Herb Watson, 25, served as a Baghdad Sapper, clearing IEDs on the road to Sadr City. One blast knocked him unconscious.Casey Templeton Photos
Considering how much time Virginia National Guardsman Herb Watson spent in combat zones in Iraq, the question that often crosses a civilian's mind is: "Did you kill anyone when you were over there?" But Watson hates it when someone gets up the nerve to ask, especially if the questioner's tone of voice suggests that the experience might have been cool. It's a terrible question, Watson says, because soldiers often had to shoot without knowing whether they were aiming at insurgents or civilians, who just wanted to live in peace and in some cases even welcomed the American soldiers.
"I fired my weapon — let's just leave it at that," he says in the cool, understated tone that he seems to use to express everything. The 25-year-old, dressed in a T-shirt and electric-orange shorts, is sitting on a hot July evening in the Chesapeake condo he shares with several friends.
"I shot my weapon," he continues, "but I don't know if I hit anybody — or who I hit. For all you know, it could have been somebody just looking out a window. The enemy looks like the regular civilians. I can't stand that question, because I just don't know."
Watson was deployed a year ago with Virginia's 237th National Guard unit, 114 men drawn mostly from the Richmond area and the state's coastal corridor and southwest region. He was 24 then, and nothing — certainly not the two months of training at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin — could have prepared him for Iraq, because the 237th had one of the most dangerous jobs in one of the most dangerous combat theaters in the world.
They were Baghdad Sappers, a military term for elite combat engineers. Between March and July of 2008, they cleared improvised explosive devices (IEDs) for a major offensive on the insurgent stronghold of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad. Which means they were on the front line of the front lines. They went into Sadr City before the tanks of the U.S. military's most elite fighting forces. For months, they were exposed to explosions and sniper and rocket fire every single day.
The unit returned last August to fanfare, since its members won three Purple Hearts, one Meritorious Service Medal, 11 Army Commendation Medals, four Army Commendation Medals and five Combat Action Badges, and they were nominated for a Presidential Unit Citation, the highest honor a military unit can receive.
Then they scattered. Watson is working and going to school in Chesapeake. His former platoon pal, Kevin Barkman, 25, is living in Hopewell, trying to find a job in the surveying field. Darrell Busquets, known as Biscuit, is in Newport News training other soldiers to be Sappers.
Kevin Barkman, 25, often relives the day an insurgent got away.
The adjustment to civilian life has not been easy. About one-third of veterans from both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts suffer symptoms of traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression, according to a 2007 study by the RAND Corporation. That percentage is almost certainly higher for the 237th because its soldiers were in combat situations so often.
Since the unit's return, three 237th Sappers have attempted suicide, according to other soldiers in the unit. Both Watson and Biscuit were officially diagnosed with TBI. And virtually everyone in the unit, these soldiers report, shows some signs of TBI or PTSD, which doctors at Richmond's Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center call the Iraq war's "signature" injuries because they're caused by the unusual closeness and constancy of combat there.
"On a daily basis, they're being bombed, people are trying to kill them," says Dr. Shane McNamee, a brain- rehabilitation specialist at McGuire. "They're seeing horrible things happen to people they love, to civilians and kids. And at the same time, there are these blasts going off that are giving them multiple concussions."
McNamee directs McGuire's polytrauma unit, one of only four in the nation, created six years ago to treat the increasing number of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with multiple combat injuries and conditions, most notably TBI.
The 237th Sappers are among an estimated 46,000 men and women — one-third of the 140,000 people deployed from Virginia — who will return with some form or combination of TBI, PTSD and depression. They will suffer, as a result, with the conditions' myriad symptoms. Although some of them overlap, generally TBI produces loss of memory and cognitive skills, difficulties with balance and coordination, and chronic headaches and dizziness. PTSD generally produces insomnia, irritability, outbursts of anger, exaggerated startle responses and a sense of alienation from people who haven't experienced war.
As the veterans try to slip back into their old lives, their physical and psychological damage affects everyone around them. The hyper-alertness to danger that served them well in Iraq can bring disaster when fireworks at a church picnic send them into a panic. Hyper-vigilance is useless, even problematic, when they're doing the mundane work of stocking shelves in a store or pounding nails on a construction site. So the cost of the Iraq War's "signature" injuries is borne not only by the veterans themselves but also by their families, employers, hospitals and communities.
With the intent of improving and expanding services to these veterans and their families, the General Assembly established the Virginia's Wounded Warrior Program this year and funded it with $4.4 million through 2010.
"When these people come back with their injuries, a lot of time they're unable to find employment," says Anne Atkins, communications director for Virginia's Department of Veterans Affairs. "Or they lose the employment that they had before they deployed. Their family situations deteriorate. They may end up taking their lives. They're at greater risk for alcoholism and incarceration. And we have to keep in mind that the ones that end up in treatment are the lucky ones. A lot of them come back with PTSD or undiagnosed TBI, but they don't know it, so they're not getting support."
In the colder terms used in the RAND study, the two-year costs associated with PTSD are approximately $5,904 to $10,298 per veteran. The two-year costs associated with major depression are $15,461 to $25,757 per person. And the one-year costs associated with TBI are $25,572 to $30,730 per person for mild cases and from $252,251 to $383,221 per person for moderate to severe cases.
Biscuit says they "did a lot of suck" at Wisconsin's Fort McCoy, meaning they were put through 16-hour days of intentionally grueling training to toughen them up. But nothing quite measured up to what they experienced in Iraq.
First of all, it was only 80 to 85 degrees in Wisconsin, but the temperature in Iraq sometimes approached 130. Then, says Watson, breathing was like inhaling air from a space heater. Soldiers would wait until 4 a.m. to drink from their canteens because only by then would the water have cooled.
Second, their jobs instantly became real. Within days of arriving at Baghdad's Camp Liberty in September 2007, they went out on route-clearance missions with a unit from Puerto Rico. Soon after, they were on their own — four or five guys in a vehicle, several vehicles in a convoy — and it was the real deal, not practice in Wisconsin.
Third and most important, at least for Watson, the worst that could happen to them became crystal clear because it did happen to fellow Virginia Guardsmen David Lambert and Derek Banks. What soldiers fear most — severe, painful injury and death — befell the young men.
Three weeks into their deployment, Lambert and Banks were on a route-clearance mission, sitting behind the driver and the truck commander of an RG31, the mine-resistant vehicles Sappers use. The gunner was above them, perched in the vehicle's turret. The convoy was on a two-lane road when the IED was fired from 40 to 50 meters away, Watson says. "An IED that far away, usually they miss. [This time] it was like a luck shot from the gods for them."
The explosion sent a projectile tearing into the RG31. Lambert was hit and killed instantly. The projectile burst into shrapnel and ignited a flash fire, and then there was chaos.
The gunner was blown off the roof, landing so hard he broke his back. A soldier from another vehicle rushed to fix a tourniquet around the driver's nearly severed leg. Another soldier pulled out Banks, whose body was covered in burns and so torn apart by shrapnel that the medic just started stuffing gauze into all of his wounds to staunch the bleeding. After the medic resuscitated him, Banks was evacuated to the Green Zone (the base for the American and Iraqi government), then evacuated from Iraq and rushed to a hospital in San Antonio.
That night, Watson and everyone else in the 237th were told that Lambert died. But it was two weeks before they learned that Banks hadn't survived either. He lived long enough to see his wife and young son one final time.
For Watson, who had known Banks from back home in Hampton Roads, his friend's death was almost overwhelming.
Afterward, Watson says, "When I went out on a mission, if I saw anything crazy, I was kind of wanting to pull the trigger. But after a while I caught myself. I realized I can't do that. A lot of these people are innocent." And Banks' death seemed like an omen. "When you have a close friend who dies doing something that you do every day, it doesn't make you feel too confident," Watson says. "I was thinking, ‘Man, we just got here and this already happened.' "
Several months later — in the spring of 2008 — the Baghdad neighborhood known as Sadr City looked like the kind of place that shouldn't be home to anyone. Piles of trash littered desolate, dusty streets. Windows and even entire walls were blasted out of the concrete buildings that people lived in. By then, the neighborhood, an insurgent stronghold since the 2003 U.S. invasion, had become a kind of forbidden zone that "no one messed with," Watson says.
But the neighborhood was also close enough to the Green Zone that insurgents could use its southern quarter to launch mortars and rockets into the enclave. The spring 2008 offensive was aimed at securing that part of Sadr City, and Virginia's 237th was chosen to clear the route.
"It was an important job," Barkman says. "We saved a lot of lives. But it was also the stupidest job" because it was so dangerous.
In convoys of several vehicles, 237th Sappers inched along the route — so slowly at times that a baby could have crawled past them, Watson says. They searched for barely perceptible signs of IEDs, which were planted under sand bags, in water bottles, inside curbs and garbage bags. If the Sappers didn't find an IED, it might blow up automatically as they passed by or when someone detonated it. If they did find one, it would still blow up. Since it was usually too dangerous to get out of their vehicles, the 237th neutralized IEDs by shooting at them from a distance.
"We knew that every time we'd go there [Sadr City], something was going to blow up, somebody was going to shoot at us," Biscuit says. "And after people got blown up, they'd have to get time off to be evaluated for TBI and everything. They had to get rest time to get their brains back in order."
Immediately after the 237th had cleared the route, soldiers from a fighting unit would move in, followed by military construction workers. The idea was to force insurgents out of the southern quarter, secure it and then build a wall that would create a safe haven in the middle of an enemy zone.
As the months dragged on, the Sappers worked despite chronic exhaustion. On missions, they were hyper-focused for 12 or 13 hours at a time. If they couldn't return to camp at night, they slept badly — four or five guys cramped inside the vehicle they'd driven in all day because it was safer than sleeping out in the open.
By July, the offensive was over for the 237th. The wall had been built in Sadr City, and U.S. forces were trying to repair nearby buildings and roads; Barkman believes that by now most of what they did has probably been undone by subsequent fighting.
But the edgy months took their toll. Barkman and Watson both experienced the kind of chaotic, frightening moments that created images they're now unable to shake — a typical symptom, McNamee says, of PTSD. For Watson, the experience was a single huge explosion that generated a blinding flash of light and knocked him unconscious. For Barkman, it was the day his platoon was on a mission and didn't kill someone. An insurgent had detonated an IED that blew a projectile into the convoy's lead vehicle, and Barkman saw the man.
"I called it out," Barkman says. But for whatever reason, the truck leader didn't respond, and Barkman watched in fury as the insurgent slipped away. "We could have gotten that guy. We could have kept him from killing someone else."
Watson, Barkman and Biscuit have been back from Baghdad for more than a year now.
Watson drank, a lot, for a brief period right after he got home. He still has chronic headaches, mild when he works out, throbbing at other times. When there's an unexpected flash of light — a camera flash in the darkness, for example — he is hyper-startled, nearly hits the roof sometimes, he says.
Last summer, Watson attended Officer Candidate School. This fall, he started graduate school, and he has a clear long-term goal: He wants to be a guidance counselor for young students.
Biscuit also drank too much, until he realized that getting loaded with his high-school buddies didn't help him overcome feeling alienated from them. He still can't sleep through the night, and he has headaches and a shorter fuse. But he's also become a far more serious, driven young man. He's given up heavy partying. Instead, he's parlaying his combat experience into a job as a military consultant. He's bought a house for his wife and baby.
In July, Barkman was still unemployed. But that's because of the economy, he says, not some emotional hangover from the war.
All three have fared better than some of their Sapper brothers — certainly better than those soldiers who tried to commit suicide and those in treatment for serious PTSD at the Charlottesville branch of McGuire's polytrauma center.
Dr. McNamee says such problems are classic for this generation of American war-wounded. In Iraq, he says, "They're as high up as they possibly can be every moment of every day. They're experiencing a dopamine overload. Then you take these guys and put them in a Wal-Mart or at a Little League game, and they don't feel normal."
That's why some veterans want to return to Iraq. It is the place where they don't feel different from everyone around them.
To demonstrate what Iraq vets go through when they return to their old lives, McNamee describes a session with one of his patients. A "nice kid," the physician says, who was not trying to come off as aggressive or threatening.
"I just asked him, ‘What's your internal dialogue right now? What's happening behind your eyeballs?' And he said, ‘Well, I see you've got a pen in your hand, and if something goes wrong, I'm going to take that pen out of your hand and stab you with it. And that guy's got his stethoscope around his neck, and I can use that [to strangle him] and then I can get out that door right there.' "