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One Day at War
While Washington argued, the 2-16 Rangers fought a different battle.

By David Finkel
Sunday, September 13, 2009

BAGHDAD -- The general was coming. His helicopter was landing. The great David Petraeus was nearly here.

"Ooh, that's nice!" Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich said, surveying the top floor of a decrepit two-story building that his soldiers had spent the morning cleaning up. They were in eastern Baghdad, on a remote base called Rustamiyah.

There were muffins, cookies and fresh fruit, all arranged on a table that had been covered with a green hospital bedsheet. "It's brand new," a soldier assured Kauzlarich, who had never briefed a four-star general before and was feeling nervous.

There was an urn of fresh coffee and a bowl of iced drinks. Kauzlarich noticed there was no Diet Coke. "That's all he drinks," he said.

Finally, everything, including the Diet Coke, was ready for Petraeus, who was here for a briefing on what Kauzlarich's infantry battalion, known as the 2-16 Rangers, had accomplished as part of the Iraq strategy called the surge. Marking the spot where Petraeus would sit were a new nameplate, a new pen, a new notebook, a jug of water, a jug of juice and a coffee mug filled with ceremonial American flags.

"There's only so many ways to polish a turd," said Maj. Brent Cummings, the battalion's executive officer.

Every once in a while, a day would feel good in Iraq, and Sept. 22, 2007, seemed one of those days. The temperature was under 100 degrees. The sky was a dustless blue. The air stunk of neither sewage nor burning trash. The only smell was the chemical bouquet wafting from some portable latrines near where Petraeus paused to shake hands with a few soldiers before he walked into the little building, climbed a stairway cracked from explosions and sat in a high-backed chair that had been wiped to a shine.

Kauzlarich took the chair next to him and watched as Petraeus ignored the muffins, cookies, coffee, Diet Cokes, pen and notebook and simply reached for a grape.

He popped it into his mouth.

"Okay," he said, swallowing. "Fire away, Ralph."

* * * David Petraeus at that moment was one of the most famous people in the world. He had just returned to Baghdad from Washington, where he had testified before Congress about the surge. Over the summer, the anticipation of his testimony had grown to a frenzy, and by the time he showed up on Capitol Hill he was no longer just a general. He was the face of the Iraq war.

It would be difficult to overstate his fame, just as it would be difficult to overstate how badly Kauzlarich needed this good day. Less than three weeks before, on Sept. 4, a roadside bomb had killed three of his soldiers and left two others in critical condition, and Kauzlarich had been seeing images of dying soldiers and body parts since. It was something he didn't talk about openly, but other commanders would have understood, including Petraeus himself, who once, in a moment of reflection when the death count of American troops in Iraq neared 3,800, had said, "I almost think sometimes there's sort of a bad-news vessel, and it's got holes in the bottom, and then it drains. In other words, you know, it's really your emotions, but I mean there's so much bad news you can take. And it fills up. But if you have some good days, it sort of drains away."

Kauzlarich was in need of some draining away.

Did anyone else understand that, though? Because while the news in Rustamiyah on Sept. 4 was all about three dead soldiers and a fourth who had lost both legs and a fifth who had lost both legs and an arm and most of his other arm, that wasn't the news in the United States. It was about President George W. Bush arriving in Australia, where the deputy prime minister asked him how the war was going and he answered, "We're kicking ass." It was about a Government Accountability Office report that noted the Iraqi government's lack of progress toward self-sustainability, which Democrats seized on as one more reason to get out of Iraq, which Republicans seized on as one more reason Democrats were unpatriotic, which pundits seized on as a chance to go on television and do some screaming.

Sometimes, at Rustamiyah, the soldiers would watch the screaming and wonder how the people on those shows knew so much. Clearly, most of them had never been to Iraq, and even if they had, it was probably for what the soldiers called the windshield tour: corkscrew in, hear from a general or two, get in a Humvee, see a market surrounded by new blast walls, get a commemorative coin, corkscrew out.

The soldiers would laugh about this, but after more than half a year here, one thing they had lost sight of was how different the Iraq war was in Iraq as opposed to in the United States. To them, it was about specific acts of bravery and tragedy. Three dead inside a burning Humvee -- what else could a war be?

But in Washington, it was more strategic, more political. Three dead? How sad, and this is why we need to get out of Iraq, to honor the sacrifice, and this is why we need to stay in Iraq, to honor the sacrifice.

That was the war Petraeus had come to Capitol Hill to talk about. There'd been hints for weeks that he would say that the early signs were good, but that more time and money were needed. He was going to be specific. He was going to be pragmatic. He was going to use graphs and charts about attack trends, and none of them would depict his bad-news vessel. Washington wasn't that kind of crowd.

"We're spending $9 billion a month to stay in Iraq, of U.S. dollars," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said to Petraeus at one point in the hearings. "My question for you: Is it worth it to us?"

"Well, the national interests that we have in Iraq are substantial," Petraeus said. "An Iraq that is stable and secure, that is not an al-Qaeda sanctuary, is not in the grip of Iranian-supported Shia militia, that is not a bigger humanitarian disaster, that is connected to the global economy, all of these are very important national interests."

"Would that be a 'yes'?" Graham asked.

"Yes, sir. Sorry," Petraeus said.

"So you're saying to the Congress that you know that at least 60 soldiers, airmen and Marines are likely to be killed every month from now to July, that we're going to spend $9 billion a month of American taxpayer dollars, and when it's all said and done we'll still have 100,000 people there, and you believe it's worth it in terms of our national security interests to pay that price?"

"Sir, I wouldn't be here, and I wouldn't have made the recommendations that I have made, if I did not believe that," Petraeus said.

"Don't you think most soldiers who are there understand what lies ahead for them too?" Graham asked.

"Sir, I believe that's the case," Petraeus replied.

Eleven days later, Kauzlarich had a lot he wanted to say to the general sitting next to him -- not about the bad days, but about the battalion's achievements. There was no point in describing the dying faces of Sept. 4. Petraeus already knew the details, in his own way, through his own bad-news vessel.

Instead, Kauzlarich talked about the number of insurgents he and his soldiers had captured. The relationships he had built with local leaders. An adult literacy program in the few unruined schools. A training program for the national police. And the battalion's greatest success so far: Operation Banzeen.

There were two gas stations in the area -- the Rustamiyah station across from the base and the Mashtal station a few kilometers away. Both had been a mess when the 2-16 arrived because insurgents had taken control of them. Each day, the insurgents would either show up in large trucks and take all of the fuel that had been delivered by the government, planning to sell it on the black market, or they would shake down people to move up in lines stretching more than a mile. For those who didn't pay, their wait could last a couple of days. They would sit in 100-degree heat, growing angrier at what their country had become.

Kauzlarich's solution was to put a platoon of soldiers at each station. That was Operation Banzeen. The insurgents disappeared. Two-day waits fell to a few minutes. Fuel was available. Prices stabilized. Early on, the insurgents had fought back -- three soldiers had been wounded by sniper fire -- but the platoons draped the perimeter of the stations in camouflage netting and showed up every day. There hadn't been an attack in a month.

Petraeus, who'd heard of the operation, turned to Kauzlarich and said, "Actually, all of Baghdad has learned from that."

And you could just about hear Kauzlarich's bad-news vessel becoming a good-news vessel.

"Well, you guys keep up the terrific work," Petraeus said a few minutes later, when everyone stood outside posing for photographs; and when one of the world's most famous people put his left arm around Kauzlarich's shoulder, Kauzlarich looked the happiest he'd looked in a long time.

Away went Petraeus, to his helicopter.

"It's all good," Kauzlarich said a few hours later, standing outside in the late afternoon, and he was starting to say something else when he was interrupted by an explosion.

He swiveled his head, unsure of what it was.

It had been close by, near the main gate. It had sounded like a bomb. He looked at the sky. It was still gorgeous. But here it came now, a coil of rising black smoke, and he immediately knew that it was spiraling up from near the Rustamiyah fuel station, where the platoon that had spent the day had just radioed in that they were heading back to the base.

The radio crackled again. "Two casualties," a soldier was yelling. "One not breathing. Life threatening."

Kauzlarich took off for the aid station.

He got there just after the arrival of two Humvees, one of which had six holes in it, a ruined engine and a shredded tire, and had been chain-dragged from the fuel station to the base by the other. He passed two of his soldiers who were crying. There was a trail of bright red blood drops leading from the damaged Humvee to the aid station, and he followed it inside.

A soldier was howling. He'd been the driver. Part of the roadside bomb had gone under the Humvee and sent shrapnel through the floorboards, breaking the bones in one of his feet and slicing off the heel of the other. As Kauzlarich made his way through the aid station, Brent Cummings went to the soldier, took hold of his hand. "How's Reeves?" the soldier asked.

"Just worry about yourself right now," Cummings said.

Joshua Reeves, a 26-year-old specialist, was the one at the end of the blood trail. He'd been in the right front seat when the bomb exploded, much of it going through his door. He had arrived unconscious and without a pulse, and doctors were beginning to work on him. He wasn't breathing, his eyes weren't moving, his left foot was gone, his backside was ripped open, his stomach was filling with blood, and he was naked with the exception of one bloodied sock -- and as if all that weren't enough with which to consider Joshua Reeves in these failing moments of his life, now came word from some of the soldiers gathered in the lobby that he'd begun this day with a message from his wife that she had just given birth to their first child.

"Jesus," Kauzlarich said, his eyes filling with tears as he watched another soldier dying in front of his eyes.

"Let me know when it's three minutes," the doctor overseeing everything called out. The room smelled of blood and ammonia. There must have been 10 people around Reeves. Someone was holding an oxygen mask over his face. Someone was stabbing him with a dose of Adrenalin called epinephrine. Someone, maybe a medic, was pushing violently up and down on his chest. "You need to go harder and faster," the doctor told him. The medic began pushing so hard that pieces of Reeves's shredded leg began dropping to the floor, and Kauzlarich continued to watch in silence, as did Cummings and Command Sgt. Maj. Michael McCoy and the chaplain, all of them in a row.

"It's been two minutes," someone called out.

"Okay, check for a pulse, please."

The CPR stopped.

"No pulse."

The CPR resumed.

More of Reeves dropped to the floor.

In went a second dose of epinephrine.

"Someone feel for a pulse in his neck."

"Three minutes."

"Continue CPR, please."

In went a third dose of epinephrine as someone who was trying to clean up accidentally kicked something small and hard, which skidded across the floor until it came to a stop next to McCoy.

"That's a toe," he said quietly.

Out in the lobby, some other soldiers and an interpreter who had done their best to save Reeves in the first moments after the explosion were fighting back tears.

One of them walked in circles, hearing in his head what Reeves had said right after the explosion: "Oh my God." And then: "I can't feel anything."

The interpreter, a 25-year-old Iraqi named Rachel, would explain in the days ahead that she had been in the second Humvee when the bomb went off, had run to the first Humvee, had crawled inside until she was wedged next to Reeves and had seen him pass out and go white. "I started slapping him in the face. Hard. He was bleeding a lot. His blood was in my boots," she would say. For now she stood silently in those boots, the blood thickening in her socks.

It was 5:25 p.m., 30 minutes since the explosion, 16 minutes since doctors had begun their work and 9:25 a.m. in an American hospital where a new mother was expecting a phone call.

"Check for a pulse, please," the doctor in charge said.

"No pulse," another doctor called out.

"Continue CPR."

"Okay, your fifth dose of epi just went in now."

"We're at 20 minutes."

There was so much commotion that a discreet nod from one of the physician assistants standing near Reeves might not have gone noticed. But the chaplain, who was waiting for it, made his way to Reeves, placed a hand on his forehead and began to pray.

The doctor in charge gave it few more minutes to be sure.

"Feel for a pulse, please," she said for a final time. The oxygen machine that had been breathing for Reeves was switched off. The violent chest compressions that had been pushing blood through him came to an end. Everything stopped so a doctor could touch his fingers to Reeves's neck in silence as he made the death of another soldier official.

"Wait," he said after a moment. "Wait, wait, wait, wait." He adjusted his fingers. "I have a pulse," he said. "I have a pulse!"

Another doctor placed his fingers on Reeves to be sure. "Yes!" he said, and a room that had been so quiet switched back into motion as Reeves's heart fought to beat on its own.

There was a medevac helicopter on its way that would be landing in a few minutes, and the doctors and nurses worked frantically to prepare Reeves to be placed on it. They finished packing the wounds across his lower back and shattered pelvis. They wrapped him tightly in 20 rolls of gauze.

"How much time do we have?" the lead doctor called out.

"Four minutes," came the answer.

"Can I get a blanket, please?" the doctor said.

She swaddled him in it.

They lifted him onto a stretcher and carried him outside, where the helicopter swooped in fast, kicking up dust and creating a terrible racket. Even with that and the jostling as he was loaded on board, Reeves's eyes remained unmoving. But his heart continued to beat.

"A great save," Kauzlarich shouted to one of the doctors.

Up the helicopter went, and Kauzlarich watched until it disappeared. There was still a blue sky, and he walked back beneath it to the office where a few hours before he had stood with David Petraeus. Eight months earlier, just before leaving for Iraq, he had wondered what it would be like to see a soldier die. Now he had seen one brought back to life.

The phone rang sooner than he expected.

"Yes," he said. "Yes. Okay. Okay."

He hung up. Reeves was headed into surgery.

Then the phone rang again.

He had died.

Outside, Cummings was examining Reeves's Humvee, and feeling a little sickened by the smell of burnt hair, when he got the news. "We lost him, sir," a medic said. "Okay, thanks," Cummings said, and then walked in tears to a nearby building and began hitting and kicking it.

And inside his office, Kauzlarich was reading an e-mail that had just arrived.

"Ranger 6," it began. "I appreciate you hosting me today and laying out what is going on in New Baghdad. Your many initiatives, such as securing the gas stations, creating your own fusion cell, and optimizing the DAC all seem to be developing significant traction. You guys are making big progress, and I am very proud of the 2-16 IN Team."

And so late that night, as soldiers mourned and a new mother in the United States still waited for a phone call, Kauzlarich wrote back to Gen. Petraeus.

"It was our pleasure," he began, calling Petraeus's visit "an absolute highlight of our deployment thus far," and then he paused to consider what to say next. There were just so many ways to describe this war, that was the thing.

Congress had needed two days of hearings. Bush had needed just three words: "We're kicking ass."

Now Kauzlarich managed to do it in one. "Unfortunately," he typed as he started the next sentence, and in the truth of that word a bad day came to an end.

finkeld@washpost.com

David Finkel is on the national staff of The Washington Post. This essay is adapted from his book "The Good Soldiers," which will be published Tuesday by Sarah Crichton Books of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. For a related slideshow and video, go to www.washingtonpost.com/the-good-soldiers.

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