Home never felt so good

Two Skagway men were in Iraq a year ago

This past Veteran’s Day, Skagway News editor Jeff Brady sat down with U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Richard “Rick” Ackerman and Specialist Jay Burnham to discuss their time as soldiers in Iraq. The following is the full text of the interview, with a few edits for clarity. Both men are now out of the Army and were frank about their experiences, though it took one to pull the other into telling how close he came to being killed. The two Skagway friends, who graduated just a year apart in the mid-1980s, found each other half a world away at a time when seeing someone from home meant all the world.

SKAGWAY NEWS: You both spent time in Iraq in the last year or two. How did you get assigned to duty there and how long were you over there?

JAY BURNHAM: I only went once. I joined the National Guard and I was going to be going to my first drill, and I called in to say “I probably wasn’t going to make it,” and they said, “Guess what, you just got activated and you’re going to Iraq.” So that’s how I found out, in October (2004) and we got activated in January (2005).

RICK ACKERMAN: I was down at the 504th Infantry Battalion in Fort Lewis, Wash. And we got deployed when it kicked off the first time (2003) so we spent 12 months and then came back (stateside) for six months and went back over for one month of leader’s recon., came back, and three months later went back over for my second year with the same battalion.

SN: Where were you headquartered and what was your unit’s mission?

JAY: We were in Baghdad on Camp Victory (international airport), and I guess our main mission was force protection, which involved downtown patrols, towers, and quick reaction force.

RICK: The first time I was there we did convoy support and I was with the HHD (Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment) and we ran convoys between Baghdad and Kuwait the first time. The second time there we did policing.

SN: You guys did see each other, right? How did that come about?

JAY: Quite a few times.

RICK: I don’t know who sent the first e-mail. I think it was our mothers that talked, and they let each of us know that the other was there, and through our moms, we figured out what unit and from there, the bases.

JAY: We knew that we were both going over there the second time. Remember, you gave me the quick rundown in the Elks about what to expect when I get there. That was interesting.

SN: So what did he tell you?

RICK: Hot, dirty, something about a Third World smell that’s like ... burning trash. You take clean air for granted over here. L.A. has nothing on any Third World country. It’s just the smell, as soon as you get off the plane, that hits you. And the heat in summertime.

SN: How hot?

RICK: The first time was 158 on the hottest day, and then 130 the second time.

JAY: We’d get to work at midnight and look at the thermometer and it was 126. It was hot. You could set a pop can out, a nice, ice-cold pop, and within 15 minutes it would blow up, just sitting in the sun.

POLICING YOUTH – Rick, now a Skagway policeman, volunteers as an assistant coach for the junior high boys team. His oldest son, Nicholas, is the tall boy to the right. His youngest, Alex, is in second grade. JB

SN: Describe your typical day.

RICK: I’d get up in the morning between 5:30 and 6. I was lucky and had the option to do PT (patrol) in the morning or afternoon, and I’d usually go to the gym in the afternoon. The one good thing they do have over there is great fitness facilities indoors because they understand that you can’t exercise outside. The military tries to take care of you. So I’d get up, have a good breakfast. Thank goodness for KBR (Kelloggs, Brown and Root), the company that has the contracts. And they feed you well.

JAY: The best mess halls in the world.

RICK: I’d finish breakfast, then go back, and start checking your equipment to make sure everything is ready for the day. The vehicles. You’d check when you come back from a mission. Then in the morning again to see if leaks developed overnight mysteriously or if parts got pilfered. Somebody may have lost a part off a vehicle so you check yours to make sure everything’s there. Check your weapons, ammunition and lots of things people take for granted over here. A lot of people just drive to Whitehorse with nothing else, and you don’t do that there. You’re loaded as if you were going to get stuck out there. You load up a case of food, a case of water. Then we’d go over to the police stations and make sure the guys knew what they were doing. I’d work with a lieutenant who was eventually promoted to captain, and he’d go over to coordinate with Iraqi police leaders there, and I’d check on security to make sure our guys are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, covering the right avenues and approach, and not playing around with the Iraqi police, then bring them back in, constantly checking on the route status, because it’s always changing. You get an IED (improvised explosive device) or a roadside bomb and it will shut a road down, and it can be shut for hours and hours. So you’d have to find another way around. Get back to base. Debrief everybody. Check over the equipment again to make sure you don’t lose anything. Downloading, if you will, cooling down after your mission.

SN: (To Jay) What did you do?

JAY: Nothing. (everyone laughs).

RICK: Not so, I can tell you for sure.

JAY: Let’s see, regular day. We worked 12 (hours) on, 12 off, either in the towers or out patrolling or in the quick reaction force. Basically you’d either be getting up at midnight or noon, or a little before, and then go and get your vehicle, check everything out. The difference with our vehicles is that they never had 12 hours down. They were going all the time, so we didn’t have to worry much about checking everything. You’d do your basic check but you didn’t have to do the whole check to see if someone messed with it or see if all the stuff was there. It made sign-overs real easy because there was someone there with it. Then we go in one of the trucks, go and eat chow, and start randomly patrolling within a mile or so of Camp Victory outside the wire, just cruising around wherever they wanted to go. You had the airport, and then the Green Zone, and a stretch of road in between. From the tall towers, you could almost see the Green Zone three miles away. That was Route Irish, one of the most heavily planted areas for IEDs and bombs and all that stuff along that route. Thank goodness we didn’t have to patrol that one, just the cities around it, but you’d see those IED hunters driving at, like, 2 miles per hour, in the middle of the night, with their flashlight and their heads hanging out their windows, and you’re just thinking, “You don’t want that job.”

RICK: I use to laugh at the traffic there. When you get on the road the military vehicles have the right of way over just about everything, with their sirens. You race as fast as you can from point A to point B. It’s harder to hit a fast-moving target. But when you come across those IED hunters, everybody would slow down and let them do their job. Nobody tried to rush past them.

SN: Were there any stressful moments for you when you felt your life was in danger?

RICK (after a pause): You’re constantly shot at. There’s gunfire all the time. The things that scare you most were, of course, the IEDs, mortars. You’d hear a faint pop and then an explosion somewhere. RPGs, rocket propelled grenades. Anti-tank. They’re all over the place there. And gunfire last.

JAY: Actually I missed pretty much everything except getting shot at. They didn’t try to blow us up. They blew up our trucks, other people in our platoon, but they never did it when I was out there. They knew better.... Not one of us got hurt or killed over there. We did a whole year over there and every one of us came back. One guy got hit by a Humvee, squished in between them actually. He was sitting there reading a paper on base outside the coffee joint and somebody pulled into the parking lot and didn’t make the turn and just squished him, Sgt. Bartlett. He stood there for a little while after they pulled back, and then had to lie down. He fractured his hip, but that was the only big injury we had there.

SN: When Sen. Lisa Murkowski was here a year ago, the question of the war came up, and she said we were fighting an “unseen enemy.” Is that a pretty accurate statement?

RICK: That’s almost exactly what it is because you can be talking to somebody, and turn around and walk away, and that individual could be the one that’s going to try to kill you.

SN: How difficult is it for the average soldier to be trained to deal with that?

RICK: The way it is set up, whether people like it or not, is you have to have a threat or engagement first, and then you can go ahead and engage it, and most of the time that is what happens. Somebody fires, or you see the muzzle flash, or somebody pointing a weapon at them, and then you can defend yourself. That’s how most of the actions happen. But the insurgents, they don’t (honor the rules of engagement).

SN: When you left, did you feel like you were making progress? Earlier (before interview) you had talked about a school bus getting to school being a huge accomplishment.

RICK: There’s been a lot of progress over there. Water. We were talking about the heat a little while ago. They go barefoot in that. They don’t have shoes, or a second set of clothing. They wear a sheet or little shorts and that’s what they’ve got, and live in little mud huts. We’ve made a lot of progress. People have the opportunity to go to school. There’s water, there’s food. There are jobs opening up, granted we are paying a lot of them, little jobs. We’ve made progress, but not on a large scale yet, not as much as people would like.

JAY: Since the time I got there to the time I left, there was definitely progress. We used to bring soccer balls, stuff like that, outside to the kids. We’d stop by schools sometimes and drop by a whole bunch of clothes and school supplies. But a lot of times, you’d give a kid shoes, and the next day you’d see the kid out on patrol again, and he wouldn’t have his shoes. He would have sold them or gotten rid of them, or they were taken. Or else he was saving them for when he might need them.

RICK: With the kids, we’d take bottles of water out to them, and they’d go right to the cooler. They’d know what to look for and we gave them Gatorade. We stopped at one of the roadside checkpoints, and the guy goes, “You know, tomorrow he’s going to sell that.” And I’d say, “Well, we’re giving them the opportunity.” We’d give them the little Gatorade packets and water and they’d go across the street and sell it. They’re making a living one way or the other there.

SN: We had an election this week, and it seems like a lot of people in the country are having doubts about the war, and now with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s departure, how do you think that’s affecting the soldiers who are over there now?

RICK: I didn’t pay too much attention to the politics when I was there. I tried concentrating on my job, my soldiers. There’s not much that the soldier over there is going to be able to affect. The politics are going to go on, and it can change, Republican or Democrat, a hundred times, and nobody would ever know. You’re just focusing on your job and making sure your soldiers are taken care of.

JAY: Like you said, when I was over there, the last thing on my mind was who’s running everything up high. You just made sure your weapon’s cleaned and you’re going to come back from your missions. Watch the guy in front of you and behind you, 5 and 25. Which is the rule whenever you get out of your truck, and you look outside 5 meters around to see if anything looks like it could blow up, and then once you do get out, you look around 25 meters out to see if anything could blow up or get you. I was much more thinking about 5 and 25 than who is the sender or who is governor.

SN: A year ago you were both in Iraq for the holidays. What was it like being away from your families at that time?

RICK: That’s when we started spending a lot of time together. The first time was around Halloween, and then shortly thereafter I’d try to get over there. I had the luxury of being able to move a little more freely between the bases, and I tried to come over and see him on Thanksgiving, but unfortunately his commander wanted to put him out on the towers.

JAY: “Hard-core dedicated soldier” was the term I believe he used.

RICK: It made all the world of difference right there, having someone that you know. Jay and I grew up together, good friends. I’ve been a firm believer for 21 years (in the Army), that you could be in the worst place in the world and with some bad people and it’s not good. So having somebody who was a good friend and that I could talk to over there – it’s a stress relief, you’ve got to talk to somebody.

JAY: Very true. He was quite a bit higher ranked than me. I did my four years and got out, and he stayed in there for 20 years. It was so nice to be able to get away from a building where I was on one single floor with about 400 or 500 guys, and to be able to go over to his trailer and play Playstation or just sit around and do nothing. It was kind of nice to be able to do that in your off time. Not that we had too terribly much, but especially coinciding off time. It was very nice to be able to stop by and chat.

SN: How often did you connect with family back home? Was it mainly by e-mail or did you get to talk to them on the phone much?

RICK: When I was down at Camp Falcon (smaller base, about 20 minutes away from Camp Victory) when I first got there, I had a local cell phone. I bought a phone that had a card on it and for $20 you’d only get a couple minutes on around the world time. But when something happened on base and a soldier was killed or injured, they’d shut down all communication. You can’t e-mail, call, nothing. But with the cell phone, if you have set times, which Kay (his wife) and I did, we’d call every Friday at this time, to let her know to call me back. It was cheaper if she called me, for some reason. If I didn’t call her on that set time, or didn’t want her to worry, then I’d give her a call on the cell phone, because they don’t block those, and tell her “I’m okay, don’t worry, I can’t talk to you right now.” And I was lucky. I paid $60 a month to have Internet in my room so I could go ahead and communicate with Instant Messaging. It was slow as all get out, a lot like sending a carrier pigeon, but at least you could talk to somebody. We didn’t get that luxury up at Victory when we ended up there.

JAY: At Victory, because we were doing patrols and stuff, we’d go outside the wire for two or three hours, and come back in for a little while to cool down. A lot of times we’d stop at the phone banks on the way in or out, and usually we could just about hit a phone call every day. There were some times, a couple of weeks, when the phones never worked, but usually the computers would still go. It was pretty accessible communications over there.

TOUR OF DINNER – The Burnham and Ackerman families attended the annual Veteran’s Day dinner at the Elks. Top, Jay and wife Willeke sit with other vets and guests. With them is their youngest, Jeremy, who got his start in life during a “two week leave,” Jay said. Above, at the Ackerman table are clockwise, from left, Rick, wife Kay, mother Shirley and Bill Hunz, and Debbie and dad Ron Ackerman. Photos by Jeff Brady

SN: How does it feel being home on Veteran’s Day with Thanksgiving coming up?

RICK: Good. We get a free meal (at the Elks that evening). It’s nice. I remember talking about the communications, comparing it to World War Two, Korea and Vietnam to now, and it was interesting that I received a letter from my aunt on Veteran’s Day. Here’s a veteran receiving an actual card because most communication is done on the Internet now. I started thinking about the soldiers over there. You still have friends going back and forth.... And the interpreters. They’re the key for you. You’re not going to get any business done over there without an interpreter. They get passed from unit to unit to unit. The first month we were there on the second tour, we lost 26 interpreters in one month. The insurgents would just watch them go on a base and then when they’d come off, (the insurgents) would follow them and kill them.

JAY: That’s what happened to one of ours. She never covered her face when she was out there with us, and all the other guys would, but she never did.

RICK: Talking about the heat for us, when we were going out, our interpreter covered up. He may live in that same town. They tried to work it to where they don’t live. But they’d be wearing a ski mask in the middle of summer, just to cover their face, so they can do the job for you. And they suffered just about as much as you.

JAY: Sixty pounds of ammo and body armor doesn’t help either.

SN: Besides family, what did you miss most?

RICK: The snow (this week) was great. I’m not a hot weather person. I like the snow. I like the little things. Bottled water. I’m a connoisseur of bottled water. There were types of water over there that you just wouldn’t touch. You’d think because it was bottled it was okay, but it didn’t taste the same.

JAY: There were different kinds.

RICK: You come back up here and I prefer water over anything else.

SN: Anything else?

JAY (looks at Rick): I have a story to tell, when he interrupted my pleasant little day once upon a time, in the tower. We were sitting there and I was in a tower about 800 meters from the front gate, on the other side of the base. And there was this big explosion behind us. We figured the other tower would pick it up close to the gate. You call in everything that happens, gunshots, what have you. Sure enough they get it and they call and say there’s an explosion right out front, 160 degrees, about 50 meters. People back at Arctic Base said, “say again, about 50 meters?” And they said, “Yep, right out in front of us. A car blew up right in front of the tower on the inbound lane.” Well, that was exciting. We went over and took pictures and everything. And then I come to find out about a week later, that the guy (insurgent) was sitting there waiting, and had lined himself up with the tower because he thought he had a bigger bomb than he did, let all the cars get backed up behind him and then as an American convoy was coming by, he waited until the Humvee was directly across from him, and blew everything up at once. About two weeks later I find out that the Humvee was Rick’s that was just about blown up. So we exchanged some pictures of that one. It was kind of amazing. Then I got to see the truck with the windows cracked in. Thick windows. It moved tons of jersey barriers around like they were nothing. He happened to be one lane away from it, with two jersey barriers in between, but they weren’t the tall jersey barriers, just the short ones that stopped at about window level. Yeah, it was his truck that the guy waited for, to blow up. He was driving it.

RICK: It goes back to one of those times when you can talk to somebody and let the stress go. It was funny. It had been about three weeks earlier, and we had talked. I didn’t know if anyone in the unit was going to call back, so I called my wife and said, “Hey, I’m fine. Don’t worry about anything. I’m okay.” And of course she had to have somebody to talk to, so she talked to my brother, Mike, who had just retired from the Navy. And I got an e-mail from him that said, “So, that’s not the preferred method to get on CNN, but hey, I guess it worked for you.” So he joked about it but made sure we were fine. You just had to have that stress relief, and then I saw Jay a little while later, and said “What’s the deal with this? I’m coming on your base and you guys are trying to blow me up.”

JAY: And I was going, “Hey, that was about the closest IED or car bomb we’d had. That’s amazing. Small world!”

RICK: Again, it was nice to have that person to vent to and let stories go.

JAY: And then we exchanged probably highly classified secret pictures, because everybody took pictures when (the insurgent’s car) was burning. But we didn’t see your truck in the pictures. I guess you went ahead and drove away.

RICK: We were holed up. (The insurgents) pretty much have the same tactics and techniques. They’d blow up something with a grenade or whatever, and they’d try to get you out of the vehicle, and they’d attack you. Of course, they hit us, and we tried to pull forward to get in (the base). The road was blocked by another Humvee up there that had stopped to see what he could see. You finally step out of the vehicle and that’s when they start firing with the rifles and machine guns, so you say, “All right, everybody back in the truck.” We had more than enough security there, and all we were doing was giving them another target, so we left out of there.

SN: When was this?

JAY: It was warm.

RICK: It was June (2005). We were on our way into the airport when we got hit. The Sergeant Major was next to me, about 230 pounds and had all his gear. Close to 300 pounds. And he had his seat belt on and the doors are combat- locked. As Jay said, the glass is super thick and the doors are 300 or 400 pounds each. The explosion was so big it actually knocked him sideways inside the Humvee into a door that’s 300 pounds and lifted the gunner up and slammed him on top of the Sergeant Major. From where I was at the window, it shattered up the window and messed up my arms a bit but nothing serious. (The bomber) was one lane away, about 20 feet. I had the other guy in the back seat, my partner, check over the Sergeant Major to make sure he was fine. He was a big body builder. He just had some bruised ribs. So I took him to the airport and I started working on the vehicle to get it going again. And the worst thing was they blew up our air conditioner. You want to make some soldiers mad – take their air conditioner out in the middle of summer. So we had to drive back with no air conditioner. And as we were leaving base, out the back, a guy ran an intersection and almost hit us. It was an accident. We got it all squared away, and we get back to base and found out my lieutenant got promoted to captain. I said, “You’ll probably never forget this day. You only got blown up. You almost got t-boned afterwards by another car. Is there anything else you want?” He said, “No, just get me to base.”

SN: I imagine you have been treated pretty well here since you came back.

RICK: It’s very nice. Thank a vet. It makes a difference. Yesterday I got thanked for the first time since I retired. At first I thought he was being funny, and then he said, “No, thank you.” I attribute everything to World War Two because that was the last big one where everything was established.

JAY: As embarrassing as it is, it still feels good.

SN: Well, thank you.