AHOSKIE, N.C. — Late at night, after the moon has settled into the swamps and cotton fields surrounding Army Sgt. 1st Class Chad Stephens' home, the soldier puts down his last drink.
He pulls himself off the sofa, leans over the television to snap quiet his latest war movie and lies in bed next to his wife of 12 years.
The dream never takes long to arrive. Stephens' platoon of Bradley fighting vehicles is somewhere in Iraq.
They are pinned down by the enemy - grenades coming at them, bullets dinging off metal. His troops holler into their radios, and Stephens, the platoon leader, feels the danger.
On this night in his dream, like every night, Stephens will keep a promise - to his soldiers and, in particular, to the mother of a blue-eyed gunner named Danny.
Nearly four years ago, in January 2004, the N.C. National Guard platoon sergeant stood in an Army classroom facing that mother and the families of the 40 men he was about to lead into war.
He stood 6-foot-4 and infantry-lean, and in the confident voice familiar to his men, he made a promise: I'll bring your sons home. He had wanted it to be true.
Even then, Stephens knew he was lying.
A new role
When Stephens' N.C. National Guard unit left for Iraq in February 2004 with the 30th Heavy Separate Combat Brigade, its warriors were among the first Guard units from the Tar Heel state to face combat since World War II. The part-time citizen soldiers left behind their full-time civilian jobs. They had typically trained just a few days a month and responded to natural disasters such as hurricanes and forest fires.
But with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush began to federalize National Guard troops, putting them in the same combat and support roles as their active-duty counterparts. Nearly 173,000 citizen-soldiers have served in the war.
Of those, 510 have died.
Countless fighters have come home with injuries, some immediately visible and others that only come to light over time.
The National Guard's 1st Battalion, 120th Infantry from North Carolina would prove itself within months of deploying to Iraq, in a battle that would become legend within the state Guard and be memorialized in a print that hangs in the Executive Mansion and on Capitol Hill.
Stephens, 40, would be anointed a hero, praised by the Pentagon and the media, earning one of the nation's highest honors for a day of valor that left him weeping under a desert night, his uniform soaked in another man's blood, his lessons about sacrifice and heroism only beginning.
In the years after his deployment to Iraq, Stephens would see how a single firefight would change his soldiers, change himself, fundamentally alter the life of one Jacksonville mother. He would come home from war to find he had become a different man, one seeking help from an Army that didn't know how to give it. He would try to fulfill a promise he had no right to make and shoulder the wounds of a platoon of haunted men and a single grieving woman.
Signs of his father
Growing up in tiny Como, in northeastern North Carolina, Stephens never understood his father's rages. The old man was a veteran of the Korean War who had lost soldiers in a famous battle, swilled beer with his buddies and sometimes cried when he drank.
Everyone thought he was mean.
But he always hoped one of his boys would make a career out of the military. Stephens, average in school and uninterested in college, figured it might as well be him.
Years later, back from Iraq, the country kid who wanted to make the military his life finds himself fighting an inner anger that surges out of nowhere but reminds him of the familiar rages of his father. He doesn't like crowds. Or stores. He skirts the tiny town of Ahoskie for fear of car bombs or improvised explosive devices.
At night, Stephens sits in the barn he built by hand and watches war movies, downing a dozen beers, one after another, sometimes chasing those with a half-pint of whiskey.
He thinks of his dad, who always told Stephens to take care of his men.
His cell phone rings and rings. One of his soldiers has lost his civilian job, or can't stand the nightmares, or is ready to kill himself.
Or it's Patty Desens, the mother of Spc. Daniel A. Desens Jr., the 20-year-old boy she called Danny.
She's drunk sometimes, thinking of Danny's goofy teasing, the family food fights, so much laughter in the past. She thinks of how she cradled his newborn body, chubby legs curled inward in memory of her womb, and the way she tried to touch every inch of that body again as it lay in a Jacksonville funeral home.
Hey, Sergeant Stephens, she says. How are you?
Tell me about Danny, she says. Tell me about the night he woke you in the barracks, drunk and singing.
Tell me about Iraq, she says.
Tell me about that day.
So again, for the third or the thirtieth or the hundredth time,
Stephens tells the story.
Battle in Baqubah
June 24, 2004. Baqubah, Iraq. Dawn.
A soldier burst into their tent on base, hollering. Stephens lay on his bunk and pretended to sleep. Then he heard this: Another platoon is drawing fire. An ambush.
Stephens jumped up, flooded the room with light. Up! he shouted.
They scrambled, fled the base inside of 20 minutes, a line of five Bradley fighting vehicles rumbling toward town, Stephens second in line. A driver, a commander and a gunner were inside each. Six dismount soldiers sat inside the belly of each Bradley.
They found the enemy soon enough. Small-arms fire pinged the metal. Then came rocket-propelled grenades, tailed by streams of white smoke and smacking off the armor with such bone-jarring velocity that Stephens felt like he had lost hearing and brain matter.
Stephens reached up to his neck for his crucifix. Never take it off, his wife had said. But it was back at base, dangling from his bunk.
From the rear of the convoy, Capt. Christopher Cash, 36, a fitness trainer, husband and father of two from Winterville, N.C., realized enemy snipers were aiming for the open hatches on top of the Bradleys. Button up! Cash called over the radio. Close your hatches!
Then one bullet hit his head, and Cash slumped over, fatally wounded. His Bradley U-turned back toward base, another following as wingman. Now there were three.
Orders came from base. Go to the river. Secure the bridge.
Stephens, now in the middle, turned to his gunner: "This is a bad idea."
But they rumbled on.
Inside the last Bradley in line, the platoon's youngest lead gunner scored hits, peering at the enemy through a periscope, surrounded by switches and buttons to fire his rounds.
"Hell, yeah!" sang Desens.
Desens, 20, was the sun to a solar system of young men who, during Army training, spent their nights boozing and their days joking while they worked. He was easygoing and mischievous and one of Stephens' best men, good at his job and willing to work.
"Yeeeaoooow!" Desens shouted. More fighters fell.
The convoy motored around a traffic circle enclosed by six-story buildings. Insurgents aimed grenade launchers from the rooftops. The gunners returned automatic cannon fire with 25 mm rounds - foomph! - into the buildings.
Desens shot round after round, and his sergeant peeked into the periscope to check out the fight.
Ear-splitting loud, recalled Sgt. Alan Payne, the commander sitting next to Desens.
Desens grunted. "I'm going to die," he muttered.
A heroic effort
Up ahead, Stephens wondered what was up with the last Bradley in line. He called and called on the radio. No answer. He ordered his driver to stop, told the soldiers sitting inside to get out with their guns.
Stephens climbed out. He left behind his helmet, his flak vest and his gun.
Smoke streamed from the wounded Bradley some 50 yards away, nearly half the distance of a football field. The firefight raged on. Stephens ran. Bullets flew everywhere.
He banged on the back hatch of the smoking Bradley. The ramp lowered, and six bloodied guys tumbled out. "Dan's hurt!" someone yelled. "Dan's hurt bad!"
Stephens scrambled up top and, sprawled on his belly, peered inside the turret. There was Desens, his face still pressed to the gun sights. Stephens pushed the young soldier back and caught his breath.
The gunner's left leg lay shredded, open from his knee to his groin. His left hip was gone. Intestines spilled from his gut. His chest had holes in it.
A grenade had pierced a soft spot on the side of the Bradley, flown past startled soldiers below and banged into 25mm rounds of ammunition that exploded into Desens.
Desens turned his bright blue eyes up toward his sergeant.
"You're going to be OK!" Stephens shouted.
He turned to Payne. Help me get him out! Payne pushed, and Stephens pulled. Stephens lifted Desens out. Part of him remained behind.
Then came the frantic push to safety. They moved out, rumbling across the river and toward the nearest base.
The medic lay Desens inside Stephens' Bradley, stripped his clothes off, stuffed gauze where his pelvis used to be.
Then a second explosion set the Bradley on fire, knocking Stephens unconscious. Desens stopped breathing, then took shallow breaths after a medic's mouth-to-mouth, his eyes popping open at the mention of his best friend and a beer back home.
They passed Desens on to an ambulance. Then a helicopter. The swirling blades washed desert heat over the watching soldiers, and the medevac bird lifted into the air.
Minutes later, Desens' heart stopped.
The battle's toll
Six injured men were evacuated. Two, Desens and Cash, were dead.
They fought from noon June 24 to 3 a.m. the next morning. The Army launched drones to find insurgents. Then, in two operations, Stephens' platoon went out to kill them.
The soldiers returned at night. Someone lit a fire outside the barracks. Someone tossed in Desens' uniform.
They talked about Danny and how funny he was. Someone talked about Stephens, how he ran through the bullets.
Stephens sat quietly. Desens' dried blood coated his desert uniform. He stared at the flames, thinking.
He was going to have to visit Danny's parents.
Tomorrow: "I've got some questions for you."
McClatchy Newspapers 2007