“Not us. We’re not going.” – A Unit RevoltsDecember 14, 2007, Army Times
Spc. Gerry DeNardi stood at the on-base Burger King, a few miles from downtown Baghdad. Little did he realize an explosion would hit.
Camp Taji encompasses miles of scrapped Iraqi tanks, a busy U.S. airstrip and thousands of soldiers in identical trailers. Several fast-food stands, a PX and a dining facility are the social hub.
Two weeks earlier, the 20-year-old DeNardi lost five good friends, killed together in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle that rolled over a roadside bomb.
DeNardi lived through daily explosions in 11 months with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, at nearby Combat Outpost Apache. He had rushed through flames to try to save friends and carried others to the aide station only to watch them die. ”I’m not getting killed at Burger King,” he thought, and he dived for a bunker.
“Lightning doesn’t strike twice,” DeNardi said, “so I went back. But there were body parts everywhere.” ”I’m covered in blood, but I still have my hamburger receipt,” DeNardi said. ”I went back to Burger King the next day, but they wouldn’t give me my burger.” For all his dark humor, the “Hero of Burger King,” as fellow soldiers called him, was rattled by the explosion. At Apache, he expected trouble. But not at Burger King. ”That affected me,” he said. It was just another bad day to add to many and DeNardi’s platoon had already faced unbearable misery.
When five soldiers with 2nd Platoon were trapped June 21 after a roadside bomb flipped their Bradley, several men rushed to save the gunner, Spc. Daniel Agami, pinned beneath the vehicle. But they could only watch and listen to him scream as he burned alive.
The Bradley was too heavy to lift, and the flames were too high to even get close. The four others died inside. Second Platoon already had lost four of its 45 men since deploying to Adhamiya 11 months before. June 21 shattered them.
Though their commanders moved them from the outpost to safer quarters, members of 2nd Platoon staged a revolt they viewed as a life-or-death act of defiance. With all they had done and all they had seen, they now were consumed with an anger that ate at the memory of the good men they were when they arrived in Iraq.
According to Charlie Company soldiers, first sergeant McKinney said, “I can’t take it anymore,” and fired a round. Then he pointed his M4 under his chin and killed himself in front of three of his men.
Charlie Company was called back in for weapons training. They were told it was an accident. Then they were told it was under investigation. And then they were told it was a suicide. Reynolds confirmed that McKinney took his own life. A week later, without their beloved first sergeant, Alpha Company would experience its first catastrophic loss on a mission that, but for a change in weather, was supposed to go to Charlie Company.
On July 17, Charlie’s 2nd Platoon was refitting at Taji when they got a call to go back to Adhamiya. They were to patrol Route Southern Comfort, which had been off-limits for months. Charlie Company knew a 500-pound bomb lay on that route, and they’d been ordered not to travel it. “Will there be route clearance?” 2nd Platoon asked. ”Yes,” they were told. ”Then we’ll go.” But the mission was canceled. The medevac crews couldn’t fly because of a dust storm, and the Iraqi Army wasn’t ready for the mission. Second Platoon went to bed. They woke to the news that Alpha Company had gone on the mission instead and one of their Bradleys rolled over the 500-pound IED.
The Bradley flipped. The explosion and flames killed everybody inside. Alpha Company lost four soldiers. “There was no chance,” said Johnson, whose scouts remained at Apache and served as the quick-reaction force that day. “It was eerily the same as June 21. You roll up on that, and it looked the same.”
The guys from Charlie Company couldn’t help but think about the similarities — and that it could have been them. ”Just the fact that there was another Bradley incident mentally screwed up 2nd Platoon,” Strickland said. The battalion gave 2nd Platoon the day to recover. Then were scheduled to go back out on patrol in Adhamiya on July 18. But when Strickland returned from a mission, he learned 2nd Platoon had failed to roll. ”A scheduled patrol is a direct order from me,” Strickland said. ”‘They’re not coming,’” Strickland said he was told.
“So I called the platoon sergeant and talked to him. ‘Remind your guys: These are some of the things that could happen if they refuse to go out.’ But, he said, he didn’t know the whole platoon, except for Ybay, had taken sleeping medications prescribed by mental health that day. Strickland didn’t know mental health leaders had talked to 2nd Platoon about “doing the right thing.”
He didn’t know 2nd Platoon had gathered for a meeting and determined they could no longer function professionally in Adhamiya — that several platoon members were afraid their anger could set loose a massacre. ”We said, ‘No.’ If you make us go there, we’re going to light up everything,” DeNardi said. ”There’s a thousand platoons. Not us. We’re not going.”
They decided as a platoon that they were done, DeNardi and Cardenas said, as did several other members of 2nd Platoon.
At mental health, guys had told the therapist, “I’m going to murder someone.” And the therapist said, “There comes a time when you have to stand up,” 2nd Platoon members remembered. For the sake of not going to jail, the platoon decided they had to be “unplugged.”
Ybay had gone to battalion to speak up for his guys and ask for more time. But it was orders to report to Old Mod. Ybay said he tried to persuade his men to go out, but he could see they were not ready. ”It was like a scab that wouldn’t heal up,” Ybay said. ”I couldn’t force them to go out. Listening to them in the mental health session, I could hear they’re not ready.” At 2 a.m., Ybay said, he’d found his men sitting outside smoking cigarettes.
The need for revenge ravaged them. But Ybay was still disappointed in his men. “I had a mission,” he said. “The company had a mission. We still had to execute. But I understood their side, too.”
“When you’re given an order, you’ve got to execute,” Strickland said.
“They called it an act of mutiny,” Cardenas said, still enraged that the men he considered heroes were, in his mind, slandered. “The sergeant major and the battalion commander said we were unprofessional. They said they were disappointed in us and would never forget our actions for the rest of their lives.” But no judicial action ever came of it.
“Captain Strickland read us our rights,” DeNardi said. ”We had 15 yes-or-no questions, and no matter how you answered them, it looked like you disobeyed an order. No one asked what happened. “And there’s no record — no article 15. Nothing to show it happened.” After the members of 2nd Platoon had spent a year fighting for each other and watching their buddies die, battalion leaders began breaking up the platoon.
“In a way, they were put someplace where they wouldn’t have to go out again,” Johnson said. “But as an NCO, they took these guys’ leaders away and put them with people they didn’t know and trust. You knew 2nd Platoon would die for you without a second’s hesitation. That’s what made them so great. These guys need each other.”
Then, they were all flagged: No promotions, awards. “I didn’t want to punish them,” Strickland said. “I understood what was going on. But they had to understand you couldn’t do something like that and have nothing happen.”
“After looking into it, I didn’t feel the need to punish anybody.” However, he left the flags in place.
Even after the “mutiny,” Strickland said, he had a great deal of admiration for his soldiers. “I understood why they did what they did,” he said.
“Some of the NCOs, I was disappointed in them because they failed to lead their soldiers through difficult times. They let their soldiers influence their decisions. “
“But on a personal level, I applauded their decision because they stood behind their soldiers. I was disappointed, but I thought they had great courage. It was truly a Jekyll/Hyde moment for me.”
And though they were horrified at being torn away from each other, the soldiers themselves were conflicted about the outcome. ”For us being disbanded, now we definitely had unfinished business,” Jorcke said. “If we’d cleared Adhamiya, we could have said, ‘I left Iraq and my buddies didn’t die in vain.’”
“But in a way, the disbanding was good,” he said. “We got to come back home alive.”