By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
By Keegan Hamilton
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Tessa Stuart
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
Others had no choice. Among them was Sgt. Gerald Della Salla, 35, an actor living on the Upper West Side, who admits to being swept up in the patriotic fervor that followed the 9/11 terror attacks. Della Salla picked up the phone one day in 2004 and heard the familiar, gruff voice of a motor pool sergeant.
Sgt. Gerald Della Salla, of Manhattan, and Sgt. Maj. Suzanne Rubenstein (pictured), of Commack, Long Island, were among the force of New Yorkers sent to restore Americas honor who found the job harder than anticipated. Della Salla, concerned about Pentagon prosecutions of soldiers speaking out about the war, asked that all insignia from their uniforms be obscured.
photo: Scott McDermott
"Yammy, is that you?" Della Salla asked.
"Just be quiet and let me read this," the voice said, launching into a prepared text. Della Salla suppressed a chuckle.
Duly notified, Della Salla couldn't quite bring himself to tell his girlfriend for a couple of weeks. "I kind of blurted it out in the middle of the night," he tells the Voice. "She kind of started crying. Our dog Luke left the room."
But the 306th still had a major troop shortage. The Uniondale group turned to the computers of the Atlanta-based Army Reserve Command. Those computers in turn spat out the names of hundreds of soldiers elsewhere in the U.S. who, on paper at least, were deployable.
"Are you sitting down?" the caller asked. Landis was actually about to eat dinner. Landis listened and hung up. When his wife asked about the call, Landis says he told her, in a deadpan voice, "It was the Army: I'm going to Abu Ghraib." Then he asked her to pass the bread.
At the time, Landis had less than a year left in his military service. "It was so out of the blue that it didn't register until after dinner," he says. "And then I called a buddy and told him, if Donny Rumsfeld needs Mike Landis, father of four at the age of 44, to fight the war in Iraq, we've already lost this thing."
In all, more than half of the roster were pulled out of their home units and transferred across the country to the unfamiliar 306th. Because most soldiers prefer to go into combat with a unit they have trained with for a long period of time, the situation was less than ideal.
"I didn't meet a lot of the people until we reached Dix," says the unit commander, Lt. Col. John Hussey. "It wasn't conducive, but that's what we had. You had to get on with it."
In early October2004, the 174 members of the reconstituted 306th gathered inside the cavernous Nassau Coliseum for a somewhat surreal send-off that included a performance by two women and a man in red, white, and blue rhinestone costumes. The unit then boarded buses for the ride to Fort Dix, the sprawling military base in south Jersey, where they underwent almost three months of training.
Della Salla, the actor, and Landis, the civil engineer, were joined by soldiers from a range of civilian careers. Among them, Sgt. Louis Guiliani, 46, was a carpenter from Kew Gardens who worked in the city's public housing projects. He was on his second deployment of the war.
Staff Sgt. McNaughton was a second-generation city cop from Long Island who patrolled the subways. Sgt. Maj. Suzanne Rubenstein was a Suffolk County housewife with two kids and a long military career.
The unit commander, Lt. Col. John Hussey, was a self-described "BIC" (Bronx Irish Catholic) who worked as chief clerk in the Rockland County courthouse, and had prior deployments to Bosnia and the first Gulf War.
It was Hussey who told the unit, in his speeches, that the 306th were "guardians of freedom," and that it was their job to "restore America's honor." The work they did in Iraq, he told them, would protect Americans from further terrorist attacks on home soil. For the younger soldiers, the speeches were motivators. Some of the older vets, though, thought the link to 9/11 was a bit overdone.
Hussey not only had to keep an eye on thousands of prisoners, his bosses made it clear that he had better not allow another scandal on his watch. "I lost a lot of sleep over it," he says. "I don't think the soldiers realized the wrath that would come down on them if they made a mistake."
To Hussey, the 2004 abuses had occurred because higher-ups weren't keeping better watch on their soldiers. On his command, he decided, no one would get away with even the most minor of infractions. That way, those small problems couldn't grow into major ones. But Hussey's nitpicky, hard-assed approach would come to infuriate the men and women who worked for him.
As the days passed, soldiers prepared for a year in the desert by moving from mind-numbingly long PowerPoint lectures to drills in the wet, freezing Jersey countryside.