» Company of Soldiers
American troops in Iraq—battling a deadly insurgency—face the risk of death or serious injury every day. In November 2004, a FRONTLINE team embedded itself with the soldiers of the 8th Cavalry's Dog Company in South Baghdad, powerfully documenting a controversial war through the eyes of the men and women fighting it.
In "A Company of Soldiers," airing Tuesday, February 22, at 9 P.M. on PBS (check local listings), FRONTLINE goes beyond the daily headlines from the war in Iraq to document the day-to-day realities of a life-and-death military mission that also includes rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure, promoting its economic development, and building positive relations with its people.
"These men and women in Dog Company grasp the realities of their position and the complexity of the problems they face. And they're a very tough group," says director Tom Roberts. "This is not an army hiding timidly behind their fortifications. They fight hard on the streets."
"It's kind of weird because you don't really think about people... actually trying to kill you, and... I mean, you see a guy and he's running away and he has an RPG and you just, it sounds kind of mean or kind of savage, I guess, you just want to kill him because if you don't kill him, he's going to kill you," says Private Josue Reyes. "You just, you just lose everything, or... just get numb."
Filming began three days after the Fallujah campaign was launched in November 2004. There was a surge in violence as an insurgent group, thought to have come from Ramadi, launched a series of ambushes and attacks in Dog Company's sector.
The campaign of violence began when two huge car bombs exploded at Christian churches in South Baghdad. The unit responded immediately but found both churches virtually destroyed. As they returned to base, they were ambushed and came under attack from gunfire and rocket propelled grenades. They fired back, forcing the insurgents to flee, but in the process a civilian was hit by a ricochet and fatally wounded.
The next day, the situation escalated further. A Dog Company patrol was ambushed and in the fighting Specialist Travis Babbitt, a gunner, was hit. Despite being mortally wounded he managed to return fire before collapsing, killing several insurgents and saving the lives of his fellow soldiers in the process.
Back at base, patrol leader Captain Jason Whiteley called his men together to break the news.
"Babbitt was a superb soldier, and he was a great friend to all of us, and he died like he should. He went out fighting," says Captain Whiteley. "We all loved him like a brother, and it's going to be very, very difficult for all of us, including me. But what we have to do now is be strong for the guys who are on the team, for each other... .Because later on tonight, tomorrow morning, we're going to be back on the same road, we're going to be going back into another ambush."
The loss hit the unit hard.
"I don't have a wife or kids. I don't have somebody waiting for me back home, so sometimes I wish it was me, and not Babbitt," says Private Reyes.
Later the same patrol was ambushed again, this time with an improvised explosive device known as an IED. One soldier was injured in the attack.
The unit learned that Captain Whiteley had been personally targeted by the insurgents. He briefed his men on the threat.
"The source stated that due to the killing of a local Iraqi, Captain Whiteley had been blamed for the death. The relatives had sworn revenge against Captain Whiteley," Whiteley says, before adding, "I think we've been dealing with an elevated threat level even before this little love note... and we're just going to do things normally. There's no need to get excited about it. People are trying to kill you."
Over the following days another soldier was killed, and several more injured as the unit embarked on a series of running gun battles and were repeatedly ambushed. The base was hit again and again by mortars and rockets.
The unit went on the offensive in an area that had supported many of the attacks against them, killing at least 24 insurgents.
Senior officers put pressure on local power brokers, telling them in no uncertain terms they must stop the attacks—or face the full might of the U.S. Army. Rebuilding came to a standstill as the military diverted its resources to destroying the enemy.
Then a lucky break: the Iraqi National Guard found a large weapons cache—and suspects—near one of the mosques which had been at the heart of the many ambushes, including the one which claimed the life of Specialist Babbitt.
Violence began to die down, and the unit returned to the challenging task of nation-building in a hostile land.
"It's kind of like your big brother coming into your room and saying you need to clean your room, and you know how to clean your room and you know, you want to do it yourself, you don't want anybody telling you what to do. Kind of think that's one thing," says Private Reyes.
But the soldiers of Dog Company remained committed.
"After the incident with Babbitt, I was asked if I needed a break, if I wanted to come off the team for a while," says Captain Gabriel Garcia. "That's not even a question for me. There's no way I'd leave the team. No way."
"You build a bond here, when you go through life-threatening things every day, when you spend all your time with the same group of people; you sleep with them, you eat with them, you clean with them, you cry with them," says Sergeant Shane Carpenter. "I mean, there's a bond between the men and women I work with out here that I've never felt with anyone else in my life."
"A Company of Soldiers" is an October Films production for WGBH/FRONTLINE and BBC. The producer is Edward Jarvis. The director is Tom Roberts.
FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS.
Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers.
FRONTLINE is closed-captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
The executive producer of special projects for FRONTLINE is Michael Sullivan.
The executive producer for FRONTLINE is David Fanning.
FRONTLINE XXIII/February 2005