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Thursday, May 12, 2005 09:01 pm

Sister soldiers

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COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT STENSLAND

Talking to Jennifer Buffington and Andrea Bryan, it’s easy to see them as two college coeds who like to hang out with friends, go to the gym, shop, and sleep late. If you ask them about the year they just spent in Iraq, they’ll give you pat answers.

Buffington’s goes like this: “It was Iraq. I’m home. I love America.”

Bryan’s is even shorter: “I’m just at the point where I say it was OK.”

But if you want to know — really want to know — they have a deep supply of stories. Some are about new friends they’ll cherish forever; others are about old friends they’ll never see again. They talk about times when they were literally bored silly, times when they had fun, and times they were terrified. They talk about moments that changed their lives.

Buffington and Bryan joined the Army National Guard for the same reason a lot of kids did — to carry on a family tradition while earning college tuition. Enlisting months before 9/11, they never imagined that they would actually go to war.

“You get told you could go somewhere,” Bryan says, “but who believed it?

As members of the Paris, Ill.-based 1544th Transportation Company, Buffington, 21, drove a truck providing armed escort to caravans delivering mail to military bases across Iraq; Bryan, 23, worked mainly at the base front office, providing “force security.”

These duties weren’t as benign as they sound. Road missions such as the ones Buffington drove are the kind of convoys insurgents target with “improvised explosive devices,” or IEDs. Two members of their small company died and several others were injured when their trucks — fortified only with makeshift armor — encountered roadside bombs. Bryan’s duty on base wasn’t any safer; three members of the 1544th were killed and scores injured by mortars fired into their base.

By the time their tour ended, the Paris 1544th had suffered the second highest casualty rate of any Guard group.

In Iraq, the 1544th was stationed at Log Base Seitz, a small camp in the Sunni Triangle near Abu Ghraib prison. Four other Guard groups shared the base, and it didn’t take long for Buffington and Bryan to realize that each company had its own personality. Compared with the others, these soldiers say, the 160 members of the 1544th were younger, friendlier, and bound a little tighter.

“We’re a big close-knit family,” Buffington says. “Probably 70 percent of us are kids my age from small-town places where people are just pretty laid-back, trying to get the job done but have fun at the same time.”

“Younger people were easier to talk to than older people who had been in the military forever,” Bryan says. “We had young leaders, so you could sit down and talk to them, and they knew where you were coming from.”

Some were closer than others. Buffington and Bryan hardly knew each other when they left for Iraq. They’re so different that, even if they had gone to high school together, they probably never would have eaten lunch at the same cafeteria table.

Buffington, who graduated from Lincoln High School, was a cheerleader, student-council officer, and beauty-pageant contestant. Bryan, who graduated from Effingham High School, worked at the movie theater, quit the tennis team her senior year, and was “the girl who sat there and said, ‘Oh my God, these cheerleaders won’t shut up!’ ”

But they had a mutual friend — Jessica Cawvey. In the days when Guard duty meant going to drill one weekend a month, Buffington often carpooled with Cawvey. Bryan didn’t get to know Cawvey until shortly before they left for Iraq, when they were assigned to move a truck from Decatur to Paris. On that trip, they had a heart-to-heart talk.

“I always thought she was so much older than me because she hung out with [an older female soldier]. But when she and I were put in a truck together, she told me she was 19 and had a 4-year-old daughter. She sounded so grown-up, it just shocked the hell outta me,” Bryan says. “I remember telling my squad leader, ‘Man, that girl does a lotta stuff.’ She was a mom and she worked and she went out and she had fun.”

In Iraq, they became roommates and best friends.

“She totally pulled me through the whole experience,” Bryan says. “If I got down, she told me to shut up and be happy.”

Death found the 1544th on their first day in Iraq. Buffington recalls how it happened:

It was a half-hour before we were supposed to be drilled on what to do if you got mortared. We were sitting in this room, hanging out, and all the sudden we heard booms. After the first one, everyone’s eyes got huge. We looked at each other and dropped to the ground. Once they stopped falling, people were yelling get to the bunkers. We were new; we thought the mortars had stopped. I ran outside, and I saw dust in the air. One exploded right over the volleyball court. I think that’s the one that got Ivory [Phipps], but I didn’t see. I was watching my feet on the ground.

I just jetted out of the barracks, and we had to run around the barracks to get to the bunkers, because we were assigned specific bunkers. I don’t think anybody paid any attention to that but me. I leaped over three different bunkers before I got to the fourth one, which was mine. I could’ve died because I was being picky about a bunker.

So everyone’s adrenaline was going and we were, like, “Wow, that was awesome! That was close!” Everybody was pretty excited about it, because it was our first time and we had never experienced anything like that.

But after we got released about an hour later, we had an accountability formation, and you could tell that something happened. A couple of people had blood on them. We could tell that a girl in our platoon wasn’t in our formation. You could see the mood; you could tell something was wrong. So the first sergeant ended up saying Sgt. Phipps was hit . . . and he didn’t know much else. We had to wait.

That night, the battalion still there from year before, getting ready to leave next day, they came over and had a formation. Then they start telling us about coming into a war zone. I have a hearing problem, and I heard him say something and then people just started bawling. . . . I looked at somebody next to me: Did he die? It was a smack in the face.

He was from the Chicago area, a filler [from another unit], and he was in his forties, I believe. His wife just had a baby like right prior to us leaving. . . . I used to tease him because he had a tattoo of a teardrop by his eye. It meant a lot to him; I think it was someone who passed away in his life. I’d always say, “What up, Teardrop?” I just tried to make people feel like welcome to the 1544th.

In some ways, life at Log Base Seitz was not as rough as Buffington and Bryan had anticipated. They had showers and computer access and even a laundry service, albeit one guaranteed to turn everything gray.

“You’d get back, like, a white pair of socks or a white bra or your favorite underwear, and it would be like this dingy gray color,” Bryan laughs, “and you want to keep everything in as good shape as possible, because you could get funky.”

They even had cosmetics, thanks to two soldiers who were Mary Kay consultants.

“I took great care of my skin, because it’s so hard on your face!” Bryan says.

“You get so many crazy mysterious spots on your body. . . . You had to make yourself feel like a girl,” Buffington says. “If it’s, like, a 120-degree day, you probably don’t wear makeup.”

“But there were girls who did,” Bryan says. “There were girls you didn’t see without it.”

For the long stretches of downtime, everybody had televisions, DVD players, video games, and laptop computers bought at a deep discount from Iraqi vendors. DVDs came loaded with as many as four movies, including bootleg copies of whatever was playing in American multiplexes.

“That got old, too,” Buffington says. “Watching movies got really old.”

For real excitement, they would buy something online. That way, they’d get a package in the mail.

“Like socks!” says Buffington.

“I got a lot of socks,” Bryan says.

Buffington sighs: “Some clean, fresh white socks — now that was some good stuff.”

There’s something awry when a 20-year-old middle-class American girl gets a thrill out of simple clean white socks. For these two, it’s a perspective borne of casual conversations with the Iraqi peasants who performed various menial jobs on their base.

“We think we’re lucky showering in some flip-flops with a bunch of other people around you, going to the bathroom in a Porta-Potty that reeks in the middle of 100-degree weather. It sounds awful, but to us, we’re thankful that we’re not out there working for a dollar a day in the middle of gunshots,” Buffington says. “Other people have no idea how lucky we, as Americans, have it.”

The 1544th sent teams on road missions every day, some as long as 12 hours round-trip, providing one gun truck for every two or three mail-laden semis. Depending on the quantity of mail, the convoys might be as short as five trucks or as long as 30.

Gun trucks usually carried three to five soldiers — a driver, an “A-driver” in the passenger seat, and a “gunner” positioned in a makeshift box on the back.

For most of the 1544th’s tour of duty, these vehicles had only homemade armor — scraps of steel welded to the truck doors, sandbags layered on the floors. The company’s maintenance platoon made the vehicles as safe as they could, but there was only so much they could do.

“It was kind of a game of luck,” Bryan says.

Still, most of the soldiers loved being road warriors.

“It’s fun. It’s a rush,” Buffington says.

A petite 5-foot-5, Buffington drove a five-ton FMTV (family of medium tactical vehicles), often barreling down the wrong lane, forcing other vehicles onto the shoulder. It was the rule of the road: “Nobody passes our convoy.” For the safety of the soldiers, they could never cede the right-of-way. Any other motorist had to be viewed as a potential bomber.

“If you lay on the horn and they don’t move, then you gotta point your gun at them. If they still don’t move, then you’ve got to get them out of your way, no matter what it takes,” Buffington says. “I mean, you want to do the least possible to get it done. You’re not gonna blow them up with a grenade, but you’re going to get them out of the road.”

Once, her convoy came under fire. Buffington remembers slamming the accelerator pedal and driving as fast as she could. She can describe it with a certain swagger; everyone survived.

“We received small-arms fire, coming from the passenger side. So my battle buddy, who also was a female, she took care of that side. My boyfriend was actually my gunner at the time, and he was laying down rounds down-range, and then I had another guy up in the turret with a weapon, so they were putting some rounds down-range. It was so scary. I saw tracers flying in front of my truck. I was just waiting for one to pierce me in my side. It hit windows and went right by the driver of the truck in front of me, but no one got hurt,” she says, “and that’s when it’s fun.”

There were other times when it wasn’t fun. Spc. Jeremy Ridlen, age 23, from Maroa, was killed when his convoy encountered a suicide bomber in a dump truck on May 23, 2004. Buffington, a close friend of Ridlen’s, was asked to speak at his memorial service.

The people that took care of him, they thought he was gonna be OK. He was a very godly man. He was in my platoon. He and his twin brother both were just really silly. I had known them since I joined the unit four years ago. Those boys would be first ones to come up to you and make you feel at home.

Basically what I focused on when I spoke at Jeremy’s ceremony was that he was in a better place. I started out with a quote from Thomas Jefferson, about how the tree of liberty must sometimes be fertilized with the blood of patriots. I was sad and angry, asking God why. But then I started to thank God because Jeremy was such a nice guy, I thanked God for taking him out of such an evil place.

It was just a memorial ceremony where they put a short slide show up and they have his weapon with boots and a Kevlar vest and some dog tags. Higher-ranking officials come to our base for these ceremonies. At the end, we get in a line, walk by, salute the rifle. The high-ranking officials will put a coin down by the boots. And I thought, “You didn’t even know my friend.”

In August, all the female soldiers at Log Base Seitz were moved into a warehouse. For the women of the 1544th, it meant leaving a building neighboring their company “brothers” and moving too far away for comfort. They complained, but the move took place anyway.

“We thought it was gonna be way worse than what it was. If you think about living in a warehouse with 160 girls, from all over the country . . . it’s like a big melting pot of people from different places,” Bryan says.

“They talk about what they live like at home, and you find out everybody’s pretty much the same in their own little different way. It’s the same, but it’s different. It’s funny,” Bryan says. “You tell stories from home, and home isn’t even like a concept. You think about it, and it’s like a dream place.”

“It’s like you’re never gonna go back there,” Buffington says. “The only thing real is here.”

Where their previous quarters had been a two-story building with large rooms accommodating six bunk beds, the warehouse was a hangar-size space divided into two-person cubicles. The lack of ceilings not only made it possible to overhear everything in the room, it also made the women feel more vulnerable during mortar attacks.

Each onslaught started with the hollow-sounding thwack! you would hear if you slapped your palm over the end of a PVC pipe. “That’s the sound when they drop the mortars into the tube and launch them into our base,” Buffington says.

“You could hear them up to, like, three miles away,” Bryan says, “then you hear it splash on the ground.”

On Sept. 5, 2004, mortars claimed two more soldiers from the 1544th. Buffington describes it:

It was evening time, I think, not dark yet, about 5. My friend was out there. Someone said: “What happened? Didn’t you hear the tubes?” They waited, and they didn’t hear any more.

The maintenance platoon was having a meeting outside, all gathered around where some of them were hit. People next to [Spc. Charles] Lamb didn’t even get touched. [Sgt. Shawna] Morrison was walking to our company area, I’d say 25 to 50 meters from our company area. Fifteen others were hurt. They hit us bad.

I was going to one of my girlfriend’s rooms. I asked her to go outside and have a cigarette. We all hit the ground. Andrea and Jessica were right across the hall, and we could hear Jessica yelling, “Put on your Kevlar!”

We had little two-way radios, and we could put it on the frequency that force protection ran on, and we heard them say the 1544th got hit. All us girls were in one bunker, so we’re like, “Oh my God.” We saw an ambulance going to TMC [the troop medical center], and this sergeant made a comment like, “If you’re in the 1544th, y’all better start praying now.”

This woman was like an E-7, sergeant 1st class, dumb enough to say something like that, knowing that our family just got hit really bad. It was rude. She was making it sound like our company needed Jesus, like we weren’t in the right place with God, and that’s why we were getting hit.

We got in a circle, held hands, and prayed.

Unlike previous conflicts, this war in Iraq is being thoroughly documented by young soldiers armed with digital cameras. Their images will undoubtedly end up in scrapbooks, art galleries, and historical archives. But they also come in handy for making digital videos to be shown at memorial services.

Visitors to the 1544th’s Web site (paris1544.com) can watch these videos become progressively more sophisticated as the soldiers learn the sad craft of constructing digital memorials.

Each video is accompanied by a song. Toby Keith’s anthemic “American Soldier” was the obvious choice. But by the time Bryan and her friends heard it played for the fourth time, they decided to make sure it wouldn’t be played for them.

“Willy,” a filler from Chicago who became something like a little brother to Bryan, broached the subject on the day of Morrison’s and Lamb’s funerals, asking Bryan and her roommate what songs they would want played at their memorial services.

“Cawvey said she absolutely didn’t want ‘American Soldier,’ because that’s a killer! That song is sad, and she didn’t want people to be sad,” Bryan says. “We were talking about how we’d have all these upbeat songs — like, ‘Don’t be sad. I’m still here. Just not right here.’ ”

They also discussed who should speak at their services, and Bryan made them promise that no military officials would speak at her funeral at home. “They always say the same things, and it has no sentimental value at all.”

Other people found their discussion weirdly morbid, but at the time, Bryan thought it was just for fun.

“It was never gonna be us,” she says.

Days after mortars killed Morrison and Lamb, Buffington experienced a terrifyingly close call.

It was about 5 in the morning, and she had just gotten off duty. She and Cawvey, who worked the same shift, took a walk around the camp. When the mortars came, they barely made it to a bunker.

Normally they would have left once the shelling stopped. This time, though, they were so shaken that they decided to just stay in the bunker. That decision may have saved them: A half-hour later, mortars rained down again, this time even closer.

“We could hear metal falling outside,” Buffington remembers. “Then a helicopter dove right overhead. Jessica grabbed me and threw me on the ground and covered me. She thought it was so close it was going to land.”

For weeks, Buffington couldn’t shake off the fear. Walking anywhere around the base, even to the bathroom, unnerved her.

“It’s just not fair how scared you have to feel, the emotions that you feel — confusion, anger, fear, and especially sadness. It is so overwhelming. It’s so hard. It hurts.”

Bryan speaks up: “That’s why we had to have a lot of fun.”

“That’s why we sit here and only talk about the fun things,” Buffington says, “because that’s what you had to focus on. The only things you had to live for were the good things. You couldn’t walk around in fear all the time and mope all the time, because it would go a lot slower and you’re gonna be a nut case.”

On Oct. 6, Buffington and Bryan lost one of their closest friends. Buffington recalls:

I went into the office for our unit because one of my girlfriends was doing guard duty in there that night and I was gonna keep her company. And I just happened to stay in there. We were playing cards.

I remember we heard this big boom and said, oh, that was a big one. You could tell what a roadside bomb sounded like as opposed to a mortar. . . . About 15 minutes later, the guy at the computer jumps up and they’re calling for a medevac: “We need to get a medevac in there! Don’t leave this office; don’t tell anybody what’s going on!”

We know something’s wrong. Then we find out what truck it was. So then I knew what truck and what people were involved, but I don’t know what’s wrong with them. . . . I heard “Get so-and-so’s records and their blood type.” I couldn’t hear the name, so I’m freaking out.

Bryan, who was making her first road mission that night, was in the convoy hit by the IED. She picks up the story:

There were five gun trucks, and I was in the third one. Cawvey was in the last one. . . . The first few trucks went back and helped out. We had a computer in ours, with a tracking system. You could instant-message with all the bases around. We got in touch with . . . all of our higher-up people. Then the guys that were back helping radioed helicopters; then we just pretty much sat there and waited for recovery to come and get the vehicle, because the weapon was still on it and we couldn’t leave it. It was the longest four hours in my life.

We got back, and they told me when I got to the gate. I knew that somebody had been killed, but I didn’t think it was her. I wouldn’t let myself think it at all. It took probably three people to pull me out of the truck.

Jessica Cawvey wasn’t supposed to be on the road that night. But this trip would be Bryan’s first road mission, and Cawvey knew that her roommate was terrified. So she told the platoon sergeant that he needed to put her name on the board. It turned out to be the only road mission Bryan participated in during her entire year in Iraq.

“I just think the irony of it is out of this world,” she says. “If there was any mission I would have wanted to be on, it was that one, because I was doing something to help. It sounds weird. But I couldn’t have taken being back at the base and not knowing what was going on if she had been out [on the road] and I wouldn’t have been. We were always together, so I would’ve been a wreck.”

When it came time to plan Cawvey’s memorial service, they couldn’t do everything exactly the way she had requested. Her vest, helmet, and boots couldn’t be used for traditional tripod display (her equipment had been “too messed up” by the bomb) so Bryan lent her own equipment to represent her friend. And they couldn’t play all the songs Cawvey had selected, because “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” by the Geto Boys might offend the high-ranking officials in attendance.

But Bryan and Willy kept the pact they had made after Morrison and Lamb’s service: They were the speakers at Cawvey’s funeral.

“That’s a promise that you really can’t come off of,” Bryan says.

The day before the service, their first sergeant put them through a rehearsal, and Bryan couldn’t get past the first four words. At the official rite, she got through her speech, but as she was walking back to her seat, she tripped over a microphone cord and inadvertently blurted out, “Oh shit!”

Suddenly, in the midst of this sad ceremony, people laughed and realized that Cawvey’s spirit was present.

“That was totally Jessica, just relieving the tension in the room,” Buffington says.

Bryan’s duties to Cawvey didn’t end with the memorial service. She had to pack her friend’s belongings and ship everything home to Cawvey’s grieving family. Then she had to live in their cubicle alone.

At first, she didn’t want another roommate. The vacant bunk was “Cawvey’s bed,” and no one else could sleep in it.

But after a few weeks, just walking into the empty room became a reminder of her loss. About that time, Buffington asked whether she could move in, “since we’re on the same shift and my roommate hates when I turn on the light,” Buffington recalls.

Bryan agreed, and “Buff,” as Guard folk call her, moved in.

“It was a comfort factor to be sleeping in Jessica’s bed,” she says.

Notice: It wasn’t Buffington’s bed.

“It was Cawvey’s bed, and that’s what it stayed,” Bryan says. “People would say, ‘It’s Bryan and Cawvey’s room, but Buff lives in it.’ ”

One day, they were hanging out in the bunker, probably smoking, and Buffington realized that Bryan was still depressed. They talked about how Cawvey managed to keep herself happy by focusing on the fun and forgetting about the pain.

“I decided that I was going to make the most of my time, because that’s what Cawvey did,” Buffington says, “She didn’t need to look down on us and see us being scared all the time, moping and crying. And from that point on, we were pretty happy.”

In February, the 1544th rolled back into Paris in a convoy of chartered buses escorted by cops and hovered over by television-news helicopters. Flag-festooned fire engines were parked on bridges, with firefighters waving as the buses approached. People waited by the road with homemade signs; farmers parked their pickup trucks and stood with hands covering their hearts.

“To know that all these people were saluting us and saying thank you for what we did — that was awesome,” Buffington says.

Both Bryan and Buffington are returning to “normal” life. Both are registered for the summer semester at college — Bryan wants to be a dental hygienist, Buffington a special-education teacher. Until classes start, Bryan is enjoying sleeping late and Buffington is selling Mary Kay. Though Bryan is in Effingham and Buffington in Lincoln, they visit each other frequently.

Both plan to reenlist for two years as “active duty” after their initial commitments are up. It’s a longer stint than inactive status, but it avoids the chance of getting deployed with a different unit. Neither Bryan nor Buffington really wants to return to Iraq — or any other war zone, for that matter — but if they must, they want to go with the 1544th.

“You don’t want to go back at all, but then it’s like, if we do get called back up, you’ll go,” Bryan says. “You love the people so much that you just have to go.”

Buffington agrees: “You wouldn’t want them to go without you.”

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