Deaths add to Calif. battalion's sorrows

After unit's training and prisoner abuse controversies, its colonel dies aiding comrade in Iraq


At a prayer breakfast in Baghdad, Iraq, last week, Col. William Wood tearfully promised soldiers in the California National Guard battalion that the killing and wounding of soldiers in his battered unit would come to an end.

No more soldier photographs, he pledged, would be added under his watch to the already crowded wall at Forward Operating Base Falcon where the battalion honors its dead.

Less than 48 hours later, Wood, 44, died in a roadside bomb explosion when he came to the aid of a fallen comrade. He was the highest-ranking American officer to die since the war began.

Wood's death and those of three others from the same unit last week added to the mounting woes of the Modesto-based 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment, which has been mired in controversy and misfortune since it first began training in the New Mexico desert more than a year ago.

The battalion's casualty rate, 11 killed and more than 100 wounded among its 700 troops, is one of the highest among all National Guard units in Iraq.

Two days after the prayer breakfast, Capt. Michael MacKinnon, a regular Army officer brought in to command one company of Wood's battalion, was out on patrol in a treacherous area of southern Baghdad when a bomb exploded near his vehicle.

As MacKinnon, 30, lay severely wounded, Wood rushed to his aid, only to be killed when another bomb exploded at the scene.

MacKinnon, a West Point graduate from Helena, Mont., died later of his injuries at the Combat Support Hospital.

MacKinnon had recently contributed a column to the company's newsletter home to family and friends. Despite its rocky recent history, MacKinnon said, he had become attached to his new unit.

"I know there were a couple of months where the company had some troubles as a result of some isolated incidents," he wrote. "I can assure you that this is something of the past. I can also tell you with absolute certainty that this company is back on its feet."

In July, 12 soldiers from the battalion's Fullerton-based Alpha Company were charged with misconduct for their role in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Last month, U.S. military officials in Iraq announced that three sergeants have been imprisoned and four other soldiers sentenced to hard labor for their role in the incident, in which a stun gun was used on handcuffed prisoners.

As a result of the prisoner abuse charges, the battalion chief, Lt. Col. Patrick Frey, was removed from his command and replaced by Wood, a regular Army officer and native of Florida.

At the Oct. 25 prayer breakfast, Wood told the assembled battalion that he had come to the California unit concerned, according to one soldier at the session, about "the professionalism, talent and discipline of the officers and men."

But after a month or so working with the soldiers, Wood said he came away impressed, noting that the unit had conducted 500 patrols and 19 raids, and captured 79 suspected insurgents.

This was a better record than those of the much larger regular army units in Iraq, Wood told the soldiers, declaring himself a proud "Nightstalker," the battalion's nickname.

Most of the battalion's casualties, nine killed in action in the past six weeks, came under Wood's command. All were from what military officials say are increasingly sophisticated roadside bombs known in the military as "IEDs," or "improvised explosive devices."

The deaths recalled the unit's stormy training period in the New Mexico desert in the summer of 2004. Leading a mini-rebellion, several soldiers participating in the training exercises complained to reporters about poor equipment and training, particularly in dealing with IEDs.

The chief of the National Guard, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, defended the training. Other soldiers blamed the complaints on a handful of misfits.

Wood, from Panama City, Fla., is survived by his wife, Nanci, and a daughter. McKinnon is survived by his wife, Bethany Mayers, and two sons.

Just as the battalion was adjusting to the loss of its two leaders, two more of its California soldiers died in another roadside bomb explosion yesterday.

Killed in the incident were Capt. Raymond D. Hill, 39, of Turlock, and Spc. Shakere Taffari Guy, 23, of Pomona. Their deaths came at the end of what had been the bloodiest month for U.S. troops since January, and an increasingly fatal one for National Guard soldiers, who accounted for 20 of the 92 soldier deaths in October.

Hill, employed in civilian life by the Modesto Irrigation District as a technician, is a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus. He is survived by his wife, Dena, and two daughters.

Guy was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and lived in Pomona, where he worked in a Home Depot store. He is survived by a daughter and by his mother, Donna Sanguinette, and sister, Tracy Ann Smith.

Rone Tempest writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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