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A look inside a National Guard unit known for valor, dysfunction

Column One

The former leader of a battalion of the California Army National Guard, his military career in ruins, tells his side of what happened in Iraq.

September 14, 2011|By Scott Gold, Los Angeles Times
  • Lt. Col. Patrick Frey led a battalion of California Army National Guard soldiers that was beset by problems. He was relieved of command and sent home in disgrace. Now he teaches high school.
Lt. Col. Patrick Frey led a battalion of California Army National Guard…

Reporting from Greenfield, Calif. -- The story of the California Army National Guard's 1st Battalion of the 184th Infantry Regiment is mostly in the record books now: 17 soldiers killed, more than 100 wounded, 11 Army Commendations for Valor, more than 80 Purple Hearts.

Lt. Col. Patrick Frey knows there is still one chapter to be written — his own.

It's been seven years since he took command of the 1-184 and led more than 700 soldiers into combat in Baghdad. A schoolteacher back home, Frey became the face of a grand military experiment — to move the National Guard's "weekend warriors" from the reserve to the combat front.

Photos: From battlefield to classroom

He had no way of knowing that his elite battalion would become an emblem of all that was ambitious and flawed about Iraq, or that the war would nearly bring him to his knees.

By all accounts, the vast majority of Frey's soldiers — a lawyer, a plumber, a marketing executive, a number of veteran cops — performed valiantly in a combustible corner of Baghdad.

But the battalion was also singled out by the military, Frey said, as a case study in dysfunction. Frey's soldiers engaged in petty turf wars with rival units. One was caught patrolling the streets of Baghdad with a Samurai sword swinging from his belt; another kept a "death list" that included some of his own.

Then, what had begun with small-time transgressions gave way to a sordid night in a dark field — to allegations that 1-184 soldiers abused innocent Iraqis. Twelve soldiers were charged. The "Big Army" — the full-timers and the war's field commanders — also zeroed in on Frey himself.

The trials of Frey and his battalion were national news, but he steadfastly maintained his silence. Now, he believes, it is time to tell the rest of the story. He's just not sure how it goes.

He knows this much: He is not the same man who left for war. He rails against a military that he contends hung him out to dry for the sins of others; then, in the next breath, he torments himself with questions about how a 32-year military career could have ended in disgrace.

"A man's reputation is like his shadow," said Frey, now 56. "It ain't him — but … damn, it's pretty close."

The walls of his farmhouse offer no hint of his years in uniform — as a grunt, a Ranger, a Marine, a rifle company commander, a lieutenant colonel. There is no uniform hanging in his closet.

"I ain't got a place anymore," he said. "I love soldiers. I love soldiering. But it's over."

Lure of the military

Frey got his first taste of war in Vietnam, he said, then fought for the white-minority government in the Rhodesian civil war — not for ideological reasons but because he felt that riding with a modern army on horseback would be a thrilling adventure. He came home, married his high school sweetheart and enlisted in the Army, rising to first lieutenant.

Even after he switched professions and became a special education teacher, his yearning for the military never ebbed, he said. After he and his wife, Lynne, moved to California with their young son, he rose to lieutenant colonel in the Reserves.

In the spring of 2004, an opportunity sprang up: The 1-184 had an opening in the battalion commander's spot. Headquartered in Modesto, the 1-184 was nimble and dynamic, with weapons and training rarely offered to the Guard, and was deep into the pipeline of units headed for Iraq.

In peacetime, the guard had been used primarily in domestic missions. By the time Frey took command, Guard troops made up more than half the combat forces in Iraq. The transformation had not been seamless.

Shortages hamstrung every aspect of training; with no Arabic speakers available, trainers spoke Spanish to simulate a language barrier — failing to recognize that many of the 1-184 soldiers, being from Southern California, were fluent in Spanish.

Some of Frey's troops were soon in revolt; several told The Times then that their training was so poor that they feared their casualty rate would be needlessly high. Frey said he was incensed that they had taken their concerns outside the family — even if, privately, he agreed with them.

There were questions about Frey himself. After he clashed with trainers at a combat training course, an Army general declared that Frey would "get soldiers killed," according to one document. Records show that commanders were concerned with the 1-184's swagger, with the battalion's focus on all-out war versus rebuilding Iraq.

Frey carried a tomahawk to foster what he called "the warrior spirit," producing it for his soldiers and demanding: "Where's your weapon?"

The soldiers loved it. "If we were storming the gates of hell with water pistols, and he was leading the charge, I'd be right behind him," said Spc. Jeff Sinclair, a Modesto father of three who became Frey's personal security officer in Iraq.

The Army, however, was perturbed. "The world revolves around Pat Frey," then-Brig. Gen. Joseph J. Chaves told investigators.

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