Jan 292010

A young captain in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division tells of the experience of losing three soldiers under his command, and seeing three more soldiers badly injured, in his unit’s first week of deployment in Iraq.

“God and Physics Get a Vote”

Matthew Hardman leaned forward, dipping a piece of baguette into a dish of virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, his tired eyes fixed on the wall in front of him as he searched his memory.  He cupped his hand under the oil-soaked bread to keep it from dripping onto the rug as he raised it to his mouth, took a bite, and then washed it down with a sip of Burgundy.  He held his nose to the rim of the glass for a moment and inhaled the wine’s perfume – an anodyne perhaps, to briefly relieve the pain of memory. Then he slid back into the comfort of the leather couch.  His slender build, though strong, at that moment looked like it could disappear into the couch’s creases.

The wind howled down 12th Street in Northeast Washington D.C., spitting ice at the windows of Hardman’s brownstone.  His wife Sandy was taking down the Christmas tree. It was January, just two weeks away from the second anniversary of the night when the blast of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) along a highway in Iraq, some 50 miles south of Baghdad, killed three of Hardman’s men and badly injured three more. He was company commander at the time, a captain in the Army with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Just one week before Christmas of 2003 Hardman got the deployment orders. “18 hours and wheels up!  That’s the 82nd’s motto,” Hardman explains, laughing.  The 82nd is the nation’s rapid deployment force – a storied division of the Army that is charged with deploying to anywhere in the world within 18 hours or less.  Three weeks after Hardman got his orders, with 180 men under his command, he was setting up the company command post at Camp Kalsu in the heart of what came to be known amongst Iraqis and the press as the “Triangle of Death.”  The camp lay pretty much equidistant to the towns of Al-Hillah and Iskandariyah, an area of Iraq that has a population almost perfectly split between Sunni and Shiah.  Later that spring both towns became notorious for suicide bombings targeting civilians.

Hardman describes the camp itself as austere, very basic.  The terrain surrounding the camp was part desert, part farmland, dotted with tiny villages, and canals running every which way.  Hardman says the palm trees and groves and canals reminded him of Southern California, adding to the disquieting feeling that it was all somewhat surreal.

With the exception of two major highways, one of which ran from Baghdad to Kuwait, most of the roads were unpaved. The company’s mission was to secure the camp so that military police could support units that were using the main supply route along the highway.  IED blasts were all too common and the camp itself was taking a lot of mortar attacks.

But Hardman’s men were a little out of their element.  They were airborne infantrymen, paratroopers, trained to jump out of airplanes into battle, not to drive Humvee trucks in the desert, at night, in combat conditions.  Hardman organized platoons to go out and patrol the highways. Sometimes the platoons conducted searches or raids based on intelligence about anti-coalition groups, or individuals, that were operating in the area.

The company had some experience with raids and searches. They had gotten back from a seven-month tour in Afghanistan in August of 2003, where they parachuted into hostile territory to look for Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces.

In Iraq, at Camp Kalsu, Hardman says he had to engage in a battle of wits with the insurgents who would watch the company’s every move.  Hardman says that demanded a collaborative effort between the soldiers and the junior officers.  He encouraged his men to think for themselves, so that they could rely on their own judgment when they inevitably encountered the unexpected.  “The challenge to me as a company commander was to make sure that I was giving that kind of latitude to my subordinates and empowering them and providing them the training and experience to be able to make informed decisions, smart decisions.  It’s not just about what you could loose on the battlefield, but also opportunities that slip by you.”

Those lessons proved particularly important for the young soldiers who were out on patrol for the first time the night of the IED blast.  In fact, some of them had only just gotten out of boot camp and were going through orientation at the 82nd’s home base at Fort Bragg in North Carolina when they got their deployment orders for Iraq.

A week after they’d arrived in Iraq, on January 27th, the company spent the day doing drills, rehearsing with the medics what to do if they had any casualties.  Around 6:30 in the evening a platoon of 25 soldiers headed out for a routine patrol.  Hardman stayed behind at the company command post.

The platoon traveled in a convoy of 5 Humvee trucks, armed with gun trucks, machine guns, and rocket-launchers.  They were heading north along the highway when one of the machine gunners spotted something along the side of the road that looked suspicious.  The convoy turned around, heading south again, and stopped right on top of what looked like a pile of garbage.  Sgt Robert Jepsen got out of his truck to take a closer look, Staff Sgt. Dan Metzdorf, a squadron leader in the platoon, also got out.  Metzdorf was angry, Jepsen was under his command and Metzdorf hadn’t told him that he could get out of the truck like that.    Four more of Metzdorf’s men followed.  Metzdorf ordered everyone back into their trucks – this was a job for the bomb squad – and Lt. Luke James, the platoon leader, gave the order for the trucks to back-up, to move away from the pile of garbage that they feared posed a threat.  He ordered his men to divert traffic, to establish security, but it was too late.  The bomb exploded.  James and two other soldiers:  Staff Sgt. Buddy Kenny, and Sgt. Cory Mracek were killed instantly.  Metzdorf was thrown about 50 feet and the blast blew a brick-size hole in his right knee.  Jepsen took the brunt of the explosion to his face, and Spc.  James O’Connell had a piece of shrapnel stuck in the back of his neck.  With their leader dead the young privates, 18, 19 years old, turned to the next in command.  But Staff Sgt. Tony Southard was attending to the wounded.  He took one look at the gaping hole in Metzdorf’s leg and threw the role of gauze he held in his hand away – it was useless.  Meanwhile, a private sent out an SOS call back to the base while others quickly loaded the wounded onto the trucks.

The blast was so loud that Hardman heard it in the camp. “My first thought was that I had guys outside the wire.  Then we got the radio call and I knew that I had guys wounded and killed.”  Hardman sprang into action, ordered a quick reaction force to get ready to head out and help the platoon, anticipating that they might be under attack. But the trucks with the wounded arrived within moments – they had only been five minutes away.

Hardman helped unload the litters. He talked to his wounded soldiers, held their hands.  Jepsen was spitting out teeth, his face was unrecognizable, and Metzdorf was losing so much blood that anyone and everyone with his blood-type had to donate their own blood to keep him alive.  The surgeons and nurses worked quickly and within 25 minutes of the blast medics and paratroopers had loaded the wounded onto a helicopter bound for Baghdad.

An unsettling calm hushed over the camp.  The company commander for the military police offered to recover the dead.  Their bodies were flown to the mortuary affairs unit in Baghdad, “The dead don’t fly with the wounded,” Hardman explains, and by 10 p.m. it was all over.  “It kinda caught me off guard, emotionally.  Everybody was upset, but at the same time we were in our first week and we didn’t know how long we’d end up being there.  You just kinda have to compartmentalize that stuff.  There were a couple kids that held it together until they got back from the patrol, but as soon as they got back they lost it, you know, broke down.”

Hardman’s wife Sandy was at home painting their dining room a deep red when she got the call.  She was in charge of the company’s family support group; the wives and parents of the soldiers in the company called and emailed her almost daily for news of their husbands and sons.  Sandy and Molly James, Luke James’s wife, had become good friends.  When Sandy got the news that Luke James was killed she dropped her paintbrush and rushed to be at Molly’s side.  The Hardmans never used the dining room for meals as such after that, it became their “healing room”.  When Matt Hardman got back from Iraq he and Sandy sat there in the crimson red healing room and the Captain, just 28 years old, shared his grief with his young wife.

In Iraq, after the blast, Hardman and the other officers, with the help of a psychiatrist, made sure that everyone talked through their trauma and grief, keenly aware of how dangerous pent-up emotion, fear and rage can be in a combat zone. But Hardman had to bring his men’s attention back to their mission, “We had to move on.  The memorial service helped provide immediate closure.  We just couldn’t have an open-ended mourning period, we had to get focused on what we were doing.”

And yet Hardman admits that he too struggled to get his mind off the three men who were killed. The memory of them brings tears to his eyes:  “I mean, my last memory of Luke James will always be of him holding his baby before we left for Iraq, and the smile he gave me before he walked out to go out on patrol.”

Hardman still asks himself questions about that night, about his strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and wonders if he may have erred somewhere along the way, “I look back on every conversation I had with Luke, and I wonder, did I say something that led him astray?  Did I not say or do something that I should have done?  If you look at every conversation as the finite period of time that you have to impart some bit of wisdom to somebody, then you realize the value of every conversation that you have.  I talked to his wife about this.  I was really hard on him all the way back at Fort Bragg: ‘I hope he didn’t think I didn’t like him?’ and she said, ‘no, he thought you were a dick, but he really respected you, and he knew you were just trying to make him better.’  And I was like, ‘O.K. I can live with that.’ ”

Hardman, by all accounts, was tough on his men, much like his Battalion Commander, Lt. Colonel Bruce Parker.  Sitting on the porch at the golf club on Fort Bragg in North Carolina, looking back on the company’s tour in Iraq, Parker, who has 22 years of experience as an officer in the army, cannot suppress his sorrow.  His brow reveals the burden his soul bares over the loss of his men as he recalls the night of the IED blast in Iraq.  But with equal passion Parker expressed his pride in his men, “Matt was hard on his men, but fair, an excellent leader.”   Hardman and other soldiers in the company describe Parker as a mentor, and Hardman followed Parker’s leadership style, “He had quite a temper, but if he was blowing his top it was because he cared about his men.”

Leadership is a quality that Hardman’s father felt was important to instill in his son.  He had spent 13 years in the army himself, and another nine in the reserves.  He had volunteered for Vietnam. And Hardman’s mother grew-up in the army.  Her parents met on New Guinea during World War II. Hardman’s grandfather was a doctor, his grandmother a nurse; they also volunteered to join the army, to save lives on the battlefields.  Hardman thinks he may have gotten his sense of adventure from his grandfather, who specialized in tropical medicine and worked with snakes, “ So I dealt a lot with snakes too growing-up.”

But growing-up on Pensacola, Florida, Hardman says it was really the many servicemen who were stationed there, his friend’s fathers, his teachers, his soccer coach in particular, who were either still in the military, or retired from the service, who inspired him by example to want to join, “In the neighborhood that I grew-up a lot of my friends’ parents came home from work in flight suits, because you have Eglin Air Force Base right there. But I wasn’t good at handling a car at age 16, so I knew I wasn’t gonna join the Air Force.”

Hardman’s parents objected to their son joining the army, “my Mom was very much against me doing this kind of stuff.  I was never even allowed to play with toy guns.” Hardman applied for an ROTC scholarship and after college began his infantry officers basic course.  There he learned to be a platoon leader, like Luke James,  “for me the draw in being a leader was just problem solving. I’ve always liked that, and combat is certainly a complex problem.  I always read a lot.  The boys used to make fun of me – ‘Nerd!’ – but it’s a big part of being a company commander.”

Hardman is a student now, getting his master’s degree in U.S. History at George Washington University in Washington D.C.   In his last semester he took a class on cartography in colonial America, “When you’re learning something that you have little or no experience in it’s a good model to help you create your own methodology to look at problems in a new way, to look at new ways to gather information. And maps have their own agenda, a map is not an empirical representation of the world, you gotta be skeptical and not take things at face value.  That skepticism has its place in the army too.”

When his company got the deployment orders for Iraq Hardman was a little worried, keenly aware of the danger of complacency among the troops after their successful tour in Afghanistan.  The company had not lost a single soldier there, but Hardman knew that Iraq would be different, “I didn’t want guys thinking, ‘oh, it’s the same thing, just a different map.”

Hardman talked to Colonel Parker about it.  Hardman says he felt that they were going to lose somebody eventually, and Parker had already put together a casualty notification SOP.  “You just felt it, it’s gonna happen sooner or later.”  Hardman borrowed an expression used by Union soldiers going into combat during the Civil War to describe the mix of dread and anticipation he and his men shared as they prepared to leave for Iraq,  “… We knew we were, ‘going to see the elephant.’ ”

With the short notice the company got for deployment, and knowing that his men were still coming down from the high they had experienced in Afghanistan, Hardman knew he was leading a, “mixed bag.”  Some of the platoon sergeants knew they were walking into a bad situation, “but knowing not to be complacent and actually not being complacent are not the same thing,” Hardman explains.  And then there were the inexperienced soldiers, “I had enough people who were scarred out of their wits, and then I had people who didn’t have enough experience to know to be scarred. And that’s just not knowing what you don’t know.  I mean, an IED explodes and you can be 50 feet away and still get killed.  It’s not a rattlesnake, where, if you are an arms length away you’ll be o.k. Well, all that was gone after we had guys killed.”

That dread of the inevitable dissipated the night of the blast, and Hardman unashamedly admits that it was a relief.   “It’s like being in a fight and you know that blow is gonna land. I’ve told Luke’s parents this before:  It saved other people’s lives, it snapped them into shape.”

Hardman devotes a lot of his time to the families of the soldiers who were killed that night, and to those who were injured.  He is not alone in this.  Perhaps it speaks to the cohesion that Colonel Parker fostered among his men, a leadership quality he passed down to Hardman.  Hardman feels he owes it to the men who were killed.  He calls it an obligation, and it is as much, if not more so, for the soldiers who died, as it is an expression of respect and gratitude to the bereaved for their loss.  It is out of a shared sense of responsibility for the families of the dead soldiers that the living take-on.  And it is this shared sense of loss that Hardman feels America is numb, or indifferent, to.  He sees a country that is largely ambivalent towards the war.  He understands those that are against the war, it is the ambivalence he cannot abide.  “Most Americans just don’t feel connected to this war.  I don’t know whose fault that is, I don’t really care whose fault that is.   I take this war personally.  I think Luke’s parents take this war personally, and Buddy Kenny’s wife , and James O’Connell’s family, they all take it personally.  We’re here, and we’ve started something for better or for worse, and a lot of people are emotionally connected to this thing.  I wish the American people could be as strong as the families of the guys that have been killed, I wish they had the patience, I wish they had the attention span.”

Hardman’s fellow students, most of whom he describes as anti-war, ask him about the war, what he thinks of it.  Hardman is a career soldier, he wants to return to combat, but when he speaks of war he speaks of it both with the perspective of a veteran and as a student of history, “There’s no such thing as a good war, that’s a b.s. proposition to begin with.  People get maimed, houses get bombed, that’s the deal.  But good people can fight wars, and you can make the honest effort to fight war in the right way, and I think we’re doing that as an army.  I’m not saying this is a good war, but we’re there.  Whether you agree with it or not means nothing, we’ve got an obligation to the Iraqi people and to the soldiers who have sacrificed to finish what we started.  Nothing could be more American than that, to go the distance, and then say, ‘well, we screwed that up and we should never fight that kind of war again.’ ”

Hardman’s demeanor, as he speaks of loss, of conviction and principle, doesn’t waiver. His body language, his eyes, whether sparkling in moments of joyful remembrance, or red and tear-filled with sadness and pain, remain consistently present.  His clarity and candor reveal the great care with which he approaches life and people.  That is the greatest lesson he says he learned from the night of the blast, from having lost men, and from his conversations with the families of the soldiers who were killed, “When I was being so hard on Luke James, trying to make him better, I cared about him a lot.  It was my job, but sometimes you gotta break that down and say, ‘hey, I’m beating you up because I love ya, and I care about ya.’  I think I knew it before, but I’m trying to live it now.”

He ponders the cruel randomness of death, why it was that James and the other two soldiers were killed in the blast while others, who were just as close to the bomb, were not – “God and physics get a vote.”

Video of this interview, and others with members of the unit and their family- members, still to come.

Jan 282010

A documentary series for radio in three parts.

Staff Sergeant Daniel Metzdorf was a career soldier with the Army’s storied 82nd Airborne Division when his unit deployed for Iraq in January of 2004. Three weeks after the unit’s arrival Metzdorf lost his leg in an IED blast, bringing his eight-year military career to an apparent sudden end.

Part One:  The Night He Lost His Leg

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Part Two:  The Fight For His Life

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Part Three:  Winning The Fight

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Reported, written, edited and narrated by Kerstin Costa.  Audio segment introductions by Elsa Heidorn.