FORT BENNING, Ga.—Three days before the invasion of Iraq began last March, Army Staff Sgt. Andrew Allen, of Elk City, Okla., squinted into the fierce Kuwaiti morning sun as he sipped a cup of coffee and pondered the fighting that lay ahead.
"I've got three people in my crew," said Allen before his unit, Apache Company, 1-30th Infantry, moved to the demilitarized zone on the Iraqi border. "All I'm worried about is not messing up and getting someone else hurt."
Nineteen days later, the Bradley armored vehicle commander became Apache Company's first casualty when he was struck in his left hand, elbow and neck by shrapnel after two large caliber rounds slammed into the turret of his armored vehicle during the battle for Saddam International Airport, outside Baghdad. He was evacuated for hospital treatment and told he wasn't returning to combat.
The staff sergeant's experience is a sort of metaphor for the soldiers of Apache Company, 1-30th Infantry. Apache Company spearheaded the 3rd Infantry Division's thrust into Iraq. Though Apache's 140 men fought in some of the war's most crucial battles, they returned home in July relatively unscathed.
Now Apache Company and the rest of the 3rd Infantry is preparing to return to Iraq as early as next November.
Most of Apache Company's soldiers believe they made a big difference in Iraq. Things might be tough now, but one day it will be a better place, they say. Overall, the past few months have been a time of reflection and pride on a mission accomplished with remarkable discipline and a minimum amount of bloodshed on both sides.
Where U.S. troops now face daily assaults by hidden bombers and other insurgents, Apache's soldiers were met with gestures of goodwill. Apache's luck continued even after it began to face gun battles with looters and Iraqi frustration.
The company made it home with only four men wounded, only one seriously, and none killed.
"We got out when the going was good," said 1st Lt. Mike Washburn, 32, of Yorktown, Va., a former platoon leader.
"Shit could've gone real wrong for us more than a few times," said former 1st Sgt. Todd Hibbs, 37.
"It's an awesome feeling, having that many people and vehicles and the confidence we had," he said. "Nothing could stop us."
More than 560 American soldiers have died in Iraq. More than 3,300 have been wounded. Critics accuse the Bush administration of hyping its case for war. No chemical and biological weapons have been found. Saddam's ties to the al-Qaida terror network remain largely unproved.
"Personally, I don't care if they find them or not," said Spc. Nathan Leigh, 24, of Jacksonville, Fla., referring to Saddam's alleged stockpiles of illicit weapons. "Just the way people were living over there made it all worthwhile for me."
"(Besides), we don't know what he might have been capable of in the future," said Sgt. Bryan Keller, 27, of Farrell, Pa.
Several solders in Apache Company say they look forward to going back.
"I really did feel like we made a difference," said Spc. Aaron Watts, 21, of San Antonio. "I feel like it's unfinished business. I'll be the first one to admit that I was ready to come home when we did, but I also didn't want to leave. They may be different from us, but they're still human beings. We all made friends over there."
But others say that's just bravado. "I don't think the soldiers know what they're fighting for anymore," said Sgt. 1st Class Craig Mussatti, 35, of Bessemer, Mich. "None of the soldiers want to go back. That's just soldiers talking."
Fourteen of the 25 men in Mussatti's platoon who went to Iraq have either gotten out of the Army or gone on to new assignments. Most of his new soldiers are green, fresh from training. When Apache returns to Iraq next fall, only 11 soldiers "will have the experience needed to go back," Mussatti said. "That's just not enough for me."
He believes it's time for the United Nations to get involved. Others say a separate kind of force is needed.
"I believe that if your unit goes in to do the killing, then they can't be the same guys who go in and do the peacekeeping," said Washburn.
After it pushed into Iraq a year ago, Apache Company drove through a firefight outside Samawah in southern Iraq and took a day's worth of sustained mortar fire outside of Najaf. Its soldiers helped secure a bridgehead over the Euphrates River. Along with a column of tanks and another of Bradleys, they seized Saddam International Airport on the 17th day of war.
As members of Saddam's regime began to flee, Apache began ferrying commandos from Joint Task Force 20 on secret missions looking for weapons of mass destruction and targets on the most-wanted list of former regime members and associates. Most of the raids came up empty. Then the company took part in the raid that captured Abu Abbas, a Palestinian terrorist wanted for the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship and the murder of a passenger. Abu Abbas died recently while in U.S. custody, apparently of a heart attack.
"We'd been doing these missions, then finally," said Capt. John Whyte, 32, of Billerica, Mass., who led Apache Company during the war. "It felt pretty good to at least participate in that in the small way we did."
In the first few days after Saddam's regime collapsed, "it was just pure exuberance," Whyte said.
Iraqis lined the streets to wave at the soldiers as they clanked past in their armored vehicles. On Easter Sunday, Apache took over from the Marines in securing the Tuwaitha nuclear power plant and storage facility. But exuberance soon became bedlam as the overextended troops sought to quell extensive rioting at the power plant and elsewhere.
None of Apache's soldiers spoke Arabic. The Iraqis were impatient, unruly.
"We definitely needed more people over there to sort it out," said Whyte. "The Iraqis would come at you with every nickel and dime problem they had. But if you had a weapon and you had a uniform on, then you were the authority."
"The looters were everywhere," said 1st Lt. Jerzy Matyszczuk, 31, a native of Jelenia Gora, Poland. "At night, you'd look through your night vision goggles, and you'd see people just shooting everywhere. Every morning, we'd find five or six bodies out there. It was off the hook."
"There was no way you could tell who was who," said Washburn, then 2nd platoon's leader.
There were good times, too. One morning, an old couple appeared just after daybreak, sipping tea as a column of Bradleys idled outside their home and gunfire crackled a few blocks away, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. As the column prepared to move out a little while later, the woman clipped two roses from her garden and offered them to Whyte.
"The popular support might not be there now on the streets of Baghdad," he said. "But when we were there, I can tell you that the Iraqis were happy that we were there. I really do feel that we made a difference."
The worst day came on May 4. A group of soldiers from 2nd platoon was manning a traffic checkpoint near a bridge in southern Baghdad when a shot rang out. Cpl. Samuel Kevin Hannah, a strapping 22-year-old, fell to the ground, shot in the back of the head by a round from a 9 mm pistol.
Pvt. Cody Force, Hannah's "battle buddy," was standing nearby, arguing with an Iraqi driver when he heard the shot. He turned and saw Hannah on the ground. Force, from Boise, Idaho, was the youngest man in the company. He'd turned 18 just a few weeks before the war began.
"At first, I thought he was dead," said Force. "I really legitimately snapped at that moment. ... What instantly goes through my mind was shoot them all. But of course, I didn't."
A truckload of passing Marines stopped to help, firing shots to scatter the crowd, while Force ran to fetch the medics.
The bullet struck Hannah just behind the left ear, ricocheted off the back of his skull and lodged in his neck. A surgeon was working on him within 15 minutes. Hannah underwent rounds of surgery in Kuwait, Germany and the Walter Reed Hospital, in Washington. He's been discharged from the Army and is recuperating at home in Paintsville, Ky.
Apache Company left Baghdad on June 14 and arrived in Kuwait two days later. They turned in their vehicles and heavy weapons. They spent a month waiting to go home. There were recreation and shopping trips to Ali Al Jabar air base. Most of them slept as much as they could.
Apache Company returned to the United States in July, met by a joyful crowd in the brigade gym at Fort Benning.
Now many of those who were in Iraq have moved on. All of the officers and half of the sergeants have gone to new assignments. Whyte took over command of the headquarters company at brigade headquarters. Hibbs is halfway through a six-month course at the Sergeant Majors Academy. Washburn took charge of a supply section, but left last week to attend school for a year and finish his degree. Many soldiers have simply gotten out, their enlistments over.
Like all soldiers returning from war, Apache Company has endured its divorces, drunken driving citations, drug problems. But the numbers have been relatively low. Counseling has been available for those who want it.
"I think the soldiers did very well considering how revved up we had them," said Whyte. "When you go from combat and start dealing with just regular people, that's major stuff."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+APACHE
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040316 USIRAQ deaths