Monday, May 24, 2004

The Pilgrim's Progress

The story of the 143 MP battalion starts with a prologue -- Operation Iraqi Freedom -- and their war begins around the time that President Bush declared major combat operations over, once the MPs began encountering the chaos, betrayal and dysfunction of Iraq in all its manifestations. The ambiguities asserted themselves from the start.

From 100 yards away, narrow streams of red slashed through the night, lighting up the two National Guard Humvees. ... The order to shoot ignited Hayes. As if slipping into a real-life video game, he let his turret-mounted machine gun roar - short bursts aimed wherever he saw a gun flash. ... Later that night, the squad found a man's body in the area. Residents said there had been four attackers. The surviving three had disappeared, two of them wounded by the American guns. But there was also talk of a home robbery, with shots fired before the soldiers drove by. ... Was this man sprawled out dead from a shot in the head by a well-armed homeowner? Or was he, as would later be put in the military record, an official kill by Hayes, the machine gunner? In this bewildering country, the truth could be either or neither. ... From the turret, Hayes looked down at the body of the man, maybe in his 30s. Hayes hoped he hadn't killed him. But he felt relief, too. He and the others from Hartford's 143rd Military Police Company were still alive.

It was a place of contrasts. Children offered them warm Pepsis. That was expected. But like everything else, the familiar had a twist. The smiles and laughter in the crowd could mean something else.

They all got out of the Humvee. Something had exploded under it, some kind of grenade. A crowd was gathering. The gunner yelled at the Iraqis, "Get back! Get back!" Onlookers were laughing. Rosati put word of the attack over the radio. Another Humvee was nearby and bashed through traffic to get there. Then somebody in the crowd threw a second grenade, which landed in front of Hackett and another soldier.

"Grenade!" Rosati yelled.

The soldiers leapt away. It didn't explode. Whoever threw it neglected to pull the pin that would have triggered it. Rosati decided they needed to get out of there. They piled back into the Humvee, holes punched through its undercarriage by the blast. The other Humvee arrived and provided cover. Somebody had thrown grenades at it, too, but the pins in those were also left in. The damaged Humvee left a smear of oil in the street on its way out. Later, Rosati could hardly believe the restraint of his people, who hadn't fired a shot at the crowd even though it concealed the people trying to kill them. Hackett was going to be OK. The soldier from Putnam would be the first from the unit's Iraq tour to get a Purple Heart, the medal given to wounded soldiers. He wouldn't be the last.

Once the MPs found a group of children who had been killed sawing open abandoned explosives to sell the filler for IEDs. "The children's small hands were working this new trade. They were banging the ordnance on rocks to get at the insides. An explosion tore two of them apart and burned others." The MPs began to secure the site only to find themselves surrounded by crowds and shot at. The crowd was  not grateful, only resentful. Maybe they had interrupted business.

But it was the Iraqi police who proved most incomprehensible. They were corrupt and bound by loyalties in an alternate universe the MPs only suspected existed. The MPs learned that you could trust only those you really knew.

IEDs kept coming, too. On Sept. 19, 4th Platoon was on patrol. The soldiers were following a group of Iraqi police they hadn't worked with before. The Iraqi officers were acting weird. They were lingering on one street for a long time. Then they announced they were done for the night, long before the usual quitting time. They were pulling away very slowly, with 4th Platoon following. The soldiers got impatient and pulled around them. The faces of the Iraqis seemed expectant.

Then the blast came.

Spec. Petsa, riding in the passenger seat, was lifted so violently that he thought for a moment he'd been thrown from the Humvee. Instead, he landed in the back on top of the gunner, Pfc. Hayes. Petsa asked him, "Are you OK?" But he couldn't hear the answer. Petsa had a tiny chunk of concrete in his ear. Hayes had shrapnel wounds to his arm, which would earn him a Purple Heart. A group of Iraqi police was the first to show up and help, but not the ones the soldiers had been working with. Those had disappeared.

Yet as it was their mission to train the local cops, the MPs of 143rd manned Iraqi police precincts with their counterparts even when it was especially rough. One day the station house they were in was mortared heavily. The fire was apparently coordinated by a car that had slowly cruised past the premises, just seconds before the shells began to fall.

Then the ground was shaken by more explosions - mortars. Staff Sgt. Cloutier, a 25-year-old state trooper from East Hartford, yelled at her people to take cover. When the explosions stopped, she hurried toward the screaming. MPs from the 527th had been hit. There was blood everywhere. Somebody was shouting, "Medic! Medic!" ...

"She's not breathing!" somebody yelled over the din.

Members of the 143rd tried to revive Bosveld, 19. Eventually, medics arrived and all three were taken to a combat-support hospital. Bosveld, remembered as a quiet woman who wanted more than anything to go home to Wisconsin after being hurt in a grenade attack the month before, was pronounced dead at the hospital. A piece of shrapnel had passed through her torso. One of the other soldiers lost a leg below the knee, and surgeons saved the legs of the third.

The car was later found to be driven by a man who said he was a coalition interpreter on his way to work. That was the day a lot of police stations were bombed, and the Red Cross headquarters too. The enemy knew the rules of engagement and took full advantage of them. Somewhat later a man was brought in.

One day, Sgt. Lozier watched a man brought in for assault and inciting a riot. He tried to strike the officers and soldiers in the station. When asked what he would do if they let him go, he said he would kill all the Americans he could, and the Iraqis helping them. Afraid of what he might do if they put him in a car to be taken to prison, they decided to deprive him of sleep. After a few days, more docile now, he was driven to Abu Ghraib prison, the main detention center west of Baghdad. As the soldiers of the 143rd often did, they handed the prisoner off to the MPs running the prison. Months later, they found out about the rampant abuse that went on inside the infamous prison. Back home, Lozier saw a photo of a female MP holding a naked Iraqi on a leash. Lozier thinks that man was the unruly one they arrested.

When they returned to Fort Drum, having been rotated home before the heavy April fighting, the men of 143rd found that they while they had lost men in Iraq, in some cases they brought back more than they took. The article, which is classic, ends at church in Trumbull, where Sgt. Sam Defelice and his new bride Spec. Anna Conigliaro, tie the knot. Their baby had been conceived in Baghdad, proof that life will not let death have everything its own way.

And while the prologue is known, the epilogue is not. Although the men of 143rd have not accomplished everything they set out to do, they have clearly accomplished something. Every day that passes without a major terrorist attack, every day we arise to a morning of hope is time we owe to them. For even those who never returned have counted for something and the scales of destiny have felt their weight.

And when he heard the summons, he understood it and called for his friends, and told them of it. Then said he, "I am going to my Father's; and though  with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage; and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought his battles who now will be my Rewarder." So he passed over; and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.
-- John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress