Iraq experiences left unforgettable images

by Joel Stottrup
Jeremy Hinton as passenger in a Jeep. Hinton says this was taken either in Iraq or on his way to Iraq from Kuwait.

Military veteran and Otsego native Jeremy Hinton says the nightmares he has had because of experiences during his 10 1/2-month tour of duty in Iraq are infrequent now.

Those nightmares, he says, like the ones dealing with Iraqi insurgents attacking his location, and seeing body parts on the ground after an explosion, were frequent after he returned home from Iraq in early 2004. Hinton talked about those things during an interview in the days leading up to this year’s Memorial Day.

Hinton served in Iraq as an activated National Guard soldier in  Company A of the 134th Signal Battalion out of Inver Grove Heights.

Hinton said he won’t forget some of his Iraq war experiences and said they changed him.

Otsego native

Hinton grew up in Otsego and graduated from Elk River High School in 1996. He wasn’t ready to enter college at that time and thought that joining the National Guard would give him time to learn a skill and learn more about what he wanted, he said. So he joined the Guard when he turned 18 and served his six-year obligation in the Guards without any activation. But then in 2002, he signed up for another three years in the Guard, even though he suspected he could then get called to active duty.

Soldier Jeremy Hinton, holding an M-16 rifle with night vision scope while at the Balad base in Iraq.

He says he noticed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks how his National Guard training was taking on a more serious tone, explaining that the trainers pushed the soldiers to not only meet the standards, but to exceed them. The supervisors also became more strict about enforcing the physical fitness rules, he said.

In March 2003, the active-duty call that he anticipated, happened, and his Guard unit went to Ft. Riley, Kansas, where it was attached to the 234th Signal Battalion in Iowa, for deployment. Hinton and fellow Guard soldiers would be providing communications for troops in Iraq.

His unit landed in Kuwait in June 2003, and stayed there about three weeks to get acclimated to the desert environment, before moving into Iraq, where the war was only about four months old.

Hinton’s communications company was divided into small teams and squads of six members each were embedded into different units such as infantry, supply, transportation and artillery. His company, he said, “essentially ran a digital phone system” for the different units and most of the ones his squad went to had a transportation mission.

His squad’s first duty station in Iraq was the Balad base about 60 miles north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, where it spent six months.

Sgt. Jeremy Hinton, at the Crossed Swords monument inside the Green Zone security area in Baghdad. The monument is a very significant one in Iraq, and along the route where deposed Iraq President Sadaam Hussein had run parades, according to Hinton.

After that stint, Sgt. Hinton and his squad of four men and two women was transferred to a base in the Tikrit area to spend about two months providing communications for a military police unit. After Tikrit, his squad returned to the Balad base for 3-4 months.

He was at Balad, he said, when deposed Iraqi dictator Sadaam Hussein was captured without resistance at the bottom of a hole by U.S. troops on Dec. 13, 2003.

Being in communications, his squad got the news quickly. The squad member on duty that evening woke up Hinton and fellow squad members to share the message.

Hinton recalls thinking that the mission was now accomplished in Iraq. But the United States stayed in Iraq about seven more years before pulling its last troops out in December 2011. The war was costly in materials and personnel, with the U.S. Defense Department reporting that 4,408 American soldiers were killed in the war.

Hinton and his unit spent their second stint at the Balad base assisting the communications unit that had arrived by then to replace Hinton’s unit, in order that the transition would be seamless.

Unforgettable experiences

Hinton had at least three experiences in Iraq that he said kicked in his adrenalin each time. One of those was when his squad was heading from Tikrit back to the Balad base in a pickup-type Humvee with a box-like carrier in back holding communications equipment. The vehicle was in a convoy with infantry or military police as escorts in gun trucks when the convoy stopped because the road was blocked up ahead. What happened was, a military vehicle in a unit separate from what was in the convoy had been blasted by a roadside bomb and attacked by rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. A 19-year-old American soldier had been killed.

Hinton and his squad members, all armed with M-16 rifles, assisted in setting up a security perimeter around the site.

It was an area with an Iraqi population and when there is an incident like that, “automatically, from training, you’re watching to see if there are insurgents among them,” he said. “You knew they were watching.”

Hinton noted that the rules of engagement were that they were not to fire unless directly fired upon and so the troops had to be ready for a quick response.

While expanding the perimeter, he said, he could hear small arms enemy fire coming into the rear of the convoy where Hinton’s squad was, so he made sure his soldiers were keeping down behind vehicles for protection.

While he and his squad watched, he continued, an Iraqi man in his mid-20s began walking toward them. Speaking some Arabic, Hinton said, he told the Iraqi to halt and pointed for him to go around the convoy, making it serious enough that the Iraqi would know they “meant business.”

Hinton says the man was acting strange and he told his squad members that if the Iraqi walked five more steps, to shoot. Hinton said he counted the man’s next steps and after counting three, the man stopped and returned to where he had come from.

“That one still sits with me,” Hinton said, explaining, “We almost killed a guy. Two steps away from pulling a trigger on a human.”

Hinton recalled that one side of him was determined to protect his troops, and the other side was thinking that this was a human being they might shoot. It’s difficult to tell if the Iraqi approaching had a bomb strapped to him or if he was concealing a grenade, Hinton said.

The same day, Hinton said, he came upon a place where an Iraqi vehicle had been demolished by a rocket-propelled grenade, and body parts were lying around from where three or four people in the vehicle had been killed. It was probably just a case of them being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he said.

Hinton remembers the indescribable odor of burnt flesh, something he had never experienced before, and says it still makes him sick to his stomach when he thinks about it.

Most remembered

But the incident that was more searing on his memory, he said, happened on Easter Sunday 2004, when his unit was assembled in a military area at Baghdad International Airport, knowing that their tour in Iraq would soon be over.

“I will never forget that day,” he said, telling how he was on his way to eat the Easter meal prepared for the troops when he heard rocket and mortar fire. That’s the kind of thing that happened almost every night while he was in Iraq, but this time it made him think, “This is kind of early in the morning” to be happening.

He said he also began hearing small arms fire coming at the airport gate closest to his unit and remembers thinking that the insurgents were “flexing their muscles.”

The firing kept getting closer and when he called battalion headquarters about a mile away to ask what was happening, he was told that his gate was “taking direct fire.” The firing went on for about two hours before it was finally subdued by combat soldiers, Hinton said.

The insurgents had been “bold,” coming forward on horseback and on foot, spreading out 180 degrees and blasting the concrete perimeter wall with grenades to try to get through, he remembers.

It got so intense, Hinton said, that he and fellow squad members went to the roof of an old one-story building, and prepared to defend themselves. Each squad has a Squad Automatic Weapon, or SAW, and one of the soldiers had that out on the roof, Hinton noted.

The experience left him appreciating Easter more now, he said, because of that particular Easter Sunday in Iraq when the troops survived an attack to go home.

Hinton said his Iraq experiences changed him in the sense that he decided to set some goals, in contrast to before Iraq when he just went along with life. He set a goal for post-Iraq to buy a home so he would have his “own piece of the earth,” and he accomplished that.

He also decided to settle down and he married in May 2005. Since then, the two divorced, and Hinton says that his wife had a hard time dealing with the effects that his war experiences had on him. He said he had a lot of nightmares from the war and sometimes woke up in a “cold sweat.”

Hinton also told how he would react certain ways to certain sounds and that family and friends came to understand why that was happening, but that the understanding didn’t come right away.

Hinton remembers how when he went through traumatic events in Iraq, like the attacks by insurgents or coming across a scene where people had been killed, his “adrenalin” had kicked in. It made him so that he became acutely attuned to everything around him and he would automatically follow his training, he said.

But along with those experiences, he says he has some others from serving in Iraq to cherish. Those included having “met a lot of good people I’ll never forget.” One of those was an Iraqi businessman in Tikrit who had been educated in America and who was on the American base there to supervise a crew of Iraqi workers.

Hinton was assigned to escort the man around and said he had some long conversations with the man, who Hinton said spoke English fluently. He was like 90 percent of the Iraqis, glad that Hussein was taken out of power, and didn’t like the insurgency, Hinton said. Hinton explained that having Hussein out of power made Iraqis feel free from his tyranny.

The man told him, Hinton said, how his children no longer had to say a pledge of allegiance to Hussein in their classroom.

Back to civilian life

Hinton took a month off, after returning from Iraq, before returning to a job in telecommunications. He installs various telecommunications equipment and says that some of the skills he gained through his military training are helping him in his job.

He also talked more about his gains from meeting people and making friends. He keeps in contact with some he served with and, on the day of his interview, was looking forward to getting together with one of those friends in Iowa.

Hinton, commenting about current American involvement in war, says he supports and thinks highly of the American troops overseas, but questions why the U.S. has stayed so long in Afghanistan.

The killing of Bin Laden, the man who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, should have meant mission accomplished in Afghanistan, he said, adding, “I would like to know why we are still there.” Hinton talked about Afghanistan’s tribal system of government, the blending of insurgents into the Afghan population and the numerous incidents of Afghanis, who were supposed to be U.S. allies, killing NATO troops who had been training them. It doesn’t seem like a winnable war, any more than it was for the former Soviet Union when it failed to control Afghanistan some years ago, Hinton said. The leadership who push for such wars should take a long, hard look at what they are doing, Hinton said.