Lt. John Kirchgessner
shares reflections on Iraq


(Kirchgessner graduated with a degree in communications in 2002. This letter appears in the winter edition of the Magazine of Elon in a collection of missives from Elon graduates who have served in Iraq.)

I have served in Iraq twice, first from Feb. 13 to May 8, 2003, and again from Sept. 2, 2003, to Feb. 6, 2004. During both deployments, I served with the 82nd Airborne Division.

In my first tour, I served in direct support of my task force, 1st Battalion-325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, in combat operations. Our task force ground-assaulted from Kuwait to the town of Samawah, Iraq. It was our task to secure three key bridges in order to allow safe passage of coalition forces going north.

From Samawah, the task force continued to ground-assault north through several towns, including Diwaniah, Ramadi and Fallujah, and eventually into Baghdad. As we continued north, the purpose was to find and destroy enemy weapons caches. My specific role in the operation was to provide supply and logistical support to the task force. The line companies would report to me daily so that I could get them the proper supplies of food, water, ammunition and fuel.

My role in the second deployment was much different. Ironically, official combat operations had ceased, but from September 2003 to February 2004, I would see far more devastation than I saw during the first three months of actual combat operations.

At first, I was going back overseas in support of the battalion that I currently serve in, 3rd Battalion (Airborne) 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment. Our mission was to secure Taquaddum airfield, west of Fallujah. My battalion was able to quickly secure this airfield, and the battery I served in (Bravo BTRY/3-4ADAR) was called to support 2nd Brigade (the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment) in Baghdad.

This was when my life would change forever.

The mission of my battery while in Baghdad was highway security. I was the platoon leader in charge of four to six vehicles with 13-20 personnel over a three-mile stretch of highway. Every day or night prior to our departure, I would give all my men a safety briefing before we hit the road and make final inspections and radio checks, and then we would lock and load as we exited the gate.

We were doing the best we could with what we had, which at the time included no armored vehicles, inadequate lighting on the highway to see more than five meters to the front and no formal training on how to detect these Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) before they detected us.

Every day, my men and I would go out on Highway 5 for up to 12 hours to secure the highway, make sure it was free of all IEDs and allow for the safe passage of coalition troops at all times. While my men and I were on the highway, there was not a single coalition death on our road.

During my entire rotation, we were hit with 12 IEDs, and six men in my platoon were wounded and later awarded Purple Hearts. I was the first to be hit with an IED. The shrapnel from the blast hit my face, but left no permanent damage. I have a photograph of the aftermath, and I still lose my breath every time I look at that picture.

On the evening of Nov. 25, 2003, one of my paratroopers, SSG (Staff Sgt.) Maurice Craft, lost his left leg. I was on the road that night. I had four vehicles, which I split into two separate patrols. I was in the lead vehicle, which had no doors. I had an M249 SAW gunner in the back and my driver. Behind me was SSG Craft. At 19:45 hours (7:45 p.m.), I heard the loudest explosion of my life, and I initially reacted just as we are supposed to in such a situation: move away from the kill zone, identify the enemy, return fire and treat casualties.

I accomplished step 1, got about two seconds into step 2 and quickly found myself very focused on step 3. I heard SSG Craft screaming from inside his vehicle. His driver ran to his side and pulled him from the vehicle. I found myself in an almost out-of-body experience, just reacting to the situation, trying to save the life of a close friend, neighbor and soldier. I immediately called to have a Medevac flown in and then did everything I could to treat SSG Craft.

The blast had sent shrapnel through his right thigh and it had lodged just below his left knee. I applied a tourniquet to his right thigh while his driver applied the tourniquet to his left leg. He had lost enough blood so that it went above the sole of my boot as I knelt next to him. There was a pool of blood inside the vehicle. and all of our uniforms were covered in it. I had to cut off both of his boots and pant legs so that we could apply first aid.

As soon as the tourniquets were in place, I got back on the radio with the Medevac to find out about their status. They could not tell me where the aircraft were, so I made the decision to put SSG Craft on the back of one of our trucks and evacuate him to the hospital ourselves.

I was back on Highway 5 with what was left of my men. It was after 23:00 hours (11 p.m.) once all had settled. We went back to our patrol, but none of us would ever be the same. Our platoon motto quickly became "rolling the dice" because that was the way it felt every time we left our secure operating base.

The next morning, I came off shift at 07:00 hours and by 09:00 hours I washed my face, grabbed a bite to eat and headed to the hospital to see SSG Craft. When I first arrived, he was conscious, but had all sorts of breathing apparatus in his nose and mouth. He made eye contact with my platoon sergeant and me and made a deliberate gesture with his hand, simulating rolling the dice. I stayed with him all day until he was sent to Germany the evening of Nov. 26.

The 27th was Thanksgiving, and I was promoted, though I was suffering in many ways, physically and emotionally - perhaps more so than ever before in my life - I still found it to be the Thanksgiving that I was most thankful for: for the life I have, with two feet below me and many wonderful people who watch over me.



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