Knowing what it means to kill

Soldiers: The first tastes of combat resonate with some infantrymen, defying their preconceived notions of war.

War In Iraq

April 11, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NAJAF, Iraq - The three hand-drawn feathers on the back of Pfc. Tyrone Roper's Kevlar helmet are not the idle doodles of a bored soldier. They are marks of a killer.

Roper, a 26-year-old soft-featured Native American from Canada, has three confirmed kills in the war with Iraq, more than any other member of the 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment.

His battlefield feats have made him something of a star in Bravo Company.

The comrades who came up with the feather idea pat him on the back, call him Savage and say they wish they could do what he did.

Again and again, they ask how it feels to drop an enemy soldier with a pointed 5.56 mm bullet the length of a man's pinky finger.

Around them he will flash a smile and speak with pride of doing what he had to do, and doing it well. Quietly, though, he will admit he has been thinking about the people whose lives he ended.

It's not guilt exactly, just a recognition that however bad these men may have been, however eager they were to kill him with an AK-47 assault rifle, they were people.

"The next day, I started to feel I killed someone, took away somebody's grandfather, somebody's father, somebody's son," he says, lying in the sand during a down period. "I kind of felt how my wife would feel if I never came home."

Shooting to kill is an elemental part of an infantryman's job description. It is, as any number of soldiers will remind you, what they are trained to do. A doctor is taught to save people, soldiers are taught to kill them. And because soldiers on the other side can be expected to think the same, it is kill or be killed as far as they are concerned.

Yet the vast majority of soldiers in this 700-person battalion have never killed anyone. Before the war, most had never been shot at by anyone, had never shot at anyone, had never seen real combat.

`You're doing your job'

Now that they are here in the combat zone, soldiers are reflecting on what it means to kill.

Only Bravo Company's troops have killed combatants for certain - a dozen or so plus two caught in crossfire. Alpha and Charlie, the other two companies, have had firefights, but if any enemy soldiers fell it was not clear, says Lt. Col. Ed Palekas, the commander.

There sits Roper with not one, not two, but three feathers on his helmet.

"I'm jealous," says Pfc. Chris Verrill, a 29-year-old from Boston who quit as a cook and auto detailer to enlist on Sept. 11, 2001. "It's our job. It makes you feel good, you're doing your job."

"Is killing a good thing? No," he says, "but it's good to know you're up on your job like Roper. Now everybody wants to be in a foxhole with him."

Verrill for one does not fret over moral issues.

"No time to think about that," he says. "That just complicates our job."

Staff Sgt. Mike Myer, 23, of Terre Haute, Ind., also envies Roper's record.

"I wish I had the opportunity to do my job," he says. "That's what we train all the time to do. It'd make this trip worthwhile."

As for Roper, Myer says "he's got the best batting average right now. He's been in the right place at the right time."

War's extremes

Most soldiers around here bristle at the Rambo stereotype of a warrior hell-bent on death and destruction. But some soldiers sure act like Rambo, at least when they open their mouths.

"We want to kill people!" shouts 19-year-old Michael Westmoreland, a private from Beaumont, Texas. He is in Alpha Company and says this inside a Najaf school where ammunition and weapons used by fedayeen fighters were found.

As a calling card, Westmoreland scrawls his platoon's nickname on the wall in blue marker - "KILLERS." Asked why he wants to kill, he mentions captured U.S. soldiers who were thought to be executed by Iraqi forces. "The people we're going up against now are the people that did that," he says.

Some offer no justification at all. A sergeant in a different brigade tells of a soldier who wanted to kill a cat just to kill. He heard a meow under a Humvee and wanted to borrow a flashlight to hunt it down. The sergeant told him to calm down.

More common is the nuanced view held by Sgt. Jesse Coulter, a 25-year-old from southern Illinois.

"We're not bloodthirsty," he says emphatically. "We're trying to protect ourselves. You want to kill the bad guy but don't want to kill the person." But the truth, he adds, is that there is usually little time to think. And much damage can be inflicted quickly.

The squad automatic weapon that Roper carries can fire 800 bullets a minute, better than a dozen a second. Unlike the M4 rifles that most soldiers carry, there is no semiautomatic setting for the SAW. It is all spray, all the time.

Unexpected caution

Sometimes, though, there is time to think. Lt. Chris Arne had that opportunity last week when he and several other soldiers saw an old man walking by with an AK-47 visible in his flowing robe.

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