December 16, 2007 – One morning last winter, the war showed up on Kathy Berry’s front porch.
It was just past 6 a.m., not quite dawn, when two soldiers in green dress uniforms passed by the patriotic bunting trimming her south Wichita home.
Awakened by the doorbell, Berry thought it was her son-in-law, who had just left for work. He probably had forgotten his keys. But when she opened the door, the chill she felt had little to do with the season’s early dark.
The solemn-faced National Guard officers stepped inside.
“How bad?” she asked.
They hesitated. And Berry knew.
“There was a mortar attack,” one said. “A response team was sent out, and there was one fatality.”
Berry rocked slowly on the couch, her face in hands, weeping uncontrollably.
Her husband, Staff Sgt. David Berry, was that one fatality, killed by a particularly deadly roadside bomb. It happened 13 hours earlier and half a world away, but the shock wave reverberated around Wichita and a good part of Kansas on Feb. 22, 2007. Small towns like Derby, Hillsboro and Wellington would all come to know bad news about their National Guardsmen serving in Iraq; Clearwater and Lancaster would, as well. It is still being felt today.
Lives were disrupted, bodies broken and dreams shattered, and those linked to Berry’s unit — soldier and family member alike — took the hit. Troops in active duty units come from all over the country, but a National Guard unit is a microcosm of home.
“We’re all small-town people,” explained Berry’s stepdaughter, Holli Gill.
Berry was part of Battery B — known as Bravo — of the 1st Battalion, 161st Field Artillery out of Pratt and Kingman.
The 37-year-old foundry worker was well-liked and respected as a squad leader. In 2003, he won the Soldier’s Medal, the country’s highest peacetime award for valor, after saving an unconscious man from a burning pickup truck.
“I think who he was as a man … didn’t allow him any other course of action,” Sgt. David Mugg said of his friend at a memorial service in Iraq.
Berry was close to his comrades. His family knew many of them as well. When he led a patrol, they had a good idea who was with him.
In that sad Wichita living room, they pleaded with the officers to tell them, who else?
Of Bravo’s 127 men, death had chosen Berry that morning on a dark road 60 miles south of Baghdad. But for several chaotic, terrible minutes, it seemed it could have its pick.
Blood had clogged the throat of Berry’s oldest friend; his face had been shattered and his aorta lacerated.
“I knew I wasn’t going to see my wife again, my kids…” Staff Sgt. Jerrod Hays would recall of his desperation in trying to breathe. “I was never going to see Kansas again.”
Medics had worked frantically on the men pulled out of Berry’s Humvee. Shrapnel had destroyed part of Spc. Johnny Jones’ skull. The leg of Spc. Peter Richert had been severed except for a few tendons.
“The first one went off near the Hummer ahead of them, the second one came through the back door of their Hummer and got Richert and Hays,” said Jones’ wife, Laura. “The third one, that’s when they got David and John.”
The war had caught up with them all. Spc. Tyler Wing, 23, of Kingman, who drove up on the scene, said that when he joined the Guard, “What I knew about war was what I found in the movies.
“But you see dead bodies, blown-up trucks, you smell that smell, you realize what’s going on around you.”
As word of their fate rippled through south-central Kansas, routine things, making lunch and dusting furniture, suddenly became freighted with an infinite sadness. An otherwise normal day was now a point of demarcation.
“We’ve grown up with them,” said Maj. Gen. Tod M. Bunting, the Kansas adjutant general. “You know all their families, you know their hometowns, and everybody in that hometown considers them to be their soldier.”
In a regular Army outfit, you won’t find three sets of brothers, like in Bravo. Some of their mothers met monthly for dinner to share news and companionship.
The unit was led by an eighth-grade science teacher and football coach.
Its ranks were filled with blue-collar workers and college men, like Richert, a 23-year-old physical education major at Tabor College in his hometown, Hillsboro.
The youngest was 20, the oldest, 43. Some were single, some were married. There were children in law school; Richert had an infant daughter he’d never seen.
Hays, 38, from Wellington, met Berry in ninth grade in Anthony, and they had been fast friends ever since. They worked together at the iron foundry in Norwich. He once dated Holli.
Jones, 35, a Derby refrigeration technician for Farmland Foods, was also a friend.
“Well, throw my name in the hat,” he’d told them about going to Iraq. “Y’all ain’t going nowhere without me.”
“The thing that you do not want to hear on a moonless security patrol in south-central Iraq is a panicked policeman shouting: “Ali Baba!
“Ali Baba everywhere!”
To Bravo, it was one more bad omen on a night with too many already.
“After you’re there for a while, you know what’s normal and what’s not,” said Wing. “Right off the bat, we’re getting warning signs that something’s up.”
Things started on the wrong foot when a “Secret Squirrel mission” in nearby Ash-Shumali had to be scrubbed at the last minute. The plan had been to pick up a bombmaker responsible for an IED — improvised explosive device — attack on a patrol weeks earlier.
That one had been a close call for Spc. Curtis Turpin, who walked away with only a concussion and scratches.
Bravo had trained for the mission all that day and night. Geared up, trucks fueled, an Iraqi SWAT team standing by, the men were getting antsy. But the snitch supposed to follow the bombmaker had lost him in the town of several thousand.
Finally the mission was called off. But since the squads were prepped, command decided to send some out on “presence patrol.”
The squads were known as Assassin 2-2 and Assassin 2-3, each with three Humvees, generally four soldiers per truck. Bravo normally patrolled in the morning and at night. The last-minute, six-hour assignment triggered grumbling, and a nagging sense of unease.
“It was kind of an odd time to go,” said Spc. Travis Waltner, from Wichita and one of Berry’s squad. “It was put together real quick. You got a feeling that something was just not right.”
Jones slid behind the wheel in Berry’s vehicle. Up above, Richert checked the M-240 machine gun poking out of the turret.
And then Hays tossed his gear in the back. As an assistant platoon leader, he normally didn’t ride with Berry, his old buddy. He could have sacked out. But this mission seemed a little like a “bum rap.”
“If you guys have to be out, I’ll be out. There’s no reason for me to sleep because everybody’s bone tired.”
It was typical Hays.
“He’s a guy you want to be like,” said Staff Sgt. Mike Seefeld, 26, who climbed into another of the 2-2 Humvees. He wasn’t a Kansan, but a member of the Wisconsin National Guard assigned to Bravo.
“He would give you the shirt off his back and take the time to teach you something. He’s just a man’s man.”
Outside the gate, the squads split up, with squad 2-3 going to Ash-Shumali about five miles east. The town felt creepy. Not a single light was on. Then a patrolling Iraqi police car saw the Americans and flipped on its siren as some kind of message. To them? Who knew?
The squad drove on, but increasingly uneasy. “Keep your eyes open,” the radio warned.
Assassin 2-2 rejoined them at a suspiciously undermanned police checkpoint outside of the town. They were there when command called to report that their base, Convoy Support Center Scania, was under mortar and rocket attack.
Told to look for the launchers, the squads headed west.
The barrage on the base stopped, then soon started up again. Spc. John Duncan, a 2-3 gunner, saw the flashes through his night goggles.
“Hey man, it looks like they’re hitting the base!” the 21-year-old University of Kansas student shouted to the others. “I’m counting. That’s five, that’s six…”
The first barrage, around 12:30 a.m., provoked little concern. Mortar attacks, probably by local Shiite insurgents, were pretty common. Only three had ever hit inside the compound in the time Bravo had been there. These missed, too.
“Another evening where it was business as usual,” said Capt. Sean Herbig, 40, commander of the 161st and a middle school science teacher and football coach from Sublette. “We had patrols out and route security out. It wasn’t anything for us to get mortared.”
After half an hour, the all-clear signal sounded, and everyone left the safety of the bunkers and went back to what they’d been doing.
Sgt. Michael Miller, 43, of Lancaster was among them. A steelworker at a castings plant in Atchison, he had served on active duty and in the reserves before joining the Guard.
“Ever since 9/11, I just wanted to get back in,” Miller said. “I got tired of watching young kids get hurt. They need to be in school. Then what happens? I get hurt.”
He was in the latrine when suddenly the plywood walls and PVC piping exploded into a fusillade of flying daggers. One found him, and the impact slammed Miller to the ground.
“It just felt like somebody had hit you in the back of the leg with a sledgehammer.”
His leg felt on fire. Shrapnel had almost cleanly torn the calf muscle away from his leg.
“We need to get you out of here!” shouted a soldier.
They huddled by the doorway as another round hit. Angry and wanting revenge, he told a medic to just wrap duct tape around his wound so he could grab a gun and go after the enemy. The medic poured iodine on it, instead.
“That’s a new level of pain for me,” Miller said. “I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t have my weapon because I probably would have shot the doctor right there.”
Sgt. 1st Class Lloyde Mattix had just finished accounting for all of 2nd Platoon after the first barrage when the second thundered.
“I didn’t hear the one that landed on top of me,” he said. “I saw the flash before I heard the bang. It was like the biggest flashbulb you’ve ever seen.”
Mattix, 42, was an electrician at https://www.electricianperth.net.au/blog/ who had served on nuclear submarines in the Navy. He joined the Guard after being out of the service for five years. His family wasn’t thrilled about Iraq, but he said his wife knew “that’s who I am, that if I hadn’t gone or refused to go, I wouldn’t be the person she married.”
Now his legs refused to get off the barracks floor. Shrapnel had sliced into his legs and hip.
“I’m hit!” Mattix yelled.
Spc. Simon Makovec, a 23-year-old mechanical engineer from Ramona, heard his cry. In Army shorts and flip-flops, he carried his sergeant over his shoulder to a bunker. That’s when he discovered that his leg was bleeding, too. The wound would not require evacuation for surgery like the others.
Shrapnel also gouged a 3-inch-deep gash in Turpin’s abdomen.
“They let us have our siren go off for the all-clear … and started again,” the 34-year-old truck driver from Derby said ruefully. “They knew what our signal was to get out of our bunkers. We’ve talked about it among ourselves. All they’ve got to do is just pay attention.”
Seven rounds found their mark inside the compound that night. They knocked out some of the power, broke water pipes and smashed some buildings.
Amid the smoke and shouting, medics patched up the wounded, then put them on choppers for a military hospital in Baghdad. Meanwhile, beyond the gates, two squads of Kansas Guardsmen warily navigated the darkness.
Bravo’s bad night was far from over.
Nearly 4,000 American troops have been killed in Iraq since the fighting began. The number of wounded is approaching 30,000.
On the day David Berry was killed, three others died as well. Of the 10 fatalities from Kansas since the start of the war, nine were from the Kansas National Guard.
About this series
This story was constructed from dozens of interviews with the soldiers of Bravo Battery and family members who were involved with the events of Feb. 22, 2007. The Star’s Washington correspondent, David Goldstein, talked to the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, and visited several of their hometowns for interviews. The quotes are those recalled later by the participants after they returned home from Iraq.
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