Freeport’s 333rd Military Police have returned home from Iraq, forever changed.
Story by Christopher Clukey
The men and women of the Freeport-based 333rd Military Police Unit knew they were in a different world the moment they stepped off the plane in Kuwait. When they left Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, less than twenty-four hours before, it had been -11°F and snowy. Now they filed out into the 130° heat of a desert kingdom.
At first, the troops had enormous difficulty adjusting. They were scheduled to stay in camp for two weeks to acclimate. “Everybody got sick,” said Specialist Tim Wenzel (pictured above), who served as a medic. Heat casualties were the most serious problem, but the soldiers also fell ill because they had no resistance to local bacteria strains.
During their early weeks of patrolling, Wenzel recalled putting every returning patrol member on IV fluids to rehydrate them. During one ten day period the temperatures inside their vehicles peaked at 160° each day. Soldiers did their jobs as usual, in full “battle rattle” body armor, riding in vehicles without air conditioning. “If you rolled down a window,” Wenzel said, “it was like having a hair dryer blowing on you.” When he returned to Freeport on leave in November 2003, Wenzel found it so hard to keep warm that he wore a stocking cap even when he was indoors.
The 333rd’s mission, as Sergeant Lance Leverton put it, was to “maintain law and order in our operational area” in the region surrounding Talil and Nasiryah below the Sunni Triangle. This included everything from mobile clinic visits in local villages (known as “medical presentations”) to “kicking in doors” on terrorist suspects. “I like to say that MP stands for ‘Multi-Purpose,’” said First Lieutenant Trevor Albrecht, a platoon leader and the current acting Executive Officer. “There is nothing that this company was exempt from performing.” They began with checkpoint duty and then moved on to crowd control, searches and raids, patrolling supply lines, perimeter security, guarding prisoners and rounding up “Baath Party members, gun runners and black marketeers” and other people of interest. “We had great PR people working with us,” said Wenzel, “so sometimes Baath Party members or people who knew things we could use would just show up voluntarily.”
Wenzel also mentioned the benefits of excellent intelligence work. Attacks on the unit were almost always detected ahead of time and pre-empted. “Our camp was only attacked once.”
They also escorted convoys of civilians or reinforcements going deeper into Iraq. Among these were a convoy carrying the contents of the British embassy, and another carrying the very first Burger King in Iraq to the Baghdad Airport. Saddam Hussein had sabotaged all Iraqi refineries, so oil had to be trucked to Kuwait to be refined. The 333rd would escort oil convoys to Kuwait and escort gasoline back, and escorted gasoline to Baghdad to quell fuel riots.
Albrecht adds, “[T]he unit as a whole performed on a level that exceeded the standard to reach mission accomplishment.”
During most of their tour, the 333rd operated in rural areas of the country. Rural Iraqis endured crushing poverty. Most lived in mud houses grouped in communities that Wenzel described as “very tribal.” The economy was barter-based, and cash was almost nonexistent. Soldiers on patrol would buy lunches from the local farmers, who were eager to exchange food for cash. “Sometimes we were giving them the first money they had ever had,” recalled Wenzel, who estimated he had eaten 50 or 60 meals prepared by Iraqi families during his tour.
The Hussein regime had left rural areas with no utilities and a crumbling infrastructure. Electrical power was almost never seen, clean water was rare and some communities had to make use of open sewers. Hussein also tightly controlled who had access to motor vehicles, and a rebellion on foot would have been easily crushed. Access to weapons had also been restricted for decades, but shortly before the invasion Hussein gave out millions of weapons to civilians, hoping they would use them against Coalition troops.
The population the 333rd encountered had exactly the opposite attitude. “They were receptive. They liked what we were doing,” Wenzel said. Medical presentations helped gain goodwill. A team made up of a doctor, several medics and some translators would arrive at a local village around 9am, after the morning farm chores had been completed. Medics would handle most injuries and illnesses themselves, referring the most serious cases to the doctor. Sometimes they or the doctor would write the civilians a note so they could visit a U.S. base for more advanced treatment.
Often the locals simply needed basic medical treatment like the cleaning and dressing of wounds, or medicines that Americans take for granted. The medics saw “quite a bit” of evidence of past torture by the regime, Wenzel said. Mutilations were common. Some civilians reported being forced with torture to use their meager funds at certain businesses if government officials weren’t happy with the local economic situation. The medics also saw many men with severed Achilles’ tendons, which was the Hussein regime’s punishment for draft dodgers.
The home front
As soon as the word came that the 333rd would deploy, local organizations like the Red Cross and Operation Homefront stepped forward and a Family Readiness Group was established to meet the needs of the families and provide a liaison with the National Guard command structure.
One thing that was new about this war was the ease of calling home. Connie Wescott, a Family Readiness Group board member, had a son and daughter—Kirk and Erin Bausman—in Iraq. She said they never talked about anything combat related. She received a call about a day on checkpoint duty where the soldiers searched a car and found goats in the trunk, and another day when two Iraqis cruised through a checkpoint on a moped with a goat sitting on the seat between them. “They’d talk about the weather, the Iraqi people, what their living conditions were like, what we should send them…”
Tim Wenzel said, “My family would ask why I hadn’t told them about [unpleasant] things when I called from Iraq. They were disturbed by it when I was sitting at home with them, how would they feel if they’d heard about it while I was still over there? A lot of guys didn’t talk about the day to day stuff because they didn’t want to freak their families out.”
Support from home was strong, but sometimes didn’t match up with conditions. “Once somebody sent me a bag of marshmallows,” Wenzel recalled, “and by the time it got to me it was just a bag of white liquid.”
As their one year tour drew to a close, the 333rd was in Kuwait, preparing their equipment to be turned in. The soldiers were due to turn in their personal weapons when they were summoned for a briefing.
They were addressed by a Lieutenant Colonel. After telling them about recent combat developments in the area he told them “Before you guys can leave, we have to send you back into the fight.” At least one 333rd soldier who spoke to the Ink still felt some resentment toward the officer. “He gave us the ‘We Were Soldiers Speech.’ He must have seen that movie a lot of times.”
The unit proceeded to Camp Udari, where they remained for two weeks. The soldiers remained professional and unified, but the camp was tense. Wenzel remembers being upbraided for some minor infraction by some camp guards who were new to the theater and asking, “So, did you guys earn the Burger King patch or the Subway patch?” Wenzel had particular reason to dislike their new orders: The date he was supposed to be married came and went during the extra months.
By the time they crossed back into Kuwait, their orders had been changed. They would be sent to a prison called Abu Ghraib. Their duties would include patrols in the Baghdad area, including the dangerous route known as MSR Sword.
Oddly, the soldiers had found out about the Abu Ghraib scandal when the story broke on TV news after they had been there a week. The consequences were quick and brutal. The prison was shelled by terrorist mortars almost daily. Most of the mortar rounds were landing among prisoners being kept in outside areas. Any convoy that came near the prison came under attack. On any given day 100-300 Iraqis were at the main gate, trying to get in and check on relatives. They were convinced their relatives were being subjected to the same treatment as the prisoners in the infamous photos. The Marines guarding the gate of the prison were issued riot gear.
“There were lots of reporters around,” Wenzel recalled. “They filmed us and our prisoners any time we did a transfer or left the prison.” Lance Leverton went further: “The media was difficult…[They] did a lot of damage.”
Meanwhile, the Army initiated a training program for the soldiers performing corrections work at the prison, to reinforce proper prisoner treatment techniques. The 333rd covered the duties of each unit as they rotated into the additional training. One frustrated 333rd sergeant reportedly asked the troops, “You don’t need that, do you? Do I really have to sit down and tell you it’s not okay to take a chemlight and rape a prisoner with it?”
Then things got worse in the only way they could. On April 29th, 2004, Sergeant Landis Garrison was killed when his weapon accidentally discharged. The 333rd had experienced serious casualties before—Specialist Gabriel Garriga and Sergeant Steve Asche had received lethal burns from a Humvee accident—but Garrison was their first and only member to be killed. “Nothing we had been through prepared us for that,” said Leverton. “It took everyone aback.” At Garrison’s funeral, he would be called a hero three times over, because in civilian life he was a police officer and volunteer firefighter.
Lt. Albrecht said that when he looks back, what stands out is “the resolve that the unit showed when we were extended to stay an extra period of time. …Although upset and confused, we stuck together as we did the entire time…This shows that we had a tremendous unit that not only had confidence and competence, but also good leadership and astounding soldiers that were up to any task.” Leverton added, “We did a lot of good things, and there were a lot of bad things that happened. My hat’s off to our commander [Captain Ronald Bonesz] for bringing us through.”
In July 2004, the troops finally made it home. Well-wishers lined the streets, and over 600 had gathered at the National Guard Armory. Now the soldiers faced the difficult task of adjusting from combat to life at home. Connie Wescott said that “many families were expecting the worst” after briefings about the readjustment period. Though the trauma predicted in the briefings was overblown, no one’s transition to home life would be easy. And as both Wescott and her son Kirk Bausman said, everyone’s experience would be different.
One of the biggest problems was crowds. In Freeport, crowds mean crowds. In Iraq, crowds mean danger. No matter how friendly the group might be, a public gathering could provide excellent cover for a suicide bomber, or attackers hoping to kill American soldiers and then fade away quickly. When crowds of civilians were near, the soldiers had to try to watch every face and every hand, looking for malicious intent or a drawn weapon. These habits were hard to break. Wenzel reported it was at least two-and-a-half months before he could be in a group without feeling threatened, and his family noticed other things, such as a new habit of always sitting with his back to a wall. “It was hard not to just back away from people sometimes.”
Lance Leverton agreed, noting he still dislikes crowded places. He had a “very hard” adjustment period. His wife Jenna said “As soon as I saw him I knew he was different.” Over the next six to eight months she would notice him scanning nearby people whenever they were in public. “We would take the kids out for a buggy ride and it was like he was waiting for an attack.”
They also experienced problems because their approaches to family life had changed. Lance described Jenna before the deployment as “almost totally dependent on me.” Coping without him for sixteen months, she became very self-reliant and developed what Lance jokingly called “a Norma Rae attitude.” Worse, Jenna said that Lance “was so used to taking care of his soldiers,” and he was trying to take charge even more than before. “It was a lot of friction…we almost separated. …But now we know each other better. Our marriage is a lot stronger now [than before he left].”
Bausman, who is serving on active duty as an MP at Fort Greely in Alaska, had and still has some difficulties. “It has not been easy for me,” he said. “It has taken awhile to adjust to hearing loud sounds like fireworks and going to the pistol range. Those I have recently adjusted to. I still have issues with being in large crowds and I really can not stand to be crowded around.” Bausman was awarded the Bronze Star for heroic action in three incidents: at the accident that injured Asche and Garriga, for rescuing Iraqis trapped in a bus after a road accident, and for trying to save the life of a dying Iraqi policeman. But he doesn’t want any special recognition: “I just did what I was trained to do and what I felt was right. There are medals being awarded to soldiers today and there will be medals awarded tomorrow. Some of them will never be given to the soldier; they will go to a parent or spouse or child….Those are the true heroes, those who gave their life for people they never knew. … I would ask that we remember the fallen.”
Albrecht pointed out another difficulty: “I think that the biggest hardship for soldiers was not seeing each other every day. Granted, adjusting to everything back home was tough, but I think that [missing] the brotherhood and love that you have for each other was the hardest thing to adjust to. We went through experiences with each other that you will never experience with your friends and family back home. This is a special bond that can only be explained by a soldier.”
The soldiers of the 333rd are building their futures. Some remain in the unit, and others, like Specialist Bausman, have gone to active duty. Leverton and Wenzel have both finished their military service.
“If I were single I would go back,” Leverton said. He tends bar at Diamond Dave’s. He said it’s common for those who oppose the war to give him their opinion at length, “whether I want it or not” when they find out he’s a veteran. “They don’t know the good we’ve done there…They just tell me ‘it’s all about oil.’”
“They’re experts,” his wife jokes. “They know way more about Iraq than he does!”
Wenzel made it to his second wedding date, and he is a phlebotomist at Freeport Memorial. He is jovial in his manner and optimistic about the outcome of the war, but he too feels he has a perspective that many civilians miss. “They watch all the same news shows that show people dying in a few cities and nothing of the good that’s going on.”
Lt. Albrecht was asked if there is any chance the 333rd will re-deploy to Iraq soon. He responded, “Being in the Army, there is always the possibility that you will deploy during wartime or in peace. You have to be ready for that. …It was a quick decision and we were in Iraq. As a soldier, you must always be prepared and think about this.”