Photo by (Xavi Gomez/Cover/Getty Images)
In the orange light of late afternoon, a mile-long Army convoy of 33 heavily loaded trucks crossed a bridge over the Tigris River into the dusty, trash-strewn streets of Al Amarah, Iraq. Sgt. Stuart Redus was at the wheel of a boxy old big-rig, 28th in line, with Staff Sgt. Fernando Torres in the passenger seat. Plates of rusty steel were bolted to the doors, a kind of homemade armor, but the truck, hauling a shipping container full of weapons, was otherwise unprotected. They had no radio or satellite phone in the cab, just a store-bought walkie-talkie hanging from a bungee cord.
On a wide boulevard in the center of town, they heard a pinging noise, like the first drops of rain. Then it was like a thunderstorm broke open: Bombs exploded, and fire and smoke erupted from under the pavement, followed by the deep thumping of machine guns. Curses and static came over the walkie-talkie. Redus pinned the gas pedal to the floorboard as a rocket grenade exploded behind the cab, shredding the air lines to the rear axle and knocking both men unconscious. The tractor-trailer jackknifed and slammed sidelong into a Jersey barrier. Redus came to and tried to force the truck into gear, but it wouldn’t budge. He shouted into his handset, “Help, help, we’re hit!”
Up ahead, they saw the red taillights of the convoy bouncing away in a cloud of gun smoke and diesel exhaust. Directly behind them, a military dump truck neared their position, but rather than scoop them up, it blew past at top speed. As did the following Humvee, its machine-gunner cowering in the turret, then another dump truck and another Humvee. The last vehicle in line was an eight-wheeled wrecker, with a crew of three, whose job it was to recover disabled trucks. Each of them later told Army investigators that they didn’t see anyone moving in the downed rig, but Redus claims he locked eyes with one of them. The wrecker slowed, almost to a stop, then sped off, its tow tackle jangling empty.
Redus screamed into the walkie-talkie, but the convoy had gone out of range. Through the wreckage of the back window, Redus and Torres saw dozens of masked men streaming out of buildings and alleys, pumping their rifles and rocket launchers in triumph. Redus turned to Torres and said, “Grab all your fucking ammo, dude.”
Neither of them had ever been in a firefight before. Torres was 35, slightly built, with downcast eyes and a cropped mustache. He was raised on a ranch in Mexico but moved to San Antonio at the age of 12, when his mother, a U.S. resident, sent for him and his brother. He volunteered for the Army right out of high school, in 1989, requesting active duty, but his mediocre test scores relegated him to a part-time job in the reserves, operating steamrollers and backhoes on a road-building unit. When the Iraq War started in 2003, he was roofing houses and pouring concrete seven days a week to support his wife and two young daughters. With combat pay, he could earn nearly $4,000 a month overseas, tax-free. He volunteered for the 277th Engineer Company, an Army Reserve unit out of San Antonio gearing up to deploy in December 2003. There, he befriended Redus.
Redus, 41, was a densely muscled, bald-headed San Antonio native with a sunburned squint and a gap in his front teeth. He had served four years of active duty as an Army mechanic in West Germany, but got out in 1985 to be with his wife, Roxann, with whom he had three kids. Part of him always missed the military life. On September 12th, 2001, he walked into a recruiting office to re-enlist. He was a good shot, and could run five miles in under 40 minutes and pump out 50 pushups at a time. He asked for a combat position – active duty, infantry, Special Forces if possible – but was told he was too old. The best they could offer was a job operating construction equipment in a local reserve unit.
When the company first got to Kuwait in February 2004, Redus and Torres, along with a few others with welding skills, fashioned makeshift armor from salvaged metal to protect the unit’s 60-odd Humvees, dump trucks, troop carriers and palletized loaders. They worked late into the night, the sputtering light of their acetylene torches illuminating the motor pool, where the ringing of hammers rarely died down. Hillbilly armor, they called it.
In late March, the entire company embarked on a 500-mile convoy north to Balad, Iraq, and joined up with a larger active-duty construction unit: the 84th Engineer Battalion, headquartered at Camp Anaconda, a dusty air base with a dried-up swimming pool, an airplane junkyard and a burn pit for garbage. As reservists with a noncombat mission, they were known as “pogues” or “fobbits,” a diminutive species native to the forward operating base, or FOB. But once their asphalt plant and quarry were up and running, they were sent on missions all over the country, often to repair the damage done by roadside bombs.
In late April, it fell to the 84th to transport a small Alabama National Guard detachment from the Abu Ghraib base in Baghdad to Kuwait; the Alabamans’ tour was over, and they were going home. The 84th borrowed four tractor-trailers from the 277th and eight soldiers to operate them, including Redus and Torres. The convoy commander was 2nd Lt. Facundo Funes, a 24-year-old platoon leader from California with little military experience. He was put in charge of the mission at the last minute and given an incomplete map of the route, which passed through Al Amarah, not far from the Iranian border. Funes had heard that the road was “black” – closed to military traffic – but his concerns, relayed to 84th headquarters the night before the trip, went unheeded.
The story of the “Hell Train,” as the disaster came to be called, has never been published. It took place in 2004, a time when the military was repeatedly exposed for heavy-handed public relations, including the false hero narratives Pentagon officials tried to spin around the rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq and the friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. Had this incident been reported, it would have called into question “no man left behind,” the core of the Soldier’s Creed that every recruit memorizes in basic training, a code of honor celebrated in countless war movies, from Saving Private Ryan to Black Hawk Down. In the immediate aftermath of the Hell Train ambush, high-ranking intelligence officers ordered the convoy survivors not to speak to journalists. The Pentagon released a terse statement announcing the combat deaths, but said nothing of the circumstances. Only now, after the central characters have all retired – after a decade of dutiful silence – did they agree to go on record to give their versions of the event.
Redus and Torres had come to a stop in a run-down industrial zone on the fringe of Al Amarah’s southern slums. In his cracked sideview mirror, Redus saw the reflection of a white Toyota truck about 50 yards back, crossing an open sewer. “This dude jumps out of the passenger side with one of those fucking RPG rocket launchers while the vehicle was still moving,” Redus says. “I seen this motherfucker’s eyes and he was only about 20 feet from me, right there. And that was the end of him. I just unloaded on that motherfucker, man.”
Redus emptied the rest of his magazine into the driver’s side of the Toyota, turning the windshield into a mass of white cracks. Across the street, about 40 yards away, Redus spotted an abandoned building with towers on each corner. Bullets skipped in the street and struck the door shields, ringing them like bells. When a Red Crescent van wailed by, creating a lull in the gunfire, Redus told Torres to cover him, and opened the door with his pistol drawn. A dud mortar whacked the pavement in front of the truck, the fuse sputtering. Torres exited the cab and took cover behind a wire-draped electrical pole, exchanging shots with the militia up the street.
Redus stomped through the sewer toward the building and covered Torres from the other side. Torres was frozen behind the pole. “Come on, Torres!” Redus shouted, shooting at the militia. “Come on! Come on!”
Torres ran to Redus’ position. Only then did the reality of their situation set in. “They left us,” Torres panted. “They fucking left us.”
They looked around the compound. It was a huge prison complex, covering 12 acres, and in the center was a cluster of unfinished cellblocks that resembled a two-story parking garage. The dirt yard was littered with construction materials: stacks of rebar, piles of sand, coils of rusted cables, fuel tanks locked in cages. The perimeter wall was solid concrete, topped with razor wire, and there was only one entrance, the open gate beside an empty guard station.
Redus scared off a pair of civilian scavengers and ran up the stairwell of one of the front towers. From the third-story deck, he scanned the southern horizon, hoping to find the convoy coming back for them. All he could see were teams of enemy fighters converging on the prison in cars and on foot, dressed in black with green armbands, carrying rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers. Redus hollered down to Torres, “These motherfuckers are coming, a whole bunch, man, a lot.” He started picking off the nearest ones, brass shells tinkling at his feet.
The two sergeants had their personal firearms – a pistol and an assault rifle with extra clips – but no radio, no GPS, no machine gun and no grenades. Worst of all, they had almost no water. Redus had left his canteens in the truck, and Torres’ were nearly empty. The temperature was well over 100 degrees; sweat poured from under their helmets down their faces. “Looking back, that was one of the biggest fucking things,” Redus says. “How easy it is to forget your water, and how dreadful it is not to have it.”
The militia had them flanked, with fire coming from three sides. They split up and took cover among the abandoned cellblocks. Torres, hidden behind a low wall above some concrete steps, spotted a militiaman sneaking up on Redus. Torres hesitated with his finger on the trigger; he had never killed anyone before. Ten seconds passed with the sights of his rifle floating around the man’s torso. Thirty seconds. The man raised his Kalashnikov, taking aim at Redus. Torres fired. The man dropped.
Bodies piled up around the gate. Redus says he killed between six and 10 men there; Torres, two or three. Near sundown, the militia began to slip inside. Looking for a way out, Redus ran for the tower in the southwest corner. Torres followed, trying to keep low. The door had a gigantic lock on it. “So we shot at it, like idiots,” Redus says. “And nothing happened, of course.”
They say there was only one place left to retreat: the fourth tower, in the northwest corner. They sprinted over the rubble, ducking machine-gun fire. “That was the longest run of my goddamned life,” Redus says. “And it was only maybe 100 yards.” (Actually 169 yards, according to Google Earth.)
Torres – whose name means “towers” in Spanish – found the door partly open. At the top of four flights was an enclosed room with windows on two sides. They could see their truck burning in the street. A crowd was rioting around the wreckage, jumping on the hood and beating the trailer with sticks. Looters pried open the shipping container and carried off armloads of gas masks, night-vision goggles and M16 rifles. In the center of the compound, Torres saw the militia had set up an anti-aircraft gun.
The weapon chewed through belts of cartridges the size of carrots, and the walls of the tower trembled under the force of the barrage. When the noise died down, Redus popped up to fire a few shots through the window. He saw the oncoming nose of a rocket grenade, propellant swirling behind it. He turned away as it exploded against the outer wall, shivering the tower to its foundation, exposing steel rebar like bones in flesh.
After three hours of continuous combat, Torres hollered, “I only got two rounds left.” Redus checked his weapon. He had half a magazine. They decided to keep their last rounds chambered, to use on themselves if necessary. “We were not going to be taken alive,” Torres says. A month earlier, in Fallujah, a crowd had strung up the burned bodies of two armed contractors from a bridge over the Euphrates River. Ten days later, the nascent Islamic State released its first beheading video.
When Torres looked over at Redus’ blackened face, he saw that his eyes were closed. He was praying.
The rest of the convoy rallied up three miles south of Al Amarah on Route 6. The scene was “organized chaos,” says Billy Steele, a snuff-dipping 38-year-old staff sergeant. The sopping body of Specialist Ramon Ojeda, 22, shot in the neck and drowned in his own blood, was lifted out of a Humvee. In the last vehicle, the wrecker, Staff Sgt. Oscar Vargas-Medina, 32, was dead from a bullet to the shoulder. Five others had gunshot wounds, in arms, legs, gut and chest. Due to some mix-up, the medic had no morphine, only 500-milligram tabs of ibuprofen. Shrieks of pain rose high above the rally point, where night had fallen suddenly, as it does in the desert. Soldiers set off incendiary grenades in the trucks too damaged to go on, the thermite fires illuminating dirt and rocks along the highway.
The next task was a head count. It came to 68 men, including the casualties. But there were 70 men on the convoy. Staff Sgt. José Cerdagarza identified the missing men, who were from his platoon. During the ambush, he had faintly heard Redus calling for help over the walkie-talkies.
The convoy had five Humvees mounted with heavy machine guns or automatic grenade launchers. Cerdagarza wanted a team to punch back into the city for Redus and Torres, and volunteered to do it himself. Steele was with him. “Did I want to go back?” Steele says. “Hell, no. But was I ready? Yes. Because I’d want somebody to come back for me.”
Leaving Baghdad 12 hours earlier, Funes had found that the radio and satellite phone didn’t work, and the convoy hadn’t completed the required test calls with QRF – quick reaction forces – and medevac. Now he had no way to call for help, and no way to reach Redus and Torres. His map was low-resolution, and it didn’t show any friendly forces in the area. “He looked confused,” Steele says. “He looked scared. He was like a little boy.”
There was a man on the convoy who outranked Funes: the captain from the Alabama National Guard detachment (whose name is withheld because he could not be reached for comment). This was his last day in Iraq, and he opposed going back, according to soldiers who were there. The convoy didn’t have the firepower to fight the militia at night, the captain argued. They might all get slaughtered, and for what? The crew of the wrecker reported no one was alive in Redus and Torres’ truck. The chain of command began to break down, and though he wasn’t in charge, he tried to assert his rank. Steele says, “A couple of us made the comment ‘Listen, you’re just a fucking passenger. You ain’t got no say-so in this shit.'”
Funes took his most senior sergeants aside. When the huddle broke, the order up and down the line was to “mount up, move out.” Dead or alive, Redus and Torres would be left behind. “That was probably the hardest order I’ve ever had to follow in my life,” Steele says. He climbed into his truck with Cerdagarza, and they rode toward Kuwait in silence. “They teach you to never leave somebody behind,” Cerdagarza says, “and that’s the first thing they do.”
That same evening, word of the ambush reached the main body of the 277th at Camp Anaconda, 300 miles north of Al Amarah. Platoons were told the convoy had been hit hard. Vargas-Medina and Ojeda were dead. Redus and Torres were missing in action, and probably dead too. But the next morning, rumors started that the 84th had left Redus and Torres behind to die. It was all hearsay, though. Down in the lowest enlisted ranks, accurate information was hard to come by. Life went on, the mission continued. Then, three days later, Redus and Torres showed up at Camp Anaconda, alive.
“We were just lucky as hell,” Redus says. It was now well into the night, and the militia controlled the prison yard. He peered out a small window in the concrete wall. A salt pan glowed white in the moonlight, illuminating an escape route through a wasteland of shallow evaporation ponds. The ground was perhaps 30 feet down, but it was too dark to see what lay there. A gap of about two feet, encircled with barbed wire, separated the tower from the perimeter wall. Redus had an idea: They would jump.
“Damn,” Torres said. “It’s pretty high.”
Redus handed him his rifle and said, “Look, man, you’re going to land, and you’re going to roll.” He climbed through the window, careful to stay out of the militia’s line of sight, and cut his hands on the barbed wire as he inched on top of the wall. He hung onto the edge, lowering himself against the side, his desert boots dangling two stories above the ground. Then he let go.
“I hit the ground fucking hard,” Redus says. The rim of his helmet crushed the bridge of his nose, filling his mouth with blood. He staggered to his feet with his pistol drawn. There was no one around.
It was Torres’ turn. As he climbed out of the window, his foot slipped, but instead of hitting the ground, he found himself suspended in midair, tangled in barbed wire. He tore at his sleeves to work himself free, then felt himself drop. His body slammed onto a pile of rocks and broken concrete. He opened his eyes, conscious, but struggling to breathe and unable to move. Blood ran down his face. “Go on,” he wheezed. “Go.”
“I was like, ‘Dude, you got to be shitting me,’ ” Redus says. “ ’I’m not going to leave your fucking ass here – you’re going to come with me. All this shit that we been into?'”
Redus hauled Torres to his feet and pulled one of his arms over his shoulders. The shooting started again, the anti-aircraft rounds drubbing the other side of the tower. Crazed dogs in the nearby slum barked incessantly at the noise. “The more I heard them shoot at that tower, the better I felt,” Redus says. “Them motherfuckers thought we were still in that sumbitch.”
Up ahead, they saw the wide canal that drains the open sewers of the slums. Torres guesses it was 100 yards from the prison. In fact, it was five times that. “He was carrying two weapons, full gear, and still dragging my ass all the way out there,” Torres says of Redus.
They pawed through the scrub brush and took cover on an embankment above the main channel. They couldn’t smell the sewage, for the blood clotted in their nostrils. Back at the prison, the militiamen were on the tower, firing randomly into the desert. “We got to get the fuck out of here,” Redus said. “Because these guys are planning to come look for us.”
Torres was hurting and often had to stop to catch his wind. They walked about a mile, tortured by thirst, to a culvert under Route 6, and lay on the ground watching vehicles pass. When a little white jalopy came juddering down the road, backfiring as if about to stall, they decided to hijack it. Redus ran in front of the car with his rifle aimed at the windshield. Torres covered him from behind. They must have looked wretched in the headlights: two red-eyed gunmen, with dried blood covering their hands and faces, reeking of sewage, shouting in English. The car braked hard, the front bumper nearly striking the pavement.
They threw out three passengers. Redus got into the front seat with his pistol drawn. Torres climbed into the back and put his rifle to the head of the driver, a beardless young man in a loose cotton shirt. “He didn’t want to drive,” Torres says. “He said, ‘Take the vehicle, take the vehicle.’ We said, ‘We don’t want the vehicle, we want you to drive.'”
Finally the driver shifted into gear and started down the highway. There was a plastic bottle of yellow-tinged liquid on the floorboard. They took a drink, but promptly spit it up. It was contaminated with gasoline or some other fluid collected from an engine leak. They got a couple of miles south of Al Amarah when a chicane of Jersey barriers funneled traffic into an orb of floodlights. As they drew closer, a half-dozen Iraqi police surrounded the car.
“I had no more fucking fight left in me, man,” Redus says. “My shirt was all fucked up, and I had my American flag on my right shoulder, and they were all pointing their guns at us and yelling at us in Iraqi and stuff, and they saw that I had the pistol on the driver, and I just told them, ‘American.’ ”
The police escorted Redus and Torres inside the station to their sergeant, a thin, mustached man in a blue uniform and black beret. When he saw the battered, stinking soldiers he stood up and started berating his men. “He was fucking tripping,” Redus says. “Like, ‘Why the fuck you bringing these Americans in here?’”
The police sergeant, who spoke a few words of English, started punching buttons on an old military field phone, saying something about his boss being British. “He ended up getting on the phone with somebody,” Redus says. “I was thinking, ‘This guy. What the fuck’s fixing to happen here, man?’”
For the next hour, the policemen seemed agitated and bickered among themselves in Arabic. They wanted Redus and Torres to give up their weapons, but “we weren’t going to do that,” Redus says. Then they felt the familiar rumble of approaching tanks. Redus and Torres stared at the police sergeant. “He goes, ‘British,'” Redus says. “And it was like the happiest fucking thing I’ve ever heard in my life, dude.”
Unbeknownst to Redus and Torres, or any of the other American soldiers on the Hell Train, British forces had occupied Al Amarah in March 2003, and were locked in near-continuous combat with a powerful Shia militia called the Mahdi Army. On the morning of May 1st – just as the convoy was leaving Baghdad for Kuwait – the British launched a surprise operation to capture half a dozen Mahdi leaders. In his memoir, Sniper One, a 36-year-old British sniper named Dan Mills wrote that the enemy took the predawn operation as “a declaration of outright war.” Mills was stationed on the roof of the deposed governor’s palace, which the British rebranded a center of Civil-Military Cooperation, or CIMIC House. The militia “began to mobilize everybody they could,” he writes. “Trucks with loudspeakers were driving around and blasting out angry messages in fast Arabic.” An interpreter translated the announcement: “They say, ‘Tell everybody to go home and get a gun. Come out and fight the infidel oppressor.’ They say this is jihad.”
From dawn till dusk, gunfire and explosions erupted in all quarters of the city. Waves of fighters dressed in black uniforms and black masks assaulted the CIMIC House, nearly breaching the gate. Volleys of mortars and rockets turned the fortified compound into a blasted, cratered ruin. To ransom their leaders, Mahdi Army members kidnapped and threatened to execute a number of local police, who were nominally allied with the British. That led to a day of rare cooperation between the British and the Iraqi police – a crucial development in the fate of Redus and Torres. The battle would rage all summer and become the British army’s most famous fight of the Iraq War: the defense of the CIMIC House.
Around 6 p.m., after 14 hours of continuous combat, Mills heard a series of explosions to the south and saw a ball of flame burst forth “like an oil tanker going up,” followed by an outpouring of rifle fire and a pall of smoke. Investigating the site, the British found “a charred and mangled line of metal almost a kilometer long.” Only later did they learn what had been attacked: “a giant convoy of U.S. Army engineers.”
According to members of the convoy, after the decision to leave Redus and Torres behind, Funes and the soldiers in his command traveled only 10 miles from the rally point before a British patrol intercepted them and summoned a helicopter for the wounded men – all of whom survived. The British escorted the rest of the convoy to their main garrison at Camp Abu Naji. Passing the rows of tents, trailers, fortified buildings, armored Land Rovers and tanks, the Americans could hardly believe how close they had been to backup all along. For their part, the British were amazed that the Americans had simply driven into the Mahdi Army’s downtown stronghold, which they didn’t dare approach without a column of tanks.
The British arranged for the Americans to have a midnight meal in their dining facility, a cavernous, air-conditioned tent smelling of coffee and breakfast steam. Everyone was sitting at long tables when the last man they ever expected to see walked into the chow hall: Sgt. Stuart Redus. His hands were cut up, his nose was swollen and a gash ran across his face. “He had the million-mile stare,” Steele says. “He didn’t blink a lot.”
Steele stood to embrace him, but Redus only said, “I waited on you.”
Guys from the 84th stood around gawking, and Redus says he flung a plum at one of them – a soldier he recognized from the wrecker. Redus initially restrained himself from disrespecting Funes in front of his men. Redus says when Funes came over to “make amends,” something set the Texan off. “I just about come uncorked on that motherfucker. And if it wasn’t for Billy Steele being there, I would have ripped that motherfucker’s head off.”
Later, after Redus told them about his escape, a senior sergeant tried to explain the circumstances that had led the convoy to move on. Redus cut him short. “Motherfucker, all I know is you were in charge of us, and you knew we were back there, and you let a simple fucking second lieutenant, a 24-year-old fucking kid, goddamn sit here and convince you not to come back and get our ass.”
Torres had been taken to the field hospital. He was sopping with sweat and spattered with feces from traversing the open sewer. The British doctor cutting off Torres’ clothes joked to a nurse, “This guy has probably pissed on himself and shit on himself.” As they bathed him and patched him up, the doctor “kept asking me what nationality I was,” Torres says. “They asked me if I own a burro, a sombrero, stuff like that.” Next they turned him over and stuck a gloved finger up his rectum, explaining it was to make sure he still had feeling. “Is that normal?” Torres now asks. “ ’Do you have feeling?’ Of course I have fucking feeling, motherfucker.”
Torres received a sedative and passed out. He fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. When he awoke the next day, in a different bed, Torres says, a strange man dressed like a biker, with a black leather bandanna, a black leather vest, blue jeans and cowboy boots, came to visit. “He was an American,” Torres says. The man asked Torres about the enemy – how many were there, what were they wearing, what kind of weapons did they have, and how many had Redus and Torres killed?
“Wait a minute,” Torres said. “Who are you?” The man said, “Don’t worry about it.” He wanted to know how Torres had been injured. Torres said he had fallen from a tower and hurt his back, which made the man grimace and laugh. Then he abruptly walked out. (Redus says he was never contacted by anyone who matched Torres’ description of the biker spook.)
Redus and Torres flew to Kuwait for two days of debriefs, and then on to Camp Anaconda, where their reappearance was like a miracle to the main body of the 277th. In the ensuing investigation, a monthlong sequence of tedious after-action reviews, a rift opened between the reservists, all of whom were outraged by the violation of the Soldier’s Creed, and the company men of the active-duty 84th, who had career officers to protect – not only Funes, but officers higher up in brigade headquarters, who had sent the convoy into a denied area with a piss-poor map and a broke-dick radio, seemingly oblivious to the historic battle raging in Al Amarah. Everyone with rank looked bad.
Redus and Torres rehashed the same story in multiple interviews with strange officers they never saw again. Torres says he was stripped of his weapons and placed on suicide watch. Armed escorts went with both of them everywhere. Phone calls to their families were monitored, the line could be cut if they said too much. Intelligence officers doubted their story to their faces and ordered them not to speak about the incident to anyone outside the unit. No one offered them any kind of apology or even an explanation. “They tell us you never leave a man behind, dead or alive,” Torres says. “You see it in the movies and you start believing it. So how come these guys did it to us?”
Nearly the entire month of May 2004 is missing from the WikiLeaks cache of Iraq War documents, though there are thousands of Army field reports from April and June. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Army denied the existence of any documents pertaining to the incident. That turned out to be untrue. A veteran, who asked that I withhold his identity, gave me an unredacted copy of the Army’s internal investigation, prepared by a JAG colonel and signed by Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, one of the top American generals in Iraq at the time. The report includes detailed findings of fact and a 72-hour timeline of the Hell Train ambush, but there is no mention of the convoy commander’s deliberate decision to leave two soldiers behind in combat. “A lot of the higher-ups kind of swept things under the rug,” Redus says. “That’s my conclusion.”
In a brief e-mail exchange, Funes, now a member of the inactive reserves and a civilian employee of the Army, referred me to the statements he made in the course of the investigation, and would say nothing more. He was never counseled, disciplined or reassigned, and was later promoted, eventually earning the rank of captain. The JAG report simply states, “Funes, though having limited professional experience, acted heroically throughout the convoy ambush and provided leadership in difficult situations.” (The U.S. Department of the Army did not return multiple requests for comment.)
The top commander of the 84th was Lt. Col. Jeffrey Eckstein, a West Point graduate and a veteran of Desert Storm and Somalia. Now retired, Eckstein refuses to pass judgment on Funes, who was his subordinate at the time. “Nothing really prepared people for that level of intensity,” he says. “You don’t second-guess the guy on the ground. It was the best decision he could make. He was the only one who could make that decision.”
Lt. Col. Peter Kilner, an Army officer and philosophy professor at West Point who writes on battlefield ethics, says the Soldier’s Creed is “aspirational,” a “motivational quote,” not a law of war: “The job of a commissioned officer is to exercise judgment, not reflexively follow a motto.” Still, Kilner adds, Funes might have made an attempt to probe the enemy’s strength. “Psychologically, for the other soldiers to abandon a couple of their guys, that’s bad,” Kilner says, “and plays to the deepest fears of every soldier in combat.”
Redus and Torres received the Army Commendation Award with a V Device for valor. An ARCOM, as it’s called, is essentially a certificate of participation. They didn’t even get Purple Hearts, though both were eligible, having suffered permanent spinal damage jumping from the tower; Redus also separated his shoulder, broke his nose, and suffered a traumatic brain injury in the explosion that blew up the truck. The 277th did put Redus in for a Silver Star, but the 84th downgraded it to Bronze, and the citation was ulti-mately rejected – for lack of witnesses. It was a borderline insult, like ibuprofen for a gunshot wound.
Redus went in wanting to be a Special Forces soldier, but now says, “Be careful what you wish for, ’cause there ain’t nothing good about war.” After he got home from Iraq, he suffered from insomnia and experienced flashes of blinding rage. He earned a college degree online and became a commissioned officer, all while working as a mechanic at Holt Caterpillar Co. in San Antonio. In 2009, then 46 years old, he felt fit enough to volunteer for the 277th’s second tour in Iraq. “Sometimes you got to get back on that horse,” he says. He served as platoon leader on his unit’s convoys, surviving a couple of roadside bombs, but nothing like Al Amarah. He retired as a captain and now works a desk job at Holt Caterpillar, coping with the help of medication, counseling, long walks on his Hill Country acreage, and the support of his wife, three kids and seven grandchildren. He says he will never forgive those who left him to die.
Torres now lives in Tijuana, Mexico, with his second wife and 10-year-old stepson, and works across the border at a shipyard in San Diego. He came home from Iraq in worse shape than Redus. Besides textbook PTSD and chronic back pain, he was both ashamed of having frozen up in combat and grief-stricken for having killed. He had mood swings, surges of aggression. His first marriage fell apart, and his wife took the kids. He fell to drinking, lost his job in construction, then his home. His possessions dwindled till all he had left was a duffel bag with his old uniform, his helmet and the ammo pouch that had held his very last magazine. Like Redus, he eventually volunteered for another tour. “I felt like I had left something behind,” he says. “I felt like I needed to go back and get it.”
In March 2006, Torres was leading a convoy of three armored trucks on a road through the hills outside Kabul, Afghanistan. A brief firefight popped off, and the tail truck went down with flat tires, rolling to a halt in a cloud of dust. There was a crew of three inside, a civilian and two soldiers. Torres radioed headquarters but was told to keep moving. He was transporting a contractor for the Army Corps of Engineers with a lot of cash. Another convoy was coming up behind, they told Torres – it would pick up the crew of the disabled truck.
“Good, copy,” Torres said, and signed off.
What he did next would get him disciplined and reassigned to a remote post on the border with Tajikistan. He disobeyed the order and went back for the stranded members of his convoy. He refused to leave anyone behind.