One Year in Iraq: Picking up the Pieces of My Heart

From August 2004 to August 2005 I commanded a Tank Company team in combat. I was responsible for controlling about 100 men, 21 tanks, and a handful of Humvees up and down route Michigan—a gauntlet of fire connecting Fallujah to Ramadi. On my first day of being in control of that highway, I lost my first man. His head had been partially decapitated as an IED had detonated with precision. Writing a letter home to his wife Michaela and thirteen year old daughter Sarah was very tough. In that moment, I knew that God would have to pick up the pieces of my heart, and help me boost the morale of my men to push forward and ensure that the Iraqi people had freedom. Stories, thoughts, and feelings like these flood my consciousness when I think about Iraq. I remember the people—the terrorists, the civilians and my soldiers. Each one made an indelible mark on my heart with regard to war.

A Broken World

“Terrorists are evil. Destroy them at all costs.” That was my mentality heading into war. In a strange sort of way, I became very intimate with terrorists. I chased, arrested, interrogated, shot at, and raided their houses. I remember arresting one man for possessing sniper weapons and bomb making materials. His mom vice-gripped my wrist, looked me dead in the eyes and pleaded with me not to take her son. She skipped the interpreter and just used all her motherly power to convince me that we needed to just let her son go and he wouldn’t do it again. I pulled my sunglasses off my face for a moment so that she could see that I had a heart and that I wasn’t some terminator robot without a soul. I looked her in the eye as lovingly as possible as if to say that I understand, but I’m sorry your son is a murderer. I wanted to tell her that we live in a broken world and that Jesus came to make it right, but a barrier of language stood between us. She released her grip.

On another occasion a terrorist packed six bombs under the hood of his car and rammed one into one of my tanks. He mistimed the operation and instead of creating a massive inferno killing four American soldiers and destroying an M1-A1 tank bringing Allah glory, he got a really nasty headache and a bad day.

A call came from the tank commander saying that he was watching the terrorist from his vehicle and although the blast had knocked him unconscious, he may awaken and have a chance to detonate. I hopped on the tank and moved to his location as fast as my tank could carry me. I could see through my tank sites that flies had not gathered around the man’s face, indicating he still had life. I wanted to get information on the network or cell he worked with so I knew we needed to save him. At that time, I certainly wasn’t thinking anything about the possibility of this guy having a family. My only thought was:this idiot just tried to kill my men and I will do whatever it takes to find out who he works for to stop their entire network!

That would be tricky. At any moment this terrorist could detonate the bombs killing himself and all those around him. None of us had his suicidal zeal. I called for a bomb squad and they managed to put a block of C4 on the steering column where the detonator fastened itself. The blast erupted larger than anticipated and a huge fireball rose in the air. I thought it would detonate the bombs underneath the hood of the vehicle. The bombs did not explode, but the gas tank in the rear of the car caught on fire and started to burn the car from the rear to the front. At this, the terrorist awoke, and started crawling away from the vehicle.

There was a moment when a window of humanity opened up. I watched that man crawling away from certain death and I had a desire to save him. I am a Christian and I could hear myself wanting to go and save his life—Too risky! This guy deserved death. Then I realized that when faced with a Holy God we all deserve death and that God sent His only Son Jesus into the world to die on a cross and absorb the penalty for sin. Jesus had saved me from an eternal blast. Yet, I did not have the stomach to risk my life for this man. He might wake up while I was trying to save him and grab my pistol or fight me for control.

The bombs exploded ripping his body apart. When the dust settled, I jumped off the tank, ran to the mangled figure, and watched crimson fill the sand as I stood over his torso and saw his life leave him. I think about that moment a lot. It gives me a new appreciation for what Christ did on the cross. Christ died for His enemies in order that He may reconcile the world to Himself. That should tell me something about how He feels about war.

Fear – The Great Divider

Another memory sealed into my mind was the aftermath of a firefight on the fourth of July. After pleading with the people and failing to get information on who the terrorist was that brought destruction to their town, I turned tohead back to my tank. Behind me a woman shrieked and a man came running at me as fast as he could. He held out a little girl not older than 10. She was bleeding and her breathing was labored. SFC Gondek took the girl in his arms and raced back to the Bradley. I sprinted alongside him and radioed ahead.

We got her to the hospital. The surgeons did all they could, but she passed away. Even after the loss of a daughter no one said anything. Civilians had called the US for help in the past and we had responded to where a bomb was planted and blew it up. Terrorists responded to that with a gangster style drive by shooting, leaving the informant dead. Other times, we would arrest a terrorist, but due to insufficient evidence we would have to return him in three months to the population and he would seek his revenge. So although the Iraqi people wanted to be free, the cost of personal safety became too great. They had families to think about. And when a little girl would get hit by shrapnel in a firefight, there was one more reason not to trust the Americans. They had their lives to think about. And for them, better to live in fear than to risk it all.

I got very intimate with the way that terrorists used fear to rule the Iraqis. One of my men pulled over a suspicious pick-up truck. I went over to investigate and got into the truck bed and found four dead men. I pulled back the sheet and looked into their blood veiled faces. Bone chips sprinkled their heads as bullet holes stared back at me. They had been executed. The men driving the truck were their brothers and they were taking their bodies to their hometown to be buried. These men had told Americans locations of bombs and lost their lives for it. They knew the risk and they felt that living by fear was not worth it. They would rather die by execution than live in fear.

One Valiant Soldier

My soldiers loved being soldiers— most of the time. I remember Private J, who had been an overweight and unmotivated trooper back in Korea. Since his deployment to Iraq, his leadership challenged him and something just blossomed in this young man. In Iraq, he lost weight, due to the unbearable heat and the fact that he worked out religiously. One day after spending close to eight hours in the unforgiving Iraqi sun, he called out to me, “Sir, I feel great. I feel like we did something today. We protected those Iraqis.”

Another kid in his platoon was a class clown who could not go unnoticed. He would constantly tell stories about his exploits on the battlefield—more imagination than reality, of course, but fun nevertheless. One time he came into my office for another prank and afterwards we had a moment of laughter. Then he told me that he had just got off the phone and was going to be a dad when he got back from Iraq. I congratulated him and then, wanting to know the state of his real morale, beyond the funny guy veneer, asked him seriously what he thought about SSG Vaillant, his platoonmate who was our first soldier to die in combat.

“Sir, we all volunteered for this. We all knew what we were signing up for.” His resolution echoed in my office. I dismissed him shortly after that. Two weeks later around 11pm, I sat on my cot exhausted from chasing bad guys around sector. I heard the radio in the Tactical Operation Center.

I ran over to the radios and looked at my executive officer who was on duty, “What’s the status?” We waited and finally the three letters that can turn a man’s heart to wet bread, “K-I-A.”

I grabbed the battle roster and ran my finger down the list of tanks and names to match the call-sign of the KIA. I stopped at the loader of the second tank from second platoon, my company—the Apaches. “Private Titcomb.”

This was the very same kid who had come into my office only two weeks before, and told me he would be a father, he volunteered for this, and that he knew what he was getting into.

A Memory that Haunts

Another memory that haunts me was when a bomb went off near the cemetery during shift change. After it was reported I thought for a moment. Was it worth risking the lives of my men to send them into a cemetery where they would most likely find nothing? I asked myself if I would go if I were on the scene, and the answer was “yes.” I looked at the calendar briefly. We only had three months to go, but I felt we couldn’t afford to get weak and let the enemy see our fear. We could not give them any opportunity to place a massive bomb in the cemetery to kill more Americans or Iraqi civilians. I radioed the squad leader to take his men to the cemetery and check it out. They entered the cemetery, searched the area, and came up with nothing. As they exited the cemetery, a bomb erupted underneath the trail Humvee killing two men. I had sent these men there. These soldiers were under my command, but belonged to another company commander. I’ll never forget the hug their company commander gave me. We both wept and he looked me in the eye as if to say, you did the right thing. We hugged hard and I went back to my barracks and just wondered what God was doing. I couldn’t help but ask why. Why God, why?

From the ground I saw what war does. I saw who war affects. I saw death and I saw life in the midst of combat. I saw hope in men and women who had been oppressed by terrorists. I saw that we didn’t always do things perfectly, but we were there to make a difference. Despite the deaths and heartbreak, we brought hope—crazy, how such pain can bring such hope.

(Chris Plekenpol presently works for, a movement where significance in life is a shared value found in Jesus Christ. Its purpose is to put God first and everything else second. His book, Faith in the Fog is about God’s love, mercy and grace as revealed through the daily grind of combat. As a public speaker, Chris encourages men to choose the harder right over the easier wrong while facing thechallenges of everyday life.)

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Reprint please credit to Challenger, 20091012 2009. CCMUSA.