They were part-time soldiers — two college students, a police officer, a firefighter, a Walmart store manager, a United Parcel Service worker, as young as 19 and as old as 43. Three were fathers, with six children among them. Most had enlisted in the National Guard during peacetime years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when service meant one weekend of drills a month and two weeks of training each summer.
By the time American forces began pummeling Baghdad, that had changed. The six Philadelphia-area men became part of a Pennsylvania Guard unit deployed in 2004 for a year of duty in Iraq. There, they found themselves among some 130 other guardsmen in Alpha Company of the 1-111th Infantry, rooting out insurgents who planted bombs beside roads or fired rockets from behind bushes before disappearing into the flat-roofed warrens of desert villages.
- The Lingering Battles: Like past generations, the Alpha soldiers came home from war with dark scenes burned in their minds. But help is there for the long struggle back.
- Rebuilding Their Lives: After nearly a year in Iraq, the men of Alpha Company try to fit in back home. But the war has changed them and their families, and the return for many is difficult.
- Their War Comes Home: The Pa. National Guard unit suffered bombings and saw six comrades die in Iraq. Many fight still - to get lives on track, to find meaning in their sacrifice.
On Aug. 6, 2005, two of them — Sgt. Brahim J. Jeffcoat, 25, of Philadelphia, a Temple University student with a small child, and Spec. Kurt E. Krout, 43, of Spinnerstown, Bucks County, a father of four who ran the food department at the Quakertown Walmart — were killed when a bomb exploded beneath them as they traveled in a small convoy of armored humvees.
Alpha Company was just beginning to absorb that loss when three days later, on Aug. 9, insurgents laid an ambush for a night patrol. Four more soldiers died when another road bomb went off: Pfc. Nathaniel E. “Nate” DeTample, 19, of Morrisville, a Shippensburg University freshman; Spec. John Kulick, 35, of Harleysville, father of an 8-year-old girl and assistant fire marshal with the Whitpain Township Fire Department; Spec. Gennaro “Jerry” Pellegrini Jr., 31, a Philadelphia police officer and professional boxer; and Sgt. Francis J. Straub Jr., 24, of Philadelphia, who worked for UPS at Philadelphia International Airport.
The attacks constituted the greatest loss of life suffered by any National Guard unit from the Philadelphia region since World War II.
Fifteen years later, the impact still reverberates among their families and the survivors of Alpha Company, based in Northeast Philadelphia, many of whom were left with disabling PTSD or other injuries after their yearlong Iraq deployment.
Any time a group of citizen-soldiers takes a severe blow, so does the civilian community back home, said Lt. Col. Cory Angell, a Guard official who helped deliver the news in Pennsylvania.
“It’s a lot different when an active-duty unit gets hit, because the guys are from across the country,” Angell said. But “when a Guard unit gets hit, usually they are all from the same area. ... The impact is far-reaching.”
A monument in Plymouth Meeting bears the names of the Alpha six, as do streets and public spaces across the region.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about those guys,” said David Jock, a former company medic who now lives in Arizona. His PTSD, he speculates, could have its roots in the guilt he feels that, somehow, some way, he could have saved some of them on Aug. 9. He knows it’s irrational. The men had died instantly.
Kim DeTample, mother of Nate DeTample, has channeled her grief into helping veterans and their families. She is active in American Gold Star Mothers and the American Legion Riders, a charity motorcycle club.
“I miss my son every day of my life,” she said. “I am on a journey that I never thought I’d be on. But I am on it.”
Jerry Pellegrini thought his Guard enlistment was finished.
“He’d done the six years he signed up for,” said Kim Pellegrini, the younger of his two sisters. “All of his equipment was handed in, and his paperwork was being finalized.”
Then came the order to report for Iraq training. Pellegrini’s family found out years later that he might have gotten out of it, his other sister, Dana Shearon, said. “But he said he wasn’t going to let his brothers go over there without him.”
The United States called up few National Guard units for combat during the Vietnam War, a policy later regarded as a mistake. The military came to realize the public would be more invested in a conflict if citizen-soldiers were on the front lines. Many Guard units were activated after the Iraq invasion in 2003.
When Pellegrini was killed, Shearon said, “it devastated my parents,” Edith and Jerry Pellegrini Sr. “My dad wasn’t able to talk about it.”
Pellegrini’s mother died from a recurrence of breast cancer three years later, Shearon said. “It came back after Jerry was killed, and she just lost her will.”
Mother and son are buried at the Jersey Shore.
Families of the six are seldom in contact these days, relatives said. From the beginning, some just wanted to be left alone. Capt. Kenrick Cato, acting company commander in 2005, said some relatives were so embittered, they avoided him and other Guard leaders.
For Shearon, as for other relatives, keeping alive the memory of the soldiers’ sacrifice is vital. She made a banner with Jerry’s picture on it, and flies it at her house in York on Memorial Day and other occasions. Passersby, she said, have Googled her brother to learn about him.
Frank Straub Sr., a retired roofer, is pleased that his son, Frankie, is remembered with various memorials, including a marker at the UPS airport complex. A road near Fort Mifflin on the Delaware River has been renamed in Frankie’s honor.
Every couple of weeks, he and his wife, Linda, visit his grave at Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Port Richmond. They clean up the plot, making sure it has a crisp American flag. “We tell him how much we miss him,” the father said.
The last time Frank Sr. saw his son, he was on two weeks of home leave from Iraq. The family went to Hershey Park.
On their way to the airport at the end of the leave, the father jokingly suggested: “Just let me break your leg, then you can stay home.”
The son replied: “I have to go back to be with my boys. Even with a bad leg, I would still go back over with them.”
When Amanda Kulick was growing up, it was important to hear others’ memories of her father, John Kulick, since she was so young when he died.
“I remember the funeral and the big stuff like that,” said Amanda, now 23 and enrolled in a Florida police academy. “I remember he was always outgoing and made everybody laugh. But I don’t remember a whole lot.”
She became a volunteer at the Centre Square fire company, where her dad worked. His friends filled her with stories about him.
“When I was younger, I didn’t understand why he was gone so much,” she said. “Now I understand. He was serving my country. He’s my hero.”
At 19, Nate DeTample was the youngest to die. He enlisted while at Pennsbury High, doing his basic training between his junior and senior years. After graduation and further training at Fort Benning, Ga., he enrolled in Shippensburg University. He was in his second semester when called to join Alpha in Iraq.
“He wasn’t upset about it,” Kim DeTample recalled. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m going to go.’ ”
A rock climber and former high school wrestler, he was fit and eager. Going to war, he felt, was a pretty exciting thing to do.
Today, Alpha Company veterans are widely scattered. Most have left the Guard. The Inquirer in 2008 surveyed 126 of the 131 survivors and found that 58 of them — 46% — had been diagnosed with PTSD.
At Forward Operating Base Summerall near Beiji, Iraq, Alpha Company was the quick-reaction force whenever insurgents launched an attack or detonated IEDs.
“We were doing patrols and raids every day, and we basically were engaged by the enemy every day,” Cato, the company leader, said. “The soldiers were exposed to explosions almost every day ... In addition to that, rockets and mortars were being fired into our base almost every night.”
By the time an Alpha patrol of armored humvees could reach the map coordinates of an attack, the insurgents typically were gone.
“You don’t know who’s friendly and who’s foe until the shooting begins,” said Jock, then a staff sergeant.
Uncertainty magnified the stress.
Now receiving disability payments for PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and seizures, Jock remains popular among Alpha veterans. He is funny and modest. But he says, “There are some days when I don’t want to leave my house.”
Many of the veterans have made successes of themselves. “We are all suffering, but we have cops, business owners, a restaurant owner, PAs [physician’s assistants], a lawyer, a nurse,” Jock said.
James Denning, an enlisted man with the rank of specialist, became an Anglican-Catholic priest after Iraq and is working on a doctorate. A “full-blown atheist” in Iraq, as he described himself, Denning visited a base chaplain to try to work out why some men got killed and others survived.
“Is that divine intervention? Is that even fair? Is it just arbitrary? When mortality is put right in front of you, you start looking for meaning,” he said.
Denning decided that God ultimately is in control, “even if I don’t understand all of the whys.”
Brandon Miller, a former sergeant, is now chief engineer for five high-rise apartment buildings in Philadelphia. He was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, which gives him migraines. He spent 14 years in the military, on active duty and in the Guard. He got married for a second time after Iraq. He has a son, 22, in college.
“I have pretty much put [Iraq] behind me,” he said.
Still, he feels guilt for not being present with his Alpha Company comrades when the August 2005 attacks occurred. He had been seriously burned in an attack two months earlier and was at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. He had been discharged from the hospital and was headed home to Pennsylvania when the second of the attacks was reported.
“I got home just in time to go to the funerals. It was brutal,” he recalled of attending five of the six services. “I only stayed a few minutes at each. I just stayed in a corner.”
He didn’t even make it in the door at Pellegrini’s funeral, it was so crowded. He was not in uniform, so he didn’t draw attention. “I stood outside as people were talking. I broke down, and I left.”
Miller hasn’t been in contact with the families since. “Too much time has gone by,” he said, “and I don’t want to stir things up.”
Asked what he’d tell them if he could, he replied: “I’d tell them [their loved ones] are not forgotten.”
From March 2003, when a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq, until December 2011, when most U.S. forces pulled out of the country, about 4,500 American military personnel died in Iraq. Among those killed in action were 29 Pennsylvania National Guard soldiers and four from the New Jersey Guard.
Did the war make the world, or even the Middle East, a better place? Were Americans safer at home? Was it worth the price so many paid?
Cato, a thoughtful man who after Iraq earned a Ph.D. and became an assistant professor of informatics at Columbia University, says that, for him, answers to the big questions remain elusive. But he believes with personal certainty that the hard work and dedication of the Alpha soldiers helped build a tougher, smarter U.S. Army.
“I am a strong believer in duty, honor, and country,” he said. “I think those guys sacrificed for our country.”