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None Left Behind
The 10th Mountain Division and the Triangle of Death
By Charles W. Sasser
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Charles W. Sasser
All rights reserved.
Sergeant First Class Ronnie Montgomery never passed the large glass case at 4th Battalion headquarters on Fort Drum without stopping. Framed photographs of young men in uniform looked back at him, some smiling, others wearing the sober expressions of youth just out of high school and boot camp who were starting to realize that decisions have consequences. The memorial case had been almost empty fifteen months ago when the 2nd BCT (Brigade Combat Team) of the 10th Mountain Division deployed to Iraq. Now it was nearly full.
Montgomery, thirty-six, was a career six-footer with a broad face burned by the Iraqi sun and hair so high and tight that he hardly had any. His company alone, Delta, had contributed nine faces to the case. Not that they needed to be framed and displayed to be remembered. Who they were, what they were, was forever branded on the souls of those who survived the S-curves on Malibu Road in Iraq's Triangle of Death.
Manticore, as Montgomery recalled, was playing on the SciFi Channel in 2006 when the 10th Mountain began preparations to deploy its BCT to the Sandbox. The B movie proved popular among Fort Drum soldiers primarily because it featured a U.S. Army squad from the 10. Tasked to locate and recover a missing news crew in a small Iraqi town, the squad arrives to find locals slaughtered by a mythical winged creature awakened from its long slumber by a terrorist leader determined to drive Americans from his land by any means. From the movie sprang a kind of dark proverb circulated among the soldiers: "In Iraq, monsters come out at night."
Fort Drum, the military post, home of the 10th Mountain Division, sprawled across a wide swath of real estate in the Thousand Island region of northern New York state thirty miles from the Canadian border, with the Great Lakes to the west and the Adirondack Mountains to the east. It was an old fort dating back to the early eighteenth century, but had been modernized over the years, even to include a runway for jet aircraft.
Montgomery began his army career here with the 10 fourteen years ago. Since then he had moved around a lot to other outfits and places — Panama, Belize, peacekeeping in Haiti, a combat tour in Kosovo. Along the way he gained a few stripes and lost a wife. What the hell. If the army wanted him to have a wife, it would have issued him one, as the old saying went.
It was good to be back at Drum. It was almost like coming home, even if for only six weeks before it, and he with it, moved out to the war zone. Things didn't seem to have changed much over the years. The 10th was still a plain light infantry outfit specializing in shooting and walking long distances carrying heavy loads. It maintained little connection with its old traditions as a "mountain" unit, other than for streets named after its World War II exploits at Anzio, Riva Ridge, and Mount Belvedere.
It had taken him three years to get this far. He had been assigned to a support platoon with the 101st Airborne when Operation Iraqi Freedom kicked off in 2003. The platoon was getting ready to deploy when he received a call from Brigade Schools.
"Sergeant Montgomery, you're going to drill sergeant duty."
"Don't tell me that. I got a forty-man platoon here and we're going to Iraq."
"Sorry, Drill Sergeant Montgomery."
The ultimate test for a soldier was combat duty. Most soldiers secretly wanted to be tested.
Montgomery hoisted the duffel bag containing most of his belongings to his shoulder — a rolling stone in the army collected little moss — and dropped it off at the NCO quarters before reporting in. It was a hot July afternoon when he took his papers and checked in at Personnel. A staff sergeant behind the desk looked down a list.
"You're going to Delta Company, Fourth Battalion," he said. "It's a new company just now forming. Looks like you'll be a plank owner." He grinned. "Good luck, Sergeant. And watch out for monsters."
Montgomery groaned. The way things usually happened, a new company received green boots right out of basic training and rejects from other units in the division required to contribute manpower. Trouble makers, sad sacks, shitbirds. No sergeant major or first sergeant worth his stripes shitcanned his best soldiers to another outfit.
"Delta has a few problems," was how First Sergeant Aldo Galliano put it when Montgomery reported for duty. He was a short, wiry-built Hispanic of about forty who looked like he knew his way around the army. "Sergeant Montgomery, your 201 file shows you served your last tour as a drill. I think that makes you enough of a son-of-a-bitch to whip Second Platoon into shape before we emplane for Iraq in six weeks. They're good boys. They just need direction."
It was Montgomery's experience as well that most guys just needed a push. Since he had been a drill, the Joes in Second Platoon expected things to tighten up — and they did. He took over as platoon sergeant hard-assed and no-slack hard. A soldier had to have discipline, especially in combat. He had to be the kind of guy who would be right there when he was needed.
"Get with the program, people," Montgomery warned. "We have to look out for each other. That's all we got, is each other. You remember that when you start acting like a bunch of shitbirds."
Private First Class Nathan Given, twenty-one, came to Second with an attitude. A tall, slab-sided kid from near Houston who never let anyone forget that everything grew bigger and better in Texas, he was forever neglecting to bring his pen to mandatory classes, showing up late for formations, and generally just all-around goldbricking and not taking up his share of the slack. Montgomery and the platoon leader, Lieutenant John Dudish, counseled him and turned him back into the platoon.
There were a few others like him in the company. Joes who either didn't give a shit, who had a chip on their shoulders, or who had rather be somewhere else, anywhere else. Corporal Begin Menahem over in Fourth Platoon had a legitimate beef. He had already served one combat tour in Iraq during the 10's 2004–2005 deployment. He had had twenty-eight days remaining on his enlistment when the army's Stop-Loss policy barred him from being discharged. And now he was headed back to The Sandbox one more time.
"I was this close to getting out, man. This close," he said, holding up as emphasis a thumb and forefinger pinched together with hardly any space between them.
In spite of it all, Montgomery sometimes admitted to himself in moments of honesty how much he loved the army and its pig-headed, boisterous, irreverent soldiers. Infantrymen — the grunt, the ground-pounder, the mud-eaters — were markedly different from any other arm of the military. They were like guard dogs protecting the master's house — brash men, proud, sometimes reckless, quick to take action and always ready to defend each other against the brass or the enemy.
They came in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, creeds, and religions. Hard street kids from the concrete jungles of New York and Los Angeles; cynical suburbanites from Chicago; tough hillbillies from the Ozarks and the Appalachians; trust fund babies from Park Place and poverty- stricken bros from the ghettos; farm kids, computer nerds, jocks; from high society or low society or no society at all. A cross-section of all that was America.
Once they came together and jelled, they were like no other army in the world in their devotion to each other, in a brotherhood of arms that no outsider could ever understand. It was that sense of shared danger to come that formed Delta Company, new that it was, into the close-knit camaraderie of warriors about to ply their skills. Sergeant Montgomery could think of no other place he had rather be than about to lead a platoon in combat.
The six weeks until August and D-Day, when the 2 BCT would go to meet the monster, passed in a frenzy of activity that gave little free time for the Joes to brood on what might happen to them in Iraq. Soldiers under orders to give up their lives if necessary wanted to believe that the petty rules and chickenshit of the peacetime garrison went by the wayside. Quite the opposite was true. Days on calendars fanned past in updating service records and wills and powers of attorney, in verifying next of kin information, in receiving immunizations ... There was the constant up-training, classes to attend in ROE (Rules of Engagement) and other subjects, personnel and equipment inspections, equipment to be bundled for shipment ...
As always, there was more work to be done than soldiers to do it.
The worst thing about deployment was the waiting, the painful dragging out of the inevitable, the frustration of not knowing exactly when.
"I'll be home in no time, honey. You'll see," men reassured their wives.
"Don't expect to hear from me right away," they said. "I don't know exactly where we'll be."
"If, God forbid, something happens," they said, "somebody from the army will get in contact to tell you what to do and how much money you'll get from the government."
This would be Sergeant Victor Chavez' third combat tour since 2001. He had gone home on a quick leave and married his sweetheart, Rebecca. He had to rush to get her into the system as his next-of-kin.
"We'll start life when you get back," she promised. "I'll be here waiting."
Specialist Jared Isbell's sweetheart told him the same thing. He didn't know if he believed her or not. He looked at her a long time. Then they kissed, and he looked at her some more before she turned away with tears in her eyes and left.
The atmosphere grew somber at the end. Small clusters of soldiers gathered outside their barracks in the summer nights to chain-smoke and talk in low tones. Sergeant Montgomery, divorced for nearly two years, could often be seen around Delta Company late at night, reassuring his platoon, letting himself be seen. During its last deployment in 2004–2005, the brigade suffered 29 soldiers killed in action and another 422 wounded.
One of Montgomery's section leaders, Sergeant Chris Messer, had a reputation for being something of a hardnose when it came to discipline and training. One night, he let his shell slip a little.
"Sergeant Montgomery," he said, "my little daughter is starting to talk. She can say 'Da-Da.' " He looked off into the night.
"Da-Da," he repeated softly.
Earlier, he had shown Victor Chavez a small laminated card containing the words to the Prayer of Salvation.
"Victor, this is in God's hands now. Victor, I got a feeling I won't be coming back from this one."
Chavez looked at him, slapped him on the back. "Hey, man. Knock it off. You're coming back. We're all coming back."
The 2nd BCT of the 31st Regiment, over 3,500 soldiers, consisted of two infantry battalions, one reconnaissance/cavalry battalion, one field artillery battalion, one support battalion, and one special troops battalion of MPs, engineers, military intelligence and the like. As deployment date drew near, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Infanti, commander of the 4th Infantry Battalion (4/31st), stood in front of his men on the parade ground for the obligatory gung ho rally before going off to war. A sense of pride enveloped him. These were his soldiers. It was his job, his profound duty to use these men wisely in the nation's fight against a brutal enemy — and bring back alive as many of them as he could.
"I want all of you to be assured that no matter what happens," he concluded, "you are not alone on the battlefield. This I promise you: In the Fourth Battalion, no soldier will be left behind."CHAPTER 2
All new soldiers reporting in to the 10 Mountain Division were provided orientation packets. In addition to schedules of events and services and maps of the post, the packet included a history of the Division reaching back to 1916 and the Russian Revolution. The modern 10 Mountain Division (Light Infantry), "the most deployed unit in the army," sprouted out of two separate and seemingly disparate roots, the 31 and 87 Infantry Regiments, one of which served not a single day stateside for more than forty years.
As a result of a treaty ending the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States gained possession of the Philippine Islands and established it as a commonwealth. In 1916, the 31 Infantry Regiment was activated at Fort William McKinley as part of the nation's defenses. Less than two years later, the 31 along with its sister regiment, the 37, shipped out to the bitter cold of Siberia to fight off hordes of Red revolutionaries, Manchurian bandits, and Cossack plunderers trying to gain control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
Sixteen soldiers of the 31 won the Distinguished Service Cross and thirty-two were killed in a war few Americans knew was being fought. As a result of its service in icy Siberia, the 31 Infantry adopted a silver polar bear as its insignia and became known as the "Polar Bear Regiment," a designation it retains today.
The 31st returned to the Philippines in 1920 and remained garrisoned in the old walled city of Manila until 1932 when Japanese troops invaded China. The Polar Bear Regiment, reinforced by the U.S. 4th Marine Division, joined a British international force to protect Shanghai's International Settlement, after which it returned to Fort McKinley.
The invasion of tiny Finland by the Soviet Union in 1939 germinated the idea that led to the commissioning of the 87th Infantry Regiment. After Finnish soldiers on skis promptly whaled the Russians by annihilating two tank divisions, American skiing pioneer Charles Minot Dole began lobbying President Franklin Roosevelt to create a specialized mountain unit modeled after that of the Finns. General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, liked the concept and ordered the army to take action.
Skiers, trappers, muleskinners, and assorted other outdoor types volunteered in early 1940 to begin training on the slopes of Mount Rainier's 14,408-foot peak. The 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment was activated at Fort Lewis, Washington, on 15 November 1941, three weeks before Pearl Harbor.
The day after Pearl Harbor, Japanese bombers attacked military installations in the Philippines. A 31st Infantry soldier at Camp John Hay became the first casualty of the Japanese campaign to seize the islands. Enemy troops landed in both northern and southern Luzon in a rapid pincher movement to capture Manila. The 31st Infantry covered the withdrawal of American and Filipino forces to the Bataan Peninsula, fighting the invaders to a standstill for over four months.
Finally, starving and out of ammunition, the Bataan Defense Force surrendered on 9 April 1942. Of the 1,600 members of the 31st who began the Bataan Death March, roughly half perished either during the march or during the nearly four years of brutal captivity that followed. Twenty-nine Polar Bears earned the Distinguished Service Cross and one was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but the entire chain of command died in captivity before medal recommendations could be submitted.
In the meantime, the 87th Infantry Regiment was redesignated as the 10th Light Division (Alpine) and saw its first action in August 1943 during assault landings against Japanese who had occupied Kiska and Attu in the Aleutian Islands. In November 1944, it acquired its modern designation as the 10th Mountain Division and entered combat in Italy three months later.
The division fought its way across Italy, crossing the Po River and securing Gargano and Porto di Tremosine before German resistance ended in April 1945. The division earned fame in climbing unscalable cliffs in order to surprise and assault German positions.
Deactivated after the war, the division would be reactivated and deactivated three times during the next four decades. The 31st Infantry Regiment, however, remained on active duty status. General Douglas MacArthur assigned it to the 7th Infantry Division for occupation duty in Korea, where it remained until the occupation ended in 1948.
The regiment moved to the Japanese island of Hokkaido, but its stay was cut short by North Korea's invasion of the South in 1950. The 31st returned to Korea as an element of General MacArthur's invasion force at Inchon.
After Inchon, the regiment launched a second assault landing at Iwon, not far from Vladivostok, Russia. Polar Bear troops pushing toward the Yalu River suddenly encountered the Red Chinese Army sweeping down from Manchuria. Surrounded in a steel corridor of death, only 365 members of the task force's original number of 3,200 survived. Lieutenant Colonel Don Faith, who took command of what was left of the 31 Regiment after Colonel Alan MacLean was killed, also died trying to break out of the trap and lead his survivors to safety. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Battered and bloody and all but decimated, the 31st evacuated by sea to Pusan where it rebuilt and retrained, then plunged back into battle to stop the Chinese at Chechon and join in the counteroffensive to retake Central Korea. By 1951, the line more or less stalemated along the 38th Parallel.
Excerpted from None Left Behind by Charles W. Sasser. Copyright © 2009 Charles W. Sasser. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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