My name is Nathan McCoy. These are the events leading up to, and of, a day that is seared in my memory forever. Everything written here is true and will never be forgotten by those who were there. This is the story of my two fallen brothers.
I was born in Tulsa and grew up in Broken Arrow. I'd say I've lived a pretty normal life for the most part. I come from a middle class, single parent, blue collar home. Life has held its ups and downs for me, but I keep going. I like to think I've had a good upbringing and I have a level head on my shoulders. Even though I didn't graduate high school, I love to learn and I'm always reading something. I push myself to be a better person. I try to be humble and do unto others and all that, but I catch myself slipping from time to time. I've found that it's easiest to just be myself and everything will fall into place.
9/11. For every American, that day is branded in memory. It was a booster shot of patriotism for most. I never partook in the flag waving or the "My flag is bigger than your flag" competition. Or the "I'm a better American because I don't buy foreign products" battle.
Now don't get me wrong, I've always been patriotic. I think America is undoubtedly the best country in the world even with all our faults. After 9/11, life for me went on pretty normally. I ended up dropping out of school after my mother died in a motorcycle accident when I was 16. Her death hit me pretty hard. She was probably the biggest positive influence in my life. After dropping out, I got my GED, started working full time and ended up meeting a wonderful girl a few years later.
I was about 19. We started dating and before long she moved in with me. We shared a single bedroom apartment and life was good. I asked her to marry me even though I couldn't afford a ring at the time. But being a high school dropout with a GED and working a dead-end job, I didn't have too many choices if I wanted to start a family. So I joined the Army.
Shortly after graduating basic, I was sent to Hawaii with a little over 20 guys from my company. Now growing up in a middle class family, I never dreamed that I would ever set foot in Hawaii. It wasn't even an option that I ever entertained. Hawaii isn't what I expected, but it can be a great place to take a vacation. I guess living on an island makes me a little claustrophobic sometimes. I prefer the open road, but being surrounded by lush, green mountains and the endless ocean never grows old.
After I finished in-processing, I reported to my unit on Feb. 27th 2006. I belonged to Second Platoon, Charlie Company, 2/27th Infantry Battalion, also known as the "Wolfhounds." The Wolfhounds have a long, illustrious history. The 27th has fourteen Medal of Honor recipients, more than any other unit in the Army. We've been involved in numerous wars and conflicts since the unit's inception in 1901. Our Regiment's Latin motto is "Nec Aspera Terrent," which translates into "No Fear on Earth."
I spent my first night in the unit sleeping on an uncomfortable cot in the barracks. The first two guys I met who didn't treat me like shit were Tony Griffin and Brian Sollenberger. They helped me get settled in and answered all the questions I had. Both of them were new to the platoon and had been there for about a week before I got there. Only one guy from my platoon in basic training came with me to the new platoon. His name is Sean Yazzie, a Native American from Arizona, and we're still very good friends.
Now I wouldn't say the sergeants hazed us when we got to the platoon, but they didn't exactly break out the cold beer and cake when they welcomed us. I remember lying in a puddle of my own sweat the first day, after hours of doing push-ups. They wanted to see how far we would push ourselves and whether or not we would give up. Most of the NCO's (sergeants) in the platoon had deployed to Afghanistan the year before and expected us to give all that we had.
After filling out more paperwork (which is endless), we were issued our gear (which took a few days) and I was finally given a bigger barracks room with two other guys. Their names were Aaron Kincaid and Carlos Rodas. Both of them were older than me and both were new to the platoon too. Kincaid was a good 'ol boy from Georgia who could fix anything. He let me know how things were run and gave me some great advice on how to stay out of trouble. Rodas is from South Central L.A. and is an outspoken individual. He always seems to be instigating something. All three of us were the stubborn type, but we got along for the most part.
I was assigned to 2nd Squad and met the rest of the guys in the platoon. Michael Thomas was a little crazy. He grew up in West Texas on his uncle's horse ranch in a small town. He was loud, brash and had more energy than anyone I've ever met. He and I became good drinking buddies and got into a little trouble together. (Nothing too serious though.) Richard Pow and Juan Mulero were from Puerto Rico and were absolutely hilarious. They came up with jokes and one liners all the time that had everyone in tears. Bob Andrzejczak (we just call him "Alphabet" for obvious reasons) was pretty quiet, but is a great guy who only seems to laugh when someone gets hurt. Gansel is older than all of us, but is definitely a kid at heart. He acts a lot younger than he is. Aaron Beaumont and Aaron Miller were roommates and since they had been in the Army a little longer, they had seniority over the rest of us new guys. Beaumont was somewhat of a ladies man and had a gorgeous Norwegian girlfriend at the time. Miller didn't like me for some reason at first, but we soon became good friends.
Velton Locklear came to the platoon a little while before we went to the National Training Center out in the Mojave Desert. He was a soft spoken guy and was really laid back. He was a great team leader. If you had a question that he didn't know the answer to, he wasn't afraid to admit it. Then he'd make sure to get the answer for you. Sgt. Dennis Liechty became my team leader and was easy to get along with. Sollenberger, Griffin, and myself were his first fire team. He deployed to Afghanistan with the battalion previously, but was stuck in an administration position, so he didn't have much leadership experience but soon got into the groove of things.
We spent the next few months in Hawaii training and preparing for the upcoming deployment. Our battalion shipped out to the National Training center at Ft. Irwin, California in Apr-May of '06. NTC is in the middle of the Mojave and was absolute torture. We were there for a little over a month. For two weeks out of that month we were out in the "Sandbox," training. The temperatures reached about 130 degrees daily, we got about four hours of sleep a night, and ate two meals a day if we were lucky. Going through something that grueling really brings people together. We made unbreakable bonds during that month of hell.
We got back to Hawaii and had about three months until it was time for the real deal. We continued training during the work days and making sure our legal, finances, medical, dental, and everything else were taken care of. It was a very hectic time. Everyone was always busy doing something. We also had layout after layout of all our gear and equipment to make sure we had everything and it was all accounted for.
One thing that is true for every Infantryman is that we work hard and party harder. Those three months became a drunken blur for most of the guys of second platoon. Thomas and his wife ended up divorcing and she went back to Texas with their little boy. He was pretty hurt by it, but hid it well. Since he had a house on post, it became the unofficial hangout spot.
Everyday after work, we'd stock up on alcohol and head over to his place. On the weekends we'd throw small keggers. Some of the guys, like Locklear and Kincaid would bring their wives and kids over. We had a great time cooking out, drinking, and listening to music. Most of the neighbors were cool about it and would come over and drink with us occasionally. Then a Sergeant First Class moved in nearby and that's when the problems started. The MPs (Military Police) would show up a few times a week and tell us to keep the noise down or they were going to break the party up.
These turned into nights of reckless abandon, creative destruction and testosterone-fueled exploits. Instead of fences, the houses had privacy hedges about nine feet high. We would dive through them tackling the trunks and snapping them in half. Beer bottles piled up in the grass, and the house was completely trashed. We would drink and drink until we ran out of everything and then pass out around the house. Thomas would put on Oasis' "Wonderwall" in the morning on full blast to wake everyone up. When we heard that, we knew it was time to start cleaning up. Then our drinking would start all over. After we started getting into trouble with the MPs, we started having keggers and bonfires on the beach. Those were unforgettable nights. We drank every night for those three months. My liver absolutely hated me.
Somehow we were given permission to train at the old housing projects on post. The housing was old and was going to be torn down so new houses could be built. So we had free reign to tear the places up. We practiced kicking in doors, breaching windows, entering and clearing from the second story and all other MOUT (Movement On Urban Terrain) tactics. It was great training that wouldn't have been possible anywhere else. We were lucky to be able to destroy the places like we did.
At one point, Kincaid was going to breach a window with our breaching tool, and his right hand was choked up too high. When he brought the tool down through the glass, his hand went with it and he sliced the hell out of his trigger finger. It was sliced to the bone. The glass even cut through his leather glove.
He had this look of utter surprise on his face and didn't say a word. His eyes were literally as wide as saucers. He stood there holding his wrist not saying anything as his finger poured blood. We tried to take care of it quietly and not make a big deal out of it, but our new lieutenant ended up finding out. Staff Sergeant Teague, our Squad Leader, took Aaron to the medical center on post.
We found out later that Kincaid had nerve damage in his trigger finger and didn't have to deploy. But he insisted that he wanted to. He told the doctor, "Well I guess I'll learn to shoot with my other finger then." That's just the kind of guy Kincaid was. He never gave in to setbacks. If he had a job to do, he'd stick to it until it was completed.
One weekend, Locklear had a BBQ over at his house. I wasn't there but heard all about it. Kincaid and Rodas both had their families over. Thomas brought over a small 50cc pocket bike for Locklear's two little boys. It needed a little fixing up so it would run. After the guys were done working on the tiny motorcycle, Kincaid decided to take it for a test drive. He was on pain killers because of his finger and had been drinking a little that evening. Well, he rode the bike around a grassy field and after a short while an MP car showed up. They chased him down and he ended up getting a DUI on a pocket bike!
We gave him so much shit for that. That's the way we all were. If someone did something stupid, we felt we had every right to make fun of them. Let's just say that I've been ridiculed more times than I can remember.
The whole company was called in that night for a recall formation. When that happens, everyone is supposed to drop what they're doing and report in no matter what time it is. It is a real pain in the ass.
I was sent up stairs to the barracks to wake up all the guys who lived there with me. I was up on the third floor when I needed to spit, since I had a wad of chewing tobacco in my mouth. I went out on the back lanai (a balcony in Hawaii) to spit, when I heard someone saying "Just lie still man, you'll be ok." I looked over the railing and there was someone lying on the grass. I saw my platoon sergeant and two of our squad leaders crowded around the guy. Apparently, this guy Kline had been drinking underage in the barracks and one of his buddies decided he had had enough to drink. So he snatched Kline's beer bottle out of his hand and tossed it over the railing. Without hesitation, Kline "Superman" dove over the side to get it! Now that is a dedicated drinker! He ended up breaking some bones and causing some internal damage and never deployed with us. This happened about a week from our deployment day. Two drinking-related incidents in one night is not good.
After the events of that night, our Company Commander told us we couldn't drink anymore until after we got back from Iraq. It's close to impossible to keep a company of Infantrymen from drinking for a week before they go to war for a year. People still drank regardless. They were just more careful about it. Luckily, we didn't have anymore incidents.
"Our journey had begun..."
The day we left was a sad day for most. I didn't really have anyone to say goodbye to since I wasn't married and didn't have any family out there to see me off. I did say bye to some of the wives I had become friends with. Mostly I just walked around and bullshitted with the other single guys.
But there is one moment I was witness to that sticks out in my mind and always will. It was of Locklear saying his goodbyes to his wife and two sons. I happened to look over and I saw Velton down on one knee with a hand on each of his boy's shoulders. He was saying something to them but I was too far away to hear. I imagine it was something about them being the men of the house now, how they needed to help their mom out, that he'd be back soon and that he loved them. As he was doing this, his wife Denise was standing off to the side, her hand to her mouth and tears rolling down her cheeks, as she looked on. For some reason this whole scene really hit me. I found myself tearing up a little myself.
At the appointed time we boarded the buses for the ride to the airstrip. Our journey had begun.
We arrived at the airport and were soon loaded up on the plane. Luckily they chartered a civilian plane for the first few legs of the trip. It was crowded, but immensely more comfortable than any military flight would have been. Finally we landed in Kuwait. It was around August 6th. It wasn't hot, it was painfully hot. If you want to know what Kuwait feels like in August, preheat your oven to about 150 degrees, insert head, take a blow dryer on full blast, high heat and point it at your face. It was sweltering. I broke out in a pouring sweat instantly. We were miserable, but we acclimatized to the heat soon enough. We stayed in Kuwait for a few weeks before we made our way North into Iraq.
We finally touched down in Northern Iraq in the Kirkuk Province. We were stationed at a small FOB (Forward Operating Base) called McHenry. It was a depressing shit hole and I loved it. For some reason or another, my platoon swapped places with a Delta platoon. Delta was the heavy weapons company of the Battalion. Our area of operations at the time was a small town called Riyadh a few kilometers from McHenry and pretty much everything beyond it.
The majority of our missions were what was called "Route Clearance." We would drive up and down the MSRs (Main Supply Routes) and ASRs (Alternate Supply Routes) looking for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device). Not the most sought after missions by any means. We had other missions like going into Riyadh and the surrounding villages to gather intel and bring them food. We usually brought them 50 pound bags of rice, flour and sugar. We also gave kids toys and school supplies stuffed into backpacks. It was all a new experience for those of us who had never been deployed before, but we all were itching to see some action. Unfortunately our wishes were going to come true.
The 23rd of September, 2006. Our day of infamy. It started like every other mission day before it. We woke up early that morning to start prepping for the mission. Locklear and I shared a pot of coffee that he had made. We used to complain about how bad the chow hall coffee was so he asked his wife to send him a coffee maker. He knew how to brew the perfect pot.
We got the trucks ready, all of our equipment was loaded up and then our Platoon Leader gave the patrol brief. It was the first day of Ramadan, an Islamic holiday that lasts for a month. The participants fast during daylight hours and refrain from any type of sex. After the sun has set, their families and friends gather together and feast.
Our mission that day was to go to a village past Riyadh and see if they needed anything for the month of Ramadan. After that, our follow-on mission was to go to a water treatment facility on the outskirts of Riyadh and check it out on the way back to the FOB. The day before, we did a recon patrol of the area to find out what the best routes in and out were. We also kept an eye out for any possible ambush sites and other important factors that need to be taken into consideration when doing a patrol in an unfamiliar area.
The first part of the mission went off without mishap. As we drove seemingly aimlessly through the town, one of the gunners spotted a local who was video taping our patrol. The enemy usually films us when they attack, to learn our procedures for reacting to contact. They also make propaganda videos for distribution on the Internet. For some reason, we didn't stop to try to apprehend the cameraman.
We got to the edge of town and started to make our way through a large dirt field strewn with trash. In the front truck Kincaid was driving, Staff Sergeant McComas was the TC (truck commander), Griffin was gunning, Locklear was sitting behind Kincaid and Thomas was sitting behind McComas.
I was driving the second truck, Sgt. Liechty was the TC, Yazzie was on the gun and Sollenberger was sitting behind me. There were three more trucks behind us. The lead humvee came to a T intersection and was about to make a right turn, when all of a sudden there was an overwhelming explosion. I was looking straight ahead, waiting for Kincaid to make the turn as Sgt. Liechty and I were bullshitting about nothing. My truck was about 15-20 feet behind the lead truck.
The explosion is nothing like you see in Hollywood. There was no fire ball, only smoke and dust. And right in the middle was an orange flash that disappeared in an instant. Everyone in my truck sat there for what seemed like an eternity in silence, although it only could have been a few seconds. Liechty started calling up contact on the radio. And I watched as the dust cleared.
The humvee was lying on the passenger side and the roof was peeled back like a sardine can. The contents of the trunk were strewn about everywhere. I started praying immediately. I somehow remained calm until someone called out for two body bags. That's when I started to lose it. I got cold sweats and my vision started to blur. I had to put my face in front of the AC vent and take deep breaths to keep my body under control. I couldn't let myself panic! For some reason the only person I could remember being in the truck was Griffin. I couldn't remember anyone else!
It seemed within seconds of the blast, the guys in the platoon reacted. We had dismounts on the ground and had a security perimeter in place almost instantly. Sgt. Beck jumped up on the side of the Humvee with all his gear on and miraculously pulled the radio mount off of Staff Sergeant (Ssg.) McComas' pinned leg. The radio mount has to weigh a few hundred pounds with all the radios and power amps.
At the same time our medic Doc Whitley was helping Griffin make his way to our truck so he could start applying bandages. Griffin was covered in blood but was keeping pretty calm. Thomas climbed out on his own disoriented and confused. He ran up to my truck and started screaming for the handmike so he could contact Battalion. Neither of my radios was on the Battalion net anyway, but he was in no state to be making calls.
That only left two guys that the body bags were for. Locklear and Kincaid. Locklear, the guy who used to walk around singing the Gnarls Barkley song "Crazy" perfectly. I still can't hear it without thinking of him. Kincaid, my first roommate and the guy who taught me a lot about Humvees even though he'd been in the Army as long as I had. Two of my brothers were dead.
Since I was a driver, my job was to stay in the vehicle in case we needed to move, but I was called to dismount for some reason. Sgt. Liechty and myself needed to clear the dirt road to the left side. He walked down the road and I was about a yard off to the left side. We walked for about 40 feet when we were called back to the trucks. I turned to step on the road and froze. Less than an inch above my boot was a wire running parallel to the road. The enemy loves using trip wires for explosives meant for dismounts. I whispered Sgt. Liechty's name and he told me to back away slowly. I carefully stepped over the wire and we hauled ass back to our truck.
We secured the site and waited for QRF (Quick Response Force) to show up. They were there in minutes. Griffin was loaded up in my truck across the ammo boxes and I drove like a man possessed to get him back to the FOB. I was side swiping civilian vehicles in a rage to get them out of the way and all of a sudden a little kid ran across the road in front of me. I didn't slow down. I didn't hit him, but at the time I wouldn't have cared if I did. I think now that if I had hit him, it would haunt me for the rest of my life. I'm thankful that little boy made it across safely. Yazzie was still on the gun and leaning back as I drove as fast as that piece of shit truck could go. Yazzie didn't realize it, but he was leaning on Griffin's injured leg. Griffin yelled "Yazzie get the #@$& off my leg!" "I'm sorry man! I didn't know!" "It's ok Yazzie! Shake-and-Bake baby!" He held up his fist for Yazzie to tap. Griffin's whole left side of his body was filled with shrapnel, every bone in his leg was broken and he was cracking jokes! Unreal.
As we approached the gate to the FOB, I noticed a civilian bus parked across the road. No one was in or around it. Now VBIEDs (Vehicle Bourne Improvised Explosive Device) were a very real threat and I thought we were done. I imagined that bus exploding like the IED I just witnessed. I'm pretty sure my heart stopped beating. I made it through the gate as fast as I could go.
I got the truck to the aid station as fast as I possibly could. The medics were already waiting for us. They pulled Griffin out and had him inside before I realized it. I sat in the driver seat, tears streaming down my face, with the window on the truck open. The chaplain saw me and made his way over to me. He put his hand on my shoulder and asked if they were my friends. I wanted to say "No sir, they are my brothers," but I didn't trust my voice so I merely nodded my head.
Later that evening they let us view Locklear and Kincaid's bodies if we wanted to. I went in to the aid station tent to say my goodbyes. I stood there silently. I said all I had to say in my prayers for them. A few days later, we had a memorial ceremony for them. I was asked to speak. I prepared a small speech about what kind of guys they were. I tried to include some humorous stories about them, but toward the end of my speech I choked up fighting back the tears. In front of the General, Lieutenant Colonel, and the hundreds of people from the battalion, I choked up, but I didn't care. I'm not ashamed to shed tears for my fallen brothers.
I was there when they died. I helped carry their flag draped caskets and placed them on the bird to send them home. I was with them every step of the way. And I believe they are with me every step, too. I will never forget them or their sacrifice. I will never forget the 23rd of September.
We found out later the IED was made with a Russian Surface-To-Air missile that was stripped down and was activated with a cell phone. Somehow, the phone still turned on. The screen said Allah Ahkbar, which means "God is good." The IED went off right underneath the driver's seat. There was nothing that we could have done.
"But I'm ready to move on..."
Griffin spent the rest of the deployment at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He decided to stay in even after they told him he should get out. He's still in second platoon today and re-enlisted right before we left for this deployment.
Pow was pulling guard in the Hawijah Joint Command Center toward the end of the deployment when the humvee he was in was hit by an anti-tank grenade. He took extensive damage to his left leg. He's still in but is in the process of med-boarding and will be out soon.
Andrzejczak was gunning on a patrol this deployment when his MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protection) was hit by an anti-tank grenade. He ended up losing his left leg above the knee. He is currently at Walter Reed going through physical therapy. He has already received a few different prosthetics and is in great spirits.
Yazzie, Miller, Beaumont, Gansel, Sollenberger and Rodas are still in Charlie Company, though they've all switched platoons.
Sgt. Liechty was involuntarily extended during the deployment and left the service shortly after our return to Hawaii. He is now lives in Indiana.
Thomas was chaptered out of the Army for threatening our Battalion Commander. There were certain incidents that brought that about. He is now in Florida working for an industrial air conditioning company. He recently told me he was joining the Marines.
Doc Whitley is still in the Battalion and works at the aid station. Ssg. Teague is now stationed in Ft. Hood, Texas. Ssg. McComas is training new lieutenants at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Mulero is now in Georgia and changed his job or re-classed as we call it, to work in supply.
And as for myself, I'm back in Iraq for the second time with the rest of the guys in Charlie. I've been involuntarily extended myself and plan on getting out when I get back. I don't really regret enlisting in the Army, although I think I do sometimes. I've been places, done things, and seen even more than I ever would have dreamed of. I've met so many incredible people (and a few jerks) that I never would have otherwise. I've had my ups and downs but I've kept going.
This has been a chapter of my life that's quickly coming to a close but will always be fresh in my mind. I have grown considerably as a person and as a man. No matter what lays ahead of me, I believe I'm prepared to overcome any obstacle. But I'm ready to move on. And Locklear, Kincaid, thank you. I'll see you soon enough.
I am a Grunt
A knuckle-dragging ground pounder
We are the ones
Who are always
Strained to our limits
And then pushed farther
Expertly proficient in killing
Somewhat knowledgeable in saving each other's lives
We can disassemble and reassemble
Any of our weapons
In our deepest sleep
March for miles with no rest
Carrying half our body weight
In equipment and gear
A Jack of all Trades
We are not subject matter experts
In all fields
But we make do
We adapt and overcome
The rights that we protect,
We give up to do so
Freedom is bought
With Infantryman's blood
In combat, we feel the whole
Spectrum of emotions
In the most extreme sense
I am not ashamed to shed tears
For my fallen brothers
There is a saying
"All gave some
Some gave all"
It is only true for the dead
I am not the same man I was
Before I came in
But I do not know
If it is for better or for worse
I have stepped through the looking glass
With none of the wonders of Alice
On the battlefield
Boys become men
Men become statistics
A number on the page
Stamped "Official Government Document"
Mass troop movements
Are planned and executed
At the upper levels
But it is on the ground
Where small choices are faced
With split-second decisions made
That make us
Or break us
As we suffer the consequences
At home we are
On the battlefield
With the killswitch engaged
A two sided coin
Fierce in battle
Compassionate in peace
We train to kill
To quell the basic human instinct
That aversion to taking another's life
We are given the worst of it
And try to make the most of it
Our sense of humor is insensitive and cold
An off-kilter sense of humor
To be able to laugh in the face
Our demeanor to most
Would seem brash and arrogant
We walk with our chests puffed out
And a swagger in our step
I feel that it is honor earned
But do not call us heroes
The real heroes are buried in Arlington
In the fields of Europe
The tiny islands of the Pacific
Rice paddies in Vietnam
The real heroes' wives
Heard a knock on the door one day
Fell the to their knees with tear streaked cheeks
Small children peeking from around the door
Knowing, but not fully understanding
Why daddy won't be coming home
We are forged in the fire
And baptized by blood
We step up, move out, and drive on
We take the high ground
And never surrender
We have earned the right to wear
Our cross-rifles and blue cord
We have paid the price and paved the way
So future generations can taste the sweet nectar
That is freedom
We are the Infantry
[Editor's Note: Nathan McCoy was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and grew up in Broken Arrow. He dropped out of school after his mother died in a motorcycle accident when he was 16. After that, he got his GED and started working full time. McCoy joined the army at the age of 20 in order to provide for a family one day. He graduated basic in October of 2005 and began training in Hawaii for deployment. McCoy belonged to Second Platoon, Charlie Company, 2/27th Infantry Battalion, also known as the "Wolfhounds." Currently, McCoy is in Iraq for the second time with the rest of the guys in Charlie.
Some of the things McCoy looks forward to after he gets out of the Army are going to school and, according to him, getting a job he can quit when he wants to. Catching up with family and friends is also important. A self-proclaimed beer snob, he plans on continuing homebrewing and wants to one day open a brewpub in the Broken Arrow area. Getting a book of poetry published is also a goal. You can read his poetry on his Myspace blog, myspace.com/ninjanathanmccoy.
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