Cover Story

Army of volunteers

Architects, businessmen, paramedics, moms, and dads by day, historic Tennessee National Guard unit paid the ultimate price in Iraq by night. This Memorial Day, we remember

Issue: "Soldiering on," May 27, 2006

The blast blew the Humvee doors off, launched its outsized engine block skyward like a toy, and catapulted a flaming man out of the gun turret into the ink-black night.

Less than a mile away, inside Forward Operating Base (FOB) Bernstein near Tuz, Iraq, radio traffic exploded: "Eliminator Five Alpha attacked by IED! Eliminator Five Alpha attacked by IED!"

Commanding a Humvee gun-truck and with two Bradley Fighting Vehicles in trail, Sergeant First Class James Sanders, 42, of the 278th Regimental Combat Team's 2nd Platoon ripped through the FOB's front gate. He could see a yellow-orange fireball lighting the horizon 1,400 meters away and hear machine-gun fire chattering across the distance.

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SFC Sanders' squad closed the gap in less than two minutes. His driver, Specialist Clayton Crowell, braked hard and skidded to a stop behind the ruined Humvee, now an inferno. Two hundred fifty meters further on, another Hummer, commanded by Staff Sgt. Luis Aponte, was already on the scene, spraying bullets in arcs, securing the road ahead. Between the able Humvees, the burning gun-truck began to crack and zing as the thousand M240 rounds inside cooked off.

SFC Sanders shouted a situation report into his radio. Then from his left, he heard calls for help.

Aiming flashlights, SFC Sanders and his men spotted a soldier down, and sprinted toward him. The IED (improvised explosive device) blast had sent Specialist Kevin Downs, a 20-year-old gunner, 35 feet through the air. The 6-foot, 190-pound former wide receiver lay broken on the hard-pack, his right femur snapped, his desert-camouflage uniform burnt black.

Stricken, SFC Sanders bent over the injured soldier. "Are you in pain?"

"No," Spc. Downs rasped, unable to feel his charred flesh, shattered arm, or that both his feet had been blown nearly off.

A medical team hunkered over the gunner, assessing, tending. "Who else was on your truck?" SFC Sanders asked, feeling the press of missing men.

"Reese, Hawn, and Taylor."

A gurney appeared and medics hoisted Spc. Downs aboard. Suddenly, the young soldier grabbed SFC Sanders' hand and stared fiercely into his eyes: "Promise me you'll go get those [expletives] that did this to me and my crew," he said.

"I will," SFC Sanders pledged. "2nd Platoon will do so."

In the moments ahead, that promise would harden into iron: Reese, Hawn, and Taylor were dead.

For many members of the 278th, that day, Aug. 13, 2005, now seems like a different life, one that perhaps contained their last unstained moments. The Army National Guard unit out of Knoxville, Tenn., landed in Iraq in November 2004. Lt. Col. Jeff Holmes, 44, a Nashville architect, commanded 3rd Squadron-700 of about 3,200 troops, including SFC Sanders' 25-man platoon.

For 10 months, Lt. Col. Holmes' squadron braved blistering firefights, treacherous house-clearing operations, and high-tension hunts for insurgents and IEDs, all without a single death.

The number of U.S. casualties in 2006-most killed by IEDs-roughly parallels the number killed from January through May of 2005. But in response to progress in forming a new Iraqi government, insurgents have tripled attacks on Iraqi civilians, killing more than 3,400 since January.

The possibility of losing men haunted Lt. Col. Holmes late at night, before sleep. "My goal was to accomplish the mission and bring everybody home, period," Lt. Col. Holmes said. "But I knew that the longer we went without losing anybody, the odds grew against us."

The storied 278th had emerged from an 18th-century populist military tradition in which small bands of rough country men routinely whipped fancy English armies. In fact, the men of the region stood so ready to offer themselves for service in arms that Tennessee became known permanently as the Volunteer State.

Against such a backdrop it didn't seem too much to hope that the 278th might add to the legacy by bringing every soul home safe. And by last summer Lt. Col. Holmes had begun to think that 3rd Squadron might be able to pull it off.

Then came the 13th of August, he said, "and all that kind of shattered."

The shattering continues, not only for the 278th, but for the friends and families of all 2,455 Americans killed in Iraq since fighting began in 2003. Every soldier interviewed for this article considers such sacrifices heroic and necessary. Still, with the fifth Memorial Day remembrances since the attacks of 9/11, the deaths in the war on terror hover over the present and-particularly for loved ones-cast long shadows into the future.

For SFC Sanders, it is a future with a hole in it. After medics carried Spc. Downs away, the sergeant retraced his steps. Rounding the right side of the Hummer, he saw a body-armored man lying face-down amid mangled radio parts and other debris. Rolling him over, SFC Sanders saw the face of Staff Sergeant Asbury "Fred" Hawn II, 35, his close friend.

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