Iraq vet has seen good, bad

Clip Note: This in-depth story with an Iraq veteran on medical leave in 2004 was aimed at providing an “on-the-ground” view of the challenges of that war from a local resident serving in the Marines.

By Paul A. Miller
Leader Enterprise

The modern Marine can find himself far, far from a beach.

That was the case for Lance Corporal David Brenneman, who is home in Montpelier now, recuperating from injuries sustained in Iraq. When he reports back for duty, he very well could be headed to Iraq again.

This Marine was in the thick of the fighting in and around Fallujah in April of this year, battling the insurgents head-on. He has also had the pleasure of handing out candy to crowds of cheering children. He has seen destitute towns which reeked of piled garbage in the spring, and returned to find the same towns clean and fresh, with municipal workers sweeping streets.

Put simply, this Marine has seen the good and the bad in Iraq.

***

Brenneman, a 2003 MHS graduate, suffered a major head injury in a roadside bomb explosion August 22 in Mahmudiyah, about 12 miles south of Baghdad.

“It was like any other day,” Brenneman explained. “We were doing an IED (improvised explosive device) sweep.”

The road south from Mahmudiyah is a mix of desert and irrigated agriculture, running in

a line to the railroad town of Latifiyah. The highway is notorious as a thicket of insurgent-planted IEDs.

“As you drive outside of town (Mahmudiyah), there are no houses close by,” said the Marine. “We’d found numerous IEDs on that highway.”

The five-mile rural stretch is no goat path: The raised roadway has two lanes in each direction, separated by a median. IEDs planted along such a well-used

highway often claim deadly tolls.

On that Sunday - as most of the time - the Marines did their sweeping under the cover of darkness – six-hour patrols. Wearing night-vision goggles, the men stopped at the first sign of anything suspicious, then began the tedious task of searching.

“You just walk around and look straight at the ground,” Brenneman said. “What you are looking for is a change in the surface, maybe the sand will be just a little higher and you’ll see a shape.”

Sure enough, on this night, the patrol’s efforts came across signs of insurgent activity.

“We actually did find one,” Brenneman recalled, “as soon as we parked.”

One Marine saw something unusual under a bush. Upon further investigation, the patrol discovered an IED with a cord running some distance away through the sand.

“You could see the straight line running from that bush across the field,” Brenneman noted.

Immediately, the group cordoned off the area. Soon thereafter, a group of Iraqi policemen from Mahmudiyah arrived on the scene. There was a discussion about the situation, but communication was difficult, and the Mahmudiyah police didn’t seem to comprehend how dangerous the situation really was.

“The language barrier sucks,” Brenneman stated flatly.

As the Marines’ patrol leader attempted to explain the urgency of the situation, the Latifiyah police showed up, adding to the confusion. The Mahmudiyah cops suddenly left the scene, while the officers from Latifiyah attempted to learn what was going on.

Then ... boom!

“There was an explosion, and all the cops hit the ground with their hands on their heads,” Brenneman remembered. “It was a small explosion, and left a small crater - a blasting cap was all that went off.” But now, the Iraqis on the scene understood.

An explosive ordnance disposal unit was called, and they soon discovered the IED was much more than the cap which had ignited. Under the sand, below where the cap had been placed, were five 155 mm mortar rounds.

“You just see piles of ordnance laying along side themselves roads,” Brenneman said. “Hollow mortar shells - I don’t know why they (Iraqi military) left them lay.”

According to the Marine, IEDs can be as big as a vehicle or as small as a cigarette lighter - but most found in Iraq use armed mortar shells, such as 120mm rounds or 155s like the ones found during the August 22 patrol.

The disposal unit announced it was going to blow up the IED. “They used to defuse them, but there are so many, now they just get everybody out of the way and blast them,” said Brenneman.

When the improvised bomb ignited, “it lit up the entire area,” Brenneman recalled. “A huge explosion.”

Fortunately, the trained crew and disciplined Marines were safely out of the way of shrapnel - they were only showered with a little sand.

With the night’s patrol completed, the four vehicles carrying the Marines were loaded, and Brenneman and his fellow fighters were headed back to camp at Mahmudiyah. The Montpelier native was assigned to the third Humvee.

“I normally carry a squad automatic weapon – a machine gun - to provide security from the top of the

Humvee,” Brenneman explained. However, he traded his place with one of his buddies that night, because his friend wanted to try out the position.

“I was down below with an M-16,” he said.

***

Brenneman joined the Marines before graduating from Montpelier High School. He completed the intense training which creates a United States Marine. Finally, he received his orders. On March 2, 2004, he shipped out for Iraq.

Originally his unit was assigned to the Mahmudiyah area, but when the Sunni Triangle exploded in April, Brenneman was one of those called upon to battle the insurgents and terrorists. While there, Brenneman was involved in a two-hour firefight with insurgents.

“We were hiding in a ditch this deep,” said the Marine, placing one hand about 18 inches above the other. Gunfire struck the man next to Brenneman in three places. Another was hit in both legs. They all had to scramble about 600 meters through an irrigated field to reach safer cover.

“You twist your ankle just walking carefully through those fields,” Brenneman noted.

Brenneman and his fellow Marines were engaged by the enemy with machine gun fire in front, snipers at the rear. Then came the RPGs - rocket-propelled grenades.

“Seven were wounded out of the 20 of us,” Brenneman said. “I went through 400 of 600 (machine gun) rounds.”

The group was extracted from the battle due to the high number of casualties.

Among the Marines’ duties were to patrol the streets, “just to show we could,” Brenneman recalled.

Occasionally, a rooftop sniper would take a shot at the convoys as they meandered through Fallujah’s rougher neighborhoods. More often, the enemy avoided direct contact with a large force, hoping instead to pick off or ambush one or a few soldiers out on other missions.

“We saw what they did (to the four contractors killed, burned and strung up on a bridge in Fallujah),” Brenneman said. “We knew what would happen if we were captured.”

***

The ride back from the night’s patrol on August 22 was mostly uneventful, until the small convoy reached the outskirts of Mahmudiyah.

“The lights were all on - which was unusual,” said Brenneman. “Blackouts are constant - the electricity is really inconsistent.

“I still had on my (night-vision goggles), which are kind of heavy and annoying, so I pushed them up (on my forehead), which also pushed up my Kevlar (bulletproof helmet).”

That small act proved fateful - and nearly fatal.

“There was a blast and I could feel my skin was wet,” Brenneman recalled. “I called out like you’re supposed to do, ‘Corp. Belchik, I’m hit!’

“He didn’t respond.”

The corporal was limp beside Brenneman. His buddy, in the security position on top, was screaming in pain.

“The coremen (medics) were there right away. I didn’t think I was hurt that bad.

“I looked at the door (of the Humvee) and saw blood. Then I lit a cigarette.”

The doctors reached Brenneman, took off his gear and placed a battle dressing on his head - the source of blood.

“I was standing there still holding a gun - not cool,” he said, noting the weapon had few rounds left and only made him a likely target if a gun battle should erupt. “I went around and checked to see if anyone else was hurt.”

Finally, he and the friend he had traded positions with were evacuated. Eventually, Brenneman reached Baghdad, where he underwent surgery for what proved to be a two-inch hole in his skull.

Brenneman was flown to Germany for more recuperation, then on to the states, where he learned the corporal seated beside him when the bomb went off had been killed. His friend’s injuries resulted in a loss of eyesight, he was told. Brenneman was given leave to come home for a stretch - but he had to figure out travel plans on his own.

Back in Montpelier, few knew a new Purple Heart honoree was in town.

***

Brenneman’s travels have given him the opportunity to meet people very different from him - and people very similar.

“I met a couple of vets (waiting at an air base after returning stateside). I talked with this veteran of Vietnam with four Purple Hearts.

“What he described (in his battles) was a lot like we see (in Iraq), where you don’t know where things are coming from, and you’ve got cattails so thick you can’t see through them.

“Then I met a World War II veteran - he was in about every major battle. Again, a lot of the same things I saw.”

The Marine also learned about the people of Iraq.

“You’ve got to know how to talk to people,” Brenneman explained. “Like, if you show respect to the elderly men, that means more than anything.

“When we took off our Kevlar (helmets) before coming up and speaking to older men, that got us farther with them than anything else we did.

“Driving down the roads, the children just flock to you when they see you,” he related. “They shout out, ‘Yeah, America.’ They all reach out their hands for candy.

“We always try to carry around candy for the kids.”

Even so, relations with the Iraqis vary, Brenneman stated.

“You get positive and negative reaction.”

***

In Iraq, foreign fighters were a key problem for the Marines during Brenneman’s tour.

“They are just coming in from all the neighboring countries to get a chance to fight Americans,” he said. “They come in with money, and then they pay Iraqis dollars to shoot at Americans.

“The exchange rate was outrageous,” he added, noting this made the incentive to work with the foreigners all the more powerful. However, those rates have stabilized somewhat, Brenneman said.

The Marine explained the insurgents are completely indiscriminate in how they plan their attacks – and where they place their roadside bombs.

“The one that got us was right beside a playground,” Brenneman said.

At least one foreigner is well known to all the American military personnel in Iraq. Brenneman reached into his pocket and pulled out a laminated card with several images of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the al Qaeda-linked terrorist blamed for thousands of deaths in Iraq, including many attacks on Americans.

“Public enemy number one,” said Brenneman.

***

The scars from Brenneman’s wound and subsequent surgery (which placed a titanium plate over the hole in his skull) are still evident. Dried blood remains in the recesses of the lettering on his dog tags. Yet this Marine from Montpelier is healing, and ready to get back to duty. Brenneman recently saw a neurologist in Toledo, who told the Marine he is going to be fine.

“I report back October 4,” said Brenneman.

Would he go back to Iraq?

“I’m ready to do whatever the Marines want me to do,” he stated.