BAGHDAD—Sergeant Herbert Smitley calls himself a country boy from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania.
He also says that he’s “25, but I feel like I’m 50,” because of all he’d seen as a soldier.
When terrorists crashed a plane into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Sergeant Smitley was serving in the Old Guard, which serves as a presidential escort and conducts ceremonial burials at Arlington Cemetery. He was dispatched to the Pentagon on a search-and-rescue mission for 15 days.
“That was horrible,” he recalls. “We were pulling out bodies. You see this old Army guy, he was working at the Pentagon, probably waiting the last couple of years before his retirement, and then…” Sgt. Smitley takes a respectful pause, drags on a cigarette. “You’d find his desk, with pictures of his wife and kids. It was really tough.”
In 2003, Smitley, a trained infantryman, asked to be deployed to Iraq. He volunteered three times and was denied.
“They said: ‘No, we need you here,’” he said. They needed him at Arlington Cemetery to help bury the troops killed during the invasion. “It was tough because I’m an infantryman, and I was burying fellow infantry men who were killed over here during the initial push.” Another drag on a cigarette. “I thought I could do more over here.”
Finally, in 2005, he was deployed to Baghdad.
“My wife wasn’t happy [about] it but she understood that I wanted to be here,” said Smitley, who has a three-year-old son. “She knew I was going to deploy.”
This is his second deployment. He arrived here in November, with the Apache Company of the 4-64 armor battalion of the Fourth Brigade, Third Infantry Division. He spent the first few months of his deployment in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad’s southwest. There, on March 23, four of his buddies were killed by a rocket that pierced their Bradley fighting vehicle: Staff Sergeant Christopher Hake, Specialist Jose Rubio, Private First Class Andrew Habsieger and Private George Delgado. They were burned alive, pressed against the back hatch, which wouldn’t open because it had melted to the body of the track during the explosion.
Another one of the Apache Company’s men was killed in January: Private James Goodrich. A rocket, designed by anti-American militias to pierce through the thick armor of Bradleys and tanks, hit his Bradley and sliced his body in half. After his death, the company adopted a pale-yellow mutt and named her in Goodrich’s name, Goodie. They built her a doghouse out of plywood, perhaps the most elaborately built structure in the dusty combat outpost where they live, and fitted it with a mattress. Goodie likes to catch frogs, fetch, and bark at the front gate of the compound. The soldiers say it’s because she doesn’t like Iraqis.
Some Apache soldiers like to talk about the men they had lost, get it all out. First Sergeant James Braet imitated for me the poses in which the four men who were burned to death were found. He also showed me pictures of the soldier who lost sight in both of his eyes when a piece of shrapnel pierced his forehead, cutting his retinal nerves. The pictures show a face of a young man covered in blood and breathing through an oxygen mask.
Sergeant Smitley doesn’t talk about his company’s losses. He confesses that he doesn’t really like reporters. Not because they have misrepresented his words, but because he considers them a liability in battle.
“I don’t want my guys to have to think about a reporter when they need to be thinking about the situation on the ground,” he explains. “Just wouldn’t want to have someone who is not a triggerman.”
He has seven or eight months left in Iraq before he can go home. He doesn’t want to come back here.
“I think I’ll take a break after this one,” he says about his deployment. “Maybe train soldiers or something.”