Posts Tagged With: Oregon National Guard

Into the Dead City: With 2-162 Infantry in New Orleans 2005, Part I

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First glimpse of New Orleans, September 8,2005.

New Orleans, Louisiana

September 8, 2005

Ten Days After Hurricane Katrina

 

 

The dog trotted alongside our bus as we rolled to a halt next to a small park flanked by a Mississippi River seawall. The green space here was littered with debris—downed tree limbs, trash, an abandoned grocery cart lying on its side. The wall had been tagged by some anonymous vandal who memorialized his sentiments with, “RIP. Whore Katrina.” Sort of a gang-banger version of a cave pictograph, I guess.

I watched the dog lope past my window. It was an emaciated German Shepherd without tags or a collar.

“John…John, let’s go,” I turned from the window to see Sergeant First Class Vince “Vinni” Jacques calling to me from the front of the bus. All the other soldiers were jumping off the bus and streaming across the garbage-strewn grass. We’d been in the bus for almost three hours, drinking water and staring out at the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina as we inched our way from the New Orleans Naval Air Station, across the Mississippi, and into the city. On the entire drive in, we saw less than a dozen people—all but two of whom were first responders. On a street corner a few blocks from the Mississippi, a twenty-something couple sat on the curb, clothes filthy, eyes hollow and staring at us. A dirty grey dog lay panting at their feet, a length of twine serving as a leash and collar. They were the only civilians I’d seen in the otherwise empty streets. New Orleans looked like the set of one of Hollywood’s last-man-on-earth epics.

For the Ward Brothers!

I followed Vinni off the bus. The heat assailed me the moment my feet touched the ground. Not even noon yet, and the temperature had to be a hundred degrees. Coupled with late summer humidity, the weather was so severe that people were dying from it as they awaited rescue at evacuation points elsewhere in the city. The day before we left Portland, the Oregonian ran a front page photograph of an elderly African-American sprawled dead in a lawn chair he had unfolded in front of the New Orleans Convention Center. Another victim of heat stroke.

I followed Vinni to the seawall, where most of the soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, Oregon National Guard had lined up to relieve their bladders. I watched the spectacle of three hundred and fifty men urinating in a public park and whispered, “Well, you don’t see that every day.”

Through tight lips, Vinni replied, “Say goodbye to civilization for awhile.”

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Then-Sergeant First Class Vince “Vinni” Jacques. Taken at the Portland Airport the evening before our departure for New Orleans. Vinni had been wounded in action in Iraq, and had served in the 1991 Gulf War in an airborne artillery unit.

A year before, as the battalion prepared to deploy to Iraq, some of the men had taken their last leave in New Orleans. Sergeants Shane and Brian Ward had pub crawled through Bourbon Street. Late on their first night in town, Shane staggered into an alley and was caught relieving himself by two New Orleans police officers. They dragged him to their squad car, cuffed him and face planted him on its hood. Brian protested, and they roughed him up as well. Both spent the night in the local slammer.

What a difference a year makes. Shane had been seriously wounded in Iraq. Brian had come through physically unscathed, but had left the Guard in the summer.

Sergeant First Class Tommy Houston appeared next to me. Always grinning, ready with a story and generous to a fault, he looked over at me and shouted, “This one’s for the Ward Brothers!”

The cry echoed up and down the seawall: “For the Wards!”

Without power or running water, there was not a functioning bathroom in the entire city. This would have to do. I unzipped and let fly, feeling like a complete scofflaw.

A moment later, as I walked back toward the bus, the German Shepherd padded toward me. I stopped and regarded her. She looked up at me with forlorn eyes, her ears lowered submissively.

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The first of hundreds of abandoned pets we found in New Orleans.

“Come here, girl,” I said, urging the dog a few steps closer. Soldiers walked around her, and she glanced at each with an odd dual expression of fear and hope.

She came to me and sat down. I didn’t have much food on me, just a granola bar I’d brought from Oregon. I pulled it out and tore the wrapper off. She looked puzzled as I offered it to her. A few dainty sniffs, an even sadder expression, and she took the bar in her mouth.

“Better than nothing, I guess, eh girl?” I whispered to her.

“Come on, John,” Vinni said

I lingered. I had a canteen of water, and I tried to pour some into the dog’s mouth. No luck. She finished her granola bar and waited for more. A soldier I didn’t know found an empty can in the grass, brought it over and filled it with water from his CamelBak. She drank eagerly.

“John!” Vinni growled, his voice suggesting I ignore him again at my peril. I stuffed the empty granola wrapper into my pocket—I may have just defiled a public park, but I wasn’t ready to break the littering laws despite the reeking garbage that lay strewn in all directions—and followed Vinni.

We pulled our bags from the bus’s luggage compartment. Each of us had a rucksack stuffed with clothing and gear, plus a duffel bag, body armor and Kevlar helmet. To this mix, I’d added an Olympus digital camera and a Dell laptop computer.  Instead of searching for our stuff in the mass of identical rucks and duffels, we shouldered whatever was handed to us and walked single file the two blocks to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, which now served as the Oregon National Guard’s headquarters in Louisiana.

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At the Creative Arts Center a few hours before we headed north to the New Orleans Baptist Seminary. The CAC served as the brigade HQ for the Oregon National Guard.

We dumped our gear in the parking lot, then returned to the bus to get the crates of bottled water and boxes of Meals Ready to Eat (MRE’s) that would sustain us in the days to come. Each box weighed twenty or thirty pounds and was stuffed with a variety of MRE’s ranging from chicken sandwiches to omelets and hash browns.

The soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry had spent a year in the heat of the Middle East. They’d fought in Najaf, Fallujah, and helped suppress the two Shia uprisings in Baghdad. They were used to this heat and knew how to measure their movements and stay hydrated. They grabbed two or three crates at a time and slung them on their shoulders. It looked easy. I picked up two MRE boxes and made it a block before the humidity hammered me. Soaked with sweat and panting like a dog, I staggered toward the parking lot.

I was a middle-aged civilian, out of shape and a hundred pounds overweight. I had no experience with this sort of weather. My head started to buzz. My vision tunneled. A soldier nearby saw my face and grabbed one of the boxes. “Thanks,” I managed.

Me with the Volunteers the morning before we flew to New Orleans. I went into the city weighing 300 lbs. Came out a month later down to 260. I was extremely out of shape, unfit and totally unready for the physical and emotional challenges of post-Katrina New Orleans.

“Hey, Sir,” he said to me, “You’re here as our guest. You don’t need to carry this shit.”

“I’m sure as hell not going to be dead weight.”

He laughed, then added, “Well, that’s exactly what you’ll be if you go down and do the twitchin’ chicken.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“When you get heat prostration, you keel over and your body spasms uncontrollably. We saw it all the time in Iraq. Called it the twitchin’ chicken.”

“Jesus!” I had a vision of myself writhing in the street as Vinni and Tommy Houston watched. Could there be anything more humiliating?

He grinned at me and bounded off, carrying the MRE box like a football.

“Damn, how I wish I was young again. Or skinny.”

I dropped the MRE box on top of a pile in the parking lot. The men had made four-foot-high walls with the supplies, providing a bit of protection from the sun. Without any further orders, they settled down to doze and chat.

I found a bottle of water and drained it in seconds. Another one followed. I tried to wipe the sweat off my face, but everything I had was soaked with it. I ended up just smearing it around with my grey-blue t-shirt.

Vinni had gone off somewhere. Most of the soldiers in the immediate area I’d only recently met. I stood there next to the pile of supplies, feeling terribly out of place. I was the only civilian with 2-162.

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SFC Tommy Houston. Gregarious, always ready with a story and generous, Tommy made sure I had the proper equipment for New Orleans. I didn’t even own a pair of boots before we left. The pair he acquired for me turned from black to green as a result of the muck we slogged through in the city.

I finished a third bottle of water, then lay down in the shade of the supply boxes next to Tommy Houston.

“Ya good John? Yer lookin’ a little on the warm side there, pal.”

“Yeah, I’m okay. Thanks.” When the battalion received its mobilization orders, and I asked to come along, Tommy took me into the bowels of a supply warehouse and outfitted me with black infantry boots, a CamelBak, wool socks and a poncho liner that he called a “Whoobie.” This was a lightweight, camouflaged blanket that he assured me would come in handy.

We made small talk until I found myself drifting. The sun rose and our meager shade evaporated. The men covered their faces with their caps and soon most of them were snoring.

Movement at my feet woke me up. When I opened my eyes, I saw Sergeant Matt Zedwick grinning down on me. Known as “Z” in the battalion, Matt was a superb physical specimen. He was one of those guys who shattered the myth of soggy, out-of-shape National Guardsmen that the regular army often uses to denigrate the reservists. Matt didn’t have an ounce of fat on him, and his shoulders were wide, strong and capable. In our interviews, I’d found him to be the epitome of the modern National Guard non-commissioned officer.

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Matt “Z” Zedwick at NAS New Orleans the morning of September 8, 2005 before we drove into the city. Matt was a veteran of the Sunni Triangle, the 2nd Battles of Najaf and Fallujah. He became the first Oregon National Guardsman to receive the Silver Star since WWII. After Katrina, he was a guest contestant on the TV Game Show, Deal or No Deal.

“What’s up, Matt?” I asked. Without a word, he pulled a Zip-Lock bag out of his pocket and dropped it on an MRE box by my feet. He bent down and tugged its contents onto the cardboard.

I sat up and saw that he’d brought me a six-inch-long dead dragonfly.

“What the hell?”

He flashed another sly grin and walked away. I watched him leave, completely befuddled by this gift.

In June, 2004, a car bomb destroyed Matt’s Humvee and set it afire. The gunner, Eric McKinley, died instantly. Matt jumped out and dragged his wounded truck commander clear of the burning wreck. When insurgents opened fire on them, he shielded Sean with his own body. Moments later, a second IED blew up and severely wounded Shane Ward. Despite incoming small arms fire, Matt rushed over to him and staunched the bleeding, an action Shane told me over a beer had saved his life. Matt became the first Oregon Guardsmen since World War II to receive a Silver Star for courage under fire. That’s the third highest valor award the Army gives its soldiers.

I sat pondering what just happened when Specialist  Joel “Stiney” Stineman strolled by and dropped another dead insect on the MRE box. Tommy and I studied it. It appeared to be some sort of black and red wasp.

Another soldier delivered a second dragonfly. Soon, the MRE box was covered with dead bugs.

Vinni reappeared, face red and slick with sweat. He looked down at the box and asked, “What’s going on?”

“Well, I’m not sure. The guys keep bringing me dead things.”

Vinni let out a deep, rolling laugh. “John, that’s just a sign they like you.”

I wanted to ask if this was some sort of infantry tradition. Instead, I feigned appreciation and replied, “Nice. Good to know. Appreciate it.”

I scooped up the biggest dragonfly and stuck it back in the Z’s plastic bag.

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The Box of Dead Offerings.

“What’re ya doin’?” Tommy asked as I stuffed the bug into my laptop bag.

“Hey, you never know when something like this will come in handy,”

Vinni was a legendary prankster, and he’d already victimized me several times. I owed him, and the bug had given me ideas.

Tommy shook his head and gave me a sly grin. “Ya. You’ll fit in around here.”

Sergeant First Class Sean Davis, the man Matt Zedwick had pulled out of the burning Humvee, walked up to Vinni. “There’s a bank up the street,” he said, “There’s a bunch a parakeets flyin’ around inside it.”

“Parakeets?” Vinni asked, incredulous.

“Yeah.”

“That’s jacked up.”

“Well, go take a look at what’s sittin’ in front of the entrance to the brigade headquarters,” somebody else chimed in.

“What?” I asked.

“Go look!”

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The guardian of brigade HQ.

I got up and stretched, feeling old and very out of shape. I walked through the parking lot to the Creative Arts center. As I rounded the corner, I encountered a chicken roosting on a loop of extension cord next to the front door. The cord ran back to a gasoline generator that provided the headquarters with enough power to get the unit’s computers up and running.

I walked up to it and flipped on my camera. She sat up defensively, eyeballing me as if I’d invaded her territory. Her territory? She’d made her nest at the entrance to a cultural landmark. And besides, who owns chickens in a big city? I had visions of some local voodoo doctor keeping chickens around for various love potions or revenge serums.

“John, how you doing?”  I turned around to see Brigadier General Douglas Pritt, the commander of the Oregon contingent here in post-Katrina New Orleans. We had met back in February, when I first approached the Guard and asked permission to write a book about 2-162’s experiences in Iraq.

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General Pritt confers with Captain San Miguel, commander of Bravo Company, 2-162 Infantry.

“I’m good, Sir. Thank you.” I replied. General Pritt did not have the visage of a hard-bitten general, a la George S. Patton or Douglas MacArthur. Instead, he possessed a friendly face, a calm demeanor and a soft voice. He never swore, a fact that had become a legend in his command. Infantrymen have notoriously foul mouths, but woe be unto any soldier who used profanity in his presence.

We shook hands as he said, “Listen, how about you staying here at brigade headquarters? We’ll have air conditioning up and running in a few hours and hot chow at night. You’ll be comfortable here.”

“Where’s 2-162 going, Sir?” I asked.

“North, up by the housing projects. Lot of flooding there.”

The previous night, just before we settled down to sleep on the aircraft parking ramp at the New Orleans Naval Air Station, I’d met a Virginia National Guard MP. We’d struck up a conversation and I had asked him about the city. “The worst part’s the projects. Gang bangers ‘been shootin’ at everyone—police, ambulances, fire trucks. They’ve lit ‘em all up.  The other day, we found a cop lyin’ face down, handcuffed to a telephone pole. Shot in the back of the head, execution-style. Freakin’ gruesome shit, man.”DSC02528

“You’ll be able to see plenty from here, John,” General Pritt continued.

We made eye contact, and I could see the intent behind his words. You won’t be able to do this. Not in your shape. Not with your weight.

            The General was giving me a gracious way out. Perhaps he was having second thoughts about allowing me to tag along.

I’d spent the last six months doing research for the book on 2-162. It entailed interviewing as many members of the unit as possible; all of the documents associated with the deployment were still classified. Since February, I’d put almost twenty thousand miles on my Explorer as I drove around Oregon to speak with the battalion’s veterans. The work had taken me in some unexpected directions, including the visitation area of the Washington County Jail.

On the Friday before Labor Day, I arrived at the Oregon Military Department to interview the senior non-commissioned officer in the battalion, Sergeant-Major Brunk Conley. He came out of his office and greeted me with, “John, I can’t talk to you today. I’m sorry. We just got mobilized for Katrina. We’re going to New Orleans.”

Without even thinking, I blurted, “Take me with you.”IMG_3755

Brunk, a lean and chisled twenty-plus-year veteran of the Guard smiled warmly and said, “I hoped you’d say that. Let me go talk to General Pritt.”

All year long, as I met and interviewed each member of 2-162, the fact that I had not been able to embed with them in Iraq weighed heavily on me. I’d only learned of the unit’s intense combat experience a month before they were set to return, so I had no time to get out there and meet the soldiers in the field when I started writing the book.

Going to New Orleans could help atone for that.

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Vinni with my daughter Renee during a birthday party for my son Eddie a month before we went to New Orleans. Vinni had given Renee the hat she has on.

Besides, when I called Vinni and asked him if he was going, he growled, “Hell yeah–if they let us shoot looters!” Vinni growled a lot. It was one of his most endearing features, actually.

Where Vinni went, I went. In the six months since I met him, I’d become closer to him than anyone besides my wife. We’d shared stories, bonded over drinks and late night talks. I had helped write his men up for awards the army had initially denied them. In return, he paved the way within the unit for me to write the book.

Air conditioning would be nice. So would hot chow. For the past three days, I’d lived off granola bars and MRE crackers.

“Sir, if you don’t mind, I’d like to stay with 2-162.”

General Pritt offered a thin smile, “John, it is going to be pretty rugged.”

“I know, Sir. But if it’s at all possible, I’d like to be with the Volunteers.”

Back in 1917, when the United States joined the Great War, 2-162 became the first National Guard unit to assemble and declare itself ready for service overseas. It gained its motto, “First to Assemble,” from that achievement, and also earned the nickname the Volunteers.

“Okay. But once you’re there, you’ll have to stay.”

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Abandoned city busses became our primary means of transportation from the outset of our arrival in New Orleans. The Soldiers combed the streets to find them, then got them back into working condition within a few hours.

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, Sir.”

“You’ve grown close to the men, haven’t you, John?” he asked.

“Some of them are like brothers to me, Sir.”

He thought about this for a minute. Journalists stay detached, or at least they try. I was never a journalist and never really referred to myself as a writer, even though that’s how I’ve made my living for nine years. When asked, I tell people I am a military historian.

“We’ve found a good spot for the battalion, a seminary. You should be relatively comfortable there.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

Loading up for the drive north to the Seminary.

Loading up for the drive north to the Seminary.

General Pritt offered his hand. He looked unsure. I felt unsure. I think both of us were wondering the same thing: can the middle-aged, flabby historian hack this?

            “Good luck, John.”

“I’ll see you out there, Sir.”

He looked at the chicken as he walked back inside headquarters. She stared back, unafraid, as though she dared him to interfere. She sat up, extended her neck and clucked what must have been a curse in Chickenese.

The general shook his head and smiled, then disappeared inside. The chicken would stay.

General Pritt was a hard man not to like.

The waiting in the parking lot continued. The Oregon Guard lacked motor transport, and we remained hunkered down around our supplies hoping that something would show up to get us out of the sun and to our assigned area of operations.

When nothing did, the soldiers improvised. Small parties set forth into the neighborhood. Initially, this was just a matter of curiosity, but when some of the men stumbled across an abandoned city bus, inspiration struck. Further searches uncovered four of them, all with their keys still in the ignition, just sitting derelict in the middle of streets and boulevards. One had been driven onto a sidewalk where it had snapped off a stoplight pole. The driver had kept going after the collision until the bottom of the vehicle balanced on the pole’s stump. The Guardsmen, ever creative and adaptive, figured out a way to get it clear without tearing out the bus’s vitals.

Late that afternoon, the men drove our newfound wheels to the Creative Arts Center and reported to the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Dan Hendrickson, that we had our own rides at last.

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Joel “Stiney” Stineman, the battalion’s “Token Jew.”

As dusk fell, we made a human chain from the pile of supplies to our new busses and passed box after box from one set of hands to another until everything we’d brought into the city had been stuffed inside the rigs. When we finished, our duffels and rucks dominated the back third of every bus. I climbed inside and found Sergeant First Class Chris Johnson sitting atop the pile of gear, his head sticking through an open skylight in the roof.  Every other seat had been taken, so I sat down on the steps leading to the rear side door. A moment later, Stiney sat down next to me.

IMG_3798Peering through the double doors, I saw the German Shepherd again. She had lingered on the edge of the parking lot all afternoon. Occasionally, a soldier would bring her something to eat or drink. Now, as we prepared to leave, she was nosing through torn bags of trash across the street from the parking lot. When our engines revved, she looked up morosely and watched us drive away.

“Who would abandon such a beautiful animal?” I wondered out loud.

Stiney shook his head, “I don’t know, but they’re all over the place, rooting through the garbage like that.”

“Why isn’t anyone out there rescuing them?”

Stiney shrugged. “Nothing’s working here, John. It’s chaos.”

“It’s so fucked up that the morgue workers all  fuckin’ walked off the job,” Chris Johnson shouted down to us from his perch, “Nobody’s even around to pick up the corpses.”

“That’ll prolly be our job,” somebody added.

The bus started moving. We drove east for a few blocks and came to a smoldering building. One entire side had been blown out and tanks of propane gas lay strewn through the rubble. Nearby, somebody had spray-painted “LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT” on a scorched brick wall.IMG_3760

Stiney leaned over and showed me his digital camera. “Check this out. We found a crack house up the street.” He flipped on the viewing screen and showed me photos he’d taken of the wretched place.

I’d grown up in the heart of the Silicon Valley. Our neighbors were corporate CEO’s and high tech entrepreneurs. Pretention, status, materialism—those were the cultural norms I knew as a kid. When I came to Oregon, it took years to knock that arrogance out of me. What did I know of crack houses?

“I’ve had an easy life,” I said, more to myself than to Stiney.

“We all did. Until Iraq,” he answered.

Inside the crack house Stiney found.

Inside the crack house Stiney found.

The busses swung left up a wide boulevard. We were heading north now.

“Were you there the day Vinni got hit?” I asked.

Stiney nodded. “Yeah. He never really got over that and we didn’t either. I’m surprised he’s here.”

Four months into the deployment, Vinni’s armored Humvee was destroyed by a roadside bomb. His driver, Kenny Leisten, died instantly. Everyone else inside suffered severe wounds. Vinni had spent the last year recovering and only returned to active duty status the day before we left for Louisiana.

We sat in silence for several minutes, watching the scenery pass.

“Check that out!” Stiney exclaimed. I followed his gaze to see a derelict city bus resting partly on a sidewalk. Bullet holes peppered some of the windows.

We passed downed power lines draped over crushed and battered cars. At a high school, we saw trucks on their side, telephone poles snapped like pencils, and pools of oil collecting under shattered transformers. In the distance, fires blazed untended, creating crimson coronas on the horizon.

We came to an intersection where cars had been hastily abandoned. Doors and trunks stood open. Some had hoods raised and belongings cast pell-mell on the ground.

We found abandoned busses all around the Creative Arts Center.

We found abandoned busses all around the Creative Arts Center.

There were hundreds of unused vehicles that could have been used to rescue the people at the the Superdome and Convention Center.

There were hundreds of unused vehicles that could have been used to rescue the people at the the Superdome and Convention Center.

We drove on through the New Orleans sunset. The deeper we penetrated into the city, the darker it became. Our drivers moved slowly, edging around stalled cars and random debris that clogged the road in places. A few times, we had to inch along the sidewalks to continue our journey.

“I wonder why they didn’t use these busses to get the people out of the Superdome.” I said.

Stiney shook his head. “I heard a teenager had that idea. He showed up with a bus, offered to take as many people out of the city as it would hold.”

“Really? What happened?”

“The NOPD arrested him for theft.”

“Jesus, you’re kidding?”

Before we’d left, we’d seen Mayor Nagin’s plea for help during an interview with Geraldo on Fox News. He sounded desperate and panicky. Later, we heard him on the radio announce that he was going to stay in the city no matter what, even though the CIA was trying to kill him. Talk about delusional.

Nobody was sure what to make of all this. It did make us anxious to get our boots on the ground and see for ourselves what was going on in New Orleans.

The drive north to the Seminary.

The drive north to the Seminary.

Another few blocks, and the busses came to a stop. We sat in total darkness, unable to see more than a few yards beyond our windows. I could make out an alley with a few abandoned cars and several downed trees. No sign of the floodwaters that had caused the worst national catastrophe since Galveston, Texas, had been destroyed by a hurricane at the turn of the 20th Century.

“Stiney, you remember when we first met?” I asked in a hushed voice.

“Kenny’s memorial service.”

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Kenny Leisten’s memorial service, July 2005. I met many of the men from 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company there for the first time. Since then, I’ve tried to get back each July 28th.

Vinni had invited me up to Willamette National Cemetery to pay my respects to his fallen driver on the first anniversary of his death. I met most of the platoon that day for the first time. I also met Kenny’s father, who welcomed me with a warmth that I had not expected.

“Yeah. Vinni told me that your church sent a copy of the 91st Psalm to everyone in the platoon. Is that right?”

Stiney pulled off his cap, wiped the sweat of his forehead and answered, “That’s right. They laminated it on a little card.  Vinni read it to the platoon before every mission, to keep us all safe.”

During the memorial, Vinni had produced his copy of the 91st Psalm and had read it over Kenny’s grave. The soldiers had wept as he choked through the words.

“Okay, I’m confused,” I said. “If you belong to a church, why isit everyone keeps calling you the battalion’s ‘token Jew?’”

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Vinni at Kenny’s grave.

Stiney started to laugh. “I’m both. I am a Japanese-German-American Christian Jew.”

“How’s that possible?” I asked through my laughter.

He thought about that for a long moment. As he deliberated, a cat appeared out of the darkness. It moved slowly, hitching along on three legs. It kept its back left leg raised, and it carefully avoided putting any pressure on it.

“I guess the best way to put it is that I’m spiritual without being confined by doctrine. I have my own views of God. You can’t simply believe what others spoon-feed to you. If you open yourself to God, his true reality is revealed. That’s the basis of any relationship with Him. Do you know 1 John 5:14?” Stiney finally said.

“No.”

“’This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.’ Basically, the way I see it, we have to get past all the artificial barriers we’ve created to know God’s true nature. It sounds easy, but I still struggle with it.”

I wanted to ask him where God was in New Orleans, but thought better of it.

IMG_3800The cat hobbled into the alley and disappeared. I had volunteered at the animal clinic in my small Oregon town for three years in the 90s. The sight of this injured animal made me want to kick the doors open and go save it. For a moment, I indulged in a fantasy: if I could only get to it, I’d keep it hidden from the battalion commander and somehow get it back to Oregon.

I stared into the alley, hoping to catch sight of it again.

“You okay?” Stiney asked, staring at me.

“Just hate seeing animals suffer.”

“How ‘bout you? You religious?” Stiney asked.DSC02070

“Not in a conventional sense, I guess,”

“What do you mean?”

“I was raised Episcopalian until my sister rebelled. She refused to kneel at a service once, and that embarrassed my mother so much she never took us back.”

“Do you go to church now?”

“Sometimes. But I guess I’m like you. Have my own views. I believe in a higher power.”

“After the number of times I could have died, I have no doubt of that.” Stiney said, his voice an octave lower.

“Stiney, how old are you?”

“Twenty-one.”

“You are wise beyond your years, you know that?”
“Thanks, John,” he said, smiling.

Our lead driver refused to go any further. He’d learned that every convoy using this route had been sniped at by gunmen or gang bangers. Going forward in darkness into an ambush did not appeal to him. And so, we waited. The minutes grew long. Stiney and I leaned against the stack of gear behind us and got lost in our own thoughts.

DSC02068Forty-five minutes later, somebody prevailed on the driver to get moving again. With a lurch, our bus crept forward into the black New Orleans night.

We hadn’t gone far when a pink glow lit up our bus. I stood up and looked out the windows to see a Tower Records, its neon sign miraculously still blazing. A body lay on the far sidewalk, front-lit by the store’s sign.

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Starving, dying and desperate animals were everywhere in New Orleans. Eighty percent of the pets in the city died in Katrina’s wake.

I froze at the sight, eyes locked and tracking it as it passed through my field of view. Stiney said nothing, but I could tell he was looking at it, too.

Another block, and the blackness returned.  I could make out the buildings on our side of the street but little else. We slowed to a crawl again and slalomed through more debris. As the bus straightened out we reached another intersection. The side street stretched beyond our view, but I saw a car squashed almost flat by a fallen tree.

To our left, a small halo of red light came into view. It moved, first down, then back up, then glowed brighter, revealing a solitary figure behind it. We drew closer. It was a man, standing alone on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette. He was the first living person we’d seen since leaving the Creative Arts Center. As our bus went by him, I saw the whites of his eyes. He was so close I could have reached through the double doors to shake his hand. He took another drag of his cigarette and exhaled the smoke.

In a doorway only a few feet from the lone figure, two corpses lay, arms around each other in a last embrace.  Their bodies, baked for days in the heat, looked bloated and distended, their arms and legs entwined, foreheads touching.

I looked back at the smoking man who stood in the darkness next to the dead. He seemed unconcerned.

“Did you see that?” I asked Stiney, trying very hard to keep the horror and panic out of my voice.

“Yes,” he said in a soft whisper.

My body started to shake and I did my best not to let Stiney see. If I were to earn the respect of these men, I could not let such sights affect me. At least, I couldn’t it show.

“It’s like that movie 28 Days Later out there.” Stiney remarked.

“Apocalyptic,” I added. I couldn’t stop shaking.

The scenes of devastation rolled past our field of view. After awhile, destroyed and derelict cars became routine. So did the acres of downed power lines that festooned every neighborhood we entered.

Sometime before midnight, we reached the edge of the flood zone. The busses splashed through ten-inch-deep watery sludge. Soon, the side of our rig was slathered with black muck. Streaks of the stuff slithered down the windows on our double doors, leaving a track of filth that partially obscured our view.

We approached a freeway and inched onto it. Here and there we passed emergency vehicles parked nose to tail on the shoulder. A few had their lights flashing through the darkness. As we passed them, the strobe effect made me dizzy.

Stiney on a night patrol, carrying the platoon's commo gear.

Stiney on a night patrol a few days later, carrying the platoon’s commo gear.

The freeway dipped downward and we inched onto some low ground that must have been totally submerged when the levees broke. Now, the waters had receded just enough to leave a corona of pudding-like slime at the edge of the remaining floodwater. Dead fish lay in the mud, their silver scales illuminated by our headlights.

Our drivers dared to cross this flooded stretch of highway. I watched as the water grew closer and closer to our bottom step. It looked opaque. Shapes and forms bobbed on the surface, but I couldn’t tell what they were. Dead fish? Tree limbs?

Then I saw the unmistakable form of a dog. It lay half-submerged near a retaining wall, the wake kicked up by our passage slapping against its fur.

I closed my eyes as we went by it.

The bus changed gears and sped up, slopping out of the flooded patch of freeway. The bus had grown silent–the men no longer pointed things out to each other. The silence unsettled me. I wanted to strike up another conversation with Stiney but words eluded us. Instead, we sank deeper into our own thoughts.

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2nd Platoon, Bravo Company’s area at the Seminary was along the walkway in front of the music hall.

Somewhere, we took a wrong turn. The convoy stuttered to a stop. The drivers conferred over crackling radios. When we started moving again, each bus executed a “Y” turn and headed back for the flooding. We splashed through it again and took an off-ramp that led us back into the city.

Ten minutes later the convoy reached the New Orleans Baptist Seminary. We drove through the gates and stopped in the parking lot in front of the student union. The doors opened, and we dismounted to form another chain to get our gear off the bus. Soon, the parking lot was stacked with rucksacks and duffels. We sorted through them, reading the names stenciled on them until all had been claimed. I grabbed my gear and followed Vinni into the Seminary. Each company in the battalion had been assigned an area to bed down for the night. Charlie company set up shop in front of the cafeteria. I followed Vinni and Bravo Company around the corner to a breezeway in front of the music hall.

We dumped our gear and returned to the bus to fetch the supplies. Soon, my assigned area was flanked by MRE boxes. I pulled out my poncho liner and laid it down on the concrete between Vinni and Stiney.

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Stiney on his cot at the Seminary. It was too hot and humid to stay inside since there was no power to any of the buildings.

Some of the men carried collapsible cots with them. After setting them up, they tore into the MRE’s and began eating. I checked my watch. It was almost one in the morning. We’d been driving all night.

I hadn’t eaten since we left the naval air station that morning. I hadn’t brought along a pocket knife, and I hadn’t learned that you can tear the Mylar covers off the MRE packages by hand. I hated asking for help, so I’d spent the last few days eating the granola bars I’d brought from Oregon.

Vinni polished off an MRE then left to attend a briefing with the battalion staff. Stiney busied himself with setting up his cot and unloading some of his gear. Tommy Houston took his men over to the nearby school chapel, where they settled down on the steps.

Exhaustion set in. Using my duffel as a pillow, I stretched out and started to fall asleep. Then Vinni showed up and shook me back awake.

“John, listen up,” he whispered. “Here’s the deal. Three firefighters fell into the water a few days ago. Full immersion. All three just died of cholera.”

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Briefing at the Seminary.

“Cholera?” I asked, stunned.

“Yeah. And a couple of dogs were seen drinkin’ the floodwater. They died horribly in twenty minutes.” He emphasized horribly.

“Jesus,” was all I managed.

“Orders from the battalion commander: we’re to stay away from the water. Don’t get even touch it. Anyone who comes in contact with it will be treated as a casualty and evacuated out of the city. Understood?”
“Yes.”

“Stay away from it. We’ll DECON after every patrol startin’ tomorrow morning.”

“DECON?” I asked.

“Decontaminate. We’ll use bleach.”

“Okay.” I wondered if this meant bathing in the stuff.

“Stay out of the water, John.”

“No worries, Vinni.”

“Good. Get some sleep. I’ve got to go brief my squad leaders.”

He vanished down the breezeway. I lay back on the poncho liner, Vinni’s words lingering in my head.

Cholera.

In college, I wrote a term paper on cholera. In the last fifty years, it has been almost unheard of in the United States, thanks to modern sanitation techniques and clean water supplies. In times past, cholera ravaged communities, killing even the strongest with its brutal effects. I remember writing about its symptoms, and how the afflicted would vomit so violently they sometimes tore their stomach muscles.

I couldn’t think of a worse way to die.DSC00651

What am I doing here?

I looked over at Vinni’s empty cot. Across the breezeway, against the music building’s outer wall, the men had formed another line of cots. Spike Olsen sat on the edge of his, shirt off, dogtags dangling around his neck. Spike had just married my daughter’s first grade teacher. My wife, Jennifer, and I had attended the wedding and spent the night dancing and drinking with many of the other men sitting around us now.

You’re here because you’re connected to these men.

Spike had survived both the Battle of Najaf and the Battle of Fallujah. He and I had spent hours talking about his experiences in my office, an old ballroom above an animal clinic. He was finishing school at Western Oregon University and wanted to be a cop.

“What up, John? You doin’ okay?” he asked me, noticing my gaze.

“Doin’ great,” I lied.

            The first few times I had interviewed Vinni, he treated me like any other journalist. He kept it professional and didn’t share much of himself. Then one night, we got to laughing about something, and he asked if I wanted to hear some of the funnier stories about the battalion. That’s when his true personality emerged—puckish, wild, full of life. He told of pranks and parties and nights on the town before the deployment.

Through the laughter, we’d become friends. And from that friendship sprang trust. During another interview session, Vinni related how his platoon had raided a house in the Sunni Triangle. In the chaos, an attached sniper team accidentally shot a woman in front of her family. In halting sentences, Vinni told me how his medic, Doc Josh Smith, tried to save her. She died in front of her family.

Rather than walking away, Vinni spoke to her father and told him how devastated he was such an accident could happen. Beside his daughter’s body, the father stepped forward and embraced Vinni and thanked him for his words.

After he shared that moment with me, we kept no secrets between us.

What started as just another book project—my sixth—turned into something very different. I’d come to Oregon for college. I didn’t make many friends up here. My friends and family back home really didn’t understand why I stayed after graduation. Most of my high school class had returned to Silicon Valley.

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Spike and I during the company’s first night patrol in New Orleans. I was wearing borrowed body armor, which didn’t fit. No matter how hard I tried in New Orleans and Afghanistan, I was never able to master the art of tacticool. I looked like a dork tagging along with some truly exceptional human beings. Which I was.

But I loved my adopted state. I stayed and worked in the computer game industry for six years before finding the courage to leave and start a writing career. In the first six months I made three hundred bucks. Where some of my classmates from home were already multimillionaire entrepreneurs, I struggled to pay the mortgage every month. It soon became hard to relate to even my closest childhood friends, and I isolated myself away in my small Oregon town.

Then I met the soldiers of 2-162. Through our interviews, I discovered the non commissioned officers(NCO’s) and I shared common values, similar views and goals. We came from opposite backgrounds—most had worked their way up into the middle class while I had worked my way down—but somehow that didn’t matter. Loyalty, trust, meaning—those were the things that motivated men like Vinni, Sean Davis and Matt Zedwick. Those were the things that motivated me too, but had been all too elusive in my life for far too long.

I turned over and wrapped the poncho liner over my head to protect myself from the mosquitoes now buzzing around us. Only my nose and eyes remained uncovered.

I’d spent the last nine years writing about World War II and Korea from an office above the animal clinic in downtown Independence. I’d never embedded with a unit before, never ventured out into the field. I had been removed from reality, steeped in the past and writing about men who, for the most part, were long in their graves.

Now I’d followed kids half my age into the heart of a national disaster. I was so far out of my box, I felt utterly lost.

I couldn’t explain why to myself, but I knew, no matter how hard this would become, I needed to be here with 2-162. I had to overcome my fear, though, and I’d never been good at that.

Vinni settled down in his cot. As he pulled his whoobie over himself, he called over to me, “First patrol at 0600, John. Briefing at 0530. Get some sleep.”

“Roger that, Vinni.”

But long into that first night, I stared out at the floodwaters not ten feet from my make-shift concrete bed and wondered if I had the strength to pull this off.

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Grog and the National Guard

Field artillerymen of Battery A, 2-218th Field Artillery, 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Oregon Army National Guard, fire a 105mm shell from a Howitzer at Yakima Training Grounds, Wash., during the units annual training Aug. 9.

Field artillerymen of Battery A, 2-218th Field Artillery, 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Oregon Army National Guard, fire a 105mm shell from a Howitzer at Yakima Training Grounds, Wash., during the units annual training Aug. 9.

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Buckman Tavern, Lexington Green.

Today, I want to write about Grog. Grog and citizen-soldiers, actually. One is the fuel, the other is the shield and sword of this great nation of ours, and our tradition of both goes back hundreds of years. What were the Colonial militiamen doing at Lexington when the Redcoats marched into town? Drinking breakfast at Buckman’s Tavern, of course!

Grog is a time-honored Army tradition. I’ve been to numerous dining outs over the years, and have always had a lot of fun with the grog bowls in each. You get to know a unit by what they put in their grog, and what they put it in. The first grog I ever sampled belonged to Bravo Company, 2-162 Infantry. I can’t remember everything that was in that grog–hell that whole night is pretty fuzzy after I started drinking it–but I do recall sand from Iraq, filthy socks and too many different types of hard hooch to count being dumped into the bowl by the unit’s senior NCO’s. It was drunk not from fine china cups or crystal glasses, but a mangled, well-worn infantry boot. Somewhere, there are photos of me drinking from the boot that should never, ever be published. God it was nasty stuff–like burn your nostrils and set fire to your face nasty.

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From 2005-2013, I spent a lot of time with the National Guard units in Oregon, writing about them and serving as the leader of a volunteer group of civilians who filled the OPFOR role. This gave me access to free grog!

The 82nd Engineers had their own twist on the grog bowl. Again, the details are fuzzy, but as I remember they used the bucket from a backhoe as the grog bowl. An ancient engineer boot was the drinking utensil of choice. Lots of gritty stuff in that one as well.

I was lucky to be invited to a couple of dining outs with Alpha Company, 2-162, where I made the life-threatening crucial error of trying to keep up with the Legendary Alan Ezelle as he and Brian Hambright raided the open bar. By the time the grog had been poured and stirred, I was already barely able to walk. All I remember from that night was taking a drink from the boot and feeling my ears blow off. I vaguely recall projectile vomiting in Ankeny Hill Wildlife Refuge some hours later. I tasted whiskey and coffee grounds in my mouth for days, despite gargling with Listerine (and when that didn’t work) rubbing alcohol.

IMG_0381Just to be clear, I’m not a heavy drinker. On an empty stomach, I am a complete lightweight. National Guard Grog devastates me every time.

Earlier this month, I was honored to be the guest speaker at the 2-218th Field Artillery’s dining out. I was both excited to see what artillerists put in the grog, and also very nervous about making a spectacle of myself after drinking it. The affair was hosted at the Embassy Suites in Portland, and for a change I had appropriate attire. Until about a year ago, I had not owned a suit since 1996 and was always severally under dressed at these functions (and funerals). This made me even more nervous though, as I began to wonder how one cleans grog barf out of super 120 wool.

Artillery grog is composed of seven charges. Each charge has a particular piece of history attached to it. The first charge is a special blend that is mixed and buried for weeks by one of the members of the unit so that it may properly ferment and melt your stomach upon ingestion. Charges 2-7 all represent different aspects of the U.S. Army’s heritage or the unit’s history. Sake for fighting the Japanese during WWII. Cognac to honor our French Allies who helped give us the means to achieve our freedom. Scotch in honor of the British and our special alliance with them. The grog was mixed in what looked like an early 20th Century artillery caisson, then poured into shell casing mugs. Champagne, engine oil, a sock and some ladies stockings I believe were added to the mix to give it a bit of well, je ne sais quoi.

The result was a pinkish concoction that upon first taste was light and (thanks to the engine oil) smooth. Unlike the other grog I’ve had, the Redlegs made something that was not only historically laden, but quite good. I was astonished. I looked at my new friends, cheered them and said, “See you in the ER gentlemen” as I took a swig. The champagne’s bubbliness lend itself to the charge 1 buried blend and the cognac, while the Scotch fueled a nice burn on the way down. Unfortunately, I was driving that night, so I could only have a taste. I didn’t wake up in prison nor in the ER wondering where my clothes were and how my chest hair got burned off, thus I consider the evening a win.

41st Inf Div 218th FA Bn FO with radio and truck during exercise Rockhampton Australia 112642 (1 of 1)

A 2-218th Forward Observer during a field exercise in Australia, November 26, 1942.

The 2-218th Field Artillery has a history that dates back to 1866, making it the first and longest serving artillery unit west of the Mississippi River. Men from the battalion served in border wars with Mexico, the Western Front of WWI, in the Pacific and ETO during WWII, and for the last decade supported almost every Afghanistan and Iraq deployment undertaken by the Oregon National Guard. The Redlegs of the 2-218th are a humble, quiet, stalwart and exceptionally professional bunch whose deeds have escaped notice since they shirk the limelight. In the coming months, I’ll be writing more about them and their fascinating history. For now, the speech I delivered at the dining out (pre-grogged) gives a glimpse into the battalion’s rich heritage:

 

In the summer of 1943, an Australian brigade and the 162 Infantry executed an amphibious landing at Nassau Bay on New Guinea’s northern coast. The plan was to push inland and take out the Japanese base at Salamaua. Doing so would eliminate the Japanese from eastern New Guinea and open up  the way for MacArthur’s Island hoping drive to the Philippines.

 

The landing was a disaster. Heavy surf swamped the only large landing craft available and most of the barges and LCVP’s were lost on the waterline as well. The 162nd struggled ashore without heavy equipment and without most of their radio gear to face a well-prepared enemy fighting from interlocking pillboxes and log bunkers.41st Inf Div 218th FA Bn 155mm Howitzer Yellow Beach Hollandia New Guinea 06--44 (1 of 1)

 

They called it the Shipwreck Landing. The 218th Field Artillery was supposed to have gone ashore with the 162, but the destruction of so many landing craft made that impossible. Instead, B and C Batteries, landed a few days later.

 

They began taking casualties on that first day. Japanese snipers lurked in the jungle around them. Hold outs laid on point-blank ambushes. Booby traps claimed several men. The weather went from steamy hot to sudden deluges that left the men shivering.

 

41st Inf Div 163rd Inf Regt Cannon Co 105mm howitzer yellow beach hollandia 060544 (1 of 1)The 80 men of C Battery and their four 75mm pack howitzers were of no use on the beach. The infantry had slogged inland already, and the Oregon artillerists were tasked with hauling their guns five miles through swamps, across creeks and rivers—by hand. They broke the weapons down, made makeshift litters from tree limbs to carry some of the gear and waded through chest-deep swamps teeming with crocodiles. Several men in other units had been eaten alive by those animals. Others had been swept away in the fierce current of the Bitoi River.  The men of C Battery crossed and recrossed that river at least six times as it wound around the only jungle track that could take them to the Japanese.

 

When they cleared the river, they had to carry their howitzers up steep slopes and down the backsides of ridges into leech and mosquito-filled swamps. With their four guns, they brought four hundred rounds of 75mm ammunition, each weighing fifteen pounds.

 

The morning of July 8, 1943 found C battery dug in on a hillside about six thousand yards from a major Japanese defensive position that the 162 called “The Pimple.” The Pimple was a thousand foot tall hill overlooking the Bitoi Track and River. To get to Salamaua, the Pimple had to be taken. The Aussies had attacked it three times. The Japanese, hunkered down in 25 pillboxes and 50 heavy weapon emplacements, threw back every assault and even cut off one of the Aussie companies for three days.

 

On the 8th, the Aussies and the 162 tried again. This time, the 218th was there to support them. It was a big moment for the Oregonians and Washingtonians of the unit. They’d never fired their 75’s in anger before, and before the pre-assault barrage began, the men gathered to sign their names on the first shell.

 

For days, the infantry had been charging up the Pimple into interlocking fields of fire with nothing more than grenades and light machine guns to support them. They had no tanks. Close Air Support was in its infancy and unavailable. The Japanese fought to the death. They hadn’t given ground.

 

That changed with the 218th’s arrival.  That day, July 8, 1943, the men of C Battery fired the unit’s first shell of World War II. In the ensuing days, the battery burned through its ammo supply. Men had to retrace their path back to the beach to hand carry another hundred shells. Others were air dropped, but most were damaged in the attempt. The NCO’s organized a party to recover those damaged shells, pull the primers and projectiles out of dented casings then refitted them into empties laying around the firing pits.

41st Inf Div 205th FA Bn 105mm Howitzer in action Salus New Guinea 080543 (1 of 1)

For almost a week, the 218th hammered the Pimple, taking out machine gun nests, mortar tubes and pillboxes. Three days into the battle, C Battery received an urgent call for support. An Aussie platoon had discovered an entire Japanese infantry company coming to reinforce the Pimple. They’d gathered for a short rest during their march in an open field—no more perfect a target for the 75’s. C Battery fired nine shells per gun in thirty-six seconds and smothered that Japanese company in high explosives. At least fifty were killed and countless others wounded. The Pimple would not be reinforced.

 

The Aussies took the hill the next day.

 

For the next month, the 218th sent shells down range as the infantry assaulted one damn ridge after another. On the 4th of August, the unit suffered its first combat fatalities when an Aussie mortar round fell short and landed on a forward observer team, killing five men.

 

On September 1st, with the Allied infantry at the threshold of Salamaua, The Japanese launched a furious counterattack. Dawn Company, 15th Brigade, Australian Army was cut off atop a steep ridge. Low on ammunition, the Japanese counter-assault swept toward them. Captain Burelbach, the 218th’s fire support officer attached to the Aussies, called for fire. Every gun in the 218th and 205th rained shells down on the Japanese attackers, breaking up two onslaughts and saving Dawn Company.

 

41st Inf Div 218th FA Bn M2 50 Cal AA Tambu Bay New Guinea 081943 (1 of 1)The ordeal did not end on the 1st. The next morning, freshly landed Japanese Marines—elite troops—stormed Dawn Company’s positions along the ridge. Exhausted, weakened by jungle diseases and weeks of fighting in horrific conditions, the Aussies could not possibly hold out for long. Burelbach called for fire. The 218th ringed Dawn Company with a curtain of steel and stopped the Japanese Marines in their tracks.

 

Later that day, Dawn Company’s commander, Captain Provan, limped into Smith Battery, 218th’s perimeter. Wounded, filthy and emaciated, he wanted only to thank the Americans who had saved the lives of his men. Without their 75’s, he told them, Dawn company would have been annihilated.

 

The 218th’s first campaign of World War II ended a few days later. It set the tone for what followed for two more years of fierce, jungle fighting in long forgotten places that served as stepping stones to the Philippines. Unheralded, these campaigns unfolded against a brutal and determined enemy that asked no quarter and gave none. The 218th played a significant role in MacArthur’s drive to Leyte which cut off 250,000 men—as many as were surrounded at Stalingrad in 1943. Of those 250,000, less than 11,000 were left to surrender at the end of the Pacific War. The 41st and the 218th took part in one of the greatest and most successful military operations in American history—and received almost no notice for it.

 

That is the hallmark that characterizes the artillery, unfortunately. Overshadowed by the infantry, by special forces, the whiz-bangs of the Air Force’s smart weapons, the artillery has been virtually ignored by the American media, except to demonize it over collateral damage.41st Inf Div C bat 218th FA fires 105mm howitzer at Arara New Guinea 052544 (1 of 1)

 

The truth is, those who matter know its importance. They know that the U.S. Army’s success on every battlefield from Boston Harbor in 1776 to the most furious onslaughts in Afghanistan and Iraq are built on the backs of the men and women who crew the guns. The superiority of American artillery tipped the odds in 1848, stopped Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, blasted the holes in the German defenses in the Meuse Argonne that the infantry exploited. The 75’s, 105’s and 155’s of World War II were the main casualty producers—something like 85% of the German losses on the Western Front came from indirect fire. Time on Target, the ability to shoot and scoot, the speed at which the artillerists could get shells downrange—those assets saved countless Allied lives and broke up countless Axis counter-attacks.

 

Without the artillery in Korea, the mass Chinese human wave attacks would have destroyed the U.N. and the American 8th Army in 1950. Without the artillery emplaced on Vietnam fire bases, how many would have been overrun by the NVA? And the Gulf War? While the technology got all the attention, the real work was done by the artillery.

 

The Global War on Terror changed everything. The concern for collateral damage and the cost of paying for every broken doorknob in Iraq and Afghanistan led the artillery away from its traditional role as the King of the Battlefield. Firepower, accuracy and speed were replaced with convoy security, military police duties, infantillery patrols. The Artillery, the most specialized and technical branch of the Army, became a jack of all trades, doing whatever needed to be done to support the mission.

 

19may04 034Yet the need for infantry support, firepower and the protection of American lives with that deadly steel curtain remained. The skills and weaponry that made the U.S. Army an unbeatable force for two hundred years have atrophied across Big Army and the Guard alike, but the threats of conventional warfare remain. Russia and the Ukraine, the demented regime in North Korea, Chinese expansion in Southeast Asia—these are threats our infantry and aviators cannot alone deter.

The men and women of the 2-218th have proven their skills in this traditional role are the best in the nation. Despite deployment after deployment in non-artillery roles, the infantry you will support on future battlefields will rest a little easier knowing that the Oregon Guard has their back. Your commitment to your training has ensured these crucial skills have not atrophied.

The men and women of 2-218th have proven this by winning the coveted Hamilton Award in 2012.

You accomplished this despite the many competing demands you have faced since 9-11. Men and women from this unit have served on every battlefield since 2004. They have been in ambushes, kinetic small arms fire engagements. They’ve called for fire at critical moments in key battles. No finer example of this can be found than Patrick Eldred, Bravo Company, 2-162’s Fist of God. While serving as a forward observer during the Battle of Najaf in 2004, Pat brilliantly called for both artillery and air support, sometimes danger close to 2nd Platoon Bravo during sixteen days of house-to-house fighting. Pat’s precision and coolness under continuous, sustained fire for those two weeks played a decisive role in defeating the Mahdi Army fighting around the Imam Ali Shrine.

 

Personal examples of bravery abound. Luke Wilson, a 2-218th veteran who volunteered to go out with 2-162 during OIF II is an exemplary case of selfless devotion to his Brother warriors. On the first night the battalion drove into Baghdad from Kuwait, sixty plus Syrian volunteer insurgents hit the Oregon convoy. Luke’s plywood walled 998 Humvee took an RPG that wounded everyone in back. Luke’s leg was blown off below the knee. Instead of calling for help, he continued to fire at the enemy until their rig cleared the kill zone. Even after, he refused to call attention to himself until everyone else was treated. He almost bled to death before reaching the Baghdad CASH as a result.

Smoke rises behind a Charlie Company HUMVEE from a car that charged the scene firing at the unit. Charlie Company returned fire, stopping the car, to secure the area, during increased tension in Sadr City, Iraq on July 5, 2004. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt Ashley Brokop (Released)

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt Ashley Brokop (Released)

 

This is your heritage, your legacy. From its first inception in the 1860’s to the battles our nation fights today, the men and women of the 218th serve with great distinction and honor. More than any other National Guard unit I’ve encountered, 2-218th is also a family. Generations serve here. It is a rite of passage for many families to serve in this unit. It becomes the core of their lives. While America has endured crises and convulsions here at home and abroad for over a century and a half, the 2-218th has been a constant. Here, service is valued. A commitment to something greater than self is at the core of that service. It is not a unit you join for financial benefits—there are no tier one bonuses to be had. This is a family you must seek out, you must want to join and be a part of this extraordinary heritage. You must want to build on that with your own actions.

 

They say our grandparents were the Greatest Generation. They won a war with the full support of a nation mobilized in every aspect for it. They won that war with a draftee military, on broad shoulders of patriots young and old.

 

This generation has been asked to do far more with far less. You are volunteers in the longest war in American history, a war being fought by a tiny warrior class while the rest of the nation is busy with their own self-involvements. On your capable shoulders is the flag of our nation, and members of this unit have worn it in the most remote corners of the globe. You are doing it without the full support of our political leadership or our fellow Americans. You are doing it in anonymity, without rewards beyond the fulfillment of knowing what you do has tremendous value. American artillery exists to save American lives. Without you, without your pride and professionalism, there would be far more empty seats at holiday tables across the country this year.

That is what a century and a half service means. In the many trials ahead that we face overseas, the men and women of 2-218th will meet those challenges with steadfast resolve, courage and the commitment that has long since made the Oregon National Guard and its values the bedrock of our state.

 

Our grandparents may have been the Greatest Generation. But in my book, you are the Most Noble one. If we are to save our nation in this time of great crises, it will be those like you who will get the job done. Those of us who still believe ours is the greatest nation and humanity’s last hope, vest in you our complete trust and support.

 

On this most sacred of American holiday seasons, pull your loved ones close. With family, we will persevere. God bless you, and God Bless America.

41st Inf Div fa bn tractor and 105mm in New guinea jungle 070743 (1 of 1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Legendary Alan Ezelle

1934882_1147964296701_2539593_nBefore I introduce Master Sergeant Alan Ezelle, I must preface it with the following confession: the first time I met E.Z. he scared the absolute hell out of me. I mean, at the handshake I was ready to wet my pants, flee, or surrender.

One look into his eyes, and you’ll know what I mean. They telegraph that this man is the baddest, nastiest, life-takingest NCO in the land.

And they don’t lie. They just don’t reveal all about the man.

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Alan Ezelle on patrol in Baghdad, Iraq during OIF II.

Sergeant Major Vince “Vinni” Jacques once said to me that “E.Z.’s been fed a steady diet of lizards and small Asian children.” I tried to quote that exactly in the Devil’s Sandbox, as I thought it was pretty hilarious, but apparently eating babies is okay, while eating Asian babies is racist. Who knew? Anyway, the Asian part got chopped in the end.

None of that changes the fact that I believe Vinni’s on to something there. Alan Ezelle is something more than human. I’m not sure what it is, but he is not your average mortal man.

E.Z. is a prior service enlisted man who served in the U.S. Army at the tail end of the Cold War. He did a stint straight out of high school in 1986, ended up in Germany for part of the time, then came home and separated from the service. He settled in Eugene, where he got a job as a bouncer in a local strip club. Several times, he faced down armed, drunken, horny rednecks with his fists, wits and a baseball bat. Somehow, he always came out on top.

Later, he found work at a company that rebuilds damaged railroad box cars. This was seriously hard labor, and E.Z. spent eight hours a day or more swinging a sledgehammer there. All in a day’s work. Truth be told, few men are up to such work day after day.

IMG_4514He joined the Oregon Guard in the early 1990’s and has served with Charlie Company (now Alpha) 2-162 for most of his career.

Alan Ezelle earned an ARCOM with V device for a four hour firefight in August, 2004. See the Devil’s Sandbox for details on that engagement. If this had happened during World War II, E.Z. would be wearing a Silver Star or DSC right now. His courage under fire, and his tactical, small-unit leadership in combat was second to none that day. His men were caught in a tactically disadvantage situation on Budweiser Bridge, taking fire from three directions and from both banks of the Tigris River. Meanwhile, an Iraqi SF unit was pinned down on the west bank by almost a hundred insurgents. Thrown into the mix was at least a platoon plus of Iraqi National Guardsmen, most of whom were half-trained and prone to lighting up the sky, the water and the sectors occupied by American troops.

E.Z. helped extract the surviving Iraqi SF guys, getting into a grenade-throwing fight with the insurgents in the process. He then covered their withdrawal back across Budweiser Bridge and got everyone out before he led his platoon off the bridge.

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E.Z. with Aaron Cochran during an Alpha Company MOUT exercise in 2008.

Through the course of the 04-05 deployment, E.Z. found himself in every possible type of firefight, ranging from lone gunmen spraying and praying, to complex ambushes complete with IED’s, RPG’s and lots of small arms fire. He led his Charlie Company platoon through it all without suffering a single man wounded in action.

The enemy was not so lucky.

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Al Ezelle (right) at the 2-162 welcome home following the battalion’s second Iraq deployment in 09-10. Brian Hambright (center) and Vince “Vinni” Jacques (left)–both among the finest NCO’s to serve with the Oregon National Guard.

Al Ezelle has that rarest aspect of personal charisma that elevates all those around him to perform incredible feats. His leadership is always unquestioned. The confidence his men have in him is total. What Ezelle orders gets done, like right now. Some of them are scared as hell of him, but everyone who has ever served with him says the same thing: the man knows how to motivate, knows how to extract the last ounce of effort from every man, and he always leads the way. Back when he was a platoon sergeant, I overheard his men on drill weekends talking quietly among themselves about some of the amazing things they’d seen E.Z. do. They spoke about him with a mix of holy terror and reverence. E.Z. is one of those guys that does stuff people remember. More than once I’ve heard a Soldier say, “I swear to God he did that. He’s not F###ing human, dude. He’s just not.”

Some of it is pretty damn funny too. One specialist related how E.Z. got dive-bombed by an angry crow outside the Alpha Co. armory in Eugene one day. The crow came back for more, swooping low over E.Z.’s head and squawking like crazy. E.Z. eyeballed the bird, then drew down on it. The wise bird got the message: the armory is Alan Ezelle’s territory. Mess with that and you’ll end up splattered, feathers drifting in the wind.

IMG_0400Now, E.Z. lives up to his larger-than-life persona every time he straps on his IBA. But at the same time, the knuckle dragger image he projects serves to hide two vital things about him. First, he is one of the smartest human beings I’ve ever met. He’s got a steel trap of a mind that allows him to make snap decisions in the heat of the moment. He knows when to use a carrot, when to use a stick. And he also lets everyone know that the stick he’s carrying is not an ordinary one. It is the biggest freaking one on the block and he won’t stop beating the crap out of you with it until you’re a limp, broken fraction of a man begging for momma. Only then will he ease up a bit on you.

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Buried under the larger than lifeness of Al Ezelle is the soul of a teacher. When I worked with Alpha Company as their volunteer OPFOR coordinator from 07-10, I saw Al’s teaching persona emerge many times as he patiently explained a particular nuance to Battle Drill Six Alpha, or a Soldier skill that one of his men needed to hone. Someday, if he ever retires from the service, I hope he ends up as a history teacher. His classes would pass the AP exam every year. 🙂

He tempers that threat of overwhelming force with a very keen sense of human nature. When trying to make friends and win hearts and minds, he’s direct and honest and will do whatever he can to help a community out. He’s a savvy negotiator who understands that most humans have motivations and desires that can be used as the basis for establishing rapport. If he didn’t like kicking in doors so much, he would have been an outstanding diplomat, or interrogator.

I’ve never met anyone who has a better grasp of small unit tactics and doctrine than Alan Ezelle. In a fight, he’s proven many times he keeps a clear head and can visualize the entire battlespace in his head. This, combined with his ability to quickly assess a situation and make snap decisions, is what makes  Alan Ezelle such an outstanding leader of men. His SA can’t be beat. He is never surprised in combat, or in the training I’ve been involved with since 2007.

One aspect of E.Z. that I don’t think I did justice to in the Devil’s Sandbox is his ability to educate and teach his young soldiers. Over the last year, as I’ve watched him in the field during drill weekends, I’ve seen him mentor his new guys along with patience and just the right among of ass-kicking when necessary. He would have made an excellent high school teacher, he’s got all the skills for that and more.

In August of 2008, I was embedded with Alpha Company during the brigade’s summer Field Training Exercise at Gowan Field. During a company level assault on a village, part of his platoon was pinned down on the far left flank of the assault. He was with another element across a street and about a hundred meters from the squad that got in trouble. Two men were declared wounded. Al saw what was going on and sprinted across that stretch of open ground, kicked open a door, shot the “insurgent” inside, then got his wounded out of the line of fire.  One of the brigade’s officers at the time was watching that display of initiative and muttered, “That’s not his job anymore. He’s not a squad leader.”  I couldn’t help but think, this is exactly what he did in Iraq, and he saved lives. TO&E–Whose job it is on a battlefield doesn’t matter. What counts is the effect. Leaders get the job done no matter what their role is on paper.

As of 2015, Al Ezelle now serves as the 41st Brigade’s operations NCO. While not kicking in doors anymore, his innate situational awareness and tactical acumen I’m sure makes him well suited for his new role. But at heart, he will always be door-kicking, Soldier’s Soldier, larger than life, eminently capable and filling everyone around him with confidence and courage. I’ve met many great leaders—NCO’s and officers here at home and in Afghanistan, who I would have, and did, follow anywhere to write about them. But of all the warriors I’ve met over these many years, Al Ezelle is the only one who I would want leading my kids’ into a fight should they decide to enlist one day.

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Al Ezelle, Mark Flowers (of WWIIgyrene.org) and Brian Hambright at Goshen Range, spring 2008. Exemplary NCO’s.

 

 

Categories: American Warriors, Iraq War 2003-2010, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Gwenie’s Story Part 1: Action over Ajerestan, 2010

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First Selfie. Gwenie about to get her first round of vaccines since her arrival in Oregon. I have that same look on my face whenever a doc comes at me with a needle. Photo by Gwenie’s dad (that would be me).

Life has a crazy way of working out, something that Gwenie’s arrival here in Oregon underscored for me. This is the story of how a chaotic moment in combat four years ago led to a warrior’s rescued pup reaching my family this Fall.

 

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FOB Ghazni, September 18, 2010. The first step in a long path that brought Gwenie to Oregon. Photo by John R. Bruning

September 19, 2010:

That summer and fall, I was embedded with TF-Brawler, 3rd CAB, and with Bravo Det 168 GSAB, an Oregon and Washington National Guard CH-47 Chinook company. On the 18th of September, which Afghanistan’s national election day that year, I was aboard a Chinook tasked with carrying a platoon of Polish infantry from FOB Ghazni to COP Ajerestan. The Afghan National Army and Police defending the district capital there had been surrounded by hundreds of Taliban fighters. Helicopters going into the COP’s landing zone had been taking fire, so the Chinook crew had been briefed to expect contact. En route, however, the Chinook I was aboard suffered catastrophic mechanical failure. The aft transmission overheated, and the pilots put the bird down on a dry lake bed at the foot of the Hindu Kush. The following day, the 168’s crew was ordered to attempt the run to Ajerestan. This time though, instead of troops, the Chinooks were filled with water and food for the besieged garrison. This article is how that mission forged a lasting friendship, and ultimately resulted in an addition to my family.

Ajerestan was so far from TF-Brawler’s base at FOB Shank that it did not even appear on the map in the 168 GSAB’s company CP. At the time, all I knew was that it was way, way south of Ghazni up in the Hindu Kush. We’d been there once before, and the Chinooks had to climb above their rated altitude to get over the mountain ridges there. When I wrote a piece about that, 168’s company commander, Captain John Hoffman, told me to delete the altitude reference, lest somebody Stateside see it and get everyone in trouble. Operational realities sometimes demanded pushing the aircraft beyond their acceptable performance envelope. That was just the reality of the harsh Afghan terrain.

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Loading bottled water aboard the 1-168 Chinook, bound for Ajerestan. Photo by John R. Bruning.

We left Shank that morning, delivered some ANA troops to another remote valley to the west (I think) of Ghazni. Then we returned to Ghazni to fuel up and have lunch. Polish M24 Hinds were buzzing around, and I took a few photos of them until Eric, our co-pilot, came over to tell me that we’d been ordered to Ajerestan. I turned to see a forklift offloading palettes of bottled water into the back of the Chinook. When the operator finished, I climbed aboard and sat down. A moment later, we lifted off with our #2 and an Apache gunship flying escort in our wake.

It had been a long morning, and as we climbed above twelve thousand feet, I started to get tired and cold. I wonder now if part of it was hypoxia. The Chinooks had no oxygen system for passengers in back, and I don’t think they even had oxygen for the crew. Anyway, I went out like a light.

 

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Climbing over the spines of the Hindu Kush on the way to the outpost at Ajerestan. Photo by John R. Bruning.

 

I woke up as the Chinook suddenly slewed into a tight bank. Grabbing my camera, I picked my way up to the right door gunner and peered over his shoulder. Ahead, I could see COP Ajerestan, a tiny base with such poor force protection that two burned out cars served as a obstacles against speeding vehicle suicide bombers at the otherwise open front gate. The COP was too small to support a helicopter landing pad, so the LZ was outside on a finger of flat ground a short distance from the overturned car.

There were two Blackhawks sitting in the LZ– MEDEVAC birds that had been called in to extract wounded ANA. As we closed on the LZ, a Taliban RPG team lit off a rocket. The RPG shot between the birds and exploded perhaps a hundred meters away from them.

Right then, our Apache escort came into sight.  Thirty mike mike blazing, the gunship swept over the treeline where the RPG had originated then pulled off its run directly toward us at our one o’clock. The bird was low–I mean right on the deck, and the pilot chose to go right under us before pulling up. I snapped several photos of it as it came toward us, then quickly moved over to the left door gunner’s window and shot a few more of it as the Apache pulled up.

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Smoke rises from the treeline (at right) where the Taliban RPG team had been concealed. The smoke at left is rising from the edge of the LZ. Scott and Cassie’s Apache can be seen at the bottom of the frame starting their gun run. Photo by John R. Bruning

 

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Scott & Cass coming off the gun run, passing under our Chinook. I took this over the left door gunner’s shoulder. Please don’t repost this one without permission, thank you! Photo by John R. Bruning

 

Moments later, the Blackhawks sped away from the LZ, and we came in to land. A mad scramble ensued to get the pallets of water off the back ramp. There was no wall between us and the Taliban RPG team’s last position, only a few gnarled strands of barbed wire. A lone ANA sentry hugged the ground not too far away from us, clutching his AK and looking terrified. The gunners helped the crew chief offload the supplies, and looking back, I feel guilty I didn’t help.  I was at the right door gunner’s window, scanning the treeline with a 500mm lens on my Canon 7D, looking for anyone shooting at us.

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The lone ANA sentry hunkered down by the LZ, scans the treeline for incoming. Photo by John R. Bruning.

The pallets split open, and water bottles cascaded out into the dirt as the guys struggled frantically to get the load off the Chinook. Nobody from the COP risked coming to help, so the stuff just piled up. Finally, they got the last of the water pushed off the ramp. Eric and Joe, our pilots poured on the coals and we soared up and over the COP. I could see the Afghan flag fluttering from a sandbagged bunker as we clawed for altitude.

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Bob and Carmen, piloting the 2nd Chinook in our formation that day, gets airborne from the LZ while under mortar fire. Photo by John R. Bruning

Right behind us came the #2 bird, piloted by a pair of Washington National Guard aviators, Bob and Carmen. Their Chinook touched down just as the Taliban dropped a ranging round from an 81mm mortar. It landed long. As they offloaded their supplies, a second round exploded much closer. The mortar crew was walking fire right onto the LZ. The third one landed danger close, but the Chinook’s crew cleared the cargo bay and sped aloft, the Apache covering its escape.

It had been a tense moment, but none of the helicopters had been hit, thanks in large part to the strafing run the Apache executed.

That night, I was looking at the photos I took that day. The sequence I shot of the Apache included some of the best photographs I’d ever taken, and I was struck by how clear the shots came out despite the maneuvering our pilots had been doing. Then, when I zoomed in on the Apache’s cockpit, I saw a bomb sticker on the co-pilot’s helmet.

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Scott and Cass at Ghazni, September 19, 2010. Scott returned for another Afghan deployment and died in a non-combat incident at Kandahar on March 29, 2013. Photo by John R. Bruning.

I remembered seeing that bomb, along with a decal of Rosie the Riveter on the helmet of a female Apache pilot whom I had photographed at FOB Ghazni the day before. I was blown away, and hurried over to the Apache Company to ask who she was, and if I could interview her. I had no idea women were allowed to be Apache pilots, and it turned out she was only one in Task Force Brawler.

That’s how I met (then) 1LT Cassie Wyllie.  Cassie impressed me from the outset when I interviewed her the next morning. She walked me through what she and her pilot, CW5 Scott Reagan, had done over Ajerestan, and when she finished, I thanked her profoundly. It felt to me as if Scott and Cassie had saved a lot of Coalition lives with their timely gun run. At very least, it gave the Blackhawks time to get off the LZ, and us in and out of it before the Taliban had recovered and opened fire again.

Over the course of the next two months, I ran into Cassie several times in the Shank Defac. I would usually be sitting alone, playing Scrabble on my ITouch and eating when she would come over to say hello and sit with me. I was far from home, terribly lonely and missing my family enormously. I’d gone over as an embed without representing any media outlet or news organization, and the financial strain that was causing was pretty significant. I went four months writing nothing but articles for local newspapers about their hometown Soldiers, gratis as sort of a one-writer IO campaign to counter the intense flood of negative press the military had been getting after the McChrystal Rolling Stone piece. So to see somebody like Cass take time to talk to me did wonders for my morale.

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Cass in her office. FOB Shank, September 2010. Photo by John R. Bruning

 

We stayed friends after we both got home. And that friendship deepened and grew as we both went through some rugged times. I know I missed being out there every day, and right now writing about those experiences chokes me up. It was the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done. For those months I was out there, I was among the most dedicated, intelligent and resolute humans I’ve ever known–American, Afghan, Czech, Polish and Jordanian. They’d come together in common cause and purpose, and to be a tiny part of that as an observer and recorder, felt bonding. Staying in touch with Cass kept that bond alive for me.

We saw each other at the Reno Air Races in 2013 and had a wonderful time. I met Cass’s mom and some of her friends. We saw a theatrical production of Grease, and then promised we’d see more of each other. But life has a way of getting in the way, and before we could link up again, the Army sent Captain Wyllie overseas again.

At the end of September, 2014, between 700-2,000 Taliban fighters swarmed Ajerestan in a determined assault. The Afghan forces defending the area were overrun. At least a hundred were killed along with fifteen civilians whom the Taliban beheaded. Ajerestan is now in Taliban hands. It is a very, very difficult thing to take after seeing all the effort put forth by so many dedicated warriors–American, Polish and Afghan–to keep Ajerestan free.IMG_2364

 

 

 

 

Categories: Afghanistan, Gwenie's Story | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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