War’s deeper wounds

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series that was published in March 2008.

After another bad night, Sgt. Jerry Young suddenly felt as if he could not breathe. He raced outside, grabbed a chain saw and began slicing down the hedge trees south of his house near Peck.

It took him two hours to clear out about a dozen small trees before his wife stopped him. It took him longer to understand why he had done it.

Young realized he had created a battle position for himself. The trees had obscured his view from the house. Now he had new angles of vision. Now he could breathe again.

This is how it is for Young, who suffered multiple concussions during four years of escorting convoys along insurgent-filled roads in northern Iraq.

At least he had something new to tell Featherby that night. Spc. Pat Featherby was always there for him. When Young was loopy from concussions in Iraq, Featherby was there to hold him by the arms and walk him to the medical area of their camp in Mosul, where they served with the Kansas Army National Guard.

And when tracer bullets whizzed past Featherby’s head during a firefight, Young was there to spin around and provide cover so his friend wouldn’t get his head blown off.

On the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, these two soldiers, home for six months, still have each other’s back. They kept each other alive over there, and they keep each other alive back home.

On the telephone every night, Young, 36, and Featherby, 38, talk out their war experiences and their problems at home, including Young’s difficulties in providing for his family.

“It’s like I’m tucking him into bed and he’s tucking me into bed,” Young says.

Both suffered concussions when explosive devices destroyed their armored vehicles. Both have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Both have earned the Purple Heart and are up for more Purple Hearts and other medals.

They also share mixed, sometimes bitter, feelings about their service. Young once threw his Purple Heart down so hard in anger that its case broke. Featherby gave his Purple Heart away, figuring he didn’t deserve it because he came home alive.

Both found Iraq a horror.

“Imagine the worst nightmare you ever had, and it never ends. That’s what it’s like,” Featherby says.

And both would go back in an instant.

They can hardly drive down a street anymore without flinching if they see something suspicious – a pothole, a dead animal, some unidentifiable object on the side of the road.

They can’t sleep well or spend much time in crowds. Sudden, loud noises unnerve them. They suffer from nightmares, depression and anxiety attacks.

It was easier to deal with life in Iraq, they say. They even miss the explosions. Not the ones on the road, but the blasts they heard every morning outside Camp Diamondback in Mosul, about 225 miles north of Baghdad. Insurgen ts fired rockets and other devices so routinely between 7:30 and 8 a.m. that it became a source of comfort to them. After they returned from all-night missions, the blasts helped them fall asleep.

Those blasts at least let them know where the enemy was.

Out there on the road, they never knew when or where the explosions would come.

If you survive

If you survive, this is what it is like to have your vehicle blown up in Iraq: You hear the blast and see a flash of light and the vehicle lifts and lands and starts filling with smoke, Young says.

You are aware of weird smells and weird feelings. You start feeling nauseated. You take a quick inventory of your body parts to make sure you are whole. Then, because you can’t see anything and because you are the leader, you try to make sure everybody else is OK.

“It’s hard to explain the feeling,” Young says. “You see a lot of things go flashing before you. Guys in the vehicle are stunned and don’t say anything. You can’t hear anything. The vehicle isn’t moving. It’s dark. You may be dead.”

Re-enlisting after 9/11

Young was a squad leader who manned a scout vehicle. He’d escort Army convoys of equipment, personnel, food, whatever, watching out for trouble. It was not as difficult early in the war as it would become.

Born on Flag Day, June 14, 1971, he had felt it his destiny, almost his duty, to be a soldier.

He had been driving a truck for Coca-Cola as a civilian. His wife woke him up the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, after he’d finished the third shift and told him to come to the TV. He didn’t leave it for three days.

He had served as an infantryman in the Guard from 1991 to 1998 during Desert Storm without seeing combat. He rejoined.

He made it to Iraq in May 2003, just two months after the invasion. He managed to avoid injuries for three tours of duty. He’d come home for a month or so, then volunteer to go back.

His fourth tour last year was different.

The American surge in Baghdad had flushed the insurgents out of the city and back to the north toward Mosul. The roads Young and Featherby used to travel in relative safety became treacherous with hidden improvised explosive devices, mortar and rocket attacks, and sniper fire.

An explosion March 11, 2007, lifted Young’s armored vehicle into the air; it landed in a ditch in the median.

Young was knocked unconscious. When he came to, he didn’t know where he was or what had happened. He was hospitalized at camp for eight hours, then taken off patrol for two months.

An IED blew up his vehicle again June 25. Another concussion.

The next day, before they could get back to camp, Young helped pull two soldiers from their burning vehicle after their door frame had crumpled from an explosion, fusing the doors shut.

Two days later, his scout vehicle blew up again on its way back to Camp Diamondback.

A month later, Young suffered his third concussion in yet another blast.

Featherby was behind him in the second escort vehicle during one explosion. It came from a propane tank buried beneath a concrete wall designed to slow traffic. The blast was so enormous Featherby concluded that his friend and the others in the vehicle were dead.

“The flames shot 200, 250 feet in the air,” he says. “The shrapnel rained down on us, and we were 200 yards behind.”

Young would not give up the scout position. He belonged up front, he figured. He knew the roads, knew what to look for. He felt it was his destiny to lead.

But after frequent concussions, his speech became slurred. He suffered short-term memory loss. He began losing his ability to lead.

Featherby remembers hearing his buddy trying to talk over the radio, but slurring his words so badly nobody behind him could understand.

The Army finally forced Young to give up the scout position because of his injuries.

He says doctors later told him that his concussions were worse than the ones pro football players get after helmet-to-helmet tackles.

But at least at night, he could talk it all over with Featherby.

“If it wasn’t for Pat,” Young says, “I wouldn’t be here.”

Childhood friends

Young and Featherby had been best friends growing up in Belle Plaine. They played football and soccer and hung out. Then they lost track of each other. Soon after middle school, Featherby’s family moved away.

They didn’t see each other again until after Featherby joined the Guard in 2005.

He’d been managing nightclubs and putting on concerts at the Cotillion in Wichita.

Then one night he saw a report on television about American soldiers being ambushed and killed in Iraq, and it tore him up. He told his wife, Tanner, he was going to enlist in the Guard the next morning. He was 35 when he reported to Fort Benning, Ga., for training, twice as old as most of the other soldiers . But he was elated.

And finding Young when they lined up for a roll call formation in Salina made it all the sweeter.

Young arranged to get his pal into his platoon, the Midnight Riders. They were deployed to Mosul together as part of the 714th Security Force.

“We were excited because we were both pretty aggressive kids. The sky was the limit for this deployment,” Featherby says.

Dangerous roads

Featherby’s first concussion came in January 2006.

Riding in the gunner’s turret, he said he saw a dog’s carcass, looked away, looked back, thought, “What the ... ?” and suddenly, it exploded.

It’s hard for him to talk about. He feels stupid about it for reasons he doesn’t understand. He knows he had no time to react, but he still feels he should’ve known what was inside that dog before it exploded.

Near the end of that year, returning from a mission to Turkey, Featherby heard a call on the radio about a possible IED on side of the road. As soon as he stood up in the turret to check it out, he saw tracer rounds flash through the sky and smash into the truck in front of him.

He heard over his radio that the gunner in that truck had been hit. He went into a rage. He stood up to draw the fire, and the sniper began bouncing rounds off his protective glass shield.

Then the sniper stopped firing, and Featherby couldn’t locate him.

Featherby tried his night-vision goggles but still couldn’t pick him up.

He fired five or six shots just to draw the sniper’s fire. When the sniper opened up again, Featherby spotted him and killed him. Watched his head come apart.

Featherby kept firing rounds into the sniper until his commander yelled at him to stop.

He didn’t sleep for three days after that. He still has conflicting feelings about it.

“We’d been getting attacked a lot, and we hadn’t had any releases. All this anger and rage built up. It doesn’t just disappear. This was the first attack where we actually could return fire and get somebody,” he says. “I pumped anywhere from 25 to 30 rounds into this guy because I was like, ‘I can’t take it anymore.’

“In the long run, I wouldn’t have done anything different. I have no remorse. I have nightmares about it, though.”

Young called him by radio after the shooting to kid about Featherby’s busy weekend.

Only 12 hours earlier, an IED had blown off the leg of a Turkish truck driver they were escorting to the Iraq-Turkey border. Featherby had whipped off his belt and used it as a tourniquet to save the man’s life until medical help arrived.

Two months later, Featherby suffered another concussion. He was looking through the shield of the gunner’s turret and saw a box a few feet from the vehicle. He began to mutter an oath, and it blew.

The explosion was so massive that it launched a telephone pole into the air and knocked a can of Coke off a television set at Diamondback, 11 miles away.

Shrapnel shredded Featherby’s truck, puncturing the steel frame with holes the size of softballs.

Featherby dropped into the turret, convinced he was badly wounded. He was in so much pain. He discovered the pain wasn’t from shrapnel, but from the shock wave generated by the blast.

He considered it a miracle he survived. His protective shield had been shattered.

If Young hadn’t been there to talk to back at camp after incidents like these, Featherby doubts he’d have made it.

“There were times I’d come back crying my head off because of the depression. I was tired of snipers, tired of bombs, tired of seeing kids suffer on the streets. And it was the same for him,” Featherby says.

“All you have is each other. Without each other, we would not have made it. There is no question in my mind. You get suicidal, you just get so overwhelmed.”

Young and Featherby didn’t know what to expect when they left Iraq and returned to Kansas in August.

What they encountered was another treacherous road.

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.