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Photos by Jay Paul
Left to right: James Borgmann, David Buckley, Matt Pacheco and Brannon Revel
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Photos by Jay Paul
A flag that the men carried in Iraq
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Photos by Jay Paul
Brannon Revel and Matt Pacheco partake in the reunion buffet.
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Photos by Jay Paul
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Photos by Jay Paul
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Photos by Jay Paul
An unexpected reunion reframes a soldier’s perspective on his life and the death of one of his best friends (Part 2 of 2)
Editor’s note: In doing research for her story on David Buckley’s struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and the mortal wounding of his friend David Wieczorek, reporter Nancy Wright Beasley came across a recent comment on David Wieczorek’s obituary, made 22 years after his death. James Borgmann, who served in the U.S. Army with Wieczorek and Buckley, wrote the comment and listed his phone number, in case family members wanted to contact him. Beasley called and learned that Borgmann also had been totally and permanently disabled with PTSD after witnessing Wieczorek’s wounding in 1991. When Borgmann learned that Buckley was grappling with PTSD, he wanted to visit and offer support. One thing led to another, and on March 4, 2014, more than two decades after the memorial service held in the sands of Iraq for Wieczorek, four of his comrades gathered in Richmond, in the snow.
Matt Pacheco, 44, a fire department lieutenant from Newton, Mass., drove two days through a snowstorm. Brannon Revel, 44, a Baptist minister, flew in from Texas. And James Borgmann, 43, came off a plane from Palm Coast, Fla., that landed in several inches of ice and snow.Known as the Knights in the Desert, they served side by side in Iraq but hadn’t seen each other for 23 years. They came to see fellow knight, David Buckley, 45, who lives in Midlothian.
“I don’t know what made me write on [David] Wieczorek’s obituary,” Borgmann says. “I was just thinking about him. I posted it Feb. 28, 2013. David was wounded Feb. 28, 1991, and died after stepping on an unexploded bomblet.” Borgmann was the first one to reach Wieczorek. “I’ve never gotten over it.”
“When I heard [from the reporter that] Buckley was having a hard time, I knew I had to come [to Richmond]. I knew others would come, too.” Borgmann says. And through Facebook messaging, they did.
Revel, pastor at Golden Acres Baptist Church in Pasadena, Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children, actually had written an e-mail to Pacheco a few weeks earlier, after seeing a post on Facebook by Buckley that had disturbed him.
The group held hands as Revel said a prayer of thanksgiving for the reunion. Over coffee, the reminiscence began.
“I can’t really explain to my wife how it feels to be pinned down with artillery fire, or what I saw when David was wounded, or how I felt after Cooper [another soldier in their battalion] got killed. I wouldn’t want to put that burden on her, so to talk with the guys who were there means the world to me. They understand,” Borgmann says.
Buckley’s wife, Tami, and their children, Austin, 15, and Amber, 10, sat quietly listening to the men who had lived with them for so long, albeit through Buckley’s memories. Sometimes Buckley copes with the memories through anger, which leaves his household susceptible to an implosion at any time.
“If we just leave a piece of trash somewhere, he gets mad because we didn’t pick it up,” Amber says. “He also uses bad words, and I get tired of hearing them. I usually go and be with my brother. He turns on his Xbox and plays with me.”
The Buckleys kept their children out of school and took them to the airport to meet the men as they came in. They wanted them to be part of the whole process. “We had heard about these guys forever, but here they were in real life,” Austin says.
Amber listened intently to the vets’ conversations, often crying as she snuggled under her father’s arm. “I cried because my Daddy and his friends were crying, and because I know he has gone through a lot.”
Trained in small arms weaponry, James Borgmann was honorably discharged from the military in 1992, but re-entered soon thereafter. Realizing he had serious problems, the Army cut him loose from active duty. Borgmann then joined the National Guard.
In 1996, his unit was deployed to Panama. While attending jungle survival school, he started having flashbacks. “Everything got out of hand,” says the father of three. He attempted suicide in 1997 and was diagnosed as totally disabled with PTSD after a three-month hospitalization.
The men, all members of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, were part of the first ground assault in Iraq, known as Desert Storm, Operation Knight Strike I, which began Feb. 20, 1991. They faced being the target of Saddam Hussein’s elite Iraqi Republican Guard, when their battalion was sent on a decoy mission to trick the Iraqis into thinking the assault was coming one way, when, in fact, it was planned from a different direction. The maneuver worked. In a few days, the ceasefire was called.
The battalion had arrived in an area just outside Kuwait the night before, the soldiers exhausted from covering 234 miles in 78 hours on the move.
Like many of the soldiers, Revel and Pacheco, both Bradley infantry fighting vehicle drivers, were walking around hunting weapons and clearing Iraqi bunkers when Wieczorek was wounded on Feb. 28, 1991, the same day the ceasefire went into effect at 8 a.m. Wieczorek and Buckley were in a separate group of about eight solders, also hunting guns and documents, when Wieczorek was mortally wounded at about 3 p.m.
Borgmann was asleep when he heard the explosion. “We knew there were enemy bunkers in the area, so my first instinct was we were being attacked. I grabbed my weapon, looking for a target to engage.”
Within seconds, Borgmann spotted Wieczorek.
“He was leaning up screaming, so I ran to him. From that point on, it was like I had tunnel vision. I yelled for a medic, but I can’t tell you who was there. All I saw was David begging me to do something, crying to his Mama, to Jesus. And I’m just kneeling there saying, ‘It’s gonna be OK, just calm down, just hold on buddy, it’s not that bad.’”
With no tourniquet available, a soldier took off his belt and wrapped it around Wieczorek’s waist, trying to stop the bleeding before he was flown to a hospital. “That’s the struggle I’ve always had with survivor’s guilt. I knew it was a terrible wound, and I feel like I was lying to him, like I could have done something different.”
Revel leans toward Borgmann and says, “That’s what they told us to do, just reassure, reassure. It keeps them from going into shock. All we knew was buddy first aid. None of us were medics. I don’t think anyone could have done anything to save him.”
The abrupt termination of combat by the ceasefire has plagued the four soldiers for 23 years.
“I know the mission was to free Kuwait and we did that, but if all your buddies come back home, it’s OK that it ended like that,” Revel says. “There’s an emptiness about what happened to us. When someone you know is killed after a ceasefire, like Wieczorek, you truly wrestle with, ‘What was that all about?’ ”
“It was dark when we arrived,” Revel says. “The engineers should have come in and gone through the area. I feel like there should have been better decisions coming down from the top. I really think the captain was so dead-set on the big find or the big stash. There was no order for an organized search operation. It was a general search for enemy weapons and documents, like, ‘Y’all just see what’s out there.’ We brought back weapons, laid them out and showed them what we’d picked up. I think there’s an aspect when a ceasefire is called, you let your guard down a little.”
Revel met Wieczorek at Fort Hood, Texas, before their deployment to Iraq. Revel had received a $400 medical bill and didn’t have the money to cover it. Weiczorek, a complete stranger, wrote a check, saying, “That’s what friends are for.” The two men spoke the night before Wieczorek was killed.
“The discussion basically was about how [Wieczorek] hated being in Iraq and how much he wanted to go home. I was like, ‘This is what we’re doing, and we aren’t done yet.’ I regret that I didn’t encourage him more. I didn’t know that would be our last conversation. I never said goodbye.”
Revel re-enlisted in 1991 after Wieczorek’s death, but a knee injury forced a medical discharge in 1993, ending his military career. He floundered. “Civilians just couldn’t understand why I wanted to sleep outside. I was dealing with anger issues, drinking a lot.”
Through one of his jobs, Revel was asked to help build props for a Christmas pageant. That led to mentoring teenage boys, which he says, “returned joy to my life.” At 24, he entered seminary.
“When I joined the Army, I knew I was running from God and my calling. As I look back, I see God’s hand in that.”
Revel adds, “The fact that we were all willing to come here to support David takes me back to that same feeling — that no matter how dark it was in the desert, I was secure. Anyone who hasn’t been in that situation, or hasn’t deployed, can listen, but they can’t fully understand.”
David Wieczorek, 21, was an orphan when he died. He had been estranged from his father for years, following his parents’ divorce. After his mother’s death in 1989, Wieczorek continued to live in a mobile home on the property owned by his uncle and aunt, Dorothy Batusic, his mother’s sister. He lived in Highfill, a small town with about 400 residents near Gentry, Arkansas. When news of his death reached home, the flag was lowered to half-mast at Gentry High School, where Wieczorek had been a basketball star. Many of the students went home.
“David was smart, could draw, play music and was an excellent basketball player,” his first cousin Laurie Batusic Brucken says. “It seemed he always excelled. He was quite a marksman. We were told that he was training for sniper school.”
Wieczorek was buried with full military honors. Like his friend David Buckley, Wieczorek’s relatives have struggled for years to understand his death.
“The most difficult challenge for us was to reconcile the circumstances of David’s passing,” Brucken says. “The military said he and others of his company were on maneuvers in a portion of the desert that was laden with cluster bombs. They said David heard gunfire, ran to the tank to man his gun and stepped on a cluster bomb.
“We couldn’t understand why the military would order men to go out into an area they knew was seeded with bombs. No reasonable explanation was ever given. We thought about legal action but decided to leave it in the Almighty’s hands and now, 23 years later, we have the answer.”
To learn the truth, especially from the soldiers who served with Wieczorek, relieved Brucken’s family. “My mother, who is 89, helped raise David,” she says. “She has always been angry at the Army because she believed David was sent into a minefield. Now we know he acted on his own. The Army told us he died on March 2, which is on his tombstone. Now we learn that it was Feb. 28.”
Brucken reflects on her family’s new knowledge.
“Much peace and understanding has come to my family, thanks to this reunion, especially the knowledge that David wasn’t in that area under [direct] military orders but of his own choosing. We were astounded and saddened to learn that David’s passing has had such a devastating effect on the lives of his fellow servicemen. Neither Buckley nor Borgmann, or the military are responsible for David’s passing.”
Brucken’s only daughter died at 32, so she understands how the soldiers question themselves.
“You always wonder if you could’ve done anything differently, but David walked that path on his own two feet. He probably had a feeling, too, that something wasn’t right and he shouldn’t proceed, but young men think they’re invincible.”
They left the reunion in the order that they arrived, Pacheco hitting the road first.
“My mother lives in Rhode Island. I’d never told her about Wieczorek or Cooper. On the drive home, I called her and we had a long conversation. It felt good, and I was sorry I’d waited so long to do it. Her brother served in Vietnam, came home and pretty much drank himself to death, so on some level she knew, but it was good just to share it with her.”
Pacheco did some crazy things soon after his separation from the Army on Mother’s Day weekend, 1991. Laughing, he says, “I was jumping out of airplanes, drinking, partying, anything to recreate that combat rush. I’m still an adrenaline junkie, snowboarding, skiing.”
Pacheco, who has a teenage daughter, admits that that rush is probably one of the reasons he enjoys being a firefighter, along with a bond of brotherhood such as the one he had in the service.
After the reunion, Pacheco stopped in New Jersey and had dinner with Kent Mc-Farland, who also served in the 1st Platoon.
“I just continued the reunion. ... It seemed like we jumped over two decades and took up where we left off.”
The solider whom the three came to see, David Buckley, still wrestles with memories of Wieczorek’s death every day. Sadly, the reunion didn’t alter that.
“Did the reunion bring me closure?” Buckley asks. “No. If anything, it opened old wounds I thought I’d hidden. A part of me remains in Iraq, and I’ll never get it back. Saying goodbye the first time hurt, and saying goodbye the second time only hurt some more, but it was wonderful to see my brothers.”
Buckley’s wife, Tami, saw a change in her husband when his comrades arrived. “A transformation came over David. It was amazing, a peace I’ve never seen in him. The kids felt the same way.”
However, that feeling didn’t last long. “David cried when they left, and I was hoping, for his sake, that the peacefulness would continue,” Tami says. “To see that it diminished almost as quickly as they left made me sad. I wish they lived closer, since for the first time in many years, I felt a sense of peace myself, knowing that they had his back. It was almost like I could breathe and didn’t have to worry. While they were here, we didn’t argue, which is a huge part of PTSD.”
“Although our life can be crazy-hard at times, there is still love and wonderful memories and more to be made,” Tami adds softly. “What people don’t realize is their normal life is not a normal life for those affected by PTSD. In a perfect world, it’s our hope that this will help another military family.”
Dr. John Benesek, director of the PTSD program at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond and Buckley’s counselor since 2005, says he isn’t surprised that Buckley is still distressed.
“My experience has been that attaining their goals, such as connecting with family members of lost comrades or connecting with comrades through reunions, etc., often provides an immediate feeling of peace and closure, but this soon dissipates once the reunion is over or the veteran finds him/herself alone with his or her thoughts,” Benesek states. “Many such veterans may feel relieved or validated, but they still cannot shake the grief, depression and guilt.”
“[David] Wieczorek was a big guy, well over 6 feet tall,” Buckley, who was an infantry assistant squad leader, says. “Wieczorek carried the M60, the largest hand-held weapon. Everybody knew him and liked him. The day he stepped on that unexploded bomblet, I was about 25 yards from him. I’ve never understood why I didn’t get a scratch.”
Although his struggles continue, Buckley’s outlook has been somewhat altered by the reunion.
“I look back and realize it’s a miracle I’m here today. It could have easily been me not returning home. For the past 23 years, I’ve kept pictures of David, wanting to send them to his family. I’ve done that now and can move forward, in the hope of honoring David, and live because he didn’t have the chance.”
© Nancy Wright Beasley 2014.
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