15 years after they deployed to Iraq, members of the company reflect on their heavy losses and the lingering scars of battle.
Finally, the 115th Military Police Company’s combat tour in Iraq was over.
What remained was supposed to be easier than staying alive in a place like Fallujah. Speeches, debriefings, paperwork. A long transoceanic flight on a chartered jet from Kuwait to Fort Drum in New York; a shorter lift a few days later by C-130 to the tarmac at Quonset Point.
Spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends and children. Hugs and kisses. Home-cooked meals. Loving pets. Coastal life in Southern New England, far from the dryness of the desert.
All of this awaited Sgt. Dennis W. Gallagher and his teammates in the Rhode Island National Guard unit as they wound down their 14-month tour of duty in April 2004.
Amid the hoopla, the difficulty that lay ahead was less palpable. But Gallagher and others say they could sense it at the time.
Their combat tour was finished, but dealing with what had transpired over those long months in Fallujah and the Baghdad area in 2003 and 2004 was not done.
Three soldiers from the 115th had given their lives. Seven others were injured in the war zone. For some, including 24-year-old Specialist Bonnie Tanguay, the post-traumatic stress from combat was so severe that it was life-threatening.
Amid the flag-waving crowd at Quonset, Gallagher recalls feeling enormous relief, along with a sense of pride; Sgt. Yagna M. Echevarria, then 25, ran into her mother’s arms and reunited with one of the unit’s living casualties. Specialist Edmund Aponte leaned on a cane.
Sgt. 1st Class Glenn V. Cunningham III felt the touch of his father. Cunningham’s dad, a veteran of World War II, had grabbed him. The older man looked into his son’s eyes.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I’m good,” Cunningham replied.
“No. Just look in my eyes,” his father said. “I want to know you’re okay.”
When terrorists attacked New York City and other targets with hijacked airliners in 2001, the Rhode Island National Guard had not seen a combat death in more than 50 years — not since sacrifices made in the Philippines late in World War II.
Forty-nine members of the 115th served in Vietnam in 1968. All of them came home, adding to the lore of the unit, which is specifically recognized for its Vietnam service in a proclamation that Gov. Gina Raimondo has issued for Veterans Day 2018.
The unit was deployed during the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 with no lives lost.
Then, in early 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, the 115th was placed on alert, putting its personnel in line for all of the sacrifices that soldiers make when they leave their families and go to war.
This time, the hardships were almost immediate. Two soldiers were hospitalized for hypothermia during the unit’s cold drive to Fort Drum, near the Canadian border.
By April, Gallagher and his team were in Kuwait. And by June 1, they were part of “Task Force Enforcer,” an American force operating in some of the most dangerous territory in occupied Iraq.
In a report on June 9, CBS News called Fallujah — the long-restive town on the road to Jordan — Iraq’s most dangerous city.
Later that month, Gallagher and his team drove into Fallujah’s downtown market as they patrolled and also searched vehicles. The group of five or six Humvees, all unarmored, turned onto a narrow street and came under a fusillade of fire from the rooftops. Rocket-propelled grenades ripped in from above. Shots came from nearby alleys.
“One guy ran across and actually lit up the front of my windshield and hit right where my driver was sitting,” Gallagher says. The driver happened to avoid injury by leaning over to grab an M16.
The ambush lasted about four minutes. It was the longest sustained contact with the enemy that Gallagher would see in Iraq.
The men and women of the 115th, a group of about 150 soldiers, lived in tents at “Dreamland,” more formally known as Forward Operating Base Volturno. The digs at the former resort, situated around a lake, did not include running water. The resort life did offer scorpions and ugly spiders.
Mortars flew toward Dreamland every night. The troops drew fire on almost every foray outside the perimeter of their base.
One day, Gallagher saw an AK-47 round buzz through the door of his Humvee. The round bored through some gear and out another door.
During that summer of 2003, the Rhode Island-based military police participated in patrols and in raids on insurgents. They looked for improvised explosive devices. The MPs went “multi-purpose,” taking on a wide range of combat duties. On several occasions, they even prowled around searching for Saddam Hussein, based on reported sightings.
While many other Army personnel wielded M-4 rifles, the Rhode Island MPs carried older M-16s. They relied on flashlights taped to their weapons for night vision. They scavenged old flak vests to add extra makeshift protection to the floors and walls of their vehicles.
One day at Dreamland, Specialist Patrick Camp noticed a familiar-looking person with cropped blond hair. It was Bonnie Tanguay. She had landed in Iraq with the Rhode Island-based 118th Military Police Battalion, but was now attached to the 115th in Fallujah.
“They got me filling in,” said Tanguay, a guitarist, drummer and saxophonist who had joined the Guard to earn money for college, gain structure in her life and establish an identity.
Tanguay seemed happy being where the action was, Camp says. Cunningham and Sgt. 1st Class Harley R. Monteiro, co-workers at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston, liked Tanguay and knew her well from their service together in Bosnia.
The insurgency in Iraq ramped up in the summer of 2003. Joining in the violence and mayhem was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadist and terrorist with ties to al-Qaida. Many years later, Zarqawi’s terrorist organization would grow into the Islamic State.
Insurgents had only recently adopted the use of improvised explosive devices. The MPs found IEDs in bags and cement blocks. Car batteries and even clickers for car alarms helped detonate the bombs.
Cunningham and Monteiro drove at high speeds in unpredictable directions to throw off insurgents trying to blow them up with buried bombs.
One time, says Cunningham, insurgents hid a bomb behind a guardrail. It blew, engulfing them in thick, black smoke, just as they swerved to another lane. “We were kind of like too fast for it,” says Monteiro.
The 115th was reassigned on Aug. 20, the unit’s focus shifting to provide security to convoys operating near Balad, Iraq.
Echevarria, another jack-of-all trades in the unit, badly wanted to join one of those convoys on Sept. 1, 2003. One of her jobs involved managing the delivery of mail to the unit.
But Sgt. Joseph Camara, the person commanding the team that would protect the convoy, sensed danger. Normally, the New Bedford police officer was soft-spoken. But he was louder in this situation.
“I never heard him talk louder than that day,” Echevarria says. She recalls the advice that Camara gave to the men in his unit about listening to, and respecting, other soldiers, regardless of rank.
Camara told Echevarria that she couldn’t join the convoy. The 150-mile drive from Balad to Scania, along Main Supply Route Tampa, would take the group outside Baghdad.
Three days earlier, a bomb in the same area had just missed Camara and North Attleboro’s Sgt. Charles “Todd” Caldwell, says Camp.
Recalls Cunningham: “The last thing I said to Joe was, ‘Hey Joe, I got your back today. Let me know if you run into any problems.'”
The convoy of 30 18-wheelers rolled all the way to Scania. Led by Camara, they then headed back to Balad.
On the road ahead, a rigged 155mm howitzer shell was hidden in a hole. It was just off the pavement next to a short concrete pillar. A wire detonator snaked across a nearby field to a small hill. Someone was waiting for the convoy.
The blast killed Caldwell immediately and Camara died in the fire. The three survivors included the driver, Specialist Dameon Harrington; Specialist Kyla Cannon, a platoon medic; and Echevarria’s friend Specialist Edmund Aponte. Aponte, 35, now had shrapnel in his head, his neck and the right side of his face.
An 18-wheeler pulled up alongside the mangled Humvee to block insurgents’ small-arms fire as Harrington and Cannon freed the wounded Aponte, says Gallagher.
Soon, Cunningham heard from a friend who reached out to him on a private communication channel. “Hey Glenn, are you on?”
By then, the Humvee was a fireball.
“It was engulfed,” Cunningham says.
Echevarria helped handle the casualty reports and notifications for the two combat deaths. A few days later, she took up a happier duty, a raffle. The winner, Specialist Michael Andrade, of Bristol, would take leave on Sept. 27.
Andrade, 28, was excited to return to his wife and stepson in the home he had just purchased before his deployment. He'd talked a lot about the fence he had put up around the yard.
But on Sept. 24, a Humvee that Andrade was riding in collided with a supply truck outside Baghdad, killing him.
That day, Echevarria emerged from her tent to hear her boss say, “Not again.”
The 115th’s tour continued for another five months. For more than a few, marriages crumbled. Jobs were lost. Parents missed their children’s birthdays.
When the tour was finally over, Bonnie Tanguay was quite proud of her service.
Tanguay’s father, Raymond Tanguay, was proud, too, but he was also surprised by the evolution of his music-loving daughter from her life in Rhode Island to the battlefield and back.
At one point during her deployment, Tanguay was quoted in The Providence Journal, talking about the role of the U.S. military in Iraq. She said she didn’t think the U.S. should just pull out and let Iraqis kill each other.
Her father says his daughter had more to say than just that. In general, she was a loving, caring person who wanted to help people and help animals, he says.
Back in Rhode Island, Tanguay became a member of the 115th. She bonded with the man she regarded as a grandfather, Augustino “Gus” Della Grotta, a combat veteran himself.
“He understood her,” her father says. “She understood him.”
Both suffered from post-traumatic stress.
In Rhode Island, say veterans, the smell of burning oil near the scrap-yard in Providence or the foul odors on the highway near Rhode Island’s Central Landfill could easily transport a veteran back to Iraq.
Loud, abrupt noises bothered Tanguay and others, including Monteiro and Cunningham. One day, Tanguay and her father were changing a spare tire and the jack slipped. Bang!
It shook her up.
Tanguay eventually went for help, says her father, At that time, says Gallagher, the services offered by the Veterans Administration just didn’t offer enough support.
Her father says she continued to struggle. In 2006, another combat veteran of the 115th took his own life. In 2010, another soldier committed suicide.
After her honorable discharge in 2006, Tanguay moved to New Hampshire, drawn by nature. The lifelong animal lover raised service dogs. By 2014, she was surviving on government assistance. She hit some deep lows that year.
In March, she was arrested after she placed a 911 call to emergency dispatchers in Maine. Armed with a handgun, Tanguay fired in the direction of a sheriff’s deputy as he arrived at a location in New Portland where the retired soldier was staying at the time, according to authorities quoted by The Bangor Daily News.
The deputy tackled her. Her father says she later told him that she never would have hurt the deputy.
“She said, ‘I know he’s my hero,’” says her father. After a period in jail, she returned to her 3-acre farm in Jefferson, New Hampshire. She no longer had her dogs.
On May 30, 2014, the 34-year-old woman took her own life. She was cremated. Her father, in a moment of intense grief, noticed that the ashes of his adult daughter were quite light — about the same weight as the little 6-pound baby girl he had carried out of a delivery room on Labor Day in 1979.
Tanguay was buried, with full military honors, in the Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery in Exeter on June 27, 2014. Hundreds came to her funeral. By coincidence, on that same date, the U.S. Congress made a declaration, designating June 27 as PTSD Awareness Day.
On Twitter: @mrkrynlds