For US Troops and Their Families, Iraq War's Invisible Costs Keep Piling Up
By Michael Hastings
Sunday 10 September 2006
Sept. 18, 2006 Issue - Toward the end of July, Capt. Brad Velotta began daydreaming a lot. He thought about making the summer's last run of salmon in Alaska's Russian River, where bears lumber down from the woods and chase fishermen out of the water. He thought about getting a kitten for his 3-year-old daughter, Sophia. Most of all, Velotta hoped to see his 83-year-old grandmother Mary one last time before she died of cancer. "She thought she could hold on," says Velotta's father, Albert, at the family home in Alexandria, La. Her grandson was supposed to leave Iraq on Aug. 2. "She thought it would only be a few weeks more."
But it wasn't. On July 26, Velotta learned that he and his unit, the 172nd Stryker Brigade, were going not home but to the core of Iraq's sectarian blood feud: Baghdad. After a solid year of battling the insurgency, from Mosul to Tall Afar to the westernmost reaches of Al Anbar province, the 172nd has been extended until after Thanksgiving - if not later. Velotta, 29, Blackhawk Company commander in the 172nd's 4-23 infantry battalion, gave a tough talk to his squad leaders: "I know it f---ing sucks. But you don't have the option to not be motivated. You don't have the privilege to be worn out. This is Baghdad. This is graduate-level s--t."
No one has to tell the 4-23 that every war is cruel. Its members freely admit they've been luckier than a lot of units in Iraq. The 172nd has lost fewer than 20 of its roughly 4,000 troops in the past year, and the 4-23 has had no one killed in action. Their record in the field, along with their almost indestructible armored vehicles, made the 172nd an obvious choice to clean out Baghdad's sectarian death squads. "We were victims of our own success," says Capt. Phillip Mann, the 4-23's intelligence officer. Even so, the war's emotional and spiritual costs keep rising for them and their loved ones back home. Velotta's little girl tells of bad dreams that he's going to die. "No, baby," her mother says. "He is coming home" - wishing she could be sure of that. The wedding of Spc. Shawn Mott and Nina Herrera was set for Sept. 16. Eight hours after she mailed the invitations, he called to say he had to go to Baghdad instead of flying home. "I was so scared to call you," he told her afterward. "I thought you'd leave"
The Army says troop morale remains high. For the first 11 months of fiscal 2006, two out of three soldiers who were eligible to re-enlist have done so - a rate unchanged since 9/11. But whatever the numbers say, the strain is showing. Capt. John Grauer, the 4-23's chaplain, describes the scene when the order came down: "There was a rush of soldiers trying to get on the phone to call home. Some literally threw up when they heard the news. Some were extremely angry ... Some went to sleep for a couple of days, hoping maybe it was all a bad dream." It was tough for Grauer to tell his wife, Tyra, and their two girls - especially Morriah, 9. "She started crying," he says. "That's when I put the sunglasses on." Behind the shades, he wept.
Back home, the news hit hard. Some 172nd wives are too proud to complain. "At least our husbands are out there saving the world," says one. "They're not wussies just sitting there on the couch." But at Fort Richardson, Alaska, the 4-23rd's home base, chaos erupted at the announcement of the extension. Some wives had already packed up and shipped their household goods to their husbands' next duty stations. There were families without a place to live; children pre-enrolled in schools thousands of miles away; parents scrambling for winter clothing they had given away; household goods in storage; airplane tickets for vacations that could not be taken - not to mention thousands of broken hearts. Grauer says soldiers have told him, "This has killed my marriage, It's been my third deployment in five years, and we've only spent 15 months together."
Staff Sgt. Chad Denton is on his second deployment. "It takes its toll," says his wife, Beth, back home in Anchorage. "You just don't know each other anymore." The Dentons have five children, 1 to 13 years old, and the two middle sons, 6 and 8, are having trouble. "They need their dad," Beth says. "I keep telling him, 'I know you guys are getting blown up, but I'd rather be on that side, doing what you're doing, than on this side, being mom and dad'." Telling her about the extension was "brutal," says Chad. "At first she said she couldn't believe it. I guess there are three stages: denial, shock ... " His voice trails off. He doesn't get to the third stage.
The 172nd is in the thick of Baghdad's largest military action since 2003. U.S. and Iraqi officials call it the Battle of Baghdad. Gen. George Casey, head of all Coalition forces in Iraq, told 172nd officers it's "the defining moment, the defining battle of the war." This summer's sectarian violence was the worst Baghdad has seen since the war began, with roughly 1,800 killings in July alone, according to the Iraqi Health Ministry. Large parts of the city have fallen into virtual anarchy. Privately, senior U.S. officials say the Iraqi government has only a few months to stop the killing or collapse.
The Stryker teams are supposed to hold the line. They spend their days searching bad neighborhoods for weapons and evidence of death-squad activities. But Baghdad, like much of Iraq, is suffering from "whack-a-mole" syndrome. The militias keep popping up elsewhere. "With two Stryker brigades, one on the east side, one on the west side, we could secure Baghdad," says a 172nd officer, who asks not to be named disputing Coalition strategy. Even then, he adds, it would take more than four months to finish the job. As things stand, many 4-23 members say the sweeps are no more than a temporary fix. Some argue that the aim is only to make Iraq look good before the Nov. 7 U.S. elections - "fighting for the House of Representatives," as Sgt. Brian Patton describes it.
Meanwhile, families are falling apart. Back in Alaska, one 4-23 wife has a suicidal child in the hospital; another suffered an ectopic pregnancy and had to beg her husband's commander to let him come home to care for her. Another wife attempted suicide. Her husband was sent home, but his career, the other wives say, is over. Gossip is running wild: who drinks too much, who has a compulsive-gambling problem, whose kids are left untended.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld got a taste of this rage and frustration in August when he met with family members of the 172nd at Fort Wainwright, near Fairbanks, Alaska. In a video of the meeting obtained by NEWSWEEK, one woman asked him why the 172nd was spending most of its time clearing houses, instead of patrolling the streets in the relative safety of the big armored vehicles. "My husband hasn't set foot in his Stryker since he arrived in Baghdad," she said. "Over 90 percent of the house clearings are being handled by the Iraqis," Rumsfeld responded, whereupon women in the audience began shouting "No!" and "That's not true!" Flummoxed, Rumsfeld shot back, "No? What do you mean? Don't say 'No,' that's what I've been told. It's the task of the Iraqis to go through the buildings."
The 4-23's soldiers say they, not the Iraqis, do 95 percent of the searches. "I'd like to punch [Rumsfeld] in the gut," says one seasoned NCO on his second Iraq tour. "He treats us like we're not human. He acts like he's not destroying families."
Baghdad in August breeds thoughts like that. Outside it's 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside a Stryker armored vehicle it's 130, sometimes 140. Team members sweat more than seems humanly possible. Their mustaches leak with sweat. Their soaked pants leave damp marks where they sit. The sweat collects in the protective goggles they wear, pouring off the eyebrows and into the lenses. Each soldier has to wear 15-pound side plates, 20-pound body armor, and a three-pound helmet that feels like it's baking the brain. When the vehicle stops, the teams dismount and go to work, climbing stairs, scaling walls, breaking down doors - always watching out for snipers and booby traps.
The unit has had plenty of close calls. Capt. Benjamin Nagy, who goes by the nickname Ox, has been hit by 15 IEDs. Chaplain Grauer has been IED'd seven times. Strykers routinely drive away unscathed from explosions that would kill everyone in a Humvee. Sometimes Velotta's men, sick of the drudgery of house searches, say things like: "Please, can someone just shoot at us?" But a single call over the radio can turn the tedium into something far worse. In the Adamiyah neighborhood, a soldier from another 172nd unit, the 4-14, recently became the extension's first loss. He was shot in the face by a sniper and died a week later after being evacuated to a hospital in Germany.
Postscript: Mary Velotta died on Aug. 19. Her grandson missed the funeral.
With Scott Johnson in Baghdad, Karen Breslau in Anchorage, John Barry and Michael Hirsh in Washington, Catharine Skipp in Alexandria and Margaret Friedenauer in Fairbanks