Former soldier Richard Stooksbury remembers tour of duty in Iraq

Sometimes Richard Stooksbury still hears the sound of men dying in the sand.

"There's no worse feeling than to hear your buddies over the radio being held down and not be able to get there," he said. "The canals in Iraq when they're dry are just like the trenches of World War I. Seeing it, I remember thinking: My God, the more things change, the more they stay the same."

Stooksbury survived his tour of duty in Iraq and received the Bronze Star for Valor for his service there -- along with a limp, a bad back and a case of post-traumatic stress disorder that lingers to this day.

He lost two friends -- Sgt. 1st Class Stephen C. Kennedy of Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Staff Sgt. Christopher W. Dill of Tonawanda, N.Y. -- who died a few yards away from him in a single day of fighting.

Some nights he relives that day in his dreams.

The 57-year-old grandfather walks with a cane now. He can't raise one arm above his head. His injuries forced him to retire from the Tennessee National Guard after 28 years -- just shy of the 30 he'd hoped to log.

He doesn't regret his service with the 278th Regimental Combat Team. He's proud of his fellow soldiers and what they did.

He wonders today what it was all for.

"I really believe the people who never wanted us over there in the first place were right," he said. "When guys and gals first come home from the war zone, we want it to mean so much. We desperately want it to mean something. But after you've been there a while and been back, you realize we just did what we were supposed to do and what we were obligated to do.

"Some guys were wounded. Some guys died. They died doing good things. They died doing things that people back home would be proud of. But that's not what we were there for."

He pauses as the memories come flooding back.

"Were we really over there to stop women from being killed? For free elections? I don't think that was the real purpose," he said. "We did that. I know we did some good. But all the benefit I can see is nil. We've spent the blood of our people and the coin of our nation, and if what we were doing in Iraq and Afghanistan were a business plan, we'd be bankrupt.\

Stooksbury deployed to Iraq in 2004 with the headquarters troop of the Knoxville-based 278th, then the largest unit in the Tennessee National Guard.

The Army assigned the more than 3,000 soldiers, mostly former tankers, to guard convoys, man checkpoints and conduct foot patrols as part of the occupation of Iraq. Stooksbury, then a sergeant first class, spent his time in Kuwait raiding the junkyards for scrap metal to up-armor Humvees.

When he arrived in Iraq, he found himself stationed near Baghdad training soldiers of the Iraqi National Guard and leading daily combat missions. They chased insurgents, searched for weapons caches and sometimes worked with Special Forces teams.

"We were the guys out looking for trouble," Stooksbury recalled. "You're out looking to pick a fight."

Stooksbury, the Special Forces team, and about 25 U.S. and 200 Iraqi soldiers headed into the desert outside Balad Ruz on April 4, 2005, to chase down an informant's tip.

"We had a report of a huge weapons cache southwest of Baghdad," he said. "This guy gave us the intel, and the informant went with us. We never found the weapons cache. Judging by the enemy numbers, there probably was one there. We were following down that lead, and we ran into a hornets' nest."

A lieutenant led two gun trucks off on a side mission. They'd reached a set of dry canal beds when a group of insurgents opened fire with mortars, grenades and machine guns.

The first volley crippled the gun trucks. The ambushed team radioed for help.

"They were off our map, off our grid," Stooksbury said. "This is open desert. There was heavy gun fire over the radio, but we couldn't hear or see where they were."

Stooksbury and his soldiers followed the sound of the gunshots and finally reached the canals. The team had been trapped in a shooter's alley, pinned down by gunfire on three sides.

Stooksbury and the others didn't know how many enemies they faced. They didn't know the terrain.

They didn't know the Iraqi soldiers they counted on for support were about to break and run.

"They had told us this was the same battalion that fought with the Americans in Fallujah," Stooksbury said. "That was true, but they were all new hires. We didn't know that. We drew them in their very first week, and that was the third day we'd worked with them. We didn't have a clue. We couldn't get them to fight with us."

The raw recruits faltered in the face of the enemy fire. Some ran for cover. Some bolted.

"We wore body armor," Stooksbury recalled. "They had no body armor. One of the sickest feelings I've ever had was when we were watching the Iraqi troops cross the field with the older sergeants driving them. The machine guns opened up on them, and they tried to run. The bullets were just walking up and hitting them one by one as they ran."

Stooksbury and Kennedy rode in the same truck. They joined the fight as soon as they arrived.

About three hours into the battle, Kennedy peeled off with a squad of soldiers.

"We were doing the final clearing of one area," Stooksbury said. "We wanted Steve to drive them into the canal on our left. We were going to flank them and close in."

What happened next still makes him hesitate to tell it.

"When the Iraqis started to get hit, I directed two Iraqis to take each body back to the casualty collection point," Stooksbury said. "We were treating them like our casualties. We didn't understand that unless we sent a sergeant or an officer with them, they weren't coming back. Soon all the Iraqis were gone, and it was just us.

"Dill and Kennedy had no one to direct. That's what I've got to live with. But we were doing what we thought was right at the time."

The battle raged on. Kennedy, a 35-year-old father of four, and Dill, a 32-year-old, fell a few yards from Stooksbury.

"I didn't see Steve shot," he said. "Once we launched Steve and Dill to the canals, within five seconds of that, I saw five hand grenades come over, and I knew they weren't ours. They hit, and the ground shook. It took 15 minutes to work our way to where Steve lay."

Finding Kennedy wounded was hard enough. Leaving his side was harder.

"One of the toughest things for me is knowing that when somebody's wounded, we always lie to them. We tell them they'll be fine, no matter what. I really wanted to stay with them. I couldn't. We got Steve to the casualty collection point. I had to go back. I had a hard time dealing with that, because I wasn't with Steve when he passed. Our medic told me he was there."

He looks away, seven years into the past and across a few thousand miles.

"I hope he wasn't lying to me. I hope Steve didn't die alone."

The battle lasted about five hours. Air support finally arrived, summoned by the Special Forces team.

"We had Kiowa helicopters and F-18s overhead," Stooksbury recalled. "They were dropping 500-pound bombs. We had Spectre gunships. Watching them fire, it looks like a beam from the heavens. They fired three times that night. The third time, we heard, ‘Target acquired. Target destroyed.'

"We never found anything. When a 105-mm cannon hits people, you don't find anything later."

Stooksbury accompanied Kennedy's body home to East Tennessee for the funeral. He faced his fallen friend's father and mother, widow and brothers.

He shook their hands. He shared their tears. He answered their questions -- all except one.

"Steve's dad and his brother wanted to hear how he really died," Stooksbury said. "I told them I would tell them the truth, but not with his mama there. I couldn't do that."

Other missions followed. On one, Stooksbury broke his ankle when he stumbled into a trench. He went out on patrol the next day anyway. He's limped ever since.

On another mission, he ran into an iron bar during a foot chase. The impact damaged his neck and shoulder, ended his deployment early and ultimately forced him to retire from the Guard.

The habits he learned in Iraq came home with him. Crowds put him on edge. Driving in traffic makes him uneasy. He sleeps poorly, with dreams so vivid his wife, Jamie, sometimes can't sleep in the same bed. He can't stand the sound of fireworks.

"You're so attuned to things that can kill you that you can't relax," Stooksbury said. "It's hard sometimes to go to sleep at night, because you're wondering if the next rocket attack comes in, is it going to kill me?"

Last year he had his second flashback. The first time he didn't understand what was happening. The second time, he realized and sought a psychiatrist's help.

"Until you've had it, you don't believe it," he said. "There are different triggers. It's nausea and popping out in a sweat. I was driving on Alcoa Highway, and I'm seeing and hearing a convoy blow up. If I hadn't pulled over, I'd have killed somebody and maybe myself."

Kennedy's home armory in Lenoir City now bears his name. Stooksbury stood inside it two years later when the Guard presented him and another soldier, 1st Lt. Robert Hancock of Nashville, with the Bronze Star for Valor medal for their actions that day.

Kennedy received a posthumous Bronze Star.

Stooksbury's medal rests in its box in a closet at home. He has to wipe off the dust to show it.

One day his grandsons will ask to see it. One day they'll ask him about the war -- what he saw, what he did, what it was like.

He hasn't decided what he'll tell them.

"Truth needs to be measured according to the age of the person receiving it," he said. "You give them what they can understand at the time. I might tell them we were just there to do some of the things that we actually did -- bring medical relief to villages, bring food to orphanages, bring books and supplies to new schools that were starting up. "

One day maybe he'll tell them the rest.

(Matt Lakin is a reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel.)

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