Just over eight years ago this month, Staff Sergeant Tommy Little fought his last battle in a Texas army hospital—it was a battle for his life.
SSG Little, a soldier in the Mississippi National Guard, had been injured in Iraq and had since been transported to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Back in Iraq, his unit—and specifically his platoon—waited for news that his recovery was trending in the right direction.
After all, he was stabilized enough to move from southwest Asia to Texas. His tale started on April 19, 2005, however, with the author of this piece hovering over the plot.
One warm, April morning in 2005, a young lieutenant visited a young intelligence analyst for a briefing. The lieutenant—a platoon leader in Alpha Battery, 2nd Battalion/114th Field Artillery—had a mission that would take his guys through new territory. It was his job to get the scoop; and it was the intel analyst’s job to provide it.
The battalion had set up shop in Karbala Province, located about 100km south-southwest of Baghdad. Karbala was flanked by a lake to the west and the Euphrates in the east. Along the river was a somewhat dense woodland of palm trees, but as one moved away from the river, the terrain became dry and sandy.
In this case, the platoon’s mission would take them north of Karbala, and most of the main routes would have them pass through infamously dangerous places: Iskandariyah, Mahmudiyah, Baghdad, Fallujah. The lieutenant had studied a map and noted an east-west route north of Karbala and south of Fallujah and Baghdad (the hostile Sunni Triangle), which was a key subject of his inquiry with his young counterpart in the battalion’s intelligence section.
Red dots were scattered all over the battalion’s map, denoting IED (improvised explosive device) attacks—the feared roadside bomb. As the lieutenant noted, this particular route was noticeably clear of IED attacks.
Well, the analyst opined, this was true in large part because it was essentially the road less traveled. It was a dirt road and convoys were rare; therefore, with relatively few targets, insurgents seemed to have left the route alone. While there would still be risk, particularly from mines or mine-like devices buried in the sand (and invisible to the naked eye), the remoteness made the road statistically less risky. In doing so, they would avoid the main supply route to the north as well as the main supply route running east and west between Baghdad and Fallujah.
So the platoon set out on its mission. They traveled north out of Karbala on a lower-traffic improved route and then bolted eastward along the dirt road.
Later that day, news arrived at the battalion headquarters that one of the platoon’s vehicles had run over a mine-like explosive device. There were injuries, some of them serious. If memory serves correctly, the platoon sergeant had sustained the most serious injuries, include wounds to the head. He was transported via MEDEVAC to an in-country medical facility.
Small snippets of information came in from time to time regarding the injured soldier. At one point, the operations officer said he heard that the soldier might lose his sight in one or both eyes but that it looked like he might pull through.
In each of these instances, the men often referred to him not by his rank and last name per protocol, but by his first name: Tommy. Even field grade officers were saying, “Tommy” or “Tommy Little” instead of “SSG Little.” It demonstrated one of the nuances of the National Guard. Yes, these soldiers are soldiers in a system with ranks and etiquette, but they also live together when they are not on duty, and in many cases, soldiers of vastly different ranks might be best friends.
So, yes, the injured soldier was SSG Tommy Little, and he was fighting for his life.
The circumstances of the attack were surely unexpected given the analysis of the route: remote, relatively untraveled. Still, the nature of the terrain—dirt, basically—made it textbook ideal for mine-like devices. Plus, this was a war zone, so the unexpected should be expected, even with the best analysis based on the best information available at any given time.
But, word leaked into the headquarters that the platoon was angry, and they were placing blame on the young intelligence analyst for SSG Little’s condition. After all, the platoon chose their route in large part based on the intelligence analysis.
On May 2, 2005, 2nd Battalion/114th Field Artillery was notified that it had suffered its first fatality of the war. SSG Tommy Little had succumbed to his wounds and lost his last battle. He passed away at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas.
It was a somber time, to be sure. While it was a depressing development for the battalion headquarters, it must have been infinitely more so for SSG Little’s platoon. Then multiply that by unimaginable factors for his family.
Later, the platoon apparently directed its ire at the intelligence analyst. As that analyst, I would accept and internalize the blame, which was very haunting for many years—and still is to a degree. After all, I had endorsed the route. While there is no way of knowing if the mission would have gone off without a hitch had the platoon taken any of the main or alternate supply routes, we do know what happened along the route they did take.
2nd Battalion/114th Field Artillery and its task force suffered a total of five combat fatalities in 2005. One came from an organic 2/114th battery that was attached to another task force, but the other four were in the battalion’s task force. Two were Mississippi National Guardsmen, and two were members of an attached cavalry troop.
As an intelligence analyst, my charge was to provide the best analysis possible to support the mission. Through a combination of arrogance—I was an active duty soldier, and the active duty tended to look down on the National Guard—initiative, and some skill, much of the battalion’s intelligence was my doing, both good and bad.
Initially, I was focused on a desire to know everything and to get the bad guys. Later, as reality set in, my single mission was to bring as many soldiers home as possible—to save lives. It was almost as if I was taking on the commander’s burden. Still, I was the intel guy with all of the information, able to point the guys on the road every day in the right direction, to steer them clear of danger. So they could make it home alive. Thus, I took on a huge share of the blame for each man we lost, fairly or not. In retrospect, there always seemed to have been a suggestion I could have made, a dot I could have connected, that might have ensured that this soldier or that soldier, as anonymous as they really were, would have been sitting across the aisle on a jumbo jet later that year, headed for home.
Ultimately, I had pointed out the positives of the road less traveled, and for SSG Tommy Little, that certainly made all the difference.
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.