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She knew what they had come to tell her

The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Two Army officers were at Joane Sutton's door. Her husband had held their job once, but then he volunteered for Iraq.

August 03, 2007|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

Washington — SGT. 1st Class Greg Sutton was an Army casualty assistance officer at Ft. Sill, Okla., one of the soldiers who deliver the dreaded knock on the door. For most of a year, he witnessed the devastation war can inflict on a family.

When he held the hand of a grieving widow or looked into the face of a confused child, it was hard not to imagine the scene playing out in his own living room on their peaceful street in Lawton. He tried to prepare his wife, just in case.

"Don't worry. The Army will take care of you," he would say, even though she didn't want to hear it.

But there is no preparing for such news. So when the knock came last month on Joane Sutton's door, she was as devastated as any of the other wives who have staggered under the weight of war's grief.

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Greg Sutton was one of several soldiers at Ft. Sill to volunteer for casualty officer duty, an assignment that lasts just one year because of the emotional stress involved. His superiors chose him for his even temper and pleasant demeanor. But casualty officers don't deploy. And any soldier will tell you that a trained warrior who sits out a war is like a trained athlete who sits out a championship. After 16 years in the Army, Sutton, a 38-year-old father of four, had served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but not in Iraq. He wanted to go.

His decision took him from the friendly camaraderie of his basement office to one of the most dangerous assignments in Baghdad.

Sutton was a specialist in calling in air support during combat operations, and the Army command needed one to join a Military Transition Team, or MiTT -- small, specialized squads assembled from throughout the force to mentor and train Iraqi units. It would put him in the thick of it, embedded not with a battalion of skilled Americans but untested Iraqi soldiers who are prime insurgent targets. Late last year, Sutton volunteered.

Every soldier prepares for the possibility of death, but few can envision the ritual that follows as well as Sutton could: the face at the door, twisted in agony before a word is said. The pained questions about the remains, so difficult to answer. The folded flag. The daunting stack of military paperwork. The numbed stare.

He didn't tell his wife right away. He started bringing home Army support literature written for widows. She figured it out soon enough.

"I would get mad and ask him what I was supposed to do with it. He told me to keep it just in case," said Joane, 26, the mother of Sutton's youngest children, 3-year-old Cailee and 18-month-old Greg II. Sari, 15, and Andrew, 14, are from a previous marriage. "He wondered how I would take it if it were me. I told him never to say that because it would never be me."

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ON one of his last days at Ft. Sill, Sutton's friends gave him a going-away party at Ryan's, a steakhouse with a big buffet.

The casualty assistance unit was a tightly knit outfit, doing their grim duty in what used to be the morgue of a converted Army hospital. They kept things light for sanity's sake -- whose turn was it to bring the doughnuts? Every chance they got, they went bowling; Sutton's average was a more-than-respectable 220.

"The job we do here gets disheartening, but Greg always had something to say to cheer us up," recalled Sutton's friend Stefan Ohlenmacher, one of several civilians in the unit.

Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Plumey was Sutton's partner and the casualty officer who trained him. They were professional twins -- same rank, same artillery skills needed for the MiTT. But Plumey had done two tours in Iraq and, after 20 years in the Army, wanted to retire.

The story got around that Plumey had been ordered to Iraq and that Sutton had taken his place. News outlets, including The Times, wrote about Sutton as the volunteer who did a buddy a favor that cost him his life.

But Army officials later said it didn't happen that way; the command had not asked for a specific soldier, only offered a job description. Either man would have fit the bill. If no one had volunteered, someone would have been ordered to go.

Sutton was hoping for a promotion to first sergeant, and a year in Iraq would enhance his chance. He also wanted to do his part in a war that had taken so many of his comrades.

He e-mailed his family from Ft. Riley, Kan., where he went to train: "I really miss you guys and I promise I will do everything in my power to come home safe.... Do not be scared for me, because I believe GOD has me in his hands."

By spring he was in Baghdad.

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FOR his 11-member team, the mission was to pair up with an Iraqi Kurdish unit brought to Baghdad to assist in the troop "surge" ordered by President Bush.

Sutton's job was to call in support when the team came into enemy contact. He developed strong ties with the Kurdish soldiers. "They listened to his advice. He kept them on the straight and narrow," said team leader Maj. Alex Stephenson.

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