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Getting ready for goodbye

As a Ft. Bragg battalion prepares for Iraq, there are chores to do, loved ones to reassure and the reality to face that this may be the final farewell.

June 30, 2007|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

Ft. Bragg, N.C. — THE battalion commander rose to address the families of soldiers bound for Iraq. Lt. Col. Mark Stock was responsible for the safety of 820 paratroopers and, ultimately, the life trajectories of hundreds of toddlers, spouses and parents squeezed into the pews of a base chapel.

There was no easy way to say what had to be said.

Stock uttered a single word: "Casualties."

The families fell silent, except for the sudden stab of a baby's cry.

"It's not something we like to talk about," said Stock, his forehead slick with sweat in the stifling heat of the chapel. "It's certainly something that makes us all uncomfortable. But it's important.... This is the down and dirty."

So he told them: how a spouse is always told face to face, never by phone or e-mail, that a soldier has died. How phone lines and e-mail servers are shut down on bases in Iraq when someone is killed. How a wounded soldier is allowed to call home, and how someone at Ft. Bragg will nonetheless read a family member the official account from Iraq describing how a soldier was injured 6,500 miles away.

And this: how everyone in Stock's battalion should have completed a will, a power of attorney, a military life insurance certificate and a DD Form 93. This form designates beneficiaries for military insurance and the "death gratuity" paid to the families of the fallen.

What thoughts occupy the minds of soldiers, and their loved ones, as they ship out for war? How does a family prepare for an endeavor in which death or disfigurement is not merely an occupational hazard, but an actuarial certainty for a small but predictable number?

How does a commander motivate his troops for a war that a majority of Americans, according to opinion polls, has written off as a lost cause built on half-truths -- a war that even some retired generals who fought in it have called a calamity of historic proportions?

Stock's "White Devil" battalion -- the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division -- was making its final, hectic preparations before shipping out this month. The Army battalion is part of the first brigade to be sent to Iraq since five brigades arrived this spring after President Bush ordered an increase of 28,500 troops to stabilize areas overrun by insurgents.

In mid-September, commanders will report to Congress on the progress of the troop buildup. But the White Devils' deployment is a reminder that no matter how the "surge" is evaluated, the war slogs on, taking a private toll on soldiers and their families.

IN a rear pew, seated with his wife and young son and other families of Bravo Company, one of six companies in the battalion, Staff Sgt. Mike McKenzie, 32, had already held "The Talk" with his wife, Leah. He told her he wanted to be buried by paratroopers. He wanted a battle buddy to accompany his body home. He wanted paratrooper pallbearers, a paratrooper firing party, full military honors, two buglers echoing taps and a bagpiper playing "Amazing Grace."

He would be laid out in his Class A dress greens. "With my jump boots on," he told Leah.

In the pews where Foxtrot Company sat, the commander, Capt. Kevin Agness, had already held "The Arlington Talk" with his wife, Chiara. He told her he wanted to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

As the final two weeks of the yearlong preparation for deployment unfolded, no one could escape news of casualties.

Paratroopers at a base mess hall quietly laid down their forks one hot morning as TV sets blared the news that the body of a kidnapped U.S. soldier from Ft. Drum, N.Y., had been pulled from the Euphrates River. A plaque on the mess hall wall listed the names of Ft. Bragg paratroopers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it was out of date because the deaths had been coming too fast.

The next day, White Devil soldiers attended a service for 82nd Airborne soldiers killed. The total came to 112, with the two latest deaths announced the day before. A firing party let out 21 crisp shots. Taps was sounded, and the division chorus sang "The Last Full Measure of Devotion" as parents and spouses of the dead sobbed into their hands.

A headline on the lead story in that week's Paraglide, the post weekly, read: "Bragg Troops Killed in Combat." The story described how one of them had played tic-tac-toe nearly every day with his young daughters back home, e-mailing the moves from the Middle East. In the next issue, the lead Paraglide headline read: "Four Soldiers Die in Combat."

With just over a week to go, Stock, fit and sturdy at 40, hustled across the sun-baked parade grounds known as Devil Field. He could not afford to dwell on casualties. As battalion commander, he had to get 795 men and 25 women ready for a war half a world away.

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