A call to arms and a long goodbye

Student Rachel Busch will go to Iraq with the Wisconsin Army National Guard.

Emily Johns

When Rachel Busch needed to think about Iraq, she would go for a run.

The 24-year-old aerospace engineering student laced up her running shoes and ran a 40-minute loop around her south Minneapolis home to think about the war.

As a member of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 1158th Transportation Company, she will spend the better part of the next 18 months driving an 86,000-pound supply truck between Kuwait and Tikrit, Iraq. She will pass between Baghdad and Fallujah, two dangerous cities for U.S. troops. She reported for active duty Oct. 21, and her company should be in the Middle East by the end of December.

Since Rachel learned that her Wisconsin Army National Guard company would go to Iraq, she has spent the last month and a half preparing to leave the University. The emotional journey she has taken since then has shaped her relationships, her patriotism and her politics.

“I’ll come back and I know I won’t be the same,” she said. “Preparing for that, I can’t even figure out how to go about it.”

While running through her neighborhood, Rachel also thought about her brother. Although Charles Busch, 22, is two years younger than her, they will go to Iraq together. In 2001, when he graduated from Whitewater High School in southern Wisconsin, Rachel listened while a recruiter promised him he would never go to war.

Rachel encouraged her brother to join because the National Guard could help pay for college. After their company was activated, she thought about trying to get out of going but decided against it because she didn’t think her brother would be able to.

“I would never let my brother go alone,” she said.

When Rachel ran, she also thought about her parents. Her mother, Donna Busch, had to co-sign Charles and Rachel’s enlistment papers because they were only 17.

Donna heard the recruiter promise her children they would only fight natural disasters and defend the United States on its own shores.

Several years later, she is watching two of her four children leave for Iraq.

They try to console her, promising to take care of one another, but she is not comforted.

“That’s half of my children,” she said. “How do you take a student who’s been raised in a Christian home and teach them how to kill?”

When Rachel ran, she also thought about school. She decided to try to finish the semester before leaving for Iraq.

The military had already activated her company once before, in spring 2003. She dropped her classes and spent three months at Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy before the mission was canceled.

Military officials promised the company would not be chosen a second time to go to Iraq, Rachel said. So when she re-enlisted in December, she didn’t expect to have to say “goodbye” again.

When she ran, she also thought about Josh. Her boyfriend of almost a year, Josh Sharpe-Stirewalt shoves his hands in his pockets and walks away whenever he struggles with her deployment.

“You’re a 5-foot-tall girl, an engineer, and you’re going to go drive a Ö truck in Iraq. You know what I mean? There’s something wrong here, there really is,” he said.

His politics amplify the pain he feels seeing her leave. He is stubbornly against the war and watches as she struggles to balance her own hesitancy about Iraq with her sense of duty. But Josh knows exactly how he feels about Iraq.

“I’m going to do everything I can to keep Rachel here with me. But what can I do? It’s an unnecessary war,” he said.

Called up again

On the afternoon of Sept. 20, Rachel was in-line skating to Josh’s house after a three-hour mechanical engineering lab. Her cell phone rang.

When the phone number of her detachment’s armory in Beloit, Wis., flashed in her caller ID, she said she knew instantly she was going to Iraq. The 1158th Transportation Company is split into three detachments. The armory for the Beloit detachment was normally closed at that time of day.

Rachel picked up the phone and heard Sgt. Kris Yehling reading her the official orders. He read word for word from a military document, leaving little time for reflection.

“You are to report at 0800 hours on the 21st of October,” he read and then waited. “I just wanted to pause to let that sink in a little bit.”

She sat down and started to cry. By the time she reached Josh’s house, he knew what had happened without having to ask. He hugged her.

“I knew it was coming, I really did,” Josh said. “The whole time, that’s why I’ve been trying to understand what was going on with the war happening. I wasn’t surprised at all, I really wasn’t.”

He reacted to Rachel’s fear by trying to help her understand what he thought was happening in Iraq. He sent her newspaper articles and talked to her about politics. He wanted her to share his opinions about the United States’ role in the world.

“At first, when he started talking about how this war is a fraud, I was very insulted. I was very resistant, and I didn’t want to hear it,” Rachel said. “I can imagine that this is why (the military) does not want to talk about it within the ranks, because people would rather not deal with it.”

But Josh persisted, and Rachel began to listen. She said that several days after he told her something about the war, she would read it somewhere else.

In the weeks before leaving, Rachel’s blue backpack sported a Kerry-Edwards campaign button alongside worn NASA patches she had sewn on. Her normally conservative parents told her they would listen to her about politics, because they thought her future was at stake.

“We’re going to vote for whoever you tell us to vote for – this is up to you,” they told her.

Rachel told her parents to vote for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry.

Her doubts about Iraq have grown over the past months, but she still feels it’s a crucial time for the U.S. military to be there.

She questions what she calls the “chaos” in Iraq, but believes it is her duty to help.

“Patriotism is being faithful to your country, but knowing when your country is being unfaithful to you,” she said.

The call home

Rachel had to call her parents and tell them she and Charles were going to Iraq. Their older sister, Sarah Carpenter, had been in the company with them, but she received her discharge papers the same day Rachel and Charles were activated. When Rachel picked up the phone, she assumed her mother already knew.

“Did you talk to Charles?” Rachel asked.

“No,” her mom said.

“Did you talk to Sarah?”

“No.”

“Oh my God,” Rachel said.

She wanted to hang up.

“I just didn’t want to tell her,” she said.

Donna already suspected something was wrong. When she returned home from work that day, there were separate messages on the answering machine for both Charles and Rachel. “Sgt. Busch, call your unit as soon as possible.”

The messages were identical.

Preparation

As Rachel prepared to leave her life in Minneapolis, she said, she had nightmares about the war several times a week. She once dreamt that her brother was killed while she stood frozen next to him – her weapon jammed, and she couldn’t help him.

The nightmares woke her up, and if she didn’t stay awake long enough, she spiraled back into them when she closed her eyes.

When Rachel tried to squeeze a semester of schoolwork into three weeks, she said, she barely had time to think about leaving for Iraq. She studied and got ready to leave, but had little time to prepare herself emotionally.

She bawled when she ran, because it was the only time she could really think. But she was thinking about surviving, so she never let the tears convince her to stop. Running might save her life.

Going home

On the night of the first presidential debate, Rachel drove five hours to her parents’ 21-acre property outside of Whitewater, Wis. Her detachment held its once-a-month training session that weekend at the armory in Beloit, a 30-minute drive from home.

After the Saturday training, she returned to her parents’ house and refused to go back to the armory the next day.

“She was really upset,” her mother said. “She said, ‘I’m not going back there.’ “

Rachel was upset with the mood in the company – she thought the people who wanted to go to Iraq were ignoring the feelings of those who were terrified.

She and Charles “were really upset with their commanding officers,” Donna said.

So Rachel called in sick.

When her brother returned from training Sunday, he must have been crying on the way home, his mother said. His eyes were red. He told his sister what had happened. A military official visited the armory to show a video about conditions in Iraq.

With grotesque pictures of explosions, casualties and dead Iraqi civilians, the video was meant to prepare the soldiers for what they would see.

The video showed dogs walking into groups of U.S. soldiers with explosives attached to their collars, Charles told Rachel. He said one woman in the company was so upset, she had to leave the room.

That Sunday, Rachel went out to eat with her youngest brother, Stephen Busch, and their parents.

At 17, Stephen is like any high school boy. He wears name-brand clothes and blue jeans, and both his ears are pierced. Despite his older siblings’ deployment, he wants to join the National Guard.

“We were talking about college for Stephen – he wants to be a mechanical engineer – and I was trying to give him advice,” Rachel said. “My mom said something like, ‘You should listen to your sister. This might be one of the last times you’ll be able to talk to her,’ or ‘You may not be able to talk to her for a very long time.’ And then the table got dead silent, and at that moment, she realized she probably shouldn’t have said that.

“My mom went silent, and then I broke down crying, and then Stephen broke down crying. I haven’t seen him cry since we were really little. It was devastating. And then my mom, and then my dad,” she said.

“The funny thing is, my little brother is 17 and he’s in high school Ö. He and his girlfriend are on the rocks right now, and he just basically broke down crying, and he said, ‘I feel like I’m losing everyone that I love.’ “

A professor’s blessing

On the afternoon of Oct. 14, Rachel gathered in the office of her favorite aerospace engineering teacher, Jeff Hammer. She was there with her sister Sarah, Sarah’s daughter and Josh.

Several weeks earlier, Rachel asked Hammer about finishing his class before she left for Iraq. But she found unexpected advice about why she was going to war and asked Hammer if he would repeat it to her family and friends.

Once she had gathered Josh and her sister in Hammer’s cluttered office, she told Hammer, “Just say what you said last time.”

So he began. With graphs and numbers, Hammer explained the events escalating to war and where Rachel fits in. He said U.S. troops will help take the danger of terrorism away from Americans.

“Should we defend the homeland or take the war to the enemy? When they shoot at you and miss, they will not hit an American, you will have taken that threat over there,” he said.

Hammer’s point was that the U.S. military’s responsibility is to make Middle Eastern governments more afraid of the United States than they are of their own local terrorists.

Hammer has worked at the University for three years. He spent more than half of his career at Honeywell working with the Department of Defense. He said he understands warfare better than most civilians because he helped design the weapons. When talking to Rachel, however, he made it clear he has no political agenda.

“She didn’t seek me out for advice. She was just seeking everywhere she could find,” Hammer said. “I happened to be somebody that tried to help. I’m not interested in any of the politics of any of this stuff. I’m not interested in promoting anything, or convincing anybody of a point of view about the rightness or wrongness of any of this. This was all about helping an individual find her way with a big challenge.”

Josh leaned back in his chair and watched as Hammer’s scrawled handwriting filled the whiteboard. The smell of dry-erase markers permeated the room. Rachel watched intently, resting her head in her hand.

Nobody cried until the end. After Hammer had answered everybody’s questions, Rachel reached to hug him. As he held her, she squeezed her eyes shut to hold in the tears.

“Remember, you’re going to do an honorable thing,” he whispered. “Just come back.”

The goodbyes begin

On a cold Saturday night in the middle of October, Rachel invited her family and friends to her south Minneapolis home for a goodbye party. Her mother prepared appetizers, and her father grilled food outside. A dozen aerospace engineering students gathered in the living room.

Rachel commanded the room – she jumped around and shouted out words during a heated game of Catch Phrase. Few people mentioned her departure.

Her brother Stephen sat quietly in the corner, watching his older sister say “goodbye.”

Rachel’s roommate, Jessica Labrie, 20, is also a University student. At the party, she sat in her room with two friends, watching Rachel’s guests run back and forth past her door. Labrie said she didn’t think she would like living in the house alone, with Rachel’s furniture still there.

“It’s really strange,” Labrie said. “My sister is like, ‘Well, it was her choice to sign up.’ “

She said she only talked to Rachel about Iraq if Rachel brought it up.

“I want the time with her to be happy,” Labrie said.

Leaving the armory

At the armory in Beloit, cars with yellow “Support our troops” magnets packed the parking lot the weekend of Oct. 23. Small children drove toy cars and ran around the main gymnasium fewer than 10 yards from soldiers testing their gas masks.

A young soldier played basketball with his girlfriend in the corner, in a game stuck between crying and flirting. Half-heartedly swatting the ball from his girlfriend’s hand, they watched lethargically as the ball bounced toward two young boys with a stroller.

Before leaving Minneapolis the preceding Thursday, Rachel finished her on-campus schoolwork. She plans to finish the rest using the Internet while her company prepares at Georgia’s Fort Benning. The soldiers will spend up to eight weeks there before leaving for Iraq, Rachel said.

During the weekend before the company left for Georgia, soldiers packed wooden crates with camp chairs, headlamps and knives, while their families attended support meetings.

In the locker rooms, soldiers packed plastic bins with toilet paper, candy, family pictures, books, card games and energy bars.

Spc. Amanda Nesslar, 20, packed her plastic bin in a corner of the forest green locker room. Nesslar has been in the National Guard for 2 1/2 years.

Originally from Burlington, Wis., she worked full time at a shoe store in Lake Geneva, Wis., until she reported for active duty. She said she was really scared but thinks the trip will be a good learning experience.

“We’re supposed to restore that nation over there and try to get some peace. The news is just a lot of mumbo jumbo; they never show the good stuff. Women over there are going to be able to vote. We’ll see that chance,” she said.

Spc. Anya Mayo, 20, packed her plastic bin in another corner of the locker room. With her red hair tied in a knot at the back of her head, she stretched her legs in front of her as she packed medicine, soap, shoes, pens and a laptop computer.

After not being able to get out of her military duty legally, Mayo said, she thought about running away to the western United States before moving to Europe. But she joined the National Guard with a friend and wouldn’t leave without her.

“We’re all just college kids,” Mayo said. “I’m so scared, but there’s not so much we can do. I’m in denial.”

The next day, hundreds of community members gathered at the armory for an official send-off. A large U.S. flag hung in the gymnasium with red, white and blue cake lining the back wall. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and other politicians came to say goodbye.

Spc. Charles Dobbs and Spc. Renee Hintz joked with each other near the cake before the ceremony started. They are both volunteers from other companies who chose to go to Iraq.

“I’m excited,” said Dobbs, who has been in the National Guard for four years. Originally from St. Paul, he was a student at the University of WisconsinñLa Crosse. He dropped his classes at the university when he learned he was going to Iraq. He came to the company from the 107th Maintenance Company.

“I think this is something I’ve been waiting for. It’s something that needs to be done,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t really want to go. Most of the people who really don’t want to go have gotten out of it.”

Although the company stood at attention during the ceremony, several arms moved to brush away tears while Baldwin and Doyle spoke.

Baldwin told the hundreds of people at the ceremony that the soldiers were taking the call of duty with great courage.

The crowd of family members overflowed into the hallway. After a brass quintet played several patriotic songs, the governor told the company that it represented the “greatest citizen militia in the U.S.” The families applauded through the entire rendition of “God Bless America.”

A flight to Georgia

On the night of Oct. 27, Rachel’s detachment took coach buses from its home armory in Beloit to Dane County Airport in Madison, Wis. Many of the soldiers said “goodbye” to their families before leaving Beloit, but a trail of cars followed the buses on the hourlong trek to Madison.

Faith has long been a part of life in the Busch family, and the family members believe the deployment is part of a larger plan. Their faith tells them life is out of their control, but the Busch children will be safe.

“Whatever happens, I believe God has a plan,” Donna whispered. “If he only gives me Rachel for this point in time, I have to be happy about him giving me her as long as he has.”

“At first, I said to her, ‘Rachel, God has a plan for you, and I don’t think he has plans for you to die in Iraq,’ ” she said. “The part that worries me is if she gets captured. She’s just so tiny. She’s such a little girl.”

All of the Busch family was at the airport with Josh. Iraq will be the first overseas trip of Rachel’s life.

“I’ve never been overseas, and I really didn’t want to do it this way. I had planned a trip to Europe in December when I graduated; I was really hoping that would happen. Some people tell me, ‘You’ll have so much money when you get back,’ and I just say, ‘No money in the world is worth my life,’ ” Rachel said.

Lt. Lashell Lentz stood in the middle of the terminal, and her booming voice overrode the hum of crying.

“All right, members of the 1158th. I just talked to the pilots, and they’re ready to go,” she said. “They want us to load into the buses, so we can just drive them onto the tarmac. Say your goodbyes now.”

After several family photos, the two departing soldiers hugged their parents. Charles had to lean over to embrace his mother.

“Don’t worry, Mom, we’ll take care of each other, I promise. I’ll bring her back safe,” he said.

Rachel and Josh stood outside the terminal, next to the bus door. The blue neon lighting from the “Wisconsin Aviation” sign on the side of the building illuminated their faces.

As Rachel prepared to board the bus, Josh leaned over, took her head in his hands, and gave her a long hug. They stood in silence, and he kissed her before she got on the bus.

Rachel sat on the last bus. The interior bus lights lit her face so Josh and her mother could see her when she spoke to them on her cell phone. Outside the bus, incomplete families huddled together in the dark parking lot.

As they waited, the bus lights turned off, erasing last glimpses of the departing soldiers.

The families were left staring at their own reflections in the bus windows as it pulled onto the tarmac.