CAMP ANACONDA—Some months after the Americans took over the sprawling Balad Air Base, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, someone posted an enigmatic sign on the main gate asking: "Is Today the Day?" Soldiers at the base, which the U.S. military renamed Logistics Support Area Anaconda, or Camp Anaconda, take turns speculating about what the sign means. In the tense months leading up to today's planned national elections in Iraq, the population at the base has swollen to more than 22,000 soldiers and civilian contractors. Some Camp Anaconda residents—installed in relative comfort inside the 15-square-mile compound that now features four dining halls, two swimming pools, a first-run movie theater and a Burger King franchise—have concluded that the sign is a military safety message: "Stay Alert!"
For the 90 California National Guard soldiers who make up Alpha Company, a Petaluma-based arm of the 579th Engineer Battalion of Santa Rosa, and regularly venture outside the base to patrol the treacherous canal-veined perimeter, the sign carries a more ominous meaning. The soldiers are part of one of the most star-crossed National Guard units in Iraq. Since arriving at Anaconda last March, one out of five in Alpha Company has been killed or wounded. Three of the nine California National Guardsmen killed in Iraq by the end of 2004 were from Alpha Company.
For Patrick Ryan McCaffrey, a 34-year-old father of two from the Bay Area suburb of Tracy, the day was June 22, 2004. McCaffrey, a rising auto-body shop manager in Palo Alto, signed up for the National Guard during the wave of patriotism that swept the country after Sept. 11, 2001. "Can you believe what's happening?" McCaffrey asked Marlene Cather, one of his co-workers at Akins Collision Repair. "We need to do something."
Exactly one month after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, McCaffrey joined a National Guard unit with a mission statement that emphasizes its engineering support role to "provide mobility, counter-mobility and survivability support to a combat arms brigade" as well as "providing manpower and engineering expertise" during stateside crises. In the troubling days after Sept. 11, National Guard units across the land reported hundreds of similar enlistments. But like many of the other 50,000-plus National Guard soldiers now serving alongside about 20,000 Army Reserve troops in Iraq, McCaffrey didn't foresee that he would one day find himself in deadly combat on the other side of the world. McCaffrey's unit had not been in overseas combat since World War II.
In the half century before Iraq, the engineers had been deployed on missions ranging from forest fires to the 1965 Watts riots. Their duties included temporary assignments to search for weapons in state prisons, remove snow from blocked mountain passes and, in May 1993, to bury a gray whale that had washed up on the beach near Eureka. McCaffrey told friends when he enlisted that he expected to be assigned to homeland security duties, such as guarding the Golden Gate Bridge or Shasta Dam.
"Patrick thought by joining the engineers he would be doing something constructive to fight terrorism on the West Coast," recalls his father, Bob McCaffrey.
But as the U.S. campaign in Iraq bogged down in the summer of 2003, the Pentagon turned to its legions of "citizen soldiers," serving mostly weekend duty in crumbling state armories, and ordered them to relieve exhausted regular Army units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Authorized by a presidential emergency order issued only two days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the historic deployment took place with relatively little public notice or fanfare. It wasn't until later, when the Guard and reserve troops began dying and getting injured in Iraq, that presidential candidate John Kerry and others began describing their overseas service as a "backdoor draft." Today more than 40% of the 150,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq are either National Guardsmen or reserves. By the end of the spring, that percentage is expected to rise to more than 50%.
Despite McCaffrey's expectations as a National Guard engineer, his marching orders were quite different. Once the U.S. moved into Iraq, he was converted into an infantryman and sent into combat, one of more than 5,000 California National Guard soldiers mustered for service in the war. As the Pentagon scrambled to adjust to long-term military occupation, similarly abrupt job reclassifications became widespread. After years of developing caste pride as engineers, their transformation into foot soldiers was unsettling.
"It's like telling the Lakers that they are not going to play basketball but are now going to be Ping-Pong champs," says retired Army Col. David H. Hackworth, a critic of the current National Guard policy.
It also meant that some of the soldiers got less training than the regular Army infantry they were replacing. Army infantrymen receive 14 weeks of training in their specialty. A National Guard engineer normally undergoes eight weeks of basic infantry training and six weeks in engineering school, where they learn how to plant mines, detonate explosives and lay concertina wire, among other skills.
McCaffrey's company was called to active duty on Jan. 17, 2004, after a month of refresher training in Ft. Lewis, Wash., followed by another month of more Iraq-specific maneuvers at Ft. Irwin, Calif. Problems occurred at both training camps. The Ft. Lewis routine was disrupted by the arrest of a Washington National Guardsman, a member of the same 81st Brigade as the Californians, for attempting to sell military secrets to undercover federal agents posing as members of Al Qaeda. The Ft. Irwin training came to an unpleasant conclusion after someone stole the 9-millimeter handguns of a California battalion commander and his first sergeant, setting off a security crisis.
After the inauspicious start, the 579th Alpha Company, under the command of Capt. William C. Turner, a computer chip designer from Mountain View, arrived in Iraq in early April 2004. McCaffrey was initially gung-ho about the assignment. He regularly wrote to his family about the children he met in the villages and often asked for hard candy or soccer balls to distribute to the Iraqi kids. But after only a month of daily patrols along the dangerous periphery of the base, McCaffrey confided to family and friends that he had become disillusioned with the American war effort, particularly after the revelations of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib. In a May 16 e-mail to his mother, Nadia McCaffrey, he described how the abuse scandal had inflamed anti-American sentiment among Iraqis.
McCaffrey also was troubled by the behavior of the Iraqi national guard units, then called the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, that he and his fellow soldiers had been assigned to train. The line between friend and foe had become increasingly blurred in a country where brown-and-tan camouflage Iraqi uniforms are for sale in many markets. On April 20, McCaffrey and other members of the 2nd platoon, 2nd squad—nicknamed "Double-Deuce"—were called out in the middle of the night to find the source of a rocket that had hit inside the base. McCaffrey's unit stopped two Iraqis on a motorcycle, one of whom McCaffrey recognized as a man he had been training earlier in the day at Camp Anaconda.
The two Iraqis were "swiped" for explosives and tested positive for TNT and another explosive known as RDX. Suspected of participating in the rocket attack, both were arrested as insurgents. When McCaffrey called home the day after the arrests, he told his father how distressed he was about the incident.
"That episode cut Patrick and all the soldiers right to the quick," says his father, a San Jose building contractor. "It made them all realize that things were not going the way they were supposed to be going. It also made him mad as hell because now they not only had to look in front of them, but they had to look behind as well."
The incident now seems a precursor of what happened later at the military base in Mosul. On Dec. 21, a suicide bomber wearing an Iraqi national guard uniform blew himself up in a crowded mess tent, killing 22 people, including 14 U.S. soldiers. Four of the dead were National Guardsmen from Maine and Virginia. For McCaffrey, the arrest of the two Iraqis also foreshadowed a devastating reality that would come two months later, on a narrow asphalt road surrounded by cotton fields outside Camp Anaconda.
THE GUARD GOES TO WAR
While the use of guard units in combat theaters has a long history in the U.S., they were almost always asked to play a supporting role. In addition, much of its combat service history faded from memory during the last 50 years as the National Guard was rarely called upon to fight. In the end, only 7,000 National Guard troops—only a handful from California—served among the 2.6 million military men and women who went to Vietnam. The last time large numbers of guardsmen were sent into long-term combat was during the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, when, for example, the California National Guard's 40th Infantry Division, based in Los Alamitos, participated in many bloody battles, including those at Chorwon, Heartbreak Ridge and Sandbag Castle. Three of its soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.