A soldier's Easter story
March 27, 2005

BY CHERYL L. REED Staff Reporter

"Sheriff North! Sheriff North! This is Road Dawg 2-4," Sgt. Robert Williamson barked over his Army radio. "We are under heavy enemy attack. I need support, and I'm going to need medevac!"

Williamson could hear bullets buzzing over his truck and the gunner truck in front of him.

In his rearview mirror, the three-lane Iraqi highway was swallowed by black smoke pierced only by mortar rounds, gunfire and homemade bombs that shook the ground like earthquakes.

In the midst of that billowing tornado were 23 of Williamson's soldiers, their panicked screams filling his cab as they radioed for help. At least four were seriously wounded, and Williamson knew if he didn't get them to a hospital soon, they would bleed to death.

Halted by a blockade of asphalt that had once been the highway, Williamson couldn't go forward and he couldn't turn around. They had no choice but to wait until support arrived. Until then, his convoy of 27 Army truck drivers and two mechanics would have to fight off insurgents who had encircled the highway and were launching Soviet-made rocket propelled grenades into their fuel tankers.
The convoy's solitary fight last Easter would span nearly an hour and end in a deadly fiery finale, forever changing the meaning of Easter for Williamson and his soldiers.

Begging God to help them survive

Williamson ordered his driver, a 27-year-old sheet metal worker from Ohio, to get out of their truck because they were sitting targets. The driver took cover behind a wheel as tall as a man's chest. But Williamson, as convoy commander, could stand only as far as his radio cord could reach, just below the passenger side door, where he had scrawled 'Cubs #1' in chalk. From there, Williamson directed his convoy's defense with one hand holding the radio and the other wielding an M-16.

With his Northern Indiana drawl, Williamson spoke calmly to his panicked troops, reassuring them that help was on the way. His hand trembled as he held the radio receiver and prayed, begging God to help him and his soldiers survive. Before they had set out from the Baghdad airport that morning with 40,000 gallons of fuel, Williamson had led them in the Lord's Prayer.

At age 44, Williamson is a believer, a church-going Episcopalian who takes comfort in Bible passages about war but sprinkles his conversations with an occasional cuss word. A handsome man with tawny hair and lake blue eyes, he has married three times and has six children.

As he orchestrated his convoy's defense, he thought of his wife, Beth Williamson, and his children: Alex, 6; Matthew, 8; Tyler, 9; Steven, 11; Robby, 13, and Patricia, 20.

Then he thought of his buddy Sgt. Dana Reagan who was somewhere in the smoke with two bullets through his face. And Williamson got mad.

He ordered his soldiers to bring the wounded to him, and within minutes, a convoy of trucks emerged from the smoke. Williamson sighed briefly. At least all were alive. But four tankers were on fire and two gun trucks were down.

Meanwhile, two Apache helicopter fighter pilots were fueling up at the Baghdad airport when they heard Williamson's distress call.
Williamson radioed his coordinates to a fleet of troops coming with armored tanks and several helicopters. The helicopters arrived first. The Apache hovered overhead targeting several groups of insurgents who were shooting from houses and buildings near the highway. A Blackhawk transport helicopter, an air ambulance with a large red cross emblazoned across it, took cover behind trees, waiting to dip in and rescue the wounded.

"This is Road Dawg 2-4," Williamson told the Blackhawk. "Be advised: It is hot and heavy down here."

"That's all right," the Blackhawk pilot radioed. "It's my job."

Williamson threw a yellow smoke grenade to mark where the wounded lay on stretchers. The Blackhawk swooped in and landed on the highway. Within 90 seconds, the wounded soldiers were loaded and flying safely in the distance. Williamson watched until they were a dot on the horizon.

Then Williamson turned to a nearby sergeant and said, "Happy Easter. I'm appointing you my [second in command]. Talk to the Apache pilot," he said, pointing to the fighter helicopter hovering above them.

As Williamson was handing over the radio, he heard a huge explosion. He looked up, wondering what kind of weapon had made the unusual boom.

Then he realized that it wasn't an explosion at all, but the sound of the Apache as it was hit by insurgents, sending helicopter parts flying. Suddenly, everyone stopped and turned their faces to the sky.

The Apache tilted left then right, its pilots trying to correct the wavering. Then—as if in slow motion—it turned on its nose and dove into the ground and exploded. A fireball rose from the shattered pieces, tentacles of black smoke towering hundreds of feet.

Why did he survive?

It was an image forever ingrained in Williamson's memory. Those 30 seconds would haunt him—in his sleep, driving down the Dan Ryan, listening to music on the Loop, romancing his wife, cuddling his children. They would seep into his consciousness, making him feel helpless and suicidal. They would wrack him with guilt. Why did he survive and the pilots—fathers and husbands like him—didn't?

As the remains of the Apache smoldered, Williamson's soldiers began firing with abandon at the building from which the shots that downed the Apache had come.

Soon the ground arsenal with tanks and Humvees appeared. The infantry had arrived, and Williamson's convoy could leave.

Driving on tires flattened by bullets and towing several damaged trucks, Williamson's convoy headed back to Baghdad, led by Humvee scouts on the lookout for insurgents. Once they had gone several miles and were seemingly out of danger, Williamson began to sob—big, heavy, chest-heaving sobs.

His driver looked at him and started crying too.

As they drove along, Williamson thought of his childhood in Pekin and of his father, whom he'd spent his life seeking approval from, and he wondered if his dad would be proud of him now.

Williamson's soldiers expressed their relief in a different way—whooping and yelling as they passed other soldiers along the highway.
"Truck drivers, my ass!" they hollered, proud to be emerging from the smoke with holes in the sides of their trucks.

They were relieved to be alive, to have survived, albeit with injuries. Nearly half of the 29 soldiers, including Williamson, would receive the Purple Heart for their wounds. Williamson's right arm was splattered with shrapnel. Williamson didn't know then how much he and the others were scarred.

'I'm still in disbelief'

Williamson remembers Easter last year as a gray, cloudy day. But pictures he took after the battle show a bright, sunny sky. Like many aspects of that day, it's hard to reconcile the truth with his emotions.

"I'm still in disbelief," he said, sitting at his kitchen table in Hobart, fingering the three prescriptions that his new psychiatrist ordered. "It's still like I just watched a bad movie. It's just a god-awful feeling, like when your stomach goes out on you."

Despite his reluctance to talk about the Easter ambush, Williamson decided to recall the events of last year because he fears Americans are becoming jaded and the only time they learn of such battles is when a soldier is killed.

In fact, the only details the Department of Defense or the Army could provide about the Easter ambush were the names of the deceased pilots: Lawrence Colton, 32, of Oklahoma City and Wesley Charles Fortenberry, 38, of Woodville, Texas.
But Williamson says there is more to war than death tolls.

When Williamson and his men returned to their unit in Taji the next day, they were met by cheers from their fellow soldiers.
One soldier ran up and put his arm around Williamson: "They did a body count," the soldier told him. "There's like 180 insurgents that were killed in that gunfight. So, you took a lot of them out. What a great job!"

Williamson shrugged off the man and thought, "When did war become about body counts?" For two days he didn't eat. Finally his platoon leader told him he was "wigging out" and sent him to see a psychologist, a precursor of what lay ahead.

Williamson is now recovering from three severe injuries he sustained in Iraq—all within three weeks of the Easter attacks. His wounds—mostly from ambushes—have qualified him for three Purple Hearts. He has received only one medal so far.

When Army doctors sent Williamson home last May to recover from a broken arm, they expected he would return in a month. Williamson took only a small bag and didn't get say goodbye to most of his unit. He, too expected to come back.

But on the way to the airport, Williamson's truck was hit by a bomb, and the blast fractured his hip. Williamson had to pay for his flight home because he was told no money was available for convalescent-leave flights. (A retired colonel is investigating why the military didn't pay for the trip and why Williamson still hasn't been reimbursed.)

Once he was home, it became clear that Williamson's injuries were too severe to allow him to return. He spent three months seeing and waiting to see doctors at Fort Campbell, Ky., before they sent him home to recover. In the last month, Williamson was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

For months, Williamson rejected the notion that war had somehow changed him, even though he was withdrawn and nervous around his family. He kept telling himself he was the same guy, despite the constant nightmares, the flashbacks and the intrusive thoughts.

In his nightmares, though, Williamson cannot escape the ugliness:
Blood is running down Dana's face. He has been shot in the jaw and the eye. There's a hole in Donnie Barkhimer's left shoulder and blood is gushing out. David Miller's uniform is covered in blood. There's blood coming up through the IV. There's blood everywhere. How can I stop the blood?

Unlike many soldiers who drink in order to sleep, Williamson says he has seen how alcohol can destroy a soldier and his family, and he rarely imbibes.

Williamson sought relief in another way; he went on a spending spree. A competition hobby model builder, he dropped $9,000 on model kits in a week and maxed out his credit cards.

"Nothing could stop me. No matter how many times I told myself: 'We don't have the money. We don't have the money.' Inside, it felt good to buy stuff," Williamson said. "I bought 12 of every item because I didn't know when I would ever be able to buy this again. Part of it is: I survived."

Williamson thought he could intercept the credit card bills from the mailbox before his wife saw the damage. His plan didn't work. His wife, Beth, 42, a mild-mannered kindergarten teacher, insisted he get help.

Beth Williamson said she knew something was wrong when her husband came back from Iraq anxious and secretive. He was angry that she and the kids had managed so well without him. He was moody and easily upset. One night when Williamson became overwrought, Beth Williamson wondered whether she should take the kids and leave for the night.

Wife helps him heal

Williamson angrily asserted that she and their children didn't need him. He was even paranoid that she'd been unfaithful.
His suspicions were understandable considering how much infidelity he witnessed in Iraq and how many soldiers divorced when they returned home.

"Within the company itself, the rule is that we're all brothers and sisters in Iraq. They told us: 'Remember you're not supposed to have sex with your brother or sister,'" Williamson said. "But that doesn't stop someone from going across the barricade to the next company."

Williamson credits his wife's patience and gentle urging with helping him to address his mental problems. He says his marriage has been strengthened as a result: "If it wasn't for my wife and kids, I'm sure by now I would have done something stupid."

Now, waiting to be medically retired from the Army because of his physical injuries—something he is adamantly against—Williamson spends most of his days seeing doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists.

Although he has been home nearly a year, Iraq is never far away in his mind.

"When I hear a helicopter—boom, I'm back there in Iraq on Easter. I see smoke in the distance—boom I'm back in Iraq. The scary part is that I can be driving down the road, and I don't see the interstate, but I see a highway in Baghdad and tracers are going by. My eyes are wide open. They call it the 100-yard stare."

Sometimes, something as simple as a song, particularly those about the Vietnam War, can overwhelm him.

"I can't stop bawling," he said. "I just have to stop whatever I'm doing and I just stutter. You want to turn the radio off but something stops you from doing it. You know you got to work it out."

His physical injuries linger as well. He still suffers from a pinched nerve in his shoulder that renders his arm virtually unusable. His arm, which he also broke in Iraq but waited too late to get treated, hangs slack from his shoulder. His right hip is fractured and his left one is severely damaged. He walks with a limp, his right side noticeably drooping.

But what is most damaged is his spirit.

"Some days when the physical therapist messes with my hips and my arm, I just wish they'd killed me in Iraq because the pain is so great. It's not just the physical pain, though. It's the mental pain."

We're making a fuel run on the highway and I see a rocket-propelled grenade coming between me and the gunner truck in front. They're shooting at us, surrounding us. I'm screaming for help, calling on the radio, but no one is answering. No one is there. We're in the desert alone.

As a descendant from a long line of military men, Williamson is accustomed to war stories and battle scars. He was even eager to go to Iraq because he was curious about what it would be like to serve in battle.

Williamson's great-great-grandfather, Hiram Williamson, fought in the Revolutionary War as a Hessian and was captured by George Washington, he said. Williamson's great-great uncle—Hiram's brother—fought at the Alamo. His grandfather, Phocion Williamson, fought in the Civil War with the 106th Illinois Volunteers. Other relatives were in major wars since then. Williamson served 12 years in the Navy before he signed up for the Army Reserves in 1999. He joined after he was laid off from his job as a ship's officer with a casino boat in East Chicago. He planned to serve eight years in the Reserves to qualify for a military pension. Because the military is medically retiring him, he misses getting his pension by two years.

Just as Williamson had quizzed his older cousin when he returned from Vietnam, Williamson's middle son Steven peppered him with questions when he returned.

"Well, I'm not going to lie to you," Williamson told the 11-year-old, who was playing Army with his friends in the backyard. "I killed some people, Steven. Sometimes, you have to do things you don't want to do, but it's your job. If I wouldn't have shot them first, they would have shot me. That's why it's called war. And that's why war is terrible."

Williamson didn't mind his son's curiosity. But he did mind casual acquaintances assaulting him with similar questions.
"It's something I'm not proud of," he said of killing Iraqis. "I've always been taught as a Christian that God doesn't hate you because you killed somebody in war. But it's a strange feeling."

Facing Easter has been tough for Williamson. Though he never knew the two pilots killed, he still feels pained for their families.

"How are they ever going to celebrate Easter when that is the day that their dad or their husband was killed?" he said.

'I'm afraid to fall asleep'

But in Williamson's household, it is Easter every day. Like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, Williamson goes to bed each night to relive the Easter ambush, each time trying to devise how he could have prevented the deaths of the two pilots.

"It's almost like I'm afraid to fall asleep," he said. "If I don't think about Easter, I worry about whether I will be able to go back to work once this is all over."

After his mind has worked through the Easter ambush, he goes over later battles, trying to imagine how another squad member might not have died if he hadn't been wounded and had to leave Iraq.

"I feel like I abandoned my soldiers. I feel stupid for getting wounded," he said.

Williamson knows that in order to recover, he has to forgive himself. That's easier to acknowledge than to practice.

"I watched someone get killed who had just saved me," he said. "I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do to save them."

Earlier this month, Williamson had to get a handicapped sticker for his car. It was one of the toughest things he's done since coming home: admit that he is disabled.

Williamson fears that with his new blue wheelchair hangtag and his cane people will see him as a victim and feel sorry for him. Williamson doesn't want pity.

'You feel like cannon fodder'

Recently, he met with more than 130 disabled Iraqi and Afghanistan soldiers through a national nonprofit called Coalition to Salute America's Heroes. It inspired him to think of what life after the military might look like.

Although he desperately wants to stay in, Williamson is expected to be released from the military by the end of summer. He thinks he could teach younger soldiers how to survive an ambush. He contacted a high-ranking military official and pleaded for help, but he was told the decision is up to the military's medical board.

"You feel like cannon fodder, like a soldier who returned from the Civil War. The Army says: 'Thanks for getting shot, here's a little money, go home and be a good citizen.' But I say I can do more. They just tell me: 'No, now go away. We got better things to do in the Army.'"

He has seen several psychiatrists, through the VA, the military and privately. They tell him he has to deal with his anger toward himself and the Army.

"They promised additional security that day, and it never showed up," Williamson said, his voice rising as he remembered leaving Baghdad on Easter morning to deliver fuel to Marines in Fallujah.

"They said: 'You're going to have to go without it.' You don't argue orders, so you go without it. It's an unwritten soldier creed that no matter how horrific it is, you do your job. That morning I had a bad feeling in my gut. Something was just not right."

Easter's double meaning

In the weeks before the holiday, Beth Williamson gingerly asked how he wanted to celebrate Easter.

"I want to sit home and put my head in a box," he told her.

"You don't feel like going to church?" she asked.

"I'm not going to feel like doing anything," he said. "I don't think anyone wants to be around me either because I can't predict what my emotions are going to be like."

But days before Easter, Williamson's outlook began to change.

His previous employer sent him for further training as a boat mechanic, even though Williamson can lift only 15 pounds and is unsure whether he will physically be able to return to his old job. He is also excited about the possibility of buying a hobby model store. And he realizes he is lucky to be recovering at home. His buddy Reagan, who lost his eye and much of his jaw, remains in Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. where he is undergoing more surgeries.

"I think Easter is going to have a double meaning," Williamson said. "It will be about the death of Christ and the memory of those pilots. And it will also be about my life as a mortal, finally coming to grips with being handicapped, but, at the same time, realizing that I now have a second chance at life."

For now, Williamson's goal is to live Easter only one day a year.

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