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Reporter Looks Back at Key Iraq Battle

May 4, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: There are many stories which unfold in a war: bloody battles, heroic victory, aching defeat. In Iraq, authors have told these stories through the eyes of the generals and the politicians, but less so through the experiences of the people who fight and their loved ones at home.

Martha Raddatz, who covered the Pentagon and now the White House for ABC News, tells that story in “The Long Road Home,” a homefront battlefront account of one skirmish that may have changed the course of the war, the 2004 standoff in the Baghdad slum known as Sadr City.

I spoke with Martha recently in Washington.

MARTHA RADDATZ, ABC News Correspondent: This was an area that had been considered safe, Sadr City then. Only one soldier had died the year before. And this day, the first cavalry division had just taken over Sadr City.

The soldiers had never been in battle. The soldiers were expecting a peacekeeping mission. Their families were expecting a peacekeeping mission. And within two hours of taking over, there were eight soldiers dead and 70 wounded.

I don’t think people understand how profound that would be on a battalion, on a company, on a platoon. A platoon had been pinned down. A gunner had been killed, almost immediately. And the majority of the casualties were when rescue teams tried to go in and save this platoon.

And this was pivotal militarily, because it was the day that I think the U.S. soldiers and the U.S. military realized that, you know what, things aren’t going so well here. Maybe everybody doesn’t like us.

GWEN IFILL: No flowers, no candy.

MARTHA RADDATZ: No flowers, no candy. Children actually armed and attacking U.S. soldiers, the same children they thought might greet them with candy and flowers. It was a horrendous battle.

Telling the families' stories

GWEN IFILL: But you chose to tell not only a battlefield story, you also told a homefront story, who these soldiers were, who their families were, the choices they made to be there, and what they were giving up. Why would you decide to tell both sides of the story that way?

MARTHA RADDATZ: First of all, the soldiers convinced me that this was a story that also wasn't being told, you know, each day we say, "Oh, the poor families," or we have our yellow ribbons and we support the families, but no one understands what it is like to be in a military community or have your son or daughter in the military, but no one else has anyone else in the military.

It becomes very isolated. They become isolated. They understand that the rest of the country doesn't really appreciate what they're going through. And the soldiers had told me, "You have to talk to our families. They're the ones who really suffer. They're the ones who show courage."

GWEN IFILL: Tell us about the battalion commander, Lieutenant General Gary Valesqi.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Lieutenant Colonel Gary Volesky is an amazing leader. And when I first met him, you could see the pain of being the leader that night, being the battalion commander, and the loss he suffered was so apparent, and so deep, and so profound. I knew that this was a story that I really wanted to share, I really wanted to people to hear.

When I first started covering the military, I probably had all those stereotypes in mind, too. I didn't know anyone in the military. I didn't know any family members in the military. And over the 12 years that I covered the military, I certainly appreciated and came to know and respect many people in the military.

But meeting someone like Lieutenant Colonel Volesky and understanding how much they are like me, how much they are like you, how much they're like all of us, but they have this incredible burden and responsibility that the rest of us do not have.

'Kill or be killed'

GWEN IFILL: The lieutenant, Shane Aguero, he was the one who was trapped with the platoon in Sadr City and felt, at some point, like no one was ever coming to help.

MARTHA RADDATZ: He remembers standing in that alley and looking up at the sky and seeing tracer bullets. And they've already been there, which seemed like an interminable time, a couple of hours. He has a dead gunner. He has soldiers getting wounded. They're running out of ammo. No one can find this platoon.

And he looked up, and he says, "And I see this sparrow crossing the sky under the bullets," and he thought of his wife, and the warning his wife had given him, which was, in every war, there's always a platoon that gets pinned down. Don't let it be your platoon.

So when Lieutenant Aguero told me a story like that and how -- it's what I mean when they're like us, you know? It's not that they're standing in that alleyway, and saluting, and, "Let's kill everybody, and let's do this." These are husbands, fathers, sons, daughters. They all have deep emotion, fear.

I've always been interested in how someone, day after day, goes back and does something like this. I mean, I look at myself and how I go back and how you deal with fear. They deal with it in the same ways we deal with it. They have to. They have to go out and do it again. So that is part two of what compelled me to tell the story.

GWEN IFILL: And fear in this case was looking out from a rooftop in a building in which you're trapped and seeing hundreds, hundreds of people coming from every direction, all intent on killing you, including children, who they're firing over the heads of. When they talked about this after the fact, was this one of the most searing images that they were describing, because it certainly was in the book?

MARTHA RADDATZ: It was. And what's remarkable about the description of that scene to me is Lieutenant Aguero didn't have to tell me about that. He didn't have to tell me that his men ended up killing children. He just told me clearly and plainly, and said, "I was in that alleyway. I had my men with me, my soldiers, who were under attack." He looks out and, in both directions, sees them coming. And the Mahdi militia had lined up the children in front. They were firing over the children's heads as they went down each side of the alleyway.

And Aguero knows and calculated that, at some point, he was going to be overrun. And he waited until that point in his mind before he opened fire. They tried to miss. They tried to aim over the children's head at the beginning, but they were firing wildly, and they were missing the Mahdi militia, as well.

And as they advanced, he said, "We had to kill them." Now, Shane Aguero is a father. Many of the men in the alley were fathers. And I said, "What was that like for you, to have to kill a child?" And they said, "It was kill or be killed. It was kill them or kill the father of my own children."

Dealing with the aftermath

GWEN IFILL: I want you to tell me the story of one couple, she at home in Fort Hood, he one of the casualties, Dusty and Leslie Hiller.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: She had to claim his body in the end after all of this was over. Could you read to us the section of the book where you write about that?

MARTHA RADDATZ: When they brought the body home, Leslie just didn't want to believe it was him. When she got the knock on the door, she didn't want to believe. She told them she had the wrong house. When they finally brought the body home, she was in the room with the casket, and she ran to open it up. And then she just thought, "It's not him."

She stared at Dusty's face, then a strange thought occurred to her, a thought that might seem irrational later, but at the moment chilled her to the core. Maybe, she thought, maybe it's Dusty's head on someone else's body. He looked smaller.

So Leslie reached into the coffin and touched Dusty's shirt. As the escorts looked at each other uncomfortably, Leslie's fingers moved across his chest and began unbuttoning his shirt. In a moment, she had it open. "Ma'am," one of the escorts said again, "What are you doing?"

"I need to see a tattoo," she said. "I need to make sure this is my husband." She wasn't really talking to anyone.

"Ma'am, we're sure this is your husband." That wasn't good enough for Leslie. She moved around to the other end of the casket and lifted the lid down by Dusty's shoes. She started to pull at his pants, determined to find the evidence she needed. She had to find his tattoo, the one on his right calf.

Finally, she found it: a dragon, holding a crystal ball, with a heart inside. He had gotten it just after they were married. Above the dragon was her name. "That's me, Leslie," she said, touching her name on the tattoo. Now she knew for sure. "And this is my Dusty."

Pretty powerful. I talked to Leslie shortly after the book came out. And I said, "Leslie, what you've been through and what you've done is remarkable." She said, "Ma'am, I'm still going through it."

Responding to the losses

GWEN IFILL: And so are some of the people further up the food chain, Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, is one of the people you talk about. And he's a very emotional man in this. Here he is, this big-time general, but it seems like he was struggling with this. You tell a story in the book about how he knew that he couldn't share it with his wife, and so he called another general.

MARTHA RADDATZ: He called General Rich Shinseki. And General Shinseki wasn't there, and it was an answering machine. And General Chiarelli said, "Sir, we've lost eight kids." General Chiarelli always calls them kids, because to him they're his kids. And he started crying on the answering machine.

This is something else we don't think of. And we say, "Oh, he's a high-ranking officer, so he must be 'salute and carry on' and this must not affect him." It affects them enormously.

At the end of that year, Pete Chiarelli had lost 168 soldiers in that division. The first night they took over eight of them. When he dedicated a memorial a few years later and saw all those names on the wall, it's powerfully emotional.

And I've had some younger officers say to me, "Oh, it's terrible when people get emotional about death. You know, they're leaders. They should lead." I said, "You know, they're not crying when they go into battle. They lead. But if you don't show that emotion afterwards, what does that say about what you feel about your soldiers or your Marines?"

So, to me, that is the right response. You should be emotional. These are human beings with lives and families, and they're not there any more. And for General Chiarelli to have that kind of emotion, I think, shows that he has a heart, that he is a good leader, and that he cares about his soldiers. He'll never forget any of those soldiers.

GWEN IFILL: And that he gets the cost of war, as do you. Thank you very much, Martha, for sharing this.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Thank you.