Editor's note: Twenty percent of the U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan come from the Army National Guard. Many are from small towns, and go to war alongside family and friends. This is Part One of a four-part story about one of those units, Bravo Battery of the Kansas National Guard's 161st Field Artillery, and one night in Iraq that changed many lives.
The war in Iraq came home to Kathy Berry's front porch in south Wichita, Kan., one morning last winter.
It was just past 6 a.m. on Feb. 22, not quite dawn, when two soldiers in green dress uniforms stepped past the patriotic bunting that trimmed her home.
When the doorbell awakened her, Berry thought it was her son-in-law, who'd just left for work. He'd probably forgotten his keys. But when she opened the door, she felt a chill that had nothing to do with the early morning winter darkness.
Two solemn Army National Guard officers stepped inside.
"How bad?" she asked.
They hesitated. And Berry knew.
"There was a mortar attack," said one. "A response team was sent out, and there was one fatality."
Berry rocked slowly on the couch in her living room, her face in her hands, weeping uncontrollably.
Her husband, Staff Sgt. David Berry, had been part of the response team, and he'd been killed by a roadside bomb on a dark road 60 miles south of Baghdad.
It had happened 13 hours earlier and half a world away, but the shock wave reverberated around Wichita and much of Kansas. Small towns — Derby, Hillsboro, Wellington — all would hear the bad news about their National Guardsmen serving in Iraq. So would Clearwater and Lancaster. They're still feeling it today.
Lives were disrupted, bodies were broken and dreams were shattered, and Berry's unit's extended family — soldiers, family members, friends, schoolmates — all took the hit. Soldiers in active-duty units come from all over the country, but a National Guard unit is a microcosm of home.
"We're all small-town people," said Berry's stepdaughter, Holli Gill. "Just family."
David Berry was assigned to Battery B — Bravo — of the 1st Battalion, 161st Field Artillery, from Pratt and Kingman, Kan., out on U.S. 54 and U.S. 400 west of Wichita.
The 37-year-old foundry man was well liked and respected as a squad leader. In 2003, he won the Soldier's Medal, the country's highest peacetime award for valor, after he saved an unconscious man from a burning pickup.
"I think who he was as a man . . . didn't allow him any other course of action," Sgt. David Mugg said of his friend at a memorial service in Iraq.
Berry was close to his comrades. His family knew many of them, too. When he led a patrol, they had a good idea who was with him.
So in that sad south Wichita living room, Berry's family pleaded with the two officers to tell them, Who else?
Of Bravo's 127 men, only Berry had died that morning. But in the chaotic, terrible minutes after three sophisticated roadside bombs hit his patrol, it seemed that it could have been anyone.
Blood clogged the throat of Staff Sgt. Jerrod Hays, Berry's oldest friend. His face was shattered and his aorta lacerated.
"I knew I wasn't going to see my wife again, my kids . . . ," Hays recalled of his desperate efforts to breathe. "I was never going to see Kansas again."
Medics worked frantically on the men who were pulled out of Berry's Humvee. Shrapnel had destroyed part of Spc. Johnny Jones' skull. Spc. Peter Richert's leg was severed except for a few tendons.
"The first one went off near the Hummer ahead of them; the second one came through the back door of their Hummer and got Richert and Hays," said Jones' wife, Laura. "The third one, that's when they got David and John."
Spc. Tyler Wing, 23, who drove up on the scene, said that when he joined the Guard, "What I knew about war was what I found in the movies. But you see dead bodies, blown-up trucks, you smell that smell, you realize what's going on around you."
As word of what had happened rippled through south-central Kansas, routine things — making lunch and dusting furniture — suddenly became weighted with an infinite sadness. An otherwise normal day was now a point of demarcation.
"We've grown up with them," said Maj. Gen. Tod M. Bunting, the Kansas adjutant general. "You know all their families, you know their hometowns, and everybody in that hometown considers them to be their soldier."
You won't find three sets of brothers in a regular Army outfit, but in Bravo you did. Some of their mothers met monthly for dinner to share news and companionship.
Bravo was led by an eighth-grade science teacher and football coach. Its ranks were filled with blue-collar workers and college men such as Richert, a 23-year-old physical education major at Tabor College in his hometown of Hillsboro.
The youngest was 20, the oldest, 43. Some were single, some were married. Richert had an infant daughter he'd never seen.
Hays, 38, had met David Berry in ninth grade, and they'd been fast friends ever since. They'd worked together at the iron foundry in Norwich. He once dated Gill, Berry's stepdaughter.
Johnny Jones, 35, a refrigeration technician for Farmland Foods, was a friend, too.
"Well, throw my name in the hat," he'd told them about going to Iraq. "Y'all ain't going nowhere without me."
One thing you don't want to hear on a moonless security patrol in south-central Iraq is a panicked policeman shouting: "Ali Baba! Ali Baba everywhere!"
To Bravo, that was one more bad omen on a night that already had had too many.
"After you're there for a while, you know what's normal and what's not," Wing said. "Right off the bat, we're getting warning signs that something's up."
Things had started on the wrong foot when a "Secret Squirrel mission" to the town of Shumali had to be scrubbed at the last minute.
The plan had been to pick up a bomb maker who was responsible for an IED — improvised explosive device — attack on a patrol weeks earlier. That one had been a close call for Spc. Curtis Turpin, who'd walked away with only a concussion and scratches.
Bravo had trained for the mission all that day and night. Geared up, trucks fueled, an Iraqi SWAT team standing by, the men were getting antsy. But the snitch who was supposed to follow the bomb maker had lost him in the town of several thousand.
The mission finally was called off. But since the squads were prepped, command decided to send some out on a "presence patrol," the rough equivalent of a cop out walking a beat.
The squads, Assassin 2-2 and Assassin 2-3, each had three Humvees, generally with four men in each. Bravo usually patrolled in the morning and at night, and the last-minute, six-hour assignment triggered grumbling and a nagging sense of unease.
"It was kind of an odd time to go," said Spc. Travis Waltner of Wichita, a 24-year-old member of Berry's squad. "It was put together real quick. You got a feeling that something was just not right."
Jones slid behind the wheel of Berry's vehicle. Up above, Richert checked the M240 7.62 mm machine gun in the Humvee's turret.
Hays tossed his gear in the back. As an assistant platoon leader, he didn't usually ride with Berry, his old buddy; and he could have sacked out instead. But this mission seemed a little like a "bum rap."
"If you guys have to be out, I'll be out," Hays said. "There's no reason for me to sleep, because everybody's bone-tired."
It was typical Hays.
"He's a guy you want to be like," said Sgt. Mike Seefeld, 26, who climbed into one of the Assassin 2-2 Humvees. He was a member of the Wisconsin National Guard assigned to Bravo.
"He would give you the shirt off his back and take the time to teach you something. He's just a man's man."
Outside the gate, the squads split up, with squad 2-3 going to Shumali, about five miles east. The town felt creepy. Not a single light was on. Then a patrolling Iraqi police car saw the Americans and flipped on its siren as some kind of message. To them? To the insurgents? Who knew?
The squad drove on, increasingly uneasy. "Keep your eyes open," the radio warned.
Assassin 2-2 rejoined them at a suspiciously undermanned police checkpoint outside the town. That's where they were when command called to report that their base, Convoy Support Center Scania, was under mortar and rocket attack.
Told to look for the launchers, the two squads headed west.
The attack on the base stopped, then started up again. Spc. John Duncan, a 2-3 gunner, saw the flashes through his night goggles.
"Hey man, it looks like they're hitting the base!" the 21-year-old University of Kansas student shouted to the others. "I'm counting. That's five, that's six. . . . "
The first barrage, at around 12:30 a.m., provoked little concern. Mortar attacks, probably by local Shiite Muslim insurgents, were pretty common. Only three rounds had ever hit inside the compound in the time that Bravo had been there. These missed, too.
"Another evening where it was business as usual," said Capt. Sean Herbig, 40, the commander of the 161st and a middle school science teacher and football coach. "We had patrols out and route security out. It wasn't anything for us to get mortared."
After half an hour, the all-clear sounded, and everyone left the safety of the bunkers and went back to what he'd been doing.
Sgt. Michael Miller, 43, was among them. A steelworker at a castings plant in Atchison, Kans., he'd served on active duty and in the reserves before joining the Guard.
"Ever since 9-11, I just wanted to get back in," Miller said. "I got tired of watching young kids get hurt. They need to be in school. Then what happens? I get hurt."
He was in the latrine when the plywood walls and PVC piping exploded into a fusillade of flying daggers. One found Miller, and the impact slammed him to the ground.
"It just felt like somebody had hit you in the back of the leg with a sledgehammer."
His leg felt like it was on fire. Shrapnel had torn the calf muscle almost cleanly away from his leg.
"We need to get you out of here!" another soldier shouted.
They huddled by the doorway as another round hit. Angry and wanting revenge, Miller told a medic just to wrap duct tape around his wound so he could grab a gun and go after the enemy. The medic poured iodine on it instead.
"That's a new level of pain for me," Miller said. "I guess it's a good thing I didn't have my weapon because I probably would have shot the doctor right there."
Lloyd Mattix, 42, the 2nd Platoon sergeant, had just finished accounting for all his men after the first barrage when the second one hit.
"I didn't hear the one that landed on top of me," he said. "I saw the flash before I heard the bang. It was like the biggest flashbulb you've ever seen."
Mattix was an electrician who'd served on nuclear submarines in the Navy. He joined the Guard after being out of the service for five years. His family wasn't thrilled about his going to Iraq, but he said his wife knew "that's who I am, that if I hadn't gone or refused to go, I wouldn't be the person she married."
Now his legs refused to get off the barracks floor. Shrapnel had sliced into his legs and hip.
"I'm hit!" Mattix yelled.
Spc. Simon Makovec, a 23-year-old mechanical engineer, heard Mattix. In Army shorts and flip-flops, he carried his sergeant over his shoulder to a bunker. That's when he discovered that his leg was bleeding, too. Unlike the others, his wound wouldn't require evacuation for surgery.
Shrapnel also gouged a 3-inch-deep gash in Curtis Turpin's abdomen.
"They let us have our siren go off for the all-clear . . . and started again," the 34-year-old truck driver said ruefully. "They knew what our signal was to get out of our bunkers. We've talked about it among ourselves. All they've got to do is just pay attention."
Seven rounds hit targets inside the compound that night. They knocked out some of the power, broke water pipes and smashed some buildings.
Amid the smoke and shouting, medics patched up the wounded, then put them on helicopters to a military hospital in Baghdad.
Beyond the gates, two squads of Kansas Guardsmen drove warily through the darkness. Bravo Battery's bad night was far from over.