The Department of Defense announced last week that 3700 soldiers from Alaska's 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which has been deployed in Mosul since last summer, will be extended for as long as 120 days to boost security in Baghdad. These soldiers were 2 weeks from coming home. My heart goes out to these familes. I have walked in their shoes.
Back on April 3, 2004, Ken's unit had turned in their weapons, had shipped their personal items home. They had taken their unit photos, a tradition well known by members of the military. These guys had been in Iraq for nearly a year and were heading for the march out of Baghdad, the following week. The families who had held their collective breathes for that year were trying to decide if it was time to breathe. The plans for the Welcome Home parties were in full swing. I had planned the menu for this grand party. We had stopped sending CARE packages. They were COMING HOME!
The next day, on April 4 in Sadr City, Iraq, Ken's unit lost their first soldier, Sgt Mike Mitchell of Atascadero, CA.
In April, 2004, the First Armored Division had already spent a year trying to gain control of Baghdad, one of the most dangerous assignments in the country. Units were then sent to the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala to battle the Mahdi Army, the militia founded by Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric. Morale plummeted among soldiers of the First Armored Division when they were asked to stay beyond their yearlong tour in order to quell a Shiite uprising
On April 14, 2004, the Department of Defense announced that 20,000 US troops were being operationally extended for 120 days. We didn't know when the 120 days began; we didn't know when they would be home. I was devastated at this news. Ken told me their mission was not complete and they had to stay for this 120 days. He sound exhausted. I could not, did not tell him how heartbroken the families were. They made it through the year until Mike was killed; there had been a few injuries, but not life threatening. I thought that we had been fortunate how we made it this far. How would the families feel if their soldier didn't come home when they had waited so long, when their loved ones had done what the president had asked of them? The parties were on hold for 120 days. Ken would spend his 2nd birthday in Iraq, another summer in hell. How many families would miss Father's day together, how many birthdays and anniversaries would be spent apart?
Every day Ken was in Iraq, was hell for me. Every single minute of each of the 384 days was a hell that no one should know. After the extension, I felt we were tempting fate. Every phone call from Ken, every instant message was a miracle. I may have cried more in those 6 weeks of the extension than I had the prior year. The unit was in battle for every single day in May. Ken's tank had been hit by RPG's (rocket propelled grenades) 9 times.
On May 30, 2004 near midnight, Ken was killed under enemy fire in Najaf, Iraq. The same night, Spc Nick Zimmer of Columbus, OH was killed in nearby Kufa. They should have been home.
Fate was not kind to us after the extension. I didn't know what hell was.