When the New Band of Brothers Came Home
By David Philipps
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 David Philipps
All rights reserved.
"Y'ALL CAN FORGET GOING TO IRAQ"
It was raining in Kyonggi-Do, South Korea. But it almost always rained in Kyonggi-Do, at least during the summer. The province, which lies at the western end of the border with North Korea, sees around fifty inches of rain during the summer monsoons. Water dribbled off every leaf in the thick deciduous forests, saturating the soil and feeding trickles and rills that tumbled down the mountainsides. The rough, low hills looked like a foggy corner of the Appalachians. If not for the orderly quilt of flooded rice paddies spread across the valley floors, the scene could easily be mistaken for West Virginia or eastern Kentucky.
That is what Kenny Eastridge thought when he first saw the Korean landscape. He had grown up in Kentucky, and when he arrived in Kyonggi-Do as a lanky, awkward army private in the winter of 2004 he was surprised at how much this distant corner of Asia looked like the hills back home. Now, on this hot summer night, the rain dripped off the rim of his helmet, soaked into his fatigues, and gleamed on a big machine gun he had slung over his shoulder. Eastridge was a pale scarecrow of a soldier—five feet ten, 140 pounds, with short brown hair, wire-frame granny glasses, and an adam's apple that stuck out like a knot on a tree. He looked like an extra in a war movie—not the strong-jawed hero or the mean sergeant but the young, sensitive small-town kid, the skinny one with the accent and just enough charisma and heart to doom him at the climax of the picture.
Somewhere nearby in the dark he could hear the diesel growl of tank. Around him, other soggy soldiers tramped through the ceaseless rain on a training mission. After nine weeks of basic training and a few weeks of specialized infantry training stateside, the nineteen-year-old private had been sent with a handful of new recruits to the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, stationed on the North Korean border. Its mission was to guard against a massive Communist attack. The troops trained relentlessly to be ready at a moment's notice. They lugged their heavy guns up mountain ridges. They stayed out for days at a time on foot. And that night, they marched through the rain, sinking deeper and deeper into the Kyonggi-Do mud.
Somewhere in the dark morass of tanks and men marched Kevin Shields and Louis Bressler, two other new recruits barely out of high school. None of them really knew the others, and none had ever expected to find themselves in rural South Korea, but that spot, more than any, marked the starting point of a journey that literally circled the globe, through four years and two combat tours, only to eventually crash in Colorado Springs.
The battalion's five hundred soldiers were stationed in a remote cluster of low, Cold War–era cinder-block barracks called Camp Greaves. The camp, which had been the battalion's home since 1987, sat about two miles from the Demilitarized Zone and was the American outpost closest to North Korea. The barracks stood tucked among the green hills and flooded rice paddies on the north bank of the wide, slow Imjin River. Two bridges spanning the Imjin sat within shouting distance of the camp. The first was a rickety, narrow steel trestle called the Freedom Bridge, because thousands of prisoners of war had walked south across the bridge to freedom in 1953 when the Korean War wound down. The second, a few hundred meters upriver, was the Unity Bridge, a four-lane modern span built as a gesture toward reunification of the North and the South. Both bridges were strung with razor wire and packed with explosives.
In the event of an all-out attack from the north, the battalion was supposed to blow both bridges, scramble into Black Hawk helicopters, and retreat across the river to defensive positions to brace themselves against the onslaught of North Korea's estimated one million troops. Casualties in the battalion were expected to be upward of 90 percent. The role of Eastridge and the others was only to slow the advance. In short, commanders told the unit—joking in a way that let everyone know they were dead serious—"We are the speed bump."
When they arrived, the new grunts were taught that because they were assigned to the 506th Infantry Regiment, they were now part of one of the most hallowed, heroic, and respected units in the entire U.S. Army. They called themselves the Band of Brothers. Few of the fresh privates knew much at all about the history of the Band of Brothers when they arrived in Korea, but they all had it practically memorized by the time they left.
* * *
The Band of Brothers was formed at the start of World War II as a new kind of fighting force. It was an experimental paratrooper unit manned entirely by volunteers—no draftees—and trained in a way the army hoped would render it especially lethal in combat. During World War II, soldiers often went through basic training together but then were sent off to different units. The Band of Brothers was different. They all lived and trained together for months, then shipped off to Europe together as a unit. The idea was that soldiers who trained together knew how to work together better. They knew each other's strengths and weaknesses. They would trust each other in combat. Combined, these factors would make them a better fighting team.
Almost every day and on many nights, the infantry recruits of the original Band of Brothers had to run two miles from their training camp in Toccoa, Georgia, to the top of an 800-foot mountain called Currahee—a Cherokee word meaning "Stands alone." The mountain became a symbol both of their individual strength and their shared struggle. Over half a century later, and half a world away, soldiers in the Band of Brothers stationed in a rainy corner of Korea still saluted their officers by shouting, "Stands alone!"
The experimental unit proved its worth again and again fighting the Nazis. The Band of Brothers plunged into the flak-filled night over Nazi-occupied France on the eve of the D-day invasion in June 1944. They were told they would be in the fight for three days. Instead, they fought every day for a month; a quarter of the unit was injured and another fifth was killed while taking a number of key enemy positions. In December, the Band of Brothers helped stop a German offensive at the Battle of the Bulge. The outgunned infantry unit—with little food, water, or ammunition and no winter clothing to guard against subzero temperatures—dug in and held off a much larger German force. Onethird of the soldiers were killed, but they never abandoned their posts. The unit became famous for bravery and loyalty.
The nickname "Band of Brothers" was adopted from a few lines in the St. Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare's Henry V, in which the king remembers how his sick and drastically outnumbered army triumphed over the French years before:
From this day to the end of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile
Adopting "Band of Brothers" as a moniker was the soldiers' way of saying the bonds of friendship in battle would always unite them, no matter what happened down the road. The nickname originally only referred to the men of the battalion's Company E, but over time the whole battalion adopted it.
In Vietnam, the battalion was reactivated and traded parachutes for helicopters. Once again, the soldiers found themselves in the worst of the worst, fighting back the repeated assaults of the Tet offensive and throwing platoon after platoon against the bloody, entrenched Vietcong bunkers on a promontory soldiers called Hamburger Hill.
The status of the regiment got a sudden boost when its heroics were turned into a bestselling book by historian Stephen Ambrose in 1992, then spun into a ten-part miniseries on HBO in 2001. New soldiers like Shields and Eastridge watched the series over and over in the barracks. If they got bored with it, they could play a video game on PlayStation based on the bloody jungle warfare the Band of Brothers encountered in Vietnam. Everywhere they went, they had to salute superiors by saying "Stands alone!" Even the trays in the chow hall bore the Band of Brothers logo.
Soldiers hoping to be sergeants had to memorize the history of the unit—every parachute jump in Europe and every assault in Asia. When young officers joined the battalion, they went through a decades-old ceremony in which they had to drink from a special grail. The other brothers mixed a brew of tomato juice, symbolic of the blood spilled by past brothers, whiskey for the soldiers who are "strong, smooth and full of fight," and a pinch of dirt from Currahee Mountain (or, if no dirt was available, coffee grounds) to give them strength to "stand alone." The grail holding the mix had handles fashioned from the metal pull tabs of the Airborne's reserve parachutes. The cup was forged from melted-down silverware the Brothers pilfered from Hitler's vacation home. For the humble grunts of 2004, the lore boosted morale by linking their often humdrum existence to the heroes they saw on TV.
"We thought it was awesome," Jose Barco, a private in the unit who became one of Eastridge's best friends, said years later. "Wearing that 506th patch on your shoulder was one of the coolest things in the world."
In World War II, the Band of Brothers had been a blend of young men of almost every background—country and city, privileged and poor, Jewish and Catholic, virtuous and verging on criminal. Their only common bond was a willingness to volunteer for a job in the army that seemed almost recklessly dangerous. The Brothers marching through the mud of Korea sixty years later were not so different. Every shade and accent was represented—guys from the city and guys from the middle of nowhere, guys with college degrees and guys who never graduated from high school, guys from good homes and guys from the slums, homeschooled Christians and godless delinquents. The one thing they all had in common was that they had voluntarily joined the army—and not just the army, the infantry.
* * *
Kenny Eastridge had joined at age nineteen in 2003 to save himself from a life that never had much chance of being anything but a disaster. He had grown up in a poor part of Louisville, Kentucky, with his mother. His father worked across town as a mechanic, but Kenny rarely saw him. One day, when Eastridge was about nine, his mom took him to Toys "R" Us, bought him a video game, then dropped him off at his dad's house, saying she needed to run some errands. She didn't come back for three years. He later was told she had become a crack addict. His father took him in, but was not around much. He would pick up fast food for dinner, bring it home, and then go out again. Kenny was left to entertain himself.
One afternoon on May 7, 1996, when he was twelve years old, he invited one of his best friends, Billy Bowman, and two other boys over to play video games. They were messing around, doing what kids do when parents are not home, when Eastridge pulled out one of his father's antique shotguns to show off. He carefully broke open the breech and removed the shells, since he knew his dad always kept his guns loaded. Then he handed it over to his friends, the skinny arms of each boy straining under the cold, heavy metal. They passed it around with nervous smiles. They weren't supposed to play with guns, but that was part of what made it cool. They pointed the gun at each other, pretending they were the Terminator or Rambo or any of a number of other characters from the movies they loved.
"All right, we better put it back up," Kenny said after a while. He broke open the shotgun and slid the shells back into the chambers. Then he tried to slam the breech shut with one flick of his wrist, John Wayne style. The long steel barrel swung up and clicked closed, but he couldn't hold the weight with one hand. He fumbled for the stock with his free hand and caught the trigger. The gun went off. Billy Bowman was watching from a few feet away. The blast hit him square in the chest.
When the cops came, Kenny was crying. He had just killed his best friend. He was arrested and eventually pled guilty to reckless homicide. He did no jail time, but was ordered to have counseling as part of his probation. The court also required him to live in a house with no firearms, but his father refused to give up his guns, so Kenny went to live with his grandmother for a while in rural Shepherdsville, Kentucky. When his mom heard about the killing, she immediately checked herself into rehab. When she sobered up, she remarried his dad and they put together a steady life and got permission for Kenny to move back in with them.
After Billy died, the smell of gunfire, or any burnt-metal smell, always made Eastridge shaky and nauseous. He did not want to think about what had happened. He wasn't a bully or some kind of black-trench-coat sociopath; he was a clever and affable slacker who liked to read, watch movies with friends, smoke pot, play video games, and tell funny stories. On his MySpace page he listed his major as "marijuana."
By the time Eastridge was seventeen and his other friends were graduating from high school, he was so far behind from the murder charges, the counseling, the moving, and general slacking off that he was still only in ninth grade. School felt increasingly awkward. He had no prospects for college. He had no job skills or good chances for meaningful employment. The days of good blue-collar manufacturing jobs in the United States were quickly drawing to a close. The future was a thicket of dead-end jobs. But Eastridge was smart. He knew if he just found the right way to prove himself, he could do something with his life.
The army commercials on TV seemed to offer a chance. Kenny had always been fascinated by the war stories of his grandfather, who was an infantry soldier in World War II, and loved playing shooter video games and watching war movies. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the buildup to the Iraq War seemed like a sign to him that his generation was being called to serve. He decided to drop out of school, get his GED, and join the army. He would not only be serving his country, he would be building a career. His mother heartily supported his decision to join. She said it would be good for him.
Eastridge started calling recruiters as soon as he turned eighteen. On his first call in 2003, he learned that the army would not take him. Anyone with a collection of minor criminal convictions or one big one—like the killing of Billy Bowman—needs a waiver from the army to enlist. Recruiters have to interview the soldier to see if they are deserving. The bigger the crime, the higher up the chain of command the waiver has to go. They are not rare, and have become more common as the wars have stretched on. From 2004 to 2009, the army issued 80,403 waivers, with more than half going to recruits with drug and alcohol abuse, misdemeanors, or felonies. When Eastridge mentioned on the phone that he had a felony conviction, the recruiters would say something like "We may be able to work around that." When he said it was a homicide, some would pause, dumbfounded. Some would laugh. "You mean you killed somebody?" one said. "I don't think so." Eastridge kept calling dozens of recruiters across three states, trying to find one who needed to meet a quota. When he grew too embarrassed to call, his mother would. Finally, after six months, a major in Nashville told him, "Son, it sounds like you just need someone to give you a chance. I want to be that guy."
After boot camp at Fort Benning, Georgia, Eastridge landed in South Korea, where on that rainy night he was trudging through the mud, a nineteen-year-old private carrying a twenty-two-pound machine gun slung over his shoulder. The gun's official name was the M–249 squad automatic weapon, but soldiers called it the SAW, partly because of its ability to cut down the enemy. It was the biggest gun that Eastridge's light infantry unit carried. Grunts used it to lay down a suppressive fire in quick burps of sixteen bullets per second. Being a SAW gunner was considered an honor. The job was given to the best, most dependable private in every infantry team. With the machine gun, body armor, extra ammo, water, and required supplies, Eastridge carried almost a hundred pounds. And he loved it. He had finally found something he was good at. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Lethal Warriors by David Philipps. Copyright © 2010 David Philipps. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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