Sending In the Reserves

Stretched thin—and past the breaking point—with jittery Guard troops and reservists in Iraq

Wagoner admits that his platoon was nervous and inexperienced, too, when it first arrived in Iraq in February 2004. "We were just like them," he says.

But Second Platoon didn't accidentally kill any good guys as a result. And Second Platoon is active-duty, whereas most of the 42nd's soldiers were part-timers before they were activated for deployment. That means less training and—some say—an increased likelihood of fatal mistakes.

Not so, says Lieutenant Colonel Roch Switlik, a 43-year-old Merck employee from New Jersey and the commander of the New Jersey National Guard's 50th Main Support Battalion, which hauls supplies and fixes trucks for the 42nd.

Sergeant Robbie Godsey prepares for a patrol in Diyala Province.
photo: David Axe
Sergeant Robbie Godsey prepares for a patrol in Diyala Province.



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  • "We're one team," Switlik says in response to comparisons between active soldiers and reservists. He adds that reservists bring different, but not inferior, "skill sets" to military operations—like experience in various civilian fields, sometimes years of active-duty experience, and "maturity."

    But he admits that in combat situations, part-time soldiers are at a disadvantage compared to their professional counterparts.

    As for the Baqubah incident, Switlik says that accidents are "always possible."

    But maybe more possible. Second Platoon Staff Sergeant Joshua Marcum, 25, says that in his experience, National Guardsmen are less disciplined than active-duty soldiers and more likely to shoot first and ask questions later.

    He should know. Last summer, just a few months after he and his comrades arrived at Camp Gabe, a National Guardsman keeping an eye on Gabe's walls opened fire at some Iraqi civilians he mistook for insurgents, killing a 14-year-old girl.

    The event was a tragedy for both the girl's family and for Marcum—he's a father of a little girl—but it wasn't even a blip on the international media's radars, or the Army's.

    The Voice was unable to independently verify the shooting. But incidents like the one Marcum witnessed—while not always fatal—are common in Iraq, according to a story in the independent Army Times profiling the Army's efforts to monetarily compensate victims.

    "They were just scratching in the dirt, looking for food," Marcum says of the victim and her family. His face contorts as he recalls the scene. "I was the one who had to clean up the mess. I carried the girl past that guy and showed him—'Look what you did, dumbass.' It was the worst thing I've ever seen. And nothing ever happened to that guy [the shooter]. It was just an accident, right?"

    The nature of the Iraq occupation—in which insurgent fighters and a sometimes hostile but nonviolent population are indistinguishable—makes such accidents more common. Most American fatalities come from ambushes, roadside bombs, and suicide bombings. Only sometimes do insurgents attack in the daytime. Rarely do soldiers see their assailants. Even when they do, the attackers never wear uniforms or identifying marks of any kind. While there is an "insurgent profile" (young, male, and pissed), there are always exceptions. The bottom line is that anyone is a potential killer. And when it comes to bombings, any abandoned car or donkey cart, every ditch or pile of garbage could conceal three or four South African artillery shells wired to explode with the touch of a button. Bombs like that have taken out even armored vehicles that were previously thought all but impervious.

    All of this makes for fearful soldiers, according to 29-year-old First Lieutenant Kai Chitaphong, a military counselor deployed to Iraq, where he specializes in treating "combat stress"—the Army's term for post-traumatic stress disorder. "The worst part," says Chitaphong, "is not knowing who the enemy is."

    Hundreds of bombings (Wagoner has survived at least five) have made Second Platoon particularly wary of passing cars.

    "You get that feeling in your gut whenever a car rolls past," says Private First Class Timothy White, 23. "But what can you do?"

    You can shoot first, that's what. Never mind that most units' rules of engagement prohibit shooting until you're certain that a target is hostile.

    On the morning of February 7, one of Lieutenant Colonel Switlik's platoons, led by First Lieutenant Jennifer Wehrle, 33—a Californian on loan to the New Jersey Guard—gathers on a gravel-covered field in the corner of a former Iraqi air force base near Tikrit. This morning, they'll be hauling 30 truckloads of supplies to the 42nd headquarters 25 miles away. For many, this will be their first mission in a war zone.

    The tension in the air is palpable. Another Californian on loan, Specialist Tim Wood, 31, nervously stamps his feet and readjusts his body armor, while Specialist Vanessa Collins smokes and jokes about how shopping back home in New Jersey is a lot like combat.

    "What do you think it's going to be like?" she asks Wood. He just shrugs.

    In their brand-new uniforms and armor, these newly deployed Guardsmen look like toy soldiers next to the seasoned active-duty troops from Second Platoon. They wear neck armor and knee and elbow pads—items most soldiers see as overkill—even though their convoy is unlikely to draw any fire. And for a 30-minute mission hauling supplies on heavily patrolled roads, they sit through hours of briefings and inspections. Most units conducting actual combat missions spend only a few minutes preparing. The overall impression one gets of the Guardsmen is one of over-preparation—and of fear. One briefing highlights attacks that took place months ago on roads the convoy won't even be traveling.

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