The war after the war
They were an Army of Three fun-loving, young, courageous, afraid. And when the bomb went off outside Baghdad, killing New Hampshire's Jeremy Regnier, the survivors of the squad found their lives upended. What they suffer has a name post-traumatic stress but a label can't describe it. This is a story of a death and its descendants.
First of four parts
It was circled on his calendar, a day he'd looked forward to for months. But as Andy Wilson stood on the wind-swept airfield and the chartered plane glided out of a leaden Texas sky, he was anything but upbeat.
An unsettling cocktail of emotions swirled inside. The balloons and marching bands, the confetti and welcome-home banners were not for him, though they could have been. Should have been.
As a noncommissioned officer, Wilson had sworn to stick by the men he led in combat, no matter what. And to bring them all home.
But after that night in Baghdad when the bomb went off and his friend and comrade slumped against his shoulder, Wilson's war was over.
He left Iraq on leave in late 2004, his mind and spirit broken, and never returned. Doctor's orders. "It gnaws at me," he said.
Three months later, as the troops he served with stepped off the plane at Fort Hood after a year at war, the emotional torque of it all bore down on him again.
The grapevine had carried the whispers from the war zone: Wilson's lost it. Wilson's a coward. And when some of the returning officers refused his outstretched hand or grabbed it limply with looks of disappointment or disdain, he knew who the whisperers were.
But for now, it didn't matter.
As the troops lined up to return their weapons, their gas masks and the other gadgetry of warfare, Wilson searched the crowd for a single face.
Dustin Jolly was the only other soldier who really knew what happened that night in October 2004 when Jeremy Regnier, the cocksure gunner from Littleton, N.H., died.
Like Wilson, Jolly had felt the blast and seen the unspeakable injury -- and knew how easily that memory reel could unspool.
But unlike Wilson, who sought help and went home, he had bottled up his demons and gone back out on patrol.
And so as Jolly -- near the front of the line -- stepped into view, the reunion sequence was anything but certain. Wilson held his breath.
"I saw him," Wilson said, "and once he gave me that dumb-ass Jolly look, I knew he was OK."
The men hugged and smiled and shook hands. They made promises to drink beer and catch up.
"It made me feel good," Wilson said. "It made me feel proud. It made me still feel loved, I guess."
In the months to come, what the two men shared, the darkness and the love, would come to mean everything.
The war after the war had begun.
"Oh, we were, really," Jolly said. "As far as getting everything done."
Wilson, a staff sergeant, commanded their oven-hot Bradley Fighting Vehicle as it rolled roughly down what US forces know as Route Irish, its surface pockmarked by the crude and deadly bombs aimed, almost nightly, at American troops. Tall and gregarious, Wilson won his crew's allegiance by his willingness to do himself whatever he demanded of them, and by shielding them from foolish flak from officers above.
Specialist Jolly drove the 36-ton war machine with the ease and agility of the Ford Mustangs he had steered at breakneck speed through the fertile farmlands of his native Indiana.
Regnier, also a specialist, was the crew's mechanical wizard. He rode next to Wilson, spinning the Bradley's turret and peering through a nightscope for possible targets that would loom in his gunsight as hypnotic splotches of red.
On their nightly patrols, fear was a fact of life, but monotony and exhaustion were more constant enemies. They filled the hours with stories of home, and of the shaky path each had charted to the service. It was one of the things they all carried -- a hope that the Army would bring a sense of direction they had, to that point, lacked.
As a kid in Agawam, Mass., Regnier rode bikes on dirt tracks, made forts in the woods behind his house and acquired a nickname after being pushed to the ground on a basketball court at age 11. "Toothless wonder," they called him after his right front tooth proved no match for the pavement. He shrugged it off, though, gap-toothed, he didn't smile so much anymore.
He was always better with his hands than his head. When his father's friend, Rick Bertram, rebuilt a Chevy Blazer in the Regniers' garage, young Jeremy was a fixture at his side ready to hand him the next wrench. Soon, the teenager was pulling tires and rebuilding brakes on his own.
"After a while," Bertram recalled, "I didn't even have to check his work. I mean he was good."
When his family left Agawam for Littleton, N.H., Regnier struggled with the discipline his father imposed at home and the rigor of studies that held little interest. He quit school, bounced around at odd jobs, drank late-night beers with the boys, and joined the National Guard -- occasional duty that left him plenty of time to lounge around.
In 2000, his father's patience ran out. He drove Jeremy to the Army recruiting station just down the road in Littleton.
"What am I doing here?" Jeremy asked his father.
"You've got two choices," Kevin Regnier remembers telling his son. "You're going to join full time or get the hell out." Jeremy joined.
Like Jeremy, Dustin's interest was rarely captured by his classes at Bloomington North High School. A country boy and a practical joker, Jolly was an animal lover whose first job was at the local pet store. He would chase his terrified mother through the house with a snake, or quietly release a mouse into his grandmother's bountiful hairdo.
"All boy," his father said. "A rascal."
Jolly preferred hunting and fishing to homework and reading. He and a group of buddies would skip school, swim in the local quarries or hike in the nearby hills and then happily spend Saturday mornings in detention together for habitual hooky.
When excited, Dustin tended to stammer, a speech impediment for which he was ridiculed at school. He did not shrug it off.
"He wouldn't back down," his father said. "He was just getting into fight after fight."
He quit school, earned his equivalency degree, and began running with an older crowd. He drank beer and experimented with drugs, worrying his closest friends. "He was just going down a route where he was going to end up being nothing," said Travis Hawkins, who played football with Jolly in school.
In late 2001, when Jolly was arrested in Bloomington for public intoxication, he and his family had had enough. "Quit jacking around," Butch Jolly told his son. "Start to make something of yourself."
And within months -- on the same day he married his high school sweetheart -- Jolly was headed for basic training. His family and friends had said goodbye the night before at a squat, cinderblock police union hall. The springtime party, with homemade food and a keg of beer, spilled out onto an adjoining patio. There were backslaps and bear hugs and best wishes that stretched until dawn.
Both his parents were alcoholics and drug abusers; neither had much time or tenderness for Andy. He bounced from home to home, parked with far-flung relatives and foster families. The boy who was alternately ignored at home and seared by what he saw there would take his adolescent scars with him into adulthood.
And into trouble. At age 23, a marijuana sale he engineered in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, went bad. He was robbed, almost shot. Later, slumped on his mother's couch in a pot-induced daze, he saw an Army recruiting commercial on television and reached for the telephone
"I called up and I said, 'When can you get me out of here?' " Within weeks, he was in basic training.
Later, as the leader of his squad, if Wilson spoke of his upbringing at all, he used humor to round its sharper corners.
"He would joke about it. He did it light-hearted," said Sergeant Moises Garcia , Wilson's roommate in Iraq. "He's always been a glass-is-half-full kind of guy."
But Garcia detected something else behind Wilson's smile, something broken but also endearing.
"Anybody who ever met him and talked to him for a considerable amount of time could tell that he was fragile," he said. "That was part of the attraction."
If anyone needed the Army to help put his past behind him, it was Andy Wilson.
And, for a while, it did.
It is home to the Army's Fourth Infantry and First Cavalry divisions, 28,000 soldiers who are the economic pulse of Killeen, a once-sleepy cotton town that now caters to military customers looking for fast cars, Friday night beers, and tidy homes away from the post.
In the months before the soldiers of the First Cavalry Division marched off to war, the fort's massive motor pool -- miles of steamy, oil-stained pavement packed with armored vehicles and the men who run them -- was a kind of social proving ground: Impressions were formed there, allegiances solidified, friendships cemented.
When he arrived at Fort Hood, Regnier was fresh from a two-year tour in Korea. He sported the remains of a beer belly and a bantam-rooster personality that said: Don't cross me. During pickup games of touch football, he targeted the bigger men, hitting them hard and making no apologies.
Once, when some noncommissioned officers began making fun of Regnier's paunch during an early-morning drill, he erupted.
"He looked at them and said, 'You know what? [Screw] you guys. I'm leaving.' " recalled Chris Liu, one of Regnier's barracks neighbors. "He went back to his room and went back to sleep."
But Wilson, Jolly, and other soldiers like Liu detected aspects of Regnier that first impressions missed: There was a generosity about him, a tenderness even. Need a car? Borrow mine. Want a smoke? Here's a cigarette. Want to talk? Come on in.
"When I would go to the barracks to check on guys on the weekend, his door was always open," Wilson said. "And he'd always have a beer for me if I wanted one."
If Regnier was an acquired taste, Jolly was an open book -- an easy-going, moon-faced young man who never lost his zest for practical joking.
When a superior or a contemporary suggested a detailed plan of attack for the problem of the day, Jolly was known to shake his head, shuffle his feet and say: "I don't know, guys. That's not the way we did it when I was with Delta Force."
The comment drew double-takes from newcomers and Bronx cheers from old hands. For a while, his friends considered printing T-shirts with what became the unit's unofficial slogan: "Dammit, Jolly!"
When he first took command of Jolly's platoon, Lieutenant Jesse Davis was told to keep an eye on the smiling specialist from Indiana. But far from the unreliable soldier he was warned about, Davis said he found a skilled mechanic, and loyal comrade, whose aw-shucks demeanor helped lighten the tedium of the motor pool.
"Everybody liked Jolly," said Davis, now a captain. "Even people who said they didn't like Jolly, liked Jolly."
Jolly's closest friend in Texas was Chad Rosenbaum, a red-haired, barrel-chested sergeant from Hope, Ark. Like Wilson, when Rosenbaum issued an order to his squad, he could make it seem almost like a suggestion, like he was asking a favor.
There was a magnetism about Rosenbaum that made him a favorite among members of the "Bounty Hunter" Battery that the men of Chaos 4 called home.
When a superior officer repeatedly issued melodramatic predictions about the fatalities the men should prepare themselves for in Iraq, Rosenbaum coined a new nickname for him. "Body Bag," he called him.
The soldiers loved it and, behind the commander's back, the name stuck.
By now, Jolly's marriage was dissolving and Rosenbaum's had disintegrated.
After work, Jolly would help Rosenbaum load the back of his dark blue Isuzu Trooper with two inner tubes and a cooler of beer for the short drive east to Belton Lake. The two men, now roommates and tight as brothers, would float for hours discussing women and hunting, fishing, and lives beyond the Army.
As the Iraq war reached its first anniversary, the First Cavalry Division's on-again, off-again preparations to join the battle accelerated.
Jolly, Regnier, and the boys made some last-minute trips through the barrooms and tattoo parlors of Austin. The motor pool emptied, its armored vehicles now on ships bound for the Persian Gulf. Wills were prepared. Cars were placed in storage. Families gathered in Killeen to say farewell.
And then in early March 2004, Andy Wilson, Dustin Jolly, and Jeremy Regnier headed to war.
"My eyes started watering up pretty heavy," said Wilson, who then was married and the father of a 2-year-old daughter, Ayana.
"I remember getting on the bus and Ayana had woken up and I just remember her. She gives me this look every time I leave her to this day. Eyes wide open. 'Daddy, where are you going?' "
When they reached Iraq, Wilson glanced up at a highway overpass where battle-weary troops, anxious to go home, had strung a hand-made sign for the soldiers arriving to take their place.
"Welcome to Hell," it read.
There were grueling, 24-hour shifts in the suffocating heat. They provided security at Baghdad International Airport's main gate, where the next trunk they opened could be their last.
In a letter home to New Hampshire, Regnier sought to assure his family that he was well-trained, safe, and vigilant.
"Don't worry, Dad," he wrote. "I'm watching my back."
If the airport duty was tense, their new assignment in the summer of 2004 was terrifying: nightly patrols along the cratered roadway between the airport and the so-called Green Zone, the city's heavily fortified government center. It was a popular target for roadside bombs, detonated by remote devices like garage door openers or cellphones.
On patrol one night, Jolly, scanning Route Irish from side to side, believed he had spotted a land mine.
"Hey, sergeant, what's that over there?" Jolly asked Wilson, who instantly lit up the object with one of the Bradley's high-candlepower searchlights. "Hell, yeah," Wilson said. "That's a mine."
Chaos 4 radioed in its report. A commander was urgently dispatched to the scene. After some delicate inspection, the suspected bomb was determined to be a trash can lid. The crew never heard the end of that one.
Inside the Bradley, Wilson set the tone. As Regnier cranked up the Bradley's CD player, Wilson mimicked a top-40 radio disc jockey. "Rockin' in Baghdad, live!" the soldier-announcer said into his headset. "It's Chaos 4, coming at you from Route Irish!"
At dawn, the swashbuckling crew -- faces blackened by the Bradley's diesel exhaust -- would stumble into the chow hall for breakfast.
Wilson liked to enter with an exaggerated scowl and menacing swagger. "I'm John Goddamned Rambo," he'd announce in raspy voice that was more Clint Eastwood than Sylvester Stallone. "And I want some sausage and eggs."
The serving line performance never failed to crack up Jolly and Regnier.
But the patrols -- 12 hours of hyper-vigilance peppered by explosions in the night -- were punishing. And they were taking their toll.
As the soldiers began rotating home for two-week, mid-tour leaves, their families could feel it.
On his return to Littleton, N.H., in August 2004, Jeremy Regnier celebrated his 22d birthday, enjoyed some beers with the boys, but most of the time stayed close to his family. "Very unusual for him," Kevin Regnier said.
In the days before his return to Iraq, father and son hiked in the mountains of nearby Franconia. Jeremy said he now intended to make the Army his career. And after five months at war, he was practical about planning for the worst.
He told his father to use his military insurance money to pay for a college education for his sister, Amanda. If he died, he said, he wanted his ashes to be spread atop Mount Washington.
And, please, he asked his father, take care of Sergeant Wilson. And Jolly.
On the night before he returned to Iraq, Jeremy, unusually quiet, sat alone with his sister in a hotel room in Manchester.
"If you don't want to go, then don't go. No one can force you to," Amanda Regnier, then 17, told her brother. She clearly recalls his reply.
"I have to," he said. "My friends are there."
A month later, Regnier was back in Baghdad and Jolly was home. He found time for some modest carousing. But, like Jeremy, he also had a new appreciation for his family and let it envelop him.
In mid-September, as he was packing for his return to war, the telephone rang at his grandfather's house.
It was Donna Rosenbaum, Chad's mother. A car bomb had exploded on a bridge over Route Irish. Rosenbaum and another soldier, James W. Price, had been killed.
Jolly refused at first to accept the news.
"If Chad got killed, I ain't going back," Jolly told Tom Crouch, the grandfather who had watched the military transform a boy into a man.
As tears rolled down his grandson's cheeks, Crouch urged him gently: "Go back, Dustin, and do your job."
Twenty-five days later, Wilson, Jolly, and Regnier were again preparing for their nightly patrols of Route Irish. Much of the playful banter that had peppered their earlier missions was gone.
"Everything was different from that point," Wilson said. "They had taken somebody from us."
Still, the crew gathered early for their shift, at 7 p.m. in the motor pool.
Coolers were packed with ice, a critical commodity inside the Bradley, where temperatures could approach 130 degrees. Fuel and fluid levels were checked. Weapons were loaded; communications gear tested.
Regnier, a gadget buff, had purchased a slick digital camera from the PX and he asked a soldier from another crew to snap a group photo of Chaos 4's three-member team. As usual, the soldier with the missing front tooth, flashed a thin, close-mouthed smile.
The Bradley, accompanied by a three-man Humvee that led the way, rolled out of the airport gate about 10 p.m.
Regnier's Kenwood CD player was working perfectly and Wilson and Jolly, as they frequently did, overruled Jeremy's preference for a night of country music. So Eminem blared through their headsets, not Toby Keith.
As they rumbled up Route Irish and in and out of the drab housing projects adjoining the highway, Jolly and Regnier made plans to visit the gym the next day.
To fight the omnipresent urge to sleep, the men drank Red Bull, gobbled over-the-counter pep pills, and puffed on cigarettes. Still, the urge to nod off could overwhelm.
Wilson, the Bradley commander, stood in an open hatch, exposed to the early-morning air from head to mid-chest.
Regnier, the gunner, was dozing down below, Wilson detected. The Bradley's gun turret was not spinning, looking for targets as it would if the gunner was alert. So Wilson tapped Regnier on the shoulder.
"Hey, get up here and smoke a cigarette and let me get down there and I'll take the gun for a little while," Wilson remembers saying.
So the men switched.
It was about 4:30 a.m. Their shift was nearly over.
Jolly, in the driver's compartment, chatted easily with Regnier about favorite TV shows. Jolly had just purchased the boxed set of the fifth season of "Homicide." Regnier preferred the CSI series, and Jolly asked if he could borrow his set.
In their headsets, Eminem was rapping profanely about death and dying.
Jolly steered the Bradley, making a right-hand turn into a housing project. Then he heard Regnier say, "Oh."
A split-second later, a deafening explosion rocked the war machine.
"What the [expletive] was that, Jolly?" Wilson asked.
"I don't know, sir!" Jolly yelled into his headset.
"Jeremy, what did you see?" Wilson shouted. "Are you all right up there?"
The Bradley began to fill with thick acrid smoke. Jolly's eyes were burning. Wilson began to scream.
He called again for Regnier. And then called again, reaching up to tug at his gunner's sleeve.
"I pull at him and he falls," Wilson remembers. "And I just [expletive] flipped. I tried my best to come across as calm. My voice was normally kind of deep. I sounded like a little girl."
Regnier, his body now slumped against Wilson, had taken a devastating hit from the jaw up. He was barely recognizable.
By now, Jolly had spun the 72,000-pound Bradley furiously around and over a median strip. Through his periscope, he spotted a man in a white shirt, walking through the adjacent housing project in violation of curfew.
"Right there the [expletive] is!' Jolly shouted, suspicious because the man looked away when their spotlights found him. "Let's get him!"
But their battle was done. Military radio traffic was already ablaze with calls for a swift medical response. There were orders to retrieve the Chaos 4 crew and get them back to the relative safety of "Camp Victory" at nearby Baghdad International Airport. And when officers and medical crews arrived on the scene, there was little to do but to place Regnier gently into a body bag.
He was gone.
Jolly, who drove the damaged Bradley back to base, did not want members from other platoons to see the grisly evidence of the attack. Working with two sergeants, he used newspapers to clean the gore from the turret.
Following standard procedure after the death of a soldier, military commanders cut off telephone service and Internet traffic back to the states.
Hours later -- and a half a world away -- a black sedan carrying a two-man military notification team crept slowly down a sloping driveway toward Kevin and Shawn Regnier's home on a small hillside in Littleton, N.H.