In the crowded bar of the VFW Club in Columbus, Neb., the old Army buddies exchanged glances and clinked long-necked beers. “You look good,” Jacob Graff said to John Harris. “I'm doing all right,” Harris replied, tapping his expanding midsection with a half-smile. A half-smile is all Harris manages even in his happiest moments. The left side of his face is paralyzed, the result of the insurgent's bullet that ripped into his neck during one of the biggest, most sophisticated convoy ambushes of the seven-year Iraq war.
Even five years ago, the 14 members of first squad, first platoon of the Nebraska National Guard's 1075th Transportation Company knew that day March 20, 2005 would forever loom large in their lives.
Just hours after the attack was fended off without a single U.S. death, and 27 insurgents killed the Nebraska citizen-soldiers talked about it: We should get together every year to mark this day.
So they have, holding their fifth such reunion last month. Five years after the terror and the glory, their personal stories say a lot about how profoundly life-changing war can be.
There was Harris, still paying the price for that day.
There was Jenny Bos, a grade-school reading teacher, mom and recipient of the Bronze Star for combat valor.
There was Ricky DeLancey, whose mental battles since make him reluctant to talk even of his own heroism.
There was Joshua Birkel, who discovered that day that he was a soldier.
With 10 of the 14 squad members present, one soldier's absence was particularly noted. A.J. Bloebaum asked Bos whether she'd reached Terry Ricketts, the Omaha soldier who at times wore his opposition to the war on his sleeve right next to his sergeant's stripes.
Ricketts hasn't made any of the reunions, despite the affection he still feels for his war buddies.
Indeed, among those who did gather this year, the camaraderie was obvious.
“I'd do anything for any one of these guys, and they know that,” said Jay Schrad of Omaha.
Over many a beer, much of the night was just spent catching up. Most by now are either out of the Guard or on the way out.
But they know they will always share a unique bond one only the 14 soldiers who were in the kill zone south of Baghdad that day could truly understand.
* * *
The noonday sun was high over the Tigris valley as the Nebraska supply convoy warily rolled north along the dangerous strip of pavement known as the Bismarck Road.
It was Palm Sunday, but to Iraq's insurgents, the day likely had other significance the second anniversary of the war's start.
Just as the seven Nebraska Guard semitrailer trucks and 23 civilian contractor trucks came upon another convoy traveling the opposite direction, up to 50 insurgents suddenly opened up on both with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.
A huge roadside bomb sent a bus flying through the air and into the path of most of the Nebraska convoy, bringing it to a screeching halt.
Before Sgt. Terry Ricketts of Omaha could even grab his M-16 rifle, a bullet thudded into his leg.
A rocket-propelled grenade thundered into the hood right in front of Ricketts and Pfc. Ricky DeLancey of Duncan, spraying shrapnel and glass, and then another bullet grazed DeLancey's head before blowing out the back of his helmet.
“We're going to die,” DeLancey said calmly.
“Yeah, I know,” Ricketts flatly replied.
Farther back, Spc. John Harris of Columbus and Pfc. Jacob Graff of Ainsworth also were hit, Harris in the neck, Graff in the shoulder. Graff still managed to maneuver their truck out of the kill zone.
But few others were getting out. Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Uhl of Bellwood, the convoy commander whose lead truck had escaped the initial attack, was considering a return when a voice over the radio told him to stay back.
“We're coming out,” said Pfc. Jenny Beck of Clarks from the midst of the chaos.
Beck wasn't the highest-ranking soldier left in the field, but she would take a leading role with truckmate Sgt. A.J. Bloebaum of Columbus to rally the convoy.
Beck's radio calls to Ricketts and DeLancey drew silence. But they weren't dead far from it.
Deciding he'd go down fighting, DeLancey had kicked out what was left of the windshield, laid across the hood and fired off a 200-round drum from his light machine gun, reloaded and fired again.
About that time, armored Humvees from the Kentucky National Guard arrived, big guns blazing. The battle began to turn.
After helping get the convoy's middle trucks moving, Beck drove up to the Ricketts-DeLancey truck, fearing the worst. Relieved to find them alive, she used all of her strength to pull the 205-pound Ricketts out of the wreckage.
At the rear of the convoy, Spc. Michael Sharples of Fullerton and Spc. Joshua Birkel of Columbus dismounted and braved bullets to get civilian drivers who'd gone into hiding back inside their trucks so the convoy could move. They then ran forward to lift Ricketts into the truck that would carry him to safety.
In the end, four Nebraska Guardsmen had been wounded. But amazingly, all of them, and all of their civilian drivers, escaped with their lives.
* * *
When it was over, Ricky DeLancey didn't feel like a hero. He was living in fear. All the time.
Physically, his injuries were minor enough that he could have returned to the field for the last six months of his Iraq tour. Mentally, it was another story.
“I didn't want to be there anymore,” he said. “I was pretty messed up in the head. There was no way I could go back out there.”
Doctors who saw him agreed: This soldier needs to go home.
In World War I, it was called “shell shock.” In World War II, “combat fatigue.” Now everyone knows it by four letters: PTSD. DeLancey ultimately would receive a partial military disability for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Even once home in Columbus, getting back to a normal life was tough. For the first six months or so, he did little. “I drank a lot.”
DeLancey started back to college but dropped out midsemester. Friends said he seemed distant, depressed.
He received treatment but didn't like it. The last time he saw the doctor, he said, “I'm not taking any more pills.”
He said family friends, including girlfriend Amber Steider, a 1075th mechanic, eventually helped him work through it. The 25-year-old is now married to Amber, living in Wahoo and working as an installer for an office furniture supplier.
“I'm pretty content right now,” DeLancey said.
The PTSD is mostly under control, though loud noises are a trigger. July 4 is not a good day.
One way he deals with his Iraq experience is not talking about it. Even if people want to talk of his heroics, he doesn't want to hear it. The Purple Heart and Bronze Star are packed in the basement.
“I had a lot of good times,” he says in looking back on his Guard service. “Just not that day.”
* * *
Ask John Harris five years later how often he thinks about March 20, 2005, and he answers “every five minutes.” He's not kidding.
He sees the reminders every time he looks in the mirror: the left side of his face frozen in place; the long scar encircling his head.
“Whenever I'm not doing anything,” he says, “I'm pretty much daydreaming about that day.”
The bullet that hit Harris' neck severed nerves that control muscles in the left side of his face. Despite a 14-hour surgery, nothing could be done to bring the muscles back to life.
Then more than a year later, after he was back in Columbus, bits of shrapnel worked their way to the front lobe of his brain. He was hospitalized for a month with life-threatening meningitis. In the end, he would have surgery to open his skull, leaving the big scar.
Though Harris knows he's lucky he didn't suffer an incapacitating disability, his life is affected in so many ways.
Headaches. Slurred speech. Hearing loss. Sight problems caused by his inability to blink his left eye. When he tried to blow up a balloon for his now 4-year-old daughter, he couldn't.
And those are just the physical things.
Thoughts of that day regularly intrude. Sometimes in his dreams, he faces off against insurgents, alarmed to find he has no armor or weapon.
Harris wears the “lucky bullet” that hit him on a necklace, a testament to survival. At one point he took it off, wondering if it contributed to his PTSD. That didn't help so, after three months, it was back.
Between his injuries and the PTSD, Harris was given 100 percent disability. Every month he receives a check from Uncle Sam for about $3,000, compensation for the price he paid for his country.
Some think that's a lot of money. Others, not nearly enough. He's satisfied, but he has other plans. The 25-year-old is studying criminal justice and has started a locksmith business.
Harris left the Guard last September when his six years were up but remains proud of his service. The military was a great way for a guy from a poor family to get ahead.
He just wishes that March 20 didn't weigh on his mind so much.
* * *
There are two reasons Jenny Bos has decided it's time to get out of the Guard: Liberty and Gracie. Those are the daughters of the former Jenny Beck and husband Tim Bos.
“Here's the new one,” she said as she showed off snapshots at the reunion. “She's the spitting image of her big sister. It's awful scary.”
If that's what passes for scary in Jenny Bos' life today, it's a reflection of how much things have changed since March 20, 2005. That's true of most everyone in the squad.
Five years ago, most were just kids who had joined the Guard to pay for college. Iraq was the adventure of a lifetime.
Now most are married, having kids, starting careers, settling down.
Jenny and Tim, a guardsman in the lead vehicle of the convoy that day, married a year after they got back, with Bloebaum, Jenny's Iraq truck partner-turned-best friend, serving as a groomsman. Liberty was born in 2008 and Gracie just two months ago.
When the 26-year-old leaves the Guard as planned later this year, at least eight of the 14 ambush veterans will be out.
Bos will depart the Guard a ground-breaker. With her mettle in the ambush, she became the first female Guard soldier in Nebraska to earn a Bronze Star for valor in combat. She and other Iraq vets like Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, a Kentucky Guard soldier in the battle who became the first woman since World War II to earn a Silver Star, have proved that women can be steady soldiers under fire.
But today around Columbus' Lost Creek Elementary, she's just Mrs. Bos, K-5 reading and ESL teacher. She likes it that way.
There was a scare early in the school year the 1075th was put on alert to return overseas in 2010. “It made me think about the ambush,” she said. “I thought, ‘I can't leave the girls.'”
For reasons only the Army knows, the alert was canceled around Christmas. But that reinforced it for Jenny it's time to leave her Army days behind.
* * *
For Terry Ricketts, it all came to a head a week after the ambush.
He was hobbling around on crutches at the 1075th's base in Kuwait, angry over what had happened and really about the whole blasted war and suffering from what he now knows were symptoms of PTSD.
This is a duty day, he was told. You need to find something to do.
Ricketts' response: “I feel like lighting my uniform on fire, throwing it in this tent and burning the whole camp to the ground.”
From the beginning, Ricketts was different from most of his fellow guardsmen. He had not joined out of patriotism or to get money for college. The tattooed, heavy metal musician was overweight and living a reckless life. He wanted a fresh start.
Ricketts found he liked the discipline, new outlook and new body the Guard gave him, and he rose to the rank of sergeant. By 2004, he was headed for Iraq.
Ricketts never believed the war had anything to do with terrorism. During a processing interview at Fort Riley in Kansas, he was asked what he wanted done with his body if killed in Iraq.
“I want it sent to the White House with a note to George Bush that says, ‘Thanks,'” Ricketts replied.
Still, Ricketts did his duty, only the closest of fellow soldiers aware he was far from gung-ho for the war.
But once he nearly gave his life for that war, he didn't care who knew how he felt. His post-ambush blowup got him a mental health evaluation, and then both he and DeLancey were flown back to the States.
They landed at Fort Riley expecting to head home, but were told they'd have to remain on the Kansas base perhaps for six months until their unit returned from Iraq.
Ricketts “flipped out” again, yelling at officers. He says he's lucky he wasn't thrown in the brig.
But by chance, Adj. Gen. Roger Lempke, top leader of the Nebraska Guard, was at the base that morning and asked to visit his wounded troops.
“I unloaded on him,” Ricketts said. “Everything.”
The Nebraska general listened calmly and then intervened on the soldiers' behalf. He asked: “Can you be ready to go in 20 minutes?”
Lempke had secured their administrative release back to Nebraska. They all flew to Lincoln on Lempke's Black Hawk helicopter, and when they landed it seemed the entire staff from the state's Guard armories was lined up to greet them. Ricketts still gets emotional talking about that moment.
That was the end of Ricketts' Army days. In fact, as the second anniversary of the ambush approached, the Iraq vet spoke at an anti-war rally outside the State Capitol in Lincoln.
“You can support the troops without supporting the war,” he said then.
The transition to civilian life wasn't easy, but the state corrections worker declined PTSD treatment. He actually found it most soothing to look at pictures taken during his deployment. Seeing it in snapshots told him it was all in the past.
And that's where he's keeping it. In the past.
Since attending Jenny Bos' wedding four years ago, the 34-year-old Ricketts hasn't seen any of his old Guard buddies.
It's not that he doesn't think of them. He's grateful for Bos, DeLancey, Birkel and Sharples, says they saved his life.
He just doesn't want to have anything to do with the military, ever again.
“I'd go to jail before I'd go back.”
* * *
When Joshua Birkel first heard the bullets whizzing, he was petrified.
“Well, I've had 21 years of life,” he recalls thinking. “That road was going to be the end.”
But in many ways, that road turned out to be a beginning. As Schrad, his partner in the truck that day, would later put it: “I watched Josh turn from a boy to a hero in a single day.”
When Sharples ran up and asked for help getting the foreign drivers back to their trucks, Birkel admits he thought Sharples was crazy. But he summoned the courage, climbed out of the truck and did it.
Birkel and Sharples would be awarded the Bronze Star for valor for their actions that day. And by the end of the deployment, Birkel had come to a realization: Military life was for him.
“The brotherhood you form after being in combat with someone, I can't even describe it.”
Now at his request, the 26-year-old Omahan with a new teaching degree is headed to Afghanistan. He transferred to a Nebraska Guard engineer company that's set to deploy later this year.
When next year's ambush reunion is held, Birkel will once again be serving his country in a war zone. He's looking forward to it.
“It's the biggest high I'll ever get.''
* * *
In the midst of this year's reunion, a round of beers arrived unannounced, courtesy of a World War II vet across the bar.
Several squad members went over to him, and they all shared words of gratitude, one generation of vets to another.
Graff, Delancey and Harris the Nebraska soldiers wounded that day, minus Ricketts got together and Schrad snapped a photo. Later, Schrad told Harris he was proud of how he's carried himself, despite the hardships he bears.
“Keep your honor and dignity,” Schrad said. “What you've done for the uniform is more than most can.”
Harris' eyes glinted. “Thanks, Sergeant,” he said.
And, before the reunion was over, some tentative plans were made: They'd get together again next year.
The reason, Jenny Bos says, is simple.
They know things could have gone really, really badly on March 20, 2005. But for a lot of reasons, including the actions of many people in the room, it didn't turn out that way.
That will always be something to celebrate.
“Everyone is OK. Not everything is perfect. Not everything is the same. But we're OK,” she said.
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