May 19, 2004

Far from Virginia

By Maya Alleruzzo
THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Published May 16, 2004

ALONG THE IRAQ-SYRIA BORDER - The 372 miles of arid, hilly border with Syria is a terrorist sieve, and the Virginia National Guard's 276th Engineer Battalion is the plug.
    

Every 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.
    

Protection 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.
    

The 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.
    

It 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.
    

Unit 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.
    

However 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.
    

They certainly didn't expect to be here in this desert as the spring blossoms came to their hometowns in Virginia.
    

Spc. 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.
    

"I've 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.
    

"The 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 her."
    

Circling the wagons
    

Back in Virginia, Marsha Stanford now makes the 80-minute round trip alone each day.
    

When 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.
    

"Can't you find somewhere it's quiet, where you are safe?" she remembers asking.
    

"This is how it is here," he replied.
    

And 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.
    

Five 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.
    

"As 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.
    

To Spc. Robert Flowers, 23, from Bluefield, Va., the berm is a reminder of the Great Wall of China.
    

In 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.
    

And they all pray for their brothers who are engaging in another mission of danger six hours to the south, near Mosul.
    

International guard
    

"We're 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.
    

The 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 destroy it.
    

Spc. 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.
    

"As 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.
    

A week later, Spc. Williams and a fellow soldier, Pfc. Brian Philpot, helped find and destroy 33 undetonated bombs.
    

The 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.
    

After 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.
    

The insurgents pack the shells with dynamite, then detonate them with a remote switch.
    

The night before their first mission, roommates Spc. Williams and Pfc. Philpot, who are "battle buddies," laid out their gear before they went to bed.
    

Spc. Williams cleaned his gun, including, delicately, each bullet. He remembers setting out his earplugs.
    

It's a tough way to avoid borrowing thousands of dollars for a college education, which both cited as their reason for signing up.   
    

Life and death
    

Every bomb call they answer sets their teeth on edge.
    

"It's 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."
    

Later 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.
   

 "I 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."
    

Pfc. Philpot, from Burke, says that first mission "made me think about my chances of not making it home."
   

 "We're supposed to be doing missions every day. How am I going to keep surviving?" he asked.
    

With 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.
    

"When 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 to relax."
    

Before 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:
   

 "Almighty 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."
   

 Throwing rocks
   

 Lt. 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.
   

Lt. 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 says.
    

The 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.
    

On 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.
    

Col. Edward Morgan, the battalion's commander, looks out on the land. "Green grass," he says, "populated by a few knuckleheads."
    

Back 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.
    

The 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.
    

"Sarah," says Spc. David Ruhren, as he disassembles the gun he named after his wayward girlfriend. "A pain in the butt as always."
    

Sarah -- 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.
    

Naming a weapon after a girlfriend, or former girlfriend, is a common practice in the ranks.
    

Even the chaplain's assistant, Desmond Night, 33, from Sacramento, Calif., calls his M-16 "Melissa" after an ex-girlfriend.
    

"When she got fired up, she would just go off," he says.
    

His flak jacket, "Suzie," is named after another woman, who, he says, "would lay her life down for me."
   

Memories of home
    

So 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.
    

Spc. 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 day."
    

But his mind also turns fondly to the back yard at his mother's house in Stafford.
    

"Being 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."
    

The 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.
    

It 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 gap.
    

Just 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.
    

The 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.
    

"I think we've been together three out of those 10 years," Mrs. Morris tells a visitor to her home in Jonesborough.
    

With 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," she says.
    

But for Capt. Morris, the pleasures of home are seldom far from his thoughts.
    

"I 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 blooming trees."
    

It 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 home.
    

For Spc. Josh Hylton, 25, of Hillsville, it is the dogwood trees that inspire him to something like poetry.
    

"In Carroll County, there are still places where dogwood trees grow wild in the woods," he says.
    

"Some 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 to red.
    

"The 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.
    

"There 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 for."
    
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