A Soldier's Scrapbook: Kevin Devine Returns from Iraq with Vivid Combat Memories
By CHRIS BURRELL
Kevin Devine is not sugarcoating anything about his last 11 months as a soldier in Iraq. The photographs stored on his laptop computer are proof of that.
"You couldn't use these," the U.S. Army Ranger tells a reporter Wednesday morning after breakfast at Linda Jean's in Oak Bluffs as he clicks through some pictures that depict the horror of war.
Suddenly, the contrast between the two worlds is unmistakable. It's snowing outside, but just three weeks ago, this staff sergeant from Oak Bluffs was still in the heat of the desert near Baghdad with his Third Ranger Battalion.
It's peaceful and quiet here on the Island, but three days before Christmas, the Humvee that Sergeant Devine was riding in was blasted by a roadside bomb, an improvised explosive device (IED) hidden inside a guardrail.
They were lucky. The bomb was set in the wrong direction. "The back-blast blew at us," he says. "My friends, it blew out their eardrums. It knocked me out. I had a bloody nose."
To sit with this U.S. Army Ranger for a couple of hours while the snow falls on Circuit avenue, you can't help but be moved.
A career soldier and a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), he is 32 years old, married and the father of three children. He is also extremely candid and reflective about his experience.
"You go in," he says, "and all you want is combat, that CIB (Combat Infantryman Badge) patch, all that stuff."
But the desire is different from the reality.
"All that training you do, when the bullets start flying, that stuff's a lot different," he says.
The first fire fight was at As Samawah on the Euphrates River. "We had to secure three bridges and hold them. On the other side of the bridge was a military compound. . . . It was like stuff out of Saving Private Ryan, bullets flying like crazy," he says.
Sergeant Devine is home on a 30-day leave before having to report back to base in North Carolina for more training. After living through combat, the reentry hasn't been exactly smooth.
"I went out last weekend with my wife and father. I was there 15 minutes, and the loud music was bothering me, people bumping into me," he says. "I just need more time before I go out."
He also isn't taking any chances with alcohol. "I haven't drunk in the last 14 months. I don't know how I'd react, don't want to see what I'm like," he says bluntly.
Sergeant Devine has already seen a lot. In 12 years as an Army Ranger, he's been posted to some precarious assignments in Haiti and then in Bosnia and Kosovo, but none of it compares to Iraq.
For one thing, it was unbearably hot. "The highest it got was 151 degrees. Mostly, it was 110 to 130. The stuff was horrible," he says.
The first couple months, water was rationed, a couple bottles a day.
Sergeant Devine's accounts jibe with much of what you've heard in the news. The killing seemed to start after American troops took over Baghdad. The British troops taught the Americans about the explosives.
"They knew all about it from the IRA," says the sergeant.
The IEDs were deadly. "They'd throw them off overpasses on the highway," he says. "They'd set them up on the sides of the road. There was trash all over the sides of the street. They put phones inside them and call from another phone [to detonate them]."
Of the roughly 500 soldiers in his brigade, he says, eight didn't come home from Iraq.
Not surprisingly, Sergeant Devine singles out the people who helped him and his squad survive. As he clicks through the photos on his laptop, he stops for them.
Yousif, their Iraqi interpreter, is worthy of a long pause and a story. "He was a great guy, and he saved a lot of our guys. He put himself at a lot of risk," says Sergeant Devine.
Indeed, Iraqis who worked for the American were targeted for threats. "They threatened his family," he says. "At the end of the summer, a lot of interpreters were coming up dead. We were finding them in the river with signs on them, laid face down: If you help Americans, this is how you end up. A lot of people quit."
Yousif and his family, fearful of such reprisals, moved out of their house. Sergeant Devine's squad gave him a gun to protect himself.
But weapons were commonplace in Baghdad. The daily grind for Sergeant Devine involved cordon searches, blocking off a neighborhood and searching all the homes.
"Every household has an AK-47. They were allowed one weapon and one magazine that held 30 to 40 rounds," he says.
American troops, he says, were told us not to trust anyone over 15. Sergeant Devine, maybe because he's a father, took a special liking to the Iraqi children he met on his patrols.
They present some of the few smiles in his photography archives - clusters of kids, probably no more than eight years old, standing there arm in arm and grinning.
Those pictures are a sharp contrast to the most disturbing ones stored in that laptop, haunting images of children wounded or killed.
"They used them as shields," says Sergeant Devine. "I wanted people to know that." His anger and revulsion are palpable.
Sergeant Devine is spending a lot of time with his own children now. "My kids are eight, 11 and 14 now. It's time for me to be a dad," he says.
The experience is making him rethink his career in the Army. "I love the military. It's a big part of my life," he says. "But I don't think it's a good life for them. My wife has done an awesome job raising them on her own for the most part. I never thanked her enough for all that she's done."
Indeed, his wife, Tabitha Devine, can easily size up the toll the last 11 months have taken on her and the children.
"It was hard, very hard," she says in a telephone conversation. "I just worried all the time, scared for the phone to ring, for somebody to knock on the door."
The children were sad. "They cried a lot, prayed a lot," she says.
War, she adds, "It's not something he wants to see again, and it's not something I would want him to go through again."
For now, though, Sergeant Devine is still in the Army, still processing the memories of some grueling, dragging months in Iraq. He stops over a photograph showing the highway to the airport littered with land mines.
When they rolled into Baghdad in early May, they were told they'd be home by Memorial Day. Then it was June and then September. "That was messing with guys' minds," he says.
Sergeant Devine tries to steer clear of the politics, but he can't help himself.
"I ain't the smartest fellow out there, but I foresee real problems. The Suni and Shiites don't get along," he says of the challenges in bringing peace to Iraq.
As for controversy over the chemical and biological weapons - President Bush's stated reason for launching the attack on Iraq - Sergeant Devine is equally blunt: "There's nothing there. We've been in the whole country."
But there's also room in his stories for some laughter. He met other Native Americans fighting in the war, but they'd never heard of Wampanoags. "They called me ‘ham and no eggs,' " says Sergeant Devine, laughing.
He also finds relief in the fact that he's now part of an exclusive club, a combat veteran. Thinking about Vietnam vets, he says, "I have mad respect for those guys now."
But he holds older veterans in even higher regard. "I love talking to guys from World War II," he says. "It was nothing like what I dealt with. They were gone for three or four years."
But although Sergeant Devine draws that distinction, sees their sacrifice as greater than his, still he feels the bond, the brotherhood with those who view his photographs and immediately understand.