When the 135th Military History Detachment returned from its mission in Iraq, it brought back more than dry accounts of who did what during the deployment and operation of the 3rd Corps Support Command.
“I had so many emotional interviews, so many sergeants fighting back tears, so many officers fighting back tears,” said Sgt. 1st Class Stephanie Leonard of the 135th Detachment.
The first woman to win the Bronze Star for her work in Iraq, Leonard was one of three soldiers — including an MU student — who made up the detachment. Armed with a digital camera, two laptops and M-16 rifles, the smallest unit of the Missouri National Guard collected 6,000 to 8,000 documents and interviewed 189 soldiers from April to August 2003.
“What made the 3rd Corps so amazing was that it had the longest and fastest-moving supply chain in U.S. military history,” Leonard said.
Maj. Doug Giford of the 135th Detachment said the last time so many rations and supplies had been moved so quickly was the Battle of the Bulge in World War II; this corps moved them farther.
The 135th Detachment collected interviews, photographs, intelligence reports and other official military documents to help explain how the 3rd Corps moved supplies so quickly.
“We were just information vacuums who sucked up everything we could get our hands on,” said Sgt. Brett Slaughter, a photojournalism student at MU.
Although the detachment was responsible for collecting, not analyzing, the information, Leonard said she did draw some conclusions. She said the corps owed its success to the sheer will and ingenuity of its soldiers. They realized the importance of getting supplies to the front-line soldiers, even if it meant sacrificing some of their own, she said. The 135th Detachment wasn’t spared those shortages. Food, water and toilet paper were in short supply.
“We shared so much, it wasn’t funny,” Leonard said. “If somebody got a care package, they shared with everyone they could.” Gatorade was among the most popular care package items for obvious reasons — the scorching Iraqi heat.
The U.S. military has recorded its history since the Civil War, when official documents from both the Union and the Confederacy were contained in “The Official Records of the War of Rebellion.” But it wasn’t until World War II that military history detachments were sent to the front to record, said William Effley, a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C. Now, detachments are sent to establish an official account of what happened. These accounts also allow the military to look back and learn from its mistakes, Gifford said.
“If you don’t know what happened in the past war, good or bad, then you can’t make changes,” he said.
Once collected, the information is analyzed by historians at the Center.
“We are the starting place for military research especially since we have documents and accounts that are not normally captured,” Effley said.
Accounts of history often get embellished, Effley explained, so military history detachments have the rare opportunity to get a more accurate idea of what happened.
“You are still going to get a degree of inaccuracy due to the ‘eye of the beholder,’” he said. “That is why we collect hard evidence, like reports, to verify accounts.”
The histories created by the military history center are available to the public. Some sections such as accounts concerning nuclear weapons, however, are classified, he said.
Effley admitted a complete history of the military cannot be recorded because there are only 25 three-member military history detachments to collect data from about 1 million soldiers.
“It is quite an overwhelming task, but they do the best they can,” Effley said.
Gifford said the 135th Detachment never sanitized or omitted facts because they’re focused on collecting history, not writing for public relations.
“We want the good, bad and ugly,” he said. “We like the ugly especially.”
The human drama
Soldiers face heavy gunfire, but Leonard said they freeze when the digital camera and voice recorder appear. They loosen up once they understand that the interview is not an interrogation, but rather a chance to tell their story, she said. Leonard speculated that her gender gave her the ability to draw out emotional accounts, but she said she thought she just learned to ask the right questions.
“I always ask, ‘Are you OK?’ ” she said. “So many people don’t ask that question.”
The St. Louis native said she attempts to show soldiers a positive side when they talk about losing a friend or the guilt they feel about skipping a mission on which a comrade was injured.
“I reminded them about the family waiting for them or explained that their friend was doing their job,” she said.
Some soldiers don’t want to talk, but Leonard has a way of making people open up, Slaughter said.
Leonard said her method was using one or all of three “button-pushing” questions. Asking soldiers to describe their darkest and proudest moments often brought them to tears, but the third question had the potential to clear the room.
During an interview of a high-ranking officer in front of his soldiers, Leonard warned them that the next question would be personal and that he might not feel comfortable answering it in front of his men. The officer replied that he and his men had been through a lot and that there wasn’t anything he would hide from them.
“I then asked him to describe in his own words the personality of the commander and key staff personnel who he had direct contact with during the occupation,” Leonard said.
The officer’s body language shifted from relaxed to tense, she said. Then he ordered all of his men out of the room.
Slaughter said that when he first heard about his assignment,he was not thrilled. At the time, he felt all of his military training was wasted.
Now, he looks back at his assignment with satisfaction. If given the opportunity to go back to Iraq and continue his mission with the military history detachment, Slaughter said he would take it.
Although he was never fired at directly, Slaughter said there was always the feeling that danger was near. That feeling didn’t leave him when he returned to Columbia.
“Sometimes I will get up for my dinner and reach for my gun,” he said. “I am starting to stop panicking when I reach for my gun and it is not there.”
Slaughter may yet see combat. After he graduates in May, he plans to attend flight school to learn to fly Apache helicopters.
Leonard is continuing her work with the 135th Detachment as she interviews Missouri National Guard soldiers who have returned home from Iraq. She said: “There are still so many more stories that need to be told.”