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Casualties of War

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In July of 2004, Lloyd Omdahl got a letter from a kid named Cody Wentz. Omdahl, a political scientist and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota, had written a newspaper column about the misuse of the National Guard.

The Guard, Omdahl explained, was full of young people from modest backgrounds who had joined to help finance otherwise unaffordable dreams of a college education. Originally intended to be sent into combat only in times of national emergency, under-trained and ill-equipped Guard units were now being shipped to Iraq.

Young people who joined the Guard, Omdahl wrote, “had bargained for weekend training and emergency duty, such as fighting floods, policing events and serving as a community resource; but not for extended months of combat.”

Omdahl’s column eventually found its way to Wentz. Born and raised in Williston, N.D., (pop. 13,336) Wentz had joined the Guard at age 17, to help pay for the college education his family couldn’t afford. Wentz’s letter, says Omdahl, “reflected a sense of betrayal and abandonment.”

Wentz described how he was assigned to travel up and down the highway looking for roadside bombs. This was one of the most dangerous missions in Iraq – but instead of an armored vehicle, Wentz and his fellow soldiers were given a gravel truck insulated with boxes of sand. (There weren’t enough armored vehicles to go around, because the Bush administration had assumed the war would last only a few weeks).

Wentz had told his family nothing about the situation. “I don’t want to worry them,” he explained, “because to me that is the worst part – having loved ones worry about us.”

Wentz had just turned down his first opportunity to go on leave: “We knew everyone wasn’t going to get leave, so I figured I was young, with no girlfriend or real need to go home. So I volunteered not to go, so someone else could.”

Wentz’s letter contained one request: “I hope you don’t forget about us, because your writing can help people realize the reality of the situation.”

Wentz had been sent to Iraq with his best friend Phil Sorenson, another kid from Williston who had signed up for the Guard to help pay for college. This is how this part of the story ends:

When Sorenson and Wentz enlisted in 2000, the recruiter told them not to worry, Sorenson recalled, because the last time the Williston unit had been activated for federal duty was in 1961 for the Berlin crisis, and it did not leave the country.

But in December 2003, their unit, trained to build bridges and roads and to demolish structures, was mobilized to go to Iraq.

Sorenson thought it was his duty to serve. Wentz thought fighting a foreign war was not a guardsman’s job.

Two nights after Christmas, as a frigid 30 mile-an-hour wind swept the falling snow sideways, 105 soldiers boarded buses headed to Fort Carson, Colo., to train with the 141st Engineer Combat Battalion. Fifty-five of them were from Williston’s unit, the rest from a unit in Dickinson, three hours south.

Police officers and firefighters marched ahead of the buses as they drove out of Williston. People lined the street, honking car horns and cheering. Sorenson said Wentz, usually boisterous, was silent as they waved goodbye through the bus windows.

Sorenson remembered that he and Wentz tried not to cry. They climbed onto a pile of duffel bags and lay side by side for a trip that took nearly 25 hours on icy roads. The hum of the motor lulled them to sleep.

After two months at Fort Carson, Phil Sorenson and Cody Wentz were driving in an unarmored five-ton gravel truck near Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, inside the unstable Sunni Triangle, 6,500 miles from home.

”We better pray to God that we don’t get hit in this thing because we’ll all be dead,” Sorenson recalled saying to Wentz, M-16 rifle in hand, as they stood surrounded by plywood boxes filled with sandbags in the back of the truck. Fully armored vehicles did not arrive for six months, Sorenson remembered.

Sorenson said his unit was initially told it would conduct searches for insurgents. But for the next year, the 141st’s mission was to travel 15 to 20 miles an hour in search of roadside bombs, a task for which Sorenson said they had trained for about one day. . .

To allay their fears, he and Sorenson talked about Williston. Wentz said he wanted to buy his parents a new house so they could move out of their trailer. Sorenson missed the Chicken Supreme from the truck-stop restaurant Kalley’s Kitchen. They promised each other that if neither married, they would buy a house together, sit on the lawn in undershirts and whistle at women.

They talked about dying or, worse, being wounded.

”We always said, ‘If I lose any one of my limbs, make sure you’re behind me to shoot me in the head,”’ Sorenson said.

He and Wentz turned to sports to feel tied to home, tossing a football in 130-degree heat and playing basketball on a makeshift court with some fellow soldiers from North Dakota and a National Guard unit from New York, the Second Battalion, 108th Infantry.

Meanwhile, Wentz wrote to his parents, ”I don’t want to look back on life and say I never did everything I could to make football become a dream come true.”

He lifted weights, often past midnight when it was cooler, using wheels and parts from a Bradley fighting vehicle because there were no barbells.

Sorenson’s hobby was taking digital photographs and making videos, which he would send to friends and family. In one video that became a hit back home, he filmed Wentz eating a four-pound can of tuna sent by Sorenson’s father because it had 300 grams of protein.

Sorenson had his camera along on an evening patrol Nov. 4, 2004, as his armored Humvee inched its way down a paved four-lane highway between Balad and Ad Dujayl.

Early in the mission, a roadside bomb exploded between vehicles in their convoy, putting Sorenson, the driver, and Wentz, his gunner, on edge. To take their minds off the danger, they debated the virtues of their favorite N.F.L. teams, the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions.

Suddenly, another bomb exploded, sending shrapnel into the Humvee. It jumped the curb, hit a tree and caught fire. Wentz was thrown to the floor, unconscious. Sorenson leaped out and collapsed. His left foot and ankle were gone. He saw a hole in his left hand.

As a medic placed a tourniquet on his leg and gave him morphine, Sorenson cursed, screamed and asked, ”Where’s Cody at?”

Wentz, who wasn’t breathing but had a faint pulse, had been pulled out of the Humvee and was lying on the ground. Soon they were loaded onto a Black Hawk helicopter headed for a hospital. Wentz died onboard.

Back in Williston, his father, Kenny, was mowing the lawn around a sign that said, ”Cody 141st: Waiting for Your Safe Return.” His mother, Joyce, was out playing bingo.

A Black Hawk appeared in the sky, a signal that officers were arriving to notify a soldier’s family of his death.

Joyce Wentz returned home and found them standing in her kitchen.

No one had the heart to tell Sorenson that Wentz had died until late the next day.

So what did Cody Wentz die for? The answer is that he died for nothing. That is not exactly true: he died so that Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute could write yet another opinion piece for the New York Times, 17 years later, about how hundreds of thousands killed, and millions maimed, and tens of millions of lives shattered, in Iraq and Afghanistan was and still is a price well worth paying (by others), in order to allow Kagan and his neo-conservative friends to continue to pursue their geopolitical dreams.

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