War Crimes, Hard Choices, and Harder Consequences: Part III


Part III went up on Breach Bang Clear yesterday.


Justin Watt’s personal turning point came barely a month into the deployment.

Justin Watt in the Triangle of Death

Justin Watt in the Triangle of Death

He was on duty at a patrol base when the battalion commander arrived with his Personal Security Detail. Watt’s best friend Tyler Mackenzie was with them. Mackenzie had been Watt’s roommate back home and was assigned to the PSD in Iraq, probably because he was freakishly tall and the battalion commander wanted big guys as bodyguards. Watt and Mackenzie were ecstatic to see each other.

When Watt first came to the unit Mackenzie had been the one guy who didn’t give Watt the standard new-guy hard time (several soldiers in the platoon would kid Watt about being a “pussy”; his squad leader, Eric Lauzier, remembered Watt once asking “Sergeant, do you really think I’m a pussy?”, which guaranteed he’d be jacked with mercilessly from then on). Watt and Mackenzie were roommates, and “Mackenzie was the biggest, nicest Mormon kid I ever met,” Watt said. “He never cursed, never drank, and had a huge crush on a girl he was too afraid to talk to.” Watt wrote strongly-worded letters to Mackenzie’s girl for him, but Mackenzie chickened out and wound up rewriting them all.

At the patrol base Watt and Mackenzie spent a few minutes together. Watt had been at the base for almost thirty days straight, and one of the first things Mackenzie mentioned was how bad Watt smelled. Watt told him he hadn’t been able to contact his family because they had no phones or internet at their base. Mackenzie said, “Write a letter to your parents and give it to me. I’ll call tonight and read it to them.”

Watt quickly wrote the letter and gave it to his best friend. He and Mackenzie hugged, then Mackenzie and the PSD loaded up in their Humvees and rolled out. Minutes later, Watt heard the blast that killed Mackenzie and two other soldiers. A fourth soldier lost a leg. An IED had been planted less than a kilometer outside the gate.

After Mackenzie’s death, tragedies seemed to pile upon tragedies. Nelson and Casica’s deaths, which were more like murders, were horrific. The company First Sergeant was blown up and sent home. Everyone who went outside the wire had close calls with IED strikes and small arms fire. Civilians were killed by accident at checkpoints. Within three months, Bravo lost all three of its platoon leaders to IED attacks. As more men became casualties, Watt felt his chances for survival diminish. But he stayed in the fight, never faked an illness, never found excuses to keep him off missions, never took any fewer risks or shirked any responsibilities.

Then first platoon was called to one of the patrol bases and given good news. They were being pulled off checkpoint and patrol duties, and from then on would only guard bases. Watt openly wept in relief; by that time he had become convinced he would die if he stayed outside the wire.

The relief lasted a few hours, until word came down that the previous order had been a mistake. They were going back to the checkpoints, back to patrols, back to daily IED and gunfire attacks. Crushed, Watt made a deal with God: if he could survive until he went home on leave to see his family once more, he’d accept his death in combat afterward.

He made it home for leave. Then his parents dropped a secret on him: they had divorced while he was away. That night over dinner he told them he didn’t expect to survive the rest of his tour. It was the only time they discussed his possible death. He spent the rest of his mid-tour leave in a drunken, skirt-chasing stupor. On the last day of leave, as his mother drove him to the airport, she offered to send him to Canada.

Watt expected to die once he went back. He had no desire to be shot or blown up in Iraq to no purpose. But he believed in duty; he wasn’t going to be a hero, but he wouldn’t choose to be a coward. He passed on the chance to go to Canada, and headed back to war.

When he got to DFW airport he found a hidden area, out of sight of everyone, and broke down again. Then he spotted a chaplain at the gate. Watt had never been the most religious guy, and his faith was starting to flag. Hoping for reassurance, he asked the chaplain if a good person could go to heaven even if he didn’t believe everything Christians were supposed to. The chaplain said no; if someone didn’t believe in the Genesis story or accept Jesus as their savior, no heaven for them.

Deflated, Watt arrived back in Kuwait, where everyone transited through for leave. As soon as he got there he found out a huge fire at FOB Yusufiyah had destroyed what little he owned in Iraq. Laptop, family pictures, movies, books, music, all gone.

That night he finally slept for the first time in forty-eight hours. When he woke up, he gave up being scared. Fear left him right around the time he completely lost any faith in any God.

Mackenzie’s death was Watt’s turning point. After Mackenzie died, Watt slowly stopped believing in his leadership, and eventually gave up hope for survival. But for the rest of the platoon, the turning point was the day Lieutenant Britt and Specialist Lopez were killed.

On that day, Lieutenant Britt was leading an IED sweep on Route Caveman. Caveman was one of the most IED-laden routes in the company’s area of operations; it was also, in Justin’s and many other soldiers’ eyes, completely irrelevant. The route wasn’t critical to Bravo Company’s movement, and patrolling it wouldn’t restrict the enemy’s freedom either. The route just didn’t matter. But the battalion commander ordered Bravo Company to keep clearing the route, patrols kept getting hit by IEDs, first platoon and Bravo Company argued the route was too dangerous to patrol, Lieutenant Colonel Kunk demanded the route be cleared, and nothing changed.

Watt had a conversation with Lieutenant Britt before that sweep. When Watt talked about how dangerous Route Caveman was, Lieutenant Britt brushed it off. “Just consider the percentages, Watt. Hundreds of thousands of troops have deployed to Iraq. Less than two thousand have been killed. The chances of you dying here are statistically remote.”

Hours later, Lieutenant Britt’s patrol was ambushed with small arms and a remote-fired RPG. When Lieutenant Britt followed an order to recover the RPG launcher, he walked over a buried IED. The explosion blew his body into a canal and tore Specialist Lopez in half.

The next day, Route Caveman was declared “black”. Closed, never patrolled again. Caveman was supposedly so important it had to be cleared no matter how dangerous it was. But as soon as they took those two casualties, Bravo Company effectively ceded the route to the enemy. Which is what Watt and everyone else thought should have been done in the first place.

Britt had been a highly respected leader, loved by his men. Lopez had just come home from a deployment to Afghanistan, been transferred to the 101st and sent to Iraq to replace another soldier killed earlier. Two tragic, and stupid, losses, which accomplished literally nothing.

Britt and Lopez’s deaths stripped the platoon of its last vestiges of trust in senior leadership. The battalion commander and sergeant major seemed to have no understanding, or concern, about what was happening to Bravo Company. From that point, it seemed to Watt that first platoon gave up on the traditional rank and authority structure. The platoon’s first platoon sergeant had surreptitiously found a noncombat job, its second platoon sergeant lasted a month before being removed, the third platoon sergeant exerted a lot of authority but almost never left the wire. Of the three squad leaders only one, Lauzier, consistently led his troops from the front. The others hung back, leaving lower-ranking troops to lead dangerous missions. The missions were stupid, most of the leaders obviously didn’t believe in them, and the soldiers felt like their deaths and therefore their lives meant nothing.

Read the rest at http://www.breachbangclear.com/war-crimes-hard-choices-and-harder-consequences-part-iii/


One Response to “War Crimes, Hard Choices, and Harder Consequences: Part III”

  1. You’re doing it again.

    Writing really excellent stuff, I mean.
    Keep it up!

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