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Second Stringers

As the Iraq War Drags On, the Army Depends More on the National Guard and Reservists--Inexperienced, Undertrained, And Ready to Go Home

Photos by David Axe
BIG FOOTPRINT: Spc. Tim Wood of the 50th Main Support Battalion prepares for a mission to Tikrit in February.
PALM TREE MECHANICS: 1052nd Maintenance crews work on one of the unit's trucks at Anaconda in January.
NON-COMMISSIONED: Asked to sum up the 1052nd's Leadership, Staff Sgt. Willie Williams says they're "inexperienced."
READY FOR ACTION: Spc. Robert Willard of the 1052nd doesn't want to go back to South Carolina with the rest of his company: "I've had it with this unit." Photo courtesy Robert Willard
MONUMENTAL: Spc. Willard painted this tribute to the late Jerome Lemon on a concrete barrier at Anaconda.

By David Axe | Posted 3/23/2005

“They’re the lifeline,” Army spokeswoman Capt. Catherine Wilkinson says of the South Carolina National Guard’s 1052nd Transportation Co., from Kingstree. “They haul anything you can put on a flatbed.”

The 1052nd—120 men and women, all from South Carolina—is one of 11 truck companies at Camp Anaconda in northern Iraq near Balad, the main logistics hub for all U.S. bases in the country. The 1052nd deployed to Iraq last February and is currently returning home in stages.

The unit’s deployment comes at a time of unprecedented reliance on the United States’ 1 million reservists to bolster an active-duty military overstretched by simultaneous operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, the Horn of Africa, and other hot spots. Almost half of all U.S. service members in the Middle East are reservists, up from only 30 percent in 2003, according to the Army. The 1052nd is typical of such reserve units: trained in fits and starts, manned by part-timers—an equal mix of over-the-hill veterans and inexperienced kids—ordered to fight a war even professional soldiers don’t understand . . . and perhaps in over its head.

Through February, members of the 1052nd ran at least one convoy per night to places like Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, north of Balad, where soldiers of the 1st and 42nd Infantry Divisions have been fighting an unrelenting battle against Sunni insurgents and Islamic terrorists. On many missions, the 1052nd is joined by civilian truck drivers from KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary that maintains all of the Army’s bases in Iraq. While the trip to Tikrit is no milk run, it’s less dangerous than traveling to Baghdad or most towns down south. “South is bad,” says Staff Sgt. Robert McClary, 36, a plant supervisor back home and one of the 1052nd’s convoy commanders.

It was on one of the 1052nd’s runs down south on Oct. 27, 2004, that the company was hit by a roadside bomb that killed Staff Sgt. Jerome Lemon and injured another soldier—the unit’s only casualties. Lemon, 42, a convoy commander with the 1052nd and a cop back home, died right outside Anaconda’s gate in broad daylight when insurgents exploded a bomb alongside his flatbed truck. The blast knocked Lemon’s head clean off his shoulders and onto the floorboards. Dozens of 1052nd soldiers witnessed the attack and some were badly traumatized.

Now, four cold months later, after some 1052nd soldiers have completed more than 100 convoys totaling more than 20,000 miles combined, most of the unit’s soldiers are ready to come home.

“What’s the point?” Spc. Justin Segres, 22, of Aiken, says of the war. “We ain’t found no WMDs.”

Worse, says Spc. Jeremiah Cumbee, a 23-year-old from Andrews, is that the National Guard “done did the biggest part” in this dubious war, and “got no props for it.”

A stall-wall scrawling in the 1052nd latrines seconds Segree’s and Cumbee’s assessments. “Fuck Iraq and Bush,” it reads.

Discontent runs strong in the lower ranks of the 1052nd. And it may mean radical changes for this small-town unit. Some members of the 1052nd have been with the unit for decades, but many soldiers—particularly younger ones—say they’re leaving the Army as soon as their enlistments are up.

“There are a lot of people planning on getting out [of the Army],” 2nd Lt. Ross Sparks, a narcotics officer in civilian life, says of his soldiers.

And no wonder. According to another bit of stall-wall wisdom penned by some pissed-off 1052nd soldier, “We are all expendable.”

The 1052nd ends its deployment at a low point in morale and effectiveness. To what extent these conditions are endemic to America’s beleaguered reservists, or are unique to the 1052nd, is less certain.

 

On the night of Jan. 22, it’s cold, rainy, muddy—the kind of weather that can really, well, weather a man. The dozen soldiers huddled in the 1052nd’s command center look tired, anxious, and pissed. Tonight’s convoy was scheduled to leave for Tikrit several hours ago, but there’s been a delay in loading the trailers. Exactly why, no one seems to know. And intermittent updates over the radio have not been encouraging.

It’s an inauspicious start to an inauspicious night. But to the irritated New Hampshire Guardsmen of the 744th Transportation Co., this seems like business as usual for their South Carolina counterparts.

“I’ve got to tell you, your boys are having trouble,” says 2nd Lt. Ken Cox, commander of a detachment of 744th soldiers manning the “gun trucks”—heavily armed Humvees playing an escort role—for tonight’s missions. In early 2005, the 744th and 1052nd partnered on convoys—one unit providing the flatbeds, another providing gun trucks.

As the convoy finally gets underway, Cox cites a litany of failures on the part of the 1052nd: sloppy manifests, bad radio connections, poor maintenance. Outside Balad’s gate—where Lemon was killed in October, and where the 744th lost a soldier in March—a 1052nd truck has mechanical troubles and pulls onto the side of the road, holding up the entire convoy on one of the most dangerous roads in Iraq.

Cox’s driver cusses: “They’re going to get someone killed.”

J.J. Johnson, a 44-year-old KBR driver from Jacksonville, Fla., almost was that someone when his truck came under fire while he was traveling with the 1052nd recently. KBR trucks are unarmed; their drivers rely on the Army for protection. But that night, for some reason, the 1052nd just didn’t shoot back when insurgents attacked.

“They’re the worst,” Johnson says as he pulls his truck in behind a long line of 1052nd trucks on Jan. 24. Because the unit left late on its Jan. 22 mission, the civilian receiving area at Tikrit had already closed when the convoy arrived. And while the military receiving area was still open to off-load the 1052nd’s trucks, the KBR drivers had to haul their loads right back to Anaconda, traveling several hundred miles—for nothing—on roads where dozens of Americans have died.

There is one thing Johnson likes about the 1052nd: the prayers they recite before missions. “That’s the only thing protecting them,” Johnson says, half-jokingly.

Johnson offers no explanations for the 1052nd failures. He says he’s just a truck driver, here to do a job and save for retirement. He’s not here to comment on military policy. But it looks like the boys from Kingstree aren’t the only reservists with problems.

 

On the morning of Feb. 7, a platoon from the New Jersey National Guard’s 50th Main Support Battalion gathers on a gravel-covered field in the corner of a former Iraqi air force base near Tikrit. This morning, they’ll be hauling 30 truckloads of supplies to the 1st Infantry Division headquarters, 25 miles away. For many, this will be their first mission in a war zone. You can feel the tension in the air.

Spc. Tim Wood, 31, nervously stamps his feet and readjusts his body armor while Spc. Venessa Collins smokes and jokes about how shopping back home in New Jersey is a lot like combat. “What do you think it’s going to be like?” she asks Wood, who just shrugs.

In their brand-new uniforms and armor, these newly deployed Guardsmen look like toy soldiers next to the seasoned active-duty soldiers they’ll be delivering supplies to. The Guardsmen wear neck armor and knee and elbow pads—items most soldiers see as overkill—even though their convoy is unlikely to draw any fire. And for a 30-minute mission hauling supplies on heavily patrolled roads, they sit through hours of briefings and inspections. Most units conducting actual combat missions spend only a few no-nonsense minutes preparing. The overall impression from the Guardsmen is one of confused overpreparation—and of fear. One briefing highlights attacks that took place months ago on roads on which the convoy won’t even be traveling. And everyone talks about Kuwait, Kuwait.

Before heading into Iraq, most soldiers—and all Guardsmen—undergo varying periods of training in Kuwait, usually at a place called Camp Buehring. Staff Sgt. Jeff Wagoner of the 1st Infantry Division says that this training paints a false portrait of Iraq as a country where the dead are piled on the streets, gunfire erupts from every darkened window, and Americans who venture off their bases immediately come under overwhelming attack by rockets and suicide bombers. “They make them paranoid,” Wagoner says.

This paranoia is in evidence as the 50th’s convoy crawls out of the base’s front gate, stopping briefly to let its handful of gunners shoot two or three rounds into a sand berm—a “test fire,” they call it. Fifty-one-year-old Spc. Ernest Benjamin of New York pulls the trigger on his .50-caliber machine gun and holds it, spraying rounds up and down the berm. “I live for this,” he says, so high on adrenaline—the chemical product of fear—that you can almost smell it.

Less than an hour later, the convoy pulls into its destination. No shots were fired. No suicide bombers took interest. Iraqis waiting in line for gasoline in downtown Tikrit waved as the trucks sped past. Climbing out of his vehicle, Wood looks flushed: “That wasn’t so bad.”

“What I couldn’t believe was all the people around,” Sgt. John Branick, 52, says, shaking his head. Branick, a driver here and a letter carrier back home, sees all Iraqis as a threat—and today, the threat was everywhere. “I mean, they were just out there.”

First Lt. Kai Chitaphong, 29, a military counselor deployed to Iraq, where he specializes in treating “combat stress”—the Army’s term for posttraumatic stress syndrome—says he isn’t surprised at the soldier’s paranoia: “The worst part is not knowing who the enemy is.”

Part of the problem is that in Iraq insurgent fighters and a sometimes hostile but nonviolent population are indistinguishable. Most American fatalities come from ambushes, roadside bombs, and suicide bombings. Only sometimes do insurgents attack in the daytime. Rarely do soldiers see their assailants. And even when they do, the attackers never wear uniforms or identifying marks of any kind. While there is an “insurgent profile” (young, male, and pissed-off), there are always exceptions. In Iraq, almost anyone is a potential killer. And when it comes to bombings, any abandoned car or donkey cart, ditch or pile of garbage could conceal three or four South African artillery shells wired to explode with the touch of a button. Bombs like that have taken out even armored vehicles that were previously thought all but impervious to attack.

Active-duty soldiers like Wagoner who train every day for years, or even decades, to deal with the unknown are better equipped to handle Iraq’s invisible insurgency. They’re aware of the threat. They’re disciplined. They’re professionals.

Reservists, by definition, aren’t. They’re farmers, laborers, factory workers. They train one weekend per month and two weeks per year. They’re military amateurs and many of them know it. The result is that many reservists in Iraq are scared all the time, and according to some soldiers, that means mistakes.

On Jan. 29, Wagoner and other 1st Infantry Division soldiers witness a convoy of soldiers from the Guard’s 42nd Infantry Division open fire on a truck carrying Iraqi army officers. At least one Iraqi dies from his wounds. “Stupid and jumpy,” Sgt. 1st Class Rufus Beamon, 34, says of the Guardsmen involved. The incident is under investigation, according to the Army.

Some observers say that mistakes like the fatal shooting will become more common as reservists assume greater responsibility in Iraq.

 

“We’re one team,” says Lt. Col. Roch Switlik, a 43-year-old Merck employee from New Jersey and the commander of the 50th Main Support Battalion. Switlik says that Guardsmen bring different but not inferior “skill sets” to military operations—like experience in various civilian fields, sometimes years of active-duty experience, and “maturity.” But he admits that in combat situations part-time soldiers are at a disadvantage compared to their professional counterparts.

Maj. Michael Lyons, 40, Switlik’s second in command, says that his troops are just “green,” and that it’s a problem, not only with Guardsmen, but with any soldier new to Iraq.

Besides, he adds, the average Guardsman has more experience in the military—if not in actual combat—than the average active-duty soldier. Many older soldiers spend the last years of their enlistments or commissions in the reserves, where they train only a few weeks per year and can devote themselves to new civilian careers and to their families.

But tactical skills decay quickly if you don’t exercise them every day, says Texan Capt. Stephen Short, 41, an officer with the Army Reserve’s 467th Engineer Battalion, based in Tennessee and currently deployed to Tikrit. The 467th is manned by an equal mixture of reservists and members of the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), a 100,000-strong pool of former soldiers who do not train but are eligible for call-up in emergencies. Some IRR recalls have been out of the military for more than a decade. Short himself came from the IRR. “Tactically,” he admits, “we’re at a disadvantage.”

More than 2,000 members of the IRR are making their way to Iraq.

The IRR call-up is just the Army’s latest tacit admission that it’s in over its head with the occupation of Iraq, which has cost more than 1,500 American dead, more than 10,000 wounded, and hundreds of billions of dollars. And while the Jan. 30 elections were a baby step toward true Iraqi self-rule, the insurgency continues unabated, and the potential for bloody civil war between the fractured country’s major ethnic and religious groups grows as Shi’ites consolidate their control over the government.

After two years of fighting, the U.S. Army is all but exhausted. The powerful active-duty force that toppled Saddam Hussein’s government in just weeks has given way to a smaller active force propped up by almost 100,000 reservists, second-stringers, few of whom were eager to deploy, and many of whom make for second-best soldiers.

But that they’re part-timers rather than professionals doesn’t explain why the 1052nd would be singled out by other reservists—like those in the 744th—as one of the worst units in the Army.

Capt. Robert Giordano, a spokesman for the 42nd Infantry Division, says that in the Army units take on the qualities of their leaders. Poor leaders mean poor units.

So how are the 1052nd’s leaders?

“Inexperienced,” says Staff Sgt. Willie Williams, 44, a 1052nd platoon sergeant. His company commander, Capt. Jon Alexander, 28, a 1998 Presbyterian University graduate, was promoted just last year. Alexander says he was trained as an ordinance officer but accepted command of the 1052nd—a transportation unit—because the South Carolina Guard was short on captains.

Alexander laughs when he recalls his twisted and unlikely path to command. For some of his soldiers, it’s not so funny.

The company’s head enlisted man—1st Sgt. Carroll Dennis, 42, a farmer from Scranton, S.C.—was promoted from platoon sergeant right before the 1052nd’s deployment. “He was a good platoon sergeant,” Williams says. “But he’s young for a first sergeant.”

Shortages of key leaders and specialists have plagued the Guard in the wake of the biggest and longest mobilization of reserves since World War II. But not all the 1052nd’s problems are common to the entire Guard. The 1052nd’s lower ranks are almost entirely black and poor—a reflection of its rural Carolina roots—and its leadership is mostly white. “I stay away from those people,” Cumbee, who is African-American, says of the unit’s leaders. He adds that in the 1052nd “blacks stick with blacks and white with whites.”

With two notable exceptions.

 

On the night of Jan. 21, I’m waiting in the rain between long rows of idling flatbeds—waiting for the start of a convoy mission to Tikrit, watching tracer rounds illuminate the sky over Anaconda’s gate—when someone grabs my arm.

“You press?”

He’s a tall black soldier with teeth that reflect the truck’s yellow headlights. He’s wearing sergeant’s bars and his nametape says “Abney.” Later I learn his first name is Jerry. He’s a 41-year-old from Saluda, S.C.

“Yeah, I’m press.”

He sidles closer. “You’ve got to help us. Me and Robert Willard are trying to extend. Everyone else is leaving in two weeks, but we want to get permission from the National Guard to stay.”

“You don’t want to go home?”

He shakes his head. All around us. soldiers are climbing into their trucks with their M-16s. Everywhere there’s a hum of excitement as the convoy gets ready to move out. Abney looks nervous. “Look, I’ve got to go.”

A couple days later, there’s a knock on the door of my trailer in a muddy residential section of Anaconda. I open it to the grinning visage of a stocky white soldier. He tells me his name is Spc. Robert Willard, from Columbia, S.C. He’s 28 years old.

“I have something to show you,” he says.

Across the camp we go—one scruffy reporter and one squat specialist grinning like the Cheshire Cat. En route to his hooch, he points out his artwork—a couple of spray-painted concrete barriers. One, an eagle against an American flag, is dedicated to Jerome Lemon. Another appears to be a Japanese character. “Means sex,” Willard says, grin growing ever wider.

His hooch is like a set from a Vietnam War movie: slathered with posters, heaped high with colorful junk, sweet-smelling and populated by spaced-out half-naked soldiers. “Sit down,” he says, clearing a bag of Doritos from a folding chair.

I watch as he fires up his laptop computer and begins a slide show of gory photos. He giddily narrates images of burning trucks, maimed Iraqis, bits and pieces of dead bodies. He pauses on one image of a scorched flatbed and his tone changes. “Lemon’s truck,” he says. “That was one rough day for everybody.”

“And you still want to stay?”

He shrugs. “It’s an adventure.”

But it’s an adventure that’s about to be cut short. Willard says the 1052nd’s leaders have been dragging their heels processing the paperwork that will allow him and Abney to stay. Willard says he thinks it’s about numbers: If the 1052nd lets them go, the unit is closer to losing federal funding, which is based in part on the number of soldiers in a state’s Guard. Willard and Abney want to go over their commander, and over the South Carolina Guard, to get permission to stay—and they want my help.

I give him some e-mail addresses: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, some others. I tell him to plead his case at the highest possible level. And then I go outside to clear my head.

A siren sounds. Soldiers run for cover. A helicopter banks overhead.

It’s a mortar attack—a relatively common event at this muddy American enclave. I stand there scanning the sky for projectiles and thinking about Willard and Abney, the dynamic duo of the 1052nd, two soldiers who love being soldiers and don’t give a damn about race, politics, or crappy living conditions. They just want to drive and fight. In a unit characterized by its failures and bad attitudes, these two men are exceptions. And their assessment of the 1052nd is unsurprisingly negative.

“I’ve had it with this unit,” Willard says.

Abney concurs. “We want to serve. You’d think they’d be all for that.”

Could it be that, these days, the rest of the 1052nd has other priorities than fighting this war?

“Ten or 15 years ago, I could’ve handled this,” Williams says. “But my kids need me now. I’m hoping for smooth sailing.”

“We’ve done our bit,” McClary says.

 

Despite scores of attacks, ranging from bombs and gunfire to kids throwing rocks—not to mention the occasional mortar attack on Anaconda—despite their many screwups, and despite Willard’s and Abney’s shared enthusiasm for getting shot at, Lemon has been the 1052nd’s only fatality.

Wilkinson says that most of the transportation companies at Anaconda lose two or three soldiers during their yearlong deployments. McClary says that the 1052nd has been lucky. He calls it “karma.”

On one mission in late January, that karma is evident when the convoy comes to an abrupt halt on a nearly deserted highway. A call comes from one of the trucks in front that someone has spotted a bomb—an improvised explosive device, or IED, in Army parlance. The convoy idles, its heavily armed escorts nervously scanning the area from their gun trucks, while an Army mine-clearing vehicle called a Meerkat races to the scene. A few tense minutes later, a signal goes out that it’s OK to pass, and the 1052nd hits the road again.

In the morning, sitting outside his two-man trailer in the heart of Anaconda, McClary recalls the missions he’s been on in the past year—92, totaling more than 16,000 miles. Things were going fine until a controversy erupted over unarmored vehicles, and the 1052nd sent its trucks to get more armor added. While some soldiers have complained of an increased danger from vehicles with little or no armor, McClary insists that more armor stresses trucks and reduces their hauling capacity. “A truck ain’t a tank,” he says. Besides, McClary adds, adding armor was like tempting fate—and that’s bad karma: “As soon as we put armor on, we lost [Lemon].”

As the sun sets over Anaconda on Jan. 20, silhouetting a constant stream of helicopters hauling supplies, McClary, his fellow soldiers, and a handful of civilian drivers from KBR prepare for the night’s mission—fueling and repairing their trucks and loading cargo. In the distance, a red tracer shell arcs into the sky over where the 1052nd will be exiting the base. Some soldiers stare nervously at the horizon. After a briefing, the company gathers for prayer.

“Our enemies lie in wait,” Spc. Quentin Graham prays. “Protect us, Father God.”

“Amen.”

Several hours later, the 1052nd is back at Anaconda, having delivered its cargo without incident. Maybe it’s karma, maybe it’s divine protection.

Or maybe fortune favors amateurs. Call it beginner’s luck, in combat.

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Beyond the Front (12/16/2009)
Baltimore writer Justin Sirois collaborates with Iraqi refugee Haneen Alshujairy to tell a different story from Iraq

Walk Softly (11/25/2009)
Middle East scholar Juan Cole argues against sending lots of troops to Afghanistan

Iraq War Hits Home Hard (5/22/2008)

More from David Axe

Good Cop, Bad Cop (11/2/2005)
In Iraq, They Could Be One and the Same

Dancing in Kurdistan (5/18/2005)
The National Guard’s Strange Occupation of Northern Iraq

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