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Having a ball with the 1/506th (101st Airborne) at Ft. Campbell

By Michael Fumento

I was delighted to receive an invitation as a special guest to the annual (usually) ball of First Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. I had spent two embeds with these soldiers at nasty Camp Corregidor in Ramadi and had already come to feel like I was a member of their "Band of Brothers." Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Ron Clark extended the invitation to me and confirmed that, unlike at Corregidor, body armor and Kevlar helmet were not required at all times - or indeed at all.

My photoset of the ball is posted here. (Participants please feel free to offer corrections on names or providing first names where I only have last.)

I'd never been to Ft. Campbell and was delighted to find it was a far nicer place than where I spent my time, Ft. Bragg, North Carolina - but then, I'd guess virtually any base would be. We didn't refer to it as "the armpit of the south" for nothing. The town next to Campbell, Clarksville, also beat the living you-know-what out of Bragg's civilian neighbor Fayetteville, North Carolina. (Fayetteville we referred to fondly as "Fayettenam" and "Fatalburg.")

First we attended an officers' reception at Clark's house, where I got a chance to become reacquainted or acquainted with many of those men. (There was also a woman officer, 1st Lt. Jennifer Wynn, executive officer (XO) of Easy Company.) The last time I'd seen these people they were wearing ACUs and, yes, armor and helmets. It was strange seeing them in their brilliant dress blues with cascades of ribbons and awards. Almost all of them wore the paratrooper's silver wings, I'm happy to report, even though the 101st hasn't been an airborne unit for decades.

I thought it possible that Clark was a closet tee-totaler; in fact, to my delight he's quite the beer connoisseur and all attendees benefited thereby. (But I'll bet he also drinks tea.) There was a long series of unofficial awards given out to the many officers who were leaving or had already left the unit, although I couldn't see much because I was stuck behind a Navy SEAL who, like all SEALs it seems, was built rather like a redwood tree. Or to put it another way, SEALs look like you'd expect them to look. Both this ceremony and the ball weren't actually so much 1/506th but rather "Task Force Currahee, which includes anybody who served at Corregidor while Clark was in charge. That's why we there were men there from SEAL Team 3 and at least one Marine.

The ball was an absolute kick. I admit to feeling great pride as they played the "New Band of Brothers video," drawing the title from my first article about them. It included written excerpts from the piece and a few of my photos in the montage that followed.

But the choice part of the evening was seeing the guys with whom I was in combat. I introduced myself to a SEAL and asked if we'd been together on that roof in the Mulaab. Indeed, we were. He was the one of whom I wrote:

A SEAL near me has an old wooden-stock M-79 40mm grenade launcher (affectionately called a "Thumper") that was phased out late in the Vietnam war in favor of the M-203, a 40mm tube attached below an M-16 rifle. I had wondered why he'd chosen to carry this but now found out. Another vehicle is spotted, a flatbed with four jihadists bearing AKs. [Joe] Claburn and others bring it to a screeching halt with a fusillade of bullets to the engine block; then the SEAL with the Thumper smoothly extracts it from a strap around his waist as if it's just another appendage and drops the grenade dead center on the jihadists' truck. One shot; one kill. Those SEALs fight like machines.

Lots of guys were there from the next day's firefight with A Company as well, the ones I joined on "The Ramadi Run" through an ambush. We still laughed over it. They sure made us dance with their machine guns and AKs, but we made it through with nothing more than a great story to tell. Andrew Johnson was there, the guy who looked so young I asked if his mom knew where he was. Alas, Corregidor ages you. He almost looks old enough to be in the Army now. Almost.

And yes, "Crazy Joe" Claburn was in attendance. He left partway through the deployment to join an airborne pathfinder unit, first in Iraq and then back at Ft. Campbell. And yeah, he's still nutty. Where his name should have been on his dress blues he had "America" imprinted instead. Oh well, God Bless America. He said I made him famous "for five weeks" when I reported on his comments on the Mulaab rooftop as we were taking fire. "Hear them cracking over your head?" he shouted. "That'll get your peter hard, huh?"

He told me that some time later somebody stopped him a chow hall and said, "You're Crazy Joe aren't you? The guy who said being shot at makes your peter hard!" Guilty, guilty, guilty. Later anti-war and ultra-lib talk show host Al Franken commented on that while I was on his show as if show there was something seriously wrong with Claburn - and perhaps the Americans fighting in Iraq generally. But if so, it's not that comment that proves it. As CJ pointed out to me, and as I had no need to hear, in situations like that you've got to do things besides just firing back to keep your head about you. My own videos show me laughing and singing ("We gotta get outta this place . . . ") during the next day's fight. Is that crazier than dwelling on the possibility of a round taking off the top of your head off or an RPG making you go splat? I think not.

In any event, Claburn brought his girlfriend of two years who was gorgeous flesh on the outside and titanium on the inside. Her husband had been killed early in the war by an IED and she later actually took a slight demotion from Captain to Chief Warrant Officer 2 in order to become a Kiowa Scout pilot. "That's because it's one of the few combat slots open to women, right?" I said. "That's right!" she answered. It's a terribly dangerous job, as well. Maybe she's crazy too. But dating all of America will do that to you.

My wife, not incidentally, was delighted. She had come to know these men through my writings, my pictures, and my stories. But meeting them was something else entirely. Yes, Ron Clark really is that professional and yet affable. Yes, she could see why XO Matt Keller and I became buddies in a grand total of four days at Corregidor. Andrew Johnson really does look like a kid, but then so do so many of these elite warriors. I think she was perhaps most delighted to meet Rob Killion, who became the "star" of my article by virtue of popping an exceptional number of bad guys in front of my camcorder and still camera and his down-home sense of humor in a deadly situation.

One of the few somber points of the evening included unveiling a flat stone carving by a local firefighter and a plaque to the names of the 11 fallen of Task Force Currahee. It included the battalion's original XO Lt. Col. Paul Finken who was sent to Baghdad to oversee the training of Iraqi soldiers and died in an IED explosion with less than two weeks left on his tour. SSgt. Michael A. Dickinson II was providing his PSYOPS expertise to Currahee when he was killed by small arms fire. At bottom center of the plaque was Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Monsoor, the SEAL who died when he threw himself on a grenade to save his three buddies. He's now up for the Congressional Medal of Honor. I'd like also to mention Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Marc Alan Lee who, while not part of Task Force Currahee, fought alongside its men and became the first SEAL to die in Ramadi and Iraq. Part of the plaque's inscription, from John 15:13, reads: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his fellow friend." That applies to all the fallen.

But let me say this. Eleven men lost is exactly 11 too many. Especially men like these. But there were out of about 1,000 soldiers in Task Force Currahee fighting in the worst conditions in Iraq. By rights, far more should have died but for the leadership of Clark, Finken, Keller, Crazy Joe and Justin Michel and the other company commanders, Command Sgt. Major Michael Catterton, and indeed each individual member of Currahee who fought desperately to accomplish their mission and keep their buddies alive.

Alas, the 1/506th as I knew it is already passing into history. Clark and A Co. Commander Justin Michel are coming to my town, specifically the Pentagon. Matt Keller is off to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. But this unit, and what it accomplished in its tour in Ramadi, like its illustrious forebears who dropped behind the lines at Normandy, will pass into glorious history.

February 12, 2007 11:37 AM  ·  Iraq ~ Military