A soldier's story from Iraqby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
Twenty-six hundred Minnesota National Guard troops are now shipping out from a military training post in Mississippi to the Persian Gulf for a year-long tour of duty in Iraq. Thousands of Minnesotans have served in the war, many of them part-time Guard troops who've been called up to full-time duty. Among them was Coon Rapids resident Derek Burchill. Burchill has been back from Iraq for a little more than a year. Since coming home, he shared his story about going to war with Minnesota Public Radio's Mark Zdechlik.
St. Paul, Minn. — It's August 2005, and Derek Burchill has been back from the war in Iraq for a little more than six months.
He's behind the wheel of his big dark blue pickup truck, cruising down a fairly busy stretch of road in Coon Rapids. Burchill says, as odd as it might sound, driving in Minnesota has been one of his greatest frustrations as he gets used to civilian life.
"When we were in Iraq, we owned the road. It was our road. We get to do what we want with it. And coming back here and saying, 'Well, it's not my road anymore and I can't just do whatever I want,' it's hard. It kind of sounds crazy to the non-soldiers that haven't been over there, but it's hard to explain," says Burchill, 27.
He's a big guy -- 6-feet 2-inches, 220 pounds. Pictures of him in his Army battle dress uniform, M-16 rifle in hand, show an intimidating soldier. But he has a gentle, friendly demeanor. And Burchill speaks with remarkable candor about what it was like to go to war and to come home.
Back to the driving.
Burchill explains navigating traffic in Minnesota is unsettling for him because in Iraq, stopping -- even slowing down -- could be deadly. Soldiers not on the move are sitting ducks, wide open to insurgent attacks.
"You don't stop for anything," he says. "I guess when the first wave went through they pulled the trucks, where they would send little kids out in the middle of the road, so that the convoys would stop and not hit them. Well, it worked a couple of times. And then it came down the chain of command that 'you don't stop for anything, even including little kids,' which is really sad. But it was our lives or theirs, and I guess a few little kids got mowed over."
HEADING 'OVER THERE'
Burchill found out he was headed to Iraq in the fall of 2003. He had been married for just four months to his longtime friend, Alaina.
"When he got his orders it was kind of mostly scary for me," she recalls. "It was very nerve-racking. Everybody was very nervous," Derek adds.
At the time, the occupation of Iraq was in its infancy. The U.S. had invaded the country with its "shock and awe" campaign just six months earlier.
"The people that were trying to train us... they pretty much just came out and said, 'We don't know much about where you're going. We don't know hardly anything. The only thing we know is from the first Gulf War back in '91 and we don't even know much from that,'" according to Derek. "So the first couple of weeks of his deployment orders, we're just kind of sitting around and talking scared, and spending as much time with him as I could," Alaina says.
They were also nervous because they knew, as Guard soldiers, the Minnesota unit would be operating with a lot of active force hand-me-downs. They worried whether their equipment would be up to combat.
Burchill's 74-man section of the 151st Field Artillery Division specialized in tracking mortar and rocket fire. Its mission was to use its radar equipment to help secure several bases in Iraq.
Burchill had one of the more dangerous assignments -- driving through the Iraqi countryside to deliver truckloads of supplies to radar stations.
"The convoys at first were real scary. They were pretty much a huge adrenaline rush," he says.
Burchill vividly recalls the long drive from Kuwait up to and past Baghdad, to Camp Anaconda. Worries raced through his mind and the minds of the other soldiers, especially given what military officials at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin told them when they were getting ready to go to Iraq.
"Everybody was on the edge of their seat and there was garbage everywhere. And at Fort McCoy they said, 'They'll make a bomb out of garbage and just leave it on the road.' Well, if we stopped for every single piece of garbage, we'd be stopping about every 10 feet. So we didn't know if we were going to get hit or what. It was tough because there was a lot of uncertainty there."
That uncertainty would remain throughout what Burchill estimates were some 90 convoy trips he took over his one year in Iraq.
Burchill documents the experiences with hundreds of digital pictures. (See Flash multimedia presentation by selecting the link in the right column).
THE 'DEUCE AND A HALF'
Sitting in the living room of his Coon Rapids house several months after returning to Minnesota, Burchill pulls from a stack of the photos a portrait of the truck he drove in Iraq.
To his surprise, it was the same Vietnam-era vehicle he trained with in Minnesota, at the Anoka Armory and at Camp Ripley. "It's a supply truck. It's a two-and-a-half ton. I call it a 'deuce and a half,' or a deuce. It's either a '65 or a '64, but it's been in the unit for ages and ages and ages. We thought we were going to get it replaced when we went over to Iraq, but they said there isn't any truck to replace them so we rolled with that."
Burchill lived about 40 miles north of Baghdad at Camp Anaconda, which is the largest coalition post in Iraq. Thousands of soldiers are based there; exactly how many, the military will not say.
The sprawling grounds of Anaconda, Burchill says, turned out to be a good place to scavenge for supplies which were not available through conventional sources. Burchill says there were widespread equipment shortages. He says military units, including his, even had to guard what they had from fellow troops in search of spare parts and other supplies.
"Our command, they tried to request stuff from other units, and other units had the same problem that we did. They didn't have enough equipment. And so eventually we just kind of accepted it and we said, 'OK, well we're just going to have to make do with what we've got."
Beyond the challenge of rounding up materials was the much more dangerous task of getting the supplies to the outlying radar stations.
To make their deliveries, Burchill and other Minnesota Guard troops would have to leave the relative security of the base and drive their convoys through the unpredictable Iraqi countryside. At first he and the other Minnesotans would link up with large convoys, but that often meant long waits for groups headed in their direction.
"Doing it that way, it took on average about four days to do the circuit. So we finally decided to make our own gun trucks and make our own convoy, so we could just do it all in one day," says Burchill. "So on average we had usually around two supply trucks, and then we would have three Humvee gun trucks. And we would go as fast as the slowest truck would go, which was my truck, and that would usually do about 65."
Even though his truck was nearly 40 years old, the "deuce and a half" proved more dependable than the much newer Humvees. There was, however, one major problem.
"There was no up-armor kits for my deuce because it was so old. They just weren't making them. And so I found a steelsmith on base and I requested some steel from him. I got some half-inch cold-rolled steel, and I cut out my own doors, and I made armor for my truck and I bolted it on."
Burchill and his Minnesota buddies also figured out that big, plastic water jugs filled with sand and just a little water made excellent armor.
Whenever they ventured out past the base gates, Burchill and his fellow soldiers were constantly on the lookout for homemade bombs. Improvised explosive devices -- or IEDs -- have proven one of the most lethal weapons of the insurgency.
"Sometimes they would cast them into cinder blocks and then they would lay them out on the road. And you wouldn't think a cinder block is going to blow up, but it does."
Roadside IEDs are typically triggered by remote control. An insurgent might hide off in the distance, and detonate a homemade bomb with something as basic as a modified garage door opener.
Burchill's convoys never ended up getting hit. "Several times we had to stop and call the explosive ordnance people out to come and dispose of it, and several times it was a bomb. I think probably five or six times we stopped there was a legitimate bomb that we had to blow up."
NO BOREDOM IN BAGHDAD
Despite the constant threat, the convoy trips actually became exciting.
"It's kind of hard to explain -- going out and almost having the possibility of being blown up. But it was such a big adrenaline rush, you kind of looked forward to the next convoy and you know it was something to do."
When they were running convoys, Burchill and his Army buddies listened to a lot of music.
"Lot's of George Thorogood," he notes.
They also watched a lot of movies on their computer DVD players.
"You'd trade movies with your buddies. And I bet I watched more movies in that one year than I did in the previous five years. For some reason we really liked the war movies, even though we were at war."
Burchill says U.S. troops shared a strong sense of purpose during his time in Iraq. They were there to avenge the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He describes another image in his vast collection of digital pictures. It's a shot of a drawing sketched on the wall of a building used by U.S. troops.
"This image shows pretty much the firefighters from 9/11, you know how they have the American flag. And he's handing the American flag off to the troop and the troop is saying, 'I'll take it from here,' you know, saying 'They struck us first but now it's our turn.'"
"Everybody that was over there... it was like, they took us out at 9/11 so now it's our turn. That was one of the biggest driving forces behind the troops there."
Burchill says some soldiers were constantly worried about what might happen to them. Others, and he counts himself in the latter group, left it up to fate. Whether they would be blown up by a mortar round, or an IED, or hit by sniper fire, was largely out of their ands.
Burchill says a lot people started smoking. At just a few dollars a carton, cigarettes were a cheap pastime. He says many also sought solace in religion.
"This is what we had written on the door of the deuce. 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.'"
WAS THE LORD THERE?
Burchill says he left for Iraq as a considerably religious man, but that changed.
"I fell away from it. It's hard to explain. Part of me felt like the Lord was there looking over me, because we weren't getting blown up and that. And part of me felt like he wasn't there. He was back home because I was here fighting a war, which is horrible stuff, and it just doesn't feel like a place where God is."
Even on base, danger always loomed. Nicknamed "Mortarritaville," Burchill says rocket and mortar fire would hit inside and outside Anaconda's gates every day.
"When we first got there we were kind of scared of them, but it's kind of like you just grow numb to it because it happens so often."
A particularly close strike prompted Burchill and another soldier to sandbag the walls of their supply office. In mid-June, a rocket attack hit Anaconda's busy PX store. The explosion killed three soldiers and injured another two dozen.
Burchill says there were constant reminders of death and serious injury at Camp Anaconda. But, like the mortar fire, Burchill says after a while, the sound of helicopters ferrying in wounded troops no longer stood out. Even memorial services for fallen soldiers became commonplace.
"We had a movie theater on base that kind of had a stage too, and a lot of times they would set the memorial up inside the movie theater on the stage, and so if you wanted to you could go and pay your respects. There were memorials going on all of the time," he says.
Knowing his wife and family were worried about him, Burchill tried to call and send e-mails home daily. He would also relay messages from his brother, who was also stationed in Iraq but at a much smaller camp without telephone and Internet access. But casualties frequently interrupted those lines of communication.
"They'd shut the phones down for three or four days at a time per casualty. Well, they might get a casualty every three or four days, and it ends up that I can't call home for two weeks. That's where it got a little bit rough because my wife would be thinking that I was dead or something," he says.
"And I would just live in terror," adds Alaina Burchill. "There was a couple of times I would see on the news that there was a convoy that was attacked outside Baghdad near Derek's base. And I would go to work just dreading it, and I'd spend the whole day just holding back tears, afraid that it's... it's Derek's unit that got attacked; that it's Derek that died that day. And I was just waiting for that soldier to walk through the door to tell me that it's my husband. That was tough."
For Burchill and the other troops, a big danger in Iraq was getting comfortable with life in the combat zone.
To fight complacency, a sign confronted every outgoing vehicle from Camp Anaconda. It read simply: Is Today The Day?
"It would always kind of sober me up, you know? My unit... we were always kind of smoking and joking, what they call it. We were always screwing around, poking fun at each other, doing that type of thing. But as soon as you got on the other side of that gate it was nothing but serious."
GOOD MEMORIES OF 'THE LOCALS'
Although locals posed a constant danger to U.S. troops, Burchill has fond memories of interacting with Iraqis. Kids, he says, frequently approached convoys expecting handfuls of candy from the troops.
On base, Iraqi day-laborers were regular fixtures.
"Surprisingly, a lot of them knew English, or a little bit at least. So I got talk to a lot of Iraqis and the vast majority of them are glad that we're over there. It wasn't anything out-of-the-blue to just have an Iraqi -- just one of the citizens -- walk up to you and give you a hug, just because you're a soldier and you're there to help them. The bad guys, we called them the 2-percenters because they're only about 2 percent of the population, they have crazy ideas."
The Iraq Burchill knows, he says, is not the place most Americans imagine.
Burchill is convinced many Americans have a slanted view of Iraq because of what he asserts is the media's focus on bad news such as the frequent IED bombings.
Burchill saw progress -- rebuilt roads, new schools, open elections.
He says he and the other Minnesota Guard troops had their hopes about leaving Iraq raised a couple of times, only to have pullout dates dashed. Finally, though, after about a year, his unit began departing. They returned in three stages, in January, February and March 2005.
Derek came home in February. Like this homecoming a month later for the final wave of his unit, police squad cars with sirens roaring escorted Burchill's group into downtown Anoka.
When the desert-fatigue-clad soldiers piled off of their coach bus onto the sidewalk in front of the Anoka Armory, raw emotion flowed. Burchill's was an incredible homecoming.
"I was actually the first one off the bus. You know everybody was quiet until I stepped off of the bus and then everybody just started cheering, and it was overwhelming. It brought tears to my eyes. My wife found me and jumped into my arms. It was a great feeling. It was the best feeling that I have ever had," he says.
"As it came closer to Derek's deployment being done," Alaina says, "I kind of got nervous again. What's it going to be like? They warned us a lot that, you know, I'm going to change and he's going to change, and the marriage is going to be different and we're going to have to work a lot. so I got nervous."
It's far from Iraq-hot in Minnesota, but it's uncomfortably warm on an early August evening in the backyard of Derek and Alaina Burchill's Coon Rapids home. Derek is grilling hamburgers. Alaina is loading the picnic table with plates, cups and an assortment of food.
"We're very blessed to be back at a normal spot," she says.
But getting to that normal spot has taken adjustment. Alaina says even just settling into the same bedroom was difficult.
"That was quite the adjustment. It took us probably two months to get used to being in the same bed. You know we were looking forward to just spending time together and being near each other, and then he gets home and it's like, 'Get out of my bed.'"
Derek says all of the excitement about finally coming home quickly gave way to boredom.
"You kind of have adrenaline running through you the whole time, so you know a year of adrenaline rushes. And then you come back and you've got to quit it cold turkey. It just kind of bums you out, and I think that's why a lot of soldiers that come back kind of go into a little depression. It's not so much that they miss the war, it's that they miss the adrenaline rushes."
Burchill says he pulled himself out of it by getting off the couch and going back to work. He also focused on rebuilding his relationship with Alaina.
"The home life was a little difficult. I was used to living in a tin shed with a couple of guys, and all we did was get up and go to work in the morning. So I kind of lost some of the personal touch with my wife. So I just got back into a routine where I just got up and went to work and didn't really say much to her, We had a few arguments in the beginning because I was having a tough time transitioning, but we worked that out."
BACK HOME... BUT STILL THERE
In addition to missing the excitement of living in a combat zone, Burchill also missed his Guard friends with whom he'd spent so much time hanging out.
Burchill was also surprised that he brought back home to Minnesota a heightened state of alert for danger that made some everyday things difficult.
"I didn't used to be this way, but I'm kind of... I get nervous when I'm in crowds now," he says. "Like the first few weeks when I got back, my wife and I decided to go to the Mall of America And we just had to leave because I couldn't handle it. It was too busy and there were too many people, and I just didn't like it. You're constantly on the watch for threats. Constantly."
And there was the driving. Burchill says he has repeatedly found himself on the lookout for homemade bombs along Minnesota roadways.
More than a year after returning, Burchill says much is back to normal -- no more swerving to avoid non-existent IEDs in Coon Rapids. But sitting in a student commons area at Anoka Technical College, Burchill says he remains uncomfortable in crowds. It's unsettling.
He's going to school now, using military money to become a master electrician. Many of his classmates are curious about what he did in Iraq, but also uneasy about the whole thing.
"I can guarantee you that the one question that is on everybody's mind is if I shot anybody. I just come out and say I didn't have to shoot anybody."
Burchill says whenever he hears a news story about Iraq, he pays attention to see if it's about a place he's been.
The Iraq news this February day is about the latest Minnesota soldier's death. Andrew Kemple, 23, was gunned down in Tikrit.
"Every time I hear about a soldier that goes down, it doesn't matter what branch of the service he's in, I tear up. Honestly. I'm even starting to now. It affects me right down to my soul."
Burchill says he's spoken with some Minnesota soldiers who are right now heading to Iraq. His advice -- communicate as much as possible with home, make friends with fellow soldiers and fight the tendency to become numb to the dangers in Iraq.
"That's one of the biggest problems over there is you'll go on 30 or 40 convoys and not see anything. Pretty soon you're sleeping in the back of the truck instead of watching," he says. "You've got to keep your head up and make sure you don't get complacent, because as soon as you put your head down, you know that's when it's going to happen."
Burchill says he's proud of what he did in Iraq and that he has come home taking a lot less for granted. Iraq, he says, is never far from his thoughts. "It crosses my mind at least once or twice every two, three hours, I bet. That much still. It's part of me permanently. I've accepted that I'm going to be... it's going to be in my head every single day."
- All Things Considered, 03/24/2006, 5:35 p.m.