Understanding the Cost of the War

Courtesy Joseph DeWolf

The Inlander | March 12, 2008
Joseph DeWolf went on a cruise to Mexico last week. DeWolf is a warrior home from battle and, sure, his boat ride from Galveston to Cozumel may not sound like the typical epic Homeric odyssey. But perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to say the voyage is part of a larger journey to figure out where he fits in the world -- a voyage undertaken by many soldiers home from Iraq.

Over there, American soldiers are the outsiders, targets of gunfire and bombs. They patrol in a theater that is not quite a war ... and yet is certainly not at peace. It is sometimes hard to get a clear sense of who is the enemy, what is the mission and how will it be accomplished, exactly, by Americans who carry guns, not hammers, and build forts, not factories.

And when these soldiers come home, the populace often doesn't understand all the shades of gray.

Take the cruise. "The boat was full of senior citizens, I can tell you that much," DeWolf, a 1997 graduate of Colfax High School, says over a cell phone from Texas. "I spent a lot of time in the casino."

His wife, Christina, "made me wear my dress uniform for the formal event."

So here was the burly military man, standing out and drawing every eye. And soon he was swarmed with people wanting to shake his hand.

"The appreciation is nice, but when you are the only one in a military uniform on the boat it can get pretty overwhelming. After a point I just wanted people to leave me alone."

Staff Sgt. DeWolf, a tank commander twice deployed to Iraq, is still adjusting. He was evacuated from Baghdad in July when a particularly huge explosion -- one of 14 he experienced -- engulfed his M1A2 Abrams battle tank. The blast knocked DeWolf unconscious and broke his jaw.

He was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and, while they were at it, the Army docs took a look at his combat experiences and ordered up some treatment for post-traumatic stress. DeWolf has been home in Texas since August, visiting doctors and counselors, performing some light duty and taking plenty of time to decompress and reflect. He shared his thoughts over several long telephone exchanges almost exactly four years after I first interviewed him.

DeWolf may be the only soldier in the universe to compare rolling a battle tank into Fallujah with driving up to Spokane from the Palouse.

In both places, he says, it's as if the city core suddenly appears after you creep up on it and cross a river.

"You know how you cross that bridge and then you are right in downtown Spokane?" he asks about coming up from Colfax on Highway 195. "That's how Fallujah was."

The description came in a 2004 interview when DeWolf had returned from the first year of the Iraq War. He relayed his experiences with a tone of amazement and even fun. Not ha-ha funny. It more had the flavor of trying to explain the crazy-weird things you see in a war, like a Carl's Jr. lunch truck being blown up by insurgents and left afire in a traffic circle.

Four years later, DeWolf doesn't sound like that.

Though only 29, his voice on the telephone sounds weary, older, after an extended second deployment. The flavor of this tour, he says, was "pretty sour."

In October 2006, DeWolf was deployed a second time -- assigned to the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division at FOB Rustimiyah and one of its outposts, the wistfully named FOB Hope in eastern Baghdad. Hope is about 500 feet from the gates of Sadr City, the teeming Baghdad slum controlled by the Mahdi Army. The Jaish-al-Mahdi, as it is also known, is a powerful Shiite militia loyal to the rebellious young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

During the intense deployment, DeWolf lost nine or 10 friends to explosions, snipers or firefights, he says, and was himself blown up 14 times by bombs that detonated outside his tank or Humvee.

The combat stressors of his second deployment were compounded by a growing sense of futility.

"I didn't see any change at all" in Iraq, DeWolf says, adding later, "On the eastern side of Baghdad we were thrown into a no-win situation. Maybe I'm wrong (but) maybe we shouldn't have as much American presence there.

"From the friends I lost this time ... personally, if I died in Iraq I would want my friends to go home and forget about that place," he says.

While it's terrible that so many Iraqis are dying violently, they have a police and an army. "My personal opinion: I'd just as soon get out of there," he says.

Jaish-al-Mahdi has pretty much become the working government in Sadr City, DeWolf says, and doesn't appear to want or need American help. In fact, the U.S. forces and the Mahdi Army, which in the past hasn't been shy about engaging U.S. troops in full-on combat, had a tense sort of "don't mess with me, I won't mess with you" relationship even before it was formalized into cease-fire called by al-Sadr last August. The cease-fire came on the eve of the progress report Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker (a Spokane native) gave to Congress last fall and has recently been ex-tended another half year.

In the absence of a reliable government, the Mahdi Army has taken over many municipal services -- distributing food to the hungry in the slum, DeWolf says, and even fixing the streets. "I compare them to the mafia," he says. "They go around and talk to store owners and smile and shake hands ... but if you don't do what they want, they kill you."

A story out of Baghdad last year shows the power al-Sadr can wield via his militia. On the first day of summer, the Jaish-al-Mahdi paid visits to the city's ice factories -- ice being an increasingly valuable daily commodity in a hot city with unreliable electricity. Al-Sadr decreed that, in his territory, the standard 55-pound block of ice should cost no more than 4,000 Iraqi dinars (about $3), or one-third less than elsewhere in the capital. This sort of clout wins al-Sadr the loyalty of Baghdad's Shia poor.

"It seemed like we were kind of not needed around there," DeWolf says. "I just rode around in my tank and felt like a rolling bomb squad. It felt useless."

As the Mahdis were strengthening their grip on Sadr City, "I was just doing the same mission the whole time -- driving around and hoping not to get blown up." DeWolf says.

"I hate to freaking make a pact with the devil, but I think it's keeping a lot of people alive," he says.

Shared danger strengthens bonds, and danger on DeWolf's second tour wasn’t long in coming.

This was the first bomb to hit him in Baghdad: DeWolf had come rolling out of FOB Rustimiyah at dusk, leading a convoy of four Humvees. ("I was senior tank commander, so I always rode in the lead," he says.) The twice-daily mission was to drive around for a while, show the flag and remind residents and militiamen the U.S. Army was back in the neighborhood.

"We had come around a corner by a soccer field. It was not an area we usually patrolled," DeWolf says. The beaten-dirt soccer pitch with two forlorn nets was on the right side of the street, half-built houses with their piles of brick crowding the left. The dark street was spooky-empty.

"One of the key things is: Where there are people, there is safety," DeWolf says.

In this, he is citing the sort of detail soldiers often learn the hard way about the lay of the land in Iraq. We read plenty of stories about suicide bombers and civilian-killing car bombs taking their terrible toll on ordinary people and soldiers alike in Baghdad, but DeWolf also says this: "In Iraq, they don't put IEDs in a crowded market or by businesses they don't want damaged."

"They" could be anybody who controls a neighborhood -- the identity and agenda of "the enemy" remains fluid and ambiguous five years after the invasion of Iraq. In DeWolf's case, "they" is most likely the Mahdi Army.

Moments after rounding the corner, DeWolf saw what he was looking for -- people mingling in the yellow light spilling out of open shops a couple of blocks ahead.

"So we're rolling up the road, three guys in a Humvee with dim-ass headlights," he says, the gunner shining a spotlight from the turret to help guide the way. And then a disembodied flame appears -- at first without any sense of scale or distance. Faster than comprehension, it streaks across the street.

"I saw a red flash. Then wham! The projectile hit right under my seat. What saved me was the battery box. It threw my legs up," DeWolf says.

All three were hit with shrapnel, plus they suffered burns from acid that had sprayed out of the exploded batteries.

"I couldn't see at first because battery acid shot all over my goggles," DeWolf says. "I asked my two guys if they were all right, then I checked myself. I knew my legs were bleeding, and when I checked to see if I could move them, a couple of cables started sparking and started a little fire."

The other Humvees pulled up to form a protective bracket, and DeWolf and his crew -- Spc. Jeramy Wallace and Sgt. Jeremy Nunn -- began to attach a towline.

"Down that alleyway that was lit up and filled with people? Suddenly that whole alleyway went dark," DeWolf says.

The soldiers knew something was coming. IED hits are typically followed by RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) or a second IED, DeWolf says.

This time there was only sporadic fire from AK-47s. Wallace, despite an injured hand, and another Humvee gunner spotted the muzzle flashes and returned fire with their .50-caliber machine guns.

And just as quickly as it erupted, the firefight came to a sudden halt as the patrol rolled away, disabled Humvee in tow.

It was, ultimately, just another night on the fringe of Sadr City. Explosions, firefights, adrenaline rush ... and nothing that was really changed. It was the pattern of this deployment.

"As an army, we are just growing tired of it. It's taking a toll," DeWolf says.

Of the double handful of friends DeWolf has lost, two are searing, he says. Almost exactly a year ago, on March 15, a fellow sergeant and especially good friend, Terry Prater, died in a Baghdad explosion that killed seven soldiers.

The Department of Defense news release mentioned a bomb going off outside the soldiers' vehicle. There's more to the story, and it infuriates DeWolf.

"There was a little IED. (Higher commanders) try to have us do our own forensics on IEDs for post-blast analysis. So you are ordered to get out and take a picture of the hole and measure the depth.

"There was a little IED. And then there was a bigger IED, booby-trapped, and that's how seven guys died. The American public never hears about that," he says.

There is a disconnect, DeWolf says, between the realities on the street and the view from above. What was the point of standing over a crater and playing CSI? he asked.

"I was forever questioning about that one. Where does all this evidence go? We don't seem to be getting results," in terms of fewer IEDs, he says.

A second death, the shooting death of Spc. Gabriel Figueroa April 3, left DeWolf white-hot angry for a long time, he says. The 20-year-old medic was killed as the battalion was trying to make inroads with locals by going out on meet-and-greets.

Half the soldiers in the platoon would leave their Humvees and work the sidewalks to "shake hands and hug babies. Our goal was to try and get to know everybody in the neighborhood," DeWolf says. "The mission was to go around the neighborhoods and schools and make nice. The first day, Fig got shot. He was handing out stuffed animals to kids. Handing out stuffed animals his parents had donated."

He and his soldiers felt eaten up inside, DeWolf says, first, because of Figueroa's good nature -- "There was no way you could not like that guy" -- and second, the fact that the shooter didn't care that children were in his line of fire. Finally, he's angry because the platoon was respectful of Iraqis.

"We weren't the type of platoon where we'd get out and slap people around for no reason. We were hugged up against Sadr City and I wanted to keep my soldiers safe. We wanted to be laid back and easy to get along with so we didn't have to worry about firefights when we rolled through."

After Figueroa’s death, the platoon sergeants consulted and decided, "If this is the way they want it, we will roll heavy. I went back there with my tank and I didn't feel like making friends," DeWolf says.

The type of bomb that blew up his Humvee in that first attack used to be called a shaped charge -- an explosive shaped in such a way that the force of the blast is focused in one direction. Think of a blow-torch when it ignites. The military, in its never-ending quest for acronyms now calls them EFPs (explosively formed penetrators).

"An EFP can go through a lot of stuff. (In November) this was the first time I had ever heard of one," DeWolf says. "When they did post-blast analysis they found out it skimmed right under the Humvee. We got lucky."

Lucky, that is, until the next 13 grew more and more powerful. The 1/8 Cav rode in M1A2 Abrams tanks with armored skirting to the sides. The military is hastily upgrading the M1A2s with protections for urban warfare, but DeWolf's unit didn't have these packages even though they were in one of the most prolific areas for IEDs. Even so, the tankers felt pretty invincible, driving what DeWolf calls, "the most badass, well-protected vehicle in the army."

As last year progressed, the EFPs grew more and more into a threat to punch through the stout shell of the battle tank.

By May: "There was an incident where a tank driver lost both arms to an EFP."

By June: "There was an incident that injured my platoon sergeant."

By July: "We had just completed a raid and were escorting the infantry guys back. I was the second tank in that convoy, went around the corner by a gas station," DeWolf says ... and the rest is hazy.

His 14th and final EFP was monstrous. It blew the side skirt armor off both sides of the tank and hurled the heavy steel nearly two football fields. It punched a 12-inch hole through the tank wall. DeWolf was briefly unconscious in the turret with a broken jaw, and he and the driver, Spc. Wallace, were both dazed even as they drove the wounded tank back to base.

"I had ringing in my ears, I had a real bad headache, blurry vision, slurred speech," DeWolf says. "I woke up the next morning and felt drunk -- I ended up throwing up a lot." His company's 1st Sergeant recognized the possibility of TBI and had DeWolf flown to the main hospital at Balad immediately. "An MRI showed swelling on the right side of my brain and they rushed me to Landstuhl (Germany)."

Looking back, he says, frequent headaches may have been a sign of TBI all through the deployment, but he put it down to other things.

"I felt symptoms before but thought I was coming off an adrenaline rush. Some of the IEDs were followed by 20-minute firefights and the adrenaline's going and you're shooting and looking all around. The headaches ... I figured maybe I didn't drink enough water that day," he says.

He still gets headaches and sometimes the nausea and the blurred vision. The thing with TBI is there's no operation, no meds that make it get better.

"TBI? ... honestly all my docs told me the main thing is time," DeWolf says. "Basically don't be put in stressful situations ... basically relax and take time for the brain to heal."

He could still be six months away from anything more than light duty, doctors recently told him. And DeWolf wonders why his crew members, who went through all the same engagements, aren’t getting this, too. The answer comes quick enough: Thinking of the realities of what soldiers experience in Iraq, "You'd have to take everybody. They'd have the whole army."

Despite his frustrations, DeWolf reenlisted for another six years while in Iraq. He had considered leaving the military and trying for a job with the Texas State Patrol, but in the end, he says, it came down to battle buddies. "Honestly, I thought I would miss it after a while. The camaraderie and everything ... you can't get that anywhere else."

DeWolf doesn't want to come across like he was mopey over in Sadr City, driving around and getting blown up all the time. He was, in fact, engaged in his duties.

With EFPs the main threat to American lives, "Being a rolling bomb squad did feel useless, but I was commanding the most badass, well-protected vehicle in the army so I felt I had a responsibility to put myself in harm's way to try to find IEDs before they hit lighter-skinned vehicles.

"It was scary as hell every day. You just smoke a lot of cigarettes," DeWolf says.

"I think it's pretty pointless," he says of the war, "but I signed up for it."

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