Saturday, August 28, 2004
Never again say football is war
Four longtime football friends and a fellow E&H athlete learn lessons of life and death in Iraq.
Lindsey Perdue, Wes Heims, David Setliff and Billy Riddle became good friends as members of Franklin County High School's football team.
Four years ago, they all headed off to Emory&Henry to continue their football careers. Emory&Henry doesn't give football scholarships, though. During the summer of 2001 - before the Sept. 11 attacks - they decided to join the Virginia Army National Guard to earn money for college.
"I thought it would be fun," Setliff said.
"I picked up a brochure, took it home, showed my mom. She said I was crazy, we'd go to war," Riddle said. "I said, 'We're the National Guard. We don't go to war.'"
Perdue was the last of the four to agree to join. "I was like, 'A weekend a month - how bad can that be?'" he said.
In February 2003, the 1173rd Transportation Company in Rocky Mount reported to Fort Pickett near Blackstone. The guardsmen were told the 1032nd transportation company in Gate City - which included one of the Franklin County quartet's E&H pals, basketball player Cortez Watson - would be heading to Iraq and that part of the 1173rd would have to go to fill out that company. Volunteers were needed.
The Franklin County buddies figured if they said no, some of them would be picked to go anyway and the others would be sent at a later date. They decided to all volunteer so they could stay together.
"I said, 'I really wouldn't want to be on the other side of Iraq or not over there with you guys,'" Heims said. "Since my sophomore year of high school, Billy, David and Lindsey have been like the backbone of my friends. We're there for each other through hard times and everything."
There would indeed be hard times during a year of driving tractor-trailers and gun trucks in Iraq.
'Heaven to hell'
In February 2003, the expanded 1032nd, which included 45 members of the Rocky Mount company, was sent to Fort Eustis in Newport News for training. While there, Heims proposed over the phone to his girlfriend at Emory&Henry, who accepted.
Two months later, the 153 guardsmen left Fort Eustis for Iraq.
"It was real rough on my mother," Heims, 22, said. "She's thinking worst-case scenario: my baby's going to die. I'm kind of gung-ho about it at the time: 'War, yeah!' I was excited."
They stayed in Kuwait for 10 days, waiting for their equipment to arrive. They would sit behind a barbed-wire fence, peer through binoculars and watch helicopters land with body bags and wounded soldiers.
Then it was finally time to drive their tractor-trailers into Iraq.
"Kuwait is like this beautiful country. It's almost like paradise," said Watson, an Orlando, Fla., native who had joined the National Guard as an E&H sophomore without telling his basketball coach or mother. "When you get to the Kuwait-Iraq border, it all changes. It's like you're going from heaven to hell."
Iraqi children in the border town begged Heims for food - an upsetting sight to him.
"Their clothes are ragged, as dirty as you can get," Heims said. "They would just run up - they looked so cute - and give you this big smile [and say], 'Mister, mister, food, mister!' and hold their little hands up. And you didn't have nothing to give them."
During their 12 months in Iraq, the guardsmen of the 1032nd drove a cumulative total of 2.25 million miles with their 60 trucks - 20 trucks in each platoon's convoy. They hauled a variety of items from one base to another in their 30-foot-long flatbed trailers, including food, water, bubble wrap, computers, baseballs, coolers, CD players, trash cans, nails, airplane parts, barbed wire, duffel bags, weapons, ammunition and mail.
"You name it, we hauled it," Riddle, 22, said. "You call, we haul, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
Two guardsmen, each with an automatic weapon, would ride in each truck and share the driving. Most of the trucks were tractor-trailers, but every convoy also had three gun trucks, which would contain either a 50-caliber machine gun, a 40-millimeter grenade launcher or an automatic weapon.
There was a reason the convoys were heavily armed.
"We wanted to contribute so much and do such a good job, but once we started doing it, it was different than what we thought," Heims said. "Transportation's traditionally been in the rear, bringing stuff to the front line. When we got to Iraq, we were all over the front lines. There was no front line because it was basically guerilla warfare."
"Just being on the road is dangerous because you don't know who's going to hit you or where they're going to come from when you're driving through these cities," Watson, 24, said.
Beginning in June, the guardsmen lived with other companies at Camp Anaconda, a U.S. base near Balad, north of Baghdad. From June to December, the guardsmen would drive 300 miles south to Tallil, the base near Nasiriyah, load up the trailers and drive back to Balad the next day.
They did have some good times in Iraq. Six or seven members of a platoon would sit on a flatbed trailer, wearing night-vision goggles to play spades in the dark.
There were football games, too. In June, Riddle hurt a knee and had to use crutches for a while.
"I hurt it climbing out of a truck on an incline. I twisted it. That's the official Army record," Riddle said. "Unofficially, I was playing football."
Perdue suffered a more serious injury later that month. He broke his right arm when it got caught in a ratchet strap he was using to tie down cargo in the truck. He was flown to Germany to get it repaired, then to Fort Eustis. He rejoined his unit in September.
"I didn't want to leave" Iraq, said Perdue, 22. "It was just a stupid mistake and I paid for it dearly."
"Don't feel sorry for him," Riddle said. "He left for July, August and September - the three hottest months."
Then came an incident that made the five friends realize the seriousness of their situation. On July 1, Heims was driving a gun truck, the last truck in a Tallil-bound convoy traveling through the outskirts of Baghdad. Specialist Howard Blevins of Abingdon was beside him, standing through a hole in the roof so he could man a weapon. It was 7 a.m.
"Next thing I know," said Heims, "boom!"
Rebels had set off a remote-controlled IED - improvised explosive device - a few feet in front of Heims' truck.
"We heard a big ol' explosion," said Setliff, who was in one of the trucks just ahead of Heims' truck. "I looked in the mirror and all I could see behind me was smoke."
The blast rocked Heims' truck. Smoke and dirt filled the hot cab of the truck. Heims' Kevlar helmet was blown from his head. The windshield was a spider's web of cracks. Heims' face felt like it was burning, and he heard ringing in an ear. He turned to Blevins to make sure his friend was still in the truck.
"Hold the f--- on," Heims told Blevins.
Heims drove away but couldn't control the truck, which slammed into a guardrail so hard the windshield popped out. Heims kicked the driver's door open and trained his weapon on the traffic in case there were still rebels around. He noticed his hand getting wet, and saw the blood-soaked butt of his M-16.
"My face is bleeding," he yelled at Blevins. "Blood's all over my weapon."
Heims, who was wearing protective glasses, said he looked like someone had taken a welding torch to the right side of his head. He had been hit in the face with shrapnel. His ear was cut and his cheek was burned. He had also injured his lower back. Blevins took shrapnel in the back.
Heims spent five days in a field hospital before returning to the company; he returned to active duty in September. Blevins went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center but returned to the unit in October. Each received a Purple Heart. The truck had to be turned into salvage parts.
Heims suffered some emotional wounds, too. At Christmastime, Heims' fiancee broke up with him via e-mail.
"I got a Dear John dot-com," Heims joked. Close calls
The guardsmen were under mortar fire even in their tents, which were close to the fence at Camp Anaconda. Riddle and Perdue had a close call in November.
They and three other guardsmen were watching "Any Given Sunday." They heard a mortar round go off, put the movie on pause and put their gear on. Another one hit closer to their tent. As Spc. Eric Ceglowski got close to exit of the tent, there was an explosion about 15 feet outside the tent. Ceglowski, a Radford University student from Sterling, was hit in the mouth by shrapnel and needed stitches. The others were amazed nothing worse happened.
"The mortar didn't kill us; it should have," Riddle said. "By the grace of God, we were just lucky enough. The wind carried the mortar just far enough to go away from the tent a little bit."
In December, the shelling got so bad that the guardsmen were ordered to move out of their tents. Watson and Heims dug a hole under a flatbed trailer, surrounded it with sandbags and slept there. Others slept in large, metal shipping containers that were topped with sandbags. One night, a shell went off 25 yards from where Watson was sleeping. He thought he was going to die. The company eventually moved to tents in a safer part of camp.
Beginning in January 2004, the guardsmen were rarely needed to haul supplies because civilian contractors assumed that role. The guardsmen instead served as armed escorts. They drove gun trucks in convoys with American and foreign civilians from Balad to the Al Asad base near Ramadi, or they would be in gun trucks escorting other units to and from Kuwait.
Riddle drove in a convoy operated by a Halliburton subsidiary that came under attack near Tikrit. A speeding BMW pulled alongside them and gunmen began firing with AK-47 assault rifles. Two Pakistani civilians and an American civilian were killed.
Riddle's truck was also hit in the attack. The man beside Riddle, Spc. Nathan Williams of Gate City, was shot in the chest. A steel-plated Kevlar vest saved his life. Riddle and Williams jumped out of the truck.
"I looked up at Nathan and he's like, 'I was shot,'" Riddle said. "I said, 'You're full of crap.' He said, 'No, I think I was.' He opened up his plate and sure enough."
In March, the company left for Kuwait, where it stayed for a few weeks until it returned to Virginia in April. Setliff said Kuwait was like Disney World.
"You got a quiet night's sleep," Riddle said. "You didn't have to worry about walking around with your weapon everywhere."
In May, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, came to Emory&Henry to give the commencement address. The night before the ceremony, he had dinner with Watson, Riddle, Perdue, Heims and Setliff. The five told Warner their frustrations over supplies, pay and other issues. During the ceremony the next day, the five received certificates of appreciation from E&H. There actually was one other E&H student in the 1032nd, Shanel Burke, but she wasn't at the college that weekend.
Returning home required some adjustments. Riddle found being alone at his family's house "five times more boring" than it was before he left. Watson, accustomed to suspiciously eyeing every bridge for snipers while driving, continued to do so in Florida. While attending a party with Heims at Emory&Henry, Watson was caught off-guard when fireworks went off. He thought it was an explosion.
None of the five views President Bush's decision to go to war as regrettable.
"After getting over there and seeing what that place was like, regardless if he [Saddam Hussein] had weapons of mass destruction, which I think he still does somewhere, he needed to be out of power. People there were oppressed," Riddle said.
If they had not gone to war, all five would have graduated by now. Instead, the four Franklin County natives will be juniors and Watson is once again a senior. Part of the 1173rd was called up this week, but not those who went to Iraq.
Riddle and Setliff had quit the E&H football team during the 2002 season; Riddle left E&H at the end of the fall 2002 semester. Riddle has enrolled at New River Valley Community College for the upcoming semester and eventually plans to transfer to Radford. The other four have returned to E&H.
Watson, the basketball player, missed the final seven games of his senior season when he was called up. An NCAA rule permits any athlete who didn't get to finish a season because of active duty to gain a waiver granting an additional season of eligibility. E&H expects Watson to be granted that waiver so he can play one last season.
Heims spent most of the summer at Fort Eustis for physical therapy for his back; he has muscle spasms that still cause minor, constant pain. The injury will prevent him from playing for the E&H football team this season, so he hopes to help coach this fall and then play next season.
Perdue has rejoined the E&H football team for preseason practice and will likely regain his job as the starting center. Whenever the Wasps are in a bad spot this season, Perdue doesn't expect he will get too excited.
"When something happens and everybody goes crazy out there, you'll just think back: 'I was in some rougher times than this. It's not that bad,'" he said.
Watson feels much closer to the Franklin County foursome after going through those rough times, and has visited them in Franklin County.
"We're like brothers," Watson said.