AL-ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq — Soldiers washed Humvee windshields,
loaded up the last pieces of cargo and checked to make sure they left no wrench
or weapon behind.
The next day would be the first leg in their journey home after spending a
year in Iraq. But before they reach a relatively safe, dusty camp across the
border in Kuwait, their convoy must travel through areas known for roadside
bombs, ambushes and mortar attacks.
Spc. Christopher Watson, 23, of Houston, scowls when asked about the
risks. In the past 12 months, he has faced more than his fair share of danger,
and he said he is not about to allow anything to happen to him or anyone in his
unit — the Fort Still, Okla.-based 2nd Battalion, 5th Field Artillery —
especially this close to being home.
"I feel sorry for anyone who gets in our way," Watson said.
Commanders want soldiers to treat their final days in Iraq with the same
vigilance and attention to detail as their first few days last spring, when
they stormed across the Kuwaiti border and toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. But
they are concerned that some soldiers might already be thinking about home,
distracting them from the threats they face while still in Iraq.
From the highest-ranking officer to the private, military units are trying to
make sure troops avoid getting complacent while also helping them brace for
what could be a difficult adjustment to life back home.
Antonio Padilla, the safety director for the Fort Carson, Colo.-based 3rd
Armored Cavalry Regiment, said he is working from "sun up to sun down"
reminding soldiers to think about safety. The regiment has lost 48 soldiers in
Iraq and has had more than 300 wounded.
"I keep saying, ‘Look, we don't want to go home via Landstuhl [Regional
Medical Center in Germany],'" said Padilla, a retired master sergeant who in
December joined the regiment in Iraq. "We want to go back in one piece."
Beating Murphy's Law
A helicopter accident last month is the type of incident
units are desperately trying to avoid as they pack and prepare for the long
Weeks from going home, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Matthew Laskowski and co-pilot
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Stephen Wells crashed their OH-58 Kiowa Warrior
helicopter into the Euphrates River on Feb. 25 near the city of Haditha. Both
pilots were married with children and had talked about their plans once they
returned to their families.
The Army is still investigating the incident, which the regiment has called
an accident. But the crash served as a wake-up call.
Sgt. Matthew Bernard, 25, of Fountain, Colo., a medic with the Army's 571st
Medical Company, is making sure nothing happens to him with just a week to go,
joking that he even looks both ways when he crosses the road on base. His unit,
which flies UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, has evacuated 1,546 patients on more
than 1,000 missions.
The company lost three helicopters and seven soldiers on this deployment.
"I'm actually hoping Murphy doesn't kick me in my ass," Bernard said,
referring to Murphy's Law, which states that if anything can go wrong, it will.
"Once we're finished, when we're leaving and it's all over, and I'm not flying,
I'm sitting in the back letting them take me home, you think, ‘What if?'"
A few weeks ago, regiment commanders met to talk about the trip home. They
did a "risk assessment," ticking off all the hazards of the upcoming trip home,
from Humvee accidents to roadside bombs. After the meeting, they put the word
out to soldiers to not let their guard down.
The dilemma is that some soldiers have a tremendous amount of
anxiety about the day they step foot on American soil again, especially those
who know they are facing financial problems or divorce papers. Sergeants major
and other noncommissioned officers are trying to identify those soldiers who
are considered "high risk."
Soldiers go through a series of briefings to help them reintegrate with their
families, but those expecting to deal with marital or financial problems when
they get home get extra attention. Troops who have angst about what awaits them
when they return go through counseling before they leave.
"It's maddening for our soldiers to try and keep their mind on the mission
when they know their whole life is crumbling underneath him," regiment Chaplain
(Capt.) David Deppmeier said.
Suicide is one of the biggest fears.
The Army has combat stress teams to deal with those who are coping with the
horrific images of combat, and chaplains always are there to help those
contemplating suicide. The last few weeks of the deployment, however, are
"The closer you get to the day of redeployment, they're going back to face
those issues," Deppmeier said. "I think in some cases, the risk can go up for
soldiers. They know they're going to have to go back and face the music and
really deal with these issues."
The longest month
Soldiers nervous about going home have a ton of time to
worry about things during the final several weeks. Some units wrapped up their
mission in Iraq, are packed up and just waiting for transportation.
Soldiers are counting the minutes.
Spc. Pedro Gonzalez, 22, of Miami, a flight operations specialist with the
571st, said the last week has been among "the most boring and longest days" of
"We're just waiting to go home," he said. "But at least we know we're going
home. That's the only thing that gets us up in the morning."
Staff Sgt. Joseph Peca, 28, of Philadelphia, who is married and has a
1-year-old son, said people are getting tired of seeing the same people and
hearing the same stories over and over again.
"You know you've been in Iraq too long when you run out of things to talk
about," Peca said.
Changed by war
Most soldiers leaving Iraq will be changed forever. Some are
concerned they will return home dramatically different people, while younger,
single soldiers said the experience has made them more mature.
Spc. Jeromiah Platt, 19, of Fountain, Colo., has spent more than half his
Army career in Iraq. He is single and only a couple of years removed from his
high school graduation, but he has gotten an education about himself that he
could not get at any university or community college.
"You appreciate things more," he said. "You take life a little more serious.
You don't know when your time's up. You realize that, ‘Hey, any minute I could
go.' You just don't know."
Watson said he is looking forward to seeing his family and driving his new
Dodge Ram truck. He bought it while on midterm leave, but he hasn't driven it
But first, he must drive in a convoy of more than a dozen military trucks and
Humvees south to Kuwait, where they will get on a plane and head west to the
United States. He is not taking the trek lightly.
He knows the dangers.
"This," he said, "is the last battle for us."
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