March 12, 2008 – On a sticky evening last July, Sgt. Allan Dempster cruised through South Philadelphia, his fiancee’s 14-year-old nephew at his side. They were headed to his future mother-in-law’s house to hook up her new DVD player, enjoying each other’s company.
As Dempster wheeled his nine-year-old BMW hatchback right onto Broad Street, the driver of a Ford F-150 pickup came up on his tail, lighting up Dempster’s entire car with his headlights.
Dempster, 34, a powerfully built man, had been back for 17 months from Iraq, where six men in his Pennsylvania National Guard unit had been killed in bomb attacks. Twice jolted by bomb blasts himself, he now suffered recurring headaches, “like pins being pushed in my head.” Close situations still felt threatening.
At the first stoplight, with the truck beams piercing his window, Dempster felt his heart race. He began to hyperventilate.
Control yourself, he thought.
He climbed out of the BMW and walked back to the pickup. He showed the driver his military ID card, said he was an Iraq veteran, and asked the man to back off.
Then he got back in his car.
But two blocks later, the truck was still there, still close. Dempster lost it. He slammed on the brakes in the middle of a block, popped the hatch and jumped out. He raced to the rear of the car and leaned in.
When he swiveled around, he had a mad look in his eye and a sword scabbard in his hand. From each end, he pulled out a long Chinese fighting knife.
This time, he charged the truck window, weapons flashing, and yelled at Jonathan Frick, 33, of Morton, “I’m going to slit your throat.”
Frick, startled, grabbed his cell phone and called 911.
Navarr, the 14-year-old with Dempster, was frightened. Using his cell phone, he called his aunt. “Uncle Allan, he’s going off on this guy,” he told her.
Within seconds, screaming police cars with flashing lights had arrived, blocking in both vehicles. Two helicopters thumped overhead.
The show of force got to Dempster. He dropped the swords and submissively held his ID card over his head “so they wouldn’t shoot me,” he said.
The officers made him sit on the curb as they sorted out what had happened. The official report would call it a case of road rage.
The officers asked Frick, a lanky guy in a baseball cap, if he wanted to press charges. He thought about it and decided no.
“I just didn’t want to go to court,” he said.
For much of last summer, Sgt. Harold Myers sat fretting at his picnic table in Birdsboro, Pa., while his daughter, 6, and son, 2, splashed in the above-ground pool.
Myers had pinched nerves and post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in Iraq. He broke into tears readily, drank heavily, and railed and banged around the house. His behavior so frightened his wife, Megan, that she took away his key to the gun safe.
Something he had seen or done in Iraq – he wouldn’t say what – was weighing on him. And his best friend, Spec. Kurt Krout, had been among the six Alpha Company members who had been killed. Krout could have gotten out of going, but Myers had urged him to join the rest of the unit.
“I owe my life to Kurt and the others who died,” Myers said, “and I feel guilty for being home.”
To compound his troubles, a notice from the Department of Veterans Affairs seemed to say that Myers owed a lot of money.
Encouraged by the Army and the VA, Myers and almost half of the Alpha veterans had applied for disability payments; 38 applications had been approved. Myers’ benefits were $1,100 a month, and he also got paid for weekends on Guard duty.
The notice now said he couldn’t legally receive VA benefits for periods when he was in training – 63 days a year, on average, for Guard members.
Nationwide, according to federal data, about 5 percent of all Guard and Reserve members currently collect VA pensions, even though they continue to serve in the military. Their commanders decide if they are fit for duty.
Myers, the notice said, would have to pay back all of the extra money he had collected the previous year, hundreds of dollars. He’d have to forgo some VA pay until he had squared his account.
“My wife is freaking out,” he said. “How are we going to afford the mortgage?”
He and other Alpha soldiers went to the Guard for help, but though sympathetic, the Guard said they had all signed papers saying they understood they could not double-dip.
“I wouldn’t call it double-dipping,” Myers protested. “Double-dipping is you know you’re doing wrong. We thought we were doing it right. Why wouldn’t you get paid for going to drill?”
Even at first light, the day was unbearably humid.
It was Aug. 6, 2007, the second anniversary of a bomb attack on the Samarra Bypass north of Baghdad that killed two Alpha soldiers: Krout, 43, of Spinnerstown, Bucks County, and Sgt. Brahim Jeffcoat, 25, of Philadelphia.
Three days later, four other Alpha soldiers were lost, near Beiji.
Krout, a father of four who had been a Wal-Mart manager, was the only one of the six to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His grave had become a hallowed spot for Alpha survivors to remember all their fallen brethren.
This morning, two combat veterans from Alpha had linked up with friends and girlfriends on a rowhouse street in Phoenixville to make the three-hour drive to Arlington.
At an Interstate 95 rest stop in Maryland, they were met by a third veteran. Two more would join them at the cemetery. Another would catch up at a bar near the White House, where Sgt. Neill Coulbourn would offer a toast: “To the six.”
At Arlington, amid 200 acres of white tablets, the talking grew muted.
Just 18 months before, at another solemn gathering, Tyler Kline, an Alpha soldier who died in a car crash the day after his 21st birthday, had been laid to rest back in Pennsylvania. The sense of loss did not abate.
The veterans now walked down Eisenhower Drive and then turned left on York Drive under tall, old oaks. Brandon Miller, a former sergeant, unrolled two small American flags on sticks that he had bought in the gift shop.
“Anybody have a pen?”
Leaning on Coulbourn’s broad back, Miller signed his name on a white stripe. Each man, in turn, autographed the flag.
Miller, 34, joined the Guard the day after 9/11, fired up by the same patriotism that had led men to enlist after Pearl Harbor. His hands, face and right ear had been burned June 14, 2005, when he rescued a soldier from a burning humvee. Now he managed community services at an apartment complex in Chadds Ford.
Coulbourn, 39, also a Purple Heart recipient, remained in the Guard and held a training job at Fort Indiantown Gap. He was among the nearly half of Alpha veterans who had been diagnosed with PTSD. He was excited to hear that Alpha might be called back in 2008 because he wanted to “get payback” for the deaths of so many friends.
Also in the group was Cpl. Joel Quirple, 23, who had been an auto technician at a Chevy dealer. He, too, held a full-time Guard job. His older brother, Josh, had been with him in Iraq, where they had looked out for each other and made it home without a scratch. Quirple couldn’t watch news of continued violence in Iraq. No matter what the commentators said, “I start yelling at the TV.” Yet he wanted to go back to Iraq. He felt he had left a job undone.
Meeting them on York Drive was Staff Sgt. David Jock, an Alpha medic in Iraq. He had been struggling with PTSD and, like Coulbourn, had spent weeks at the Coatesville VA hospital. He had split from his wife but had a new girlfriend.
The group stood smoking and teasing one another quietly. The section in which Krout’s grave lay was only a few yards away. But no one ventured there until all the men had arrived.
Delayed was a big redhead, Spec. Brian Mandes, 34. He had gotten married just before going to Iraq but saw the marriage fall apart after he got home. He fixed cash registers for Wawa stores.
Krout’s grave was No. 8209. With Mandes’ arrival, the group walked over.
The men stood in silence over the stone, which bore a Celtic cross. To the left and right were graves of other soldiers and Marines killed in the early days of August 2005.
Beyond lay newer rows of graves, reflecting the war’s continuing cost. The grass everywhere else was brown; there it was green. The sod was new.
Coulbourn rested his chin on the head of his tiny girlfriend, Kelly Bartch, who hugged him. The others stood with hidden thoughts.
Back under the shade along the road, cigarettes were passed around. Asked what he had been thinking, Jock looked annoyed. After a while, he spoke.
“We lived, and they didn’t.”
In mid-August, because of the Broad Street episode, Allan Dempster found himself under orders to report to the Laurel Highlands Neuro-Rehabilitation Center in Johnstown, Pa.
He would spend three months at the center, a federally financed facility for treatment of traumatic brain injury.
That’s what Army doctors said Dempster had – TBI, the result of literally having his brain rattled by the bomb blasts in Iraq.
The Defense Department now calls TBI the “signature injury” of a war in which most of the casualties are caused not by bullets but by explosions.
At least a half-dozen veterans of Alpha Company have been diagnosed with TBI. As they struggle to get better, it has slowly dawned on them that they might never get back their full abilities.
Many of the signs – anger, anxiety, depression – mimic the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. That makes it harder for doctors to diagnose.
But traumatic brain injury is also characterized by bouts of confusion and short-term memory loss. At one point, Dempster was on seven medications that he would sometimes forget to take. He would lose track of where he was supposed to be. He could no longer work.
Army doctors at first told him that, with time, the symptoms might lessen or go away. Clearly, that wasn’t happening.
Just before Labor Day, Mike and Kelly Sarro were nesting in the small, Colonial-style house they had recently bought on a cul-de-sac near Downingtown.
In the driveway sat a Ford Explorer with a license plate identifying the owner as a Purple Heart recipient. An American flag hung limp in a light drizzle.
Kelly was within days of delivering their first child, a boy, Michael John Sarro 4th.
“It’s all good,” Sarro said of his life.
You could hardly notice the limp from the bullet that pierced his right leg, but when he lifted his pants, the leg was gnarled, and a yellowish sheen made it look waxed.
Alpha soldiers typically said that when they first got home from Iraq, their taste for living was dulled. That happened to Sarro, too.
His passion had been the Philadelphia Eagles. Even in Iraq, he had written “Go, Eagles” on the turret of his humvee. And he swears his last words before being carried away on the medevac helicopter were “Go, Birds.”
But when he got home, his Eaglemania waned. Only now was it coming back, along with other interests. And now he could put it in perspective.
What he wanted was to get out of the limbo he was in. If he were physically fit, he said, he might reenlist, even go back to Iraq. “I believe in the Guard,” he said. But at this point, in his condition, he was eager to get his medical discharge.
Upstairs, on a computer in his bedroom, he studied for a degree in criminal justice from an online university.
Success, he said, was a matter of attitude.
“And mine’s good.”
He was on the road to recovery.
On a weekday evening in September, Hasan Fersner poked at a sandwich at a Panera Bread restaurant along West Chester Pike.
Fersner, a first lieutenant, had been the patrol leader the night the four Alpha soldiers died in the ambush.
He said he could understand why so many Alpha veterans – 46 percent – have been treated for PTSD. It was not only because of all they saw and did; it also was because most have been dealing with the emotional fallout alone.
Those who remain are scattered among several companies in the Philadelphia area, and even they might see others only once a month.
“It would be difficult for anyone to just shut that off when you’ve got nobody to talk to,” Fersner said.
Fersner himself was walloped by the deaths of the men under his command. He still holds himself responsible for what happened Aug. 9, 2005.
“Trust me,” he said, “I have gone over 100 different ways I could have gone.”
He was afraid, at first, that the other men would blame him.
“I think the guys knew that,” he said, “because they tried to embrace me.”
The experience did not deter him from military life. Last year, he attended a 20-week course at Fort Knox, Ky., to prepare officers for company command and staff assignments. He is now the battalion intelligence officer.
In October, two months after landing in Johnstown, Dempster sat on the porch of a brick house the Laurel Highlands center makes available to soldiers in its traumatic brain injury program.
He looked great.
A few days earlier, he had made his first solo bus trip, to the BI-LO supermarket. He found his way there, but on the way home, he waited for the bus on the wrong side of the street.
After an anxious hour, during which he several times caught himself lighting a new cigarette while another still burned, he grabbed the first bus he saw. He rode around for a long time but eventually made it back to the house.
The staff of the neuro-rehabilitation center had expected him to be agitated, he said. But he played it cool.
“I said the bus was late.”
Since August he had gained weight, and he was smoking more. But he was taking his medications, he said, and that had made a positive difference in his outlook.
His fiancee, Nannett Moore, had come to see him for a weekend, and they had stayed at the Comfort Inn.
“Now, I’m real schedule-oriented; she noticed that and made a comment about it,” he said. She approved of the change.
With the center’s help, he was building habits to compensate for gaps in his short-term memory, such as forgetting to turn the coffee pot off.
His goal, he said, was to “work in a civilian job as a normal person.” He said he wanted to have memories of Iraq but not be overcome by emotion, as he sometimes was. He wanted, he said, “to be the same guy I was before.”
“Right now,” he said, “I am confident everything is going to work out.”
His time in Johnstown was coming to an end. He was looking forward to going home, he said, but was nervous about how he would do on his own.
In South Philadelphia, Nannett was also looking forward to Dempster’s coming home. Yet she, too, was a little nervous.
A supervisor for Cigna International, she had been out of town the night he had threatened the other driver. When Navarr had called, she heard Dempster yelling over the phone.
No one was happier than she was when Dempster got help in Johnstown. She is encouraged by his progress.
She knew he had a ways to go, but said, “I do think that everything is OK.”
The two share a tastefully decorated rowhouse on South 22d Street with her two children and Navarr. She’s a petite woman; he’s a big man.
“I’m worried that he thinks he’s a bad person for fighting in the war,” she said. “I know he has said that. I am worried he thinks he is a failure, [at] getting a job and all that.”
In the fall, Robert Jackson enrolled at Community College of Philadelphia to begin work on a degree in financial management. He was trying to keep his life on course; it wasn’t easy.
His best friend had been killed six months before while he was sitting in his car talking on his cell phone. Jackson had been right there, at 57th and Rodman Streets, when two men rode up on dirt bikes, and he had seen the whole incident. One rider had taken out a pistol and shot the friend four times in the chest and once in the head.
Jackson said he had tried to help, “but he was gone.”
In Iraq, Jackson, an Army specialist, had roomed with Spec. John Kulick, one of the six Alpha soldiers killed in bomb attacks there.
Jackson spent his first few months home stuck at Fort Dix for medical treatment while other members of Alpha Company were reintegrating themselves in civilian life.
He’d been getting treatment of chronic back, shoulder, knee and foot injuries from the regular wear and tear of scores of missions. But it soon became apparent that his biggest problem was – and is – PTSD. He was in group therapy and individual counseling at the Philadelphia VA hospital while battling what he said was a drinking problem.
Jackson had moved in with his mother, 73, in West Philadelphia. His ex-wife had taken their two children to Lancaster. He was spending time each week going to doctors’ appointments at the Philadelphia VA hospital. He was collecting a disability pension from the VA.
Two days after starting a part-time job as a bartender, Jackson had been robbed at gunpoint. He played it smart, gave up his money and didn’t get hurt.
Sometimes, he thought he might have more “peace of mind” if he were back in Iraq, even though he doubted the United States could gain a clear victory. In Iraq, he said, there were “no electric bills, no gas bills, no phone bills.”
He said he missed the kinship of men in combat.
“We were family.”
On Dec. 7, which just happened to be the 66th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Lorenzo Martinez’s store-front church in North Philadelphia was holding a campaña evangelistica, an evangelistic crusade.
Martinez had come a long way since that night in June 2006 when he had flipped out at his home – thinking he was back in Iraq – and had tried to throw himself out of the window.
After 23 years, Martinez retired from the Guard. He still worked at the chemical plant, but his heart was in his new role as assistant pastor of his church, La Iglesia Evangelica el Refujio.
Behind the altar, slow-dancing to the beat of maracas and tambourines, he was the same man who once wasted too many nights “drinking and partying,” often at the expense of his family.
In a gray suit and dark shirt, he walked to the dais. He held up his Bible for all to see.
God, he said, had protected him in war. Now, he said, God had a new mission for him – “to praise him.”
The church responded, Gracias a Dios.
“I feel 95 percent,” Martinez said later. “I can’t say 100 percent. I feel better.
“God did it for me. He is the one that takes care of me.”
To date, the troop surge seems to be working. But soldiers and Iraqis continue to be killed, and the war, a core issue in the presidential campaign, goes on. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has said U.S. troops could stay in Iraq for 100 years.
And Alpha Company, once again, is getting itself ready to go into combat.
Four and a half months ago, on Oct. 19, the American Forces Press Service reported on the Pentagon Web site: “The Defense Department today announced the alert of seven National Guard brigades as replacement forces for Operation Iraqi Freedom. . . .”
One of those was the 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, a 4,000-man unit of the Pennsylvania National Guard that includes Alpha Company and its First Battalion of the 111th Infantry.
An alert is not a mobilization order, but Alpha is almost certain to be called up this fall for a year of duty. Preparations have begun.
The trials and ordeals will begin all over.
Of the men who came home from Iraq in late 2005, at least a third have left the Guard as their enlistments have expired. Others who still bear physical wounds or incapacitating emotional problems will be excused from Iraq duty.
That still leaves a lot of men who will be asked, again, to lay aside their schooling or civilian careers, to say goodbye once more to wives who will have to bear all the family’s burdens and to children who will grow too rapidly while they are away.
For some, the alert order the brigade received was a blow.
“I’m still battling depression and post-traumatic stress from the first tour,” said Spec. Bryan Walczer, of Northampton, Pa., who was caught in a bomb attack in May 2005. “To go back again – it’s kind of heartbreaking.”
But many in the company have greeted the alert order matter-of-factly. In fact, 40 percent of the 126 company veterans The Inquirer interviewed said they would willingly go back if the military asked.
“I knew it was coming; it doesn’t bother me one bit,” said Cpl. Quirple, who visited Kulick’s grave in Arlington in August.
Capt. Anthony Callum, the former company commander, said Alpha might not have enough soldiers to fill its ranks, so the Guard will probably ask men who have left to come back.
Callum believes some will say yes.
They will do it, he said, because they won’t want to let down their old comrades. They are patriotic, to be sure, he said. But their strongest sense of duty is not to the flag, but to one another.
“They’ll go,” he said, “because of the bond they have.”