Sunday, September 11, 2011

19-year-old Todd Edgell: Desire to serve his country, ten years after Sept. 11, 2001

Todd Edgell, 19, of Salem has taken his place in a line of 1.1 million who have joined the Army since 9/11.

Video by Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times

See photos of Pfc. Todd Edgell as he prepares to serve in the Army

He was going to puke, he was sure of it. He always pukes.

His platoon was betting he would, too.

"I've never seen anybody puke," the drill sergeant told him.

"Watch," Pfc. Todd Edgell said, "and be amazed."

It was August in Oklahoma, with the state in the throes of a heat wave and drought not seen since the Dust Bowl. Edgell wore his battle-dress uniform, and he was about to endure a piece of Army basic training that is a generations old rite of passage: entering a chamber filled with noxious tear gas wearing a gas mask, and then taking the mask off.

This was the test Edgell had dreaded since reading about it in a brochure on the sofa in the little ranch house in Salem where he'd lived his whole life.

"It's not bad," a staff sergeant offered. "I mean, it is bad," she corrected, "but you'll live."

From the distance came the echoing thuds of exploding rounds on the artillery range at Fort Sill, muted reminders that the gas chamber is but a step on the way to the larger gut check to which Edgell, 19, has submitted himself.

He joined the Army while his country is at war.

And there's every chance that he'll soon find himself on the ground fighting a war that began all the way back when he was a goofy, grinning third-grader at West Salem Elementary School. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that shook the United States 10 years ago today.

"Our country is at war, and it seems like we've always been," Edgell said. And he has now joined a line of some 1.1 million men and women who have joined the Army as active duty or reserve soldiers since Sept. 11, 2001.

In his Army uniform and Kevlar helmet, Edgell is far removed from the boy who wore a Cub Scout uniform and a plastic little league batting helmet when that long, camouflage line first formed.

He has traded the simplest of lives in a small town — the town where every living member of four generations of his family still resides — for Army life.

But now that he's there, it seems to those who know him best that he may have been meant for this all along.

"I think Todd wants to make a difference in the world," said his mother, Kathy Edgell. And she's sure his bearing witness to the tragedy of 9/11 at the tender age of 9 has something to do with it.


Todd Edgell's world was a small, secure one back in Salem.

His father, David, works at Yokohama Tire, where old-timers still call him "Harry's boy," because his father worked there with him until Harry Edgell retired a few years ago.

The two generations live side by side on Wilson Street, and growing up Todd spent as much time at his Papa and Grandma's house as he did at home. He wasn't allowed to spend the night with Papa unless Papa invited him, so he would sneak to call his grandfather on the phone and nudge him into the invitation.

Even now, the family travels in three and sometimes four generations if Todd's older sister Whitney brings her daughter, Madeline, along. They call it "Waltons-style," in reference to the 1970s TV show.

It was a warm and close and wholesome life. "A perfect world," Kathy Edgell said.

Until it was all interrupted 10 years ago when hijacked jetliners struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

Todd was in Leigh Smith's third-grade class at West Salem Elementary School. Teachers were told not to break the news of what happened to students. So she kept the kids close to her in a circle on the floor, reading books to them most of the day.

Kathy Edgell fought the powerful urge to go and get her children and hold them close. David Edgell, a longtime emergency medical technician, watched on TV as the towers collapsed, and he wept for the people inside them, especially the first responders. He cries now just thinking about it.

By the time Todd got home that afternoon, he had learned about the attacks somewhere. He had questions for his parents. Why would someone do that? Will they do it again? Will they catch them?

He mostly recalls the images on television and in the newspaper coming and coming and coming. The firefighters, police, rescue workers, random people, all helping others.

"It showed, like, dedication," he said, "and I guess at a young age that hit me in a way, showing how much people care and will put others before themselves."

His mother knew that some of the innocence had been lost from that perfect world.

War would likely follow, she recognized. Her father-in-law had served in Vietnam. She wondered whether the draft would return. Would this affect Todd when he came of age?

But her son seems to have been wired to serve all along.

'Something bigger than myself'

His father thought Todd might be an "all-American jock," and the boy dabbled in sports, but nothing seemed to satisfy him as much as being a Boy Scout.

He was always prone to being helpful, the adults around him say. The ethos of Scouting seemed to suit him.

"He loved the uniform and going to meetings," said his father, who for years was his Scoutmaster. He excelled in the Scouts, racking up badges and positions of responsibility. He earned Eagle Scout status at the unlikely age of 14 for a project landscaping an eroding bank behind a church, but "it wasn't without a whole lot of nudging," his father recalled.

None of this struck his family as a run-up to military service, though he had an obvious model right next door in his grandfather. Harry Edgell was drafted out of the coal mines in West Virginia and served two years in Vietnam in the Army as a combat engineer, and then re-enlisted as a Navy Seabee.

Harry Edgell doesn't talk about his time in the service, but there are mementos of it all over his house. It must have sunk in.

A few weeks after Todd left for Fort Sill, his mother stumbled across an essay he wrote in middle school. It was tucked away in Todd's desk. "I have always wanted to serve in the Army or Navy," Todd wrote. In particular, he wanted to be a Seabee like his grandfather.

Yet he approached his senior year of high school with the presumption that he'd go to college like most of his classmates. Appalachian State University was high on his list.

But to his girlfriend, Kyndal Brizendine, he talked a lot about "doing something bigger."

It was his parents who urged him to at least consider the military along with other options. His mother was thinking Navy or Air Force - something less likely to involve boots on the ground in a war zone.

The service fit with the family's values, and his mother thought its structured, orderly environment would present fewer temptations for a young man than a college campus. And Todd had always thrived in that kind of setting.

"Despite being in a war, I felt like the military had a lot to offer," said his father. "They don't go anywhere with loss as an option."

Without telling his parents much about it, Todd began visiting the recruiters for each branch of the service, still unsure if the military was the path for him.

His choice ultimately wasn't driven by perks such as the G.I. Bill and its promise of college tuition or any other practical benefits of enlisting.

The appeal was the chance to serve, to be part of a team.

"I want to be part of something bigger than myself," he told the Army recruiters on an early visit.

The tipping point came a little later when Todd found himself looking up at the soldier's creed posted on the wall in the Army recruiter's office.

"I am a warrior and a member of a team," it says in part. "I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade."

"I got chill bumps," he recalled later. "And I knew instantly after I read that creed that this is what I wanted to do."

On Oct. 14, 2010, Todd Edgell joined the Army.

'If you've got to go to a gunfight'

Even while the fit felt right, Edgell still wasn't sure what others around him would think of his decision.

When he talked to Brizendine about the creed, he didn't fully betray the way it spoke to him, as though he was testing it out on her.

"I don't know," he said. "It seems like it's me."

His grandfather quizzed his parents. "He's not doing this because of me, is he?" he asked.

Harry Edgell said he still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in Vietnam.

In their typical Waltons style, Todd and the whole family went to the recruiting office to see exactly what their boy was getting into.

His 23-year-old sister, Whitney Doolittle, was vociferous in her interrogation of the sergeant they spoke to, pressing him on the likelihood that whatever job they said Todd would be doing, he'd wind up carrying a rifle in an infantry unit.

"She all but called him a liar," David Edgell recalled.

Todd didn't want to be in the infantry, but his MOS, or military occupation specialty, became a source of contention in the family.

He wanted to serve in a combat role, but not necessarily one that would have him kicking in doors in Kandahar.

Being a cannon crewman in an artillery unit caught his interest.

Though they say the choice was ultimately Todd's, his parents pushed him toward jobs that were both safer and might translate to civilian work after the Army.

"He could have had a computer job, sitting behind a desk being safe," Kathy Edgell said. "He turned it down. That bothered me."

He also passed on a communications job that seemed perfect to his father.

In the end, they made peace with his choice of loading, aiming and firing a cannon.

"If you've got to go to a gunfight," his father told him, "take the biggest damn gun the Army's got."

'Now it's your turn'

On a Friday evening two days before he was supposed to board a van to start his Army life, friends and family gathered to send him off at a cookout in Salem's Longwood Park.

The celebration started without him.

The pressure of the send-off and the reality of his decision had the new private in tears on the living room floor.

For days he'd been pinging between excitement and doubt. Brizendine sat with him, and he shared a letter he'd written her, about how they would get through this separation. He also gave her letters to deliver to his parents and sister after he was gone.

His letter to Brizendine was tear-stained. There was also a big smudge in the middle of it. That, Todd confessed in his goofy, self-effacing way, was the result of a misguided attempt to scent the letter with his Hollister cologne.

He still questioned whether he'd made the right decision. He talked about his 3-year-old niece, Madeline, whom he adores. "I'm scared she's going to forget who I am," he told her.

At the party, teachers, friends and old Scoutmasters told tales and gave advice, most of which consisted of reminding him to keep his mouth shut and not volunteer so much.

"You've got to take it serious. They're playing for keeps out there," Greg Gallion, a teacher from Andrew Lewis Middle School and his former wrestling coach, told him. "Come home a better man."

"The Army's going to be better off for having you," his father said.

"The thing that makes me the saddest is the Todd that leaves is not going to be the Todd that comes home," said his mother. "He's going to be a man. I don't want him to grow up."

Two days later, four generations of the family gathered at the recruiting station to say farewell.

"Been there, done that," his grandfather told him. "Now it's your turn."

Todd boarded the 15-passenger van alone, bound for Beckley, W.Va., where he would fly to Oklahoma for basic training. He wiped at his eyes as he pulled away.

The rest of the family retreated to Cheddar's restaurant at Valley View for lunch, thinking not of the dangers ahead of him, but when they would see him again after basic training. They can bear to deal with it all only in small chunks.

Kathy Edgell said the grief was worse than when her mother died, and she had the first real cocktail of her life, a concoction called a "Painkiller." She took three hours to sleep it off that afternoon.

It was two weeks before she could even set foot in Todd's room.

Third bunk on the left

At 5 a.m., it was 90 degrees, and Edgell was in a sweat.

He had already grunted out a more-than-adequate 47 push-ups and was on his way to 62 sit-ups in a dry run of the physical training test he would have to pass before he could graduate basic training.

He came up short of passing on the 2-mile run by 19 seconds. He blamed that on some sinus congestion, an issue he was told would be remedied in a couple of days by the gas chamber.

He was also just tired. All of C Battery was awakened an hour earlier than usual, at 4 a.m., for the PT test, and they had been roused in the middle of the night when a head count came up short and a private was discovered hiding in a storage closet.

Later that day, he would be fighting sleep in a class on the proper maintenance and use of his gas mask.

All in all, though, he was adjusting well.

"The weather is beautiful. The scenery is amazing," he said sarcastically. "I miss grass."

Everything around him was dust-dry and the color of sand, including the buildings and the dying grass.

Leaving Salem was hard at first, he said, but "now it's like, the third bunk on the left is home."

He arrived still plagued by doubts and wondering what he'd gotten himself into. It took just a matter of days to realize that balancing basic training with a relationship with a girlfriend who still has a year of high school left was more than he wanted to attempt. So he broke up with Brizendine.

"I just want her to have her senior year and I want to focus on this," he said.

Brizendine is hurt but understanding, and still proud of Edgell, she said.

He was bonding well with his newfound friends, though.

"I've made friends here ... like I've never had back home," he said.

During downtime in the barracks, Edgell and his buddies clown around adding items to a list he keeps with the heading, "You might be in basic training at Fort Sill if ... "

Among dozens of entries so far:

"Febreze is a cologne."

"You have done naked push-ups."

"You have used your weapon to scratch some part of your body."

"You are always wrong."

On Sundays, he goes to church — just like back home.

He and his "battle buddy," 18-year-old Charles Eschete, a half-Italian, half-Cajun kid from a crossroads town in Louisiana, push each other hard on physical training, doing more than required and challenging Drill Sgt. Jason Roller, a hard-edged but paternal combat veteran, to push-up contests.

Not everyone is faring as well. One soldier in the platoon refused to go down the 40-foot rappelling tower during the second week of training. Confronted with either doing it or leaving the Army, the private chose to leave.

A few days later, he approached Edgell and asked him a question. "I'm sorry." Edgell responded. "I don't speak 'quitter.' "

But Edgell is not so gung-ho about everything Army. The platoon's nickname is the Death Dealers, which they shout loudly from time to time, usually in formations, as in: "Thirty-eight Death Dealers ready to kill, drill sergeant!" It strikes Edgell as a little silly and full of false bravado, as do the associated macho murals of monsters and machine guns around their barracks.

"Everybody says they want to get that as a tattoo," he said, pointing to one skull-and-bones style mural. "I don't want to remember anything about this place."

'You're soldiers now'

For many new soldiers, that barracks is the first place they've experienced any real discipline and expectations, said Capt. Mike Sanders of Edgell's C Battery.

"A lot of them just want discipline," Sanders said.

Edgell is surrounded by men and women in his platoon from ages 18 to 27. Some in other platoons are as old as 35.

Many are there for reasons as much practical as patriotic. Even in wartime, many of Edgell's fellow soldiers are willing to risk the danger of combat to get money for college or income for their young families.

Andrew Foley, 24, of San Antonio has just two classes left to finish a degree in biology so he can apply to medical schools. But the father of three owes his college $10,000 and can't finish school until he gets out of arrears. His solution: become an Army medic.

Others have more personal reasons like Edgell's.

Brandon Althoff, 18, of Augusta, Ga., has seen his father, an Army officer, deployed three times to Iraq.

"I want to see what it's like," he said. "I want the feeling of coming back to your family after a year and a half and you know you earned it."

But Sanders notes, "They're still kids. They've never had to truly push themselves. ... I don't know if they realize the magnitude of what combat is."

Yet they enlisted. "That's a courageous act," Sanders said. "Their peers are all out drinking beer and goofing off."

From a sociological standpoint, Edgell and most of his peers are pegged by the Army as "millennials." The book on them, from the Army's perspective, is that they are more technologically savvy than any soldiers the Army has ever seen. They're also generally in fairly lousy physical condition.

And they're more apt to question orders than follow them blindly.

Give them a directive, their trainers say, and they'll ask, why do it, and why not do it this way instead?

"That's a great idea, but we're not going to do it that way," Roller, the drill sergeant, tells them.

Roller, 40, joined the Army in 2001 in a generation known as "9/11 Babies" because they enlisted motivated largely by patriotism in the aftermath of the attacks.

He's been to Iraq and Afghanistan in infantry units, returning to the U.S. last time a year ago. Now he's charged with training Army privates well enough to get in and get back out alive and bring their battle buddies with them.

He's not the stereotypical screaming drill sergeant. He's more of a teacher than a harsh disciplinarian, and one whom the privates quickly respect and admire. He takes time every now and again to tell combat stories — though never too personal — and swap jokes.

The moment the privates fear with Roller is when he gets quiet, Edgell said. That's the sign that he's mad.

Roller said he's ever mindful of the gravity of his job, and if the soldiers aren't trained well, they may pay with their lives and the lives of others.

When they get into real combat, Roller said, "I want them to have kind of like a warm fuzzy that they know what they're doing."

With kids right out of high school, it takes a while for the weight of what they're facing to sink in.

"You're soldiers now," he tells them. "Don't lose the fact that there is a war. You need to get prepared for that."

Typically, a training class will begin to bicker about two or three weeks in. That's when Roller knows it's time for a reality check.

Combat "is not glorious, it's not a movie," he tells them. "It's not cool at all. It's highly dangerous. I think the glory is, you help each other and make sure everybody comes back."

He knows the reality of war is beginning to set in when the bickering ends and the teamwork begins. The soldiers start to take training more seriously and become intolerant of clowning and distractions.

By the fourth week of his training, Edgell was beginning to see what might lie ahead of him.

"It's coming into focus and it's coming in quick," he said. "I know each day seems like you're taking another step up the stairs to it."

'Damn right motivated!'

Second platoon boarded the bus for the gas chamber at 8:30 a.m. The driver popped in a hip-hop CD — the first music the privates have heard for weeks, other than a marching cadence.

Roller passed around a bottle of Advil for those with the routine aches and pains of training.

"Yeah, I got the drugs," he said, grinning.

"Are we motivated?" shouted Mike Coache, a 27-year-old truck driver from Boston doing basic training to become a reservist.

"Motivated! Motivated! Damn right motivated!" second platoon shouted back.

On the training range, there was another briefing on using gas masks, two combat scenarios, and a long wait for the dreaded march into the gas chamber.

All the while, artillery rounds exploded far away on the firing range.

When it was time for the gas chamber, second platoon was the first to be called up. Staff Sgt. Latrisha Eason asked for volunteers. Edgell's hand did not go up.

In line, he and Eschete, his battle buddy, checked each other's masks. They said a prayer and, though Edgell is Protestant, not Catholic, both crossed themselves and pointed skyward at the end, like ballplayers who have just touched home plate after a home run.

As he entered the cinder-block building, Edgell gave a thumbs up.

Inside, he waited his turn on the "cold side," or gas-free side, of the chamber before passing to the hot side, which is filled with CS gas, or tear gas. Then he was told to remove his mask and breathe normally.

Later, he would report that some drill sergeants removed the filters from soldiers' masks and played catch with them while the poor soldiers held their breath.

When the masks came off, harsh coughing and wailing could be heard outside.

"Those poor children," one drill sergeant joked.

Minutes later, Edgell stumbled out at the back of a line of 10 soldiers, coughing and spitting, his eyes streaming. Copious amounts of snot flew from his nose.

"Blow it out!" drill sergeants shouted at the group. "Flap your arms. Open your eyes. Quit crying!"

Edgell coughed endlessly as his group was led along a gravel path to give them a chance to recover. A private at the head of his line shouted the name of her platoon.

"Head Hunters!"

Edgell caught his breath long enough to cough out a scratchy "Death Dealers!"

Within a few minutes, the worst was over. His eyes were red and wet, but the coughing had stopped as he waited for water.

A soldier from his platoon, Mikel Dye, who had gone through ahead of Edgell, stopped near him.

"I would totally f---ing do that again!" he shouted.

"Well, go get back in line," Edgell said testily. "Nobody's stopping you."

No one got back in line.

'You can push through it'

That night in the barracks, in the hour of downtime the privates have before lights out at 9 p.m., Edgell added another item to their list:

"You know you're in basic training at Fort Sill if ... your crap smells like CS gas for two hours."

The men in second platoon were giddy with their sense of accomplishment. They had all dreaded the gas chamber, and they had survived it.

"We're part of something big now. Not many people have done that," said Althoff, the private from Augusta.

Until they were asked about it, it seemed lost on most of them that the test was not just about learning to use the gas mask — that it was also about being presented with something horrible, enduring it, and learning that they could.

"You can push through it," said Foley, the private from San Antonio.

Though a rumor had been circulating through their battery that many of them, regardless of MOS, might be converted to infantry for deployment in Afghanistan, none seemed interested in talking about it.

Edgell, for his part, resolved to confront his deployment only when he has to.

But the dark nature of these soldiers' endeavor was on their minds.

Eschete quietly handed over his journal, open to a recent entry.

"I will be facing combat," he wrote. "I will be the one with the weapon. I will be the one actually facing the enemy. They're teaching us how to end a life ... somebody with a soul. ... I'm being trained to end that. It's absolutely crazy."

But for tonight, they were, for a few moments, high school boys again, laughing and bonding over the trial they'd survived.

They cracked on the food, the drill sergeants' idiosyncrasies and what kind of cars they drive. When someone passed gas, they all fell out laughing.

At least until Drill Sgt. Alician Greggs came in bellowing.

"Get in line with your damn weapons," she thundered.

After a count-off, Coache confirmed the number in the barracks at 57.

"You think I can't count?" Greggs said. "Shut up!"

It was 9 p.m. by then. Lights out, she said on the way out.

The soldiers meandered to their bunks. Edgell climbed atop his, clipped his flashlight to the frame of the drop ceiling above him, pulled out a pad and pen, and started on another letter home.

Weather Journal

News tips, photos and feedback?
Sign up for free daily news by email