After Iraq duty, divergent paths

Two soldiers head in different directions after a bloody attack along a road in Iraq. One is staying in the Army

the other is getting out.

December 31, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WHEATFIELD, Ind. - One soldier forged an unbreakable bond with a bloodied comrade who looked up at him and implored, "Bro, don't leave me."

The other cried openly at the news that his best friend had lost both legs when that rocket-propelled grenade exploded Nov. 7.

Spc. Michael Kowalsky and Sgt. Tim Nungester, two Indiana boys, met when they joined the Army's 101st Airborne Division more than a year before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Now, their paths are about to diverge. The carnage that November morning on a road in northern Iraq only reinforced the decisions "Ski" and "Nungy" had made weeks earlier about their futures. One is staying in the Army; the other is getting out.

The Army is intent on keeping veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom, spending $100 million to tempt soldiers to re-enlist, with bonuses of up to $6,000. Ultimately, though, no amount of money can determine whether a Kowalsky or a Nungester, living far from home in a lethal combat zone, will stay or go.

In 1999, Tim Nungester, a lean and muscular 5-foot-5, faced a quandary before his final year of high school in Indianapolis: Should he hope for a college soccer scholarship or commit to the Army?

He had never dreamed of being a soldier but didn't know the odds of winning a scholarship.

His father, Tom, fixes car bodies. His mother, Yvonna, runs a press at a factory that makes drink coasters. They live in a comfortable two-story home but lacked money for college.

An Army recruiter showed Nungester some brochures, then asked him to take a skills test. Nungester saw no harm. After scoring well, he began to see the military as his eventual ticket to college under the Montgomery G.I. Bill. One hitch and out, that was his plan.

By senior year, he'd committed to join the Army for four years. A year later, in 2000, he went through basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., then to Fort Campbell, Ky., where at 18 he joined the storied 101st Airborne, the Screaming Eagles.

Like an immigrant passing through Ellis Island, he quickly found his German name cut to two syllables by a hard-nosed sergeant. From then on, the slow-talking Midwestern boy with a serious demeanor and cool blue eyes was just Nungy.

There he met Kowalsky, by then just Ski, a laid-back sort whose hazel eyes disappear behind slits when he laughs, which is often. Ski joined up in January 2000 and, like Nungy, ended up at the 3rd Battalion of the 327th Infantry Regiment.

As a boy, Kowalsky had dressed as Rambo for Halloween, hunted deer, played paintball. He grew up in Wheatfield, a town of 770 in northwestern Indiana that was like a big playground, with fields spreading for miles around.

Like Nungester, he'd had no plans to join the Army. He wanted to be a police officer, and, if allowed, would have entered the police academy after high school. But the minimum age is 21, meaning he had to wait three years.

A job pouring concrete kept him out of trouble for 10 months, pleasing his mother, Pam Sawyer, a correctional officer. But the job bored him, and on Jan. 11, 2000, he joined the Army for four years. One hitch and out, that was his plan.

In his first months as an infantryman, Kowalsky thought little of war. One of his unit's jobs was to fight fires in Montana. Even after Sept. 11, combat seemed remote. In 2001, during the war in Afghanistan, 3rd Battalion drew guard duty at Fort Campbell.

Early this year, word spread that the unit would deploy to Kuwait for a likely war against Iraq. Kowalsky said everyone was scared but hid it. Nungester, for one, claims he never felt fear in Iraq, not even on that deadly Friday in early November.

A day in November

It was just a half-built, two-story house in Mosul, but in Army jargon it was a COP, or command observation post. The acronym fit the Army's evolving mission in Iraq. By November, soldiers were acting more and more like police, even as they tried to suppress an Iraqi insurgency.

When the sun rose Nov. 7, Nungester and the eight others in 1st Squad had spent 48 hours in the house, keeping an eye out for expensive cars and other vehicles they thought might have some link to the resistance.

A few minutes past 7, two Humvees and a troop truck pulled up outside the walled courtyard to pick up the squad. The trucks would ferry them to the main troop compound for a day of sleep and idleness.

Nungester began walking toward the rear Humvee. He recalls glancing at the ground and raising his head just as the blast rang out. He stumbled back, dropped to one knee and lifted his rifle. All he saw was smoke.

Racing back into the courtyard he came across Sgt. Gary Yoakam, 20, looking pale. A grenade had torn off most of his left hand. Nungester yelled for a kerchief and used it as a tourniquet to stanch the bleeding.

"Bro, don't leave me," Yoakam begged. Nungester stayed to await the rescue helicopter.

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