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Memories Don't Die So Easily

Civilians shot at a checkpoint, a comrade killed by friendly fire. These are images that troops would rather leave behind but can't.

April 18, 2003|Geoffrey Mohan | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — A man staggers from his exploding car after running a checkpoint but returns for the limp body of a woman.

A mother and 6-year-old child lie curled up in the cab of a civilian truck, riddled with bullets.

A major trudges toward the body of what appears to be a fallen Iraqi soldier, only to find a U.S. captain cut down by fire the senior officer commanded.

These are the enduring images of war. They're what remains after all the tales of sophisticated machinery and well-wrought plans are told, after combat patches fade. They're what soldiers of Cyclone Company, and those who led them, will carry home from the war in Iraq.

Cyclone Company, part of the U.S. Army's 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, came into Iraq with 77 soldiers. Some were barely out of boot camp. Others had more than a decade of service. Some joined because there weren't any other jobs. Others joined because it was a family tradition.

They weathered a brutal 48-hour convoy through untracked desert and were greeted in the small Euphrates River city of Najaf, in central Iraq, by a withering mortar attack and snipers. They fought their way out of an ambush south of Baghdad and fended off rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, to take the entrance to one of Saddam Hussein's palaces.

The 14 tanks of Cyclone Company logged an average of 800 miles and moved farther in two days than most tank units did in months during World War II. They blew up 40 tanks, 59 armored personnel carriers, 21 artillery pieces and more than 40 trucks, and took 32 prisoners, according to tentative tallies.

Everyone from Cyclone's mechanics to its tank commanders will get a combat patch when they get back to Ft. Stewart, Ga., home to the 3rd Infantry Division. Three Cyclone soldiers are under consideration for bronze stars with a "V" for valor, an uncommon medal in any war. The company's commander is up for a silver star.

The Cyclone Company that is settling into routine policing work in Baghdad's restive streets is not the same Cyclone Company that Capt. Steven T. Barry inherited in October and commanded through drill after drill in the deserts of Kuwait before leading it into Iraq.

"You definitely see some changes," said Barry, 29, a former high school athlete from central New Jersey who graduated from West Point as the top-ranking history major. "I think for some, it hasn't sunk in yet," he added. "Now, we'll have time to think about it."

Spc. Jarrid Lott, a 28-year-old tank driver, has been doing some thinking already. "I've seen a car blow up and then a guy run back and grab his wife from the seat and we couldn't do anything about it," Lott said. "I saw people taking pictures of dead people. I thought: That's disgusting. I asked my tank commander, 'Why are you doing that?' He said, 'If my son says he wants to join the Army, I'll show him this [photograph] and tell him this is what the Army does.' "

Lott, a native of Redding, Calif., who joined the Army to pay off $32,000 in student loans for his bachelor's degrees in psychology and social science, sat on a tank nicknamed "Cycho" and declared that his killing days are over. He won't reenlist after serving three more years. His wife, Sheri, a graduate student in Portland, Ore., is expecting their first child this summer. While he was gone, Sheri found out she's having a girl. The baby is kicking. They'll name her Kara Lyn.

Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Lujan, a hard-laughing and hard-driving platoon sergeant, will take home a Republican Guard uniform, some Iraqi dinars and two indelible memories. One is the arduous trek across the desert into battle. The other: "Some of the people I killed who I didn't know if they were innocent or not. That won't leave me," he said.

Last week, on a dark bridge across the Tigris River, Lujan gave the order to shoot the cab of a truck that looked like a military vehicle and whose driver was not heeding warning shots at the checkpoint. When first light came, Lujan, a father of two girls, found a woman and child dead in the cab. Everyone else who had been in the truck -- mostly men -- had fled.

Lujan doesn't know what happened to the victims' bodies. "Who picked them up? Who buried them?" he wonders.

"I've reconciled myself," Lujan said. "We did the right thing, even though it was wrong."

Lujan, 36, is under consideration for a bronze star for destroying three Iraqi armored vehicles that were tearing into his platoon two weeks ago at an ambush on Highway 1 south of Baghdad. Barry said intelligence later showed that the rout of the ambushers prevented the Republican Guard's Medina Division from following orders to move up to Baghdad to protect the capital, which was taken by U.S. troops several days later.

Maj. Kent Rideout, 39, executive officer for the 4th Battalion, worked on the documentation for Cyclone Company's awards Wednesday. But his mind was on the worst day of his career.

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