- The Washington Times - Monday, October 18, 2004

Staff Sgt. Robert Doughty didn’t train to be a Green Beret, but he was surrounded by guys in his Army Special Forces unit who had been to war before and took their assignment in Iraq in stride.

Sgt. Doughty was severely wounded in an ambush by insurgents when an improvised explosive device, or IED, blew up in July during his unit’s secret mission inside the deadly Sunni triangle.

He lost both legs.

Today, Sgt. Doughty, 29, is recuperating and adjusting at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest Washington.

Some wounded soldiers “have a chip on their shoulder,” Sgt. Doughty acknowledges. “The biggest thing I would say is that I don’t have any regrets, and 99 percent of the guys up here [at Walter Reed] with me don’t either.”

They “feel like heroes,” he says.

Recent interviews with Sgt. Doughty and other troops rebutted talk in some quarters of troops’ growing disillusionment with the U.S. mission in Iraq. The interviews included a Marine corporal also being treated for wounds at Walter Reed and men in a National Guard unit in northern Iraq that faced renewed attacks from insurgents in recent days.

Army Master Sgt. Keith Hudson, himself wounded two days into the push toward Baghdad, returned to the United States in August 2003, but expects to be back in Iraq for a second tour of duty by Christmas.

Sgt. Hudson, now at Fort Stewart, Ga., with the 3rd Infantry Division, says he’s not concerned about what lies ahead, despite the grim picture that much of the media paint.

Sure, he and the 54 men in his unit follow such news.

“We all know that it’s an election year,” he says.

There’s nothing wrong with the morale of his men, he adds.

“Since we got back, I’ve only had two soldiers get out and 11 re-enlist,” Sgt. Hudson, 36, says. “Some of the guys … you’d have expected to get out, they weren’t the stellar performers. And you hear them standing in front of the company … saying they’re ready to go back there because they want to make a difference.”

Making a difference to Sgt. Hudson means finishing the job by winning. His view is that to do less is just not right.

“It’s like stopping the game at halftime and leaving the field,” he says. “You don’t want someone else to have to go. You want it over and done.”

‘A good cause’

“Robbie” Doughty, who is single, grew up in Paducah, Ky. He recruited his younger brother. John, 22, into the Army two weeks before the September 11 attacks. John is stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., near the family’s home.

Although Sgt. Doughty didn’t aim to become a Green Beret, he quips that he was getting to be one through “on-the-job training” after his reassignment to an intelligence slot in the 5th Special Forces Group. He previously was trained in tactical intelligence and as a medic.

His unit had two missions: searching for those on the “black list,” the higher-ranking members of Saddam Hussein’s toppled regime, and training new Iraqi security forces.

For security reasons, he declines to specify where his unit was when it was ambushed in the Sunni triangle, which stretches from Ramadi in the west to Baghdad in the east and Tikrit in the north.

To himself and his fellow wounded, Sgt. Doughty says, “The war was a good cause.”

‘Serious business’

Spc. Herman Breuer of Warren, Ohio, patrols Mosul with fellow members of the Pennsylvania National Guard’s Alpha Company, 1st of the 107th Military Police Brigade.

Mosul, 225 miles north of Baghdad, in recent days has seen another surge in deadly insurgent attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqis, including children.

Spc. Breuer, 36, first joined the Army in 1990. He re-enlisted last year but admits to having been a bit surprised when the 107th, based in Newcastle, Pa., got orders for Iraq in February.

It was hard to leave his wife, Tara, and children, Bailey, 5, and Emily, 10 months. The strain is relieved by his Guard unit’s access to e-mail and Web cams. Spc. Breuer talks with his wife “pretty regularly,” at least by computer linkup.

Is morale low among troops in Mosul?

“Quite the contrary. It just can’t be,” Spc. Breuer says in a Sept. 29 interview, before the renewed violence. “The fact of the matter is that what we do every day is extremely dangerous.

“If you have low morale and you’re hanging your head low,” he adds, “you can’t do the job.”

Spc. Nikolas Keefer, 21, also in Alpha Company, was studying at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in his hometown of Indiana, Pa., when he was called up.

“This is the best job rolling,” Spc. Keefer says, although when he and his buddies go out on patrol in Mosul, it’s “serious business.”

“I’m a pretty low guy on the totem pole,” says Spc. Keefer, who is single. “But from what I understand, we seem to be accomplishing all our goals, one by one, here. It’s gonna be a long process, but so far we’re doing really good work.”

Re-enlistments talk

Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely, a retired Army officer, hears from many soldiers in Iraq and doesn’t think there is a major morale problem. Griping, he notes, is normal.

“If they’re not bitching, they’re not happy,” Gen. Vallely says.

What about the sort of letters from apparently disillusioned soldiers that anti-war, anti-Bush filmmaker Michael Moore showcases in his new book?

“Well, we’ve always had that,” Gen. Vallely says. “It’s their outlet back to their families. You have good letters and you have bad letters. The real test, though, is not in the letters coming back.”

The real test of troop morale, he says, is the re-enlistment numbers.

And overall, the Army brass pronounced itself pleased at retention rates exceeding 100 percent for enlisted, active-duty soldiers in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The high rate is especially so in the Army’s 10 active-combat divisions, which have seen some of the bloodiest combat in cities such as Najaf, Baghdad and Samarra. The goal of retaining 56,100 will be exceeded by about 800 soldiers.

The Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps joined the Army in meeting or exceeding recruiting and retention goals even as the 1.4-million-person armed forces shoulder intense deployment pressures in the global war on terrorism.

‘Going to be back’

Sgt. Hudson, reared outside Lexington, Ky., joined the Army in 1989. He first went into combat during Operation Desert Storm as a young private in the 82nd Airborne Division. He also saw combat two years later in the deadly “Black Hawk Down” rescue mission in downtown Mogadishu, Somalia.

“I was a sniper in 10th Mountain,” he says, referring to a division of 18th Airborne Corps. “We ended up shooting and moving until we got into the city itself; it was pretty chaotic.”

By the time the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003, he was a platoon sergeant with First Cavalry, 3rd Infantry, part of a reconnaissance troop.

On the second day of the war, Sgt. Hudson’s unit was racing north from Kuwait toward Baghdad when it ran into an ambush near Samawah, on the Euphrates River. Seven of 10 vehicles were hit by small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs.

Sgt. Hudson ordered his armored Humvee forward to cover one of the worst-hit vehicles and rescue a young soldier who was going into shock.

“I directed my gunner to fire into the bunkers ahead,” he says. “I got out of the vehicle to start firing into some of these spider holes. And there were these little Iraqi guys everywhere. When I got those guys to quit shooting, I moved to the side of the vehicle and then to the front.”

That’s when he saw what looked like “a really big cigar, moving real slow” toward him.

“It was an RPG. It landed short, and it blew me back up inside the vehicle. I couldn’t hear or see much. It turned out I had a little bit of a skull fracture. It’s called an intercranial bleed, and it tore my retina in my right eye.”

Holding his helmet askew to conceal his injuries, Sgt. Hudson got his unit out, calling in artillery and air strikes to cover the withdrawal. When the men reached an aid station, hours away, he didn’t want to leave on a medical evacuation flight.

“I’m like, you know, ‘I’m going to be right back here. They’re going to fix me up.’ And [the men] already had it in their heads that I’m not coming back,” Sgt. Hudson recalls.

He couldn’t stand that idea. And then Providence took a hand: He was flown to a hospital in Kuwait, where the American staff included Army eye surgeons who had come over from Walter Reed. They performed laser surgery on his eye.

Sgt. Hudson talked his way out of being sent to a military hospital in Spain. Sixteen days later, his eye repaired and 14 pieces of shrapnel removed from his body, he was back with his unit near Baghdad.

‘And it was a great day,” he says. “A couple of hugs, and a few big, tough guys wiping some tears off their cheeks.”

The Samawah area now is regarded as one of the most stable in Iraq.

‘The right thing’

Marine Lance Cpl. Sean Carroll is one of the 39 men and one woman being treated for combat injuries as of last week at Walter Reed. About twice as many more are outpatients, receiving physical therapy and other services.

Cpl. Carroll, a California native and third-oldest of seven brothers, was living near Idaho Springs, Colo., when he joined the Marines in June 2003. He deployed to Iraq at age 19 shortly after Valentine’s Day, in a unit of 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.

Cpl. Carroll’s unit was on foot patrol on March 25 on the back side of Ramadi when he was shot in the leg in an ambush. As Cpl. Carroll and his buddies tell it, he then got up and joined his squad in rushing the insurgents.

Cpl. Carroll got shot again. When he again got up, he absorbed the full blast impact of an IED planted by insurgents.

He considers that fortunate in a way, because otherwise “a lot more people could have got hurt.”

Weeks later, Cpl. Carroll awoke from a coma to find most of one leg gone. He celebrated his 20th birthday on Oct. 9 at Walter Reed, where he is learning to get around on a prosthetic leg. Some days are much better than others.

Would he do it again?

“Yes, I would,” he replies.

Cpl. Carroll says that to him, his sacrifice — and that of his pals still over there — is worthwhile if the nation sees the fight through. He doesn’t like the talk of pulling out.

“I think we’d just leave a bigger mess than [it was] when we went in,” he says. “I would think what I did and what my friends did was for nothing.”

And if this Marine could speak freely on the subject to President Bush?

“I’d tell him I think what he’s doing is the right thing.”

Cpl. Carroll trades occasional e-mails with friends on patrol back in the Sunni triangle.

“The majority seem to be happy to do what they’re doing there,” he says. “They’re doing what they wanted to do. … It’s not like they signed up for the infantry to sit at a desk and sign paperwork.”

‘Not an easy road’

Spc. Phil Brinker, 21, of Grove City, Pa., another member of the 107th’s Alpha Company, has been in the Guard for four years and was called up while in college.

Spc. Brinker, who is single, says the Iraqi police presence is growing in and around Mosul. As far as he can tell, Iraqi security forces are “doing their job as they’re supposed to,” he says. “They aren’t just standing around.”

Spc. Andrew Kunes, 24, of Johnstown, Pa., enlisted in the Guard in January 2001 and was midway through Penn State when he was called up. His deployment to Mosul is the first real separation for him and his wife of one year, Billy Jo. The couple met in middle school.

“I joined to be a soldier,” Spc. Kunes says. “It’s not an easy road sometimes, but some things need to be done and I feel that what we’re doing over here is worthwhile.”

Spc. Dane Morningstar, 20, of Greenville, Pa., joined the Guard right after the September 11 attacks. In Mosul, he fields questions from his parents and girlfriend back home about the news coverage.

Spc. Morningstar tells them that “there’s some right and some wrong” about what they see. But that being there is a good thing.

“We see the difference in the [Iraqi] people’s faces while we’re driving down the road,” Spc. Morningstar says in an interview before the new round of violence in Mosul. “People aren’t afraid to go out.”

The sacrifices of soldiers, he says, are worth it.

“We’re putting a country back up on its feet.”

One soldier’s goal

Sgt. Hudson has advanced to troop first sergeant with 3rd Infantry. They’re preparing to depart Fort Stewart and return to Iraq within the next few months.

“And a lot of folks over there are anticipating our return,” he says, because of 3rd Infantry’s dominant role in the fighting.

Sgt. Hudson, who is separated from his wife, isn’t looking forward to leaving daughters Skyler, 11, and Morgan, 8.

“We’ll be lucky to have Christmas home,” he says.

But the men are as ready as he and other veterans can make them, he says, and his goal for his next tour is simple.

“It’s very selfish for me,” Sgt. Hudson says. “I have 54 guys right now, and I need to bring 54 of them home. I can’t make false promises to the Man Upstairs, to them or even to myself. That is my only goal.”

• Jed Babbin, a Washington writer, was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration.

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