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Officer haunted by loss of his men

REMEMBRANCE:  EIGHT YEARS SINCE BOMBING

By RUSTY DENNEN

THE FREE LANCE-STAR

It’s been nearly eight years since Ed Lewis went through one of the worst days of his life.

The date was Dec. 21, 2004, and Lewis—then a second lieutenant and sapper platoon leader of an Army National Guard unit in Mosul, Iraq—had just lost two of his men in a mess-tent suicide bombing that claimed 22 lives.

One moment, Sgt. Nicholas Mason of King George County and Sgt. David Ruhren of Stafford County, were having chow at the mess hall. The next, they were gone. Another man in the unit, Spc. Richard Hursh, of Stafford, was badly wounded.

Lewis, 32, now a major working full time for the Guard, is still haunted by the memories of that carnage. For the first time, he’s put his memories on paper as part of a course at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He and his family live in Spotsylvania.

“One of the topics was to describe my most significant day” in the military, Lewis said in a telephone interview.

Lewis, assigned to C company of the 276th Engineer Battalion out of West Point, Va., got to know Mason and Ruhren during pre-mobilization training at Fort Dix, N.J.

“Both of them had magnetic personalities, great sense of humor,” Lewis said. “But they knew when to turn the humor off and get into the game-time mode.”

Lewis recalled an incident in Iraq when Mason lost his key to the steel “hooch” where he slept.

“He got a new key, but it was attached to an 11- by 14-[inch] sheet of plate steel,” Lewis said with a chuckle. “He had to carry it wherever he went.”

While some soldiers might have complained, Lewis said, “He turned it into [a challenge]. He embraced it.”

Ruhren, he said, had the same drive and attitude.

Prior to the unit’s departure, Lewis talked with Ruhren’s mother, Sonja, assuring her that he would do all he could to bring her son back safely.

Mason and Ruhren, both 20, were adjusting to their first stint in a combat zone at Forward Operating Base Marez.

“Their willingness to lead, and motivation, set them apart, especially when they would interrupt me in the latrine to inquire when the next mission was coming up,” Lewis wrote. He’d tell them: “We’re leaving on the 2nd—more specifically the second I knew something.”

‘LIKE ANY OTHER DAY’

Duties were different day to day.

“We spent a lot of time when we first got there getting vehicles armored up and ready for going out on patrols,” Lewis said. Later, their platoon handled whatever missions came in—clearing buildings, demolition, convoy support.

Their base was often shelled by insurgents.

Dec. 21 “started just like any other day in Iraq,” Lewis wrote.

After breakfast, the platoon met to go over the day’s mission “which involved occupying a position we fought tirelessly to defend a month earlier.”

Vehicles and weapons were prepped. Lewis called his wife, Samantha, then had chow with the platoon.

“When I left, some of the guys were still eating and making sandwiches to take with them on the mission. I had already gotten back to the living area, and was about to hit the latrine when a tremendous explosion rocked the base.”

He didn’t bother heading to a bunker.

“I knew the blast was much bigger than the usual mortar fire.”

He soon found out that the explosion had ripped the mess hall.

Meanwhile, head counts were under way.

“I heard the battle roster number of a Sgt. Mason, followed by ‘KIA’ [killed in action] and my heart sank. None of my training or combat experience up to that point prepared me for the utter pain that those three letters inflicted upon me,” he wrote.

Next, he heard that Hursh had been hit and that Ruhren was missing in action.

“Tracking down my soldiers was nearly impossible in the mayhem around the chow hall, where teams were rushing around, trying to medevac the dead and wounded to the combat hospital,” Lewis wrote.

“All we could hope was that Sgt. Ruhren would turn up at the hospital.”

Amid the chaos, Lewis and his company commander made their way to the battalion commander’s office, who reminded them that the platoon still had an important mission ahead.

“Almost every unit . . . had soldiers killed or wounded in the attack, so we weren’t the only ones with a difficult night ahead of us.”

But first, Lewis headed for the nearby Diamondback base, where the hospital was. He wanted to see how Hursh was doing and whether there was any word on Ruhren.

“The sight of the dead and wounded . . . burns in my memory,” he wrote. While looking for Ruhren, Lewis came upon a row of black body bags. Mason’s name was on the first one.

“That was the moment that solidified what had happened, and is a vision that has consisted of many bad dreams.”

‘MY WORST FEAR’

Back at Marez, with one soldier dead and another wounded, the platoon readied for its mission, Lewis said.

“My first reaction was anger, and I recall thinking that [the mission] would be our chance to settle the score for the families that lost their sons. Luckily, I ran into the chaplain, who took a moment to pray with me, which led me to realize that getting even was not the answer . . . ”

As the soldiers prepared the final mission details, the battalion commander called Lewis to his office.

There, Lewis learned that Ruhren, too, was dead.

“The sorrow on everyone’s face at battalion confirmed my worst fear.”

After memorial services in Iraq, the bodies of Mason and Ruhren were flown to Dover, Del., where their transfer cases were met by family members. Mason was buried in King George; Ruhren in Quantico National Cemetery.

Lewis, who went on to serve a second combat tour in Iraq, says he looks back at Dec. 21, 2004, from a parent’s perspective “now that I have children of my own.”

UNSEEN WOUNDS

Lewis sent copies of his course paper to the Mason and Ruhren families.

“It was very moving, and I guess in a lot of ways, explains what a lot of the guys coming back were going through. A lot of them have wounds that you don’t see,” said Charles “Vic” Mason, Nick’s father, who is clerk of the King George Circuit Court. Mason and his wife, Christine, Sonja Ruhren and Lewis have been in touch over the years.

“It’s good to know that people remember” those who died and the families left behind, Mason said. “Even though it will be eight years in December, it’s amazing the support the community has given us.”

Lewis said putting his story on paper has been healing.

“I didn’t necessarily do it for therapeutic value. I felt like I needed to get it out there.”

IN HIS WORDS

A few excerpts from Army National Guard Maj. Ed Lewis’ recent military course paper about one deadly day in Iraq in 2004:

“I had already gotten back to the living area and was about to hit the latrine when a tremendous explosion rocked the base. I didn’t even bother heading to the bunker—I knew the blast was much bigger than the usual mortar fire.”

“I heard the battle roster number of a Sgt. Mason, followed by the acronym KIA” and my heart sank.”

“The sorrow on everyone’s face at battalion confirmed my worse fear: Sgt. Ruhren was dead.”

“The loss of Dave and Nick has been a great source of grief that goes beyond losing good soldiers and friends; they were my soldiers whose wellbeing was my responsibility. I’ve spent countless hours recollecting on that day and what I could have done to prevent the grief their families, friends and fellow soldiers have endured.”

WARS’ DEATH TOLL

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, at least 29 service members from the Fredericksburg area have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Overall, nearly 6,700 U.S. troops have died, with more than 50,000 wounded.

—Department of Defense, icasualties.org

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431

rdennen@freelancestar.com

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