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Stepping into the unknown

The 57 soldiers didn't know what lay ahead or why they were there. They just had a job to do - and a hero to lead them.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published March 18, 2007


At daybreak, standing ankle deep in sand, Col. Paul Gardner said a few words to his small group of 57 combat support soldiers: "We have what we have. There is no more water if we run out. So, don't waste water. And don't be scared. Every one of you will return."

Minutes later on March 21, 2003 still the 20th back in the United States, they entered Iraq through a 6-foot-wide slash in a towering wall of sand. Their 23 vehicles followed a mine sweeper that dug up land mines the United States had planted along the Kuwaiti border at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

"We were quiet going into the unknown," said Sgt. Liston Mathis, who lives in Honolulu.

In the days before the invasion of Iraq four years ago, as they talked quietly among themselves, many of the soldiers said they weren't sure about the reason for the war. Some didn't see any reason. Others believed it had to do with 9/11 or weapons of mass destruction. A few didn't care.

In the coming days, as they moved across the Iraqi desert, all debate ceased as the prospect of an enemy grew. At the time, the soldiers of the 7th CSG (7th Corps Support Group) had no way of knowing that most of the Army intelligence they were getting was wrong. In the beginning, there was always something to make them think a formidable enemy was headed their way.

The visibility was terrible. The 14-hour-a-day stretches of driving in Humvees and trucks were exhausting. The 100-degree heat was overwhelming, made worse by the layered antibiochemical warfare suits they frequently wore over their uniforms and flak jackets.

The six hours of nightly sleep in the open desert were interrupted continually by intelligence reports - erroneous, it turned out - of Scud missiles with biochemical warheads. Soldiers would scramble into their gas masks and dive under their trucks. Exhausted, hot and filthy, they'd begin anew each morning.

That was the easy part.

On the second day of travel in Iraq, Gardner and his advance party picked up a road a few miles northwest of Nasiriyah. With U.S. artillery rounds firing over their heads, they trudged slowly north. It wasn't until days later that they learned that 28 soldiers and Marines had been killed in two battles around the city. In one of them Pvt. Jessica Lynch was taken hostage.

Near Najaf, on the fourth day in Iraq, the convoy passed smoking vans and trucks on the side of the road, with charred Iraqi bodies in them.

"We got closer to the front than we had intended," said Capt. Emmitt Osborne, who lives in Carlisle, Ind.

They stopped at a ridge in the desert 9 miles south of Najaf to set up camp. Under Gardner's command, that barren spot became the center of combat support and a staging area for 6,000 combat support soldiers.

"If a soldier ate it, drank it, put fuel in it, repaired it or operated it, Paul Gardner and his 7th CSG soldiers made it happen," said Maj. Gen. Vincent Boles, who was Gardner's boss. "The words 'too hard' were not in their lexicon."

In order to supply other soldiers, Gardner and the 7th CSG soldiers did without.

They went six weeks with two liters of water a day for drinking and none for bathing. Gardner poured a small part of his drinking water into a shallow dish to shave every morning.

"I wanted the soldiers to maintain standards and I was afraid if I didn't set an example, we might loosen up with more than our appearances," he said.

The 7th CSG soldiers slept seven hours a night in crowded tents with no ventilation and sand floors. At times, temperatures inside the tents rose to 115 degrees. They walked a quarter-mile through the desert to the latrines - holes dug in the desert, swarming with flies. When they'd open their packaged meals, flies flocked to them.

"The place was a total nightmare, but we still got the job done," said Sgt. Kim Jones, who lives in Fort Campbell, Ky.

The soldiers also remember the good parts: The star-studded desert sky when there were no tracers, flares or bombs. The coffeepot somebody hooked to a generator. Their deep concern for the Iraqis who waved at them and ran to their vehicles when they went out on missions.

Gardner set the tone for contact with Iraqis. "We're working in a vague environment and have to use our instincts," he told his troops. "There's a dichotomy here and we don't know who the enemy is. Since we don't, I hope we take the moral high ground."

He made his soldiers wear their helmets and flak jackets if they stepped outside the wire fence. He kept travel to a minimum. He refused to talk to visiting soldiers who entered without proper uniform and protection.

"I thought if I was strict, we'd increase our chances of returning unharmed," he said.

He never yelled or cursed - except for an occasional "crap" - but he let the soldiers know "when they were full of it and needed to fill in the gaps."

"He could focus right in on whether you were getting a job done and he'd let you know when you were full of it. We used to call it 'getting the wire brush,' " said Maj. David Allen, of Fort Lee, Va.

"I know some of them hated me for that," Gardner said. "But conditions were so horrible I figured hating me was better than thinking about how we were living."

By May 2003, Gardner and his soldiers had created a combat support machine that Boles called "eminently successful."

The 7th CSG then moved north of Baghdad to Balad to a concrete facility with showers and air conditioning. From there, they continued to supply the troops until early 2004, when the 57 in the original group came back unharmed. Of the 6,000 soldiers under Gardner's command, one soldier died in an automobile accident.

"I fell short," said Gardner.

- - -

In May 2004, 500 members of the combat support group celebrated their safe return at a banquet in Bamberg, Germany. Maj. Gen. Boles spoke, mindful of the low morale that was setting in from the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. Boles told the 7th CSG never to forget that a soldier had reported the wrongdoing.

"You be that soldier," he said, as they sprang tearfully from their seats and gave him a standing ovation.

Gardner has always told his soldiers: "The truth is what matters."

By summer 2005, most of the soldiers of the 7th CSG who had been in Iraq with Gardner had left the unit. They were still in the Army, but they were scattered far and wide.

As the war continued long past the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue, past the day he was pulled from a hole, past the second anniversary and then the third, some of the soldiers looked for jobs that they hoped would keep them out of Iraq.

Others couldn't avoid a second tour. Sgt. Jones and Maj. Allen returned to Iraq, though they are back home now.

Mathis goes to Iraq in a few months. Osborne, who teaches military leadership at Notre Dame, is slated to return in two years, if the war is still going on.

"But I pray it's not," he said.

Like many of the former 7th CSG soldiers, he sees the bumper sticker "hate the war; love the soldier" and is thankful for it.

"I think it's great to make a distinction between the war and the soldiers," he said. "Expressing opinions is what this country is about."

Their views on the war - why it happened and what should happen next - differ widely. As the war grinds on and the deaths mount, some speak of frustration while others speak of not quitting.

But there is one thing they all agree on: The crossing and the first six weeks under Paul Gardner's leadership were among the most meaningful days of their lives.

"I don't think any of us will ever forget the significance of those early days in Iraq, when we were pulling it all together," said Lt. Col. Gregg Buehler.

- - -

In May, Gardner, 50, who works at Central Command in Tampa, will retire. He will not talk about why his success as a brigade commander in Iraq didn't lead to his becoming a brigadier general, except to say: "There are better people out there."

His soldiers don't think so. "There is no one in the Army more qualified and more deserving to be a general than Colonel Gardner," Allen said.

While Maj. Gen. Boles agrees, he prefers to talk about what was accomplished.

"Nothing should diminish what Paul and those soldiers did," he said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

About this story

In March 2003, Meg Laughlin was embedded with the Army's V Corps 7th Corps Support Group as a reporter for the Miami Herald. She spent 14 weeks in Iraq. Laughlin, who joined the Times in May 2005, can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com.