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07-18-03, 05:44 AM
A Soldier's Life

Chris Coffin wasn't supposed to be in harm's way in Iraq. He was killed there this month. How the war is straining U.S. soldiers—and haunting those they left at home

By Nancy Gibbs with Mark Thompson

Posted Sunday, July 13, 2003; 2:31 p.m. EST
First Sergeant Christopher Coffin knew how to stay close to his wife Betsy even when he was far away. Before he left in February, bound for the Persian Gulf, he took her outside on a cold, clear Maine night, pointed to an especially bright star and told her he would be able to see it from Iraq. They could both look at it, and find each other. "Every night when I walked the dog," Betsy says, "I would stop and talk to the star. The dog was so confused; she could tell I was talking to Chris, but she couldn't see him."

After he had left, Betsy began finding notes hidden all around their Kennebunk condo. He had tucked them in the pocket of her jacket, between the cans of dog food, on the bathroom mirror, under her pillow. She has no idea whether she has found them all, in the months since he has been gone.

"I miss doing the laundry with you and helping you hang it up," one said.

"When you take (the dog) to the beach, remember us taking her and how much fun we had," said another.

"Dearest Bets—Right this minute, I'm thinking of you, and smiling." They were signed "Trobs," short for Trouble, her nickname for him since they started dating in college 25 years ago, when she would spot him and say, "Here comes Trouble."

He tried to call from Iraq nearly every day, even just for two seconds, especially if there had been some incident—one more dead soldier in the news. Chris' Army reserve unit was a civil-affairs team, the ones who hand out medicine and rebuild schools and are supposed to stay a safe distance from actual combat. But somehow Chris had wound up leading convoys back and forth between Kuwait and Baghdad, and Betsy knew that was a much more dangerous mission than normal. On June 30, he phoned Betsy from Iraq to tell her he was heading back to Kuwait. "I'll be there for a little while, so you'll be able to breathe a little easier and relax—I'm going to be there for my birthday," he said. "I love you, and I'll call you tomorrow when I get back to Kuwait."

But that night Betsy was still restless. It was nearly midnight, and she found herself wandering through the living room when her eyes fell on their wedding albums. "I hadn't taken them out in ages." She started paging through the pictures of their ceremony on Swan Mountain in Colorado, where they loved to ski and where she had married her soul mate. It was not until the next evening that she learned what Chris was doing at that very moment.

Betsy always kept the TV on at home, checked the Internet at work. The next afternoon she heard there had been another attack. "He hasn't called," she told a colleague at the hospital where she is a social worker. When she got home, Betsy found a pair of Army officers waiting in their car. They had been there most of the day. Chris had not made it back to Kuwait. His vehicle had apparently swerved into a ditch trying to avoid a civilian vehicle outside Baghdad; he died shortly after being airlifted to a hospital south of Baghdad.

But by the next day, Betsy had learned there might be more to her husband's death than a highway accident. And even weeks later, the Army cannot tell Betsy exactly what actually happened to Chris on the morning of July 1.

First Sergeant Coffin was the first American soldier to die in Iraq this month, and before the week was out, six more would be killed. On July 2, Marine Corporal Travis Bradach-Nall died clearing mines near Karbala. He was eligible to return to Camp Pendleton, Calif., soon after the war officially ended, but he volunteered to sign on for an extra three months because he wanted to earn more money for college, and because he felt there was still work to do. The next day Private Corey Small died from a gunshot wound "in a noncombat incident," and Private First Class Jim Herrgott was killed by a sniper as he guarded the Iraqi National Museum. Three days later, Sergeant David Parson was shot in Baghdad while raiding a house, and Specialist Jeffrey Wershow was shot in the back of the head while guarding a U.S. delegation at Baghdad University. The next day gunner Chad Keith died when a bomb blew up his convoy on a Baghdad street.

Seven deaths in seven days, each one different, each in its own way a warning. This is a twilight war, the kind America is loath to fight, is reluctant even to train for, as though we can make our enemies agree to our terms of combat, meet us at noon on the field of battle and be crushed by our overwhelming force into absolute surrender. Not since 1945 has a major war wrapped up so clearly or cleanly. Korea ended in a truce, Vietnam in a loss; the Gulf War required a replay. Winning fast but not completely, as in Afghanistan or Iraq, may save lives in the course of the war but transfers an advantage to the enemy when it's over. Once Saddam Hussein's statue fell, Americans hoped to cease fire, store the tanks and bombers and drones, and start rebuilding. For the enemy, the fight had just started—let the sabotage and sniping begin. "The war's not over," declared Lieut. General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of coalition ground forces in Iraq, at a press briefing last week. "I keep saying that every time I get up here: the war's not over."

More than 70 soldiers have died in the past three months. At this rate it will not be long before more people will have perished since the end of combat than during it. The Iraqi army may have melted away in battle, but its shadow legions of Saddam loyalists and foreign jihadists seem to be growing more organized and more lethal: twice as many U.S. soldiers died in June as in May, and July's rate so far is worse. Soldiers have died in accidents—some caused, no doubt, by the stresses of life under fire and the fear of attack. And they have died after being kidnapped and tortured, died by gun and grenade and mortar. The mortar attacks are especially troubling, since they require a team of insurgents, a leader and a plan.

Casualties have now reached a level such that the Senate passed a resolution on Thursday, 97 to 0, calling on the White House to get over whatever arguments it is having with NATO, the U.N. and the rest of the world and get our soldiers more help on the ground. "We will get a lot more support from the Iraqis, who will be a lot less suspect of us, if we are not the only game in town," said Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden. But the reverse holds as well: if security and stability are not restored quickly, the insurgents may find more allies within the rest of the Iraqi population. There's a race under way, to wipe out the resistance and get the country moving before the frustration boils over. And the U.S. military has only a limited amount of time to prevail.

Chris Coffin loved being a soldier. "in Chris' family, that was what you did," Betsy explains. "His father expected it, and he just grew up believing in serving your country." Chris joined the Army in 1971, served as a tank crewman for 31/2 years, then moved to the reserves, where he was a tank commander. About 10 years ago, he joined a civil-affairs unit and worked for the rest of the time as a policeman or a summer ranger in national parks like the one in Gettysburg, Pa. He would have loved to work at Gettysburg full-time, says his ranger colleague Tim Sorber. But a National Park Service rule sets the maximum age for law-enforcement rangers at 35. Chris was already 45 when he started part-time, though he regularly passed the Army's physical-training tests in the 18-to-20-year-old range. "It was a running joke between us," Sorber says. "Chris was too old to get a job in the park service, but never too old to go to war."

But he was getting older, and the separations were getting harder. He and Betsy, 42, had found a piece of land in Maine and were planning to build a new home, maybe even finally start the family they had never had—unless you counted Samantha, their 18-year-old golden retriever-German shepherd mix. After nine months in Kosovo in 2001, where he turned 50, Chris was ready to come home and stay there. But as it happened, when he went to talk to his supervisor about retiring from the reserves, he learned that the Pentagon had recently announced a "stop loss" order in the wake of 9/11, halting retirements for people with his specialty.

Civil-affairs reservists hand out food and supplies, just the people who would be needed to get Iraq back on its feet once the fighting stopped. In February Chris was called to Fort Bragg, N.C., for training, and by the time the bombs began to fall, he was in Kuwait. "This deployment felt different to both of us," Betsy says. When Chris went to Kosovo, they knew the separation would be hard and that there was still some risk. "But we both knew Iraq was a more hostile environment," she says. It was some comfort to know that a unit like his would be more sheltered: not since Vietnam had a civil-affairs reservist been killed in combat. "We thought he wouldn't be going into Baghdad until things pretty much had been resolved there," says Betsy's sister Candy Barr Heimbach.

Yet Coffin was tapped to lead truck convoys ferrying troops and materiel across the 400 miles from Kuwait to Baghdad, which involved a dangerous passage, and then spend days or weeks in Baghdad between trips. "He told me his biggest concern was, 'I want to make sure I get all my guys home,'" Betsy says. "'I want to make sure I don't have to look a wife or mother in the face and tell her I didn't bring their son or daughter home.'"


07-18-03, 05:46 AM
By and large, when the soldiers of Operation Iraqi Freedom complain, it is not about the scorpions and tarantulas they must evict from their boots as they dress in the morning; not about 110° heat...