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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Furlough so sweet, so short
A soldier home from Iraq finds the war has left deep marks, so the rest does him well. But there's always that last day, creeping closer.
By LANCE ARAM ROTHSTEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 26, 2007
Joshua Amburgey plays bingo with his family in Dade City during a two week furlough from the war in Iraq. Amburgey wears a wristband bearing the name of his former Captain Shawn L. English who was killed in action during an IED attack on their convoy.
[Lance Aram Rothstein | Times]
[Courtesy of Joshua Amburgey]
This photo of Joshua Amburgey, taken by a friend, shows some of the gear he must wear every day just to walk around in Iraq.
[Courtesy of Joshua Amburgey]
This photo, taken by a friend of Amburgey, shows some of the damage to the Humvee he was riding in caused by an IED explosion in December 2006 that caused the death of Captain Shawn English.
[Lance Aram Rothstein | Times]
Between bingo games, Joshua Amburgey takes a cigarette break with his wife Dawn in Dade City during a two week furlough from the war in Iraq.
[Lance Aram Rothstein | Times]
Joshua Amburgey stands in line with his mother Terri Holt on a family trip to Busch Gardens. Being in a public situation such as a theme park is not a comfortable situation for Amburgey, who spends much of his time in Iraq behind the reenforced glass of a gun turret looking for IEDs.
DADE CITY -- Behind the tinted glass doors of the Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie 4399, they were passing out free carrot cake when the next bingo number crackled over the loudspeaker.
Twenty-year-old Joshua Amburgey methodically scanned the cards in front of him. A black metallic bracelet wrapped around his right wrist, a constant reminder of the day when his number was so close to being called for good, and a reminder of danger he would soon face again.
Just a week earlier, Amburgey - Bubba to friends and family - sat behind a .50-caliber machine gun in the turret of a Humvee, scanning the streets of Iraq for anything suspicious.
"The trouble," Amburgey said, "is that everything in Iraq is suspicious."
Based out of Camp Taji about 20 miles north of Baghdad, his company spent most of its time on security missions, helping with humanitarian projects and looking for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. For Amburgey, that often meant riding in the most vulnerable position, on top of the Humvee.
"They always aim for the gunner or the truck commander," he said.
Another number, and Amburgey scanned his bingo cards. A simple game, a two-week furlough. Time to relax.
His trip home had taken nearly 60 hours - a flight to Baghdad, a two-hour bus ride in Kuwait, then stops in Ireland and Atlanta. He had left Iraq in full uniform with long sleeves and combat boots, so by the time he reached Tampa International Airport he reeked.
He warned his wife, Dawn, and his mother, Terry Holt. But they hugged him anyway. Holt held her breath. But once they got in the car, she said: "You're not touching anything in my house until you take a shower."
When he got out of the shower there was a plate of his mom's oatmeal cookies drying on wax paper on the kitchen counter. "I love those things." Amburgey said. "I can't get enough of them."
Amburgey graduated from Pasco High in 2005. His was a world of pickup trucks, dirt roads and down-home cooking. He and cousin Dustin Hattaway decided as underclassmen to join the Army.
"We didn't know what we were going to do, so we said, 'Hey, why don't we do what Pop did and join the military,'" he recalled.
After basic training he was stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. "I wasn't even there a week and I was already on a plane to Iraq."
Amburgey stood outside Tami's Country Kitchen smoking a cigarette. He relished being home.
"It's hard to adjust at first, but it's pretty good to be in an area where I don't have to walk around with all my equipment on. Constantly pulling a 360-degree perimeter, watching my every move. Watching the ground, looking at the rooftops, watching that little window over there, looking at the backs of cars. I'm still waiting for that next mortar round to hit."
Earlier in the week at Wal-Mart, a small boy had approached him from the side. "Hey mister," the boy said.
"I went to turn and grab my weapon like this ... and I just didn't have my weapon ... I felt so bad."
In Iraq, decisive reactions can separate the living from the dead. So can sitting in the wrong seat in a Humvee, as Amburgey discovered on Dec. 3. Amburgey gripped his machine gun as a member of a six-vehicle convoy escorting an Iraqi general. Capt. Shawn English rode shotgun. As the motorcade rolled on, Amburgey scanned the road for danger.
Back in high school, Amburgey loved to drive. On this trip home, he couldn't.
"Even riding back from the airport I couldn't look forward," he said. Anything that stood out on the side of the road struck his nerves.
"I was like, oh God, boxes, dead animals. ... I don't even like going down dirt roads anymore and half the people I know live on dirt roads. I'll see a spot where a dog dug up some dirt and I catch myself swinging all the way over to the other side of the road to avoid it."
Amburgey, his wife and mom and several members of the family took a trip to Busch Gardens. Needless to say, Amburgey didn't drive. But he did okay with large crowds and sudden noises that are part of the place - although he isn't exactly happy with his main coping mechanism.
"Before I went to Iraq me and my wife would share a pack of smokes that would last like four days," he said. "Now I smoke a pack a day by myself."
As his convoy approached an Iraqi National Police checkpoint at an overpass, Amburgey spotted something that just didn't seem right.
He shouted into his microphone. "We've got a fresh pile of ..."
"By the time I said 'dirt,' it exploded," he recalled.
Two bombs detonated.
Amburgey was knocked unconscious for about 30 seconds. When he came to he was covered in hot oil, antifreeze and blood. The first device blew the engine out of the vehicle. The second sent fragments through the right side door, tearing into Capt. English.
"I noticed the vehicle was on fire but we were still rolling. I heard screaming and felt someone grabbing onto my leg. I looked down and Capt. English was a mess and his vest still had flames on it. I didn't know what was wrong with him until he held up his arm and half his hand was gone."
Amburgey remembered standing up to look around and noticing a man running down an alley with an AK-47 in his hand.
"My 240B was just demolished, so I grabbed my M-4, took aim and fired one shot. He dropped to the ground."
They loaded English into one of the remaining vehicles and started a mad dash for medical help.
"We were cutting vehicles off the road," recalled Amburgey. "We're ramming vehicles, we're plowing through traffic jams. That's why we put those big-a-- bumpers on our trucks ... hitting vehicles , pushing them out of the road - just to get him back to base."
Four hours later, a colonel called Amburgey's team into his office.
"He had us all hold hands, and he said 'I'm sorry to inform you of this, but Captain English is dead.'"
"Then I went back to my room, sat down on my bed and I cried," Amburgey said. "I cried - it affected me a lot."
On Feb. 11, one of Amburgey's closest friends, Pfc. Justin Paton, 24, of Alanson, Mich., was killed by sniper fire. Two days later, his squad leader Sgt. Pedro Colon, 25, of Cicero, Ill., was killed in Baghdad after his unit came under enemy fire.
The deaths ate away at Amburgey.
Back at the Eagles club in Dade City, Joshua Amburgey wiped away all of the bingo chips. He took a bite of carrot cake, straightened his cards and prepared for another game.
Less than two weeks later, he would be making other preparations, but this was no game. His precious time at home was coming to an end. One night, his friends and family gathered for a farewell cookout. They had pork ribs, broccoli casserole, yellow rice, green beans, cabbage and one special request: creamed potatoes.
"Bubba most definitely loves those," said his mom.
After dinner, they drank a little and played cards, then Amburgey took Dawn to The Clock restaurant, where they shared some alone time.
Holt woke the couple about 6 a.m. and was surprised to see that her son hadn't even packed his bags. But he was used to getting ready in a hurry. By 9 a.m., he was at the Delta ticket counter at Tampa International Airport.
He got one last hug from his mother. Then his little sister Chrissy hugged him, tears streaming down her face. He tried to lighten the mood by laughing at her, but when Dawn approached him crying, he broke down, too. She didn't want to let him go, but he had to catch the shuttle to the gate.
His mother recalled their last conversation.
"Mom I really hate that I have to go. It's just not fair."
"Well it's not going to be fair, Bubba.It never is."
Joshua Amburgey and his family gave Times photographer Lance Aram Rothstein complete access during his recent visit home and have continued to update the Times since Amburgey's return to the combat zone. The aim is to help all of us better understand what these men and women - and their families - are going through.
On Nov. 4, Amburgey's mother Terry Holt finally figured out how to use the webcam while her son had a rare chance to chat. She gathered friends and family around the computer and they all jammed their faces together so he could see them on his screen in Iraq.
Even cousin Dustin Hattaway, stationed in Louisiana, was hooked-up and visible. He'll be deployed to the Middle East again in about two weeks.
They talked for hours, reminiscing and joking.
"Hey Bubba, we went to Sonny's for dinner," teased Holt, waiving her glass in front of the camera. "You want a sip of sweet tea?"
Holt said her son has been doing fine, though he seldom discusses his missions.
"There have been a few bad situations he mentioned, but things have been kind of quiet over there lately," Holt said. "He's lifting weights again and he lost like 40 pounds."
Amburgey expected to spend both Thanksgiving and Christmas in Iraq so this was a cherished moment for the whole family.
He said he'll be coming home to Dade City sometime in mid-January, but it will be a short visit - last week Amburgey walked into the recruiter's office at camp and reenlisted for another tour of duty.