August 12, 2008 – When he arrived home from Iraq in 2005, Sgt. Neill Coulbourn was angry and obsessed with never having had the chance to avenge the deaths of the six men in his National Guard unit who were killed in bomb attacks.
One day, he vowed, he would return to Iraq – “to get payback.”
Now, three years later, Coulbourn is, in fact, headed back. But he says his attitude has changed.
It still hurts to think of the men who died – “It’s with me every day,” he said – but, with the help of VA counseling and the support of a new wife, he said he no longer feels a need for revenge.
“I got over that hump,” he said.
Coulbourn is one of 29 men who served with the hardest-hit state unit since World War II who will be activated next month for a second tour of Iraq duty, according to a guard count.
They were members of Alpha Company of the First Battalion of the 111th Infantry, based in Northeast Philadelphia. Two soldiers were killed on Aug. 6, 2005. Three days later, four men were lost in an ambush.
Most of those returning had opportunities to retire or quit as their enlistments expired, or to be transferred to non-infantry units less likely to be deployed.
They generally say they want to go back – for their country, yes; for the combat pay, sure; but, most of all, for one another and for the younger guardsmen who may benefit from their hard-earned experience.
The Inquirer, in a four-part series, reported in March that while some Alpha survivors had emerged stronger and more self-confident from Iraq, many others were still struggling with physical or psychological trauma. Of the 131 survivors, the newspaper interviewed 126. Almost half – 46 percent – said they had been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
On Sept. 19, Alpha again will be mobilized as part of a 4,000-member state Guard brigade. The members will undergo three months of advanced training in Mississippi and Louisiana, then depart in January for nine months in Iraq.
The question left in March was how many Alpha soldiers would go back when, as expected, the brigade was called up. The answer is fewer than one-quarter.
Those going are essentially Iraq volunteers, said Lt. Col. Mark K. O’Hanlon, the battalion commander.
“They performed their missions before,” he said, “and they are willing to do it again in support of their country.”
Coulbourn, who was wounded in Iraq, tried to explain his motivation one day while seated with his wife, Kelly, behind a burger plate at an Applebee’s near the armory in Northeast Philadelphia.
He wore a patriotic flag T-shirt revealing a tattoo with the names of his six comrades who were killed. He is 40, with 20 years in the Guard, and could have retired.
Kelly Coulbourn, a staff sergeant in the Guard, is also being deployed. With both drawing hazardous-duty pay in Iraq, they expect to bank a bundle.
Another reason for going – that big reason – stems from what Coulbourn learned at painful cost the last time. It has to do with staying alert, staying safe. He wants to impart this knowledge to the new soldiers in his unit, which is now Bravo Company.
“I’m not going to lose any more guys.” That’s his vow, he said.
Most senior sergeants who served with Alpha in Iraq have left the Guard. Eighteen veterans were over 40. O’Hanlon said most guardsmen today are in their early 20s, as are most active-duty soldiers. Even the NCOs are in their late 20s or early 30s.
There is much he can teach as a squad leader, Coulbourn said.
“I’m going to be” strict, he said. “Everybody is going to make sure weapons are cleaned. Vehicles are going to be squared away. Everybody is going to know what to look for.”
Coulbourn conceded “I still have my issues” when it comes to dealing with the deaths. He still can’t watch certain movies or listen to songs that remind him of men who were lost. He doesn’t read news about Iraq.
In 2007, he underwent 10 weeks of in-patient therapy for PTSD at the Coatesville veterans hospital. But a bigger factor in his recovery has been his relationship with Kelly. “I am much, much, much happier,” he said.
The Coulbourns, who hold full-time Guard jobs at Fort Indiantown Gap, live in Lancaster County. Neill has two daughters, 12 and 10; Kelly has two sons, 10 and 7. The girls will stay with Neill’s ex-wife, they said, and the boys will live with their father.
Kelly said she is worried about how the children will cope when they go to Iraq.
“I think the reality of it is finally setting in for them,” she said.
Asking to go back
For Staff Sgt. Joshua Hedetniemi, there was never a question about returning to Iraq. He actually had to ask permission to go.
At 25, standing 6-foot-2, he won two medals for valor in Iraq. He is a recruiter at the battalion headquarters in Plymouth Meeting. He said higher-ups wanted him to stay, but he argued that there was a job more important than to fill the ranks. That was “to take care of soldiers and bring everybody back home.”
Like Coulbourn, he says he can help do that because of his combat experience.
The Guard says that 63 of 142 men now on the Alpha roster have been to Iraq or Afghanistan – most with Alpha but some also with regular military units or other Guard outfits.
Hedetniemi says he doesn’t see many of the old Alpha soldiers around anymore.
“You’re looking at a handful of us. Most of the guys got out or are broken and can’t go.”
Hedetniemi is the son of an Army intelligence officer. He was “a surfing hippy,” he said, who went to Francis Marion University in South Carolina for two years but “got bored” and dropped out.
He joined the Guard for something to do. He was 21 when he was called up.
This go-around, Alpha will be deployed with the 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, based in Philadelphia. Their armored, wheeled Stryker vehicles are a big improvement over the humvees they rode around in last time.
“We should be much safer,” Hedetniemi said, “and we are 100 times more prepared to meet the missions we’re assigned.”
“A lot of us accept it”
“There are some guys in my unit who I don’t think want to go,” said Spec. Brian Mandes, 35. “But a lot of us accept it.”
The red-haired Mandes repairs machines at Wawa stores. He got divorced after coming home from Iraq and now lives with his girlfriend in Clifton Heights.
His father, Joseph, died this year at age 65. He said that had made his mother even more anxious about his going.
He had a chance to leave the Guard in 2006 when his enlistment was up. But the Guard offered a $15,000 re-signing bonus. He committed himself for another six years – until Sept. 22, 2012.
“The money was part of it,” he said. “But, two, I do like the military. I don’t like the hurry-up-and-wait aspect, but it’s pretty good. Plus, a lot of my friends were going to be going back.”
Mandes said since the last deployment, “I’m a lot more mature than I was.”
The training has been more intense this time. Typically, Guard soldiers report for two days a month and for two weeks each summer. The Stryker brigade has had three days of duty each month and three weeks each summer.
The brigade is the only one of its kind in the National Guard. The Army’s six other Stryker brigades are all assigned to regular units. The Pennsylvania guardsmen will be under a microscope to see how they match up.
Mandes said everyone is certain that, wherever they go in Iraq, it will be a hot zone militarily.
“I don’t think anyone wants to kill,” he said. “But the insurgents are cowards. I just feel, ‘OK, I’m coming over; I don’t care what you do, I’m ready.’ “