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Spokesman Review (Spokane, WA) February 10, 2005

Injured guardsman says fear constant companion in Iraq

Car bombing leaves Spokane soldier in limbo

By Kevin Graman

Washington Army National Guard Spc. Dan Oehler's tour of duty in Iraq was ended by a car bomb that knocked him off the supply truck he was loading in Baghdad's Green Zone last August.

Now, the 34-year-old Spokane man is on medical hold, a military limbo between active duty and medical discharge.

There is the possibility the Army's Medical Review Board will find him fit to rejoin his comrades in Headquarters Company of the 1st Battalion, 161st Mechanized Infantry Regiment, 81st Brigade Combat Team. But that appears unlikely.

Even before the fall from an 18-wheeler injured three lower vertebrae in his back, an earlier car bombing at the Fourth of July Bridge just outside the Green Zone destroyed his high-range hearing. His officers fear he will not be able to hear radio calls.

"Our biggest problem at Camp Prosperity was car bombs," Oehler said in an interview in Spokane.

Camp Prosperity is home to the 1st Battalion of the 161st, which is attached to the Army's 1st Cavalry Division. These soldiers patrol the eastern suburbs of Baghdad. The camp is at a former palace of Saddam Hussein now inside the protected Green Zone. Oehler's unit, many of whom are from Spokane, sleep in barracks that once housed Saddam's Republican Guard.

About 1,500 of the 81st Brigade's 3,600 soldiers are stationed at Camp Anaconda near Balad Airbase north of Baghdad. The base has been dubbed "Mortaritaville" by the soldiers there because of the frequency of mortar and rocket attacks on the base by insurgents. During the recent elections, about 300 Washington National Guard soldiers helped provide security in Mosul in Northern Iraq, where the Stryker Brigade from Fort Lewis is based.

Other elements of the 81st Brigade are dispersed in other Iraq bases or in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Before the brigade was deployed to Iraq, Oehler said, its soldiers received urban assault and siege training at Fort Lewis and Fort Irwin, Calif., where small Iraqi cities were built for that purpose.

The brigade's deployment to Iraq was delayed by the February 2004 arrest of one of its soldiers, Ryan Anderson, a 26-year-old Muslim convert accused of trying to pass information about military capabilities to al Qaeda over the Internet, Oehler said.

Anderson was court-martialed and sentenced in September to life in prison with eligibility for parole for attempting to give aid and intelligence to the enemy.

When the brigade soldiers arrived in Kuwait last spring, they brought with them material and welding equipment to armor their Humvees and other vehicles, Oehler said. They received more armor from other units leaving Iraq. In this way, the Guard soldiers were able to "up-armor" 30 to 35 percent of their vehicles before entering Iraq, he said.

"We jury-rigged anything we could to make it safer for our guys," Oehler said.

At the time of the 81st Brigade's departure ceremony at the Tacoma Dome in November 2004, there was a controversy over whether the Guard was as protected as regular Army. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., complained that the soldiers had not received ceramic body armor, and Guard families were pooling their resources to buy armored vests for their loved ones.

The 81st Brigade received their ceramic plates when they arrived in Kuwait last spring, Oehler said.

"We really appreciate Patty Murray's hard work," he said. "She has a good reputation with soldiers over there."

Contrary to popular belief, Oehler said, Guard soldiers are not limited to a supporting role in Iraq. The 161st has captured as many as 50 insurgents by acting on military intelligence, he said. The soldiers show up in Bradley Fighting Vehicles, cordon off city blocks and storm buildings known to house armed insurgents.

"Now we are teaching the Iraqi National Guard to conduct its own patrols and assaults," he said.

He said insurgents will follow Iraqi interpreters home to assassinate them or mutilate their family members, including children, as retribution for aiding U.S. forces.

The guardsman said his unit has done a lot to help the Iraqi people, but he estimated that "about 80 percent of our job is infantry and 20 percent reconstruction."

Oehler, who worked in support picking up and transporting ammunition and supplies, said his convoy came under attack twice while he was in Iraq.

The August car bombing that resulted in his injuries also killed three or four Iraqis, he said.

The medical team that treated him believed he had sprained his back, but when it was later determined that the injuries had resulted in osteoarthritis, he was evacuated to the military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. He also spent time at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

According to GlobalSecurity.org, an organization that studies national security issues, 1,465 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003. Nine soldiers of the 81st Brigade have lost their lives there.

The first was Sgt. Jeffrey R. Shaver, a 26-year-old medic in Oehler's unit who died May 12 as a result of a roadside bomb near Baghdad. Oehler said Shaver, a 1997 graduate of Newport High School, was a close friend who taught him what he knows about combat life-saving.

"I looked up to him a lot," Oehler said. "He gave me inspiration and hope."

The U.S. Army has evacuated 15,677 injured personnel from Iraq, according to GlobalSecurity.org. Oehler said he knows of at least 20 soldiers from his unit who have returned home with injuries.

Oehler's medical care is now covered by the military health insurance system known as TRICARE. Once he is medically discharged, he said, he will depend on the already financially strapped Veterans Affairs Department for his medical care.

Besides his back injuries and hearing loss, Oehler is being treated for fallen arches for which he wears braces in his shoes. He said back problems and flat feet are a common complaint among soldiers in Iraq who carry a tremendous amount of weight. The armored vests they wear weigh 38 pounds. Their water packs, helmets, gear, guns and ammo all contribute to this problem.

Oehler believes the United States is "making good progress" in Iraq, but "we should have finished the job in Afghanistan first."

Before joining the Guard, Oehler, a 1989 graduate of East Valley High School, served with the Army in South Korea along the Demilitarized Zone. He is married to a Korean woman and has two children. His family lives in Mead, and he was attending Eastern Washington University when his unit was activated.

Oehler said he was not alone in having to cope with fear in Iraq.

"If any soldier was to say they didn't have that in the back of their mind, they would be wrong," Oehler said. "Nobody knows when it's your time over there."

Copyright 2005, Spokane Spokesman-Review