Soldiers Try to Cope with Battlefield Losses

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Pfc. Danny L. Kimme

Army Pfc. Danny Kimme, 27, of Fisher, Ill., was one of the soldiers killed in a firefight with insurgents in Bichigan, Iraq. U.S. Army via AP hide caption

itoggle caption U.S. Army via AP
Pfc. David H. Sharrett

Pfc. David Sharrett, 27, of Oakton, Va., was also killed. U.S. Army via AP hide caption

itoggle caption U.S. Army via AP
Spc. John P. Sigsbee

The third soldier killed was Spc. John Sigsbee of Waterville, N.Y. He was 21. U.S. Army via AP hide caption

itoggle caption U.S. Army via AP

The first word that there had been casualties came over the radio in a convoy of armored trucks on its way to the battlefield.

Just a short time earlier, soldiers from the Army's 1st Squadron, 32nd Cavalry Regiment had clambered out of helicopters into the predawn darkness of a village in north-central Iraq called Bichigan. Some of the hardest fighting in Iraq is now taking place in rural areas north of Baghdad in Diyala province, where insurgents are trying to regroup after being forced from the capital.

Last week, the Army unit lost three men in a firefight with insurgents. One team had edged out over the cold, broken ground of a farmer's field and run into a barrage of fire from fighters hidden nearby.

The commander of Charlie Troop, Capt. Mike Loveall, a man with a blunt, football player's face, said the whole firefight took only 15 minutes.

"You really don't have time to think," he said. "You're not really thinking as much as you're reacting and going off of your training, your instincts and your adrenaline."

That training says you keep fighting until the enemy is dead.

"We assaulted through their position, we confirmed by kicking or moving their bodies to make sure that they're dead, and then we secure the site around our casualties," said Lt. Tim Cunningham, a platoon leader.

No Time to Mourn

Cunningham said there were six bodies sprawled in the trench where the insurgents ran after the first ambush. By then, it was clear that two of Charlie Troop's soldiers also were dead.

Three were wounded. One of those men would die soon after.

Charlie Troop had no time to mourn or even consider its losses. There were wounded to treat, houses to search and acres of orange groves where insurgents were known to camp and stash weapons.

"All of my soldiers reacted very well," said Staff Sgt. Matthew LeVart. "They were able to compartmentalize. ... Obviously, it's not something that you can completely forget and just overlook, but we were able to continue to fight."

On the afternoon after the fight, Capt. Tammy Phipps got a call from Camp Paliwodi, where Charlie Troop is based.

"You hope they're just calling because they want a stress-management class," she said, "but you always know, there's that pit in your stomach that said, 'I hope that there wasn't any KIAs.'"

Phipps heads a combat stress team. She is an occupational therapist by training — a mom from South Dakota. Her job in Iraq is to try to help soldiers deal with death.

"The main focus is teaching people to watch their buddies, understanding that this is going to hurt — it sucks — and it's a life-long process to really get through this," Phipps said.

Addressing Mixed Emotions

Phipps and her team were waiting a day later when the helicopters brought the men back to Paliwodi. She says that once the pressure is off, soldiers begin to face their feelings.

"When you mix in a pot of guilt, anger, sadness and also joy — 'I'm alive' — and that's very, very confusing," she said.

Loveall is the man who has to make phone calls and write letters to the family members of the men whose lives were lost. He said it's the hardest part of his job.

"The family wants to know exactly how it happened, what happened. Sometimes they ask questions — unfortunately, this is not the first time I've had to do this — so sometimes they ask questions, you know, about how was he? Very, very personal stuff," he said.

Several days ago, the Department of Defense released the names of the men killed at Bichigan: Pfc. Danny Kimme, 27, of Fisher, Ill.; Pfc. David Sharrett, 27, of Oakton, Va.; and Spc. John Sigsbee, 21, of Waterville, N.Y.

LeVart said there will be a memorial.

"You try and honor them. ... You use that day to pay your respects and to remember them. And you use that day to find out how you're going to carry on," he said.

Looking to the Future

Lt. Col. Bob McCarthy commands the squadron of which Charlie Troop is a part. He will speak at the memorial and try to make sense of the loss.

"You've got to look forward," he said, his eyes welling up. "Every single loss is a tragedy, period, but we've got to make it matter."

The stress-management workers say that leaders are often the first to give comfort to their men and the last to seek it for themselves.

When asked about that, McCarthy says, "I talk to my boss. I spent 20 minutes on the phone with him this morning."

The remains of the dead soldiers have been sent home. At least one of the wounded men will return to duty with Charlie Troop in a relatively short time. For much of the coming year, they will keep going back to Bichigan and the farm country where their comrades fell.

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