SSgt Greg Sanchez
Specialist Jake Sere
For those soldiers who have never tasted combat, all that it is; the smells, the sights, the sounds.....they're just foggy film clips in ones imagination. For most, war is something you see on the news or in the movies from the comfort of your sofa. War is something you always played as a small child, not something you go off to do as you surpass middle age.
I remember my first exposure to war. It was late February 2002. I was standing post at an entry control point at Bagram Airbase, about 40 miles from Kabul in Afghanistan. Operation Anaconda had just begun. It was the U.S. military's first real large scale sustained contact with the Taliban, and things were not going well. Taliban troop strength and their unyielding will to stand and fight had been grossly underestimated. The young men of the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions, men that I had watched just two hours prior climb aboard dozens of CH47 Chinook helicopters and climb into the morning sky towards the mountains and the enemy, were slowly coming back on those same helicopters in two's and three's. Those same helicopters were now full of holes and struggling to get back in time to off-load wounded and get back to the fight.
My radio crackled to be ready to clear my ECP for vehicles to come through and off-load several wounded paratroopers. The first humvee to come through my ECP contained a seriously wounded US soldier and a young Afghani soldier of the Northern Alliance. The two men had been hurriedly thrown in the back for transport to the aid station. A U.S. medic was frantically tending to the wounded U.S soldier whose screams could be heard above the rumble of the humvee's diesel engine. The Northern Alliance soldier was already dead. A steady trickle of blood flowed from his head and shoulders and spilled off the tailgate, splattering into the dusty earth, leaving a dark, wet rusty brown trail behind. I stood staring in shock. I had seen dead bodies before on the job. Homicides, suicides, fatal car wrecks, shootings, and stabbings. These were fellow soldiers though, guys that I had never met, but brothers and family nonetheless, and this was happening here and now. I could not contain my emotion, and the reality of it all struck me like a donkey kick in the kidneys.
Later that same afternoon, I stood and talked to a young USAF Para Rescueman outside the aid station, a converted, bombed out former Russian air traffic control tower. "PJ's" as they're called, are highly trained special forces medics, who specialize in rescuing downed pilots and evacuating wounded under fire by helicopter. This particular PJ told me that he had stood by waiting too long for his call to get out there. He had heard the radio traffic from the battlefield and had heard the wounded calling for help. He was incredulous that he had been told to standby, and told me, "I just want to get out there and do my job". Twenty minutes later, I watched him finally run to a waiting Chinook and disappear into the mountains. An hour later, he was dead, cut down by murderous enemy machine gun fire and mortars as he tried to shield a wounded soldier with his body. I heard a year later that he was recommended for the medal of honor, but instead received the silver star for valor...posthumously.
Ever since, I've wondered how I would perform in combat, under the same conditions. Would I honor my own heroes by my actions? Would I act bravely when I needed to? Would I be that rock for my crew when our own humvee is hit by an IED? Since arriving in Iraq, I've gone over a thousand different scenarios in my head, and I hope that the answer to each of those questions is a resounding "yes". For inspiration, I look to one of only two soldiers in our platoon to have previously seen combat. Spc Jake Sere from Stagecoach, Nevada, and SSgt Greg Sancehz, from Las Vegas.
Jake, a 30 year old former Marine, served with the 1st Marine Division during the initial invasion in 2003. Jake was wounded and refused the purple heart when his humvee was struck by an IED. He told me once that he didn't feel as though he deserved the award, because his own grandfather, a WW2 veteran, had been wounded under much worse circumstances. Jake was a .50 gunner then and he still is today. Jake is the gunner for gun truck Wolpack 4. Wolfpack 4 is our "back-door". The last gun truck in the convoy, charged with the responsibility of providing rear security. "Covering our 6" as we call it.
I wondered what made a man volunteer to do this again, especially after having been blown out of his turret by the concussion of an exploding IED once already. I wouldn't blame anyone for choosing to sit this one out after having come so close to death once before. "Why not someone whose done this before instead of someone whose never done this at all"? Jake told me. "Why deny them my experience"? "I've been here before. I've dealt with the people and know the area". Jake still carries the reminder of that day when his gun truck was struck by an IED. He has several small stones still embedded in his left check, when he was struck in the face by debris from the explosion. I asked Jake if he ever thinks about the moment his gun truck was struck by an IED in 2003. "Not really", Jake said. "I just try to put it out of my mind and think about the job I have to do". Jake saw nearly continuous combat during the main invasion from Mar 19th, 2003 to the following June. "We pushed farther north into Iraq after that and did what the Marine Corps calls SASO (Security and Stabilization Operations). We conducted mostly vehicle mounted patrols and reacted to any anti-coalition forces that we would run into" . "That's when I got hit. Fortunately, IED's weren't as sophisticated then as they are now, so it could have been a lot worse than it was". "It was hardest after I came home. I would wake up at night with night terrors".
Jake has been in invaluable asset to this mission. His knowledge of combat operations and his expertise with the .50 caliber heavy machine gun have been unparalleled. Why does he do this again? "Hell, I've got nothing else goin' on right now," he told me.
Ssgt Greg Sanchez, 29 formerly served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, stationed in Vicenza, Italy. Ssgt Sanchez, now the squad leader for our platoon's 3rd squad, has over 100 certified parachute jumps with both the U.S. Army and the Tunisian Special Forces. "The only one that counts for me is my combat jump", Greg told me. It's rare in today's Army to see any soldier wearing that coveted little gold star on his jump wings, signifying a jump made under combat conditions. Greg earned his gold star when he jumped into Northern Iraq during the early morning hours of March 26th 2003. "I was the 6th jumper back from the door", Greg told me. "The only thing going through my mind at that point was what my actions were going to be when I got to the ground....putting my weapon into action. Everybody's rucksacks were so heavy. We all carried extra ammunition water and mortar rounds. Our rucks were so heavy that we didn't wear body armor to cut down on our jump weight. All I wanted to do was get out that door. I was amped. As we approached the DZ (drop zone) we could hear the rounds being fired at us from the ground ticking off the belly of the aircraft and see the tracers flying up past us. It looked like something out of Star Wars. After I jumped and hit the ground, I sank because it was nothing but mud. There was no moon. It was totally black". Greg spent the night in his muddy fighting position staring into the blackness and waiting intensely for an enemy that never came. "We were at the farthest end of the drop zone, securing a runway at this airfield. I held my position until morning when I was relieved by members of another squad. When they (the insurgents) found out we were coming, they got out. I wasn't really scared. I don't know if it was because I was so young or just so confident in my training and my squad mates".
Greg's first taste of combat was when his squad pushed into Kirkuk in Northern Iraq. For the remainder of his tour, Greg fought from street to street and building to building. "I remember an old man that offered me a glass of water while I was on patrol. At first I was put off, because this old guy came up wanting to hug on me. He had tears in his eyes as he offered me the water and repeatedly thanked us for freeing him. Right then and there I knew that we needed to be here. Since then I've volunteered to come back here twice. The culmination for me is to come back here as many times as it takes so that my kids or anybody else's kids never have to come here. Even if it means giving my life to do it. When this is finally all over, my goal is to bring ALL of my soldiers home".
I don't know of a single soldier, sailor, airman or marine serving here that craves glory, or medals or accolades. There is not a single one of us that isn't a bit embarrassed by thanks and hugs and handshakes. Soldiers volunteer to do this two and three and four times, despite their demons because it has to be done. The famous British statesman Edmund Burke once said, "The only thing necessary for evil to thrive is for good men to do nothing". I don't know if we're good men, but none of us here can stand by and just do nothing.