Baquba - The tattoo circles his left wrist – “Our Fallen Brothers” – the ink etched into his skin almost the same color as the blue in Army uniform.
“I don’t like to wear jewelry,” says Sergeant Michael Alsip with one of those understated explanations common to soldiers.
It’s 14 hours into an operation in Baquba to disrupt al-Qaeda command and control centers – barely the start of it - and the faces of the soldiers in Baquba and the faces of the soldiers in Alpha Company’s 1st platoon, (Stryker's 5th Battallion 20th Infantry Regiment) are caked with dust and fatigue. They’ve been doing this for 11 months now. They thought they’d be going home in June but now it will be October before most are back.
The dust filters through the hatch in the Stryker vehicle we’re riding in. A lot of the Strykers are air-conditioned. This one isn’t.
At the mission brief before this operation last week, officers and senior sergeants were told the temperature would be over 100 degrees – for this operation on foot that means carrying about 20 pounds each of water.
But before getting down to those details, Battalion Commander Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Antonia reads a letter from his brother describing the turnout at a funeral for one of the battalion’s fallen sergeants.
“It’s that kind of reason why we are here – the American people are behind us,” he tells his company leaders. He reminds them not to let their losses turn them against the people they are trying to help. “Don’t let the soldiers get frustrated to the point where they think every Iraqi is the enemy because you know it’s not true.”
The battalion, attached to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division has had 60 wounded soldiers evacuated and 13 killed in action – still a fraction of the losses the brigade has suffered. By the end of the operation all of those numbers would be higher.
For soldiers, the dead are sacred – their fallen honored in countless ways. But they resent being defined by whom they’ve lost rather than what they have achieved. In Baquba, 1st Cavalry Division soldiers and the Stryker battalion attached to them have turned around neighborhoods such as Buhritz, formerly an insurgent stronghold. They’ve fought al-Qaeda and brought warring tribes together. They’ve worked to re-open schools, hospitals, banks and factories, repair water lines and train government leaders.
But they’ve paid a heavy price. This is an al-Qaeda stronghold – declared the capital of the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq – and a testing ground for some of the most lethal weapons. The latest are roadside bombs buried underground. They are detonated as US and Iraqi troops drive by, in some cases flipping armored vehicles and killing several soldiers at a time. Two weeks ago a buried IED hit a patrol killing six soldiers and a Russian photographer riding with them.
Hundreds more soldiers have been wounded seriously enough to be evacuated out..
“There are so many people gone, sometimes I go out to the companies and I don’t recognize most of them,” said one soldier who travels around the brigade.
It almost never lets up. With more than 40 attacks a day, every couple of days brings a soldier killed or wounded. The days when no one is hurt seem only like breathing spaces in between. Brigade Commander Colonel David Sutherland visits each of the wounded evacuated to the the major surgical hospital in Balad – he says he’s made more trips there than he’s expected.
He’s attended 71 memorials for dead soldiers. So many that they’ve added another aluminum panel to accommodate the growing list of names at the memorial on the base.
Sutherland is about to go on leave – to see his wife and two sons in Texas for the first time in eight months. I ask him how he’ll be able to land at the airport and slip back into normal life.
‘I have no idea and it scares the hell out of me,” he says. “I’ve cried about it because I want to dedicate myself to my family and I’m afraid I won’t be able to. I’m afraid that I wont be able to be normal – to play catch with my boys, that I won’t be able to leave my brigade behind.”
Brigade Chaplain Major Charlie Fenton was working on his Memorial Day sermon when I dropped by his office at Forward Operating Base Warhorse, just outside of Baquba. The office is decorated with surfer memorabilia – a refuge on this dusty military base. He tries to write his sermons days ahead since he never knows when he might have to fly out to pray with wounded soldiers.
“There has been a difference – we’ve been here eight months now and we’ve taken a lot of losses,” he says. “I’m beginning to hear from an occasional soldier who will express doubts. Doubts about whether the Iraqis are supportive or not, about whether this is too complicated...and whether we’ll be successful.”
Most of the soldiers seem to agree that they need to stay in Iraq. That having lost so many they can’t leave with so much still undone.
“Its hard its kind of hard to deal with it a little bit but there’s nothing you can do about it,” says 1st Lieutenant Thomas Gaines, at 24 years old, a platoon commander making life-and-death decisions dozens of times a day. “You cant’ just stop going out. If something were to happen to me I wouldn’t want to just stop I would want them to keep going and get the job done so they could get home.”
The soldiers in his platoon have had only a few hours of sleep over the last two days. They’re on their way back to the base to take showers and rest when they get the word they’ll instead have to stay out and do ‘atmospherics’ to gauge whether insurgents seem to be about to mass in the area. They’re back in time for the memorial that evening – three soldiers killed by an IED. The company first sergeant calls the names of the fallen in roll call - once, twice, three times. No one answers of course. The hall echoes with the choked silence of grief-stricken soldiers who can’t afford to grieve.