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Troops Take Care As Iraq Time Winds Down
By Scott Schonauer
Stars and Stripes
European Edition

March 11, 2004

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 haul.

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.

Battling anxiety

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 critical periods.

"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 his life.

"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 yet.

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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This article is provided courtesy of Stars & Stripes, which got its start as a newspaper for Union troops during the Civil War, and has been published continuously since 1942 in Europe and 1945 in the Pacific. Stripes reporters have been in the field with American soldiers, sailors and airmen in World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo, and are now on assignment in the Middle East.

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Copyright 2004 Stars and Stripes. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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