Friday, May 05, 2006

Brave Men

Can't find this online yet. It's from the Denver Post:

FORT CARSON, Colo. β€” A year ago, as Iraqi fighters detonated a bomb that shattered his convoy, Army Sgt. Gene Braxton led survivors scrambling out of their Humvees in the hot dusty haze to hunt for the triggermen.

Five months later, a bigger roadside bomb rocked the armored vehicle Braxton was in. Reeling from a concussion, he dragged a wounded buddy to safety.

Back in Colorado, Braxton has re-enlisted and will undergo parachute jump training in preparation for a possible third stint of combat duty in Iraq.

The 26-year-old is among some 640 Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment soldiers who, in an unusually large mass re-enlistment, have extended their military service. Hundreds participated in a re-enlistment ceremony Friday, standing bolt straight on the shiny wood floor in a Fort Carson gym, raising their right hands and swearing they'd do anything to support and defend the United States.

"Out of the Army? I'd never consider that," said Braxton, who hopes his new jump training with the 82nd Airborne Division in Georgia will allow him to visit his daughter, Jada, who lives with his ex-wife in Georgia.


Retaining battle-hardened soldiers for the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan β€” and possible future conflicts β€” has emerged as a major priority for the military. While Army leaders struggle to lure new recruits, they're offering $15,000 and more for veteran soldiers going abroad. Thousands of soldiers who've been in Iraq have accepted these offers.

But Friday's mass re-enlistment of soldiers just back from a second combat tour has raised eyebrows as far as Washington.

In Iraq, the 5,000-soldier 3rd ACR faced frequent combat, handling a heavy load of counter-insurgency missions. They had 43 killed and 126 wounded. They haven't even had their official welcome-home party yet.

For hundreds to re-enlist shows serious professionalism, said John Pike, director of the think tank Global Security. "It reflects well on the chain of command that people want to stick with it."


The 3rd ACR commander, Col. H.R. McMaster, said "less tangible" factors such as knowing fellow soldiers "would die for you" drive re-enlistment. "Because of their combat experience," he said, "these soldiers will be invaluable to our Army in the future."


For Sgt. Heath Gadberry, re-upping was the last thing on his mind a year ago in Iraq. He remembers his 29th birthday there, when he was thinking: "What am I doing out here?"

A field medic, Gadberry had a college degree in outdoor recreation, was working online for a masters in health care administration, with a wife and three kids back home in Colorado.

"I was like: 'What am I doing this for?' "

Then the next day, rolling through an insurgent hotbed south of Baghdad, a roadside bomb in an empty vehicle exploded as he passed and everything went black. The blast killed his buddy, Spc. Robert Swaney, the gunner atop his Humvee. It blew Gadberry 100 yards and with such force the pavement he traveled over tore through his armor.

Once he was stitched and bandaged at base camp, Gadberry walked up to his superiors and told them he wanted to re-enlist.

"Everybody looked at me like I was insane. 'Of all people, you should know better,' " Gadberry said.

But Swaney's death "motivated me," he said. "How can I not do this? How could I pawn this off to somebody else?

"I've got other options. But I can't imagine doing anything else right now. I've got to help get the job done."