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War Torn | The Oz of Abu Ghraib | A Day in the Green Zone | In the Army Now | The Prism of 9-11 | And the winner is...

Squared away

For one officer, not letting his guard down is the toughest challenge of daily life in Iraq.

By John Van Hook '94
U.S Army infantry company Commander based in Mosul, Iraq
As told to Rick Waters '95

It wasn't until a week before I came home on leave in May that I lost my first two soldiers: Specialist Philip Rogers of Oregon and Specialist Tyanna Felder of Connecticut.

As an infantry company commander, I have 200 soldiers under my direct supervision, and I know that we are in harm's way every day. Our lives are at risk with every assignment we carry out. I know that. We're trained to face these dangers. But I still feel huge guilt.

We were driving in a convoy transporting food and mail along a dusty strip of highway in the northern part of Iraq near Mosul, where we are based. I was senior man in the unit, riding in the lead HMMWV with a machine gun. Also with us was a 5-ton eight-wheeled armored vehicle called a Stryker carrying supplies and mail, and another HMMWV with a machine gun at the back, carrying my 1st sergeant. We had plenty of security. We had good spread between vehicles and were doing the right things.

Out of nowhere, two bombs went off. The first missed my truck by about 10 meters, but the other hit the second truck head-on. The artillery shell fragmented, spraying shrapnel into the cab. I turned around and saw the truck come out of the dust, veer sideways and flip over. I just knew from watching that both soldiers were injured or worse. The senior medic in my company was riding with my 1st sergeant and was with the truck within a minute after it flipped over. Though he appeared dead, the driver, Philip Rogers, had a weak pulse, so we treated him like he was alive, talking to him, telling him to hold on. But it wasn't enough. A piece of debris hit him in the head, and his injuries were too severe. The second soldier, Tyanna Felder, had shrapnel wounds to her legs and buttocks and was cut up pretty bad, but she was stable.

I immediately got on the radio and called for a wrecker, a Medevac unit and a quick reaction force infantry platoon.

The reaction was stupendous. The ground team was there in 15 minutes, and the two soldiers were on a helicopter and airborne in 30 minutes. She had lost a lot of blood but was semi-conscious when the helicopter took off. The guys were holding her hand all the way through it.

I had to stay on the ground and recover the truck and get it on a flatbed and off the highway. We don't want to leave anything for the enemy. When I got back that night, the unit had organized a blood drive and about 20 or 30 soldiers with Felder's blood type donated. She took several pints and was sedated but was in fair condition. Later, she was moved to a hospital in Germany. That was the last I heard before I left for my leave several days later.

So it was a shock to get off the plane in Fort Worth and check my e-mail to find out that she had had a heart attack on the plane ride to Germany. One of my nurse friends said she probably just couldn't handle the loss of blood.

I question myself. What could we have done better? What it came down to was luck of the draw. Or unluck. Maybe if we had changed our timing that day it might have made a difference. Both were great soldiers. She was just 23.

* * *

We've been in Mosul since mid-January. Previously, we were in what is known as the Triangle, the area just north of Baghdad where the heaviest fighting is.

Mosul is a stable city of 1.7 million people, and there is a beauty to it. The Tigris River runs right through it. Saddam kept a northern riverfront palace there. It's an amazing compound. Huge houses. Marble floors. It's the main headquarters now for our five camps in the city. All the senior officers live there.

My battalion's job is to patrol the east side of the city. We have three big goals: improving the schools, improving the police stations and improving the hospitals. And, of course, destruction of the enemy cells in the area. But half the fight is the civil affairs part.

It's actually construction work. Civil Affairs puts together the projects, hires local workers for construction and we go in and provide protection. We put in 20-foot Texas T-barriers, huge slabs of concrete that stand on end, around the site.

For the schools, we manage a lot of the donations from churches, get computers in the classrooms and build and improve the playgrounds. The goal is to get the education level back to pre-war stage.

Helping the hospitals involves helping them modernize their equipment, mostly. They use a lot of our outdated supplies. We just pass it along to them.

The toughest part for the unit is dealing with the IEDs -- improvised explosive devices. You can't react to them. They're often set off remotely. You don't know where the enemy is. When they set it off, they could be 300 meters away dialing on a cell phone. That's the most frustrating thing because you don't know what's going to happen.

We do a lot of raids. But half are what we call dry holes. False alarms. A source will inform us that a particular building is a safe house for the enemy. We'll study it, and if we think it's valid, we'll go in. A dry hole means it was bogus. Nothing's there. Sometimes we have to say to the people, "Sorry about knocking your door down. Go back to sleep." We research it in detail, but sometimes the intelligence changes so rapidly.
Lately, we have been training the Iraqi National Guard (ING). We've completed three companies and have two more to go. As they complete training, we integrate them into our patrols.

We call it "left seat-right seat" training. When we start out, our soldiers sit in the left seat and the Iraqis observe in the right seat. Then after some time, we trade places. They drive the patrol and we observe.
Now, they're conducting raids and we provide support and advice. By fall, the ING will take over the security of the city and the bulk of our operation or our replacements will be moved to another assignment.

But we are seeing a difference. In the weeks leading up to the transfer of sovereignty, we saw an increase in attacks -- direct fire, mortars, IEDs -- which culminated about a week prior to the handover with a series of coordinated car bomb attacks against the local populace. With the early handover, two days ahead of schedule, we believe we caught the non-compliant forces off guard and they stopped attacks for several days.
The attacks started again, but the intensity and volume against coalition forces have dropped slightly. Unfortunately, we have seen an increase in violence directed at the new government facilities and against Christian churches.

Another change is that we have switched a lot of our operations to nighttime. We have done this to visibly reduce our presence in the city as the ING takes over. Only combat patrols with Stryker vehicles and HMMWV gun trucks are used during daylight. Logistical support convoys of light-colored vehicles move at night. This has reduced the chance of those support convoys from being attacked and allows them to move faster when there is less traffic.

In addition, we are still building and improving the city and our own bases, ensuring that all of our equipment is accounted for and in order for the handover to our relieving unit in late October or early November.
But the hardest part of the job for me personally remains making sure we don't let our standards down, making sure the soldiers are doing the right thing. Every time I turn around, they're testing me: "I'll unbutton my shirt collar today and see what happens." But if I allow that, they'll test me on something else more important tomorrow that could cost someone his life.

* * *

I joined the military straight out of Paschal High School. I didn't know what I wanted, so I joined. I did three years as an infantryman in Germany. Never thought I would do it again. I tried the reserves and started school full time at Tarrant County Junior College and got my head screwed on straight. I got my credits in order and transferred to TCU as a sophomore. It was close to home. While I was there, I got sucked into ROTC and met some of the best friends of my life. I also met my wife, Lita, who is here in Iraq as a signal officer just north of Baghdad.

The most rewarding part of the job is the kids. I like dealing with the soldiers on a daily basis. They're some of the most dedicated men and women I know. Especially now that they're used to the routine. There is a lot of micromanagement initially, getting them to do what they're supposed to. But now, my driver comes and gets me from my room and says, "We're ready." I get in the truck and he says, "We're doing this, this, this and this." I‘m very proud of how they have come into form.

Serving here is not as bad as it may seem. We were trained well for living here and doing our duties. But some things you can't prepare for. The Iraqi children, for example. We just don't trust them. On one hand, they are so open to hope and betterment, but on the other, they want to use us for everything they can. You see the youthful innocence in them, but then they try to hustle you for soccer balls, food, water, candy, anything they can get. About the only thing we give them now is peppermints.

You don't see a lot of the adult female population, maybe one in 25, because they keep them secluded at home per Islamic law.

The adult males have no concept of honesty as we view it. Everything is all theirs to use. The workers we have at the construction sites are just the same. But we understand what we're doing for the country. We have to remind the young soldiers of that. It's easy to get cynical, but we have to know what we're here for. We're making an impact.

Should we be over here in Iraq? As commander, I can't comment. It's not my place to say. The way we are trained is to keep it in house and support our civilian leaders no matter what. But as an American, I personally think we're doing the right thing. There are always hiccups along the way, but overall we are doing the right thing.

We're improving the country, and one day, Iraq will be ready to set foot on the world stage. There is always going to be resistance, but if we can turn this country around, we'll have an ally in the oil production world. But more than that, look at Germany and Japan and what economic partners they play today. It's worth it. For our country's future, it's worth it.

You have to look at the larger picture. For the people who say this is another Vietnam, I say, "I don't think it is." The casualty rate isn't nearly as high. Yes, we're taking casualties -- about 1,000 since this began. But that was a month's amount at the height of Vietnam. I'm not saying that the casualties have not hurt. Totally the opposite. We feel devastated every time we lose one of our brother or sisters. But you can't compare this to Vietnam.

Besides that, we're an all-volunteer army compared to a draftee army back then. That's the level of dedication we have. It's all about discipline and professionalism. That's the major difference.

My dad and I were talking about this. People blow it out of proportion because of media hype, especially because we are in an election year. It's all about pointing fingers. Yes, President Bush has made mistakes, but he's doing a good job. We may not have found weapons of mass destruction, but it's what we're doing now that counts.

The media likes to show you the hype, the explosions, the bodies hanging in Fallujah. It's like when we had Geraldo with us in Mosul. He went off on his own, unescorted, and wound up getting shot at over by the university here. He reported, "We're being sniped!" It was pure hype. Rumor has it that he staged it.

But we had to go get him. You've heard of "Where's Waldo?" Well, this was "Where's Geraldo?" My battalion sector had to shut down for 6 hours to go get him. Pure hype. But that's what America is getting from the media.

The most important thing is the stuff that doesn't make the news. It's our building hospitals, training civil defense corps, outfitting schools with computers. And the professionalism of the soldiers. That's what people should see.

John Van Hook '94 is an Infantry Company Commander based in Mosul, Iraq. Contact him at

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