Rebuilding their lives

After nearly a year in Iraq, the men of Alpha Company try to fit in back home. But the war has changed them and their families, and the return for many is difficult.

Posted: March 10, 2008

At Fort Dix, where they arrived 11 weeks after the attacks that killed six of their men, Alpha Company veterans were warned that their homecomings with wives and girlfriends might not be easy.

It was October 2005. Nearly a year had passed while they were abroad. The men would need a break, a chance to do nothing. But so would the women. They had been dealing with babies and budgets and busted pipes all on their own.

What's more, the veterans were apt to exhibit symptoms of post-combat stress, including fits of anger and anxiety. That was natural. But if it persisted, it could become a problem.

"You've all changed," said David R. Hulteen of the Army Career and Alumni Program, a bald Vietnam-era veteran with a flowing white beard. "And so has your family. So has everything."

The veterans of the Philadelphia-based National Guard unit looked sleepy and bored as they slumped on hard chairs in the old base chapel. Here they were in South Jersey, an hour's drive from home, maybe less. The autumn landscape beckoned, but they had to sit and listen, during days of debriefings, as one speaker after another told them how hard being a civilian again was going to be.

"It's sometimes just as tough to be back home," said Bonnie Reed of Army Community Services.

Tough? No one wanted to hear it.

"I just wanted to go home," said Sgt. Lorenzo Martinez.

Martinez, like others, could not visualize the road ahead. He could not know that, months later, flashing back to a sniper incident in Iraq, he would find home to be a deeply threatening place.

"I dreamt of this place," Staff Sgt. David Jock said.

Nine days before his first Christmas home, the Alpha Company medic was nursing a beer at a bar in tiny Oxford, Chester County. It was where Jock felt most at home since coming back.

He had survived the Aug. 9, 2005, attack in which four men had been killed, and his left shoulder still hurt where the ligaments had been torn when his humvee rolled into a bomb crater.

A slight man with sinewy muscles, Jock said he was dealing with guilt - guilt that he had made it, guilt that he had felt "glad it wasn't me."

He had not felt able to return to his civilian job as a paramedic. After seeing so much blood in Iraq, he didn't think he could handle the flashbacks he was sure the work would bring. Feeling bad was weighing him down.

He and his wife, Susan, shared a twin house with her disabled grandmother up the street from the tavern. They were having a hard time.

They had been married only a year before he was called up, and they had spent their first anniversary packing his uniforms and toiletries for Iraq. Then he had been away almost 18 months.

Susan, now pregnant, thought Jock was drinking too much.

"We need helmets when we clash," he said.

Several other Alpha Company veterans had returned to find their marriages over. Some marriages that had been weak to start had not stood up to the stresses of the long separation.

A platoon sergeant from Philadelphia's Feltonville section came home to an empty house. His wife had moved to Georgia and taken their 8-year-old daughter.

A soldier from Kutztown said his wife told him while he was still in Iraq that "she didn't want to be married anymore." He said: "I came home to a bunch of boxes on my front porch."

Jock knew he was hard to live with. He didn't sleep well and was often angry. He felt as if he was always on edge, always on guard.

While Christmas shopping at a Wal-Mart in Parkesburg, he had been talking at the checkout with another war veteran. A woman complained that they were holding up the line. Jock wheeled around and cursed at her.

His outburst surprised him.

"I just haven't been feeling like the old Dave," he said. "The old Dave had a good sense of humor. My patience is not what it used to be. The amount of anxiety that has built up is incredible. I have never felt this way before."

Two Alpha Company members remained far from home, living in an alien, antiseptic environment.

Sgt. Michael Sarro and Spec. John Ashenfelder were recuperating from serious war injuries at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center, 2,100 miles from home, in El Paso, Texas.

Month after month, Sarro, then 25, of Phoenixville, and Ashenfelder, then 22, of Spring City, lay in adjoining beds on the dry Mexican border, as much a desert as Iraq.

They had both been wounded May 14, 2005, when insurgents had ambushed an Alpha patrol as it passed through the village of As Saliyah. A bomb exploded beneath their feet as they rode in the same humvee. An armor plate on the vehicle floor, thrust upward by the blast, broke Ashenfelder's right heel and snapped his left leg. Moments later, a bullet from an AK-47 rifle went through Sarro's lower right leg.

Martinez, of North Philadelphia, riding in a humvee behind the one that got hit, saw the vehicle explode. He was close enough to feel the heat of the blast. It was an image that would return to him again and again in terrifying flashbacks.

All through the summer of 2005, Sarro and Ashenfelder languished together in Texas, as six of their Alpha comrades were killed in attacks back in Iraq. They languished there through the fall, when the company returned home to Fort Dix. They languished there into the winter as others got back to civilian life.

They had been there so long that they began to play gags on each other, just to make the time pass.

A parade of well-meaning drop-ins - from ministers to school groups to a women's Republican committee - came by their room.

"Whoever saw the door open first would pretend he was asleep so the other person would get stuck with the visitor," Sarro said.

"We had to find ways to entertain ourselves," Ashenfelder said.

The son of a Vietnam veteran and the great-nephew of a soldier killed in World War II, Ashenfelder had joined the National Guard after 9/11 and felt proud to be a part of his family's military tradition. When Alpha was mobilized for Iraq, "I kind of wanted to go," he said.

He had reached a U.S. military hospital in Germany when he groggily called home to tell his wife, Kim, a waitress, what had happened to him. She already knew by then. Hearing him so incoherent only frightened her more.

Sarro, a former Marine, also had wanted to go to Iraq. He had joined the Guard with that aim. In all the time Alpha was in Iraq, he was the only soldier hit by a bullet. The other casualties were from explosions.

His wife, Kelly, a kindergarten teacher, at first had hoped she could visit him in Landstuhl, Germany, where he had been airlifted with Ashenfelder. But within days he was in Texas, so she dropped everything and flew there.

A third soldier injured in the attack joined Sarro and Ashenfelder briefly at the Beaumont hospital.

Though wounded himself - with a broken collarbone, perforated eardrums, shrapnel and burns - Sgt. Bryon Yoder, of Fleetwood, Pa., had lain over the fallen Ashenfelder to protect him from the gunfire.

After recuperating stateside for a few months, Yoder went back to Iraq. "I kind of pushed for it," he said. He wanted to rejoin Alpha.

Sarro and Ashenfelder said they would have done the same, if they had been able to.

But for them, the war was over.

Both men had come close to losing limbs.

Kelly Sarro recalls that a Beaumont surgeon gave her husband a wrenching choice: to have his foot amputated, or to go through months of operations and pain - and still risk losing the limb to infection.

The bullet had left a hole the size of a softball, blowing away bone, muscle, blood vessels, tendons and all other living tissue.

Kelly wanted Mike to fight for the leg, but she admits: "I wasn't thinking about the pain."

Sarro agreed, in part, he said, not to let his family down. "I always felt I would have gone the other direction," he said, "but you can't have your parents there and say, 'Go ahead and cut it off.' "

Both wounded men had a cagelike device called a fixator surgically attached to hold their damaged legs in place so missing bone could regenerate. To support it, screws were drilled into the existing bone.

Kelly's job was to tighten Mike's fixator periodically, to maintain the right pressure. For her husband, it was like being stretched on some medieval torture device.

In January 2006, Ashenfelder was ready to leave Texas and go home to Pennsylvania.

He left Sarro behind to soldier on alone.

The Thursday after New Year's 2006, Spec. Robert Jackson was still at Fort Dix, still in his desert uniform long after most of Alpha Company had been released from duty.

Day after day, he faced the same dull routine: same flat South Jersey landscape, same drab brown-brick buildings, same ritual of cleaning toilets and going to see doctors.

Jackson was on medical hold for injuries he had sustained in Iraq. He had been caught in the ambush on Smugglers Road near Beiji the night four men, including his Iraq roommate, Spec. John Kulick, had been killed. Now Jackson was on hold for chronic back, shoulder, knee and foot injuries.

These injuries were probably the result of the physical stress many a soldier endures - the daily pounding that comes with riding in armored vehicles over rough road and carrying half of his own weight again in guns, ammo and body armor.

Except for weekend passes, Jackson had not been home much to North Philadelphia. The truth was, he didn't really mind. Home had not proved that inviting.

His ex-wife and their two children lived in Chester. He was renting with his two brothers. Neither of them was around much, so Jackson was often by himself.

He was beginning to wonder what the war would achieve. The United States had found no weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein's fall had not produced the national coming-together that President Bush had promised; it had only unleashed suppressed hatreds among the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

Jackson knew the history of the Middle East. He had read his Bible, had read about the ancient wars among Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Greeks. "They've been fighting for 2,000 years over there, and they haven't resolved it yet," he said. "The leopard can't change its spots."

It hurt somewhere deep inside to think about it.

On a SEPTA bus in Philadelphia, Jackson had gotten into a dispute with the driver over a pass. She said she had given it to him; he said she hadn't.

Somehow, he had expected her to accept his word because he was a war veteran.

"I told her, 'I went to war so you could live in peace.'

"She said, 'You never went to war for me.' She didn't care."

Crowds made Jackson nervous - they seemed to press in and threaten him - so he didn't much like going out.

"Sometimes," he said on a twilight walk at the fort, "when I go home, I want to get back here."

The familiarity of military surroundings, of military discipline, was comforting.

"It's a safe zone," he said.

On the dreary afternoon of Feb. 8, 2006, three months after Alpha Company came home, more than 200 mourners were packed into Lamm & Witman Funeral Home in Wernersville, west of Reading. They were there to say goodbye to Spec. Tyler Kline, a company veteran.

Alone in his car, Kline had driven off a rural road near his parents' home at 10:49 on a Thursday night and struck a tree. A deputy Berks County coroner ruled him dead on the spot.

By morning, almost all of Alpha had heard the news. The soldiers were devastated. It was as if another man had been killed in Iraq.

Ray Hildebrand, who had been Kline's roommate, said the men had known some might die in the war - but at home? Not the day after a man turned 21.

Kline's birthday had been that Wednesday. Some of his friends had taken him to celebrate at the VFW hall in Myerstown and then at a bar in Robesonia. He had slept safely at Hildebrand's house.

"We all thought we would grow old together and be brothers to the end," Hildebrand said.

Many in Alpha had not seen one another since coming home in October. They had felt a little lost, isolated. Sgt. Jim Murray, 31, of Phoenixville, a poker buddy of Kline's, said later that his friend's death set back his own readjustment to civilian life.

"You go through all that crap, wondering if you are going to see the next day," he said. "And then you come home and you're free and life is good - and then some car accident kills you.

"What the heck is the point?"

The Alpha veterans had been on duty at Beiji, 110 miles north of Baghdad, when their six comrades killed in two August 2005 bomb attacks were buried in Pennsylvania. The guardsmen had therefore never really had a chance to mourn.

Now, six days after Kline's accident, they were turned out at Christ Lutheran Cemetery in green dress uniforms, desert camouflage and stiff civilian suits. As an honor guard fired three blank volleys and a trumpeter blew Taps, they fought back tears of pent-up grief.

Afterward, Murray and his wife silently wended their way back to Phoenixville and ended up at the home of another Alpha veteran. The one thing they didn't talk about was loss. They'd had enough of that.

During that first winter home, Lorenzo Martinez spent many of his days at Fort Eustis, Va., getting treatment for bad feet.

Like Jackson and others from Alpha, he had been on medical hold at Fort Dix. But as new troops kept arriving from Iraq, the Dix medical facilities became so crowded that the Army moved him down the road - five hours from home in Philadelphia.

He was tired of being away, tired of the dull routine - just tired.

One day, sitting with his case manager, talking about the unfocused anxiety he was feeling, Martinez started to cry.

The case manager got up from her desk and came around to his chair. As she put her arms around him, he sobbed and sobbed.

It was the first time since he'd gotten back that he had let go. He didn't even know why he was crying, he said, but "I couldn't stop."

Moments after a February sunrise, four Philadelphia police detectives and three uniformed officers banged on the door of a rowhouse on South 53d Street.

They had come with a search warrant.

They were investigating a drive-by shooting that wounded three men. In a car that might have been involved, they had found a Glock semiautomatic pistol. They traced the pistol to an occupant of the house: Joseph Steven Smith, 22, a soldier in Alpha Company.

Now, they wanted to see what was in the house. They found 2.2 grams of crack cocaine and a .22-caliber Beretta pistol they said Smith had bought illegally on the street.

Smith was arrested.

Word spread among Alpha Company veterans that the popular private first class, a beefy 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, was in jail.

Alpha veterans who were members of the Police Department checked on Smith's status. The rumor was that Smith had been charged in the drive-by shooting. But that was not the case. The District Attorney's Office had charged him only with drug possession and having a stolen firearm.

Staff Sgt. Anthony Kelly, among other Alpha leaders, was shocked. Smith had been an eager soldier, a man who volunteered for extra combat missions when a platoon was short a man for a patrol.

In April 2006, two months after Smith's arrest, the charges were dismissed. But then came another arrest in Essington, Delaware County, in September.

The Delaware County authorities accused him of dealing drugs and arrested him on six criminal charges.

Capt. Kenrick Cato, who had taken over from Anthony Callum as company commander, at one point checked with Smith's mother to make sure Smith had a good lawyer. He did.

Smith, by then, had withdrawn from contact with his old Alpha comrades.

Several months after the Delaware County arrest, Smith pleaded guilty in Delaware County to one charge - criminal conspiracy - and was sentenced to a year in prison. He spent much of it at a state prison before being released.

Smith declined several times to speak with The Inquirer.

Cato said he thought Smith's Iraq experience might have added to his troubles by giving him the sense that, having survived a war, he was invulnerable.

Many of the men, he said, felt that way, at first.

"He thought he was faster and smarter because he was in combat," Cato said.

In March 2006, Brad Raudenbush, 25, of Doylestown, a sergeant in Iraq, got ready to start his new job in Washington.

Like more than 40 others in Alpha Company, Raudenbush left the National Guard, even though there was "a fair amount of pressure" to stay.

If not for his war record, Raudenbush probably would not have obtained the dream job he was beginning now - as a member of the personal security team for the U.S. Supreme Court.

In conducting their prehiring investigation of Raudenbush, representatives from the Justice Department had gone to see Brandon Miller, a former Alpha sergeant and a Purple Heart recipient who works as the community services manager at an apartment complex in Chadds Ford.

As Miller later told it, they asked him whether he had ever heard Raudenbush say anything negative about the United States.

Miller sat ominously silent for a moment.

"You do realize," he finally told the men, "that you're talking about a soldier here?"

Everyone - that's everyone - in the military complains.

The agents laughed; they understood.

Life gave Dan South a second chance, and in May 2006 he was taking it.

In Alpha Company his survival was a source of wonder. He'd been thrown clear from the humvee in which four other men had been killed by an enormous mine explosion Aug. 9, 2005.

"I still don't remember anything," he said the following winter at a bar in Wrightsville, on the Susquehanna River in York County. "I remember driving down Smugglers Road. The next thing I remember, I was sitting in the field with no weapon, no helmet, no body armor."

After he got home, he had planned to go live with a friend in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia. But he realized that wasn't his real dream. His real dream was to go to Texas and live with his girlfriend.

So he moved.

He had planned, after he got home, to enroll at West Chester University and finish a degree in business or education.

But his real dream was to train to become a pilot. So that's what he was going to do. A month after arriving in Killeen, Texas, he was starting in a commercial-pilot training program at Central Texas College.

Maybe, he said, he could even become a fighter jockey in the Air Force. He was eager to serve again - if he could fly.

He might as well go for it, he said. At 25, he might not get another chance.

Tomorrow: Haunting images.


Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com Inquirer correspondent Will Hobson contributed to this article.

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