by Capt. Gabriel Scheinbaum, USA
American Reporter Correspondent
Sept. 11, 2006
ON SEPT. 11, REMEMBER EUGENE ALEX
BAGHDAD, Sept. 11, 2006 -- On the mornng of August 30, his 32nd birthday, at about a quarter after 11 in the morning, Sergeant Alex made his last volunteered movements. Moments later, while conducting patrols with C troop, 4th Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, Army Staff Sgt. Eugene Alex was down. A single shot to the head had started in motion the inevitable. A few days later, with his wife, Melissa, at his side, Eugene Henry Eli Alex was pronounced dead.
I used to call him the man with four first names. He was a great-hearted guy from Michigan and I met him as a platoon leader in Bravo troop during the aging Alaskan summer of 2003. He wasn't one of my soldiers but his platoon's office was right next to mine and we shared the same paper-thin, drab government office wall where conversation bled through as if it didn't even exist. I liked Alex right away.
I first thought of his death as a tragedy, and in many ways it is. Since I heard the news, I have had time to reflect on him. I have come to realize that his loss was not so much a tragedy as an example of fortitude, perseverance, and honor. He died honorably doing what he wanted to do, serving on the frontline with other soldiers under conditions that put them at death's door.
The "extension" of the 172nd Stryker Brigade caused more than a ruffle of anger when it was announced at the end of July, just days before most of the main body of the Brigade was to return home to Alaska after a year in Iraq.
Wives, husbands, parents, girlfriends, and anyone associated with the Brigade, were teed off. Some soldiers had actually made it all the way back to Alaska before they were told that they would have to return to Iraq and join their demoralized Brigade in Baghdad.
Teed off, indeed. Some soldiers had to say good-bye to their families and loved ones again, without knowing when they would return home. End of summer plans, leave, fishing trips, moose hunting, enrollment of kids in new schools, apartment deposits, plane tickets, wedding plans, first communions, and changes of duty station were all put on hold or thrown out indefinitely.
Teed off for sure.
As a Brigade we knew nothing about the extension other than Baghdad and Iraq needed our help. As you hear senior officials tell it, we have been the "best of the best" in mission after mission during our stay in Iraq. This is to take nothing away from the Marines, airmen, Navy Seals, other Coalition troops, and some exceptionally brave Iraqi fighters we have worked and fought with. This is just the official story, which intentionally or just incidentally, was meant to pump up our egos. So, if we're the best, and only the best can help save this nation from plunging into a civil war, well, you get the picture.
Now, five years after the events in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., shook our nation and tested our will, we are here for our second straight 9/11 remembrance, instead of home with our families.
We were at the end of a year's worth of blood-stained effort and grin-and-greet handshakes with politicians, imams, civil and religious leaders. The end of a year's worth of training Iraqi Army soldiers and Iraqi police how to defend themselves and their people. We were at the end of our war psyche. But for one man a new start loomed. For Stagg Sgt. Eugene Henry Eli Alex of Michigan, there was a chance to return to the frontline.
Back in Sept. 2005, the 4-14 Cavalry was in our practically brand-new uniforms and vehicles, having just arrived in the desert outpost of Rawah. A combat sandbox in austere conditions was just what the Cavalry lived for. They would go out on "presence and counter-insurgency patrols" every day and every night until the Euphrates River Valley all the way west to Syria was clear and free of terror. It was an overwhelming job, like trying to dam a glacier on the Sun, and it was our job.
Shortly after we arrived in Rawah SSG Alex was in a Stryker that was struck by a roadside bomb. While technically not "wounded by enemy action," Alex did sustain a concussion, and the blast aggravated a pre-existing back problem. He left Rawah, Iraq, and the rest of us behind to heal in Alaska and was gone for nearly five months. Like almost every soldier evacuated out of theater, few of whom ever return to combat, we thought we'd never see him again. But Sgt. Alex did come back.
In January of this year Eugene Alex came back to Iraq, Rawah, and the 4-14, this time re-assigned to headquarters. His back, still an issue, and the unseen mental scars from being blown up kept him "in the wire" and found him in a pretty important job: life-support sustainment specialist.
It was damned cold in Rawah in January and Alex was dubbed "Generator 7" - the guy you went to when the generators and heaters crapped out, which was often. I hadn't seen him in months but his smile - man o' man, that great biiiiiiiiig smile, and that giggly, infectious laugh - was as present and healthy as ever. He was back.
I spoke with SSG Alex often, daily even, as nearly every morning and every night our tent's heat and power shut down. But I also spoke to him about home, his wife, Melissa, and his kids, back in places called Saginaw and Reese, Mich., and mostly I just liked talked and joked around with him. We weren't that close, and in some circles officers "fraternizing" with non-coms is tabu, yet in that Iraqi desert those talks lifted ourt spirits as high as they could be lifted in a war; they were pretty good times, and I would proudly tell anyone in my chain of command that Eugene Alex was my friend. Back in the days of Bravo troop, SSG Alex was the guy that the soldiers loved to be around.
"He had a ready joke in his pocket," said Captain Chris L'Heureux, Alex's commander in C troop. And he really did. He could make you laugh after you just lost two grand on the Super Bowl. Ummm, let's see, if :'Heureux in French means "happy" and the captain said Eugene Alex made the troops happy, we'll consider him an expert witness. Alex also coached our troop's softball team but couldn't play because of his bad back. Melissa would bring their kids and the other wives would show up, too. I always liked and respected that about the Army wives - they really support their soldiers in all that they do.
In the off hours, SSG Alex was my designated driver many times, making sure his own platoon leader and I would not get into too much trouble. But we did get him to sing karaoke with us and by himself on two occasions - I truly won't forget that.
These memories of what was and thoughts of what might have been brings me back to the extension. Once it was official that the Brigade would head to the heart of Iraq and help stem the violence, SSG Alex did something that would forever define "character" in my book. While many were mentally tired out, he volunteered to return to a line troop to lead soldiers and fight the enemy.
Duty. Honor. Personal Courage. All the things that the Army tells us define a leader and a good person. In that single, unselfish act, SSG Eugene Alex assured himself that his death would always be seen as honorable, not tragic. He was re-assigned to C troop, my old troop, and joined the already battle-tested and proven leaders like Sgts. First Class McDowell and Sheehan, and First Sgt. Borkowski. Whether by aptitude or personality, Alex fit in right away.
It is incredibly difficult now for Melissa and the kids, as it is with all the people Eugene touched, but his death should be remembered for a lot more than just our first of the extension. Sgt. Alex died contributing to a sharp decline in violence in the capital. August, our first month here in Baghdad, saw the horrific murders of innocent people by death squads, as well as by all other violence (small arms fire, IEDs, suicide bombers) decrease significantly. And during the March of the 7th Imam, when nearly 400 civilians died last year as a result of panic caused by a bomb threat, roughly only 20 people lost their lives in 2006. The resolve and fortitude of the Brigade and the thousands of other soldiers like SSG Eugene Alex who helped reduce the carnage here. In other places, 20 dead would be horrific, but in the reality you won't see on CNN and Fox News, this is progress.
It isn't up to me to say that SSG Alex died the way as he would have wanted. But I can say that he died doing what he wanted to do: help his soldiers help the people of Iraq live in a safe and free country.
For many in the 4-14, and for Melissa, Alex and her kids, there is an irreplaceable void. At the memorial service attended by nearly 600 soldiers for Eugene Alex last week, Capt. L'Heureux said it best: "You couldn't go into a room where Sergeant Alex had just been and not know he was there."
Eugene Henry Eli Alex, the man with four first names, had that kind of presence, and
even in his seeming absence, we know his spirit is here.
AR Correspondent Capt. Gabe Scheinbaum is the Executive Officer of the 572nd Military
Intelligence Company, of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, United States Army. He served with Staff Sgt. Eugene Alex in B troop, 4-14 CAV, for 16 months.