Remembering The 'Hardest Hit Unit In Iraq' In 2007, journalist and former soldier Kelly Kennedy embedded with the U.S. Army's Charlie Company in Iraq. In 15 months, the 26th Infantry Regiment had the most casualties of any U.S. battalion since Vietnam. Kennedy details her year with the troops in her book They Fought for Each Other.
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Remembering The 'Hardest Hit Unit In Iraq'

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Remembering The 'Hardest Hit Unit In Iraq'

Remembering The 'Hardest Hit Unit In Iraq'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

On this Memorial Day, we have the story of a platoon in Iraq that was in the hardest-hit battalion since Vietnam and why these soldiers decided they could no longer fulfill their mission in the surge. Their reaction was described by some as a mutiny. They were tired and angry at the insurgents, insurgents who paid children to throw grenades at the soldiers.

On one horrific day, they had suffered a series of devastating losses. The men in the platoon were so tired and angry, they were afraid if they returned to patrolling the streets, they'd lose control and murder civilians.

My guest, Kelly Kennedy, was embedded with these men, the 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company 1-26th in June, 2007. She was with them on their worst day and on the day a first sergeant committed suicide in front of his men. The platoon was in Hamadia, one of the most violent neighborhoods in Baghdad. Kennedy's new book is called "They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest-Hit Unit in Iraq."

Kennedy covers health and medical issues for the Army Times, which is published by Gannett, not the military. She served in the Army from 1987 to '93, including tours in the Gulf War and Mogadishu. Our interview was recorded in March.

Kelly Kennedy, welcome to FRESH AIR. One of the more dramatic events you write about was when a 19-year-old, Ross McGinnis, threw himself on a grenade to save four friends. Would you describe what happened?

Ms. KELLY KENNEDY (Author, "They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest-Hit Unit in Iraq"): Sure. Ross McGinnis was 19 years old. He had big, brown eyes and this huge grin, and he was silly, just kept the guys in giggles all the time.

And about a week before December 4th, they'd been out on patrol. And someone threw a grenade into a truck, and everyone jumped out, and it turned out to be a dud. So everyone was safe. And then Ross kind of made jokes about it, like no way, man, I'd be jumping out. I'd be the first one out of the truck.

So they spent the next week kind of practicing, you know, throwing tennis balls into the trucks and then diving out. And then on December 4th, they're out on patrol, and the grenade came right in through Ross' turret, and he was the gunner. And he sees it. He tries to catch it. He's chasing it around the turret, and he's yelling grenade, trying to get the guys out of the truck.

And no one really understood what was happening, and they didn't have time to react, but Ross knew what was going on. So he chased it all the way back down into the truck. And then one of the other guys, Ian Newland, saw the grenade and watched as Ross McGinnis threw himself against it and took the brunt of the force of the grenade and died instantly, but saved four of his friends.

And that was really interesting to me because you hear hero stories like that, but you don't necessarily hear how that affects the men he's with. So they're so grateful for what he did, but also always trying to figure out how they could have saved him.

GROSS: And one man in particular, Ian Newland, thought that he could have done more to save McGinnis. Ian Newland thought that he should have died, too. What impact did that have on him?

Ms. KENNEDY: This is fairly common in combat stress that these guys feel guilt over things that there's no way they could have changed, that Newland didn't have time to do anything to fix that situation.

So, he feels like every single day, he has to live up to this gift that McGinnis gave him. And I think he's coming to terms with that now. He's working on opening a horse ranch in Colorado to try to help wounded veterans or veterans dealing with PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned that, among other things, after the grenade, he had traumatic brain injury. And that's a pretty common injury now, in Iraq and probably in Afghanistan, too, because well, in Iraq because of the IEDs. I think if you are in a vehicle that is hit or close to a vehicle that is hit by an IED, the aftershock of that can cause a concussion or a traumatic brain injury. Would you describe how frequently you think men in the company that you were following ended up with traumatic brain injury, whether it was diagnosed or not?

Ms. KENNEDY: Sure. There's varying degrees of a traumatic brain injury. In the civilian world, we've always called them concussions. You know, it's, you know, a football injury is a concussion.

These guys were generally dealing with mild traumatic brain injuries. But even a mild traumatic brain injury can cause short-term memory loss, really bad headaches, confusion and the anger issues.

Some of the guys actually end up with epilepsy, with seizures. And these guys, every single one of them had been involved in some sort of a blast. And a blast wave actually travels through the brain, through your whole body, and they're still sort of studying how that affects you. If this blast wave is going through blood then tissue then bone, how does that affect it?

But there are guys who were saying they were hit in as many as 15 times, and it was important for them they felt like it was important for them to always go out with their guys. So they'd sort of try to scoot through on the testing afterward to the medics would do tests to see if they'd been injured, if there had been a traumatic brain injury. And part of the test was a memory test, you know, look at these three words, and then recite them back to me.

But the guys memorized all the words ahead of time so that they could keep going out on patrol. So diagnosing it was difficult, anyway.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kelly Kennedy. She's a reporter for the Army Times, and she has a new book called "They Fought for Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest-Hit Unit in Iraq." She embedded with this unit in June of 2007.

You were with the company you were embedded with on their worst day. This was in June 21st of 2007. What made that day the worst day?

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah, we'd spent a couple of days with them. I'd gone out with that unit in particular because I'd heard they had a really amazing group of medics, and I wanted to do a story about that. And I was also reporting on combat stress, and I knew they'd been hit pretty hard.

So we went on patrols with them. Every patrol we went on, there was another roadside bomb or an IED. And I mean, usually they'd find them and blow them up, but I think they were all scared already because they knew that there were more bombs out there.

So on the morning of June 21st, we went out on patrol with them, and then they went out again, and a photographer, Rick Kozak, and I decided to stay back and do some interviews while they went out on that second patrol. And we were actually sitting out on some picnic tables talking to the guys about combat stress when we heard an explosion. And what had happened was a Bradley, a 30-ton Bradley, a 30-ton vehicle, had rolled over a massive, deep-buried bomb. And it was so big that it flipped the Bradley over and left a hole the size of a Humvee in the road.

And an interpreter, an Iraqi interpreter, and four of the guys died instantly, and then a fifth guy was caught underneath the Bradley and couldn't get away as it was burning.

And back at the aid station, all the guys knew was that this Bradley had been hit. They didn't know who was in it. They didn't know how bad it was. They knew it was on fire and that the guys were trapped inside, but they weren't hearing any more information than that.

And we sat there for about an hour, just waiting. It was the worst hour ever, waiting to hear what had happened. And then one of the guys heard over the radio that they'd all died. And then as they were as another unit, the 630th MPs were responding to June 21st, to that Bradley explosion, one of their female MPs was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, and it decapitated her in front of four of her teammates in a Humvee.

And then their chaplain was coming out to assist. And as he was driving out, they ran over yet another IED in a Humvee, and the driver's legs were pretty messed up after that, and Chaplain Choi ended up with some pretty bad bruising.

And so they finally get back in, and everyone's dealing with that. And the battalion commander comes out, Colonel Eric Schacht. And as they're preparing the body bags and taking care of the guys, they notified the colonel that he needed to go back to the main base, where they told him that his son had died that day. He had a 13-year-old son who had a heart condition, and he died.

So I mean, the day just kept getting worse and worse and worse, to the point where you wonder how anyone could deal with it. It was horrifying.

GROSS: Well, the men in the platoon were wondering how they could deal with it. They were why don't you describe the range of emotional reactions you observed among the survivors in this platoon.

Ms. KENNEDY: Sure. You know, it was all over the place, the way they reacted. And there's a soldier named Gary(ph) DeNardi who was trying to get out of the gate. You know, he's standing at the gate, trying to run out into the street to help people, and the guards were actually holding him back, and he threw a water bottle and was sort of stomping around.

There was another guy, Erik Osterman, who very calmly started spreading water down on the sand to try to keep the dust down and making sure other people had water to hydrate. It was really hot that day.

The medics were very calmly going about setting up the aid station, and they didn't know how many people they'd be bringing in. A lot of guys just sitting down with their heads in their hands, and distraught and waiting.

And there was one soldier who was actually really upset that there were that the media were there on that day.

GROSS: The media, meaning you and your photographer.

Ms. KENNEDY: Exactly. They had dealt with so many reporters in the past and generally did pretty well with it. But that day was so personal to them. And they were so upset about coverage, in general, that, you know, their friends would die, and it would come up as a number on the news, and no one would know who those guys really were. And they just wanted people to know who their friends were, who they'd lost.

And I think they were afraid that we were going to go back and do this sensationalistic story and use it in a political way. Their other complaint was that their stories were often used to show that the surge wasn't working, and they didn't want it to be political.

So one of the soldiers, we were asked to go inside after a while. They're, like, the soldiers need to calm down. So can you go inside for a minute? And Rick and I had both been sort of standing way back. I mean, we understood what had happened. And we understood that do to the reporting and the photography that day, we didn't need to be on top of them, didn't need to make that day any worse.

And I found out later on we went to Germany when they came home and one of the guys, we'd been drinking beer and hanging out all night, and he started crying and told me that he'd locked and loaded on me that day, that he was so angry that he'd considered shooting me, and the guys pulled him back.

And he's someone I hear from all the time now. He's a good kid, but the moment was so traumatizing for him, he just, he needed to take his anger out somewhere. And I was sort of the target of that, so...

GROSS: My guest is Kelly Kennedy. Her new book is called "They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest-Hit Unit in Iraq." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Kelly Kennedy. Her new book, "They Fought for Each Other," is about a platoon that was in the hardest-hit battalion since Vietnam. She was embedded with this platoon in June, 2007, and she was with them on their worst day, a day she just described.

Now, one of the men shot himself not long after this worst day.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right.

GROSS: Tell us his story.

Ms. KENNEDY: His name was First Sergeant Jeff McKinney, and he was known for singing on patrol "Sesame Street" songs, and pretty squared-away. The other first sergeants in the unit would go to him if they needed help with something, they need to learn something.

He had a new wife and a new baby, and he was talking about retirement and was all excited about that, but he was also really stressing out over not being able to take care of his men as well as he wanted to.

He felt like they weren't getting the food and the water they needed. So he'd do things like not drink or not eat, and he wouldn't sleep because he felt like he needed to be taking care of his guys constantly. And I think the combination of those things, along with he was with them, First Sergeant Kenny Hendricks(ph), on June 21st, when they recovered the bodies. So he'd seen some really bad things, too.

And he wasn't sleeping. He was acting strangely. His guys were noticing it. And one day they went on a patrol, and he stepped out of the Humvee, and he put his M4 under his chin and pulled the trigger in front of his men.

And one of the guys who saw it, and the medical records actually confirmed this, said that at the last minute, he sort of twitched his head to the side, as if he realized what he was doing and didn't want to.

It seems to have been an instant, not-thought-out thing, it wasn't like he was planning it, and he hadn't been suicidal in the past. It just that's how his stress sort of erupted for him that day.

And the interesting thing about it was the other first sergeants, after it happened, wondered if they were close to the same. They didn't look at it as, you know, he's weak or we don't understand why he did this. They saw it as this is a bad place, and we're going through a lot, and I need to take better care of myself and my men.

GROSS: Well, shortly after the suicide, and after the worst day for this platoon, they thought that they couldn't go out anymore, that they'd just kind of hit a wall.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right.

GROSS: And although you were no longer embedded with the platoon, you write about this. So I'm sure they must have told you in detail what happened, yes?


GROSS: Yeah, so you describe that the whole platoon marched, as a group, to the mental health clinic. What did they have to say?

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, soon after McKinney's suicide, another they'd been told to go out on patrol, and they said that road's black, there's bombs on that road. We know that we're not supposed to go on that road. And because of the weather, they couldn't get back out to Apache during a sandstorm or something.

That mission for them got cancelled, and they sent out another company instead. And those guys went out in their 30-ton Bradley and hit another deep-buried IED, and June 21st happened all over again.

And these guys were in a different company, but they were friends, still. They were guys they knew. And it felt like for the guys, like, their leadership had let them down, had let them die. So yeah, they went to mental health, and they said if we go out on patrol in Adhamiya, we're going to kill everyone in our paths. We're so angry that we cannot function with any kind of ethical code at this point.

And the therapist, the mental health counselor said, you know, at some point, you need to stand down. If you guys think that you're going to make bad decisions and do things that are going to ruin your lives and others', then you need to stand down.

GROSS: Okay, so you have this whole platoon that decides that they can't go out again. They're even afraid that they're going to end up killing civilians and going to jail for it, because they're that angry. They truly feel like they cannot contain their anger anymore.

So what did their leadership have to say? I mean, you know, the mental health experts agreed these men shouldn't go out. What did the leadership have to say?

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, the leadership was there was definitely a lack of communication. The company commander didn't know about the trip to the mental health clinic, and he didn't know about the medications they were on.

GROSS: Was he new?

Ms. KENNEDY: He was fairly new, yeah. He'd come on in the spring, and this was in the summer. But their platoon sergeant apparently hadn't relayed the message. And the platoon sergeant, who was also a former drill instructor, felt like they should be obeying the order. You know, even though he'd said in the past that it was time for 2nd Platoon to stand back, he wanted them to go out that day.

There were some talk about how it wasn't fair for 2nd Platoon to stand back, because that just meant someone else had to go out in their place, but then the company commander actually came out later and said I was disappointed that they didn't follow my order. That's their job. That's the military mission. But I respect them for what they did. I respect them for understanding where they were at in that moment and for not going out that day.

GROSS: So in the long run, they weren't seen as either selfish or cowardly, but as kind of accurately representing their state of mind in thinking that their state of mind was an inappropriate state of mind to go out on a military mission.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right. Ultimately, they were eventually seen as courageous for that decision.

GROSS: Was it considered a mutiny?

Ms. KENNEDY: You know, that's a word that some people in the battalion used. So I don't think it was considered a full-on mutiny once people understood the background to it. But they definitely refused to follow an order, and it was known within the battalion as the 2nd Platoon mutiny.

GROSS: So just to make sure I understand correctly, when the platoon decided they couldn't go out, and the mental health expert said you shouldn't be going out. But then the command said, no, you need to go out, the platoon still did not go out.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right.

GROSS: And so what was the immediate punishment, and what was the end of the story?

Ms. KENNEDY: They were administratively flagged, which meant that they couldn't get awards or promotions or go on leave or anything like that. And that lasted for about two months, and then the company commander said I think that's enough.

They pulled the sergeants out of the platoon and gave them new leadership, which the guys saw as punishment. But the first sergeant and the company commander saw as a way to sort of get them back in a fighting mode again.

I mean, they still had to cover their battle space, even with this platoon had sort of broken in the middle of the mission, so...

GROSS: So how much more time did they have after this mutiny?

Ms. KENNEDY: About three months after the mutiny, they went home.

GROSS: And did they all survive? Did everybody in this platoon who refused to follow orders survive the remaining three months?

Ms. KENNEDY: They did. And throughout their tour, that platoon had lost men. A platoon's about 40 guys. But from that moment on, everyone was okay. There was one more injury after that. It was a medic who was out on patrol and was shot, Tyler Holladay, but he lived. He was okay.

GROSS: Kelly Kennedy will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest-Hit Unit in Iraq." She covers health and medical issues for the Army Times.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Kelly Kennedy who covers health and medical issues, including PTSD, for the Army Times. She's the author of the new book "They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq." She was embedded with a platoon in this unit, 2nd Platoon Charlie Company 126, in June 2007 and was with them on their worst day, a day she described earlier in the interview.

What impact did that day have on you? Did you feel like you ended up with post-traumatic stress disorder?

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, post-traumatic stress disorder is - it's - there's a full range of symptoms you have to have, but people call some of those symptoms that people generalize sort of as PTSD. When I got home I was blowing through stop signs. I just didn't see them. I would get up in the morning to read the paper and it would take me three hours. I was just very distracted. And I was sad for about a year. I think in was in a mild depression. So I'd say sort of some anxiety issues for me. Nothing like what the guys are dealing with and the nightmares and the flashbacks and that sort of thing and - I mean, I didn't have any of the guilt kind of stuff to deal with.

GROSS: Well, what about the men after returning? You kept up with them. Did most of them suffer from nightmares and flashbacks and anxieties of various sorts as a result of their experiences in Iraq?

Ms. KENNEDY: I wouldn't say most of them. I'd say a lot of them. It sounds like all of the medics are dealing with some things. A lot of the guys had nightmares. I wouldn't say all of them have full-blown post-traumatic stress, but I'm definitely hearing about guys who are leaving the military now with disability benefits because they're not able to function as well anymore. I think the rate in general is something like 20 percent for combat stress or post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

GROSS: One of the people you thank in your acknowledgments is one of the medics from the platoon that you were embedded with, Tyler Holladay. You thank him for making you feel like part of the group, not just a reporter looking for a scoop. You write a lot about the stresses of being a medic in Iraq, especially, you know, with that platoon anyways. And you say that the medics in that platoon were taking on the men's psychological as well as physical problems, treating them for psychological issues, and they were just absorbing all of these problems and not having anybody to go to themselves. Now, he was very seriously injured. What happened to this medic?

Ms. KENNEDY: Tyler was out on patrol and they were looking at abandoned vehicles and trying to get rid of them. They were calling in to have someone come pick them up. And as he was coming back from one of the vehicles, he got hit by a sniper in the stomach. And I mean, a stomach wound is something that the guys fear more than just about anything, because it's hard to address immediately as a medic. And for Tyler, it was terrifying because he was the medic.

There wasn't another medic with him. So he'd done some training with those guys to try to help them if they were in a situation like that or in case of a large amount of casualties where he couldn't do everything himself. But all the medics talk about how that first injury is the most difficult one to treat, so he's surrounded by guys who haven't necessarily done it before and giving them instructions, you need to do this. You need to use a wet bandage, not a dry bandage, and he could feel his stomach filling with fluids.

And as he's telling these guys what to do, he's certain he's going to die and he's telling them to tell the other medics that he loves them and he's just sure he's done. And it turned out that if he'd had an appendix he would've been - it would've killed him. But because his appendix had been removed, the bullet didn't actually hit anything that he needed immediately and they were able to save him.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about some of the stresses that the medics in the platoon you were embedded with had to deal with. Why was it so stressful for them?

Ms. KENNEDY: Well...

GROSS: And how were their stresses different than the stresses of the other men in the platoon?

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah, the infantry tends to be a little macho. So one of the things they know can help for combat stress is to talk about it. But if you're a tough guy, it's really hard to talk to your buddy about it. So the medics, who are not in their chain of command, were sort of a neutral sort of a safe place to go talk and they knew that if they told the medics they weren't going to go talking about it to anybody else.

So someone would be having nightmares and Doc Holladay would listen to the stories about the nightmares and try to get the person back on track. Or someone would have a really bad day, you know, see another dead body on the street. For a while they were picking up 10 bodies a day, and need someone to sort of talk it out with what he'd seen and Doc Holladay would listen.

And then when they did get casualties, he was not only treating the guys, but if they died, he was the one who was identifying the bodies and loading them in the body bags. So, it wasn't just that he was dealing with injured men; he was dealing with his injured men. He was dealing with these guys who told him, you know, their fears and their hopes. And their friends, they're the guys that they drink beer with back home and I think it's a whole different thing for a medic in the military as opposed to, you know, a regular doctor.

GROSS: Well, Kelly Kennedy, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. KENNEDY: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Kelly Kennedy is the author of "They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq." She covers health and medical issues for the Army Times. You can read a chapter of her book on our website,

One of the classic works of fiction about the Vietnam War, "The Things They Carried," was recently republished in a 20th anniversary edition. Coming up, we hear from the author, Tim O'Brien.

This is FRESH AIR.

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