Nightfall and still over 100 degrees as the gun trucks of a U.S. military convoy known as Dagger Three Seven growl in S-turns past the concrete barriers and blast walls and concertina razor wire that guard the back gate of Camp Anaconda, lurching out onto a pitted two-lane road known for violence and death.
Balad, Republic of Iraq, July 2007.
Headlights bore into the deepening haze of gray, dust and smoke. Inside the lead gun truck, an up-armored Humvee, sweat soaks through layers of body armor, trickling from under helmets, darkening the seats. Nerves taut. Up in the turret, the gunner -- anonymous behind night-vision goggles, scarf and helmet -- swivels behind his .50-cal. It will be a long mission, 16 or 20 hours of unrelenting danger. More than 7,400 miles from home and months left on this deployment.
The soldiers of Dagger Three Seven are riding sentry on a snaking line of freight trucks, the lifeblood of the U.S. military presence. They're outside the wire on convoys like this every day and a half, in between savoring a few precious daylight hours for exhausted sleep or computer time with family.
The Dagger Three Seven crew left this evening after a brief prayer ("Blessed be the Lord, our mighty fortress"). Alert, serious, professional, and fortified with adrenaline and Monster Energy Drink, they are getting the mission done. They have come to a distant place in the hope of making it better -- enhanced security, maybe some democracy. Dagger Three Seven mostly is hoping to avoid the sudden flash of light, the crushing blast wave of dirt and shrapnel, the heaving wreckage, that would announce the detonation of an improvised explosive device.
On this road, one of those things happens that changes nothing about the war but changes a life forever. A gun truck headed home at dusk after a convoy that stretched through a day and night and on into another day. Crew exhausted, nerves shot. Suddenly a young girl is standing in the roadway, facing the oncoming convoy. The gunner, Sgt. Jamie Beavers, cries out in alarm. Inexplicably, the girl stands as if transfixed. Just before impact, her eyes meet his. She is the age of his own daughter back home. Perhaps a brief flash of recognition. Then: bump-bump.
* * * * * * *
The war in Iraq was launched March 20, 2003, in Baghdad and unexpectedly stretched on for 106 months, just short of nine years. During that time, 1,111,610 Americans served there for a total of 2,337,197 deployments, with some serving two or more times.
Four thousand, four hundred and eighty-eight of them came home in flag-draped coffins, including 110 women, according to Defense Department data. Thirty-two thousand, two hundred and twenty-one were brought home with serious combat wounds ranging from concussions to multiple limb amputations. Two hundred and thirty-five took their own lives while deployed.
In Iraq, 115,376 Iraq civilians were killed between 2003 and 2011 as sectarian fighting intensified, according to the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index, while the number of internally displaced Iraqi civilians rose from 400,000 in 2003 to 2.7 million by 2010.
Many of the Americans who fought in Iraq returned strengthened, with newfound confidence, deep friendships and pride of service. Others have returned with mental scars, diagnosed or not. Surveys by the Army Office of the Surgeon General found in 2006 that 18.6 percent of troops deployed in Iraq suffered "acute stress."
In contrast to past conflicts, where soldiers could retreat to "safe" areas in the rear, the survey found that in 2006, more than two-thirds of the U.S. troops in Iraq had been attacked and had received small-arms fire, 65 percent had seen dead bodies and 72 percent knew someone who had been killed or seriously injured. Eighty-eight percent had experienced incoming artillery or mortar fire, and 45 percent had shot at the enemy. Half had felt an IED explode nearby. Sixty percent reported having a member of their unit become a casualty.
Jamie Beavers, now 33, did two tours in Iraq, suffered several IED blasts, and came home with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as an addiction to the drugs for pain and insomnia he was prescribed in Iraq. He's now off drugs and thinking about going back to college.
Such repeated deployments were taking their toll by 2005.
The Army determined that in order to fully recover from a year-long deployment, a soldier should be at home for at least 30 months and preferably 36 months. But many troops had barely 18 months at home and many far less than that before being re-deployed.
At Fort Drum, N.Y., home of the constantly deploying 10th Mountain Division, mid-career sergeants in their 30s told me they were doing without a permanent home and avoiding long-term relationships; they hot-bunked rented apartments with rental furniture, so that whoever was between deployments would get the apartment and then deploy just as his buddy was returning.
Among troops in Iraq, the divorce rate inched up from 12.4 percent in 2003 to 17.4 percent in 2004, and then to 22 percent in 2009, according to the Army surgeon general's report. There were 669 reported cases of sexual assault among troops in Iraq between 2007 and 2011, according to the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office -- but the number reported is believed to be about 13 percent of the actual total.
Inside the Army as a whole, the war years propelled a jump in violent crime, sexual assaults, drug abuse and increases in desertions and AWOLs. According to a massive 2012 Army study, violent sex crimes in the Army jumped over 90 percent between 2006 and 2011; violent felonies in general leaped 31 percent during the same time period.
By 2010, more than 13,000 soldiers were judged unable to deploy by the Army due to illness, minor injury, or legal problems, Army officials said. Last year, 17,000 active-duty soldiers were under arrest, in military prisons or under investigation, according to the Army report.
Back home, stress on families was real but hard to measure except indirectly -- despite enormous challenges, military families did not "break," as some experts had feared. Instead, they drew on reserves of resiliency and on each other. "It can be a tough life," an Army wife wrote me recently, "but there are many things about it that make it worth it."
A 2011 RAND study of 1,500 11- to 17-year-olds in military families and caregivers reported high levels of stress and behavioral difficulty; 45 percent of the kids said people in their community didn't understand "what a deployment is like." In a 2007 study of 107 military adolescents, Angela Huebner of Virginia Tech University found that responses to having a parent deployed ranged from increased anxiety to pride to rage. "They took my Dad away from me," one teenager said, and several complained of being "stuck" with additional household chores.
The families of the war wounded have faced unique challenges. Staff Sgt. Bryan Gansner of the 101st Airborne was blown up in Iraq in 2006 and his wife, Cheryl, then 24, rushed to meet him at the old Walter Reed Army hospital in Washington, D.C. She was swiftly introduced into the world of bed pans, needles, surgeries, pain and depression. Her nightmares started almost immediately.
After a few weeks in intensive care, reality started to sink in: Bryan's wounding in Iraq had irrevocably altered their future, Cheryl told me. As she described it, the happy life they'd known was over. They would have to sell their house outside Fort Campbell, Ky. They'd lose contact with Bryan's combat buddies and their Army friends back home. As they sat together on a bed in Army housing at Walter Reed, Bryan started sobbing. He told Cheryl he didn't want to be there any more, that he didn't want to be hurt, that he was sorry for putting her through this. As she held him, he admitted he didn't want to live any longer.
"I was the most scared I had been in my life," Cheryl wrote later. "I knew he had beat the odds and survived the blast, but I knew at this point he would struggle for the rest of his life. The outcome probably wouldn't be what we had expected. We knew at that point he would always be in physical and emotional pain."
Brett Litz, a clinical psychologist for the Boston VA Healthcare System and a professor at Boston University, said those who return from war can be haunted for the rest of their lives by their experiences, by "the dark things they think about the world."
"You can't have these long wars -- especially for the subset who have multiple deployments; there's going to be impact," he said. But Litz noted some mental injuries can be healed by a welcoming culture, by loving families, by having a fulfilling job. "These are corrective," he said, "but it takes time."
Cheryl and Bryan Gansner are an attractive and engaging couple, and now seem upbeat despite their struggles with difficult health issues. They're expecting their first baby in September after years of recovery, transition and dreams of starting their own family.
On her blog, Cheryl recently wrote: "I do have to say that I am closer to my husband than I have ever been because of this struggle. I have realized which friends care and which don’t. I feel like a dark black cloud is no longer raining on my head. ... I am planning some really wonderful things for this year."