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interview - sgt. gabriel garcia
Once we hit the road, we start honking to get them out of the way, because you don't know who has bombs, AKs, who has what in their cars. š So our main thing is: they move or we move them.

[What was it like when you first got here?]

At the beginning, we didn't know what to expect, so anxiety. We had never been in combat, so the first thing was we had to get used to mortars on a daily basis, make sure your guys were OK. Then people started shooting at us. Then time goes on, our area got worse. It went downhill after Fallujah. You get nervous. It's a scary feeling, but you got to do your job.

What does it feel like?

Headaches, constant headaches. Thinking about all the situations you can encounter, it gives you headaches. At night when you fall asleep, even after eight hours, you are still tired.

How are your guys doing?

Everybody is doing better. They come to us; we sit down. That is when they need to be listened to, so they have been a lot better.

[Are they afraid?]

One of the soldiers who took [Spc. Travis] Babbitt's place as a gunner [after Babbitt's death], initially he was very anxious to get on it, but then he started getting scared, trembling, showing fear, so we switched him down to a driver. He felt a little safer, so he wouldn't put anybody else in danger. It's worked out so far. He's doing his job.

photo of garcia

Sgt. Gabriel Garcia, a father of three, is from Houston, Texas. He is 30 years old and on his third tour of duty in the Army. He describes for FRONTLINE the details of driving a convoy through the chaos of Baghdad's highways, and he explains how he copes with being away from his family while at the same time finding cohesiveness with his company in Iraq. "Ever since our team got together, we pretty much bonded," he says. "All the young guys are more like my sons than they are anything else. ... We all got our different characters, we all come from different places, but we were able to join in and be a family." This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Nov. 27, 2004.

How important is the gunner?

That is our first line of defense. Without him we are dead in the water. You have to depend a lot on the gunner.

What does he do?

You have to be very vigilant about him, watch everything: rocks on the side of the road, a guy on the roof -- he might have a gun, or he might be hanging up laundry. You can't just go out shooting people. There's certain clothing people wear, because they don't make it obvious. Now they are doing pretty good ambushes against us, so we got to be vigilant.

How exposed is the gunner?

They are pretty much, from chest level up, they are exposed. Going out to BIAP [Baghdad International Airport], that's where they hit that guy with a sniper, so they go turtle effect -- head down as low as you can, eyes looking out, but body protected so the sniper can't get you.

Tell me about the tension on the road.

Once we hit the road, we start honking to get them out of the way, because you don't know who has bombs, AKs, who has what in their cars. All the VBIEDs [vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or car bombs] we've had, they either park them by the side of the road or they come up right next to you as a suicide bomber. So our main thing is: they move or we move them.

First thing, warn with your horn. Next thing, warning shot. Bump if you can. If he's still not moving, direct fire on the hood or tires to get him out of the way. If the car is coming directly at you and not stopping, it's up to one of us or our commander to give the OK to go ahead and engage the vehicle. The gunner can fire if he feels under threat. He knows he has the right to fire in order to protect the rest of us.

Has that happened?

It happened twice so far. We had to engage drivers who wouldn't listen. They see military convoys, humungous military activities, and still want to go our way. They don't comprehend that once you see military, you go the other way. They still want to do their own normal thing. You see bombs going off, weapon exchanges, rounds going back and forth, and they want to go right through the middle of it. We're trying to save their lives, but they're not helping by getting in [our] way.

It's pretty scary.

Yes, they hide bombs under anything -- dead animals, a bit of dirt. They'll put bombs under anything.

Are you scared?

Most of the time when I roll, yeah. I'm the driver, so I got to look out for anything that's not normal.

Most of the time you feel what?

Nervous, very nervous when I am driving, mainly at night when you can't see anything and you have cars coming the other way with their lights so it blinds you. It's just a very nervous tension you get.

What does your wife think?

She's coping. I pretty much tell her everything that is going on. I don't hide anything from her. I love what I do; this is my job until I retire. And she said she is proud of me. She is very helpful as far as sharing my feelings with her; she knows the risks I am taking. She knows I might not come home, and she understands that. She is a strong woman.

Do you miss her?

Tremendous. I wish I was with her. I'd give up anything for her. Anything.

What is it like being away from your daughter for so long?

Well, I got to go home to see my daughter when she was born. I was with her for two weeks. She is now two months old. It's a great feeling. I love my daughter to death. I miss her terribly. I get e-mails every day from my wife with pictures of my daughter. They're all over my wall. She puts them on the phone for me. That's pretty much all I look forward to.

How tough is it?

Tough. Very tough. You try to think of your mission, but in the back of your head you think of your wife, family, kids. At night you try to go to sleep, you worry how they are: Are they OK financially, emotionally? If something goes wrong, I can't do nothing about it because I am here. All I can do is hope the rest of my family can lend a hand and help them.

Do you feel guilty about it?

A lot of guilt. I wish I was there for her. Right before we came out, she told me she was pregnant, so I missed the whole pregnancy. I wish I could have been there. I know that is the roughest part for her. It's been rough on me. I just feel guilty for not being there for her. I've got a job to do, I guess: Protect people who can't protect themselves, even though they sometimes don't know they need help.

You get a lot of people who do appreciate what we are doing, and a lot of people who don't want us here. And you have the AIF [anti-Iraq forces] who just want to kill us. You have a mixture, but in the long run, I think we are doing a good thing here. We have saved lives. Because of the team I am with, I get to socialize with the community. There are great kids. If I could do anything about it, I would take them back with me, but that is impossible.

[Was it difficult losing Babbitt?]

You know, we got down when we lost Babbitt. It broke my heart. I loved him to death. It made me a little stronger, and I have to be here. It's not really about me anymore; it's about saving my soldiers, because two of my privates are straight out of basic training. This is their first tour, their first unit, so they don't know what to do. It's our job to teach them. They depend a lot on us. If we weren't there, what would they do? So their lives are in our hands.

Did Babbitt's death really make you stronger?

It really did, in the sense of wanting to help my soldiers and make sure it doesn't happen again, because that is the worst feeling I have ever had in my life. It's never happened before, and I hope never again.

What is that feeling?

Wanting to do something but not having the ability to do it. If I could have taken the bullet for him I would have. It wouldn't be a question in my mind. If it wasn't for what he did, I wouldn't be here today. He saved my life even when it meant giving his own. I owe him a lot, and I am hoping it never happens again.

At first it seemed like a dream. I didn't want it to sink in, but afterwards, thinking about it, I had to take him out of the truck; I saw the color changes in his skin; I remember being able to see the bullet hole. Very scary. It was so hard to just take him out of the truck. I don't know how to explain it -- a very sick feeling. Unreal, I guess.

What would you say to his wife?

She should be very proud of him. I know I am. He died a hero, doing what he wanted to do. He was an awesome soldier. I wish it wouldn't have happened. He has three children, and if she needs anything, I'll always be there for her as well as the rest of the team.

[Why are you here?]

Good question. It is just a sense of pride to wear this uniform, to represent others unable or unwilling to be out here. The Army is not for everybody, but for us we take a lot of pride in what we do. That is why I have stuck with it.

Do you think you are being successful?

I know it's going to take awhile, but over the long run, these people are going to get the message that we are not going anywhere; that however many we lose, they'll lose more; we'll come out winning. They have definitely had an impact on us. We've lost a lot of guys, but they are just pissing us off, and we'll keep on coming; we don't stop.

Just after the incident I was asked if I needed a break, to come off the team for a while. That is not even a question for me. There is no way I'd leave the team. No way. It's not really boredom [staying behind]. I hate being here, but I'd rather be out there, although there is a lot of danger out there. It's something we do, I guess. It's a job.

Put yourself in [PFC Josue] Reyes' shoes.

As far as our new guys, it was a scary feeling [for me] going to Kuwait six years ago. Now it's my turn to teach them.

It's a daily thing, them coming to us, asking what to do, because they are so undertrained, and they are nervous, worried. They always question themselves, not really for what is morally right but something the Army is going to be OK with, since there is a lot of things we can and can't do out here.

They worry a lot. You can see in their faces they are nervous, scared. This is normal. It's not funland. All we can do is reassure them it's going to be all right. What else can we do?

Are you worried?

Every day, every time we roll out, there is something to worry about -- IEDs [improvised explosive devices], VBIEDs, gunfire. You name it, it's out there every day. It's so much stuff they throw at us, it's ridiculous, but they know we are out there. We have to protect each other. We are always by ourselves, so it's on us to protect each other.

Ever since our team got together, we pretty much bonded. All the young guys are more like my sons than they are anything else. They're all so young compared to me. I love every single one of them. I wouldn't trade any of them. We all got our different characters, we all come from different places, but we were able to join in and be a family.

I have seen other teams come through here. The way they work, do their things, there's not as much cohesion as we have. We have grown very, very tight.

[Was Babbitt a big part of that?]

He was a big part of it. Babbitt was a bully, but a lovable bully. Awesome guy. Kept the team pretty tight. Hardest thing to do is -- [someone else had] been my gunner for a long time. Babbitt was the only one I let drive for me. Then when we lost one of our crew members, I made him the gunner. He was happy and loved it. I became the driver.

Every once in a while people get mad at each other. He had a big impact in my life as I hope I had in his. It is just the hardest thing to let him go, the hardest thing not to save him. I have never really had to deal with death.

He used to knock on the door and say, "Sergeant, do you want a cigarette?" You miss it because it is not coming anymore. You try to deal with it, and it is just hard.

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posted feb. 22, 2005

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