News: As Soldiers fall, legacy lives on
By Sgt. 1st Class Kap Kim
2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division Public Affairs
FORWARD OPERATING BASE HOPE, Iraq – In an instant, four Soldiers lost their lives, a fifth would hold on to it desperately. Later, he would succumb to his massive injuries.
It would be another story of how this war would take more lives, but this story -- their story, would be a story of how a group of men endured so much, yet always found the time to enjoy one another's company -- how all they wanted was to go back home to their wives, sons, daughters, parents, girlfriends and fiancés – and how they will move on.
Recently, the men of Company B, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, showed me that even under the toughest of times, laughter and stories of their loved ones back home would carry them through so much because it had during their last deployment.
I learned that a unit isn't built around its equipment, its flag, or even its buildings; however, it is made up of its Soldiers and the legacy they leave behind like the ones left behind by Staff Sgt. Terry W. Prater, Staff Sgt. Blake M. Harris, Sgt. Ryan P. Green, Sgt. Emerson "Eddie" N. Brand and Spc. James L. Arnold.
During early evening tea with some Iraqi security guards, Staff Sgt. Bernie Brooks, of Palm Springs, Calif., the unit historian of sorts, told a story of how B, 1-8 came to be. It started with his arrival to Fort Hood from Fort Irwin, Calif. He was assigned to Company D, 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. It was then just like any other combat unit he's been to. During that assignment, he would meet a confident young noncommissioned officers named Staff Sgt. Wayne Fast of Warroad, Minn., Porter, Staff Sgt. Armando Salazar, of Brownwood, Texas, Sgt. 1st Class Seven Heard, Sgt. 1st Class Brian Cook, Staff Sgt. James Jeffers, Staff Sgt. Elvis Bourdon, and 1st Sgt. Orlando Garcia, who was then a sergeant first class just to name a few.
It was those noncommissioned officers who would train, mentor, befriended the young Soldiers for their first deployment and raise them into the grunts who were professionals under the constant stresses of combat. Through the deployment, it was people like Bourdon, who before his death, left his mark on Soldiers – Soldiers such as Fast.
"I went to the master gunner's course because Elvis told me that he wanted me to go," he said solemnly. Today, Fast serves as the unit's master gunner.
While in Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom II in 2004, the unit spent most of their deployment patrolling the notorious Haifa St. According to Brooks, Haifa Street was nothing but rockets and grenades.
"For 10 months straight ... damn near everyday, it was the same street, the same thing; it was everyday ... I still can remember the color of the doors," said Capt. Jeff Morris, B's commander. "Sadr City was bad; Najaf and Fallujah were too, but it was from May to Feb ... I mean it was constant. We got attacked almost 60 percent out of the time outside the gates. It was mainly grenades, and they never make CNN, but for the guys on the ground, two grenades were a lot."
Back then, the young platoon leader, of sorts, was being tested by the enlisted men he would later command. Morris, who is a Destin, Fla. son, would eventually win his men's admiration through distinguishing himself as a tough ground-pounder during combat, earning the Bronze Star Medal with valor.
Morris, who looks back at their year in Iraq, remembers not only how tough it was for them, but also their many successes – more importantly, he remembers the men who sacrificed so much to make the unit he commands now, so rich in history.
"When you take a group of men in that particular time and that particular place, you can't help but gain something out of it," he said. "I can stay in [the Army] for the next 20 years and will not have an opportunity like I've had last four years. I would spend years trying to chase what I had with these guys, and I don't want to spend the next 17 years trying to chase what I had."
In the year that C, 1-9 spent in Iraq during OIF II, they earned more Purple Heart medals than any other unit since the Vietnam War.
Prater, a Speedwell, Tenn. native, earned the Silver Star medal for his heroic act of placing his body between a grenade blast from one of his fellow Soldiers. He also earned the Purple Heart Medal from the grenade's shrapnel. By the time the unit redeployed, it would hand over four American flags to the family member back home.
"Staff Sergeant Elvis Bourdon ... that one hit us hard," Brooks said. "He was like a big brother to us all."
Almost as soon as C, 1-9 came back to Fort Hood, the Army started its transformation into units of action. The 2nd "Black Jack" Brigade consolidated C, 1-9 into B, 1-9. Then, B, 1-9 members changed their colors into B, 1-8 and fell into the "Mustang" Battalion.
In 2005, the unit allowed a 30-something-year-old first lieutenant -- a former financial consultant -- someone who really wanted to just become a Navy SEAL, to take the command of a group of cocky grunts. Morris, who gained his commission through the U.S. Army's Officer Candidate School, seems to be woven differently than most commanders. He knows everything about every one of his Soldiers. He eats with them, he jokes with them, and he lifts weights with them. He seems to do everything leadership manuals tell you not to do and still seems to earn his Soldiers' utmost respect.
"I don't want to be that guy who tells people what to do," he admitted. "I want to be able to give them the flexibility to choose what to do on their own."
In speaking to his Soldiers, almost every one of them, and even the ones in his support company, genuinely like and respect him as a commander. For the noncommissioned officers who new him as a "wet-behind-the-ears" LT, he proved so much through the years.
"He never holds a grudge," Brooks said about Morris. "He punishes you -- then forgives you."
Morris, who actually blushed at hearing some of his Soldiers' comment about him, attributed his success to the luck of the unit in having a "run of good officers"
"This company has had the good fortune of having a great run of officers who learned from great NCOs," he said. "It's incredibly humbling; I don't know what it is, but I think it helped that I was a successful platoon leader, and they remembered that."
Morris, who immediately swashed talk of "the patriarch" leaving the family and quickly said the patriarch has always been their first sergeant.
As of May 1, Morris will relinquish command of B, 1-8 and take a position on the 2nd BCT staff.
"No one wants to leave command," he said. "It's going to be hard, and as much as I don't want to leave command, at least I have had the time [with these guys]."
In my two days with the guys, my observation was this: they are all adrenaline junkies; they all suffer from Attention Deficit, Hyperactivity Disorder; they never sleep; they hate Meals Ready to Eat; all they want is a door to kick in; bad guys to catch; and that they all have one common bond.
Morris said the unit's bond is forged by standards that cannot be measured.
"It's not because we are tactically proficient; it's not because of our D and C (drill and ceremony) because lord knows we are not, but it's the camaraderie."
The camaraderie they share is one to be envied by most units. They spend their days at a combat outpost they call Legion Base. In just a few weeks there, the guys have transformed the place they really enjoy. Away from the "creature comforts" of Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah, the Soldiers have made a little gym, an entertainment room and brought to life a basketball court rarely used before. They made light of a tough mission in Iraq.
They treat one another with respect, although most break the Army way and call one another by their first names.
"There's a lot of respect for everyone in this company," Brooks said. "Everyone has a lot of respect for the CO (commander) and the first sergeant, and they have respect for all of us."
Another NCO who is well respected is an original member of C, 1-9. Cook, who his Soldiers say is the oldest, living platoon sergeant, has endured a lot. Through personal injuries, offers of better positions, and a retirement date, he said he had to deploy one last time because of "these guys."
"My old man was not happy about it," he said about deploying again.
Cook is a Hollywood type of Soldier. He gives dramatic speeches to his men before shouting his famous, "to the wagons!" in which every Soldier mounts their Bradleys while repeating "to the wagons."
Sleep deprived, hungry, some putting their personal ailments aside to accomplish the mission, they routinely took on the tougher missions.
"We just get used to it," said Green.
On their return to their base from almost seven hours of busting into houses, Green shouted, "Anyone want to play a game of basketball?" Exhausted, no one seemed to appreciate his humor.
Green, who was always quick with a joke, enjoyed freestyle rapping. The young sergeant spoke excitingly about marrying some sweet girl he met just before his deployment when he returned to Texas.
"If you come to the wedding, there will be a lot of drinking and dancing," he told me. "I love to dance. My fiancé and I swing dance a lot. What? You don't believe me?"
On his missions, Green, who is a team leader, sat in the truck commander's seat and controls the music they listen to. Yet, he allowed his gunner to pick a selection of "back-in-the-day" music.
"Every unit needs a 'Sergeant Green,'" Morris said on the day he was wounded.
For Brand, working out seemed to be the only thing on his mind aside when back at their base. With his iPod buds in his ears, I watched this guy do about 1,000 pushups and sit ups. He did stomach crunches as if he was raising money for impoverished kids somewhere. In fact, he was working so hard in preparation for the grueling test of going through U.S. Army Ranger School. When it was time to gear up and mount up on their "wagons," as they called their Bradleys, he was the first to go. He was a professional infantryman as the rest of the Legion Soldiers.
They seem to dismiss sleep and get excited about going out into sector. In one of their last missions, most of them chose to watch a pickup game of basketball, watch a movie, or just hang out with their fellow Soldiers. Their operational tempo wasn't that of what most remembered of their last deployment, but it was still very exhausting.
"I was hoping it would be like Haifa Street all over again," Fast reminisced.
After a recent raid of a suspected insurgent that 1-8 has been in search of for about three months, the Soldiers finally found him. They were tired from the search that took them through more than 60 different rooms and searched 50 people.
As the sun came up, with yet another mission, the next several hours would prove to change everything the unit had worked so hard to achieve this deployment.
On March 15, Co. B Soldiers were conducted a patrol in Al Razul, Baghdad, Iraq, when one of their Bradleys was struck by a roadside bomb. Everyone in the track was uninjured, but minutes later as Prater, Harris, Brand, Green and Arnold dismounted and went to investigate the blast site. Moments later, a secondary blast mortally wounded everyone but Green. Green was rushed to a combat support hospital in Baghdad, Iraq. Later, he was transported to Landstuhl, Germany. While being treated for his wounds, he died March 18.
"My goal, as the commander, was to bring everyone back home," said Morris whose uniform, stained of blood, could not hide the burden of his unit's loss.
Salazar, who is one of the oldest members of team, sadly said that this wasn't the way it was supposed to end.
Yet, as Brooks knows, this isn't the end for their Legion family, and although they've lost five of their own and are to receive a new commander in a few months, the responsibility of carrying on their unit's legacy falls in the hands of their NCOs.
In my time with B, 1-8, which started back at Fort Hood, Texas last year, I felt something special among its Soldiers. As I mourned their losses, I learned how important it is to go on and honor the sacrifices made by these fine Soldiers by just continuing the mission as they have done time and time again from Haifa to Bourbon and back again.
The Mustang Battalion held a memorial for their fallen Soldiers at the FOB Rustamiyah Chapel March 20.
"These men were our friends, our leaders, our mentors, and our Soldiers," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Sauer, 1-8's commander. "This tragic event has hit us very hard."
During the ceremony, Sauer said there were so many questions everyone had about why it had it had to happen to these men. He offered this:
"We may never know or understand many of the answers, but this is what I think we all know today: We know of these five Soldiers' competence and dedication. We know of their steadfast commitment to their families and friends -- we know their dedication to this nation, to this battalion, and to this mission -- we know they volunteered and wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves.'
"We know these fine Soldiers cared for their Soldiers and would move mountains to take care of them," he continued. "We know they cared deeply and loved their wives, children, fiancés with all their hearts.'
"To the parents, spouses and fiancé: I thank you for such noble and decent men. It's with great pride to have known men of such high caliber. It's our privilege and our honor to have served alongside these great Americans."
Prater, 25, is survived by his wife Amy, their son Bryson, and their daughter Madisen.
Harris, 26, is survived by his wife Brandy and their son Tyrus.
Brand, 29, is survived by his parents John and Debi Brand.
Green, 25, is survived by his mother Lynda and his father Craig.
Arnold, 21, is survived by his mother Mary and his father Phillip.