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In a Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point's Class of 2002 Excerpt from In a Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point's Class of 2002

by Bill Murphy Jr.

Chapter 22

"Today is the second anniversary of my last day in Afghanistan," Drew Sloan wrote in an e-mail update on October 9, 2006. "The anniversary of so significant a moment cannot help but to bring pause, and during my reflections, I came to one very simple conclusion: I am very lucky. I was lucky to have survived and I was lucky to have healed, but more than anything, I am lucky to be where I am today."

He'd been on patrol on October 8, he wrote, out in the streets of Samarra, an ancient city seventy-five miles north of Baghdad. One of his favorite things to do in Iraq was to go on missions where he got to hand out toys to little children. He liked to think that years from now, they would associate the idea of America with a dirty-blond soldier in thick glasses, far from home, who had given them a stuffed animal or a soccer ball.

He offered a teddy bear to a cute, barefoot little girl. No more than five years old, she had long brown hair and wore a green print dress. "When she tenderly reached out for the bear and then flashed me the most glorious of smiles, I knew exactly why I was lucky. I was lucky because here I was, standing in a Samarran neighborhood, actually looking at hope."

Not all of Drew's missions were so peaceful. Diyala Province, where Tricia LeRoux Birdsell had been stationed two years earlier, was the most volatile part of the area for which the 25th Infantry Division task force was responsible. On Thanksgiving Day, insurgents overran all but one of the police stations in Baqubah, the province's capital city. Just before the attacks, a platoon of American soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division had been paying a visit to the headquarters for the local police Emergency Reaction Force (ERF), in theory the Iraqi equivalent of a SWAT team. When the attacks came, the Iraqi police ran away; the Americans had held the headquarters in a fierce three-day fire fight. Afterward, a CNN reporter checked the local morgue and hospital and calculated that 150 Iraqis had died in the battle.

In the weeks following the attack, two platoons of U.S. soldiers alternated defending the ERF headquarters, with each platoon serving three days on and three days off. Slowly the Iraqi police came back to work, although they were chronically short of weapons and equipment, and claimed they went weeks or even months without pay. The Americans stationed a soldier at the top of the stairs of their living quarters with a Squad Automatic Weapon, ready to shoot to kill any Iraqi -- police or otherwise -- who tried to come upstairs without authorization. Though the soldiers were there to protect the Iraqis, they didn't trust them. They built a sandbag bunker on the roof of the ERF headquarters, working at night because snipers regularly targeted the place.

General Bednarek and his three-man entourage -- Drew, Sergeant Abbott, and George the interpreter -- flew to FOB Warhorse, where they accompanied a patrol so they could inspect the ERF headquarters four days before Christmas. On the roof, two U.S. soldiers hid inside the sandbag bunker, trying to locate and kill two snipers who were in turn targeting them. A few days before, one soldier had been shot in the head, and the lieutenant in charge of another platoon had taken a rifle round in the back of his bulletproof vest. He'd been fine, but the mood among the soldiers was very tense.

General Bednarek jogged from the top of the stairs and across the roof to the bunker, blithely ignoring the snipers, and Drew and Sergeant Abbott chased after him. The bunker had barely enough room for Drew, and he crammed Abbott inside, trying not to push the general, but also to keep as much of his body covered as possible.

"Is there anything we can do for you at all?" General Bednarek asked the men inside the bunker. "Anything you need?"

"Some clean underwear," one of them replied -- meaning, Drew surmised, that he was so afraid that he'd already shit his pants. Or maybe guy was joking; Drew couldn't tell. Either way, it was hilarious that he'd say that to a general.

They stayed a few more minutes, then raced back across the roof, down the stairs, and out to the convoy of four armored Humvees in which they'd arrived. General Bednarek climbed into the third of the four vehicles. Drew sat in the left rear passenger seat of the Humvee behind Bednarek's truck. Sergeant Abbott climbed inside the same truck as Drew, sitting in the front passenger's seat. A soldier from the unit they were visiting was behind the wheel, and other soldiers sat in the backseat with Drew and manned the machine gun in the turret.

They drove out of the ERF headquarters compound and through the streets of Diyala. They passed a building with the five-ring symbol of the Olympics painted on the side.

Somebody started shooting at them. At least one round hit the Humvee's turret.

A minute later, a huge explosion rocked Drew's Humvee.

Instantly, the air was thick with dust and smoke. Drew had seen the bomb go off out of the corner of his eye; he was pretty sure it had exploded right between their Humvee and General Bednarek's Humvee directly ahead. The driver hit the gas, hoping to get out of there before another bomb exploded. He couldn't see a thing, and for the moment the greatest danger was of crashing into the crater created by the lED. A second passed, then two, and the Humvee raced forward. They had escaped. They were all okay.

Sergeant Abbott spun around. In the backseat, Drew was smiling broadly; fired up, he reached out to pound fists with Abbott. A little more than two years and a thousand miles from where he'd been wounded in Afghanistan, Drew had experienced the same scene, all over again. He'd been riding in the backseat of a Humvee, and once more an unseen enemy had tried to kill him. But this time it had played out differently. He had escaped unscathed. Drew was alive, so very alive. And now, finally, he felt healed in full.

The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2008 Bill Murphy Jr.