Cpl. Nathan Almquist, 22, from Gloucester,
cranks up the volume on his CD player for Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet
Home Alabama" to soothe his nerves.
Southern-rock anthem reverberates through the alley in front of the
barracks, creating an almost MTV-like moment as the guardsmen clean
their dust-caked weapons.
says Spc. David Ruhren, as he disassembles the gun he named after his
wayward girlfriend. "A pain in the butt as always."
-- the girl, that is -- told the 19-year-old student just before he
left for Iraq that she was leaving him to marry someone else.
a weapon after a girlfriend, or former girlfriend, is a common practice
in the ranks.
the chaplain's assistant, Desmond Night, 33, from Sacramento, Calif.,
calls his M-16 "Melissa" after an ex-girlfriend.
she got fired up, she would just go off," he says.
flak jacket, "Suzie," is named after another woman, who, he
says, "would lay her life down for me."
it is no surprise that amid the violence, with their "women"
constantly cradled in their arms, the soldiers' thoughts and chatter
turn to the women and the lives they left back home.
Ruhren has been talking to another ex-girlfriend recently over the Internet.
"We talk now more than we did when we were dating," he says.
" I have to have something to look forward to at the end of the
his mind also turns fondly to the back yard at his mother's house in
out waist-deep in my lake fly-fishing," he says. "Cool breeze
in the air and my dog fast asleep on the shore in the sunshine waiting
for me to come back in. Simple things like that are what really matter
the most. Not cars and money like some others might think."
soldiers e-mail their wives and girlfriends constantly, lining up each
evening outside the base's Internet cafe to chat or see their sweethearts
on a Web camera.
isn't like cozying up on a porch amidst the smell of sweet springtime
with the Virginia crickets chirping. But for both people, it fills a
across the border from Virginia in Jonesborough, Tenn., Renee Morris
is a veteran at coping with the long deployments of her husband of 10
years, Capt. James Morris of the 276th.
captain, in civilian life a public safety officer in Johnson City, Tenn.,
is on his second deployment to the Iraq theater since early last year.
He hopes his family will understand.
think we've been together three out of those 10 years," Mrs. Morris
tells a visitor to her home in Jonesborough.
daughter Kaitlyn, 3, and John Paul, 7 months, to care for, Mrs. Morris
has plenty to occupy her mind. "You just pick up and do it,"
for Capt. Morris, the pleasures of home are seldom far from his thoughts.
miss sitting in the deck swing at night with Renee," he says. "Cool
nights we call sweatshirt weather. I miss the smell of the grass and
is always the flora and the fauna that stick in the minds of these troops,
as if a soldier's psyche is enveloped with the comforting aromas of
Spc. Josh Hylton, 25, of Hillsville, it is the dogwood trees that inspire
him to something like poetry.
Carroll County, there are still places where dogwood trees grow wild
in the woods," he says.
have pink blossoms, but the majority are the white ones. One in particular
grew by the creek in the holler behind our barn. Every spring, it would
bloom down there, like a bright white star in the shady green forest.
Each bloom had four delicate white petals with tips changing from pink
folk tale is that Jesus was crucified on a dogwood tree, and when God
saw the anguish of the tree so harshly used, He declared that no dogwood
would ever again grow straight or tall enough to be used for a crucifixion.
were a lot of beautiful things in those woods; lady-slipper in a couple
spots, daisies and dandelions, and the fresh new buds and leaves of
all the trees. The dogwood, though, was the one thing I always looked