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"Walking the street at night — alleyways, remote areas of the city ... it's called 'movement to contact,'" explains Junior Telfort, who also belonged to Alpha Company. "You move until you hit something: A bomb goes off, you hear a shot, somebody snipes, you spot something before it spots you."
Most of the dozen 124th Infantry soldiers New Times spoke with say their superior officers, Mirable in particular, purposefully sent them out to be shot at, provoking conflict to win awards like the coveted Combat Infantry Badge. "Our commander, our leadership — frankly they wanted the CIB," says Aris.
Telfort concurs: "They were trying to find engagements."
"They would put you in harm's way just to get a freaking CIB," agrees Jimmy Madrano, a specialist in Charlie Company.
New Times left three phone messages in an attempt to reach Mirable for comment, but was unsuccessful.
"The best offense is a good defense," Charlie Company commander Tad Warfel told New Times in an e-mail. "All of a sudden my company got orders to go to Iraq — it shocked Lieutenant Colonel Mirable as much as it shocked me.... Infantry has one job: to make contact with the enemy. There's only one way to do that — send soldiers out into harm's way."
"Mirable was a man with a colossal ego. He applied the same mindset of a place in east Miami to another place where they had a whole shitload of guns," Gluck says. "And it worked. Anybody who's angry about the Ramadi experience — don't blame Ramadi, don't blame the soldiers, don't blame the insurgents, don't blame Mirable — blame President Bush. There's one man who concocted this entire thing, this entire fiasco. One man."
As they came under fire, the 124th began to kill. The first few incidents were small in scale: A driver who crossed a checkpoint was shot and decapitated; a man believed to have been launching mortar attacks was shot in the head. But as the violence increased, and the ambushes began, killing became a much sloppier business.
Aris's first firefight came one night when his unit was ambushed during a raid on the house of an alleged weapons supplier. The soldiers had arrived in several trucks and Humvees, stormed the house, and dragged out some half-dozen people. As the questioning began, a truck near Aris started making sounds: ping, ping, ping. It took him a moment to realize that bullets were hitting the vehicle. It was a sniper.
"We started shooting the .50 cal," Aris remembers, referring to the .50-caliber machine gun, a weapon that requires two people to operate and fires slugs the girth of a hot dog. "A .50 cal can go right through a house." Their attackers were invisible, and all the soldiers could do was keep shooting. "We were literally just shooting to keep them from shooting. Imagine how many buildings we shot at, how many people might have died that day. We thought about this after the fact." The firefight eventually subsided, but not before Aris and his companions had reduced the area — a residential zone in a densely populated city — to rubble. "At one point this guy came out with a [rocket launcher].... He fired, and he missed. Later on we talked about that. We said, 'How many people got killed because he missed the building and hit something else?'... Honestly I didn't want to know."
Aris is haunted by one memory in particular, of a car that approached. "This guy was coming and we flashed a light, and we figured if he comes to this point, we have to shoot him," he recalls. "I saw the whole family killed — kids and everything. That's one of my nightmares — seeing the family."
The violence went both ways. As the months dragged on, the injuries began to pile up. In July 2003, Sgt. Jason Recio, who now lives in Kendall, was caught in an RPG explosion that severely wounded both legs and blew off his calf; he was able to keep his legs but walks in braces. The following month, Sgt. John Quincy Adams was evacuated after an IED went off near his vehicle, sending shrapnel into his skull and paralyzing half his body. Of the 550 soldiers sent to Ramadi, 54 received the Purple Heart; Charlie Company alone received a whopping 23, more than any other company in the state.
The injuries, the constant danger, and the starkness of life in Ramadi pushed many 124th soldiers to the edge — and sometimes over. There were fights. Alpha took personal conflicts to a patch of sand called "The Pit," where, it was understood, rank didn't exist. As time went on, Aris says, the pit wore ever deeper. By all accounts, soldiers of the 124th drank prodigiously. "I seen guys so drunk they would run around naked in front of commanders."
Aris had his own problems within the company. He and his commander, Ricardo Roig, didn't get along. According to e-mails provided by Aris, when he applied for mental health benefits after coming home, the army sent an e-mail to Roig requesting verification that Aris had been deployed "in an environment that would have attributed [sic] to his PTSD; therefore, verifying combat stress." Roig, according to the same document, wrote back the same day, saying Aris "did not see any combat under my command.... It is my estimation that he is looking for a meal ticket, and I will not be part of it." (Roig, who is serving overseas, declined to comment for this article.) Aris was dumfounded and then furious. Eventually his platoon leader, Tony Yiris, confirmed in a letter that Aris had seen combat: "During my time, we made contact twice, once in a raid on a target house that turned into an ambush, and second on a vehicular ambush returning to base camp. SPC Aris was present for both of these situations." Yiris repeated this position in an interview with New Times, but also claimed Aris was a problematic soldier who complained often. "He was a guy I had to keep my eye on," Yiris said.