Wisconsin Historical Society Press
Private Soldiers: A Year in Iraq with a Wisconsin National Guard Unit
By Benjamin Buchholz, Photographs by Joseph Streeter and Nathan Olson
200 pages, 250 photos, 1 map, 9.25 x 9.25"Buy
In April 2005 they received the official alert: The Wisconsin Army National Guard's 2-127th Infantry Battalion was being mobilized. After training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, the 620 soldiers of the Gator Battalion would serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom, providing armed convoy escort and route security throughout all of Iraq, from Umm Qasr in the south to Mosul in the far north. Their mission would take them into the most dangerous regions of Iraq, and during the next year the battalion would withstand hundreds of attacks, see dozens wounded, and lose three members killed in action.
"Private Soldiers" chronicles the 2-127th's year-long deployment from the unique perspective of the soldiers themselves. Written and photographed by three battalion members, the book provides a rare first-hand account of war and life in Iraq. Fascinating soldier interviews reveal the effects of deployment on the troops and on their families back home, and interviews with Iraqi civilians describe the Iraqis' perceptions of life, war, and working alongside Wisconsin troops. Brilliant photography illuminates the 2-127th's year, from training to "boots on the ground" to their return home. And candid photos taken by battalion members capture the soldiers' day-to-day lives and camaraderie.
An extremely timely and relevant account of soldiers' lives, "Private Soldiers" honors Wisconsin's participants in the Iraq war and helps readers understand the war's human side.
All royalties from sales of Private Soldiers will go to the 2-127th's family support groups and to funds established in memoriam of the battalion members who gave their lives in the Iraq war.
Captain Benjamin Buchholz was the 2-127th Infantry Battalion's civil affairs officer during deployment. He works full time for the Wisconsin National Guard as the 2-127th's training officer. A widely published writer of fiction and nonfiction, Ben lives in Brandon, Wisconsin, with his wife, Angie, and sons Wesley and Jack.
Staff Sergeant Joseph Streeter has been a member of the Wisconsin Army National Guard for over twelve years. While deployed in Iraq he served as a squad leader in the 2-127th's C Company. He also works as the system administrator at the Wisconsin Joint Force Headquarters and runs a sports photography business. He lives in Madison.
Lieutenant Nathan Olson has been a member of the Wisconsin National Guard for more than sixteen years. During his time in Iraq he served as a platoon leader in C Company, 2-127th Infantry. He also works for the Wisconsin National Guard as the environmental assessment and reports manager for the state. Nathan and his wife, Ann, own an event and portrait photography business in Columbus, Wisconsin.
Interview with Ben Buchholz
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: What motivated you to write about your experiences in Iraq? Did you keep a journal while you were there?
I didn't keep a journal per se, but I wrote almost constantly, sometimes 10 hours a day. Most of that was fiction, or what I would at the time have considered fiction but on rereading it now it resonates with the very things that inspired me to write "Private Soldiers" — the culture shock of experiencing war in a strange land, of growing up myself amid such physical dislocation, of witnessing other young soldiers in their own processes of change, of knowing that time at war was fleeting but would mark me and those around me for life with bonds of friendship, shared suffering and separation from home and family.
WHS Press: Military history is one of the most written about historical topics. What makes your story unique?
I think, less than unique, this is something of a universal experience, exactly the reason it is so often documented in writing. Whether someone goes through a transformation while at war or while at college or while on a cross country journey ala Kerouac, that process is universal. Distinctive to this book, though, is the fact that we documented it from the level of the soldier on the ground (which has been done enough, to be sure!) but also with professional-level photography throughout the entire country of Iraq, across which our missions of convoy escort spanned. So, literally, you see Iraq and life as a soldier from that perspective.
WHS Press: Describe the process of gathering information for this book. What became relevant and what was cut?
A great help, in the gathering and winnowing of information, was WHS Press'
early interest in the project. That got us going in a more organized, professional manner. Rather than thinking, back in the spring of 2006, 'Wouldn't it be nice to publish something when we got home?' we instead had a fairly good notion that this book would be published in a very nice way. So we started thinking about it more seriously: What would we need to photograph to capture the whole story? What is interesting here? From that conversation, between Joe Streeter, Nathan Olson, myself and our chain of command (especially LTC Taves and MAJ O'Brien) we decided to stand-up a special mission, an extra guntruck to accompany a convoy north so that we would have the flexibility to move around the convoy, take pictures from a distance, without having to actually be responsible for the convoy's security ourselves. We also, on that same 'mission', interviewed a number of local Iraqis and visited a few places of interest. Then, we made a list of all the amenities on base, stuff we should capture for the book. Completing that list took Joe and Nathan the better part of two months. We ended up with several thousand photos. What became relevant were iconographic images. How do you capture a year's worth of mission in one or two photos? How do you show all these young soldiers in the midst of their process of transformation, in the midst of work and — between work — long hours of nothingness, of separation from home? I think Joe and Nathan did a great job at that.
WHS Press: What was the most challenging part of writing this book? Were some experiences more difficult to write about than others?
The soldiers who were wounded and killed in action, treating them correctly in the book, with honor and respect and the certainty that they are and will always be included in us. That was toughest.
WHS Press: Who do you see as the audience for "Private Soldiers"?
Foremost, the families and friends of our soldiers, and the communities in Wisconsin, pretty much the whole of Wisconsin, from where these soldiers came. That's the main audience. As such the book takes the form of a very high-end yearbook. We want to tell these stories about our soldiers but in a way that includes nuance and personal anecdote that may not be 100% clear to other readers. Second audience, those who are interested in history and particularly the history of war, may find such anecdotes interesting and relevant although they would not smile with the same inward recognition of having been there and done that.
WHS Press: What do you hope people take away from your story? Why is this book important for Wisconsin?
This book is important to Wisconsin because it directly recounts an important episode for a large group, our 680 soldiers, but also because that same history is shared now by the majority of Wisconsin's National Guard and Reserve soldiers, almost 10,000 of them. As a living history of a war currently in progress, I hope people take away a greater understanding of what life is like over there, living on base, going out for missions, dealing with the Iraqi people.
2007 ForeWord Reviews' Book of the Year Award
Finalist in the History Category
Ben Buchholz and Joseph Streeter were interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio's Larry Meiller Show. The interview originally aired on Monday, September 24, 2007.
"Photographs, interviews, communiqués, letters, and poetry, all stitched together by sensitive prose into a full-bodied narrative, make 'Private Soldiers' a superb chronicle of an infantry battalion's year in Iraq. Reading it, I felt proud to be serving in the same Army with the 2-127th." —Lieutenant Colonel Art Bilodeau, Managing Editor, Military Review: The Professional Journal of the U.S. Army
"Wisconsin soldiers have served the state and nation proudly and with distinction since the Civil War and continue to do so in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. 'Private Soldiers' will give readers a snapshot of 32nd Infantry `Red Arrow' soldiers on today's battlefield as they adapt to new battle systems and take advantage of progressing technology — yet their dedication to duty, sacrifices, and self-less service endure." —Brigadier General James A. Krueck, Commander, Wisconsin Army National Guard, who also commanded the 32nd Infantry Brigade from Oct. 2000 to Oct.2006
"Wisconsin Army National Guard units had not experienced combat since World War Two. Sixty years after the 32nd Infantry `Red Arrow' Division celebrated the end of its long and bloody fight in the Asiatic-Pacific campaigns, the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment began conducting combat missions in Iraq. The Soldiers of the 2-127th Infantry Battalion lived up to the proud heritage of their forefathers and wrote another distinguished chapter into the unit's official history.
"Benjamin Buchholz's 'Private Soldiers' provides an outstanding record of the 2-127th Infantry Battalion's wartime service in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words. Buchholz's words, camera and his fellow Soldier's photographs portray the dedicated service and sacrifice of a few hundred of Wisconsin's Citizen-Soldiers engaged in ground combat in Iraq. Their mission provided convoy escort protection, route reconnaissance and security for U.S. logistical sustainment and force-rotation convoys originating from seaports and supply depots in Kuwait transiting the main supply routes in Iraq to combat units' forward operating bases and logistic support bases. The unit conducted thousands of missions, logged millions of miles and endured hundreds of enemy attacks as the men of the battalion convoyed throughout the length and breadth of Iraq. All of their convoys were round-trip missions, meaning that their return trips to Kuwait usually required them to pass through areas where they had previously been attacked. They called it `running the gauntlet.'
"Through 'Private Soldiers' we see the blood, sweat, toil and tears of the brave men of the 2-127th Infantry Battalion who volunteered to serve their fellow citizens, state and nation in wartime. Just like their forefathers, these men didn't ask for much, they didn't get much, but they gave a lot." —Brigadier General Charles J. Barr, Commanding General, 143rd Transportation Command, July 2005-June 2006
"Peel away the body armor and the cammo, ignore the alphabet soup that is military speak and these infantry men half a world away are just neighbors from up the street or the town next door, citizens one day, soldiers the next, missing homes and loved ones and the Packers and Dodge trucks, mourning for comrades killed or wounded and sharing the eternal truths of soldiering: In any group of eight dudes someone is bound to smell bad. Making public the experiences of private soldiers is revealing." —Dennis McCann, "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel"
"These are powerful soldier stories that bring the war in Iraq home to citizens of Wisconsin . . . an important historical record of the men and women of our state who served in combat as part of the Wisconsin Army National Guard." —Frederica Freyberg, Wisconsin Public Television
"If you have not journeyed into the Iraq war, this richly detailed narrative will take you there. If you have, this book will take you back." —Katherine M. Skiba, author of "Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq"
This book feature by Colleen Kottke appeared in "The Reporter" (Fond du Lac) June 26, 2007
Brandon soldier chronicles service of Wisconsin National Guard unit
Crammed together with a group of grown men living in a tent eight time zones away from home set Capt. Ben Buchholz to thinking.
"It made me wonder how much I and the men around me had been changed by the experience of being deployed," said Buchholz, who served as the civil affairs officer of the 2nd Battalion 127th Infantry in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Cradling a photo that he had taken of a keepsake sent to him by his young son in February 2006, the Brandon resident brainstormed ways to chronicle the images and experiences from the perspective of young soldiers.
"I wanted to document how different we were living. From patrol convoys moving through dangerous terrain to eating in the mess hall or checking e-mails from home," Buchholz said.
After sharing his idea with the chain of command, Buchholz, began interviewing fellow soldiers and local Iraqis, weaving their perspectives and experiences into his book "Private Soldiers: A Year in Iraq with a Wisconsin National Guard Unit."
The book—published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press—also features candid images taken by two professional photographers, Lt. Nathan Olson and Sgt. Joseph Streeter, also deployed with the 2nd Battalion 127th Infantry.
Buchholz said Olson and Streeter toted their own cameras with them while on missions, sometimes holding a gun in one hand while cradling a camera in the other.
To strengthen troop numbers overseas in the Middle East, the United States began tapping National Guard units all across the country, including the Red Arrow 32nd Infantry Brigade. The unit had not served overseas since World War II.
Called up from jobs behind desks, from courtrooms and classrooms, construction companies and factories, this band of citizen soldiers was assembled. Soldiers were sent to Iraq to escort and provide security for troop and supply movements through some of the most hostile terrain.
Buchholz said the U.S. has gone from using the National Guard as a strategic reserve to building it up and sending it into the battlefield and beyond.
"We're in an unusual environment where we're trying to rebuild a country," Buchholz said. "Here you have a plumber carrying a .50 caliber gun. A sewer line in an Iraqi house springs a leak and he can apply his civilian skills to make a difference right on the spot. The Guard is able to bring different skills to the battlefield."
Rising to the challenge
In his book, Buchholz talks about the many challenges faced by young soldiers tasked with fighting an unseen enemy and dealing with language barriers.
Day and night, 24 Humvee teams (three soldiers each) from the unit provided armed escort for convoys of up to 50 civilian-contracted and military semis moving throughout the country. Manning three armored Humvees, two groups of soldiers headed up the front and rear of the three mile convoy while the third vehicle ran back and forth along the entire length, on the lookout for potential problems.
"This was one of the most dangerous missions. Traveling with the highly visible convoys, we were like large targets rolling down the roads," Buchholz said. "It was a lonely mission and required tremendous maturity, responsibility and tactical know-how from junior soldiers. The decisions of those soldiers determined not only the success of the mission but the safety of the crews and vehicles."
In addition to watching out for IEDs (improvised explosive devices) along the roadside, soldiers had to deal with equipment breakdowns and the antics of non-English speaking drivers. In his book, Buchholz refers to the convoy as a "Rolling Tower of Babel."
"Communication was a big issue. We also had drivers falling asleep at the wheel and running into each other or Pakistani and Indian drivers who don't like each other, racing and passing one another on the road," Buchholz said. "There was a lot of strangeness."
Soldiers also had to be on constant alert for hijackers. Of 44 attempts to steal vehicles, 16 were successful, he said.
"When you have a truck worth $40,000 filled with $20,000 in goods, that's pretty damned good money for someone making $350 a month," Buchholz said of the thefts.
Testament of courage
Buchholz's aunt, Waupun Mayor Jodi Steger, said the book will provide citizens and family members insight into the sacrifice and duty performed by the soldiers.
"It's about the day-to-day events of what actually happens, things that the TV news cameras don't catch," Steger said.
All royalties from sale of the book will benefit the Battalion's family support groups and memorial funds for fallen battalion members—Sgt. Andrew Wallace, 25, of Ripon, Pfc. Michael Wendling, 20, of Mayville, and Sgt. Ryan Jopek, 20, of Merrill.
This book feature by Elizabeth Ries appeared October 12, 2007 on WBAY-TV (Green Bay)
Sharing the Story of "Private Soldiers"
"A Year in Iraq with a Wisconsin National Guard Unit." That's the premise of a new book called "Private Soldiers" authored by three members of the Appleton-based 127th Infantry. The soldiers chronicled their time serving on the border of Iraq and Kuwait between 2005 and 2006.
Operation Enduring Freedom has taken thousands of Wisconsin soldiers away from their families to a land that's completely foreign.
"A lot of these I was there for when the photographs were taken," Captain Ben Buchholz shows us, "and if I look at it, I'm standing there again, I can smell what Iraq smells like again, which is horrible."
But it was a photograph that motivated Buchholz to put a year's worth of experiences into a book. It's a photograph of Buchholz's bunk scattered with trinkets he picked up along the way, covered in a fine film of Iraqi dust.
"I'd been doing this just as a, man, I don't want to miss this, I want to have something of this to take back."
Buchholz recruited two soldiers who are also photographers to help.
"Joe said at one point, 'If we get bombed on this mission, you'll find me curled around my camera so that it doesn't get destroyed.' He was just in love with that thing."
It's a story that ranges in emotion. During downtime, fellow soldiers lounge by an on-base pool or get creative with markers.
But their friendships make loss even more difficult. Three members of the unit were killed. That section of the book was hardest to work on, Buchholz says.
"It was really very emotional. I was very close to the guys. I was their company commander before we went, and I just had a real hard time with it."
It also tells the story of the Iraqi people through interviews.
"One guy, we were just driving through the market and we saw he was wearing a U.S. Army T-shirt, and we said, oh, we've gotta stop and talk to him, so we found out about his business. He'd just been starting a welding business, having a hard time getting a hold of iron."
But most of all it's a journey back home to Wisconsin, a place he now sees with new eyes and hopes you will, too.
"Coming back and sitting on a street corner like this with green grass and a safe community, it's just something that most of the world doesn't have, and I think we're way under-appreciative as Americans of what we have here."
All royalties from sales of the book go to a memorial fund for the soldiers who died and to the unit's family support group.
The book is published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press in bookstores and online.
This book feature by William Wineke appeared in the "Wisconsin State Journal" on Sunday, October 14, 2007
From May 2005 until August 2006, Capt. Benjamin Buchholz, of Brandon, served with the Wisconsin Army National Guard in Iraq as part of the 2-127th Gator Battalion, served in battle, served with men and women who were killed in action, served with men who were wounded and who fought to rebuild their lives.
His story, documented in photographs by Staff Sergeant Joseph Streeter, Madison, and Lt. Nathan Olson Columbus, tells the tale of that deployment in "Private Soldiers: A Year in Iraq With a Wisconsin National Guard Unit" (Wisconsin Historical Society Press: $29.95).
"Nathan, Joe and I have done what we can to document how soldiers lived, how we performed our unique mission, how we trained and how we bonded as a unit," Buchholz writes. "These bonds are difficult to capture on film, more difficult yet to describe in words. The true testament to their strength will come 50 years from now, when we still number among our best friends the men with whom we rode into battle this year."
The book basically takes the reader through the deployment, beginning with an "alert script" used to notify the National Guard soldiers that they are about to be called to active duty, including the warning that "this would be an involuntary activation. Members of the unit would be ordered to active duty with or without their consent."
It includes an account of training in Wisconsin and in Kuwait.
"The entire military experience, from basic training until you cross the border into a war zone, is nothing but training. It all adds up, every experience, into preparation for that moment when you undertake to perform a live mission, with live bullets, in a land where law and order are not the norm ..."
Buchholz describes convoy duty; he describes sand; he interviews officers and he interviews enlisted soldiers. He also tells the story of the fallen.
The deaths, obviously, moved the unit, Buchholz writes.
"No longer was this training or an easy mission, a routine. No longer were deaths a statistic heard distantly on the news. These (men) were friends, comrades, close as brothers to many in the battalion. We'd been on the ground for less than a month and everyone, to the man, questioned how many more deaths those months would hold."
Buchholz tells a moving story. He tells it in a matter-of-fact manner that requests only that the reader respect the dedication of some brave soldiers.
This book feature by Kenneth Burns appeared in the "Isthmus" on Friday, January 18, 2008
Private Soldiers show Iraq photos at Wisconsin Historical Museum
What does the war in Iraq look like? When I conjure up snapshots in my mind, I think of dramatic images: The toppling of the Saddam statue, a Humvee blasted to bits by a roadside bomb, Iraqis weeping in the street. But there are calmer moments, too, and some of them are captured in "Private Soldiers: A Year in Iraq with a Wisconsin National Guard Unit," an exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Museum on the Capitol Square.
"Private Soldiers" collects photographs from a new book about the 2-127th Infantry Battalion, whose members arrived in the Iraqi theater in August 2005. Published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, the book is by Capt. Benjamin Buchholz and photographers Lt. Nathan Olson and Staff Sgt. Joseph Streeter.
In the first of the 18 photos, the soldiers train in Mississippi and Kuwait. One shot from Kuwait captures the sight of a few Humvees dwarfed by an achingly beautiful desert sky. Other photographs show the heavily armored members of the 2-127th as, on Iraqi highways, they guard semi trailers in kilometer-long convoys. Still another shows soldiers at their leisure, smoking cigarettes in front of rows of sand-colored tents.
The photographers also turned their cameras on Iraqis. In one picture a man leading a camel wears a quizzical expression, and in another two soldiers talk to a boy of about ten. He looks away, clutching a bottle of water. His feet are bare in the sand.
The captions accompanying the pictures are matter-of-fact, though some have wry humor. "Anytime our convoy stopped, even in the most inhospitable desert," one says, "merchants appeared to sell us knives, cigarettes, Viagra, and movies."
Perhaps the most poignant image is one Buchholz took of a clay pot made by his five-year-old son. In the captain's tent, the pot sits amid everyday items: a deck of cards, a paperback dictionary. The picture, Buchholz writes in a caption, "made me wonder how much I had been changed by the experience of being deployed."
"Private Soldiers" runs at the Wisconsin Historical Museum through March 8.
This book feature by Samara Kalk Derby appeared in "The Capital Times" on Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Wisconsin Soldiers' Book Tell Inside Story
They can sum up their year in Iraq in one word: Hot.
In their new book, "Private Soldiers: A Year in Iraq with a Wisconsin National Guard Unit," writer Benjamin Buchholz and photographers Joseph Streeter and Nathan Olson provide a coffee table yearbook from their experiences as soldiers of the 2-127th Gator Battalion.
Buchholz, Streeter and Olson began their on-the-job training as soon as they reached Kuwait in August 2005.
In the book, which was released this week, one soldier described stepping off the plane in Kuwait. "Imagine opening an oven when you're making pizza. Stick your head inside, and then have someone turn on a sandblaster so you get the feeling of hot sand pummeling you."
During the first weeks of training in Kuwait, the soldiers' main concerns were hydration and acclimatization, getting their bodies used to 130-degree temperatures.
The nature of their mission, convoy escort, made travel through the most dangerous regions of Iraq unavoidable. The soldiers faced hostile action daily. But mostly it was dull, the men said.
"People get the impression from the movies that combat is like a nonstop adrenaline rush, that you are constantly engaged with the enemy and fighting. That's not what it's like," said Buchholz, who was the 2-127th infantry battalion's civil affairs officer during deployment. He works full-time for the Wisconsin Army National Guard as the 2-127th's training officer and lives in Brandon, Wis.
"It's long periods of pure boredom punctuated by short periods of sheer terror," added Streeter, who's been a member of the Wisconsin Army National Guard for more than 12 years. While deployed in Iraq he served as a squad leader in the 2-127th's C Company. He lives in Madison.
Buchholz said that he spent eight hours one night getting EOD, or explosive ordinance disposal, to bring a robot in to blow up a concrete block.
"Most everything is a dud but it kind of keeps you on your toes all the time. And the trick as a leader is to keep your soldiers on their toes through all that down time when nothing is happening," he said.
The 620 soldiers of the Gator Battalion served in Iraq after training at Camp Shelby, Miss. While on their tour, they provide armed convoy escort and route security throughout the country, from Umm Qasr in the South to Mosul in the far north, a distance that men estimated was equivalent from driving from southern Illinois to northern Wisconsin.
Their missions took them into the most dangerous regions of Iraq. The battalion saw dozens wounded and three killed in action.
All royalties from sales of "Private Soldiers" will go to 2-127th's family support groups and to funds established in the memory of the battalion members who gave their lives in the Iraq war: Andrew Wallace, Michael Wendling and Ryan Jopek.
"We are very honored to be able to publish this book, one of the only books I know of that is about the guys themselves. It's not about the politics of the war. It's about Wisconsin men doing their job," said Kathy Borkowski, editorial director of the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, which published the book.