Story written by Richard Burns of Associated Press
In a hilltop graveyard overlooking this Stillaguamish River village lies a young soldier killed in the infancy of the Iraq war.
Army Spc. Justin W. Hebert’s story is sad and sadly unremarkable, a tragedy bound up in the tale of a grinding war that took young lives with grievous regularity. Nearly one-third of U.S. troops killed in Iraq were age 18 to 21. Well over half were in the lowest enlisted ranks.
For Hebert, the Army was an adventure. But it didn’t last long.
Barely two years after he finished high school, exactly three months after President George W. Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq and just four days after his 20th birthday, Hebert was mortally wounded in an insurgent ambush that may have been a setup by an Iraqi “informant.”
It was Aug. 1, 2003. The war, according to the Pentagon’s plan, was supposed to be over. Baghdad had fallen swiftly. But a new, more menacing phase of conflict was just beginning. An insurgency was in the making, and in its formative months it perplexed U.S. commanders and cost Hebert his life.
In the years since, the U.S. effort in Iraq has veered from the brink of calamity to the threshold of surprising success. With the remaining U.S. troops now packing to leave, possibly for good, casualties and costs will be tallied one last time.
More elusive is a firm judgment on the net benefit of the American sacrifice, the more than 4,400 dead, the tens of thousands injured and the untold numbers suffering unseen psychological wounds for years to come.
The invasion, occupation and transition to Iraqi government control lasted far longer than predicted, cost more than imagined and left a town like Silvana, population 90, to wonder why a war so far away brought grief so close to home.
The sacrifice of so many lives like Hebert’s helped turn U.S. public opinion firmly against the war by the time Barack Obama was campaigning for president in 2008. Three years later, young Americans still die in Iraq even though the war is widely seen as over.
It is also widely seen as a mistake, and by some as a waste.
Hebert was buried here in his hometown, about 50 miles north of Seattle, in a small, century-old graveyard surrounded by cedars and firs, beside a landmark known as The Little White Church on the Hill.
A recent visit to his grave shortly after the eighth anniversary of his death made clear that he has not been forgotten. His headstone was bedecked with one full-size and more than a dozen miniature American flags, potted plants, flower bouquets, cards and birthday balloons – silent tributes from a proud community.
Hebert’s sister, Jessica Cole, described him as mouthy, a jokester, and a “smarty pants.” He also had the inner strength, she said, to overcome his childhood fear of heights and volunteer for Army training in parachuting from airplanes. She said he had never been in a plane until he flew to Fort Sill, Okla., to begin basic training in June 2001.
“He would not get on a ladder to change Christmas lights on a two-story building for the life of him,” she said in an interview.
He saw the Army as a ticket to a better life.
“He joined pretty much to get out of the little town we grew up in,” she said, and for the chance to see the world. She never imagined he would return so soon to be buried by family and friends.
Was Silvana’s and the Hebert family’s loss for a greater gain?
Americans and Iraqis have to hope so. They hope Iraq, with the demise of Saddam Hussein and the promise of its vast oil resources, will overcome sectarian divisions to govern and defend itself with at least a semblance of democracy. They hope it will keep a lid on extremist fighters who will remain when the last American has gone home. And they hope Iran’s militant Islam influence, already on the rise, will be kept in check.
But as the U.S. military role winds down, no one can be sure chaos will not return.
Chaos had not yet arrived when Hebert became the 254th American to die in Iraq. But it was closing in.
Six days after his death, a truck bomb exploded outside the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, killing 17. Twelve days later insurgents destroyed the U.N.’s Baghdad offices, killing 22, collapsing U.N. aid efforts and crushing hopes for normalcy.
In Washington, officials saw a brighter side. On the day of the embassy bombing, Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita said, “While there is a lot of difficulty, things are getting better.” Asked whether the insurgency was broadening, he replied, “There are plenty of indications to the contrary.”
In hindsight, American leaders now speak bluntly about the war’s toll. Shortly before he retired in June as defense secretary, Robert Gates said he measures the cost “in lives that are shattered, in bodies that are shattered, in minds that are shattered.”
Setting aside the political calculations for invading in the first place, the Hebert story is a microcosm of the war – determined, even valiant, efforts propelled by American ingenuity but ambushed by poorly understood Iraqi ethnic and religious forces aligning against the occupiers.
It was not supposed to turn out like this.
Jack Keane, who was the Army’s No. 2 general when the war began, told Army historians in 2006 that he and others had believed Saddam’s loyalists would fold once Baghdad fell in early April 2003.
“We did not consider it a realistic option that they would continue to attack us indirectly. And shame on us for that,” Keane said.
Hebert had parachuted into northern Iraq with nearly 1,000 other “sky soldiers” of the 173rd Airborne Brigade on March 26, 2003, one week after the Marines and the Army launched the main thrust of the invasion from Kuwait. The 173rd was supposed to have been the junior partner with a far larger unit, the 4th Infantry Division, in opening a northern front, but Turkey refused passage. So the 173rd went in alone.
After a four-hour flight from their base in Italy, the paratroopers jumped from a fleet of C-17 transports. In addition to a few broken bones and dislocated joints, the jump merited a Bronze Star medal for each, including Hebert.
He was a member of Delta Battery, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, as a fire support specialist, sometimes called a forward observer. As such, his job was not to operate the big howitzers but to locate targets and communicate their coordinates, to act as the “eyes of the artillery.”
It was a skill for which Hebert had been well trained. But on the night he died, that mattered little. On the fuzzy front lines of a war that was more like a street fight with shadowy criminals than a conventional battle of land armies, Hebert was driving a Humvee, the utility vehicle whose vulnerability to roadside bombs later triggered a push to build armored versions. His Humvee, with a soft-cover cab and open rear bed, had no armor, not even the makeshift variety that soldiers later bolted on for extra protection.
Spc. Adam J. Williams, who was in the Humvee during the attack, said Hebert was a regular that summer on nighttime patrols that operated out of makeshift outposts in an area west of Hawija, in Tamim province, where U.S. forces were in a relentless search for top fugitives of Saddam’s military.
In his last letter to Jessica, dated June 26, Hebert lamented the harsh conditions in Iraq and looked forward to leaving.
“We are supposed to be out of here the beginning of August, but who knows,” he wrote.
On the night of Aug. 1, Hebert’s two-vehicle patrol began in Shumayt, a village along the Little Zab River, just east of the Tigris, about 150 miles north of Baghdad. In an interview, Williams recalled that the objective was to link up with an Iraqi informant at a gas station. Hebert and his comrades never made it.
As they descended toward a bridge over the Little Zab at about 9 p.m., gunmen popped up from behind earthen berms that effectively funneled the Americans into a kill zone. In the hail of gunfire, a rocket-propelled grenade sailed through the driver’s side window, detonating in Hebert’s lap, as Williams recalls. Three other soldiers in the Humvee were wounded.
Was it a setup? Perhaps, Williams said. He was told that a typewritten note found on the bridge threatened further attacks unless U.S. forces left the area. (Another ambush in Shumayt 10 days later wounded three U.S. soldiers.)
“This led some of us to speculate that we had indeed been set up by the so-called informant,” Williams said.
Eight years later, it’s easy to forget that the flood of violence that swept over Iraq in 2006-07, amounting almost to a civil war, began with the drip-drip of isolated attacks such as the one that killed Hebert. He is one of nearly 1,300 U.S. troops younger than 22 to have died in Iraq since the war began.
In a condolence note to Jessica, Williams regretted that her brother died so young.
“It isn’t fair,” he wrote. “I’m sorry.”
Story written by Richard Burns of Associated Press