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Sunday, May 28, 2006

NYT Magazine Covers Experiences of National Guard in Iraq

A fully-loaded piece arrives from the New York Times today showing the unique ways new combat assignments affect our National Guard troops serving in Iraq. Great reporting. Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

A 'few' snippets from the NYT -- be sure to read the entire article (spanning 10 web pages):

In a small park at the center of the town of Butler, the county seat, a collection of stone memorials speaks to the disproportionate sacrifices this small county has made in America's various armed conflicts: 321 dead in World War II, 60 more in Vietnam. Even the name of the county and town honor a fallen soldier: Maj. Gen. Richard Butler, a Revolutionary War hero who was killed by Miami Indians at the battle of the Wabash in 1791.

Usually it has been Butler's youngest factory workers and farmhands who have been called to arms. But that changed in the winter of 2004, when the local detachment of the Pennsylvania National Guard — Alpha Company, First Battalion, of the 112th Mechanized Infantry Regiment — was ordered to Iraq, part of the largest battlefield deployment of the National Guard since World War II. Among the 200-odd men of Alpha Company (unlike some other National Guard units, they were all men) fully two-thirds were married, more than half had children and at least 50 were over the age of 30. Even within this demographic, Chuck Norris was something of an anomaly: at 37, the father of three was one of the "old men" of Alpha Company.

Chuck Norris' road to enlistment is covered, as well as how the small business owner eventually found his way to Iraq.

As a result of a recent merger with another National Guard garrison in Ford City, 22 miles down the road, the company was overstaffed, giving the military the luxury of cherry-picking some 130 men from the 200-man unit, depending on their specialties. Among those excluded from the roster was Sgt. Chuck Norris. "That came as a real blow," he told me, "because here all my buddies were going over, and I was supposed to stay home."

When Norris heard the news, he went to meet up at the American Legion hall with his best friend in Alpha Company, Carl Morgain, a fellow sergeant, to discuss the situation. At first glance, the two seemed an unlikely pairing. Norris was gregarious and outspoken, while Morgain, an electronics technician for the T.W. Phillips Gas and Oil Company and the father of two, was an intense and deeply private man with a wry wit. Still, Norris had developed a bond with Morgain, who was two years older, in the time they had spent together in Alpha Company. "A lot of what you do in the Guard is a real grind," Norris explained. "Hiking, sweating, being eaten by bugs. But those experiences also have a way of bringing you close. And one thing Carl and I always talked about was that if it ever came to a deployment, at least we'd be going over there together." Except that in the call-up for Iraq, Morgain was on the roster and Norris wasn't.

Norris would eventually get an assignment, and the two men went to desert-warfare training together in Fort Bliss. The two would not get their wish to serve together, however.

As it turned out, though, the two friends were not going to be together. Morgain and the rest of Alpha Company pulled into Forward Operations Base (F.O.B.) Omaha in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, while Norris and his recovery team continued 30 miles up the road to F.O.B. Summerall in Baiji.

"I didn't really know what to expect," Norris said. At first, he recalled, "it all seemed kind of mellow. Nothing happened on our drive up from Kuwait, and from what I'd seen on the news about Iraq, I figured everything was pretty much under control." That assessment changed a few days after his arrival, when Norris and the rest of his eight-man recovery team were led into the back room of a maintenance shed on the base by the team they had come to replace. One veteran had a laptop on which he had stored images of the missions his unit had gone out on. "You're going to see things out there no one should ever have to see," the departing team leader told the new arrivals. "You need to tow a vehicle — you'd better be prepared to reach through a man's intestines to put it in neutral."

As the grisly images scrolled by on the laptop — the aftermaths of car bombings and mortar attacks and roadside explosions — Chuck Norris gradually realized that he had no idea what he was getting into.

As things became more dangerous for Norris, the same escalation was occurring in Morgain's unit.
For Morgain, the steadily mounting number of attacks on Alpha Company began to harden his views on the war. As a Humvee gunner, he occupied the most dangerous position on the vehicle, but it was also the one that allowed the most face-to-face contact with ordinary Iraqi civilians, and this provided him with a unique window onto the baffling complexity of the place. At first, he enjoyed clowning with the children who would crowd around his Humvee, but as the months passed and tension mounted in the area, he recognized some of those same children among the ones now throwing bricks and pipes at him. On one occasion, he distributed shampoo to a group of grateful women in a village outside Tikrit; returning a few days later, he discovered that the women had been beaten by their husbands for accepting gifts from the Americans.

Norris, too, had come to understand that his presence was not appreciated, or worse. His officers, he told me, "were always drumming into us: 'Hearts-and-minds, hearts-and-minds. We've got to win these people over."' He gave a laugh. "These people just wanted us dead."

One peculiarity of the battlefield was that though separated by a mere 30 miles, Norris had very little interaction with his Alpha Company buddies down in Tikrit. While his recovery missions frequently took him to F.O.B. Omaha, it seemed that his closest friends were always out on patrol when he arrived. One person he never saw there, he said, was Carl Morgain.

"In fact, the only time I saw Carl through the whole deployment was when I was coming back from leave," he told me. "I was at a base down-country, waiting to catch a ride up to Baiji, and I'll be damned, the guys pulled in and Carl was with them. Well, we hugged, of course, and talked for a few minutes, but then my ride came and I had to go."

Carl Morgain never made it home. When Norris eventually did make it home, he quickly learned things weren't going to go quite as smoothly as he might have liked.

At first, his problems had been fairly subtle, not much different from the reimmersion issues other Alpha Company soldiers were dealing with: a reluctance to be in crowded places, a heightened startle reflex, a tendency to watch the side of the road for anything unusual, as if even in rural western Pennsylvania a roadside bomb were still a possibility. Then, some three weeks after the homecoming, came the morning that Norris woke up to discover that everything had grown much worse.

"It was the weirdest damned thing," he told me. "I didn't want to get out of bed. I didn't want to leave the house. I didn't want to do anything. I knew something was wrong, so I went up to the V.A. hospital." Doctors there quickly diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The piece goes on to include a number of important points revolving around the added stress and difficulties for National Guard (or Reserve) members compared to the more traditional combat forces of the Army or Marines.

Martin A. Sweeney, a behavioral-health social worker at the V.A. hospital in Butler and a Vietnam veteran, estimates that the rate for National Guardsmen returning from Iraq may ultimately surpass the 30 percent mark seen among Vietnam veterans.

"The way this war is, everyone is free game and there's no back-base," Sweeney explained. "You have to be very aggressive, very vigilant, and you live that way day in and day out for a year, and when you come back here, you can't just turn that off. On top of that, the National Guard guys never really signed up for this. They'll all tell you they were proud to serve, that it was their duty, but the fact is, when they joined up, they thought they'd be dealing with floods and local disasters. They never thought they'd be part of the regular Army and put in the middle of a war zone."

Compounding the problem is that, once home, National Guardsmen are largely left to their own devices. "If you're a regular soldier," Sweeney continued, "you come back to a base that has all kinds of support services available. But if you're National Guard, what do you do? You come into Fort Dix, you spend a week doing demob there, you come back to your armory and — bingo — you're back in the community with families that have no idea of what you've gone through. That's where I see the problems coming. When these guys get back here, they're essentially on their own."

By mid-December, six weeks after their homecoming, the men of Alpha Company seemed to be confirming Sweeney's concerns. One of the first things Chuck Norris said to me was that perhaps the hardest part of being home was his inability to describe Iraq — and along with that, of course, an inability to explain its effect on him — to anyone who hadn't been there. "Sure, you can tell them stories or whatever," he said, "but unless they were there, they're not really going to get it."

This same sentiment was echoed by every other member of Alpha Company I spoke with. One of them was a 33-year-old sergeant named Ron Radaker. "It's just very hard, very stressful," he told me, sitting in a coffee shop near his factory workplace in East Butler. "I mean, it's great being back with my wife, spending time with my kids, but in other ways. . . well, I guess I kind of miss it. I miss my fellow soldiers. I miss the camaraderie. And I don't mean to sound arrogant when I say this, but I miss the power. Over there, when we would do a patrol and have a car approach us and we fired warning shots, that's a thrill, that's power. Over there, everybody knew we were there. We were the king of the road, and they either respected or hated us for it. And now you're back here, and you ain't king of nothing. That's very hard to explain to anyone else, but it's why I try to avoid these situations that set me off — like being in crowds or people doing stupid things on the road — because when that happens, I get hyper, and I don't like being hyper here because there's nothing I can do about it."

More details on Norris' bout with PTSD are revealed:

Just after Christmas, Chuck and Alecia went on a retreat with five other couples from the Baiji recovery team to a resort outside Pittsburgh called Seven Springs. For three days, the couples stayed in one large chalet, ski-tubing and going on sleigh rides in between long sessions of the men sitting around swapping war stories. "That was really great," Norris said afterward. "It was just so nice to see the guys again, and I think for the first time maybe Alecia and the other women started to understand a little bit of what we'd gone through over there."

Only days after coming home from Seven Springs, however, Norris fell into a depression so severe that he was unable to work or leave the house for nearly a month. ..."I didn't answer the phone, I didn't go to the door, I didn't even want to see my kids," he said. "I just lay on the couch rolled up in an orange caftan. It got so bad my father started coming over every day and forcing me to get up. He would just walk me around the neighborhood to get some fresh air."

A few days before, Norris decided that his crash was caused by a new antidepressant the V.A. had put him on, and he had quit cold turkey. Almost instantly, he told me, he felt much better.

"Thank God I quit that stuff," he said. "I feel like I've got my life back again."

Although he certainly looked well and seemed in high spirits, it appeared that his depression had given way to a mood that tilted toward the other end of the spectrum. In the middle of recounting one harrowing experience he had in Baiji, he abruptly told me that he was thinking of trying to go back over to Iraq.

"What do you think?" he asked.

In fact, a number of Alpha Company guardsmen had told me of their desire to return to Iraq — some out of boredom with civilian life, others for more prosaic motives. Ron Radaker, for example, had actually done far better financially in Iraq than in his civilian life, where he was pulling down $10.30 an hour as a steel melter in his factory job in East Butler; now that he was home, the bills were mounting and the creditors were calling.

Money wasn't Norris's motivation, though. "I'm thinking that if I go back, it might really help me put this PTSD stuff in perspective, let me get past it," he explained. I glanced at Alecia. She bore a vaguely worried expression, but beyond that, I couldn't gauge her stand on this idea. As diplomatically as possible — because Norris seemed rather enthused — I replied that from my own experience reporting in war zones and interviewing soldiers, repeated exposure to terror tended to make stress-related problems worse, not better. Norris nodded thoughtfully at this, as if it were a possibility he hadn't really considered.

Please read the rest; and email the New York Times to thank them for this important coverage.


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