These are the stories of five men. Ten years ago today, they were in Kuwait with the more than 4,000 other members of Fort Benning's 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, awaiting orders to cross the Iraqi border and launch an invasion. On March 19, 2003, they got them. In the following days, as the 3rd Brigade became the tip of the spear and led the Army's attack on Baghdad, they would lose friends and they would lose parts of themselves. They would gain pride and they would gain perspective. They would live to tell about it.
'You don't want it, but if it comes you're ready.'
Brad Akin was a 23-year-old specialist from Columbus stationed with the 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment. He had a newborn daughter named Kyli. He drove a HEMTT, a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck, hauling ammunition.
At dusk on March 20, 2003, he and co-driver Kelley Prewitt, a 24-year-old private from Birmingham, Ala., crossed the border into Iraq. For hundreds of hours, they drove across a monotonous sea of sand, arguing the merits of Akin's Georgia Bulldogs and Prewitt's Auburn Tigers.
They were in the first line of supply, behind the tanks and Bradleys and ahead of the main support. They urinated in bottles while driving and defecated in sand holes while refueling. Sleep was scarce. During a sandstorm, they rotated one-hour naps with security patrols.
"You get to the point where you don't care," Akin says. "You're ready. You don't want it, but if it comes you're ready."
The city of Karbala fell on April 2, and the 2-69 led the charge through the Karbala Gap, a 12-mile stretch before Baghdad.
On April 6, they rolled into Baghdad, past dead Iraqi Republican Guard soldiers and blown-up tanks.
"Civilians took pot shots at us, and it didn't faze us," Akin says. "We kept rolling."
He and Prewitt reached the Iraqi Petroleum Institute by evening, exhausted and expecting a break. Instead, they were sent on a security mission along the highway outside the institute.
That night, an unarmed Iraqi man approached them and U.S. soldiers fired warning shots.
"He looked like he needed help," Akin says, "but we didn't know for sure."
The man dropped to his knees and the soldiers were barraged by rocket propelled grenades and machine gun fire.
One soldier was shot in the ankle, dropped his weapon and retreated toward the institute. Akin and Prewitt were pinned behind their vehicle.
"S--- was flying all over the place," Akin says.
They did a series of run-stop, cover-me-and-shoot maneuvers as they tried to scurry back to the institute, about a football field away.
Akin saw an opening and went for it. When he reached the safe area, he looked back and saw Prewitt was down. A scout noticed Akin also was wounded.
"I looked down, and there was nothing but blood on my right leg," Akin says. He remembers wondering if he would be alive for his daughter's first birthday.
The scout hollered for a medic. Akin's pants leg was cut away and his wound was cleaned. Then three soldiers carried in Prewitt.
Both of them had injured right legs. Akin's wound barely missed his femur. Prewitt wasn't as lucky; the bone appeared shattered.
Medics couldn't stop the bleeding. As they operated, Akin held Prewitt's IV bag with one hand and his buddy's hand with his other. He kept talking to Prewitt, to keep him from going into shock.
Then a truck exploded and blew out windows in the institute. The medics moved Prewitt to a more secure room and asked Akin to step out. They assured him Prewitt would be OK.
The next morning, Akin was transported back to his unit. All of his gear had been destroyed in the ambush, so his fellow soldiers gave him a change of clothes and toiletries.
Then an officer updated him on Prewitt.
His buddy was dead.
"I wanted to go home," Akin says. "I couldn't believe it."
He actually was given the option to return home, but he decided to tough it out.
"You have to get over it," he says.
That wasn't easy. Akin left the Army in 2004 but had trouble sleeping and finding satisfaction in civilian jobs with Georgia Power and Lowe's in Columbus.
"A lot of my friends questioned my decision (to serve in the Army) and were making smart remarks," he says. "They didn't spit on me like Vietnam, but they would say things in front of me, and I was like, 'Hey, I bled. My buddy died.'"
One day while he was reading meters, a plane flew overhead, and Akin had to sit down because he felt dizzy. He talked to a psychiatrist but doesn't think it helped.
"I got my mind right by myself," he says. "All of a sudden, it clicked. I quit feeling sorry for myself."
He became more patient.
"Waiting in line at Walmart for 20 minutes is nothing like waiting in the desert," he says.
And he cut himself a break.
"I stopped guessing why we were in Iraq," Akin says. "You're a soldier. It's like a kid who asks for spaghetti for dinner and all of a sudden doesn't want it. No, that doesn't work. You signed up for it."
Two years ago, he decided to return to the Army.
"I just missed the camaraderie and meeting people from different parts of the country," says Akin, now 33. "I got healthy again, got my mind back right, and I was ready to keep on fighting."
Today he is a sergeant at Fort Riley, Kan. He has been married to Lauren for two years, and they have two children, 7-year-old Averie and infant Brock. Kyli is 10 years old and lives with her mother in Smiths Station, Ala.
Akin says he's proud of his service in Iraq.
"We freed those people from a dictator," he says. "I don't think it was a failure. A lot of them still have to get their feet on the ground, but they're a lot closer to freedom."
'College is easy compared to this'
Arthur Bryan was a 21-year-old private from Brooklyn, N.Y., who enlisted because he was flunking out of college. He didn't have a civilian driver's license, but he drove an M577 tracked command post carrier for 2-69 Armor.
"We were well-trained," Bryan says with a laugh.
His convoy pulled out of the gate at midnight as the invasion began, and it took about a day to cross the border into Iraq.
"When we first crossed," Bryan says, "we actually paused and were like, 'Hey, we're now in Iraq. We were all proud because we knew we were there for a reason and we were going to accomplish that reason. There was no turning back."
He doesn't remember the first time he had to fire his weapon, but he does remember that the Iraqi soldiers "were nothing. I don't mean to sound lightly but once we fired back, they ran. They didn't stay around for the fight."
He faced some harrowing moments, though, especially when his track had to slow down to navigate narrow streets. Teams took casualties in vehicles in front and behind his, but his squad was spared. He thought about his decision to join the Army. "I was like, 'Whoa. What was I thinking? College is easy compared to this.' I needed to learn that lesson."
Later, a half-naked Iraqi man approached his convoy.
"We didn't know what he had in store, but we had to shoot him up," Bryan says. "For a while, a couple days, it was like, 'Why did we actually shoot him? He probably just wanted something to eat.' But it was kill or be killed. We didn't question anything then. It was different when they clarified and changed the war status to peacekeeping. Then we tried to rationalize, 'Why are you coming toward us?'"
At the end of his tour of duty, Bryan went back to Fort Benning. He married Sarah in 2005, then returned to Iraq for another combat tour.
On Oct. 1, 2005, shrapnel from an Iraqi mortar severed Bryan's carotid artery and caused him to suffer a stroke. He lost the use of his right hand and has been on 100 percent medical disability since.
He says he also suffered mental problems and underwent counseling for PTSD for about a year.
"I don't think there's the help out there, other than being a spiritual person and God helping you," says Bryan, now 31. "It just takes time. I had to learn a lot because I was bitter for really no reason, and I'm not a bitter person. It always came out when I was dealing with my wife. I had to learn to calm down."
HEADLINE: 'The worst part is the smell'
Ron Marshall was a 35-year-old sergeant first class from Arkansas who worked in fire support with 3rd Brigade headquarters. He was responsible for coordinating shooting and battlefield positions.
"When we started seeing media guys show up," Marshall says, "it was like, 'OK, this is a little more real.'"
Before advancing into Iraq, he had bought a miniature American flag on a wooden stick and taped it to the rearview mirror of his Humvee.
On March 25, 2003, a sandstorm around As Samawa slowed their advance. Two soldiers in Marshall's unit got lost in the blinding storm less than 15 yards from their vehicle. Two hours later, special forces found them about 1,000 yards from where they thought they were.
The first heavy fire Marshall saw was near Najaf, about 100 miles southwest of Baghdad.
"It was the first time you could actually hear them shooting back at you," Marshall says.
The 2-69 Armor led the charge to Baghdad, and the brigade unleashed artillery barrages in front of every major intersection.
"The resistance wasn't effective at all," Marshall says. "It was pretty much a turkey shoot."
Still, he saw things he can't put out of his memory.
"I've eaten lunch by a dead guy," he says. "You see a lot of death. The worst part is the smell. It's 118-, 120-degree heat, so it doesn't take long for the body to swell up and implode. With body fluids coming out, you're at risk for hepatitis."
On April 9, Baghdad officially fell. Marshall stayed with the brigade in the city for another month, headquartered at the Iraqi Petroleum Institute.
"That was like our first taste of air conditioning," he says.
He was back home in late June. The flag on his rearview mirror had survived the war, and he had a new appreciation for life.
"We lost guys we didn't expect to lose," says Marshall, now 45. "It's just a blessing every day that you're here."
Today, he lives in Phenix City and works as the operation manager of the Close Combat Tactical Trainer at Fort Benning. His 21-year-old son, Aaron, is a specialist with the 75th Ranger Regiment out of Fort Benning and was deployed to Afghanistan. Marshall initially tried to convince his son not to join the Army, but he relented when he saw the same dedication he has.
"I just told him to keep your head on a swivel," he says, "and never get complacent."
'That's when it started to get real'
James Rogers was a 35-year-old sergeant from Newark, N.J., with the 203rd Battalion at Fort Benning. His job was casualty reporting. With him, he kept sealed letters to his wife Diann and his 2-year-old son Antonio, in case he was killed.
In Iraq, he helped set up a combat support hospital in an abandoned building near Tallil Air Base, and soon waves of helicopters were bringing in the wounded.
"It was like a scene out of 'MASH,'" Rogers says.
They gave the wounded three priorities: U.S. casualties first, then Iraqi women and children, then Iraqi men.
Rogers helped prepare bodies to be sent home.
"That's when it started to get real," he says.
He found an engagement photo in the wallet of Staff Sgt. Stevon Booker, 34, of Apollo, Pa., who was killed in action on April 5.
Rogers made sure the photo made it home to Booker's family.
"People have said the real wars were World War II and Vietnam, but this was a real war, too," he says. "People came back injured or dead. It may not have the same glamour, but when you send someone back home, it doesn't matter what the war is; a casualty is a casualty."
Another time, a 7-year-old Iraqi girl was brought into the hospital. She had been killed in a car crash after her father, who was trying to drive his family to safety, lost control of the vehicle.
"There was really nothing we could do but wait for the family members," he says. "They showed up with a casket, put her in, tied it to the roof of their car and drove off. That was it."
But Rogers also found inspiration in the hospital. A Marine, new to his unit, came in with a wounded leg. Medics patched him up, and he insisted on returning to battle.
"To me, that demonstrated this war, this conflict, was important to everyone who was there," Rogers says. "It wasn't a matter of getting injured and hiding and wanting to go home. It was ultimately about being there to see an end of the war, and ultimately we were victorious."
Today, Rogers is a captain and training officer with the 3rd Brigade at Fort Benning. He's survived a second tour to Iraq in 2009, which means those letters remained sealed.
Where are they today?
"I'm not sure," he says. "I'm just glad my wife and son never had to open them."
'Giant pieces of flaming hot metal were flying everywhere'
Shane Larkin was a 27-year-old staff sergeant from Pennsylvania. He served as an infantry squad leader with Bravo Company, First Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment.
When his unit arrived in Kuwait in early 2003, they had one focus. "It was train, train, train," he says. They fired as many as 9,000 rounds a day, and a photo of Larkin during training appeared in Life magazine.
"I didn't even know it was being taken," he says. "That photographer must had a good lens because he was nowhere close to us."
Larkin and his men were among the first to enter Iraq, and had to clear out a minefield. They then took part in the capture of Tallil Air Base, the closest airbase to Baghdad and one of the first objectives of the invasion, opening it for U.S. aircraft.
Larkin's squad took heavy fire in As Samawah, then faced more battles when they reached Baghdad.
He says it was a tough environment for soldiers. "It was about 120 degrees and we didn't have much water," he says. "No hot meals. I went two months without a shower," he said.
One day, he and his men were guarding a depot where ammunition and weapons were being destroyed. Iraqis were hired to drive the trucks and one of them was smoking a cigarette and set his truck on fire. The depot caught on fire too.
"We were still guarding it as it was blowing up, Larkin says. "Giant pieces of flaming hot metal were flying everywhere."
Today, Larkin has four degrees from Columbus State University. He discusses the Iraq invasion often as a world cultures instructor at Arnold Magnet Academy in Columbus, and he likes to show his classes the photo from Life.
His wife Dana is assistant dean for students at CSU, and they have two young daughters, Halee and Noelle.
While Larkin says he's still wary of garbage on the street -- a frequent hiding place for improvised explosive devices in Iraq -- he says he's had few issues as an effect of the fighting he experienced, and that he feels bad for those who've struggled.
He's still close to many of his fellow soldiers.
"It's a special brotherhood," he says. "You have to go through something like that to understand."