Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Punishers' Ball

Deuce Four

On Ice: “The Punishers” are Back in Town

After a hard year of fighting and nation-building in northern Iraq, the Deuce Four has finally and completely returned home to the United States, where they threw a party to mark the occasion. Distinguished guests flew in to attend what was officially called the Redeployment Ball.

I flew from Iraq and stayed in the beautiful home of Command Sergeant Major Robert and Sandy Prosser. A clear stream runs through the Prossers’ backyard, and the salmon would soon be swimming up to spawn, trailed by the Bald Eagles that sometimes perch high in the trees above the stream. When I suggested to CSM Prosser that I might like to try to catch one of the salmon by hand, he said that it could lead to imprisonment or worse. I stayed away from the stream.

Approximately 1,200 guests attended the Ball, including luminaries like Bruce Willis and his brother David. The Deuce Four also welcomed producer Stephen Eads who worked with Bruce on many blockbusters, such as The Sixth Sense and Armageddon, to name a couple of their outstanding film projects. Also in attendance was the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jim MacMillan, who was nearly shot to pieces up in Mosul while with the Deuce Four. Luckily Jim came back with thousands of excellent photos but only one hole in his helmet from an enemy machine gun bullet.

But for this night, the luminaries were satellites orbiting war heroes, including those half-dozen soldiers who, like CSM Prosser, had recently received a Silver Star, and the 181 soldiers awarded Purple Hearts for wounds they received in combat.

Some of my neighbors in Mosul, gathering for a last night together.

Recon (pictured above) took heavy losses in Mosul, but inflicted much heavier. I will always remember and respect these men. This is one of the few photos not taken by Walt Gaya, shown kneeling far right. I was present when he was awarded his second Purple Heart for his second wound in Iraq. The bald-headed man in the middle, SFC Bowman, provided some much-needed counsel during critical moments in Iraq. SSG Mesa, standing on the far right, amazed the soldiers when he spoke Arabic in Mosul. Mesa is actually from Guam.

Some of Recon's finest weren't in the group shot but they were at the Ball in spirit.

This man, SSG Holt: what he did in Mosul might have earned him a Medal of Honor, had it killed him. Fortunately, he survived and received a Silver Star. Someday, I’ll tell his story.

With all those soldiers and loved ones in attendance, and the added glamour of movie stars, there was great interest by the press to attend the Ball, but no tickets to be had. Although the Pulitzer-winning photographer Jim MacMillan was present, Jim came to pay respects, not shoot photos. With no reporters or photographers on duty, it fell to me to record the evening. I asked Walt Gaya to take my camera and photograph the event. Walt was one of my neighbors in Iraq whose skills and interest in photography were the subject of one of my dispatches. Walt is still sporting a severely damaged eye from combat in Mosul, so any less-than-perfect photographs owe their imperfections to shrapnel.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer as shot through the shrapnel-charged eye of my friend Walt Gaya, whose plans to become a photo-journalist are only delayed not derailed.

There were more than 120 round tables, each seating ten people. The seating arrangements mirrored the unit rosters, so Alpha Company sat with Alpha Company, Recon with Recon, and so forth. I was personally torn between sitting with Recon or at table 1, but protocol demanded my place at a table that included the following:

The former Brigade Commander Colonel Robert Brown and his wife Patti; actor Bruce Willis; the Battalion Commander LTC Erik Kurilla and his wife Mary Paige; the Honorary Colonel of the Regiment and veteran of WWII, Korea and Vietnam; Col. (Ret) John S. Komp and his wife Nancy; recent Silver Star recipient Major Mark Bieger and his wife Amy; and, finally, me.

LTC Erik Kurilla and his wife Mary Paige. Kurilla was the last Deuce Four soldier wounded in Mosul.

Always giving orders: LTC Erik Kurilla is happiest when he is leading his men in the fight against terrorists. But here he shares a light moment with Bruce Willis. The waitress was nice, too.

Many paid respect to fallen comrades throughout the night, through speeches, toasts and often just coming to pause silently before the memorials.

The overwhelming joy of being home with families and friends was grounded by the permanent losses and severe battle scars of those who paid the highest price for the success of the mission. The ghosts of the fallen took their places alongside widows and family of the fallen comrades. One young wife, overtaken by despair, had taken her own life shortly after her husband died in Mosul. The widow of another soldier killed in an attack that I witnessed was left alone to parent four children. A mournful fog skirted the edge of the dance floor all night.

No greater gifts...

The evening began with toasts, to the Army, and to this and that—customary at such events--then proceeded to a video created by Deuce Four soldiers. As the footage of the battles for Mosul played on the two big screens, there was a sense that many of the wives and girlfriends were just realizing the severity of the violence through which their soldiers had fought.

Then came the speeches. Brigade Command Sergeant Major Adams took the podium—his retirement imminent—Adams happily clarified that he no longer felt compelled to moderate his words. With much humor punctuating the gravity of his remarks, CSM Adams said the Deuce Four was the best battalion he had ever seen in his entire 27 years in the military. Second place wasn’t even close. He went on to praise its commander, LTC Erik Kurilla, as the best Battalion Commander he has ever had seen—period.

As someone who has personally witnessed LTC Kurilla during close-quarters combat—killing terrorists right in front of me—I can attest that Kurilla is a steadfast leader, enthusiastic and relentless in battle with terrorists.

The Deuce Four also received the Valorous Unit Award. This is an important designation. Although the Deuce Four leadership was characteristically modest about it, I saw the actual citation, along with the handwritten note from 4-Star General George Casey that read, “This may have been the best brigade in Iraq. Their return from the November collapse in Mosul to elections was brilliant against very tough opposition.”

When Kurilla next approached the podium to congratulate his men on an outstanding fight, his limp betrayed the fact that he’d been shot in combat in Mosul. I witnessed three of the four bullets strike him in Mosul, but I also watched as he kept fighting while he bled.

The soldiers love this man. Bruce has been to Iraq, and was probably the safest man in America when he was surrounded by the Deuce Four Punishers.

Ever the master of the moment, Erik Kurilla turned the microphone over to Bruce Willis. Bruce had taken the time to fly in as a guest speaker to thank the members of the Deuce Four. He gave the most impassioned speech I can remember, using clear terms—including some well-selected profanities to describe terrorists—to express his admiration and support for the troops. Bruce’s speech was so accurate in his description of the war, and so charged with emotion, that he seemed ready to lead the troops himself back to Iraq; and they were ready to go.

Interestingly, I learned later—and I am not sure Bruce wants this to be known—Bruce actually tried to join the military to fight in this war but they told him he is too old. He doesn’t look too old. Not judging by the reaction of all the women in attendance at the ball that night.

While we are on the subject, Where do these guys get these beautiful women?

I was struck by the beauty of the wives and girlfriends I met. The men of the Deuce Four are courageous and excellent fighters, but few of them can aspire to the cover of GQ magazine. I just couldn’t imagine how so many ugly soldiers landed so many beautiful women; women who wanted their picture taken with Bruce Willis. Although it seemed that every woman in the place wanted a photo with Bruce, none of the soldiers seemed jealous. It was a spectacle for a while, but Bruce handled it with panache.

Good grief. Made me want to put on a fake uniform.

Women, women, women! Women clamor for heroes. Suddenly, I want to be a hero, but the room was flush with them.

Brandy and Mark Bush. He actually wants to go back to Iraq! Brandy married a real man, and now she must suffer him.

Major Mark Bieger and his wife Amy. Mark was awarded a Silver Star, but seeing him in action, and hearing from his men, it's clear he deserves a constellation of Silver Stars. The name Mark Bieger evokes respect.

As the speeches followed courses, and dessert finally came and cleared, the activity on the floor began to rise, as soldiers began to circulate and congratulate each other. Some of the soldiers who found their way to me talked of how happy they were to have survived, while others were already complaining of boredom with stateside life and were volunteering for assignments that would take them back to war.

Mark Bush inspired my dispatch “Angels Among Us.” Mark won't know it until he reads this caption, but occasionally when I had enough of combat, it was his inviting me to chow or just making small talk that made the difference in my decision to continue covering the war.

The music started, cuing the dancers. After hours of dancing, slowly, gradually, as swaying couples circled each other around the dance floor, the party began to wind down. Soldiers being soldiers, they headed out to private parties with their own platoons and squads. The crowd thinned slowly, until the evening drew itself to a bittersweet conclusion. For all the well-earned celebration, this ball marks the last time the Deuce Four that fought in Mosul ever will be together for such an event. Mostly breaking up now to different assignments, some are leaving the service, while others are trying to get back into the fight in Iraq. But by midnight, 5 November, 2005, the Deuce Four that had fought so hard to win the battle for Mosul had its final hurrah in Tacoma.