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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

Widmar described the proper treatment of detainees and of women in Arab culture. He said detainees were more valuable alive than dead because of the intelligence they might provide. He discussed the distinctions among a hostile force, a hostile act and hostile intent. He stressed the obligation to challenge an unlawful order, especially in the heat of combat. He described how to behave as a prisoner of war, but said flatly that a POW's chances of survival in Iraq are just about zero.

The briefing was right after lunch, and a few paratroopers dozed off. A sergeant grabbed them roughly and forced them to stand against a wall, arms outstretched.

The next morning, Stock attended a mess hall prayer breakfast organized by a chaplain, Col. Pat Hash. It was titled "The Morality of War: Balancing Faith and Killing."

Though the Bible says "Thou shalt not kill," Hash said, killing is justified in a "righteous war" when a soldier is acting as "an agent of the state."

"War can be morally permissible," he said. "And there are times when it is morally, legally and ethically right to kill another human being."

The chaplain mentioned something a sergeant in Afghanistan told him shortly after killing an insurgent: "Killing is not hard. It happens very quickly."

Though the sergeant was conflicted about killing another human being, Hash said, he was relieved that he had eliminated the enemy before the man could kill any of the sergeant's men.

Like all soldiers, the paratroopers were, in effect, trained killers -- killers with a purpose. It was the responsibility of commanders like Stock to manage that coiled violence. It was the chaplain's job to assure everyone that they were doing the right thing, the moral thing.

When Hash had finished, there were no questions. The paratroopers bowed their heads in prayer, then went back to their breakfasts. Above their heads, TV sets suspended from the mess hall ceilings delivered more reports of Americans killed in Iraq.

CAPT. Agness, the Foxtrot Company commander, had a ritual when he got to his home in Fayetteville every night: Let the family dog, Emma, leap into his lap. Rub Emma's belly. Then coo and play with his 3-month-old daughter, Gabriella. Have dinner with his wife, Chiara. Give Gabriella a bath and put her to bed.

On this night, Agness was beat. He had been working since before dawn, helping 130 soldiers in his company get ready to deploy. He had brought home a thick sheaf of paperwork that had to be finished by morning. At his office, Agness maintained an exhaustive checklist of chores to be completed by every soldier and spouse before deployment. It was 175 items long:

"Have children been included in the discussion on where the service member is going, and why? Does spouse know the various ways to communicate with the service member? Who will spouse call if an appliance needs repair? Do you and your spouse have a will ... ?"

This was in addition to a 56-page "Task Force Devil Deployment Guide."

"Everybody's anxious. Everybody's on edge," Agness said. "Chiara and I are getting short with each other. We try to catch ourselves."

Chiara, 31, was cooking risotto, and the kitchen smelled of garlic and basil. She had met Kevin when he was stationed near her home in northern Italy. They made a fine couple, Kevin with his slight build and dry wit, Chiara with her extroverted personality and lilting Italian accent.

Kevin was born at Ft. Bragg, the son of a lieutenant colonel. He was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan last year. Chiara is still learning about military life and deployment as she leads the company family readiness group, a support group. A sign at home reads: "Home is Where the Army Sends Us."

Chiara believes in confronting the realities of separation and thinks that some wives live in denial. "It's sad -- they just refuse to deal with it till the plane pulls away," she said. "And then they're lost."

Chiara had videotaped Kevin reading the baby's bedtime stories so that Gabriella would remember Daddy. She bought webcams so the family could see one another over the Internet.

Agness is 30, a crusty veteran to the 18- to 20-year-olds in his company. To them, he was part father figure, part high school teacher. He urged them to fill out their death beneficiary forms, and he posted useful Arabic words and phrases at company headquarters: "Stop." "Go." "Where is your ID?" "Do you need help?"

The unit had been disrupted by four soldiers who had used drugs. Agness didn't want any of them deploying. During the final week, he filled out voluminous paperwork to discharge them. Two other soldiers were suicidal and in such serious psychological distress that they were being medically discharged.

The captain also arranged to put several soldiers on the last flights out so they could attend a child's high school graduation or the birth of a child. His executive officer, Lt. Brad Hamrick, got to see his son's birth when his wife delivered 13 days early.

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