Captain Phil Esposito and Iraq- Part 1

Camp Buehring, Kuwait- January 2005

Writing about Phil so many memories have crept in. I want these posts to be a gritty, uncompromising account of my time in Iraq and a way to remember a friend.

I admired his ability to plan and motivate soldiers who were in the same situation he was. He could relate to everyone. He had the common touch.

Phil was an everyday man, an ordinary man living in extraordinary circumstances. He was a stockbroker born and bred in New York City. He had a young family of a loving wife and little girl. He was a modest man who did something important and impressive.

Remembering the Fallen

Sometimes we place the dead on high pedestals. Grief, time, and the adding of heroic virtue all blur the memory, flatten out the flaws and sharp edges. Phil was brilliant and hard working. He was also quiet and had a stoic gentleness.

Phil was never a guy to stand-up and beat his chest. He was the guy you almost forgot about while he worked hard. With the job done, he shook your hand in his bone crushing grip, smiled and went on to the next task.

Camp Buehring, Kuwait- January 2005

Camp Udairi was named Camp Buehring when we arrived in Kuwait. It was located 40 miles from the Iraq border. The sprawling desert camp is far from home and the friends and families back home. We feel like we are on the far side of the moon in the middle of nowhere.

Since opening in January, 2003, it has been a busy hub for supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Camp Buehring had a transient feel to it. The chow-hall is one of the largest facilities on the camp. It feeds several thousand troops at every meal. The line nearly always extends several hundred feet beyond the entrance and, despite six food lines. Sometime you endure a long an hour long wait to eat.

Vehicles sat in about a two dozen single-file lines on a sandy staging behind the camp. Despite waiting to go north to Iraq, we were never idle. While at Buehring we use the time to conduct briefings about upcoming missions in Iraq, do some training, and stock up on stores and ammo.

What I remember most about Phil is his idealism and earnestness. While looking at a parking lot of broken down Humvees and trucks in Kuwait he told to me we were driving them north.

We were to fly to Iraq. I looked at him and said, “Phil, you a have a company of clerks, mechanics and cooks, not infantrymen. You cannot take them north in these pieces of junk trucks. They can’t do the mission.”

He looked at me solemnly and said, “Dom, this is the mission. We got to do it and we got to do it with these vehicles. I need your help. You can sell ice cream to Eskimos.”

Phil was asking a friend to help him in a tough mission, but also a company commander using all his resources. A war gaming session with Phil and a handful of key NCOs made an initial inventory of what resources we needed, and a roster of personnel. After four hours we had a plan to drive to Tikrit.

At first, everyone was against the plan for the same reasons I was. Phil let everyone have a say, he addressed their concerns, made lists and talked out each point.

By the end of the meeting he didn’t just have everyone’s buy-in, he had us all excited about the amazing adventure we were on. He said, “This is the first and most exciting thing we will do in Iraq. The rest of the tour will be downhill.”

What we planned made me excited and scared. We all knew once we got to Tikrit, we would be pushing paperwork. Phil had set the tone for the whole thing.

A True Believer

He wanted to keep his soldiers safe in Iraq. Iraq was to be his last mission. Once he got home, he was going to leave the National Guard.

Phil and another man named Lou Allen were murdered on June 7, 2005. I never knew Lou but I loved Phil.

My admiration for him made me take his awful job as Company Commander of HHC, 42nd Infantry Division when he died.

I charged the man who murdered him and I oversaw his company for the remaining six months in Iraq. In 2008, his murderer was acquitted at Fort Bragg, NC.

It was a devastating blow for both me and the families of those brave men. It made all the sacrifice in Iraq seem almost worthless and all for nothing.

Phil’s Story

Phil took a National Guard company of clerks, cooks and mechanics in broken down, second hand vehicles through Iraq. This was not an elite unit of the “tip of the spear” soldiers, but a group of American citizen-soldiers far from home.

It was the Headquarters Company of a National Guard Division. He did it with style, grace and a little bit of luck.

Phil got his entire unit 500 miles from Kuwait to Tikrit, Iraq in 4 days of harrowing adventures and close calls. He did it because he was a great leader.

The Why

This is a retelling of the war people hardly ever hear about. The point of view of the National Guard soldier on the ground: the non-commissioned officers and company grade officers doing a vague mission with inferior equipment.

Phil’s story is a universal war tale, it captures the heart of what it meant to be a National Guard soldier in Iraq- a good man swept up in a violent conflict in a turbulent era of our country’s history.

The nature of the war changed dramatically the year we were in Iraq. We faced indicators of what was to come: insufficient supplies, conflicting orders, unknown enemies, a growing insurgency with civilians caught in the middle.

Phil’s story is particularly impressive. He was an every man who came to stand for the qualities that I associated with universal man at war- brave, tragic, idealistic, and dedicated.

By writing about him I am attempting to find meaning in my own experiences. My time in Iraq almost mirrored the war itself in 2005- a constant change in strategy, a few days prep time in Kuwait, a hell-bent drive north, the atypical use of National Guardsmen.

This is not about politics, it has no purpose here. Phil’s story is about how the brave men and women of the National Guard to respond to the crisis, just as they have done since 9/11.

The Drive Up

Our drive to Tikrit was like a dysfunctional family road trip. Phil was the dad who kept the road trip on schedule. I was the mom who chattered and nagged. The rest of company were our kids, impatient to get to Tikrit and get “their war started.”

There were fears and humor as I reflect back on our Gypsy way of life heading north in our collection of Clampett trucks from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Humor was the coping mechanism for the extreme situations we faced, it’s how we beat boredom mile after mile in the heat and the desert of Iraq.