View Full Version : Hard-Hit Platoon Fights to Heal

Officer of Engineers
17 Feb 04,, 02:16
Hard-Hit Platoon Fights to Heal
In just five months in Iraq, 11 soldiers from the 35-man third platoon of the First Cavalry Division's Bravo Company have been badly wounded or killed, leaving a new platoon leader to reconstitute the platoon and help it recover from its emotional wounds.

In Postwar Iraq,
Small Unit Suffers
More Than Its Share

Down 11 Soldiers, 3 Leaders,
Platoon Tries to Regroup;
Hatchback vs. Humvee

RAMADI, Iraq -- On Jan. 24, a suicide car-bomber slammed into a platoon from the First Cavalry Division in the small city of Khaldiya, killing three soldiers and wounding the platoon leader.

It would have been a major blow for any platoon. For these soldiers it was devastating. Since the platoon arrived in Iraq five months ago, 11 soldiers from the 35-man unit have been badly wounded or killed. The platoon's first three leaders have fallen, one of them killed and two so seriously injured they had to be transferred.

This small unit -- the third platoon of the First Cavalry Division's Bravo Company -- has been hit harder than any other in Iraq, Army officials believe. A few days after the bombing Army officials declared the unit "combat ineffective," a rare designation indicating that it has suffered such a large number of casualties that it can't continue fighting without new equipment and people. Then they sent the unit here to Ramadi, about 60 miles west of Baghdad and about 15 miles from their old home in Khaldiya, to rest and regroup.

Here, it has picked up nine new soldiers and its fourth platoon leader -- a 26-year-old Army captain named Jesse Beaudin, whose job it is to both reconstitute the platoon and help it recover from its emotional wounds.

"I know you have been through a lot together," Capt. Beaudin told his platoon shortly after taking charge. "Over the next couple of days, I want to get to know all of you. And I want to get you back in the fight."

It won't be easy. In just five months, the platoon has endured the full range of attacks that American forces have encountered. Fear and grief have given way to anger -- anger at the very Iraqi people the U.S. is trying to win over to its side.

Anger is what most worries Capt. Beaudin. Battling an insurgency requires an exceptionally disciplined force. Troops must be able to track and kill the enemy at the same time they work to win over a suspicious population. Several of his soldiers have told Capt. Beaudin they don't want to have anything to do with Iraqis.

Capt. Beaudin has been worrying most about Staff Sgt. Jim Graham, who has spent 17 years in the Army and earned the platoon's trust and respect in countless firefights and raids. "I don't like any of these people. And I don't want them getting close to me or my soldiers," the 39-year-old Montanan said of Iraqis a week after the Khaldiya bombing. As for missions such as handing out soccer balls, a staple of the U.S. campaign to win Iraqi hearts and minds, he was blunt: "I am not going to f------- hand out anything," he said.

Even before the fighting began, Sgt. Graham, a thin man with flecks of gray in his mustache, had concerns about the postwar period. "I remember telling my wife that if I had to go, I wanted to go early when the enemy was still in uniform, when you could see him and use your training to determine the time and place of the battle," he says.

In the end, the platoon spent the war at Fort Hood, Texas, and was finally called to Iraq last summer with the rest of the 140-man Bravo Company. They arrived in Khaldiya in late September, just as the U.S. was beginning to step up its campaign to stop a violent anti-American insurgency. Through most of October, the third platoon did two or three raids a week, bashing in doors and collaring Baathist remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime. On Halloween they withstood their first major ambush. They were raiding a suspected bomb-maker's house when enemy fighters, hiding in nearby swamp grass, sprayed them with machine-gun fire. The platoon fired back, killing three Iraqis. None of the Americans were injured.

The unit's younger soldiers, excited by their first taste of real combat, quickly e-mailed and phoned home about it. When Sgt. Graham phoned his wife, he avoided the subject. Eventually she heard about the firefight from other wives at Fort Hood and asked him whether he had fired his weapon yet.

"It's not important," he replied. "Things are pretty rough here, but don't worry."

In early November, the platoon's first leader, Lt. James Ray, and his gunner suffered leg injuries when their Humvee hit a land mine. The gunner was sent home and the lieutenant was reassigned to a desk job. Sgt. First Class Gregory Hicks, 35, the platoon's most senior noncommissioned officer, was put in charge.

Around midnight on Nov. 20, several dozen enemy fighters ambushed the platoon, which at the time was split between an observation post atop a bridge in Khaldiya and a tiny base nearby. The insurgents shot up the bridge with machine guns. At the same time, they rained mortars on the troops at the base, preventing them from rushing to their fellow soldiers' aid.

Early into the 45-minute firefight, Sgt. Hicks, the new platoon leader, was hit in the face with shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade. Sgt. Graham and Staff Sgt. Kevin Mallonnee begged Sgt. Hicks to lie down. "Instead, he pulled a piece of the metal out of his face and kept fighting," Sgt. Mallonnee says. For the platoon, which escaped with no serious casualties, weathering the ambush was a confidence builder. "We really felt like the enemy gave it his all and got nothing out of it," Sgt. Mallonnee says. Sgt. Hicks led on.

The next six weeks brought the usual mix of raids, ambushes and incoming mortar fire. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's passed without much notice. "We were too busy," Sgt. Mallonnee said. Along the way, one more soldier left the platoon because of a back injury suffered in an accident. Then, on Jan. 8, Sgt. Hicks was killed when a helicopter ferrying him to Baghdad was shot down. Staff Sgt. James Edwards, the unit's third platoon leader in two months, took command.

Sixteen days later, the platoon was manning an observation post in Khaldiya when, just before noon, a small white hatchback loaded with explosives came racing toward it. All Sgt. Graham remembers is a white flash that knocked him on his back. When he got to his feet he noticed that one of the unit's Humvees was missing. "It didn't dawn on any of us at first that the vehicle was completely gone," he says.

What Sgt. Graham remembers next was how well his soldiers performed. One bent over Sgt. Randy Rosenberg and gave him mouth-to-mouth. Others fanned out to secure the site in case they were ambushed. Sgt. Graham tallied the dead and wounded in neat block letters on a torn index card. Three soldiers -- Spec. Jason Chapell, Spec. William Sturges and Sgt. Rosenberg -- were dead. Four other soldiers, including Sgt. Edwards, who had been platoon leader for just 16 days, were wounded so badly that they had to be sent home.

At first, Sgt. Mallonnee says, he found himself wishing that the enemy had followed up the suicide bombing with an ambush so that there would have been someone for him to kill. Sgt. Graham agreed: "I wanted retribution, but there was no one to kill because the coward that attacked us blew himself up."

On Jan. 28 -- four days after the bombing -- the platoon lined up at the gate of its base in Khaldiya for the trip to a new home in Ramadi. Sgt. Graham gave the men strict orders. "Don't let any cars get near our convoy," he said.

On Iraq's traffic-choked streets and highways, cars routinely pass military convoys. This time, no one got close. The platoon fired about a dozen warning shots over cars that were edging too close to them or trying to pass.

Fifteen miles down the road in Ramadi, Capt. Beaudin, a Vermonter who graduated with a nursing degree from Elmira College, in New York, was waiting for them. The young captain hadn't seen much combat in Iraq. Upon arriving in September, his commander had made him second-in-charge of the unit's headquarters company, which is responsible for supplying combat units with everything from toilet paper to truck engines. The closest he had come to combat was when he was driving in a resupply convoy and a roadside bomb exploded about 50 yards behind his Humvee.

Capt. Beaudin had been scheduled to leave Iraq in early January to attend the Army's course for newly minted captains. But he turned down the slot to stay in Iraq. "I wanted to be with the guys," he says. He also wanted to get some experience.

So he met the third platoon in Ramadi, where its soldiers chafed under the rules of their new base. They were reprimanded for wearing uniforms without rank pins and for driving Humvees on the gravel sidewalks. "Welcome to the most anal place in the Middle East," groused Sgt. Graham. He was especially angry when he learned the platoon would have to go through two to three weeks of retraining. It almost seemed the Army was blaming the combat-hardened unit for the hits they had taken, he said.

Capt. Beaudin told Sgt. Graham the retraining was mostly for the new soldiers joining the platoon. But he also knew the platoon he was inheriting needed some work before it began patrolling the streets of Ramadi. Ramadi and Khaldiya are very different places. Khaldiya remains a hotbed of the insurgency. "In Ramadi, people are more receptive," Capt. Beaudin says.

Capt. Beaudin had heard about the warning shots the platoon had fired on the way to the base. "We're definitely going to have to tone that down," he says.

He also requested a few days of classes on the campaign to win Iraqi hearts and minds. And he planned to take the platoon to watch Iraqi Civil Defense Corps training. Spending time with Iraqis committed to helping the Americans might ease the soldiers' mistrust.

Capt. Beaudin's biggest concern, however, was winning his own soldiers' trust. For three days in early February the platoon's three most senior soldiers -- Staff Sgt. Graham, Staff Sgt. Mallonnee and Staff Sgt. Stacey Heygood -- spent most of their time in the motor pool overseeing work on the platoon's battered Humvees. Capt. Beaudin was there with them. Standing in the cold and rain, they talked about weightlifting and exchanged rumors about when they were going home.

Capt. Beaudin filled them in on their new mission in Ramadi. "It's been quiet where we're going," he promised.

"All right. I just want to chill out," said Sgt. Graham.

Two weeks after the bombing, Sgt. Graham still carried the torn index card on which he had carefully written the names of the dead and wounded. He also still carried a lot of anger. One night earlier he said he caught himself yelling at Indian workers who staff the bases' chow hall, because they look like the Iraqis, he said.

Around 3 p.m. on a cold, wet Wednesday, Capt. Beaudin left the motor pool to check in on some other work. After he left, Sgt. Heygood insisted the new commanding officer would succeed. "If he fails, it is our fault so I don't see that happening," he said.

Sgt. Graham nodded. "The mission always comes first," he said. But he also admitted the men wouldn't truly know how they felt until they rolled out the gate for the first time. "We're not robots," he said.

Earlier this week, the Army changed its plans for the unit. It returned to Khaldiya, where it will run patrols and raids for another month before going back to Ramadi.

Write to Greg Jaffe at greg.jaffe@wsj.com

Officer of Engineers
17 Feb 04,, 02:44
This pltn got alot of rebuilding to do. Least of all, direction from company and battalion.

17 Feb 04,, 03:17
Tanknet is discussing that too. Some interesting posts.

Rebuilding a platoon (

Recommended reading the posts.

17 Feb 04,, 05:45

Officer of Engineers
22 Feb 04,, 03:34
February 20, 2004
Today, war really is hell

Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine "investigated" how wounded U.S. veterans coming home from Iraq were coping.

Under the headline "The permanent scars of Iraq," writer Sara Corbett found "The battles now are with sleeping and waking" and living normally.

Interviews with various wounded veterans come to the rather depressing conclusion that no matter how they try, the wounded vets and their loved ones have great difficulty adjusting.

The only people these vets are comfortable with are others who shared the Iraq experience. Many vets are upset, they're short tempered, have nightmares, are difficult to live with. Divorce is soaring.

Corbett uses U.S. Defence Department statistics that show in early February, some 2,600 soldiers had been wounded in action in Iraq, and 403 injured in "non-hostile" accidents.

She says these figures differ from the Army surgeon general's claim that only 804 soldiers have been evacuated with battle wounds, while 2,800 (!) have been injured accidentally. If true, these figures raise questions about how "highly trained" the U.S. military is.

The surgeon general's office says 5,184 soldiers have been evacuated from Iraq for various medical reasons, including 569 "psychiatric casualties." Without getting into the discrepancy in figures, psychological trauma among the wounded is disquieting.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or "combat stress" is rampant in the military, be it America's or Canada's.

The NYT article is only the most recent of innumerable media stories of mental anguish endured by returning soldiers, wounded and otherwise.

Some defence analysts insist up to 25% of Canadian forces in combat zones come down with some form of stress disorder - even though the number of soldiers killed can be counted on one's fingers. PTSD is a growing worry for the Defence Department.

Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire, former UN commander in Rwanda, is one the most celebrated cases of PTSD. He's inadvertently helped make PTSD a fashionable subject and travels the world lecturing on the topic.

Media accounts of psychological problems of soldiers who've served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia - any lethal theatre - are so commonplace they're hardly news any more. There have even been claims of Canadian soldiers suffering from stress disorder from watching realistic training films.

What I'd be interested in is a media investigation of soldiers who return from war zones who don't have mental or psychological problems and seem to adjust despite the trauma they've endured.

Surely, there are some in this category, but I can't recall stories about soldiers who've been through fire and returned to lead normal lives.

War has changed dramatically from the past. Artillery and air strikes today make the shelling and bombing of past wars pale by comparison.

The autumn, 2003 issue of The Canadian Military Journal runs an intriguing comparison of the lethalness of modern weapons.

In World War II, at 800 yards, a tank took roughly 18 shots to register a kill. In 2003, in the Iraq war, at 2,400 yards, one tank shot registered a "kill." More pertinent, in WW II it took roughly 9,000 one-ton bombs dropped by 3,000 planes to ensure a target area 60 x 100 feet would be obliterated.

In Korea, it took 1,000 bombs dropped by 550 planes to ensure the same damage. In Vietnam, 176 one-ton bombs dropped by 44 planes resulted in the same destruction.

In the 1991 Iraq war, 30 such bombs dropped by eight planes inflicted the desired damage, while in the recent war against Saddam Hussein, one plane, with one 2,000-lb. bomb was all that was needed. The precision of today's weapons is awesome.

Those who served in WW II or Korea have little concept of the accuracy and lethality of today's weaponry - just as today's soldiers can't imagine the hardships soldiers in WW I or WW II endured.

For one thing, a tour of operations for today's soldiers is usually six months - not indefinitely, as in the world wars. Combat tours today are finite.

And combat is nothing like WW I's trench warfare, or the battlefields of France, Italy, Burma and the Pacific, with casualties in the tens of thousands.

Yet many vets who returned from these campaigns did not suffer mental trauma, even though a lot of psychological effects were undetected or misdiagnosed.

Soldiers do not make light of their comrades who have emotional problems. The basic feeling is "better him/her than me," but there's no ridicule or belittling of those who can't cope or who break.

That said, it is also true that "professional" soldiers are reluctant to seek therapy for fear it will appear on their records and curtail their careers. Still, it's worth studying why some endure and others don't.


Officer of Engineers
22 Feb 04,, 03:36
Peter Worthington was a member of PPCLI who served in the Korean War.

Most insightful.

Those who served in WW II or Korea have little concept of the accuracy and lethality of today's weaponry - just as today's soldiers can't imagine the hardships soldiers in WW I or WW II endured.

For one thing, a tour of operations for today's soldiers is usually six months - not indefinitely, as in the world wars. Combat tours today are finite.