Peril and peace
By
Of the Post-Dispatch
Andrew Cutraro of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report

02/23/2004

 

Special Forces pallbearers
Retired US Army Master Sgt. John Bolduc , third from left, is joined by fellow Special Forces members serving as pallbearers during the funeral of Special Forces Master Sgt. Kevin Morehead Sept. 21, 2003, near Judsonia, Ark.
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"The heaviest burdens in our war on terror fall, as always, on the men and women of our Armed Forces and our intelligence services. They have removed gathering threats to America and our friends, and this nation takes great pride in their incredible achievements. We are grateful for their skill and courage, and for their acts of decency, which have shown America's character to the world. We honor the sacrifice of their families. And we mourn every American who has died so bravely, so far from home."

President George W. Bush, in an address to the nation from the Cabinet Room in the White House on Sept. 7, 2003




Customers at the Western Auto store in Waynesboro, Miss., would probably never suspect that the thin, balding, soft-spoken man behind the counter is one of America's foremost Taliban killers.

Once the leader of an elite 10-man Special Forces team, John Bolduc, 39, retired from the Army in December 2002 and moved to a subdivision of stately homes with wide sloping lawns and swimming pools.

His days no longer revolve around dangerous military assignments in places like Afghanistan but on helping run the family business downtown.

Halfway around the world in Iraq, his friends on the team carried on with the war on terrorism. They had deployed again in January 2003, had taken part in the fall of Baghdad and then had gone on the hunt for Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.

Bolduc followed their progress as best he could by e-mail. He'd watched as the nation's focus wandered from Afghanistan and as polls showed Americans growing more disenchanted with the ongoing conflict.

He'd noticed that the patriotism that had recently burned so strong seemed to have cooled. Americans no longer stood riveted to their televisions as they had in the days, weeks and months that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

His wife, Sherry, 38, didn't care about all that. After years enduring his long deployments, she was happy, at last, to have him home. They were making a new life.

Like many Americans, Bolduc's attention now turned to home, job, family and the pressures of everyday life. As a country, America, it seemed, had moved on. And to Bolduc, Afghanistan seemed to be almost forgotten.

Just as in Afghanistan, Bolduc's old team arrived in Iraq among the lead elements. Bolduc's best friend, Kevin Morehead, had taken over as team sergeant after Bolduc's retirement. At home in Tennessee, about 20 miles from Fort Campbell, Ky., where the team was based, Master Sgt. Morehead's wife, Theresa, then 43, kept the news on continuously.

In March, Kevin Morehead wrote to his wife saying he'd already read Matthew, Mark, Luke and part of John. He worried about her being alone but told her not to worry about him. He said he hoped to be home by summer to take her somewhere fun.

"I really do miss you a lot," he wrote. "Can't wait to get home. I wish this would end soon. Don't forget about me."

By late May, the team was providing security for several Iraqi politicians, a task that bored Morehead but that he understood was risky. In one e-mail, he wrote about an attack just days before on another security team in which he said some were killed.

"They had probably done the same things day in and day out for a month, bored to tears with a security job and all of a sudden in a split second it is all over," he wrote. "That is how war is. You never know who wants you dead and who likes you. They all pretend to like you, but there is a large percentage that would just as soon see you dead. We'll get through it and come home sooner or later. I can't wait for that day."

His tour was half over, but time seemed to drag. By late July 2003, the team's mission changed, and the pace of work picked up as the team went on the hunt for remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime and al-Qaida.

"It is better now, we are on the offensive," he wrote. "We have them running scared but there are still some holdouts that are dangerous, mostly putting bombs in the road. Somebody from my unit has to shoot somebody almost everyday. We are slowly back into the hunting business now. It will make time go by much quicker. It won't be long now. We can finally get on with our lives. I will be glad when this is all over."

In their correspondence, the couple worried about typical problems, decorating their new house, getting bills paid, problems at work. He asked if the newly planted grass and trees were surviving the hot Tennessee summer and whether the taxidermist had finished his mounted turkey and deer head. He told his wife he dreamed of buying a camper and taking her on a trip when he returned.

He longed to sit on his porch and drink coffee in the early morning, eat lunch at the Cracker Barrel, rent a movie at Wal-Mart and fall asleep in his wife's arms.

He was happy to hear that Theresa had spotted two 10-point bucks on their property and asked about them frequently.

By August, daytime temperatures reached 120 degrees in Iraq and U.S. troops suffered near daily attacks from Saddam loyalists and others. Dozens of soldiers had been killed since President George W. Bush declared major fighting over May 1.

The team spent long days planning for nighttime raids that became more and more frequent. "Last night went really well," he wrote on Aug. 15. "Blew the doors off the house and caught the bad guys asleep. Caught an important guy we think."

A couple of days later he wrote, "lots of bad guys left. Hate to let them alone." He told of catching the leader of Saddam's bodyguards, car bombers and seven men who planned to assassinate Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq.

Back in Tennessee, the daylight grew shorter and Theresa grew anxious knowing her husband would be home in less than a month. She had trouble sleeping.

On Sept. 10, she wrote that after months of trying, she'd finally been able to get the White House to send a picture taken of Kevin and President Bush at Fort Bragg, N.C., in March 2002, shortly after the team had arrived home from Afghanistan.

"I would hate to think that I won't ever have a picture to remember that by," he'd written in June.

Now, Theresa set out to get the picture autographed as a surprise for Kevin, whose last e-mails to his wife arrived Sept. 11.

Kevin was excited about a trip the couple planned to take to the Opryland Hotel in Nashville on his return. But to Theresa, parts of the message seemed out of character for Kevin, who rarely talked to her about his missions. She worried about the tone and wondered if he'd been there too long. He told her they had a mission that night. It was supposed to be the team's last before they headed home to Fort Campbell.

"Al-Qaida on 9-11, isn't that poetic justice?" he wrote. "I hope they resist. Nine bullets holes in one and eleven in the other. I hate these guys. I love watching them cry. They all cry like babies after we get them. They are tough guys when they can blow up a bomb and kill some supply clerk, but when their front door flies across the living room and sticks in the other wall, they change their tune. Cry like school girls."

The target house sat in Ramadi, one of the most dangerous cities in the Sunni triangle, the heart of resistance to the U.S. occupation. A team member who took part in the raid said that intelligence reports indicated that the occupants might have played a role in the bombings of the Jordanian Embassy and United Nations headquarters in Baghdad in August. Those blasts killed at least 27 and injured dozens more.

Hours before the raid, team members conducted an aerial reconnaissance, taking video and still photos of the target. The two-story house sat in the middle of a city neighborhood. A seven-foot wall with a metal gate surrounded the courtyard.

The plan called for scaling the wall, opening the gate from the inside and then placing an explosive against the door leading into the ground floor. They hoped to catch the occupants asleep.

In the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 12, Morehead and the team members placed a ladder against the front wall and climbed over into the courtyard.

As always, Morehead wanted to lead. He jumped to the ground. Almost instantly, another team member said later, he heard the clinking sound of metal against flagstone. One of the occupants had thrown a grenade. It rolled between Morehead's legs and exploded. He fell to his knees.

AK-47 gunfire erupted from the roof and inside the house. Tracer rounds and explosions ripped the night. A bullet tore through the seam of Morehead's armor vest. He keeled over.

When it was over minutes later, blood lay in pools and smeared over walls. The three occupants were killed. Nine Americans, including Morehead, lay wounded.



Waiting for an e-mail




Like every other day since Kevin had left, Theresa Morehead woke that morning and immediately checked for an e-mail. She found none. Not unusual, she thought. He still might not be back from his mission or he might be resting, she thought.

The temperatures were already in the 60s by the time she set off at 5:30 a.m. for work. She listened to gospel music on the 75-minute drive to her job north of Nashville, where she is general manager of a tour bus company.

At work, she checked her e-mail but found no message. But she read a news report about the raid and sent an e-mail to her husband.

"Kevin, was that you? Honey I am worried here, you haven't written. I hope it is just because you are busy. Praying hard."

About 7:30 a.m., Army officers in dress uniforms approached the front door of her workplace. On seeing them, she collapsed to the floor.

Kevin Morehead died two days shy of his 34th birthday.

Bolduc learned of his friend's death in a cell phone call while he was on his way to a business convention in Hot Springs, Ark.

Sherry remembers him staring out the car window, with tears in his eyes. In the days that followed, Bolduc beat himself up over whether his presence could have prevented Morehead's death.

He quizzed other team members about the tactics used in the raid. As team sergeant, Bolduc had earned a reputation as a meticulous planner who sought to cover every contingency.

He knew he wouldn't have allowed it to happen, and he'd be damned if he would allow it to happen to anyone else.

Without telling Sherry, he called his former commanders and asked them about coming back to the team. When she later learned of his intentions from someone in his unit, Sherry felt scared, then almost sick. But she didn't say no.

He had always supported her in everything she chose to do. She knew how much he loved the Army and Morehead. She was not going to be the one to stop him.

She began mental preparations. She'd have to get the new house packed up for the move back to Fort Campbell, try to get her old teaching job back and tell her parents that they would no longer be around to help with the business.



A sense of peace


On Thursday, Sept. 18, mourners packed the chapel at a memorial service at Fort Campbell. A picture of Morehead along with shined black boots, dog tags, a rifle and beret sat on display. There was no answer when his name was called three times during a traditional roll call of the team.

Bolduc delivered the eulogy. Through tears, he spoke of the courage, loyalty, integrity, honesty and strength of the man he proudly called "my brother." He told how Morehead had lived by the Ranger code: mission first, the men second, and myself last. "He loved serving his country in the Army," Bolduc said.

"America does not realize the loss we have suffered. The Army has lost a great soldier. Special Forces has been weakened by this tragic event."

In instructions that he had left before he deployed, Morehead asked that he be buried in his dress blue uniform and that there be lots of flowers. Strange, Theresa thought, for a guy who had never given much thought to flowers.

At his funeral service that Saturday, they played his favorite hymn, "Peace in the Valley."

On Sunday, Bolduc gathered with other team members in the rain on a thickly treed hilltop near Bald Knob, Ark. Seven team members in dress greens pulled Morehead's casket from the hearse and carried their friend to his grave. Shots rang out through the damp air as riflemen fired off a 21-volley salute.

Tears ran down Bolduc's face. But he felt a sense of peace come over him that day. He didn't know if the feeling came from Morehead, but somehow, he felt the team would be all right. He decided he would stay with his family. They needed him more.

Theresa Morehead keeps the letters, cards, photos, e-mails and other messages she received from her husband in a small box decorated with floral fabric and red ribbons. She's left much of the house unchanged since the day Kevin left.

His house shoes sit at the bottom of the stairs, his clothes hang in the closet and the recording on the answering machine still says "Hi, you've reached Kevin and Theresa . . ."

She mounted the wild turkey and deer head he cared so much about. The pool table she bought him as a surprise sits covered in the back room. On the front porch, the American flag flies, just as he had always wanted. In his den, she hung his military honors on a wall, something he would never have done, she said.

He was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and the Silver Star for bravery for his actions in Iraq. Also on the wall hangs the picture of Kevin shaking President Bush's hand at Fort Bragg. It is signed. A letter that accompanies the picture reads: "Dear Theresa, Kevin's noble service in Operation Iraqi Freedom has helped to preserve the security of our homeland and the freedoms Americans hold dear. Our nation will not forget Kevin's sacrifice and unselfish dedication in our effort to make the world more peaceful and more free. We will forever honor his memory. Sincerely, George W. Bush."


Progress in Afghanistan



In October, three of the Bush administration's top officials overseeing reconstruction in Afghanistan testified before a House Committee. They cited signs of progress. The new Governing Council had recently adopted its first constitution. Elections are scheduled for summer. Women are more free to work and seek education. Health care is improved, and schools are being built. A free press is evolving. A new currency is in circulation. Banks, courts and obliterated government ministries are being re-created. Hundreds of reconstruction projects are under way.

But there are clearly problems, they reported.

Some question whether the proposed Afghan constitution adequately promotes democracy, gender equity and protection of basic human rights. The country remains desperately poor, its infrastructure tattered. Agriculture, once the foundation of the economy, is in a state of collapse. The creation of a standing national army is behind schedule, police training lags, and efforts to disarm the various private militias and irregulars are only just beginning.

The U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai carries little authority outside of the capital, Kabul. Resurgent Taliban forces continue to regroup in the south of the country. And Osama bin Laden continues to deliver his tape-recorded threats calling for jihad against the Western infidels. Corrupt and brutal warlords, many of whom worked with U.S. troops, continue to run many of the provinces.

Some fear that profits from a resurgent opium industry will allow the warlords to establish themselves beyond the reach of the central government or any system of law. Violence and banditry continue, with several aid workers and civilians murdered. Without basic security, the country stands little hope of stability.

Afghans continue to fear that Americans will leave too soon, before the job is done. They've been abandoned before by the United States, when the country curtailed support to Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union. The departure of both superpowers led to a leadership vacuum that dissolved into fighting among mujahedeen factions and allowed the rise of the Taliban.

Today, about 9,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Afghanistan and the United States is spending $11 billion a year on military operations in the country - about 10 times the amount spent so far on reconstruction but a fraction of the money being spent to rebuild Iraq.

Bolduc thinks often of returning to Afghanistan. He wants to see what became of Gen. Atiqallah Baryalai Khan, the Northern Alliance leader with whom Bolduc fought and considered a friend. Bolduc wants to see the progress that's been made in rebuilding the country. He wants to make sure that the United States is following through with its promises.

Ultimately, Bolduc believes, Afghanistan's future lies with its own people. He knows the changes won't be quick or easy. But he also knows that America's credibility and security hinge on the operation's success. Failure is not an option in Afghanistan, but Bolduc knows it is still possible.

Bolduc sees an American public growing less interested, politicians who seem less focused and a world that seems no more secure. He wishes America had finished its work in Afghanistan before the invasion of Iraq. He questions whether democracy can truly take root in such a volatile region but believes the effort must continue.

"Otherwise all those people who have died over there would have died for what?" he asked. More than 600 American soldiers have died in the war on terrorism - including his best friend.

Bolduc doesn't believe Morehead died in vain. "Kevin fought for those unable to fight themselves," he said while seated at his kitchen table on a recent cold winter day.

"He died protecting them. They need people like Kevin who put their lives on the line to do what they believe is right."

But Bolduc continues to search for a meaning in Kevin's death.

"I haven't found it," he said. "I hope that it is out there, and that I come across it.

"He wasn't meant to die this early. Somewhere out there, there is a purpose why this happened. That's probably what I'm missing in this whole thing. I don't see that."




Reporter Phillip O'Connor
E-mail: poconnor@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 314-340-8321