Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Pancakes After Mosul

In October 2005, a plane filled with soldiers touched down at McChord Air Force Base in Washington State. Sergeant Carl Westlind stepped onto the tarmac, then hopped onto a bus with his platoon, which headed to Fort Lewis nearby. The soldiers marched over to a gym on the base, where their families were waiting.

“Oh hell yeah,” Westlind recalled thinking, in a phone interview earlier tonight. “Oh hell yeah.”

They arrived at the gym, and a huge shutter door opened. It was a Hollywood moment, he said. Immediately he saw his mom, a housewife who loves gardening, in the crowd of eager parents. His commander gave a brief, congratulatory speech, then dismissed the soldiers for the weekend.

Westlind, 25, a member of the Charlie Company Styker Brigade, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, had spent the past year in Mosul, a city in Iraq then at the focal point of a U.S. counterinsurgency effort. He described his mission as “police work,” pursuing “bombmakers and guys that chopped off heads.” Now, he was back in the United States.

Westlind raced to his mom and gave her a huge hug.

“I’m home,” he told her.

Westlind spent some time in his hometown of Longview, Washington, an industrial and logging town of about 50,000, forty or so miles north of Portland, Oregon. He got a good night’s sleep. He ate at his favorite restaurant, The Pancake House. He had a lot of money saved up, so he considered buying two four-wheel drive ATVs. He decided to save his money.

He also reunited with as many people as he could—his dad, a lineman who lives in Alaska, his girlfriend at the time (the relationship never worked out), old high school friends. Many of them, he said, asked “spectator questions.”

“‘Blow anybody up?’ No,” he said. “‘Did you kill anybody?’ Nope.”

In Mosul, Westlind stayed with his reconnaissance platoon in an air-conditioned metal container at a Forward Operating Base on the edge of the city, next door to a mortar platoon. It was “one big old family,” he said.

On one of their last patrols, Westlind's team was was caught in a vicious firefight and a soldier almost died. But in general, Westlind said his team faced little combat. The resistance came randomly, he said—once in a while, a few “jackasses” would drive by in a car and fire a few shots at the soldiers.

“I hear the word 'war,' I think of WWII. D Day," he said. “Honestly, it didn’t really seem like war."

In a year, he only fired his weapon once. Late one night, he was heading down a road in a convoy back to base. An Improvised Explosive Device erupted, hitting the truck ahead of his. Everyone dismounted from their vehicles and scanned the area. After making out what he thought were two insurgents in the distance, a soldier started firing a 50-caliber machine gun. Westlind followed suit, pumping grenades from his Mark-19 in the same direction.

He got a message on the radio: “Westlind, you’re right on top of him!” He continued firing a barrage of grenades. But after the troops scanned the target area, they found nothing.

Westlind is still not sure if he killed anyone, but since his team never recovered any bodies after the incident, he tells people that he did not.

“If I did,” he said, “they were obliterated.”

Not much had changed in Westlind’s hometown, he said. One friend looked a tad older. There was a new supermarket.

Westlind said he had not changed much, either—he experienced no anxiety attacks, nightmares, or other Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder-related complications.

But he still has memories of his time in Mosul.

Around Christmas time in 2004, a suicide bomber found his way into one platoon’s chow hall. He blew himself up, killing 19 soldiers. Every so often, the image of one victim returns to Westlind’s mind: “A fairly heavy-set soldier staring straight into the sky, starting to turn a little bit blue.”

Westlind loved the men of his own platoon. With them he had spent three years training in California, Louisiana and eastern Washington, and then serving in Iraq.

“I consider every one of them my brother,” he said. “Some of them I would consider my dad.”

“We all came back home alive,” he added.

He regrets not collecting all of their phone numbers after returning from Iraq.

Not long after Westlind redeployed, he was posted as a recruiter at a station in Lynwood, Washington. Most people who entered the office to join the Army were either felons, he said, or “overblown medical cases.” A man once came in who had wires in his hands, pins in his knees and a plate in his head. These types were all summarily rejected.

Westlind also recruited at Lynwood, Meadowdale and Scriber Lake High Schools. He had trouble finding new recruits.

“‘Oh, heck no. I hate Bush. I hate the war.’ Blah blah blah,” he said. “Those are two things I just can’t help.”

Last May, he transferred out of the recruiting job and moved to Fort Hood near Killeen, Texas. By the end of his recruiting tenure, he said, “I put in zero people.”

In a few months, Westlind will leave the United States again. He is now training for a deployment to Afghanistan. He is not sure when he leaves, or where he will go once he gets there. He is happy that he will go there instead of Iraq, he added, since Afghanistan is statistically facing less violence than Iraq.

Westlind will get married before he deploys. He met his 32-year-old fiancée when she worked on ships for the Navy and built tug-boats—“stuff that big boys do,” he said. He hopes that she will be prepared for their separation once he deploys. He is optimistic, since she knows the ways of military family life.

“Luckily for me,” he said, “she’s an Army brat.”

Photo: Sgt. Carl Westlind with the Strykers in Mosul, Iraq

No comments: