Ramadi Madness

When every member of Florida's 124th Infantry returned from Iraq alive, it seemed too good to be true. It was.

With each injury, with each fight, Aris says, the soldiers grew more brutal in the streets of Ramadi. "Basically it became 'Kill them first,'" he says.

Aris and Telfort both say they witnessed an incident in which a fellow soldier shot a civilian in the back in cold blood. "We were looking for somebody, and [this guy] was trying to walk away and all of a sudden one of the guys just shot him in the back," Telfort says. "He shot the guy in the back. And you saw other squad leaders and sergeants jump in the [soldier's] face — they knew they fucked up. You could see everybody was pissed off about what happened.... Then they turned around and said the individual was a target. That's what got me. I don't think he was a target."

Responding to the allegations, Charlie Company commander Warfel says, "I was never aware of anyone shooting anyone in cold blood. There was a lot of our guys shot and a lot of them shot."

Edouard Gluck
A baptism in the Euphrates
Hubert Aris
A baptism in the Euphrates

In March 2005 — a year after the 124th had returned — news broke about a video titled "Ramadi Madness" found on a computer in the Bravo Company armory. The 26-minute video, shot and edited by two Bravo Company members, showed a soldier kicking a wounded detainee and soldiers manipulating the corpse of an Iraqi to wave hello at the camera. The footage depicted events that took place before the 2004 revelations of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib — but the two incidents were inevitably linked in the public mind. After a six-month investigation, the military called the videos "inappropriate but not criminal." No charges were filed.

Matthew Newman, the soldier who shot the footage, defended his company, saying to the Palm Beach Post: "Everybody I saw that was dead was trying to kill me.... The reason we didn't have any casualties: We were ferocious in the city. We'd show them a certain degree of disrespect."

Bernadine Newman, Matthew's mother, defends the soldiers. "It's our military, our government who train them to act and react regardless of their personalities and who they are inside," she tells New Times. "You go over there and try to deal with it."

Not everyone could. At least five battalion members describe attempted suicides, and one says they were common. (A Pentagon report released last week says soldier suicides have reached their highest rates in 26 years, with one-third of them occurring among active-duty troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Aris has a photo of what appears to be a man getting his stomach pumped. He says the man, a friend, had tried to overdose on aspirin.

Within days of the guardsmen's departure from Ramadi, the death toll began to soar. The 124th was replaced by a unit of Marines — an acknowledgment of sorts that "Mission Accomplished" no longer fit the bill. On March 31, 2004, four American security contractors in nearby Fallujah were killed, mutilated, and strung up in public; American newspapers showed their charred corpses hanging from a bridge. Days later, on April 11, 2004, 12 Marines were killed in Ramadi in an attack by Sunni insurgents; the New York Times called it "one of the most violent days in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein."

As the word quagmire began making rounds in the media, the 124th faded quietly into the back pages of the conflict's history. The newly released guardsmen, meanwhile, attempted to resume the lives they had left a year ago. It wasn't so easy.

"Total numbness" is how Dicky Magoo, a tattoo artist who served as a radio operator in Alpha Company, explains how he felt when he came home. "No feelings towards anybody else. Towards my wife, I didn't care. I couldn't go out. I just stayed at work." He and his wife have since separated, he says.

"Everything that people do is fucking annoying to me — and I have no fucking tolerance for stupidity," says Jimmy Madrano, describing the feeling of being back. He has bad dreams: "Sometimes I wake up and my ears are still blocked. It sounds like real gunshots, but there's no noise."

Frank Cabadiana, a platoon sergeant from Charlie Company, has it bad. A short, stocky man who speaks with a rapid, charming half-Hispanic, half-Brooklyn accent, Cabadiana provides an inventory of suffering: "Two bombs. Two ambushes. Many firefights. Two heart attacks. What else? Then there is the PTSD."

Slowly at first, then faster and faster, Cabadiana fell apart. He withdrew from other people — his now-ex-wife, his family, his few friends. "I couldn't be around people," he says. "I couldn't function sexually — and you want to be able to perform, you know? I wasn't laughing, wasn't feeling anything. I just would get drunk and pass out."

Other times he was overcome by emotion. "I was crying — I never cried in my life — and I was thinking all the time, Why do I have to kill so many people, why do they have to kill me, why does it have to happen this way, why were my guys wounded, why do I have to see my friends, young guys, all bloody?... It was too much." One day he woke up in the driver seat of his car, in the middle of a busy intersection, not knowing how he had gotten there. "That was when I knew I was going to die if I didn't get help," he says. He enrolled himself in the VA's inpatient PTSD program.

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