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Publications – 2004-2010 articles telling individual stories

Learning From Veterans began as a project I did interviewing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for my longtime employer, National Journal. NJ relies on subscription revenue and guards its archives jealously, but the editors there have generously unlocked all my articles that draw on these military oral histories and made them available to the public for free.

Since there are so many of these stories, I’ve broken them into several posts by subject area:

- articles on military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq;

- articles on the human cost of the war, from military families to wounded warriors;

- articles on military technology and procurement;

- articles on understanding the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, from tribal sheikhs to district police;

- and items on individual veterans, both profiles and extended excerpts of my interviews  (in this current post).

Many stories are listed under more than one category.

Profiles of individual servicemembers and extended excerpts of interviews:

Angel McCollum, Army wife

published September 18, 2010 to accompany When The Troops Come Home

I said, “Matt, I have been holding your vigil, I have been waiting for you to come home,” I said, “and when you did something out of the normal, I panicked,” I said, “because I was sure that something had happened to you.” I said, “Until you have prayed those prayers for me every night, until you’ve worried that” and I said – you know – “until you’ve rocked your sons to sleep and assured them as they were crying that Daddy would be OK and that things were going to be all right, you have no right to tell me I overreacted.”

Technical Sgt. Herbert Simpson and Selina Simpson, U.S. Air Force

published September 18, 2010 to accompany When The Troops Come Home

He was angry; he was angry at the world. And that’s the key words –  he was angry at the world. He wasn’t angry at the children. So he did have issues, and he was angry and depressed; but he didn’t let the kids see that. Now, it helped that he worked nights and he was only around during –  for a couple hours during the day anyway. [Laughs] So yes, he was very angry, and he was depressed, and he had a lot of issues, but because of the schedule and the hours he was working, the kids never saw any of that; they really didn’t. They just saw their fun-loving dad who likes to give horsey rides because Mom can’t….I saw it.

Technical Sgt. Yoshema Bryant, U.S. Air Force

published September 18, 2010 to accompany When The Troops Come Home

It was really difficult for the smaller one, because she didn’t really understand. She had just turned two at the time, and she was just like, ‘Where’s my mommy?’ So it was really difficult for her, and it’s taken all this time just to get her back adjusted, because I mean, even a year afterwards, every time I would leave her –  ’Where are you going? Are you coming back?’…. And then when I returned, I got them back and trying to get settled in. So I bought a house here in the area, trying to make the lifestyle kind of normal as I could, and she started having, you know, just some issues with dad. And from what my behavioral specialist told me, it was, that time period is very important for you to be with your kids, around age two, and I missed all of that.

Maj. Connie Mark Lane, U.S. Army

published February 20, 2010 to accompany Supplying The Surge In Afghanistan

The weather is a lot worse in, is a lot more dangerous in Afghanistan than it would be in Iraq….You can get icing on the blades and things of that nature. We have had helicopters set down in the middle of nowhere just ’cause of the snowstorms. Sometimes you can go from one valley to the next and what seems to be good for legal weather isn’t really legal when you finally get out there, and there’s just no way to really know it unless you go out there. Sometimes the way the winds are channelized through all the mountains, it’s very difficult to actually –  sometimes you lose control of the aircraft due to the turbulence. It’s not like you can see it, you just have to fly enough there and get enough experience that you can kind of predict where it is and then just try and avoid it. Those people that haven’t been taking notes or have not as much experience –  they’ll get into it and aircraft can sometimes become uncontrollable.

Lt. Col. Kirk Whitson, U.S. Army

published February 20, 2010 to accompany Supplying The Surge In Afghanistan

The IEDs in our area were pretty bad. So we have – I mean, these guys are amazing, they’re the engineers, and that’s called the route-clearing packages? You’re tracking these MRAPs and these special vehicles that go out and look for IEDs. Well, that’s how we would clear the routes. And in most cases, my guys would follow behind these route-clearing packages or shortly thereafter. And really you couldn’t, you can’t afford to get off the path that they’ve cleared because you don’t know if there’s some mines out there. You don’t know….I would say every other convoy got hit, by either an IED, small arms fire, RPG, you know; and in some of these cases, no damage; in some cases completely destroyed the MRAP.

Maj. Andrew Ashley, U.S. Army (Individual Ready Reserve)

published October 24, 2009 to accompany In Afghanistan, Training Up Is Hard To Do

I was in a village, and I was talking to a little kid, and I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said he didn’t know. And I said, “Well, you know, would you like to be a member of the police?” And he said, “No way.” I said, “Why not? You can serve your country.” He said he didn’t want to be a police, because he’d get his head cut off. I said, knowing the Afghans need health care a lot, “Well, would you like to be a doctor?” And he says, “How am I going to be a doctor? There’s no school here. There’s nobody in this village that knows how to read.”

Maj. Robert Gully, U.S. Army (Special Forces)

published October 24, 2009 to accompany In Afghanistan, Training Up Is Hard To Do

When I went to Afghanistan [in 2006-2007], first of all I was horrified at the quality of the soldiers… some of their leadership was really a challenge. Only one or two were worth a damn at all; they tend to get killed. Their sergeant major, he was killed. His name was Zabee. He was about 30 years old, and he actually had some personal values and soldierly discipline – not like the Americans would think about, with shining boots and a pressed, starched uniform, but he would carry his own machine gun and get out on point. Normally a sergeant major wouldn’t expose himself like that, but he had to lead by example. He lost both legs to an IED. I got out there to put a tourniquet on him, but it had been 20 minutes.

Capt. Christian Mitchell, U.S. Army

published October 24, 2009 to accompany In Afghanistan, Training Up Is Hard To Do

[The Afghan soldiers], most of ‘em were laying down pretty good rates of fire, and the NCOs were moving along pointing out targets. These guys were amazing; they could walk all day and take that terrain all day and it didn’t faze ‘em. They had maps and stuff, they knew how to read a map and plot a grid. I always had a GPS – I taught them how to use it, they liked using that. [But] they had kind of an innate sense of the local geography, all these little places that weren’t even on the map they knew how to get to.

Maj. Kris Faught, U.S. Marine Corps

published March 14, 2009 to accompany The Military’s New Hybrid Warriors

I wanted to be a pilot since I was a little kid. I guess a pilot, a mountain man or a shark, so the other two fell out. I wanted to do this and I, somewhere around age 17 or so, fixated on the Marine Corps….Putting a yellow sticker on the back of your car and “I support your troops” – I could care less. What I want you to do is educate yourself and vote, and don’t – don’t cry the crocodile tears for Mike Martino, who sucked up a MANPAD over Ramadi and is now a name on a wall. Spend those lives wisely. I am an instrument of the executive branch of the United States and I execute foreign policy.

Maj. Joseph Rosen, U.S. Army

published March 14, 2009 to accompany The Military’s New Hybrid Warriors

When we first came into the combat outpost, and we were doing local patrols in and around that area, and just trying to meet the neighbors, we came across this family… I think they became targeted because we had frequented their home more than we should have, I think, and stopped and talked with them, and became very friendly. So their – they had actually four daughters, I think, and two of them were teenagers. One was 16, one was 17. And they were kidnapped one day from a bus stop and shortly found murdered after that. And the militia wanted to make a point, so when they executed them, one girl they shot through the hands and then shot her in the back of the head, trying to make the statement, don’t touch the Americans and don’t think about them. And the other girl they shot through the eyes and then – they – trying to make the point that you shouldn’t even look at the Americans.

Sgt. Maj. Anthony Agee, U.S. Army

published September 19, 2009 to accompany The Army’s Growing Pains

It’s kind of sad when you see the kids crying and your wife crying and you’ve got to tell them, hey, I’ll be back in a year. That’s the challenging part. I try to prep them and make them understand that this is something that I choose to do, because we all have a choice – I could easily get out of the military – but trying to make them understand that we have to sacrifice something. And I’m not saying that I’m willing to sacrifice my family, but with every sacrifice comes a great gain. I do it so hopefully they won’t have to do it in the years to come.

Command Sgt. Maj. Samuel Rhodes, U.S. Army

published September 19, 2009 to accompany The Army’s Growing Pains

When I redeployed back from Iraq after my first tour, it was really tough on me because I felt like I had developed a family relationship with those soldiers that had deployed with me, all of the surrounding communities in Iraq that we had dealt with and seen all the poverty and the death and the babies. That was what was on my mind, more so than my own well-being. I came back in July, and then in September I was back in the Middle East. I really wanted to get back to the Middle East. I wanted to be in Iraq. By the time I went back over to Iraq the third time, my wife hated Iraq, because she could see that Iraq had stole me away from her. After my third tour, about 18 months after that, we got divorced, [after] 26 years of marriage.

 Sgt. Robert Bartlett, U.S. Army (with audio slideshow)

published November 22, 2008 to accompany In Treating Trauma, Military Branches Out

I remember everything since the bomb went off. I have trouble with some of the stuff before that – the mission that day, what we did before we got hit. Some of it’s come back, some of it’s still missing. What I remember is wailing in pain, not being able to hear anything but ringing in my ear. I can remember the rocks and the shrapnel coming through the vehicle. I remember the smell of burning flesh. I remember looking over at my truck commander and seeing he was killed instantly. I remember thinking it was my time. [My gunner and I,] we just kind of embraced each other. We thought we were going to die right there with Sergeant Brooks.

First Sgt. Andrew Brown, U.S. Army Reserve

published November 22, 2008 to accompany In Treating Trauma, Military Branches Out

I walked into the surgical area [and saw the dead Iraqi company commander as] they pulled a sheet across his body. I knew who he was right away. He went from being totally incompetent and just so frustrating – I wanted to shoot him at a couple of points. Once he realized we were actually going to hold his feet to the fire, he started shining. He was vastly improved, and to then see him naked on a table, tubes sticking into him, American officers giving up on him – when somebody actually dies it’s kind of hard to watch. I recall distinctly saying to one of the other [advisers], “I hated that guy four weeks ago, and it really hurts to see him dead.” [Back at his own base], there was some e-mail from my wife about her driving the car into the garage and damaging the car. I wrote back saying, “I just watched one of my soldiers die. You need to handle this on your own.” 

Sgt. Patrick Campbell, Army National Guard

published November 22, 2008 to accompany In Treating Trauma, Military Branches Out

It was really random. I had a couple of very close calls, more so than other people. I had a rocket land about 10 feet from me. Thankfully, I was on the other side of a wall when it landed. I was in the headquarters coming home from church; If I had got the patrol schedule [right away and gone outside], and not stood there and shot the shit, it would’ve pretty much landed on my head. One day, I decided to take a piss on the side of the road, and I looked down, and there was an IED, fully wired. I didn’t actually pee on the IED, but I was peeing next to the IED. [I] ran. Yelling at the top of my lungs. That type of IED had like a 50- to 75-meter kill radius. It was the quickest 100-yard dash I’ve ever had in my life, even with my pants around my heels.

Sgt. David Gilmore, U.S. Army

published November 22, 2008 to accompany In Treating Trauma, Military Branches Out

The ironic thing is, you came back to the States, you’re worse. You get so used to carrying a weapon. You come back and you feel naked without a weapon. The real breakdown I had coming back from OIF-1 was trying to get a new cellphone at a Sprint store. I had the mentality of, “Stuff needs to get done, it gets done.” Coming back to the civilian world, they want to add all this stuff on. I just want a cellphone. I don’t need all these bells and whistles. I just need a damn cellphone. [But] they’re not going to let it go. It just frustrates the flip out of you. I was yelling, kind of flipping out on this lady, “Goddammit, I just want a fucking cellphone, how hard is that to do?” There were some soldiers in the store and they got me out there pretty quickly. Obviously, I didn’t get the cellphone that day.

Sgt. Hugo Patrocinio, U.S. Marine Corps

published November 22, 2008 to accompany In Treating Trauma, Military Branches Out

Not being able to sleep, being irritable, angry, headaches – all those things started taking a toll on me. I was actually getting ready to deploy for another deployment to Iraq. I became security platoon sergeant and I was in the process of training my Marines for the next deployment. I downplayed a lot of the symptoms because the last thing I wanted to do was not to be able to go on the deployment. That was my hope, that things would get a lot better. Instead, they got a lot worse. I wanted to go on this third deployment to Iraq, but the symptoms got so bad, I needed to get help. I hit really bad depression, especially once my Marines left for Iraq and I was staying back home. I had promised that I would be next to them through everything; I lied to them. I was a sergeant, I was in charge of Marines, they had respect for me – then I’m not deployable, I’m not medically fit for duty anymore. So I come from being the sergeant, with a lot of experience which everybody respects, to being someone [they] had no use for. You pretty much see it as you’re letting everybody down.

Families At War

October 11, 2008

Excerpts from interviews with Sgt. Rudy Alvarado, Sgt. Maj. Bill Lindsey, Spec. Amanda Tanguy, and Maj. Lance Varney.

My son was only 4 months old when I left. When I came back, he was 14, 15 months. He didn’t know who I was. That was where all my issues were, with him getting used to me again. You’ve got to be patient with kids at that age. You can’t come home and say, “I’m your dad.” They’re too young, and they’re used to a one-parent family, basically. It took a couple of months for him to get used to me. He’s 3 now, and it’s good because he doesn’t remember it. Now you have to pry him off me, because he wants to hang out with me and copy me all the time. It’s pretty funny now.

Profile: Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, U.S. Army (Medal of Honor)

published January 13, 2007 to accompany The Other Three Thousand

Smith manned the M-113′s only weapon: a heavy .50-caliber machine gun mounted atop the armor; he had to expose his head and chest to fire it….Smith pinned the Iraqis down with fire, skillfully keeping his temperamental machine gun just short of overheating, pausing only to reload, and literally shoving Seaman back inside the vehicle when the private tried to help. Meanwhile, the rest of the engineers withdrew from the deathtrap of the courtyard and took their wounded to the undefended aid station across the road…. At last, Campbell’s crew silenced the shooters in the tower. But Smith’s machine gun had already gone quiet. As the Iraqis withdrew, word went out that Sgt. Smith was dead.

Profile: Brent Morel and Willie Copeland, U.S. Marine Corps (Navy Crosses)

published January 13, 2007 to accompany The Other Three Thousand

“Then our lead vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, which wounded all five marines inside,” Copeland said. Leaving them behind was not an option. “Morel ordered us to dismount from the vehicles and push on foot toward the enemy positions.” With one escort Humvee down and two others out of reach at the tail end of the convoy, only nine men in just two Humvees were left to execute Morel’s order. Leaving a driver and a machine gunner with each vehicle, Morel, Copeland, and three riflemen charged across open desert, up a 10-foot berm, through a shallow canal, up a second embankment on the far side, and into trenches held by 40 to 60 Iraqis.

Profile: Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, and Spec. Jason Mike, Army National Guard (Silver Stars)

published January 13, 2007 to accompany The Other Three Thousand

The only Humvee left intact was Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester’s, but she too piled out and ran forward under fire to join Nein. Unable to retreat, with no cover behind them, Nein told her, “We need to go on the offensive.” Hester agreed, shot past Nein to kill an insurgent who was behind him, and then she leaped after Nein into the enemy’s main trench. “I threw a grenade while she shot over my shoulder, then I’d shoot while she threw,” Nein said. “I had a guy 20 meters from me spraying an AK-47 from his hip. I could hear the bullets impacting around me. I remember thinking, ‘I cannot believe I’m not being hit right now.’ But he wasn’t disciplined enough to put that rifle to his shoulder and aim at me. I put three rounds into his chest.”

Profile: Cpl. Jason Dunham, U.S. Marine Corps (Medal of Honor)

published January 13, 2007 to accompany The Other Three Thousand

In the chaos, Hampton had not heard what other marines said were Dunham’s last words. “No, no, watch his hands!” But Hampton had clearly seen Dunham’s head bare and unprotected, and his helmet on the ground – with the grenade under it, the marines later realized, and Dunham sprawled on top of it, holding it down. “He had the upper part of his body on it, with his arms crossed,” Hampton said. The blast ripped the helmet in two, scattering scraps of Kevlar all over the road, and drove a piece of shrapnel through Dunham’s left eye into his brain. But after spending its force on Dunham’s body, the grenade only wounded Kelly and Hampton – and the Iraqi insurgent, who tried to run away before a shocked but unscathed Sanders shot him dead. Dunham died eight days later without regaining consciousness. “I think about him every waking day,” Hampton said. “Whenever I put my shirt on, I look at my scars and remember.”

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