Alpha Company: Their War Comes Home

The Pa. National Guard unit suffered bombings and saw six comrades die in Iraq. Many fight still — to get lives on track and to find meaning in their sacrifice.

Posted: March 09, 2008

The flat roofs across the street were checkered with black shadows. In the dim yellow light of a city sky at night, Sgt. Lorenzo Martinez thought he saw a man move.

He jumped away from the window and pressed his back to the wall.

Maybe, he thought, he was becoming too cautious, too wary. Ever since six of his friends in Alpha Company had been killed in hidden-bomb attacks in Iraq, he had been easily spooked.

His mind raced. Was the door locked? Was there a route of escape? What would he do without a weapon?

With just thumb and forefinger, he slowly separated the blinds and peered out again.

He froze.

Sure enough, it was a sniper.

But this was Philadelphia, not Baghdad, and Martinez was in his own bedroom on the second floor of his own house on North Fifth Street.

Somehow, the bald, 44-year-old father of two had transported himself back to Iraq, back to the dusty roads and drab villages where the bomb attacks that his outfit suffered in 2004 and 2005 made it the hardest-hit Pennsylvania National Guard unit since World War II.

This evening in June 2006, he'd had a couple of beers. He and his wife, Maria, had exchanged sharp words. His eyes, flashing in the round mirror on the dresser, had grown wild.

Now he yanked open the drawers and dumped them on the floor. He turned over the mattress and shoved it, with other furniture, against the door.

With the lights out, he stood staring at imagined danger across the way.

He began to dwell on the faces of the men who'd been lost - members of the First Battalion of the 111th Infantry, based at an armory in Northeast Philadelphia.

There was Spec. Gennaro Pellegrini, a police officer who boxed professionally and was known as "Punchy." Martinez could picture him all worked up, ready for a fight.

There was Sgt. Brahim Jeffcoat, long-faced and lean, who was a Temple University student and father of a 19-month-old girl. His round glasses gave him a studious look.

There was Nathaniel DeTample, a former 130-pound wrestler at Pennsbury High School in Bucks County. At 19, he was a rarity in Alpha: a private first class in the veteran unit. Martinez always thought he looked like a baby.

Martinez could bring to mind all the faces - of those three and of the others, Spec. Kurt Krout, Sgt. Francis Straub, Spec. John Kulick. They had been killed in a pair of bomb blasts three days apart in August 2005. The calamity had been major news across the state.

During his night of distress, Martinez had these men on his mind. "Where," he wanted to know, "are my friends?"

More than two years after coming home, and on the eve of the Iraq war's fifth anniversary, the 131 survivors of Alpha Company are still trying to sort out the meaning of their sacrifice.

These were citizen-soldiers, many of them family men, drawn from across the Philadelphia region. They are, today, police officers and prison guards, construction workers and drugstore clerks. One is an airport screener, one carries mail, and one digs graves.

The Inquirer set out almost a year ago to track down every Alpha member. About a third have left the Guard, and others have transferred to units as far away as Texas and Arizona. One died in a car accident, one went to prison, one melted into the shadows of Army Special Forces. It took court records to find some. Others, although still in the Guard and in the area, were wary of talking.

The newspaper ultimately reached all but one veteran, and all but five cooperated in reporting on how they were doing.

Alpha never expected to go to war. Its members knew it was possible, but the Pennsylvania Army Guard hadn't sent units into combat since World War II.

Many of the men had been in the Guard for years without ever venturing much farther than Fort Indiantown Gap on the eastern slopes of the Allegheny Mountains.

Then came 9/11. Then came the Iraq invasion. Alpha was called up in 2004 for almost six months of pre-Iraq training in Texas and Mississippi. The unit then spent nearly 11 months in the dust and danger of northern Iraq, where Alpha endured half a dozen bomb attacks and ambushes in which men were hurt. Besides the six men who were killed, 17 received the Purple Heart for getting wounded in combat.

Amid the relief and joy of coming home in late 2005, the survivors weren't fully prepared for what, to them, were unexpected difficulties of readjusting to civilian life.

Some emerged from the trial of Iraq stronger and more self-confident, with high hopes for the future.

But others feel derailed and don't know, yet, how to get back on track. Almost half - 46 percent - have been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

For many, the stresses of reentry - reacquainting themselves with wives and girlfriends, returning to work or school - caused levels of anger and anxiety that required psychotherapy and medication, often at a VA hospital or clinic.

About a third were collecting VA disability pensions for PTSD, hearing loss, bad backs and other injuries - some while still serving in the Guard.

Almost every man said he had felt welcomed home. Sometimes strangers, seeing them in uniform, would say thank you. But many in the company saw an America bored with veterans' stories - too detached or too distressed by events in Iraq to care much about them. And that felt like an insult.

For some men, the path to recovery remains as elusive as the shadowy insurgents Alpha stalked on the plain of ancient Mesopotamia.

Sgt. Allan Dempster of South Philadelphia, rocked by two bomb blasts in September 2005, came back and was medicating himself with alcohol, only to learn that he had traumatic brain injury - which the Pentagon now calls the signature injury of the Iraq war.

Dempster never got a Purple Heart. The Army apparently did not consider his injury to be a combat wound. Yet it haunts him still. His evaluation of his own condition is both plaintive and concise.

"I am changed," he said.

Some of the men in the all-male unit said they'd almost rather be back in Iraq. Life was simpler there; a man just followed orders. Fifty of them said they'd volunteer to go back, and 10 others said they'd consider it.

All of the veterans, in one way or another, have been marked indelibly by their Iraq experience - some quite literally, as in the case of Sgt. Neill Coulbourn of Phoenixville.

Coulbourn has a tattoo etched on his big right arm that bears the names of six men - six dead men. Underneath, it says: "August 2005."

For Alpha Company, everything begins with August 2005.

The summer temperature at Forward Operating Base Summerall was routinely 110 degrees. The desert compound 110 miles north of Baghdad had been an Iraqi military airfield before the Americans took over. To Sgt. Dan South, it seemed "like a little fort in Indian country."

This was August 2005. South had been in Iraq for eight months. Several times, the unit was hit with roadside bombs and suicide attacks. As yet, it had suffered no fatalities.

South, 23, joined the Army out of high school in York County. He had been in the Fourth Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, but had gotten out a few months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He then joined the Guard to get the college benefits it offered and enrolled at Millersville University. As the war rolled into 2004, he began to suspect that he would never make it to graduation. Indeed, he was called up for 18 months. He joined Alpha for training and then flew out with the unit around Thanksgiving 2004.

He never wanted to go to Iraq. It wasn't that he opposed the war; he didn't. In fact, he wanted to earn the respect of his father, who had been a Marine at the Vietnam War battle of Khe Sanh. But South had other plans. He wanted to be back in school.

In the summer of 2005, nearly half of all U.S. troops in Iraq were from the Guard and Reserves. Never before had part-time soldiers carried so heavy a share of the load in fighting a war.

As guardsmen, the men of Alpha were typically older than regular Army troops. Fourteen were over 40, and the eldest was 55.

FOB Summerall, as they called their base, was near Beiji, an important crossroads with the largest oil refinery in Iraq. The fortress, an ocean of white trailers, was surrounded by a wall of enormous sandbags, each filled with a ton of soil.

For the 1,000 or so men of Task Force Dragoon, of which Alpha was a part, living at the FOB was only occasionally dangerous. Insurgents might lob in a mortar shell, but they knew U.S. forces would respond with shells twice as big.

By Army standards, the accommodations were comfortable. Troops ate in a cool, spacious dining facility where the menu included Baskin-Robbins ice cream. They bunked, in pairs, in steel, air-conditioned boxes that looked like shipping containers. Each day, soldiers could be seen running in shorts and T-shirts along the dirt-and-stone roads of the compound. The air often was thick with dust.

Many Alpha soldiers had volunteered for Iraq. They had been members of other companies in the battalion and agreed to fill vacant slots on Alpha's roster.

Still, they complained. They complained about the heat. They complained about the spiders and scorpions. They complained about their leaders. All the carping - which they saw as every soldier's right - let off steam.

Every day, usually twice a day, they rode dangerous patrols in their armored humvees. Every day, they were in danger from mines planted beneath the roads, from bombs hidden alongside the roads, from suicide bombers driving cars or trucks packed with explosives.

And every day, they counted the time until they could go home.

Almost every Alpha soldier was on at least one patrol that came under attack.

Staff Sgt. Anthony Kelly, a platoon sergeant from Drexel Hill, a law-school graduate with a shaved head, kept an e-mail diary in which he wrote: "Imagine rolling down the street at 60 m.p.h in a 12-ton freight car, equipped with a [machine gun] that spits hundreds of pointy metal bricks at a couple of thousand feet per second.

"Now imagine some yokel taking potshots at you . . . or planting a bomb for you to run over, or planting one in a car that he tries to drive into the side of your humvee (killing himself in the process). . . . It feels like driving through a really bad neighborhood."

Soldiers rarely had a chance to fight back.

"Me, personally, I never saw an insurgent," said Sgt. Mark Ransom of Royersford, a former Marine who would have preferred a head-to-head fight. "It was a year of just sitting around and waiting to get blown up."

Over the months, the frequency of attacks waxed and waned. Soldiers would kick open some doors in Beiji and break up an insurgent cell. Bomb attacks would ebb. Then another cell would arise, and attacks would increase. The battle to stay ahead was constant.

In May and June 2005, bomb blasts seemed to come in waves, and several men were seriously hurt. As August arrived, Alpha's sector seemed quiet.

Capt. Anthony Callum, the company commander, felt confident enough to accept the two weeks of home leave that the Army offered each soldier during his deployment.

Callum, too, had never expected to find himself at war. He had been in the Guard for 18 years. In 1983, he was a Navy sailor off the coast of Beirut when 241 Marines on shore were killed in a terrorist bombing of their barracks. That was the closest Callum had ever come to combat.

"I thought my adventure stories were over," he said just before leaving for Iraq around Thanksgiving 2004. "Why would they want a 43-year-old man with a family of four?"

Still, he was excited: It was the leadership chance of a lifetime.

Callum was 6,000 miles from Iraq, at home with his wife and two children in the Philadelphia suburb of Chalfont, when bad news arrived from Iraq.

Two Alpha soldiers, Sgt. Jeffcoat, 25, of Philadelphia, and Spec. Krout, 43, of Spinnerstown, Bucks County, had gone with a convoy to the Camp Anaconda supply base to pick up a machine gun that needed repair. This was not an Alpha mission; they merely bummed a ride with other troops.

On their way back, a roadside bomb along the Samarra bypass killed them both.

A shaken Callum started back for Iraq as fast as he could.

He had traveled as far as Germany when the news got worse.

The Sunni insurgents appeared intent on picking a fight. They were out in the dark somewhere, shooting rocket-propelled grenades into the air or lobbing them at truck convoys on Highway 1, like some school-yard tease: Come and get me!

Alpha Company, burning from the loss of two of its men, leaped at the challenge.

It was after 11 p.m. on Aug. 9. Alpha's Second Platoon had been on call since 9 as a quick-reaction force in case anything happened in Task Force Dragoon's sector of Salahuddin province.

Sixteen men from the Second and Third Squads began to load up. By now, with scores of missions behind them, the Alpha soldiers were confident veterans. They put on their helmets, wrap-around armor vests, knee pads and elbow pads. They checked their ammunition and started the smoky diesel engines of their four armored humvees.

Spec. Kulick 35, a lanky Jenkintown firefighter, had all his personal belongings packed and ready to send home. His roommate, Spec. Robert Jackson, a North Philadelphia barber and divorced father of three, knew Alpha Company wouldn't be relieved for several months. What was Kulick thinking?

"He was always the kind of guy who liked to be prepared ahead of time," Jackson recalled. "But I said: 'Whoa! It's way too early for that. You've got plenty of time.' "

As the squads waited by their humvees, Lt. Hasan Fersner emerged from the tactical operations center with their orders.

At 26, the rugged, square-chinned Fersner was the platoon leader. His father had been studying Islam when he was born, and had given him his Islamic-sounding name. But Fersner was Christian. He had majored in English lit at Stroudsburg University.

He told the men that Army scouts had spotted insurgent grenade fire in a back-country area near the town of Laqlaq known as Smugglers Road. It ran between Highway 1 and the west bank of the Tigris River.

Alpha was to go out and battle the insurgents, or at least chase them away. Battalion leaders wanted two civilian dog handlers and their dogs to go along.

"If anybody tried to run, we'd have the dogs to sniff them out," Fersner recalled.

To make room for the dog teams, Kulick, the lanky firefighter, was asked to vacate his spot in the fourth humvee and take a seat in the third.

He did what he was told.

The humvees, each topped with a machine gun, departed the FOB by Gate 3. The soldiers rode without lights, using night-vision goggles. But the diesel-powered engines were noisy.

They rumbled past the village of As Saliyah and continued into open desert.

They crossed a railroad overpass and turned south on Highway 1, a four-lane road that prewar invasion planners had code-named Tampa.

They then swung left toward Laqlaq, rolled through the town and stopped on Smugglers Road. Beyond lay the sudden green swath by the Tigris.

Another U.S. force was heading south on Smugglers Road so they could clamp the insurgents in a vise.

Sgt. South, driver of the third vehicle, was spoiling for a fight. The men of Alpha were confident. They had superior weapons and superior training. They believed they could win any head-on fight with the insurgents.

"We were professionals and they were amateurs," South said. "The whole job of infantry is to engage the enemy."

The first Alpha humvee made the left turn, north. Then the second followed. Then South's vehicle moved after the others.

That was the last moment South could remember.

Directly beneath his humvee, a bomb exploded.

Several 155mm artillery rounds, investigators would later say, had been wired together, packing enough power to destroy a heavy tank. The lighter humvee, with South and four other men in it, was obliterated.

An instant later, a second bomb exploded from under the road, but this one missed its target, creating a big crater between the first and second U.S. vehicles.

Then, from a field to the right, the insurgents opened up with gunfire and grenades.

The U.S. plan to squeeze the insurgents had backfired. Instead, Alpha men were the ones who were ambushed.

Spec. Kieran McGurk, a ruddy-faced 21-year-old who had joined the Guard straight out of Upper Darby's Monsignor Bonner High School, was standing in the turret of the last humvee. The first blast momentarily blinded him.

"It was so bright," he said. "I just remember feeling the heat off of it. It was incredible."

When Jackson, at the wheel of the trailing vehicle, had to stomp on the brakes, McGurk was thrown into the side of the turret and broke his wrist.

He fell down into the humvee but got up and started firing the M240 Bravo machine gun into the blackness. It jammed. He then picked up a SAW rifle, a light machine gun, and fired with that.

After the second bomb, there may have been a third, possibly planted in a tree along the left side of the road.

A large section of tree trunk smashed through the bullet-resistant windshield of the second humvee and pinned a wounded Staff Sgt. Timothy Breen to his seat.

The soldiers were confused: Had the road bomb knocked over one of the trees that lined the road? Or had a bomb been planted in the tree itself?

"Something had to cause the tree to become a missile," said Staff Sgt. David Jock.

Jock, a short, redheaded rooster of a man, was a medic. A former member of the Army's 82d Airborne Division, he was a paramedic at home in rural Chester County. He already had seen a lot in Iraq. Any time there was blood, the medic had to come running.

In the smoke of battle, there was uncertainty over whether the insurgents had fired rocket-propelled grenades. Jock was sure they had.

He said an RPG flew right past his window. He saw the flame trail. The rocket hit a wall next to the road. "You could feel the heat from it when it went off," he said.

Jock rode in the lead vehicle with Fersner, the platoon leader. In the dark, as the vehicle turned to go help the others who were hit, it fell into one of the blast holes. The sudden lurch tore ligaments in Jock's left shoulder.

The firefight lasted only a short time.

Fersner was on his radio getting reports from the other humvees. But from Vehicle No. 3, led by Spec. Gennaro Pellegrini, there was silence.

"Pellegrini still hadn't called in," Fersner said. "I was trying to contact him."

Only later, as the firing died down and the insurgents slipped away, did Alpha Company realize the full scale of what had happened.

Vehicle No. 3 was gone.

Pellegrini, 31, a Philadelphia police officer who had been ready to leave the Guard before he got the call to Iraq, was dead.

So was Sgt. Francis Straub Jr., 24, of Philadelphia, who had worked for United Parcel Service.

So was Pfc. Nathaniel DeTample, 19, of Morrisville, one of the youngest in Alpha.

And so was John Kulick. Kulick, who'd packed his bags early; Kulick, who'd given up his seat.

If Kulick had been in the last vehicle, where he usually sat, he would have survived. No one in that vehicle was hurt. Not the dog-handler. Not the dog.

But where was the fifth man in Vehicle No. 3? Where was the driver, Dan South, the sergeant who'd been spoiling for a fight?

"We couldn't find South," Jock the medic said.

South, somehow, had been thrown from the destroyed vehicle. The explosion that killed the four men had rocketed him over a stone wall.

"It's all kind of foggy," he said. "I'm pretty sure I remember driving down Smugglers Road. The next thing I remember is coming to. I didn't know where I was."

South awoke hearing Sgt. Sean Snell calling his name.

"Over here," South said.

He didn't yet know what had happened. But he could see an orange glow. It was from the burning humvee.

Snell, then of Philadelphia's East Falls section, had been delivering pizzas when he was called up for Iraq. In Alpha Company, he was a squad leader.

He leaped over the wall and found South sitting up in shock, with no helmet, no armor vest, no rifle. Other than his uniform, all he had on were knee pads.

Snell checked South all over. Satisfied that he was medically stable, he told South he had to go check on the others. But first he drew a 9mm Glock pistol from his holster and gave it to South.

"If you see anything," Snell told South, "shoot it."

Back at FOB Summerall, other Alpha soldiers were leaning over the radio at their tactical operations center to catch snatches of the action miles away.

Martinez had been in his hut, winding down for the night, when another soldier ran in and said the patrol had been hit - no one yet knew how bad. Martinez leaped up and ran to the operations center.

He remembers that it was hard to make heads or tails of the radio chatter. They heard that one man had been killed in action. Then they heard two. Or was it three? More? For security reasons, no names were used over the air.

Sgt. Jeremiah Boring, then of Harleysville, recalled: "Everyone from our platoon was running around getting our combat gear ready. . . . We were all planning on going out."

Boring, who had just turned 23, had joined the Guard three years earlier to earn money for college after his father lost his job at a Ford Motor Co. supplier. Boring had received a Bronze Star in June for pulling wounded men from a burning vehicle.

When Alpha men learned that battalion leaders were sending a different unit to help the men on Smugglers Road, they felt betrayed. They slammed their helmets and cursed at being held back.

"But after a while," Boring said, "we started to take the measure of what we lost, and there were a whole lot of tears."

Smugglers Road now hosted a convention of "fobbits." That's what Alpha infantrymen called soldiers who rarely left the relative safety of the FOB - Forward Operating Base Summerall.

All sorts of officialdom, along with backup combat forces and two helicopters, had descended on the ambush site. It was being treated the way police would handle a crime scene.

One "fobbit," overcome by the excitement and the still-intense night heat, had to be airlifted to a medical facility.

In all of the hubbub, South somehow had been left behind.

A medic found him sitting in the back of a humvee long after other wounded men had been evacuated. With his painful broken jaw and rib, South had to ride all the way back to the FOB, bouncing along on hard roads, with the other Alpha survivors.

Kelly, the Second Platoon sergeant, was waiting at the battalion aid station when the dirty, exhausted troops returned.

He watched as the men, spent and bedraggled, pulled themselves to their feet. One of them - the medic, Dave Jock - didn't go inside the steel building. Instead, he disappeared behind the building.

Kelly went to check on him.

As he approached, Jock looked up at the bigger man and burst into sobs.

On a flight layover at the airport in Shannon, Ireland, Sgt. Greg Torricellas, a Havertown carpenter, was headed home for two weeks of leave.

He called his fiancee, Anna Marie McConaghy, in Delaware County, to tell her when he'd be coming into the Philadelphia airport.

He said he was feeling blue about Jeffcoat and Krout, whose deaths he had learned about from the Armed Forces Network while en route.

"She said something about Pellegrini," he remembered. "I said, 'No, no, Pellegrini's not dead.' "

But McConaghy named the Alpha soldiers who'd been killed Aug. 9. She'd heard it on the news in Philadelphia.

So many. Torricellas was dumbstruck. He couldn't talk. He had to get off the phone.

Tomorrow: Homecoming


Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.

 

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