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'Costs that can never be recouped': Alaska vet recalls friends lost in fight for Iraq territory now falling to insurgents

Richard A. Oppel Jr.

A few weeks before their battalion was to get new mine-resistant vehicles, Capt. Adam P. Snyder, Pvt. Dewayne L. White and Sgt. Eric J. Hernandez were speeding toward a mission in Baiji, Iraq, when a roadside bomb engulfed their Humvee in flames, killing the two enlisted men. Snyder, 26, died the next day, Dec. 5, 2007.

Matthew Adkins, then a self-described "butterbar" lieutenant, regarded the captain as his mentor, and his death leveled him. Hearing this week that Baiji was on the brink of being overrun by Sunni militants, he immediately thought of Snyder, phoned his girlfriend, and cried.

"You think about those costs that can never be recouped," Adkins said in an interview from Talkeetna, where he works as a field manager for pipeline surveys. "I remember driving those Humvees to Balad Air Base to get our new MRAPs, and thinking if we had these things two weeks ago, they'd still be alive."

Everyone from Adkins' Army unit, the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, had hard memories this week, as insurgents made their way from Mosul down what the soldiers knew as Route Tampa -- the main north-south highway -- past Baiji on the way to Tikrit and other cities closer to Baghdad. From late 2007 until the end of 2008, the battalion had safeguarded the huge refinery at Baiji, often described as the most valuable asset in the country's three heavily Sunni provinces in the north.

About 800 U.S. troops lost their lives and many hundreds more were wounded in those territories, the homeland of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist loyalists. For the comrades of those fallen troops, the grim news this week has left them struggling to reconcile the sacrifices that were made with the speed and magnitude with which northern Iraq is falling to insurgents.

For these soldiers, it brought the same wrenching dismay to the Army that Marines felt when Fallujah fell to insurgents in January. But there is also a clear sense among many that this is different, and worse: Iraq could still be a functioning state after rebels seized parts of Anbar province, but the capture of so many northern cities has imperiled everything the military once thought it might have accomplished.

In emotional phone calls and emails the past few days, some who served with the 1-327 remembered a popular sergeant whose leg was shattered in a bomb attack in Baiji, and who struggled with pain and depression during a stateside recuperation and killed himself just after the battalion returned.

Others traded information about the fate of Capt. Ali Shakir, their favorite Iraqi police commander, who the former soldiers heard was fighting in Baiji this week alongside loyal members of his old unit, based on information from one of the battalion's former Iraqi interpreters.

Phillips McWilliams, a platoon leader now studying for the bar in Columbia, South Carolina, remembers when an explosion shook their base so hard they thought a large mortar had landed just outside. But they saw a huge smoke cloud waft overhead and rushed off their outpost to find bodies strewn in front of Shakir's fortified house. He had walked outside, unhurt, fuming that insurgents would send a car bomb to his home.

McWilliams had predicted the eventual implosion of Iraq, his parents reminded him recently. And he always had doubts about whether the Iraqi forces they were training could ever secure the country after U.S. forces left. But he is still struggling to reconcile the developments of the past few days.

"Part of me wants to say that everything we did or attempted to do is being torn asunder, that it is all for naught," he said. "But I'm certainly very proud of what we did; I just don't know how I feel yet. I'm very conflicted. I just don't know what is going to happen, but it doesn't look good."

Some troops from the battalion wondered if an interpreter named Fouad -- nicknamed "Lucky" because he liked to joke that he had survived bullet wounds to his stomach because he was fat -- was doing all right in Baghdad, where he went after the Americans left with hopes of opening a bakery.

Enlisted men from the battalion took to Facebook to exchange messages of anger and shock. One said the United States should provide air support to the pesh merga -- the feared militia that operates Kurdish provinces in northeastern Iraq -- "and let them head south" to attack Sunni Arab militants on the way to Baghdad, according to a former battalion soldier who described the messages.

Another posting, this one profane, said it was "no wonder" that so many from the battalion now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Still another said ironically, "It's nice to know we are missed?"

Rage and pain over friends' deaths got the better of some in the battalion. Four months after Snyder died, two other soldiers were killed when their truck was destroyed by a roadside bomb. A military jury later found their platoon leader guilty of unpremeditated murder for killing an Iraqi suspected of involvement in planting the bomb. He was released in March after five years in military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

At the time he died, Snyder was the battalion's scout platoon leader. His friends who spoke this week remembered the good times: how, when their unit flew back from an earlier deployment to the restive town of Hawija, he successfully wooed a beautiful flight attendant ogled by every soldier on the charter jet. Or how he had dated a cheerleader for a professional hockey team.

In Baiji, Snyder helped put together a spoof Christmas card, posing with two other soldiers for a picture in a line in front of a portable latrine. One held a roll of toilet paper; Snyder read a copy of Rolling Stone magazine.

They placed the picture on cards ordered over the Internet that were titled "From Our Dump to Yours, Merry Christmas," with plans to send them to several hundred parents, relatives and friends. But the soldiers did not receive the cards until a few weeks after Snyder had been killed.

The square-jawed captain dreamed of being a professional actor, but at West Point, where he graduated in 2004, Snyder studied Arabic. He idealized the Middle East, recalled Michael Sykes, who grew close to Snyder when they were platoon leaders in Hawija. In Hawija, though, the idealism "fell apart for him, the reality of trying to effect change through force." By the time they had deployed to Baiji, "he had become disillusioned over the whole thing."

Sykes is now several years out of alcohol addiction and PTSD treatments he entered after a breakdown after a 2010 trip to Fort Pierce, Florida, where Snyder is buried beneath a marble obelisk. "I drank myself into oblivion, and basically lost it" after the visit, Sykes said.

He is better now, married and working as a policy aide on Capitol Hill. It was a hard road back, especially because he now considers the occupation of Iraq "one giant boondoggle."

"Some guys just let it become all-consuming and they can never get past it, and their lives become one big rehashing of the same things," said Sykes, who talks to Snyder's mother regularly. "You have to acknowledge it and not fill up with hate or your anger will consume you."

Sitting at his office in Alaska after a long day visiting crews, Adkins said he hoped the Iraqi government could claw back some of what it lost this week, otherwise "all that human capital spent on it was possibly for nothing."

"That's what I'm holding onto right now," he said.


By RICHARD A. OPPEL JR.
The New York Times