For one unit, the day after Veterans Day marks a bitter memory

Five years ago on Nov. 12, one of Iraq's first 'green-on-blue' attacks took its toll on Bill Greenwood's unit

Staff Sgt. Bill Greenwood, Pfc. Jared Viano, and Spc. Corey Shea on the morning of Nov. 12, 2008, before the shooting. Iraqi National Police troops stand at right.

Bill Greenwood had been a patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for only a week or two in late 2008 when his wife and parents took him out to a restaurant. It was the first time he'd left the hospital since being flown home from Iraq with six gunshot wounds and a shattered femur.

When he saw that their cab driver looked Middle Eastern, Greenwood panicked quietly. "I thought he was going to get us into an accident on purpose," he remembers.

An oval-faced staff sergeant from Indiana with a long, sharp nose, Greenwood knew he was being paranoid. He'd had plenty of friendly interactions with Iraqis during his two yearlong deployments. But after he was shot by an Iraqi soldier — an ally — it turned things upside down for him.

Greenwood wasn't the only victim. The Iraqi soldier shot seven other Americans in that small concrete courtyard in Mosul, a provincial capital 250 miles northwest of Baghdad. Two of them, Spc. Corey Shea and Sgt. Jose Regalado, died.

Five years have passed since that attack, on Nov. 12, 2008 — a rarity, actually. The U.S. military mission in Iraq has ended and, in Afghanistan, similar attacks on Americans — called "green on blue" in military lingo — have soared. In 2012, 15 percent of Western troops who died in Afghanistan did so at the hand of "allies," leaving hundreds of veterans like Bill Greenwood to deal with the complicated after-effects.

For the soldiers in the courtyard that day in Mosul who survived, life has gone on, but it remains difficult come November. For them, Veterans Day, Nov. 11, is forever linked to the one on which they lost Shea and Regalado — one day later. 

Spc. Steven Bullock in front, kneeling, and Spc. Anthony Salinas behind him, standing, during the morning patrol in Zanjili

November 12, 2008

As 2008 drew to a close, Mosul was one of the Iraq War's last battlefields. At Camp Marez — a large hilltop base at the edge of Mosul where soldiers frequented a Burger King trailer and enjoyed milk shakes in the chow hall — plumes from car and truck bombs were often visible, twisting up from the city below.

The soldiers of Red Platoon, K Troop, 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment — Greenwood's unit — split their time between Marez and a much smaller outpost in the city's northwest section. The outpost was a collection of concrete barriers and plywood buildings plopped down on a city block. I was visiting Mosul as a freelance embedded reporter, and it was much like many other outposts I had seen across Iraq.

On Veterans Day, the soldiers at the outpost pulled shifts of guard duty or messed around and watched DVDs until late in the night. The lanky young officer in charge of Red Platoon, 1st Lt. Christopher Hanes, spent the evening playing war games on his laptop; a stocky senior sergeant first class named David Neuzil watched the comedy Reno 911!: Miami.

The next morning, Red Platoon left the outpost in Humvees and Bradley armored vehicles and spent the morning roaming the streets of Zanjili, a neighborhood with a strong insurgent presence. They’d been attacked there before.

Patrols like this were how they spent their days. They would link up with Iraqi soldiers or policemen, drive with them to a nerve-wracking spot like Zanjili and roam around on foot, talking to people, waiting for something to happen. 

On Nov. 12, nothing much did — at least during most of the patrol. The last stop was the Zanjili police station, where both Red Platoon and its sister unit, Blue Platoon, checked in on their Iraqi allies. The lieutenants, along with their interpreters and myself, headed into the office of the senior Iraqi officer. About a dozen soldiers formed a perimeter in the station's courtyard.

First one shot rang out, then a burst. By the time the lieutenants and I dashed out of the office, eight American soldiers were on the ground, shot. The beige-clad Iraqi soldier who shot them, Pvt. Muhammad Abdullah al-Hadidi, was dead. According to my interviews with the surviving soldiers, Hadidi had emerged from a back room of the station. Without warning, he opened fire with an AK-47 equipped with a 75-round drum magazine. Neuzil and another soldier returned fire, hitting him with dozens of rounds.

Spc. Shea, from Massachusetts, died on the scene from a head wound. He was a 21-year-old goofball. "He loved to dance. He was horrible at it, but you couldn't tell him that, because he wouldn't believe you," said David Ashley, who was shot in the face in the attack.

Regalado, a soft-spoken 23-year-old sergeant from Los Angeles, made it to the combat hospital at Camp Marez before he succumbed. A bullet had gotten past his body armor, hitting him in his torso. He had, in vain, carried around an ultrasound image of his daughter for luck.

He told me that keeping everything inside would keep you down, that you have to tell what happened.

No one in the platoon ever learned why Hadidi did what he did, as is often the case in green-on-blue shootings. He may have secretly harbored a grievance against Americans for years, or maybe militants got to him and told him that if he didn't attack his Western allies they would kill his family.

Spc. Steven Bullock, a blond Tennessean who was shot in the calf in the attack, had established a good rapport with some of the Iraqis he worked with. "You may not know them as well on a personal basis like I knew Corey or Reg, but those guys go out with you and get shot at just like you do, and you see it every day and you're interacting with them every day," he says. The attack felt like a betrayal, and it made him rethink those interactions: "You may know them and they may seem friendly, they may give you cigarettes or food or bring you chai every time you see them. But you never know, they may turn the gun around on you."

Steven Bullock with his wife
Courtesy Steven Bullock

November 12, 2013

Combat stress is different for every soldier. Some come out of it stronger; some struggle just to stay afloat. The mental-health consequences of green-on-blue attacks are no different, but the stress resulting from their particular brand of broken trust and surprise can have its own jarring impact, as both Greenwood and platoon sergeant Dave Neuzil learned.

Before he first went to Iraq in 2003, Neuzil read retired Lt. Col. David Grossman's book "On Killing," which describes the psychological effects of violence in combat — things Neuzil experienced during and after the deployment, when he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Everything that happened in Iraq was in his book," he remembers. "It taught me you're not the only one going through this, and keeping it inside doesn't do you any good."

Of the soldiers wounded in the Zanjili shooting, all were evacuated from Iraq except Bullock. When Neuzil picked Bullock up from the combat hospital, he gave him some advice. "He told me that keeping everything inside of you is only going to keep you down, that you have to tell the story of what happened," Bullock remembers.

He took Neuzil's words to heart, putting Purple Heart license plates on his truck when he returned home. Anytime a stranger noticed the plates and thanked him for his service, Bullock would tell the story of the shooting. That helped, as did dedicating a wall of photos in his house to the memory of the soldiers who died in Mosul. He also got a memorial tattoo depicting an upright rifle in a pair of empty boots — the way fallen troops are represented at their memorial ceremonies — with three stars underneath representing Shea, Regalado and a third soldier the unit lost in Mosul.

Neuzil, though, failed to take his own advice.

Every November since the attack has been tough for him, especially when soldiers would post memorial messages on Facebook. But for the most part, he insisted that day in Mosul hadn't affected him that much.

But at the end of 2011, back in Iraq for another deployment, Neuzil had a paranoid moment like Greenwood's in the cab. A few days before the final pullout from his base, a group of Iraqi soldiers showed up to take the reins. When Neuzil walked into the chow hall and saw them, he became agitated, though he knew he shouldn't be.

"I couldn't eat. I kept watching them until they walked out," he says. "I'm sure those Iraqis had no intention of doing anything. But the uniform, them being Iraqis, it was just too many switches being flipped at once."

Neuzil's reaction worried him. What if one of them made a sudden move, he thought, and I had shot him? He talked to his chaplain and superior officers. They sent him home two weeks early, just in case. It was a wake-up call for Neuzil: he needed to do the same things he had been urging others to do.

Bill Greenwood
Courtesy Bill Greenwood

For Greenwood, recovering from his psychological wounds initially took a backseat to treatment for the physical ones. In his first 10 days at Walter Reed, he lost 25 pounds. His doctors told him he would likely be in bed for 8 to 12 weeks, and afterward he'd walk with a limp and never be able to run again.

But recovery went much faster and better than expected. Two years after the attack, he ran a grueling Tough Mudder endurance race, partly as preparation to try out for the Special Forces. "That was my big 'Screw you' to the doctors," he jokes.

After the race, however, Greenwood lost his motivation. The idea of his staying in the Army terrified his daughter, Natalie, who was just shy of six when he was shot. He took medical retirement instead.

"The first three anniversaries of the attack, I drank a lot. I don't even remember. It's just a blur,” Greenwood says. Shortly before the Tough Mudder, his marriage ended. He tried college but didn't like it. When a woman he was dating ended things in 2012, he became depressed, started drinking heavily and dropped out of school.

In 2011 and 2012, green-on-blue attacks began to break out across Afghanistan in alarming numbers. Of the approximately 400 Western troops who died in Afghanistan in 2012, at least 60 were killed in green-on-blue shootings. The Taliban was embracing them because they eroded the trust that had been built between foreign soldiers and their local allies. Because Afghan troops were sometimes targeted too, the military renamed them "insider attacks." Many Afghan officers live in fear of being killed by one of their soldiers.

News of these attacks gave Greenwood a sick, eerie feeling. After hearing of one, his mind would flash to the moment when the bullets started hitting him and he fell to the ground, unsure whether he was alive or dead. "It was almost like I knew exactly how those guys felt right before they died," he says.

Visiting Denise Anderson, Shea's mother, helped Greenwood put things in perspective. He'd wanted to meet her for years, but kept putting it off until one Memorial Day, when he visited her in Mansfield, Mass. A room in her house was a shrine to her son, she told him, filled with pictures she would talk to when she couldn't face the world. She had devoted considerable time and energy to advocating legislation called the Corey Shea Act, which would allow her to be buried alongside Corey. Greenwood realized, visiting her, that in the grand scheme of things he was doing fine.

To Anderson, Greenwood's visit was a precious gift. Other soldiers from the platoon had come, and she talked often to some of them, including Bullock. But to her, they all seemed like kids, as Corey had been. Greenwood — who was more mature and experienced and had looked after her son — was different.

Some of the soldiers who survived the Zanjili attack, like Ashley and Bullock, wear memorial bracelets with their friends' names etched on them, a common practice among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Christopher Hanes, Shea's lieutenant, now a captain, does not. Though he has photos of Shea and Regalado, he doesn't keep them out on display. To him, the memory of that day in Mosul is a constant enough presence, there every day in the background. When he spent a year in Afghanistan recently, it shifted to the foreground, as he emphasized to his subordinates how important it was to keep their guard up with their local allies.

"I think about it all the time. But it doesn't slow me down. I'm not going to sit around and be grief-stricken about it," says Hanes, who now lives in Alaska with his wife, three-year-old daughter and newborn son. "Those men died that day in defense of me. I owe it to them to do something great. I hope my children do something great, and that's why I made it out of there that day."

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