Tom Brokaw, sitting at a checkered barroom table, begins a conversation with six war veterans. “Everybody I’ve ever talked to who’s gone through combat talks about the importance of your buddies, about the personal relationships,” says Brokaw, former Nightly News anchor and author of The Greatest Generation, a tribute to World War II vets. “They say, ‘You end up not fighting for your country, you end up fighting for your best friends.'”
Brokaw isn’t flanked by 80 year olds. Rather, half a dozen college-aged men – Iraq veterans all – are nodding their heads in agreement. Among them is Andrew Flint, a 25-year-old junior in the Fox School of Business who served in Iraq for nearly a year as a platoon medic.
Flint and six of his closest buddies from upstate New York, who all signed up for the New York Army National Guard and were then deployed to Iraq, are the subjects of an in-depth Brokaw report for NBC’s Dateline.
The news special, “To War and Back,” will air Sunday, Dec. 18 at 8 p.m.
“Seven of us, a really tight group, all deployed together,” Flint said of his friends, who were part of the 2nd battalion, 108th Infantry. “One was killed, three were seriously injured and three came back relatively normal.”
Flint, who left Iraq largely unharmed, recalled his rollercoaster tour in a recent interview with The Temple News. There was the time when he had to care for his best friend of five years, Kenny Comstock, because shrapnel ripped through Comstock’s head, fracturing his skull 500 times. Miraculously, he survived.
Or when Flint was told to treat a severely wounded al-Qaeda member because he was carrying a handbook that could reveal vital information to the CIA. His orders: “Flint, make this guy live.” In all, Flint estimates he treated approximately 50 Americans and 200 Iraqis.
Such is life in wartime Iraq. The first day Flint and his battalion arrived in Samarra, a city north of Baghdad – after driving three straight days from Kuwait – they were told troops were needed for a night mission to search for improvised explosive devices, typically roadside bombs. Flint and friends “were lit up pretty good” with small arms fire their first time out, he said.
Unlike some National Guard volunteers who sign up directly out of high school, Flint joined the military at age 21. After playing three years of college baseball at Hudson Valley Community College in New York and spending a month in the pre-medical program at University at Albany, Flint said he joined the National Guard Unit based in Glens Falls, N.Y., mainly because Comstock told Flint he loved serving his country so much.
With the promise of financial aid for college, intense medical training and the prospect of being with his friends, Flint began his six-year commitment to the Guard in 2002. At that point the prospect of war was still faint, especially for reservists. After all, according to NBC reports, no infantry unit from New York’s National Guard had seen combat since World War II.
But after three months of basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., and five months of medical training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, the likelihood of deployment was becoming real. Flint finished his medical training in March 2003, the same month President Bush declared war on Iraq.
In July, Comstock called Flint to say “we’re going to Iraq,” though at that point Flint said he still didn’t believe it. In September, the official notice came. On Oct. 1, 2003, Flint and his friends would report to Fort Drum, N.Y., for combat training, and in February 2004, “we said goodbye to our families and took off,” Flint said.
“Until we were on the plane, people were like, ‘No, we’re not going,” he said.
Flint, along with Comstock, Nathan Brown, Chad Byrne, Tim Haag, Rob Hemsing and Pete Hull, acted primarily as a light infantry unit, or foot soldiers. They were the only unit of that kind in Samarra.
“Every single person in our battalion thought we were crazy,” Flint said of his group. “It was immediately known that we were extremely good, but crazy.”
Typical days would consist of numerous 4- to 6-hour sweeps for IEDs, minimal sleep, and sniper missions in Samarra. At one point, Flint said roadside bombs in Samarra were planted so frequently that Army food trucks could hardly advance into the city.
Less than a month into his tour, Flint came down with appendicitis and had to be shipped to a hospital in Frankfort, Germany. While there, the rest of his platoon was heavily ambushed. The attack killed Brown and severely injured Hemsing. Though Flint was unaware of happenings in Iraq, he said it was torture to be away from his fellow troops. His stay, which should have been two weeks long, ended in three days. That’s when Flint pulled the staples out of his body, had someone sign off on medical papers and pushed his way through a waiting list to catch a plane back to Iraq.
“It hurt like hell, but I didn’t like being away,” Flint said of his injury. “It still hurt for a week because my vest rubbed against it. It’s only pain.”
Kelsey Hachtmann, Flint’s girlfriend, knew about Brown’s death before Flint returned to Samarra from his operation. As Flint was waiting for a ride back to the city, he was able to talk to Hachtmann over the computer on AOL’s Instant Messenger. Sensing something was wrong, Flint asked if anything happened while he was away. Hachtmann said she had to lie. Otherwise, she said, “He would have ran there.”
“You don’t walk around campus and say, ‘He must be a veteran,'” added Hachtmann, a tourism and hospitality major. “You think of someone who’s 80 or someone who’s 70 who wears a veteran’s hat. [Flint] has a total different view of life than most of us college kids do. He’s thankful for every day because he knows what death is.”
“I do homework now,” Flint said, laughing. Having “retired from medicine” upon his return home on Dec. 31, 2004, Flint is now majoring in international business. He has plans to work for the CIA or to become involved in politics.
Flint is still close with his friends, many of whom are chattering about the special, which they won’t see until America does.
Though Flint said he and his friends typically aren’t emotional when discussing their time in Iraq, this weekend’s nationally-televised feature might change that, he said.
“I’m sure come Sunday night we’ll be crying about something or other.”
For a video preview of “To War and Back,” as well as pictures of the seven soldiers, visit https://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10402820/.
Brandon Lausch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.