Eighteen troops died under the command of Lt. Col. Mark Freitag during the Iraq War.
Now a civilian and the city manager of Janesville, Freitag has much to remember as the country honors its war dead each Memorial Day.
Freitag led soldiers from Fort Wainwright, Alaska, to Iraq in 2005-06. He commanded a Stryker cavalry squadron—about 550 troops—with the 14th Cavalry Regiment.
Strykers are large armored vehicles. Cavalry units are scouts. The unit was deployed to Al Anbar Province in the desert of western Iraq in August 2005.
Freitag was placed in command of other units in Al Anbar, varying from 800 to 2,000 troops and including National Guard and Reserve troops, Air Force combat air controllers, Navy Seabees, Marines and Iraqi troops.
Based in Rawah along the Euphrates River, his “battle space” was about the size of Rhode Island.
“Our job out there was to essentially destroy Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was the terrorist organization leading the insurgency in Iraq,” Freitag said.
“The burden that you carry on your shoulders, it’s a heavy load,” Freitag said of commanding troops in a war zone.
The soldiers went on patrol, “knowing that any day it could be your day.”
“What keeps you going is that we were trying to make a difference for people who had been oppressed for a very, very long time,” he said.
In that first year, seven Americans in other units and six in Freitag’s Stryker squadron unit died.
Of those six, three died in non-combat incidents—a suicide, a vehicle rollover and a heart attack. The three combat deaths were all from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or bombs planted in roads that blew up under the soldiers’ armored vehicles.
Freitag was in one of the high-riding, eight-wheeled Strykers when an IED blew up under it.
“It lifted the vehicle 30 feet into the air. Only by the grace of God did we walk away,” he said.
The six soldiers suffered headaches, bumps and bruises but survived because the explosion was triggered near the front of the vehicle. Another second, and it would have been a different story, he said.
One of his soldiers was special in many ways. Freitag asked that the soldier’s privacy be respected, so he is referred to here as Staff Sgt. Smith.
“Everybody loved Staff Sgt. Smith. Nice, congenial, good sense of humor, just a joy to be around,” Freitag recalled.
A husband and father, “He had a smile from ear to ear. You’d see him coming just based on that smile. It didn’t matter—rain, night, fog—you knew it was Staff Sgt. Smith.”
Smith’s platoon suffered repeated IED explosions during that first year in Al Anbar. They led the unit in number of IEDs encountered in the first few months.
Some IEDs were worse than others. Sometimes they just popped the tires. But there was always that explosion.
“After a couple of those things, it really does something to your psyche, and Staff Sgt. Smith came to our command sergeant major and said, ‘I don’t feel confident anymore. I need take a break,’” Freitag said.
Smith was assigned to duties at the outpost. He kept track of units coming and going, making sure they had quarters, chow and supplies. His personality was perfect for the job of unofficial greeter, and everyone got to know him.
The Stryker unit was preparing to return to Alaska in July 2006, when Freitag’s brigade commander called and said they were being held in-country and moved to Baghdad, where sectarian violence had intensified.
“He said, ‘Rally your troops and meet me at Baghdad International Airport ASAP,” Freitag recalled.
The unit was in combat in Baghdad 12 days later.
“People had plans. They knew they were going to be deployed for the year and then go home and be reunited with their families,” Freitag said.
Instead, they faced attacks for four additional months under fire, both on patrol and from rockets and mortar rounds that struck inside their base.
“The burden that any day could be your day, that’s a tough reality for people to wrap their minds around,” he said. But the soldiers responded and did their duty.
Four more from the Stryker squadron died during those four months, plus one from another unit Freitag commanded. One was Staff Sgt. Smith.
When the unit moved to Baghdad, Smith had told the sergeant major he wanted to return to a cavalry platoon.
“It was his sense of pride, saying, ‘I need to serve my country out on the line, the way I started this deployment,’” Freitag said.
About a month after the move to Baghdad, Smith was operating the heavy machine gun on top of a Stryker when a sniper shot him. He died later in a hospital.
“It was devastating to the entire organization because he was so well-liked, and everybody knew his story,” Freitag said.
Smith was one of the 4,418 military deaths in the Iraq War, according to the Department of Defense. Another 74 died in the post-war Operation New Dawn.
Another 2,538 troops died in other parts of the ongoing global war on terrorism since 2001, most of them in Afghanistan.
They joined the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are remembered on Memorial Day for giving their lives in their country’s wars since the Revolution.
“It was an honor and privilege to lead and serve soldiers in combat,” Freitag said. “The things you see people do in combat are amazing. The sheer bravery and tenacity to get the job done during some very adverse conditions speaks volumes of our American youth.”