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GIs Get Extra Salute For Hard Job Well Done…'Wolf Pack' Polices Hostile Iraqi Streets

GIs Get Extra Salute For Hard Job Well Done


July 26, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Atlanta Journal - Constitution. All rights reserved. 

Fallujah, Iraq --- They are little more than shiny pieces of metal and bits of colored ribbon.

But, for soldiers who have been in combat, they are distinguishing marks of bravery under fire, gallantry in action and achievement in dangerous circumstances.

The medals and awards soldiers receive also are a small tribute from a grateful nation for helping preserve freedom, Lt. Col. Eric Schwartz said Friday as he pinned medals on more than two dozen members of Charlie Company of the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

Schwartz, commander of the 2nd Brigade's Task Force 1-64, awarded the Army's third-highest decoration, the Silver Star, to Charlie Company's commander, Capt. Jason Conroy, and Staff Sgt. Jason Diaz, a tank commander.

Both were cited for "gallantry in action" throughout the war and not for any specific incident. Only the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross are more revered in the Army.

"The rest of the world doesn't know what you've been through. The guys who will know are sitting right there next to you. It's the brotherhood," said Schwartz, 41, of Alexandria, Va.

Schwartz also awarded Bronze Stars with a "V" device for valor to nine of the 11 Charlie Company soldiers who earned the medals. The remaining two are no longer with the unit. Among those receiving the honors were company medics, Staff Sgt. Mark Strunk, 39, of Windom, Minn., and Spc. Shawn Sullivan, 24, of Jacksonville.

Eight more soldiers received Bronze Stars for special achievement in combat. And 14 soldiers received Army Commendation Medals with a "V" device for valor.

Several other soldiers received Commendation Medals or Achievement Medals.

The awards "are all well-deserved, because these guys were under fire for 21 days," said Conroy, 31, of Apalachin, N.Y. He also received a Bronze Star for achievement, but he said both his awards are a tribute to his soldiers rather than anything he did personally.

They will be "a reminder to me of how much effort my soldiers were willing to put on the line to get us this far," he said.

The top enlisted soldier in Charlie Company, 1st Sgt. Jose Mercado, was one of those receiving a Bronze Star with a "V" device.

"The award is just one part of the recognition. The rest is in your heart," said Mercado, 40, of Quebradillas, Puerto Rico.

'Wolf Pack' Polices Hostile Iraqi Streets

By Len Vaughn-Lahman

August 4, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Centre Daily Times. All rights reserved. 

RAMADI, Iraq - Some call them "Miami Vice." They call themselves the Wolf Pack.

They are Alpha Company, 124th Infantry, Army National Guard, with some reinforcements from Delta Company. They come from Florida and Puerto Rico and Jamaica and Haiti and the Dominican Republic. A lifetime ago, they were weekend warriors, but they are anything but that now.

Today, they are the law in the hot, dusty streets of this hostile town an hour's drive east of Baghdad, the town the fugitive dictator Saddam Hussein praised as the "jewel in the crown" of stubborn bloody resistance to the Americans.

Their commander, Capt. Richard Rouig, of Hollywood, Fla., used to be a code enforcement officer for Dade County, Fla. Today, he and his 124 men enforce a different code in Al-Ramadi. They have lost six men wounded in their seven months at war in Iraq.

At first, they were attached to a special-operations unit and trained for a weapons recovery mission in a secret location. Then, that special-operations force shifted to another mission and left the 124th Infantry to make its own way to Baghdad. Once in Baghdad, they were assigned to back-breaking duty hauling out hundreds of tons of deadly weapons and munitions strewn across the Iraqi capital.

Now, they police the bleeding edge of Ramadi. They are lean and mean in the 125-degree heat, patrolling the streets by night and trying to catch a few zzz's by day in what was once a livestock-holding area near one of the late Odai Hussein's palaces. The searing heat and rumbling trucks make that hard to do.

James Warren, known as "Sgt. Dickie," works in Lou's tattoo shop in Miami. Here, he's trying to punch holes in Fedayeen fighters. This company is the typical Guard unit hodgepodge of intellectuals, industrialists, bankers and cops. They share the bond of the soldier, and another thing -- Florida.

"Nothing bad about Florida," says Jason DeSousa, fresh out of boot camp and on his first deployment. "Anybody says something negative about Miami, man, they get whipped."

Col. Hector Mirabiles, commander of the Wolf Pack's parent 1st Battalion, could not be prouder of this bunch; even Army veterans say they're a crack combat unit.

The soldiers living in the stable and the tents around it see daily combat, nightly raids and endless patrols as they try to maintain some sort of law and order in this contested region. They get and return fire, know the sound of incoming mortars too well and lately have been learning about deadly "IEDs" -- improvised explosive devices.

Attacks on U.S. soldiers claim casualties at a steady clip, and the mortars that bang away at the American bases in Ramadi and Fallujah have not abated. The Wolf Pack answers each attack in a way that minimizes civilian involvement and gives the enemy a dose of Miami street justice.

Soldiers doing dangerous checkpoint duty live on the edge of fear and caution and that can breed quick, aggressive responses. Yet, at each briefing, the brass reminds them that the vast majority who approach them are innocent civilians, caught in the middle of a nasty struggle.

The average Iraqi at a checkpoint is hot, frustrated, confused, doesn't understand the English commands, and the troops don't have the benefit of a translator. Spec. Carlos Ojeda is sympathetic. "How you treat them in the day is how they will treat us in the night," he says.

One nightly briefing included a "correction" in the Arabic commands being taught to soldiers. Apparently, the command to "get out of here" that they had been using was derogatory and demeaning. But it wasn't until a government-contract translator overheard it and brought it to their attention that the soldiers got a better phrase to use. Now, at least, curious children are not being sworn at when they approach for candy or attention.

The daily grind is taking its toll on the Wolf Pack. No air conditioning, little sleep, dangerous missions, and no certain date for a return home are facts of life. Soldiers gripe, but qualify their pain.

"We're here to finish," says one.

On their wish lists: To return to their lives at home, back at the Home Depot or the tattoo parlor. Back to their wives and kids. Back to Florida. Back to Puerto Rico.

A soldier gets word that his pregnant wife was in a car accident. He longs for more information, but phones are hard to come by. They are available for calls home only during the few daylight hours when Wolf Pack sleeps, and no one can afford less rest than he's getting.

Divorces, birthdays, home foreclosures, leaking roofs, sewer backups, grandma's illness, life at home goes on without them. Some wonder if Florida Gov. Jeb Bush even knows where they are.

A satirical comment board provides a forum for the running joke: When are we going home? Answers range from comments about finding Jimmy Hoffa to when pigs learn to fly. Laughter eases the pain.

It is harder to ease the private pain. When a soldier waits hours in line to call home and another man answers the phone, that's a wound no medic can fix.

During a recent mortar attack, Rouig ordered everybody indoors. His command center has a laptop, and a young soldier taking shelter from the mortars got a rare opportunity to access his e-mail. While two explosions rocked the night sky, and the command scrambled to locate the source and get permission to return fire, the soldier opened the "Dear John" e-mail letter from his girlfriend that he had feared was coming.

Sgt. Dickie, the tattoo artist, tried his hand as a counselor, sitting with the jilted soldier in a jeep, talking about war, women and the meaning of it all. As the sun crept up, both agreed that the folks at home could never understand life out here.

The soldier kicked the dirt, spun in alternating circles of logic and rage, while Sgt Dickie waited for a chance to apply his only psychological tourniquet: "At the bottom of it all, and it's always been this way, soldiers have only themselves to believe in out here. You've learned this. Now it's time you believe it inside."

Or in the words of a recent Vietnam War movie: Learn to depend on each other because out here, each other is all we've got.

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