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For Many in Iraq, Death Is Quick and Capricious
Platoon Sergeant's Fate Turned on Factors He Could Not Calculate

By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 7, 2005

KIRKUK, Iraq -- His men called him "Big Daddy," and, for many of them, Sgt. 1st Class Robbie D. McNary was larger than life.

He stood more than six feet tall and weighed 240 pounds, with a thunderous laugh that filled up a room. His 22-year-old Humvee driver, Spec. Trent White, said McNary possessed "bear paws for hands" and "a heart the size of the world."

White was one of the young National Guardsmen whom McNary, a gruff 42-year-old former Marine, often referred to as "my kids."

On March 31, in the small, violent city of Hawija near Kirkuk, White threw his Humvee into reverse, gunned it to knock down a garage door and, instead, crushed McNary, his platoon sergeant, between the five-ton vehicle and a warehouse their platoon was about to raid. Within minutes, as White sat frozen in the driver's seat, McNary had bled to death on a dirt road.

The growing number of U.S. military deaths, which reached 2,000 last month and has since risen to 2,035, underscores a grim reality: There are countless ways to die in Iraq.

Since the March 2003 invasion, the U.S. military has catalogued the fatalities across a variety of demographics. Casualties -- including 15,477 wounded -- are delineated as "hostile" and "non-hostile." They are broken down by branch of service, by race and ethnicity, by active and reserve units, and by 31 potential causes, including cancer, electrocution, exposure to the elements, four types of transportation accidents and eight types of weaponry.

But the statistics also obscure how death here can turn on factors as capricious as luck and human frailty, on the subtle whims of a terrible moment. "Two thousand. Two thousand American soldiers," said 1st Sgt. Stanley Clinton, 53, shaking his head. Clinton spent the past year deployed with a converted tank company in Kirkuk, a disputed northern oil city.

"That's a lot," Clinton said somberly. "I think there are a lot of people who don't realize that what's done in an instant can never be undone the rest of their lives, you know? You can get killed awfully easy here, not just by an enemy, but by a little negligence on your part."

For Task Force 1-163, a Montana Army National Guard battalion that has completed a year-long combat tour, this has been painfully evident. The unit suffered a casualty rate of 8.5 percent patrolling the 150-square-mile area around Hawija, a dusty and remote insurgent stronghold populated predominantly by Sunni Arabs.

In addition to McNary, whose funeral in Montana was attended by 800 people, including the governor, Task Force 1-163 lost two other soldiers: Spec. Timothy C. Kiser, 37, a gregarious trucker and amateur singer from Redding, Calif., who was killed instantly when a fluke roadside bomb hurled a fist-size chunk of metal through the door of his Humvee; and Staff Sgt. Kevin D. Davis, 41, of Lebanon, Ore., who died at a hospital after a roadside bomb severed his right leg and part of his left. Before he was evacuated by helicopter, rescuers had kept him alive for 43 minutes next to the Hawija canal where the bombing had occurred.

Between them, the three men had 10 children. As in many National Guard units, the soldiers and their families had forged relationships that spanned years and even decades. Sgt. 1st Class Pete Heidt, 38, of Culver, Ore., had known Davis for 15 years. A genial reserve police officer, Davis once pulled Heidt over on the road just to say hello. A month after Davis's death, while on leave, Heidt saw his widow at the annual Strawberry Festival in Lebanon. He was so shaken he had to pull over as he drove his own wife and children home.

"I guess what I was imagining was if it was the other way around," he said, choking up all over again while in Iraq last week.

Asked if he thought Davis's death was justified, Heidt chuckled darkly, repeated the question and paused for several moments.

"We're soldiers," he said finally. "That's what we do. Sometimes we die."

"Dying for Iraq is a horrible way to die," said Spec. Aaron Novak, 25, of Billings, Mont. "But to die for your buddies, that's the way I look at it. Iraq is going to be here a long time after we're gone."

Task Force 1-163 arrived in Hawija last December, 850 soldiers -- teachers and hardware salesmen and stay-at-home dads in civilian life -- deployed to a town so violent some referred to it as "the sister city of Fallujah." The unit encountered more than 600 roadside bombs during its deployment; one 30-man platoon was hit by 41.

McNary, who drove a cement truck and ran the gravel crusher for Casino Creek Concrete in Lewistown, Mont., "believed in what he was doing 100 percent," said Sgt. 1st Class James Irish, 39, who hunted, fished and bowled with McNary for 20 years. McNary's commitment appeared to have less to do with the future of Iraq than with the immediate fate of his men.

"My mission is to keep you guys safe," he told them repeatedly.

When they were attacked, he took it personally.

On Feb. 10, while patrolling in downtown Hawija, a member of McNary's platoon, Staff Sgt. John Bennett, stepped out of his Humvee. A sniper promptly shot Bennett in the side, the bullet entering the small gap between the plates of his armored vest, grazing his spine and leaving him paralyzed.

McNary was livid, his soldiers recalled. Before the platoon's next mission, he took an ax handle, wrote "Big John" on it with a black Sharpie and stalked around the base, slapping it against his huge palms. As a reminder of what he was fighting for, he placed the ax handle, message up, on the dashboard of his Humvee.

"He took that really hard," said Irish. "I think he was gonna make sure that that never happened to anybody else in the platoon."

On March 31, McNary's platoon was back in nearly the same area of Hawija where Bennett was shot, providing perimeter security while explosives experts dismantled a roadside bomb. Just before the platoon pulled out, it suddenly came under sniper fire from the direction of the concrete warehouse.

"We were 100 percent sure where it came from, and we were ordered to hit that warehouse," said White. When the soldiers tried to enter, however, the door was locked. White said he received an order to back up the Humvee and prepare to knock down a metal garage door that led into the building.

McNary, the vehicle commander, got out of the front passenger seat with his black M-4 assault rifle and prepared to rush the building. "He wanted to be with the troops on the ground as much as possible," said White. "That was his mentality."

What happened next is still unclear. Irish, a National Guard recruiter who was not deployed to Iraq but escorted McNary's body home, said he was later told that the soldiers tethered a chain or a rope to the door and planned to use the Humvee to pull it off its hinges, and "the poor driver had it in reverse when he should have had it in drive."

Others, including White, the driver, said the hastily formulated plan was to knock down the door. They suggested that McNary might have slipped into the path of the armored vehicle. "I couldn't see him in the mirrors; I was just totally blind," said White. The massive vehicle crashed into the door in an explosion of metal, but what White heard next were screams.

"Pull forward! Pull forward!" soldiers were yelling.

"I had an idea what was going on, but I didn't know who it was," White said. He said he sat in the driver's seat, frozen, as chaos enveloped him. "I didn't want to get out and get in the way," he said. "So I just sat there. I had no idea who it was or how bad it was. It felt like an eternity, but actually it was probably just a couple minutes."

Someone placed an M-4 on the passenger seat, an indication that it was McNary who was hurt. Most soldiers in the unit used longer-barreled M-16s.

Sgt. Glenn Davis, 47, of Hobson, Mont., said he saw a body that turned out to be McNary's being dragged into a dirt alley, where a medic tried to revive him.

Then, suddenly, White said he heard the call over the radio:

"Outlaw 3-4 is KIA."

It was McNary's call sign. He was dead.

"I don't remember anything after that," White said softly.

The task force commander, Lt. Col. John Walsh, said the impact of the Humvee severed one of McNary's arteries, causing him to quickly bleed to death.

The next few days were a fog, White said. When he returned to the base, the battalion chaplain wanted the platoon to gather and talk about McNary and the accident. By then, much of the platoon was in tears. Emotionally and physically spent, incredulous that he was being asked to talk about the accident when it was so raw, White said he turned down an opportunity to view McNary's body, which lay on a gurney in the battalion aid station.

Initially racked by guilt, White said he had since come to terms with the accident. His tour nearly complete, he plans to return home and apply for work as a loader at a coal mine. "It's hard to explain; it's like a dream that always goes through my head," he said, sipping a nonalcoholic margarita at the Kirkuk air base where, six months ago, he helped load McNary's heavy, flag-draped coffin onto a helicopter.

"I see Sergeant McNary looking down on me, and he's saying, 'I'm the one who screwed up. You didn't,'" said White. "I mean, I lost a great platoon sergeant, and I lost a great friend. But I also know that he wants me to go home."

McNary had plotted out his whole funeral. The details were contained in letters he had left with Annette, his wife of 24 years, and Irish's wife. Two days after his death, his wife and children received a video of family memories in the mail. "I don't know if he had a premonition or what," Irish said.

Irish read the eulogy, as McNary had requested years before, when the two were deployed together in Bosnia. But before delivering it, he read one from "Robbie's fellow soldiers overseas":

"Life is not fair, and there are no guarantees. As soon as we are born we are old enough to die.

"We must remember that war is violence, and violence is a consequence of sin and evil. Violence can also be a remedy for sin and evil."

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