By PETER ROUSMANIERE, the Risk & Insurance®
workers' compensation columnist
The call to duty for Sgt. Stephen Kinney came on New Year's Eve 2003. It was the holidays and the New Hampshire National Guard could have chosen a more opportune time to call. It mattered little. For Kinney, the call wasn't entirely unexpected.
Beginning in November, Kinney and his Army National Guard cohorts were training to read maps of the sort used in Iraq. Now the Guard needed 180 members for a year-long deployment, hence the phone call. Kinney was told to report to the Manchester, N.H., armory at 6 a.m. on Jan. 5, 2004.
The New Hampshire Guard had 1,200 members deployed, or half of its entire force, the fourth highest rate among all National Guards. It was pulling in people like Kinney and others--clerks, cooks, mechanics and even students--who had completed their six-year contract and had two years of inactive duty left.
Brought up in Lowell, Mass., Kinney, now living in Chelmsford, Mass., took a job at the U.S. Post Office in 1973 after finishing high school.
In 1986 he joined the New Hampshire National Guard. Life hadn't exactly been easy for Kinney, who was then going thorough a divorce. A fellow postal worker told him the Guard was a way to get away from family pressures.
With 15 paid days a year for National Guard duty, the Post Office job allowed Kinney to travel to Europe and Canada for training at government expense.
Kinney, assigned to B Battery of the 122nd Field Artillery Battalion, within the 172nd Mountain Infantry Regiment, was part of a 10-man team managing a "155"--a towed howitzer. Those shells, as Kinney would later experience firsthand, are a weapon of choice in manufacturing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq.
At the Manchester Armory, each soldier went through the standard annual health check as part of a screening to see who was fit for deployment. Kinney, 52 at the time, had knee problems, but that was OK, the health evaluator told him.
Kinney and his unit were to serve as military police, managing supply convoys, staffing checkpoints and policing major transportation routes through southern Iraq and Baghdad. The unit trained at the Manchester Armory for 16 days, and in the last week of January 2004, the Guard bussed Kinney and 179 others to Fort Dix, N.J., where they were trained in the use of the workhorse vehicle of the Army, the Humvee.
A Humvee "platform" has three soldiers: a driver, a gunner who mans a mount peering out of the vehicle's roof and a communications person in the front passenger seat. They operate in teams of three: Alpha leading the convoy, Bravo in the middle of the convoy and Charlie in the rear. Kinney got the job to run communications in the Bravo vehicle.
They trained in each contingency for convoying large strings of trucks: if the Charlie vehicle got hit, the middle one would circle back and the lead would rush the convoy out of the kill zone.
On March 17, Kinney flew to Kuwait, walking off the plane into 110-degree heat. After nine days in Kuwait, a C-130 transport flew Kinney and his fellow soldiers to Camp Anaconda, a massive military base in Balad, Iraq, 40 miles north of the capital Baghdad and host to some 25,000 military and contract workers.
The primary convoy route went between Camp Anaconda and Camp Scania, a base 60 miles south of Baghdad. That meant choosing among four main supply routes, one of which went by Sadr City, a Baghdad slum and a hotbed of Iraqi insurgency.
At first, Kinney and his unit operated under the watchful eyes of a California military police unit, which showed them the ropes, like how to keep convoys of up to 30 trucks moving in the midst of stray gunfire that would on occasion pop their way.
On their first trip out, Kinney and his team completed the journey in blazing speed--eight hours down and back, taking a convoy to Camp Scania and leading a second one back north.
So far, so good. The first convoy Kinney and his cohorts escorted by themselves was on April 9. On this run, it took Kinney, driver Specialist Ray Saucier and gunner Jeremy Hileman 13 hours to get from Camp Anaconda to Camp Scania with their convoy.
They stayed overnight and got up at 5 a.m. to start to drive back, escorting tankers carrying jet fuel. Just 40 minutes south of Camp Anaconda, an explosion tore through the convoy. A big mushroom cloud of exploding jet fuel rose from one of the tankers in the convoy column.
Kinney and Saucier approached the flaming rig just as the remaining trucks in the convoy raced ahead to safety. Through a dense, acrid cloud, exploding grenades and small-arms fire, Kinney and another soldier ran to the driver's side.
The driver, an American contractor working for Kellogg, Brown and Root, looked down. "Help me out, help me down," said the driver, according to Kinney.
Then the driver's left arm, dangling from his shoulder by a thin piece of skin, fell and struck Kinney below the chin.
Kinney and another soldier quickly hauled the driver out of the cab and laid him on the ground, along with what remained of his left arm. The driver survived the attack, and for Kinney it was just a taste of what was to come.
July 1, 2009
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