Two Veterans Cope with Combat Losses

Lt. Thomas Hickey lost six of his men, along with an Iraqi interpreter, to an IED attack on May 19. Hickey and Vietnam veteran Bob Konrardy, who was embedded with Hickey's 1st Cavalry unit earlier this year, talk about the impact of combat losses.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

On this Memorial Day weekend, we're going to take some time to commemorate fallen soldiers. Earlier this year, we brought you the story of Bob Konrardy, a Vietnam veteran of the 1st Cavalry Division who led his platoon into fierce battle in 1965. During the fighting, Konrardy was hit by mortar fire and gravely wounded, he was pulled to safety and evacuated, but many of his men perished including the one who saved him.

For 40 years, Bob Konrardy struggled to come to terms with what happened until he decided to visit the current members of his old platoon in Baghdad. Here's what he told me as he prepared to leave in March.

(Soundbite of archive interview)

Mr. BOB KONRARDY (Vietnam War Veteran): To me, it's like I'm going back to my old platoon. I actually feel that. I feel like I'm going back to my old platoon but I'm given a second chance. I want to get personal with these guys; I want to find out about them. My last day there, I want to shake their hand. If they'll let me, I want to hug them. And I want to say, guys, good luck, in your tour; I hope you make it home. I couldn't do those things for my platoon because I felt I abandoned them on the battlefield.

ELLIOTT: Bob Konrardy did shake hands with the members of the current platoon in Baghdad. And he patrolled with them around the clock for four days. But now, six members of that platoon will not make it home. They were killed last Saturday by an improvised explosive device. I spoke earlier today with Bob Konrardy in Iowa and the platoon's leader, Lt. Thomas Hickey in Baghdad.

Lt. Hickey, I'm very sorry for the losses in your platoon. Can we start off by having you simply tell us the names of the men who died?

Lt. THOMAS HICKEY (U.S. Army): Okay. In no specific order: Specialist Travis Haslip from Pontiac, Michigan; Sgt. Paul Medlin(ph) from Alabama; Christopher Moore, he was Staff Sergeant and he was born in Bakersfield, California; Specialist Gilmore from Plant City, Florida; Specialist David Behrle from Tipton, Iowa actually; and Pfc. Alexander Valera, he's from Nevada.

And there was a local national interpreter who was killed as well in the blast. He's name was Cesar(ph), too. They're given handles so they don't have to use their actual name.

ELLIOTT: Now, I understand that you were not with your platoon when it was hit by this IED. Where were you?

Lt. HICKEY: I had a - been in (unintelligible) on an earlier mission a few days prior and I severed a tendon in my hand. When you're injured like that you're not combat-efficient, so Staff Sergeant Moore was filling in as patrol leader on the 19th.

ELLIOTT: Can you tell us what happened when they set out on their vehicles last Saturday?

Lt. HICKEY: It was a routine mission to patrol western Baghdad. The purpose of the mission is to provide security to the local nationals and help boost the Iraqi security forces. And during the course of that patrol, they were struck by an IED and the corresponding blast killed all seven men.

ELLIOTT: These soldiers ranged in age from 19 to 28. Do you mind, Lieutenant Hickey, if I ask how old you are?

Lt. HICKEY: I just turned 24.

ELLIOTT: So you're a young man in charge of many other young men. Among these soldiers who died last week, were there any who, in addition to counting on as a soldier, you really counted on as a friend.

Lt. HICKEY: I'm not sure what I would use to describe these guys. I think family is a better term than friend. Speaking of the type of connection you have, you don't think who's in your platoon. That's kind of like a family, you don't think who is in your family. You just - they're there, and you know that they have your - they care about you and they're going to take care of you. And it's the same relationship. I think friend is almost too point of a word to describe a relationship that our platoon has amongst itself.

ELLIOTT: Lieutenant Hickey, can you tell us a little bit about these men?

Lt. HICKEY: Yes I can. I can tell a little bit about Staff Sergeant Moore. Staff Sergeant Moore - he's just under 30 years old, but his greatest joy in life was always his three daughters. And his little girls are - I think they're all under the age of eight. And one time, we're on patrol and this group of Iraqis, local nationals, came running over to the Bradley, his Bradley. And there's this man carrying a little three-year-old girl on his arms and his arms are covered in blood.

She had been hit in the head with an AK-47 bullet. It was just straight fire, and it possibly tell where the bullet came from. And so Sergeant Moore loaded up the little girl and the father and himself, and three of the other soldiers that were killed - Alex Valera, David Behrle and Sergeant Medlin - all aided in the evacuation of this little girl to one of our aid stations. Then they ended up taking that little girl to another facility on the Green Zone. She recovered fully.

And for the next, you know, couple of weeks Sergeant Moore is just - he would glow whenever he talked about her because I think in some ways he thought of that little girl and he thought of his little girls. It's just a little bit about Sergeant Moore. I mean, any of these guys, I mean, I could talk about them for a long time, you know.

ELLIOTT: Bob Konrardy, you had a personal mission to connect with these soldiers when you went on your recent trip to Iraq, because you thought that you had not made those kinds of relationships when you were serving in Vietnam. Can you share with us a story about the time you spent with one of these men?

Mr. KONRARDY: That's exactly true. I felt guilty all these years. And when I got there, I handed out a bunch of footballs and candy and things. That's the first time I met Dave Behrle, who was killed last Saturday. And he's from Tipton, Iowa, and I had an Ambrose - Saint Ambrose College football. That was a game-winning ball, so I hold it up and says, where is that kid from Iowa. And the first thing I see is Dave's big smile. So Dave got the football. I promised to take him to Texas Roadhouse when he came home. And being fellow Iowans, you know, Dave and I were instant brothers.

ELLIOTT: Did any of the soldiers have requests about what they wanted you to communicate to their families or to the world should the worst happen, in the event that they would be killed?

Mr. KONRARDY: We never talked about if something would happen to them. Several of them didn't mention all that. They have re-upped and taken the bonus, and one guy's wife was going to college on that. And another guy said that, hey, if I get killed, my kids are going to have a college fund because that's where that money is going, so I'm still helping my family. He said, while we're over here, we sincerely believe that we are not having terrorist bombing our malls and bombing our sporting events because we're keeping them too busy. So we're protecting America. We're helping our families. And they believe that. And I do.

ELLIOTT: Bob Konrardy, I'm struck by the parallels between your story from Vietnam and now, Lieutenant Hickey's. Do you have any advice for Lieutenant Hickey on how to cope with the struggles of surviving your men?

Mr. KONRARDY: The only advice I can give Tom is keep talking to people, because someday it's going to hit pretty hard you don't know if it's going to be a month or 10 years from now. You just need to talk about it sometimes.

Lt. HICKEY: There are certain parts that are difficult. We call losing an entire vehicle - we call it mass cas, like mass casualty. And you don't even want to think about that because it's such a terrible idea. It's such a terrible thought. I never even considered losing this many men all at once, or at all, really. So there's this - it's nothing you can ever prepare for. It's nothing you can ever describe.

There is just a ton of emotions that runs to your body that in any point in time, you know, wondering if, you know, if there's a chance anybody's alive or mistakes were made. You know, there's the whole denial aspect, and you get angry. And then, I think the thing about being in a leadership position, you know, you still have people that count on you. You know, you can't just stare at a wall. You know, you've got soldiers that you've got to get combat ready and back on the line.

And the great thing about my soldiers is they did that all for me. They handled the large portion of the grieving process. They really spoke up and made it known what they wanted and how they wanted to remember their brothers. And then they spoke up again and said, put us back out there. Put as back on the fight. We're ready. And it's - that's the most moving part of the experience is just seeing how everyone copes and pulls together, and seeing how that family adapts to a crisis situation.

ELLIOTT: That was Lieutenant Thomas Hickey from Baghdad and Vietnam Veteran Bob Konrardy. They were remembering soldiers, Christopher Moore, JP Medlin, David Behrle, Joseph Gilmore, Travis Haslip and Alexander Varela, who were killed last Saturday in Iraq.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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