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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Soldiers learn to lean on each other

By Steven Komarow
USA Today

MOSUL, Iraq — The soldiers of Charlie Company haven't been counting the days until Christmas. They don't count the weeks until they go home for good in February. Since their convoy was attacked Nov. 7 and a beloved sergeant was killed, they don't even count themselves lucky.

The Takayesu family, from left, Faye, Matt, 15, Ben and Grant, 19, decorate their Christmas tree while Hoku, the family dog, stands by. Faye and Ben Takayesu's oldest son, Darren, is serving with the Army in Iraq this Christmas.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

They just count on each other.

"That's all we can do right now," says Staff Sgt. Daehan Park, 29, of Clarksville, Tenn. "Take it one day at a time. Because like we saw (on Nov. 7), anything can happen."

The Christmas holidays bring thoughts of home and families for Charlie Company, which includes Pfc. Darren Takayesu, 23, of Honolulu, and the 130,000 other American servicemen and women in Iraq. Capturing Saddam Hussein made them proud, but they know their job in Iraq isn't over. Some members of Charlie Company played a role in cornering and killing Saddam's notorious sons in July. For many in this unit, however, there is another tug at the heart. These troops have a second family now, the soldiers in their unit.

And as Charlie Company learned when Staff Sgt. Morgan Kennon, the man they called Angel, was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade, a family can be shattered and a life lost in a split second.

First Sgt. William Karpowecz, 38, of St. Louis has missed so many holidays at home that he barely noticed Thanksgiving. The company's senior sergeant says spending Christmas here won't bother him. But he and other senior leaders know the holidays are a time of stress for younger troops. And Kennon's death made it worse.

Pfc. Darren Takayesu calls his parents, Ben and Faye Takayesu of 'Aina Haina, occasionally to let them know that he's OK.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

The crusty sergeant with a mischievous smile plans to decorate his unit's ugly 5-ton trucks with tinsel and lights. If circumstances and headquarters permit, he'll take his soldiers — those who can sing — and serenade the battalion's three other companies with Christmas carols.

The Army will provide a special feast Christmas Day, just as it did on Thanksgiving. But the celebrating will be mostly low key.

"I want to spend some quiet time with my wife and some great family time with my parents," says Capt. Steven Toth, 38, of Broadview Heights, Ohio, Charlie Company's commander. "My father is a World War II vet, and he always has much to offer, as well as my mom. I want to spend as much time as I can with them."

The man called 'Angel'

For the soldiers of Company C, 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, the "family member" they'll always remember is Kennon, 23, of Memphis, Tenn. He was the company poet. They called him Angel because he was dutiful, quiet and religious. Several poems he had written here were discovered among his personal belongings after his death.

Early in the morning of Nov. 7, two Iraqi men fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the rear of a Charlie Company convoy that had stopped at a downtown guard post. The company had been fired upon many times, and the Iraqis usually missed. This time, for an instant, nobody was guarding the rear. The enemy got off a clean shot.

The projectile sailed 100 yards, over the rear Humvee, through the cab of the taller 5-ton truck in the middle and into the front Humvee of the three-vehicle convoy. Smiles turned to horror in seconds.

Sgt. Heath Calhoun, 22, of Bristol, Va., lost both legs. Shrapnel ripped through muscle and cut the nerves in the right arm of Staff Sgt. Jerome Finn, 32.

On the street, Sgt. Gary Yoakam, 20, of Ohio was giving Kennon a quick hug and slap on the back when the blast knocked them over. Yoakam tried to pick up his gun to return fire, only to discover his left hand was gone.

A piece of shrapnel penetrated the back of Kennon's neck. He never got up. "He looked like he was just lying on the ground," Karpowecz says.

No one knows for sure, but the same piece of shrapnel may have struck both Kennon and Yoakam. And because Kennon's body was closer to the blast, he may have saved Yoakam's life.

Soldiers come of age

Pfc. Darren Takayesu, 23, left, and Staff Sgt. Dusty Swanson, 27, of Company C, 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, patrol the streets of Mosul, Iraq.

Chris Hondros • For USA Today

Years from now, the men of Charlie Company may reminisce about their first helicopter assault into Iraq. They'll groan about the hard slog through the middle of the country, carrying 100-pound packs down desert roads. They'll recall the smell of flowers when they landed here in northern Iraq in April.

And they'll boast of July 22, the day Saddam's sons, Udai and Qusai, were killed by U.S. troops in Mosul. Charlie Company surrounded the house where the two were holed up and took part in the firefight after the brothers refused to give up. Saddam's sons died when an anti-tank missile struck the room where they were hiding.

But the soldiers of Company C say the biggest event for all of them was Kennon's death. After it, the young soldiers matured into quiet professionals.

"For better or worse, there are a lot of people in your unit who don't get along and hate each other," Honolulu's Takayesu says. "But when it gets tough, you do what you need to for the other person. Absolutely."

Takayesu recalls being terrified the first time a rocket-propelled grenade exploded near him.

"Everyone was making fun of me. I thought I'd been hit. Something hit me but didn't go in," he says. One thing about the Army, he adds, is there's not much time to dwell on it: "The next day, you go about your business."

He's proud of what he has done but can't imagine another one-year deployment. "All that stuff you see in movies, in 'Band of Brothers' and 'Black Hawk Down,' it looks exciting on film," Takayesu says. "And then you do this and ... " His voice trails off in a sigh.

Lt. Col. Rick Carlson, 45, of Kankakee, Ill., took command in June of the 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment. That was a heady time, he recalls. Mosul, about 250 miles north of Baghdad, was settling down after the U.S. invasion in March. Soldiers could wander through the bazaars, shopping and eating. They were sure they'd soon be going home.

Then, gradually, the violence against them accelerated. Grenades were tossed at the troops. Rifles were fired at them. It was back to war, with an enemy that was often invisible and deadly. The soldiers never know if they'll trip a roadside bomb or stumble into an ambush. They learned that going home early wasn't always good news.

"Oh, they have aged tremendously," Carlson says of the soldiers. "I see it physically, and I see it emotionally. But I detect it in a positive way. I see a lot of maturity."

In June, he says, the troops' attitude was, "What can we do for the Iraqi people?" Now, he says, "what the soldiers are doing is, they are fighting for each other. I get that every time I go to the hospital, when we have soldiers that get hurt. The first thing they say is, 'I'm so sorry.' That one still tears me up. They have nothing to be sorry for. And yet it's the first thing they all say. They are apologizing to their buddies. They don't want to leave their buddies. It still tears me up."

On the day Saddam was captured, the Iraqi interpreters and others who work with the soldiers showed more excitement than the men, says Toth, the company commander. "Many of (the Iraqis) held celebrations and couldn't stop smiling all day," he says.

"On one of my visits to a remote outlying town the thumbs up, waves, smiles, etc., were reminiscent of the days when we first came into Mosul — extremely positive," he says. "In fact, on that day, it was rainy and cold, and those on the sides of the streets (and kids that came running out) were certainly acting like it was a beautiful spring day. Our guys, they wore smiles and all had the look of a silent pride."

Calling home

Soldiers wrestle constantly with the issue of what to tell their families. Communication, even from Iraq, is so easy compared with any previous generation of soldiers. There's a little Internet café in the compound, and they can phone home for about 33 cents a minute. Some call often; others not so much.

They measure their words.

"I tell them about some of the small successes. And whenever there's news about 101st soldiers going down, I call to make sure they know it wasn't me," Takayesu says. "I remind them if an Army chaplain doesn't show up at your door, it's a good sign."

The spirit of the injured men has become legendary within Charlie Company. Side by side in the field hospital before they were sent back to the United States, Yoakam and Calhoun worked up an argument. "Wanna race?" asked Yoakam of the legless Calhoun. "Wanna box?" Calhoun shot back to his one-handed comrade.

Early next year, Charlie Company will finally return home. Of the original 134 who left Fort Campbell on March 2, only about half will have stayed with the same unit in Iraq; the others left because of injuries and transfers.

Some will keep in touch. Most will go their separate ways.

Karpowecz last month cleaned the blood off the vehicles from the ambush so his soldiers wouldn't have to. Now, he gets sentimental as he looks ahead.

"It is the 'Band of Brothers' here now," he says. "That was some good times, very good times. We shared some good times together we'll never forget."