MOSUL, IRAQ—“That’s a day I’ll never forget,” Private First Class Addis says slowly, gently rubbing his M16 rifle.
Three weeks ago, when driving through Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, PFC Addis steered his Humvee around a big pothole and pile of garbage and right into the full blast of a roadside bomb. “It was a loud-ass boom and then everything went dark. When I woke up, I said, ‘I don’t want to die.’ I know that sounds really selfish.”
We are sitting outside my military quarters on an Army cot under a warm, soothing sun. The gloomy winter darkness and dampness has only recently passed; the searing summer heat has yet to arrive. This is the best weather in Iraq. But for Private First Class Addis, this is the very worst time, probably in his entire life.
“I immediately knew Sergeant Borea was dead,” the young 1st Calvary Division soldier says slowly, each word pulsating with agony. “He was missing a big chunk of his body. Terp [the interpreter] was hanging out—both legs were gone. One of Sergeant Casitillo’s legs was barely attached.”
Nicholas Addis, now 21, was born in Galesburg, Illinois and later moved to Chicago. He looks several years younger. With light freckles, clear eyes, and soft features, he has a classic all-American face. What you first notice, however—what you cannot help but first notice—is a dark red mark on the side of his nose. Tiny, yet obvious, it is an unnatural imposition on his unblemished face. Shrapnel wound, he says—adding that he was also wounded in the shoulder.
When your platoon sergeant is killed, your interpreter has both legs blown off, your fire team leader has one leg amputated, and you, the driver of the vehicle, get off relatively easy—well, you haven’t gotten off relatively easy. Survivor’s guilt is a haunting, ruthless wound, a cruel demon that stalks and terrorizes the mind.
“I’m the only one walking around,” he says rocking back and forth on the cot as his eyes remain fixed straight ahead, “but I’m the one without a wife and kid. Mind if I smoke, sir? People say I should be happy that I’m not dead.” His voice trails off into pain too deep to speak.
“You see these things on TV,” he stops in mid-sentence. “I used to have expensive clothes and all that, but I don’t care about that stuff anymore.”
There are several dull thuds, probably incoming mortar rounds landing somewhere on this sprawling U.S. Army base, called Forward Operating Base Marez. If only one loud boom, normally that is EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) blasting a cache of captured ordnances —not an unusual occurrence here. A few short bursts of small arms fire occasionally flare on the perimeter wire. Few soldiers pay much attention to any of this.
In Iraq, the main weapon of death and destruction is the IED (Improvised Explosive Device), which grows in both number and intensity. IEDs are usually placed on roads. According to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, they have caused approximately 70 percent of U.S. causalities in Iraq. This means that nearly 3,000 American military personnel and contractors have been lost to IEDs. One of those killed was Sergeant First Class Russell P. Borea.
“He was a really good guy, I miss him,” says PFC Addis. “We looked sort of alike, so they gave us nicknames.” The corners of the Addis’s mouth curve up and slowly push out a smile. “I was Mini Rue, he was Papa Rue. He was a father to me.”
He gazes across the low rolling hills of brown dirt and rocks, past the perimeter wire and guard towers, beyond the buildings and streets of Mosul in the far distance and sees absolutely nothing. With eyes locked, he has the thousand-yard stare, which could just as well be called the million-mile stare. His eyes see nothing because his mind sees so intensely.
Col. Stephen Twitty, commander of the U.S. Army’s 7th Regiment, 1st Calvary Division in Mosul, tells me that those who plant IEDs are mostly unemployed young Iraqi males. “We need to provide them with employment, with skilled jobs,” he says, “we need to get factories up and running, get stores open. That will take care of much of the problem.”
Yet there have been only 120 projects, costing $102 million, for the reconstruction of the entire Ninewa Province, and most of the effort has gone into short-term programs, such as building wells. “What is needed is an infusion of money for long-term employment,” Colonel Twitty says.
“Sergeant Borea was a good soldier,” Addis says as he slowly rocks back and forth, rubbing his rifle. “All he cared about was teaching other soldiers—even those not staying in the Army.” Another smile peeks through, “He just wanted to help everyone to become a better man. Good father figure, he cared for everyone, a great man. I want you to write that, sir. And he had a family, a wife and child.” The PFC hesitates, and then, in nearly a whisper—I strain to hear the words—“I wish it was me.”
Survivor’s guilt has pushed Addis from “I don’t want to die” immediately after the bombing to “I wish it was me.” For three weeks, wrenching questions that cannot be answered have bombarded his mind. Why did Sergeant Borea die? Why did I live? He has a family and I don’t—why him and not me?
Addis’s eyes brighten: “Sergeant Casitillo was another good guy, my team leader.” (Fire teams are composed of four soldiers and are the smallest unit in the military.) “When we were in the hospital I couldn’t sleep, so I went to his bed and held his hand all night. When he woke up we tried using sign language, but we couldn’t understand each other.” Another smile struggles out. “The nurse got us pen and paper, and the first thing he asked was about Sergeant Borea.” The PFC’s eyes narrow. “I was the one. I was the one that had to tell him Sergeant Borea didn’t make it.” He looks away again.
“I would like you to write the Borea and Casitillo families are always in my prayers. And Terp’s family, he paid the same as us.”
I ask softly, “You ready to go home?”
“No, I don’t want to go,” he responds quickly, throwing me a quick glance. “Sir, why would I want to leave my brothers behind?”
“Well, I thought—”
“I would feel so guilty if I left—Sergeant Borea would say that. He wouldn’t leave his guys.”
“Yeah, but you’ve been through a—”
“Sergeant Casitillo said to me when medevacked out, ‘We’re brothers for life.’ Sir, I want to stay right here with my brothers.”
A shiver rips down my spine. I turn away as water forms in my eyes. I turn toward the rolling hills of brown dirt and stones, the perimeter wire and guard post, the buildings and streets of Mosul, and I see none of it.
The words “loyalty” and “sacrifice” are used ubiquitously in America, by self-assured pundits, by self-proclaimed patriots, in ordinary malls and in all kinds of bars, everyday, everywhere. When one young American soldier in Iraq doesn’t use the words but believes whole heartedly in their meaning, I’m suddenly emptied of every word I ever knew.
Several quick thuds; the mortars hit closer this time. I barely hear them. I’m thinking of the weapon of destruction and death in Iraq. I’m thinking PFC Nicholas Addis will soon return to the lethal streets of Mosul, and I will soon return to the safe streets of America. I’m wondering when I steer around a big pothole back home, what I will think—I’m thankful that my front-end alignment is still good? How about, I don’t want to die? .
Stewart Nusbaumer is embedded with various Army and Marine units in Iraq.