As deployment nears, nerves fray
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Even before the shootings at this sprawling military post, Pfc. Nicolas Woodworth was wary of shipping out for Afghanistan in early January. As a combat engineer, he is supposed to serve on a route-clearance team, creeping down Afghan roads at 5 mph looking for bombs.
To steel himself for the dangerous and nerve-racking job, Woodworth relied on Pfc. Aaron Nemelka. Nemelka often slept on the couch in the small apartment that Woodworth and his wife had rented just outside Fort Hood. The two soldiers entered bowling tournaments together and spent hours watching Quentin Tarantino movies.
Woodworth didn't want to go to war, he said this week. But he also couldn't bear the thought of letting his best friend go without him.
Nemelka was among the first soldiers killed when Maj. Nidal M. Hasan allegedly opened fire on his fellow soldiers Nov. 5. Now Woodworth is wavering. "I am absolutely not ready to deploy," the 20-year-old said as he nervously gnawed on the edge of his black Army beret. "I don't know if I am mentally ready" to lose someone else.
His struggles pose a dilemma for his platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Ryan Corken. His two dozen soldiers, members of the 20th Engineer Battalion, were tense before the shootings. The 20th Engineers will replace a 700-member battalion that has lost 11 soldiers in Afghanistan. Four were killed in late October when a 1,000-pound bomb struck one of their mine-clearing vehicles.
"Is Woodworth kind of scared to deploy?" Corken, 24, asked rhetorically. "Yes. We are all scared. But you don't want to perpetuate that by making it an easy out. You have to balance those who truly need help with those who are getting cold feet and trying to avoid their responsibilities."
Corken's platoon, which began November with 27 soldiers, lost three in the Fort Hood attack. This week the platoon's troops finished their final tributes to the fallen. Soldiers loaded their belongings into shipping containers, completed their wills, and took inventory of the physical and emotional damage wrought by the shootings.
On the day of the attack, Nemelka and five of his platoon comrades were getting immunizations and filling out pre-deployment paperwork at Fort Hood's Soldier Readiness Processing Center. Woodworth was in his car in the center's parking lot, waiting for his friend, when the shootings began. Nemelka was one of the first soldiers to die, witnesses said.
Woodworth watched as the gunman left the building, still shooting at fleeing soldiers. A few feet from Woodworth, a volley of bullets struck a soldier, who crumpled onto the hood of a car.
Woodworth removed his T-shirt to use as a bandage, and he handed his belt to a medic, who fashioned it into a tourniquet to save a major who had been struck in the leg.
In Woodworth's combat lifesaver classes, treating the wounded seemed relatively straightforward. "When blood is actually gushing from them, it is much harder," he said.
Since the shooting, he said, he has been unable to sleep more than a few hours a night. When he looks at his kitchen table, he sees Nemelka, a skinny 19-year-old, grinning back at him. To memorialize his friend, Woodworth went to a tattoo parlor and had a black rose with Nemelka's name inked into his rib cage, along with his friend's dates of birth and death.
Woodworth tries to talk to his wife, whom he met and married only a few months after moving to Fort Hood. She is seven months pregnant with their first child. "It feels like stuff is crashing down," he said.
Most of the other soldiers in his platoon aren't grieving in the same manner as Woodworth. Pfc. Nicholas Buchman was inside the readiness center and dived for cover when the gunfire began. Crawling on his belly, he hid in a hallway off the main meeting room. A sergeant handed him the plastic base of an oscillating fan for self-defense. "I guess I was going to hit [the shooter] with it," Buchman said.
There were only two ways out of the building. One exit ran through the hallway where Buchman was hiding. The gunman took the other exit.
Once the shooting stopped, Buchman rushed to help with first aid. He hopped into a pickup truck ferrying wounded soldiers to the hospital and was quickly drenched in their blood.
The experience, Buchman said, has left him more confident in himself and his training.
Last week, the platoon's soldiers gathered on the Fort Hood runway and stood at attention as transfer cases bearing their dead colleagues were loaded on a plane for Dover Air Force Base. Corken addressed his men on the edge of the tarmac. "These soldiers wanted to deploy and wanted to be in the Army," he said. "When we go to Afghanistan, we need to make them proud. We will carry their names with honor and pride."
Lt. Col. Peter Andrysiak said Corken told him that the shootings had increased anxiety about deploying among a few of the soldiers in his platoon. All of the affected soldiers, including Woodworth, have seen mental health counselors or psychiatrists.
But Andrysiak told Corken that he couldn't just rely on the counselors to get his troops mentally ready to go. "This is a leadership issue," he recalled telling the young officer. "You have got to be engaged in talking to your soldiers over and over. You have to talk to them every day and help them understand that what they are experiencing is normal. . . . This is not something I can solve for you in morning formation with the battalion."
The contrast between Woodworth and Buchman is particularly puzzling to Corken. "Buchman was more affected by the shooting than Woodworth, and he is ready to deploy," he said.
The lieutenant has spent a lot of time thinking about how he can reach Woodworth and whether it makes sense to force him to go, especially if he continues to say that he can't handle the mental strain. With the deployment drawing closer, Corken has thought about invoking Nemelka's name, telling his struggling soldier that his friend would want him to go.
So far he has resisted the urge. "I don't want Woodworth to feel that I am leveraging the death of one of our soldiers to get him to fight," Corken said. "Nemelka doesn't deserve that."