11 Days Till Baghdad
Crucial to the President's New Strategy for Iraq, A Commander and His Soldiers Head Into War

By David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 25, 2007

FORT RILEY, Kan. -- Their camouflage on, their wives carrying infants, their older children carrying flags, the soldiers of George W. Bush's surge crowded into a gymnasium for their brigade deployment ceremony, a last public viewing before they disappeared into Iraq.

Baghdad, long an abstraction, was now imminent. Of the 21,500 additional troops President Bush decided to send to Iraq in the coming months, about 3,500 were coming from here. "Are you frightened?" a TV reporter called out. "I'm confident," one of those soldiers replied. An enormous American flag hung on the back wall. A military band lined up in formation. "Ready to go," another soldier said.

Outside, snow was coming toward this isolated place. Inside, as the bleachers filled and the doors swung closed against the cold, a 41-year-old soldier near the middle of the floor began clapping his hands in anticipation.

And now waved at his wife and children.

And now took his position in front of the soldiers he would soon be leading into combat.

This was Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, the commander of an Army battalion called the 2-16 -- the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. The unit has 800 soldiers, most in their late teens and deploying to Iraq for the first time under the command of a man who, in this gymnasium filled with believers, was among the biggest believers of all.

"We are America," is how Kauzlarich would describe his belief a few days later, just before boarding a plane that would take him and his soldiers for a year's deployment into the center of an increasingly unpopular war. "This nation can do anything that it wants to do."

Down the hill, in another part of Fort Riley, a different ceremony was underway. That one, a private memorial service, was for a 21-year-old sergeant from a different battalion who five days before was traveling through northern Iraq when a makeshift bomb detonated near his vehicle, making him one of 25 American troops to die that day in the war.

The ceremony in the gym was a celebration, however, and now, from the band, came a stirring series of notes from a trumpet, followed by a moment of quiet, interrupted by a single boom of a bass drum so sudden and explosive it caused people to flinch, including some of the soldiers.

Ralph Kauzlarich, who perhaps would be an American hero a year from now, or perhaps would be an American tragedy, didn't flinch, though. Instead, just for a moment, he smiled.

***

What is it like to be a soldier in an unpopular war? To be part of a troop increase that the American public is overwhelmingly against, and to lead 800 soldiers into a war being described as "barbaric" and a "meat grinder" and the result of a "failed policy" and down to "the last chance" and "lost"?

"What we're about to do is going to change every one of our lives," Kauzlarich told his command staff at a meeting the day after the ceremony, which had concluded with handshakes from people who would grab onto him and lock onto his eyes, as if they were already trying to remember the last time they saw Ralph Kauzlarich. "And it'll all be okay," he continued, "as long as we win."

So fiercely does Kauzlarich believe this -- that the war can be won and that it will be won -- it can seem as if he is the one grabbing onto something, in this case the idea that victory is a matter not only of strategy and tactics, but of sheer willpower as well. A true believer's certainty: This is Kauzlarich's, who at 8 years old announced to his family that when he grew up he wanted to be "a leader of men," became the youngest Eagle Scout ever in his home state of Montana, attended West Point, became an Army Ranger, served in Desert Storm, served in Afghanistan, played a controversial role in the Army review of the friendly-fire death of Cpl. Pat Tillman, served a special-operations tour in Iraq, has climbed steadily through the officer ranks, and has yet to experience military failure.

As one of his soldiers said: "He's the kind of guy you follow to hell and back. He's that kind of leader."

He has never lost a soldier under his command. "No, I have not had to contend with that yet," he said. He has never had a soldier of his even get hurt, has never loaded a wounded soldier of his onto a stretcher, or treated a bleeding soldier of his on a battlefield, or notified a family that their beloved child, or husband, or father, had died. "I've talked to families that have lost sons in combat," he said, but those conversations were well after the fact and didn't involve soldiers who were directly his.

That, he imagines, will change. "Statistically, there's probably a pretty good chance I'm going to lose men," he said, and like so many things that would happen in the 11 days between the deployment ceremony on Jan. 25 and his actual departure on Feb. 5, the statement seemed both factual and heartbreaking. Ironies and bittersweet juxtapositions are inescapable in wartime, and these days weren't any exception.

One day came news that two soldiers and 250 insurgents had died during all-day gun battles that were unusually fierce, even by the standards of Iraq; that was the day Kauzlarich, his wife and three children all put on matching outfits of blue jeans and white shirts and went to Sears for a family portrait.

Another day: "I looked at Ralph's body armor today, and picked it up, and felt it," Kauzlarich's father -- who had flown in with his wife to say goodbye, and had gone to his son's office, and had hoisted the armor, and had heard medics boast that they could get a wounded soldier to a hospital from anywhere in Baghdad in 15 minutes max, and had been spared the detail that snipers had begun aiming at soldiers' thighs in order to pierce the femoral artery -- said at dinner. There was ham. There were twice-baked potatoes. There was a Betty Crocker cookbook open on the counter. There was an apple crisp in the oven.

Earlier, out of his son's earshot, the father, whose name is also Ralph Kauzlarich, said: "I have feelings. I have fears. I know he could get injured. I know he could not get back. But I know what he feels, too. He believes this."

His eyes had gotten a little wet as he said this, but now, eyes back to dry, merely nodding, he ate ham and potatoes and listened as his son described the first time he had come under fire in Desert Storm, how he had thought he might die, how he hadn't.

"Okay, there's a reason I'm here," Kauzlarich said he decided that day, as his parents listened, and his wife, Stephanie, went to get the apple crisp out of the oven, and his 7-year-old daughter, Allie, climbed onto his lap for a hug, and his son Jacob, who was born just after Sept. 11, 2001, slid laughing across the floor on his belly. "I wasn't afraid of anything from that point on."

Later:

"That's all you want to be buried with?" Stephanie asked.

Kauzlarich was filling out something called the Family Contingency Workbook.

I want to be buried, cremated: Buried.

Location of Cemetery: West Point.

Personal effects I want buried with me: Wedding Band.

Yes, he told Stephanie, whom he had met when they were students at West Point and who hadn't exactly been seduced by his first words to her, which were: "You can call me The Kauz." That was all he wanted to be buried with.

Type of head stone: Military.

Scripture you want read: Psalm 23.

Music you want played: Something upbeat.

"Ralph, upbeat music?" Stephanie asked.

"I don't want people to be sad at my funeral," Kauzlarich said.

***

His soldiers -- average age 19, the oldest 46, the youngest 17 -- were filling out forms, too. Getting their wills in order. Designating powers of attorney. Working down final medical checklists: teeth, hearing, heart, blood pressure, blood type.

As part of a battalion that has been in almost every American conflict since the Civil War, these newest soldiers of the 2-16 had been training for a year for some type of mission, though they didn't know any details. When their deployment to Iraq became official in late 2006, they were told they would be protecting fuel convoys coming into the country from Jordan. But then Bush's troop increase was announced, along with a strategy shift toward counterinsurgency warfare, and now the soldiers were hearing that their mission would involve patrols somewhere in Baghdad.

Where exactly, and what exactly, were still a mystery to them. Kauzlarich knew. So did his top commanders. Every day, they would disappear for a while into a secure room at battalion headquarters to learn more about the area they would be trying to bring under control. "A mean and nasty little place," Kauzlarich said when he emerged one day, and meanwhile his soldiers continued to prepare for whatever.

"What in the hell?" asked Command Sgt. Maj. Michael McCoy, the battalion's top enlisted man, as he inspected lines of soldiers who stood at attention in the parking lot in their body armor, acting as if the wind wasn't making the temperature feel barely above zero. Straps weren't tight enough, ceramic plates intended to stop bullets were an inch off, medical kits containing compression bandages and tourniquets were attached to the left side instead of the right. "Consistency," McCoy reminded them. What if it was dark? What if in that dark another soldier was trying to find your medical kit, and you couldn't help him because you were too busy bleeding, and you couldn't direct him because you were too busy screaming?

They had briefings on health risks. Wash your hands. Don't smoke. Drink bottled water. Wear ear protection. Wear cotton underwear. Watch out for rats. "From what I hear, the forward operating base we're going to is right next to a sewage plant," said one of the briefers. And then came a chaplain who began: "All right. Stress management. Suicide prevention. Let's go." And on he went. "This is important. If you are not ready to die, you need to get there. If you are not ready to die, you need to be. If you are not ready to see your friends die, you need to be."

They had battle training, too, one day mounting up in mockups of Humvees that were surrounded by video screens showing all kinds of hellish scenarios. They were trying to maneuver to a downed helicopter. That was the exercise. There was an explosion, a suicide bomber, an ambush. One of the Humvees was hit. Two soldiers were dead. Three were alive. "You're talking about somebody who's on fire," came the directions to soldiers in one of the other Humvees, who were on their way to attempt a rescue. "You're talking about someone whose fingers are burning off. They can't reach over and unbuckle their seatbelt. You've got to get them out . . ." and meanwhile one of the "wounded" soldiers began crying theatrically, "I want to live! I want to live!"

This was Spec. Ryan Nyhus, 19, of whom Kauzlarich said: "The kid's heart is as big as a basketball. He's a superstar." A superstar now, but a year and a half ago he was a high school wrestler in Wisconsin who didn't get the college scholarship he'd hoped for, and so was open to a suggestion from a friend that they join the Army together. Nyhus was sworn in first. Then came the friend's turn, and as he raised his hand, someone noticed that he had signed his name on the enrollment form in the wrong place, and as Nyhus tells it the friend took it as a sign from God "and walked out. Went home. Now he's really big into photography."

Eight hundred soldiers, 800 stories.

McCoy's: Age 44, wife, two children, career Army. "My job is not to die for my country," he said. "It's to see how many of those bastards I can kill for their country."

Staff Sgt. Frank Gietz, 41: two Iraq tours already, the last one doing convoy escorts in which 18 of 132 soldiers in his company were killed, now in charge of a platoon of 32, one of whom asked him just before Christmas how to deal with having to kill somebody. "Yeah, it worried me," Gietz said. "That's why I talked to him for two hours." And said? "Put it in a dark place while you're there."

Pvt. Mario Luna, 17: He asked Gietz the question. He asked it because a girl he had been talking to asked it of him. "And that got me all wound up," Luna said, so Gietz told him to look at the thing he was about to shoot at "as a target, not as a person, and that got me back in the game."

Eight hundred -- and every one was now the responsibility of Kauzlarich, who kept disappearing into the secure room and reappearing with adjustments and refinements.

"I am right now vetting an initiative in which all of us grow mustaches," he told his command staff at one of their daily meetings. Maybe it would foster trust when they moved along the streets of Baghdad, he explained, because Iraqis regard a man with facial hair as a man and a man without facial hair as a boy. "Any advantage we can get," he said, and then he looked at the men he was talking to and wondered aloud: "Can you grow mustaches? I look at you. You've all got such baby faces."

The meeting continued, and meanwhile, outside Kauzlarich's office, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Hodges, 27, one of those baby faces, his with a round scar in a cheek that led to another scar on the back of his neck, told the story of what it was like to get shot in Iraq on July 21, 2006.

"Everything went dark," he said.

And: "I remember the moaning. I remember the gurgling sound in my throat."

And: "I thought it was my last breath of air that day, until I realized the pain was going to last forever."

And: "Hey sir," he wrote during his recuperation, in an e-mail to an officer he had met a few years before who had told him "what a great soldier I was" and "how much confidence he had in me," and who had been "kind of like a father figure to me," and had said Hodges would always be welcome in his command and had single-handedly persuaded him to reenlist.

"I asked him if he still wanted me," Hodges said. "I told him I was broken."

"I don't care," Kauzlarich wrote back. "I'll take care of you. When can I expect you?"

And here Hodges was, one of the 800, ready to tell any of the other 799 what it is like to get shot. Not that they'd asked. "They just kind of stare at me and wonder," Hodges said. But if they did ask, "I'd tell them it hurts."

***

They packed ammunition and photographs and first-aid kits and candy. They went into town and in a few cases drank too much, and in a few other cases went AWOL. Five days before departure, Kauzlarich studied a list of soldiers who wouldn't be able to go. Seven needed some sort of surgery. Two were about to have babies. One had an infant in intensive care. Two were in jail. Two (including Luna) would have to stay back until they turned 18. Nine were, for various reasons, "mentally incapable of doing what we're about to do."

But most could do what they were about to do, were eager to, impatient even, and said so in no uncertain terms.

"You ready?" McCoy asked soldier after soldier during another body armor inspection.

"Roger, Sergeant Major!"

"You sure?"

"Roger, Sergeant Major!"

"It's the decisive point of the fight," one soldier explained later, foot tapping, head nodding, practically vibrating. "This is the chance to win it."

Belief, then. Kauzlarich remembers the day he realized how strong a force it could be. He was in Fort Benning, Ga., for advanced coursework, and at the end of an exercise, as he and other soldiers waited outside for a ride, a visiting soldier from Sierra Leone explained how he had survived that country's various wars.

"In my country, we put on a blouse. It is a magic blouse. When I wear it, I know bullets cannot harm me," Kauzlarich recalls him saying. The soldier then rolled up a sleeve of his magic blouse. "Let me show you," he said. "Give me a knife." Someone gave him a knife. "Watch," he said, and Kauzlarich watched incredulously as the soldier swung the knife, which had a four-inch, razor-sharp blade, down on his soft inner forearm. It went easily through the skin. It went through veins. It went through muscle. It went all the way down to the bone, and for one belief-filled moment everyone waited for the healing to begin -- and then the soldier collapsed.

"That's a form of belief," Kauzlarich said of what he learned that day. "That's also a form of jackassery."

What about Iraq's believers, though? The ones for whom a briefing about suicide would focus on how to do it in order to kill as many American soldiers as possible, rather than on how to prevent it? The ones who believe as surely as Kauzlarich believes, and who are presumably waiting for him?

"Who will win?" he said, rephrasing the questions. "I will win."

He thought about his answer.

"Is that belief or confidence?" he asked. "Is it confidence, or is it overconfidence? Those are questions I have to ask myself. Because if it's overconfidence, it's arrogance."

He thought some more.

"I will win," he said again.

Three days until departure now. Kauzlarich wanted his soldiers to have these last days off to be with their families, who had come here from a dozen states and filled every hotel room in town, but first he gathered them on a field behind battalion headquarters to tell them the details of what they were about to do. It had snowed, and it was cold, and the sun was going down as he said that they soon would be on the edge of Sadr City, Baghdad's infamous and violent slum. The soldiers ringed him and pressed closer to hear, and as he raised his voice, his words about "initiative" and "paranoia" and "emotion" echoed off the ice and the surrounding buildings, making this place feel even chillier than it was.

"Now it's not a game, guys," he said. "You are going to see some horrific things in the next year. You are going to see some things you are not going to understand. . . .

"It's down to nut-cutting time, and we're going to get some, but we're going to do it in a disciplined manner, like we do everything. . . .

"I am absolutely confident in your abilities, absolutely confident. . . .

"The bottom line is this weekend's your last, okay? So call your parents, love your families, stay focused on them for this weekend. Not later than Tuesday night, as soon as you get on that airplane and that airplane takes off, your sole focus is going to be winning our nation's war."

There was a pause, just long enough for the word "war" to echo and evaporate, and then the soldiers began to cheer, loudly and for a while, and then they left the field and headed inside the battalion building, filling room after room not with a soldier's bloodlust, which would come soon enough, but with the wintry smell of boys who have been out in the snow.

***

And then it was departure day, and in the Kauzlarich house a phone call came at 8:30 a.m. saying there had been a death.

The family, by then, was wide awake. The children were running around with stuffed animals purchased over the weekend, each with a memory chip containing a quick recorded message from their father for them to play over the coming year. "Hi Jacob. I love you." "Hi Garrett. I sure do love you." "I love you, Allie-gator."

And so came one more juxtaposition: "Sir, there's been a casualty forward," the caller said.

The dead soldier, who in coming days would be identified as the 3,100th U.S. fatality of the war, wasn't in Kauzlarich's battalion, but his brother was, and that's why Kauzlarich was being called. The parents didn't know yet. They were somewhere in the area visiting their son who was about to deploy, and a search for them was underway. Did Kauzlarich happen to know where they were saying goodbye to one son, so they could be informed that their other son had died?

He hung up. He pictured the soldier -- not the dead one, whom he didn't know, but the one in his battalion, who of course would now not be going to Iraq, at least not right away. He made some calls. No luck. More calls.

The morning continued. Seven-year-old Allie wanted his attention; the night before, after saying she had a headache, and then saying she might have a fever, she had said, "I don't want you to leave," and when he told her, "I'll be okay, and if I'm not okay, you'll be okay because I'll be checking on you," she had said, "Then I'll kill myself so I can be with you." The boys, too young for such sensitivities, ran around the house clobbering each other as usual, while Stephanie had her own images to contend with.

"Gray. Dismal. A very sad place to live," is how she would picture the place her husband was going when she would close her eyes. She had done her time in the Army after graduating from West Point, and she had a soldier's guarded sense of sentimentality, but now came a new image, that of a freshly dead soldier. She had been keeping any doubts about the mission to herself. "He believes in this," she had explained one day. But this day was different. "You better come back," she now said.

Belief vs. uncertainty: Such was the subtext in 800 places that morning as the Army continued its search for two parents and a son. The soldiers would be leaving in two groups over the next 24 hours. The first group was due at battalion headquarters at 1 p.m., and at 12:42 the first hug was underway in the parking lot, a tangle of moving arms that was still going strong at 12:43. By 12:45, tears had begun in several places, including inside a car where a woman sat motionless against the door, head in her hands, and so it continued as the afternoon progressed.

The soldiers smoked. They got their guns. They lined up their body armor. They waited, checking their watches, with wives, girlfriends, children, parents, grandparents. "I seen 'em off in World War II," said the grandfather of a private named Ricky Andrus. "I had a brother who was killed. A pilot on a B-24. He went down in the Mediterranean. He was 20 years old." Which was one year younger than Andrus, who was loading the family car with things he wouldn't be taking, including a pair of cowboy boots whose top halves had been dyed a beautiful blue.

A sergeant named Johnathan Pritchett, meanwhile, was kissing a young woman who was up on her tiptoes, while Gietz told his platoon to start wrapping up the goodbyes already, while Nyhus stood alone on a loading dock and recounted the advice he'd gotten the night before during a call with his friend the photographer. "Keep your head down," the friend had said.

Three p.m. now, and Kauzlarich arrived with Stephanie and the children. "This day sucks," he said. The soldier and his parents still hadn't been found, but it was only a matter of time now, and Kauzlarich understood there would be ripples as word began seeping out, first through the soldier's squad, then his platoon, then the battalion. Blood through a magic blouse; that's what the effect of this death would be. "There's nothing good about it," Kauzlarich said, and when he began saying goodbye to his family and Allie started to cry, something she hadn't done all the other times he had left, that only made things worse.

He said goodbye to his family in his office. He said goodbye again when he put them in the car. He said goodbye again when they didn't leave right away, just stayed in the car, and then he went back into his office and into the final hours.

Computer: packed. BlackBerry: packed. Extra tourniquet: packed. Extra compression bandage: packed. Family photo: packed. Lights: off. He shut the door to his office. He ducked into another office when Jeremy Hodges, who would be staying behind to recuperate, called to him. "Thank you. I will," Kauzlarich said, and walked on. "Jeremy Hodges. Great American," he said, and then he made his way to a nearby gymnasium for one last ceremony, this one with no TV cameras, no trumpets, no drum. Just soldiers sitting on bleachers, eating cookies and waiting to be bused to a plane and listening to one last speech.

"This is going to be hard. Probably the hardest thing you've ever done," the speech began. "But it's going to be okay."

It was the same thing Kauzlarich had said a few days before to his command staff, but this time it was a general talking while Kauzlarich stood to the side, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet and looking at row after row of soldiers, every one of them his.

What if they die?

And what if he dies?

Would such a death, in such a war as this war has become, be worthwhile?

"It's worthwhile if we win," Kauzlarich said. "But to sacrifice, there's got to be a purpose. And if we don't win, then our sacrifices are going to be in vain."

"Good luck and Godspeed," the general said, ending his speech, and then it was time to go.

Out went the soldiers, funneling into single file to get through the exit doors. They had learned in training to avoid such a formation. Too easy for the enemy to get them. "The fatal funnel," it was called. But here, there was no enemy, only Kauzlarich, the man who had yet to fail, clapping them on their backs as they moved past.

"Ready?" he asked.

"Yessir."

"Good?"

"Yessir."

"Ready to be a hero?"

"Yessir."

Out they went, one by one, hundreds of them, until there was only one soldier left for Kauzlarich to speak to.

"Are we ready for war?" he asked himself, and then out he went, too, onto a bus, onto a plane, into Kuwait to regroup with his soldiers, and as of this week, into the heart of Baghdad, where any moment now their surge will begin for real.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company