Pain and patriotism endure in Iraq war's aftermath

The Kansas City StarMarch 18, 2013 

— The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq is not on Kathy Berry’s calendar.

Oh … so it’s Tuesday?

Mention March 19, 2003, to Berry or to the close-knit Kansas veterans she calls “my soldiers” and the reaction is: Hmm, wasn’t aware. Been that long?

For them the date that changed everything — one they observe each year and think about most every day — is Feb. 22.

Berry’s husband, Staff Sgt. David Berry, was killed by the burst of a roadside bomb on Feb. 22, 2007, outside the Iraqi base where he and other National Guard members of the Bravo battery were stationed.

Spc. Peter Richert of Hillsboro, Kan., lost his right leg.

Earlier the same day, Sgt. Michael Miller, a steelworker from Atchison County, Kan., survived a mortar attack on the base. Doctors diagnosed his traumatic brain injury a year later as his memory and cognitive skills eroded back home.

Pain and numbness persist in Miller’s legs, hands, neck and shoulders.

“My wife takes care of me now,” he said last week.

Half a decade ago, The Kansas City Star chronicled the attack that upended the lives of buddies and families within the Kansas-based Bravo unit: Battery B, 1st Battalion, 161st Field Artillery.

This week, the 99 percent of Americans who don’t choose military service will recall a war that they hope is in the nation’s rearview mirror.

But the challenges continue for these small-town warriors forever bound by one awful moment.

Their patriotism, for the most part, is as robust as ever. Many of the Bravo battery, former and current, today voice no regrets — for their country’s mission to liberate Iraqis from a dictator, for their own service or even their lingering sacrifices.

“I’d do it all over again if I could,” said Miller, 49, who downs a prescribed regimen of 40 pills daily to ease the aches and help him sleep.

Don’t dare regard them as victims, for they are citizen soldiers still, mindful of the risks they signed up to face. Some of the injured came home to a warm Kansas embrace and a parade. Some returned to their civilian jobs and college pursuits and stressed that what they achieved as a unit in Iraq meant more than what they lost as individuals.

For Sgt. Travis Waltner, fighting for Bravo led to falling in love with Amanda Kistler, a medic from Minnesota who treated Waltner and the others wounded that day.

Their daughter, Aspen, is now 3.

Still, the bad outcomes can’t be denied. As Kathy Berry put it: “A part of me feels my husband died in vain.”

She may always ask herself: What if Operation Iraqi Freedom had been conducted differently? What if U.S. forces had been larger and empowered from the beginning to stamp out insurgents?

Suppose “the surge” commenced three years earlier rather than at the tail end of the Bravo battery’s deployment? Maybe then, the date Feb. 22 wouldn’t be sprinkled around the widow’s house — in store-bought crafts, hand-stitched quilts and framed citations.

Yet another painful date passed last week.

Tuesday was David Berry’s birthday. He would have been 44.

Home early

“This is my Zen,” said a relaxed Richert, 29, from his seat in a golf cart at the Hillsboro municipal course.

He can still swing a mean driver on his prosthetic leg.

But the other activities he had loved before serving in Iraq — jogging, basketball, all types of sports — he has given up at his doctor’s urging.

Richert was among the seven Kansas guardsmen who came home early — one to be buried — after horror struck their unit at Convoy Support Center Scania south of Baghdad.

He was patrolling in a Humvee driven by Sgt. Berry following a mortar attack on the base. Richert pivoted his M-240 machine gun toward gunfire flashing from brush nearby.

That’s when the convoy was rocked by three explosions along the road.

Berry at the wheel died within minutes. Next to him, only a few tendons kept Richert’s leg from falling off below the knee.

A third occupant of the Humvee, Staff Sgt. Jerrod Hays, had been a pal of Berry’s since childhood. They worked alongside each other at the Farrar Foundry in Norwich, Kan., where Berry’s wife also worked.

Hays escaped the blasts with a shattered jaw, bone chips lodged in his throat and a face needing a series of operations to repair.

Kathy Berry recalls with a broad smile: “Seeing Jarrod finally walk up to my porch,” a titanium jaw fitted beneath swollen cheeks, “he looked beautiful in my eyes.”

During 15 months in Iraq, Bravo battery earned 125 Combat Action Badges, 13 Purple Hearts, 17 Bronze Stars and 29 Army Commendation Medals.

David Berry was posthumously promoted to first sergeant. A stretch of highway between the Kansas towns of Harper and Anthony was named in memory of him and another fallen soldier, Willsun M. Mock.

Bravo’s living casualties endure today with brain injuries and severe headaches, post traumatic stress syndrome, numb limbs and fingers, sore joints, sleepless nights.

“In at least a half dozen of us, you can’t see the physical wounds,” said Waltner, a railroad worker in Valley Center, Kan. “A lot of civilians don’t understand. TBI (traumatic brain injury) isn’t something that goes away. It’s always going to be with me.”

In the case of the National Guard — where neighbors, siblings and longtime friends can occupy a single battery — the aftereffects of a battle gone bad will follow troops back to their hometowns. The injured will gravitate to other citizen soldiers, who usually do understand.

“Unless you move to another community, you’ll still have those bonds in the Guard with the people you trained with on weekends,” said David R. Segal, a University of Maryland sociologist and co-author of “The Postmodern Military: The Armed Forces after the Cold War.”

Scant research has been directed at the ways guardsmen cope after returning home from a brutal deployment. The active branches of the military support such studies of their own veterans, “but we don’t know much about the reserve forces that come back, and we definitely ought to,” said Segal.

“The role of the National Guard has changed from a strategic to an operational reserve. We’re producing a generation of veterans of these wars, and their lives are going to different than the lives of conscripted troops from past wars.”

One difference is that America’s 21st century fighters are volunteers, not draftees. And by the time the Bravo unit deployed for Iraq in 2006, its members knew their weekend drills might lead to bloody combat.

It is not uncommon, experts say, for those who return home disabled to extol the virtues of their mission.

Consider among them Sgt. Miller, hurt during the mortar fire that prompted his unit’s doomed convoy to head out.

On bad days he’ll fall to the floor walking around his house, his ailing legs wobbling out from underneath him.

His memory and attention span come and go. But this he does remember: “Saddam Hussein was a bully to his people.”

He also remembers, fondly, befriending the Iraqi children, offering them candy and companionship. Earning their admiration.

The children, he is certain, will grow up thankful for the troops that helped bring democracy.

Others who served in Bravo still belong to the Guard, ready to deploy when called upon.

Spc. Tyler Wing re-enlisted in 2008 to maintain, he said, “a steady source of income in hard economic times.”

He and brother Sean — both part of the convoy that carried Sgt. Berry — would survive another deployment in 2011 to quell unrest in Africa.

“The big picture (in Africa) was trying to prevent what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Tyler Wing said recently. “You want to ward off an insurgency before it starts.”

Bravo today

Earlier this month, one survivor of Feb. 22 phoned the White House.

Waltner asked to speak to the president.

“I wasn’t speaking up just for myself, but for a lot of our guys still fighting to get what’s owed to them,” Waltner told The Star.

Like some others from the unit, he has filed papers to retire from the 161st Field Artillery.

“It’s been five and a half years since we got back, and there’s still a runaround” to secure disability benefits, find effective treatment and get the military’s approval for medically based retirements, he said.

Waltner said the White House referred him to a congressman who has yet to return his calls.

He and girlfriend Kistler, the medic who treated Waltner in Iraq, returned to the U.S. with traumatic brain injuries.

Migraines plague both. Waltner’s ears ring. He recently prevailed in appeals dating back to 2009 to qualify for benefits for diagnosed anxiety problems related to his service.

“We’re entitled to Purple Hearts and we haven’t gotten them,” he said. “I just want things made right.”

And could that mean fighting again for his country, if he were physically able?

“In a heartbeat,” he said.

Richert, the amputee, received his Purple Heart. His battle now is with the Social Security Administration, which Richert said is reconsidering its awarding of monthly disability checks.

“They’re trying to say I can work a full-time job” despite his degenerative hip, back pain, numb fingers and hands that have developed arthritis, Richert said. “I’m not a wimp. I don’t complain much. … But I have come to realize, with my disability, things don’t always get better.”

He pledged to The Star in 2007 that he would finish up his studies at Tabor College and fulfill his plans to teach physical education.

He was fitted for a special prosthesis to allow him to keep running.

Shortly after a cross country event, however, his doctor said the strain on Richert’s hip was too much. And, slowly, a hard truth sunk in, Richert said: “I probably wouldn’t make a great P.E. teacher. …

“You just learn to deal and cope, best as you can, with what life throws at you.”

For Richert, the best comes out of the time he now spends at home, tickling his two young daughters.

“I’m Daddy’s girl,” boasts 6-year-old Lindsey, who last year endured four surgeries to correct a chronic kidney disease that has impeded her growth.

When Daddy lost his leg, Lindsey was only 9 months old and already showing signs of a difficult life ahead.

Today she draws strength from Daddy, as Daddy does from her.

Richert “is always telling the girls there’s nothing they can’t achieve if they keep trying,” said wife Krista, “and Lindsey is so that way.”

Miller, of Atchison County, finds inspiration from his son Jaxson, 8, who has cerebral palsy and was adopted from Liberia after the sergeant’s return home.

Jaxson was dying over there, so Miller and wife Denise brought Jaxson and another boy, who is legally blind, to rural Kansas.

Denise Miller said his husband’s brain injury can magnify his many ailments.

“His brain is telling him he’s hurting more than he really should be,” she said. “For me, that can be frustrating.”

Jaxson can’t speak because of the tracheotomy tube in his neck. But he has a way of making Michael Miller’s difficulties seem minor, Miller said.

“When this boy’s on my lap and looks up to smile, that can get me through any day.”

For David Berry’s widow, a deep Christian faith gets her through most days.

He was the only soldier in the Humvee that February night without children of his own. Maybe that’s why God spared all but him, Kathy Berry has wondered.

Sometimes she’ll grab a blanket and drive out to the old country cemetery southwest of Wichita to ponder the reasons.

She’ll turn on the radio and listen to her husband’s favorite country music station while gazing at the stars above his grave.

Alone in bed, she awakens to a smiling portrait of David in his fatigues.

It’s the first thing she sees each morning and the last thing she looks at before switching off the bedroom lights.

“But many, many nights, I’ll close my eyes,” she said, “and I’ll see those two men on my doorstep.”

The two men from the military — informing her six years ago that David had died for his country.

Somewhere south of Baghdad.

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