23 October 2010

25 April 2009

Due to a DOD directive banning military personnel from accessing Wikileaks, I cannot post or link to the site.  However, viewing any of the reports will give you the gist of what they look like.  Take that into consideration, then juxtapose it with an account from someone who has served in Iraq.

Below is the email I sent to my friends and family regarding the events of that day.  I challenge you tell me how the Wikileaks document tells the full story.


26 APRIL 2009

XXXXX Sat, May 2, 2009 at 4:54 PM

To: (((OMITTED)))

I originally drafted this email on the 26th, but couldn't send it due to the communications blackout (no emails/calls in or out until next of kin notified...)  The blackout was lifted on the 27th, but we've been busy here, and I haven't had a chance to mail y'all until now...  I want to thank you all for the words of sympathy and encouragement I have received. 
It would have been easier for me to simply not write this email...to hide the raw emotions from y'all.  But the whole point of these emails was to let you in to see what it was like.  I promised you a genuine look at our side of the fight, and here it is.
I kept trying to figure out how I was going to phrase my opening remarks to this email...but nothing eloquent comes to mind.
On 25 April 2009, Thunder Battery lost a member of our family.  SGT Leroy O. Webster was killed in the line of duty.  He was a TC (truck commander) for 3rd Platoon (my sister platoon).  Both 3rd and 4th Platoons (my platoon) were part of the same artillery platoon back at Hood.  SGT Webster was one of my gun chiefs, and I consider myself blessed to have served with him.
It's been more than 24 hours since he died, but I think everyone is still in a state of shock, myself included.
It was late afternoon, and my platoon had just returned to the FOB after completing our patrol.  After refueling the trucks, we headed to the chow hall.  On our way in, we monitored radio traffic from 3rd Platoon: they had a WIA (wounded in action), and were rushing back to the FOB.
My platoon immediately staged the trucks in the parking lot to the chow hall -- not bothering to return to the CP because the FOB gate is closer to the chow hall.  "Send two guys per truck to grab to-go plates, then everyone back here and prepare to roll out."
I called up to battery, and told them that I was standing my platoon up to serve as a QRF (quick reaction force) if necessary.  As we sat there, more details came in over the radio.  SGT Webster had been hit in the shoulder by a sniper shot.  We had no other information.
My initial reactions were anger that someone out there had hurt one of our own.  None of us thought the worst.  We figured SGT Webster would quickly recover, and within a few days, be wandering around mouthing off with his usual wisecracks.
As our guys finished eating, I briefed them on what little information we had: a grid coordinate of where the sniper attack occurred, and a couple of suspect vehicle descriptions.  In the trucks, we have this thing called blueforce tracker (BFT): it's basically a map with icons showing where friendly units are.  Battalion had dropped a green icon at the scene of the attack, and I found myself sitting in my truck, door open, headset on, listening to the radio and staring at the green cone on the screen...waiting for the words "Thunder 46, you are clear to SP FOB and move to following grid..."
Those words never came.  As I was waiting for permission to take my platoon out there, my medic came up to my door.  He was sliding his cellphone into his pocket.  I turned to look at him, pulling one earpiece of my headset away from my head.  I was expecting an update.
"Webster's dead."
I didn't believe him.  I looked at Doc, and said, "You're shitting me."  He shook his head and continued to look at me through his sunglasses.  I looked forward, and put my head in my hand, in shock.
Then, Doc did something that I will always thank him for.  He leaned in, and said, "The guys don't know.  Keep it together, sir."  That was all I needed.
We were still in QRF, and there was still a possibility that we would have to roll out into sector.  I spoke to my platoon sergeant, and we agreed we would not tell the guys until we were fully stood down.  The next hour and a half was perhaps the hardest I've ever experienced: forcing myself to control my emotions, to not let them show.  Trying to focus on the possible mission at hand.  Convincing myself that keeping the knowledge of SGT Webster's death from the guys for the time being was the right decision...
The call to send my platoon out never came.  We parked the trucks back on line, and then I rounded up my platoon so that the commander and first sergeant could talk to them.  At this point, some of the guys (the veterans of previous tours) probably had an idea of what was coming.
The news hit them like a ton of bricks.  The older guys who deployed with Webster last time around broke down and sobbed openly.  All I could do was grit my teeth and clench my jaw.  All I wanted to do was drop to my knees, put my arms around each of them, and cry with them.  But I couldn't.  I had to wait.  The battle NCO (who I work with on a daily basis) came up to me later when we were alone and said, "Sir, I know this is hitting you hard.  As hard as its hitting me.  But everyone here, from the lowest joe on up sees you as the rock of the battery -- they need you to be strong.  At least right now."  Just his words nearly broke me down.  I took advantage of the private moment between both of us to let some of it out before recomposing myself and going back to be with the soldiers.
The entire battery assembled at the CP.  Soldiers were sitting on the ground out front, heads in their hands.  Others were staring off into space, trying to comprehend the loss of one of the battery's largest personalities.  Others sat against the building, heads back, looking up into the night sky, tears rolling down their cheeks.
Late that evening was the ramp ceremony.  The entire battalion, and elements from the brigade as well as the Air Force folks showed up at the airfield to say our final goodbye to SGT Webster in person.  We all assembled in a neat formation.  The guidons and flags were flapping in the wind, and we stood and watched and wept as SGT Webster's flag-draped casket was carefully walked down the aisle between formations and placed in the back of a cargo plane.  It had been hours since I learned of SGT Webster's death, and I couldn't hold it in anymore.  I let the tears flow as we stood there at attention, holding our slow salutes as he passed us and got on the bird to go home back to his family.
Later on, I sat down with my roommate and fellow platoon leader, and we talked about it.  As much as I was hurt, he was hurting even worse.  It was HIS soldier.  It was OUR soldier.  We promised we would look out for each other, watch each other, and make sure that we come out of this mended and healed.
It was 0430 by the time I went to bed.  I slept like a rock, but only for a few hours.
The next day was just as hard.  First Sergeant and I volunteered ourselves to go to the humvee that SGT Webster rode in back to the FOB.  We couldn't bring ourselves to put other soldiers on this work detail.  We cleaned it out the best we could.  Pulled out all of the personal effects of the truck crew -- the body armor, the helmets, the gloves.  We scoured everything, pulling out the items that had blood on them so that they could be cleaned before being returned to the soldiers.  When it was done, Top and I stood at the door, staring at the floor plate between the two back seats where the gunner typically stands.  Despite our best efforts, dried blood could still be seen along some of the edges.  You could still see where undoubtedly the medic worked on SGT Webster while the humvee was speeding back to the FOB.  It was heartbreaking.
My worst fear in coming here had been realized.  There was likely nothing I or anyone else could have done that would've changed anything that day.  But it doesn't change the emotions that wash through you.  I wish I had stayed out in-sector for a little bit longer.  I wish I had the opportunity to find the escaping vehicles by happenstance.  I wish I had the opportunity to be with my brothers in 3rd during their darkest time.
It's a week later, and the healing process has begun.  The mission continues.  The last six days have been the hardest my platoon has ever worked.  Physically, mentally, emotionally...we're drained.  Maybe it's because of what happened last week.  Maybe it's the toll of a non-stop OPTEMPO finally catching up to us.  Regardless, we're going to continue doing what we do.  We have to.
The guys still get edgy a little bit in-sector, but it's not as bad as I feared it would be.  I still dread the prospect of the worst happening...losing one of my guys.  Every day, when my guys assemble for the patrol brief, I look around at them.  I see their faces: from the older, seasoned veterans to the fresh-faced young kids, and I pray that I am able to keep them safe and bring them back today.  And tomorrow.  These soldiers are my life out here: they make me laugh, they put their utmost efforts into the job and the mission at hand.  I am so truly blessed to be a platoon leader for these 23 guys, and blessed to have 107 other Thunder brothers-in-arms who will do anything for each other.
We're hurting (I'm hurting).  But we're healing.  SGT Webster died doing what he loved.  It's not fair (it never is): they always seem to take the best from us.  But we will endure.
Again, I appreciate everyone's thoughts and prayers for SGT Webster's family.  Love and miss you all.  Talk to y'all soon.

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