Invisible Sacrifices of Our Soldiers in Iraq

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Our soldiers are heroes in IraqA soldier's letter home
by Richard Engel, Middle East bureau chief

Left, Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl, left, and a colleague from the 1st Battalion -5th Cavalry Regiment, U.S. Army.

I often exchange e-mails with soldiers, officers and, sometimes, their families back home. Last week, I received an e-mail from Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl, a smart, energetic commander I know in western Baghdad.   

But the e-mail wasn't sent to me. It was from Kuehl to his wife, Ellen, in the States. She forwarded it to me, and I am quoting from it with Kuehl's permission.  

The e-mail describes an attack on his troops. But something more than that also comes through — how acts of individual heroism by these soldiers, and many others, are often overshadowed by the grim state of affairs in Iraq in general.  And they deserve to be recognized, no matter what ultimately happens in this troubled country…

     

Trying to bring order to chaos
I first met Kuehl on his combat outpost last year. The outpost (Bonsai II) is a former Iraqi wedding hall that the soldiers have converted into a small operating base. 

These soldiers don't live on big bases like Camp Victory with Internet connections in their bunks, a food court and world-class gyms. 

Their home is an old worn-out building with no running water, no bathroom, no showers, no privacy, and only as much security as the soldiers themselves can provide. 

When the troops first arrived, the wedding hall was full of trash, diseased stray cats and feces. Now, while still a dump, it is a functioning base that soldiers use to launch raids and patrols in west Baghdad as they try to stop Sunni insurgents and Shiite death squads from killing each other, local residents and the troops. 

I liked Kuehl immediately. He is a thinking commander, not intoxicated by military zeal or hollow talking points. He spends as much time finding ways to hunt down insurgents as he does cultivating relations with local politicians and religious clerics.

I do not envy his job. I report about the Byzantine mix of political and religious intrigue, hatred and opportunism in Baghdad as Iraqis fight to take power. But Kuehl is expected to actually bring order to the chaos here with a group of young men and a few women and their machines from far away places like Texas and Florida.

As his letter home shows, Kuehl has also been a magnet for IEDs (improvised explosive devices – or roadside bombs). A few weeks ago, his convoy was attacked and a soldier in the convoy, SSG Jason Maupin was badly injured. Jason Maupin is the cousin of Staff Sgt. Matt Maupin, kidnapped in April 2004. Matt Maupin is still missing in Iraq. The Maupin family has had an incredibly tough war.   

This is Kuehl's account to his wife of what happened the day his convoy was attacked. He sent it to her so that she could tell the families of other soldiers what they went through.

A soldier's letter home
"…Every Soldier who gets hurt in this unit is my responsibility. I was the one who gave the orders that put them in harms way. I was the one who has decided how we will conduct operations and I bear the burden of the cost. It becomes much more personal when it is someone like SSG Maupin, who is like a younger brother.

"I was in the vehicle behind him when the IED hit. It seemed like forever for the dust to clear, but was probably only thirty seconds. In the meantime I was calling on the radio to Maupin to get a status. I became increasingly worried when I got no response. Also, we were looking for the son of a bitch who set it off. When the smoke finally clears I see the wreck of a HMMWV [Humvee] and Doc Coursen treating someone on the right side of the vehicle. I put my vehicle in between where I thought the triggerman was and the damaged vehicle so that we could have some protection from small arms fire while we treated the casualties. I jumped out after telling SSG Johnson in the trail vehicle to call in a report and get support up to us. As I raced around the vehicle Coursen tells me to check on Delgado and Simmons. When I got to the drivers side, Simmons comes out with blood on his face, but he is OK. It was almost funny because he comes out with his pistol at the ready because he lost his rifle in the blast. He was pissed off. I jump to the top of the vehicle to check on Delgado. The hood of the HMMWV is gone so I stepped on the engine block to get there. I didn't notice at the time it was on fire. Fortunately Delgado regained consciousness and was able to get down on his own. Went back around to where Doc was treating Maupin.

Simmons and I are pulling security to allow Doc to work. I didn't know it but Doc was hurt too. I thought the stress was getting to him, but it was actually the pain in his leg and his head. I had to encourage him to keep going as he is placing a tourniquet on Maupin's almost severed arm.

Thank God he hung with it.

"In time two more patrols showed up to assist with the CASEVAC, [casualty evacuation] but we had a hard time with the damn stretchers we have. Helicopters flew overhead to ensure that we did not get attacked. I'm sure by then word was out that it was my PSD [personal security detail] that got hit. One of the hardest things we had to do was lift SSG Maupin's broken and bleeding body into the Bradley. Every time we moved him had to be excruciatingly painful, but we knew we had to do it to save his life…. I will never forget his screams.

"We raced to the aid station behind the Bradley. I had Simmons and Doc Coursen in my HMMWV and both started to pass out. We had to keep shaking them to keep them awake. Did not want them to fall asleep because I did not know the extent of their injuries. Simmons knowing he needed to stay awake started singing…a rich baritone I think. It seemed like it took forever to get to the aid station…When we got there the medics rushed to get Maupin inside. Simmons refused a stretcher, cursing that he would walk in on his own, damnit.

"Shortly after we arrived, got word that we were under attack at one of our outposts…so had to leave my guys at the aid station and get to the rear command post to deal with it. Turned out a TV Station near the HQ got hit with small arms fire and a VBIED [car bomb, or vehicle-borne improvised explosive device]. 

"Made it to the CSH [combat support hospital] that night just before SSG Maupin was placed in the helicopter for Balad. He looked so helpless…Pretty much what was left of the PSD escorted him to the helicopter and a couple of our guys helped lift him in.

"I can't put into words how much these guys mean to me…They protect my life every day and have become like family. The day before SGT Allison, who is the one who pretty much walks wherever I go, got shot in the hand and again in his flack vest as I was talking to a store owner. Even before he fell from the pain he was trying to get between the shooter and me. In two days I had five wounded in my PSD. Every one of them said they would do it again. They all wanted to get back on duty. Doc Coursen is simply a stud. He pulled Allison out of harms way when he got shot, then treated his wounds. His actions to save Maupin's life were heroic.

Even though he himself was injured he put himself at risk to treat his friend. He still does not remember any of it.

"What you do for these Soldiers, their families, and me is so important. They are the salt of the earth…doing what most in this country are not willing to do. Most of the country does not understand the sacrifices that Soldiers are making every day. Likewise they do not understand the stress it puts on our families. ….

I love you with all my heart.

Dale"


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