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PROFILE UPDATE

First Job Out of College: Combat-Zone Commander

Three members of West Point's class of '04 find themselves leading troops in a war foreign to any example learned in the classroom.

November 27, 2005|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

Eighteen months ago, Daniel Redman, Bernard Gardner and Stephen Bishop were fairly typical college students. They were finishing up senior exams, inviting parents to graduation ceremonies and preparing to face the real world.

Today, all three have collided with the real world of Iraq. After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy in May 2004, the former cadets are freshly minted second lieutenants thrust into war. They are responsible for the lives of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians in a war unlike anything they learned in classrooms.

"West Point seems like the distant past," Redman, 23, wrote in an e-mail from his base near Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad. As an inexperienced officer in charge of soldiers with previous combat experience, he wrote, "all eyes are on me. The soldiers see everything I do and use it to evaluate their trust in my abilities."

More recent West Point graduates are being sent to war than at any time since the Vietnam War -- many of them right after completing the U.S. Army Officer Basic Course and specialty training.

According to a West Point spokesman, cadets assigned to infantry and armor units -- who do not undergo the extra months of training required in specialties such as aviation -- are being sent to the war zone within eight months to a year of graduation.

The three lieutenants arrived in Iraq with considerable military education and training. But they are young and green, thrown into a complex war in a hostile foreign country. As platoon leaders, they command about 30 soldiers each.

Under these pressures, they have been forced to mature much faster than college graduates embarking on careers in the civilian world.

"You're likely to be put into life-or-death situations, and you have to be ready to make decisions, be strong and not show fear," said Gardner, 24, who is younger than all but four soldiers under his command.

Gardner, Redman and Bishop were featured in a May 2004 article in The Times about the 935 members of their graduating class at West Point and their prospects of going to war. They said at the time that they expected a rapid transition from cadet to Army trainee to combat commander in Iraq.

When the three entered West Point five years ago, the country was at peace. They did not expect to see combat any time soon, if ever. Then came the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq during their sophomore and junior years.

"There's a sense among all the cadets that they'll end up fairly soon in either Iraq or Afghanistan," said Maj. Elizabeth Robbins, an Army spokeswoman who taught at West Point from 2001 to 2004.

Thousands of cadets over the years have arrived at West Point in hopes of someday leading soldiers into combat, but relatively few have had the opportunity. With that chance to lead comes the prospect of death or serious injury -- to themselves or to soldiers under their command.

Nineteen West Point graduates have died in Iraq and four in Afghanistan. Three of those killed were from the class of 2003.

This month, in an e-mail from his base in western Iraq, Gardner said his two months there had taught him to rely on "out-of-the-box thinking" to outwit insurgents. When insurgents began stashing weapons on islands in the Euphrates River, for instance, he commandeered a boat and set up a rope trolley to ferry his soldiers to search an island.

In leading his platoon, Gardner wrote, he has applied lessons from the academy in "how to inspire different people with different personalities so they can all work together to achieve the same goal."

His platoon recently seized a large supply of weapons near the western town of Anah, making international news, he wrote. "It definitely helps us sleep better at night knowing our area will be that much safer when we roll through it the next time," said Gardner, whose hometown is Kinnear, Wyo.

He added: "Every time we leave the gate on missions, we expect some sort of contact, and most of the time, we do have contact."

Redman, who has been in Iraq since January, commands an armor platoon made up largely of older and more experienced veterans. He said his unit had supervised the construction of several schools, roads, water projects and health clinics -- with no media coverage.

"If stories featuring death and success are vying for the same front-page space, death will almost always win," he wrote.

At the same time, he has been surprised by the lack of combat in his area of Diyala province, about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad. Redman said his platoon had suffered no casualties. It has not encountered a roadside bomb nor engaged in a firefight.

"At least in this area of the country, things are not as bad as some would have you believe," he wrote.

Redman said he wasn't looking for action.

"I do not believe any leader looks forward to combat or enjoys combat," he wrote. "If they do, I question their mental stability.... The military is one of the few professions that spends all their time training for something they hope never occurs."

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