To Iraq and Back: Three UMD students’ journeys with the U.S. Army

This is the first installment of three in a series called “Iraq and Back” profiling three UMD students and their personal involvement in the U.S. Army and the War in Iraq. Sergeant Benjamin Hatton is the first of these three veterans at UMD that sat down with me. He discussed his experiences in the Army, through basic training, to 16 months in Iraq and his life after war. Hatton, along with Tristyn Runia and Matt Peterson, shed new light on the term “war stories,” giving civilians an almost refreshing, yet still gruesome at times, peek into the life of a soldier.

This particular day, March 23, 2011, is a milestone of sorts for Hatton, as it marks exactly one year remaining on the contract that binds him to the U.S. military. Since I personally know very little about the internal workings of the military, Hatton briefly gave me the “run-down” in terms I will understand: sports.

“You sign your contract for what’s called a ‘six plus two’ so it’s eight years total, but you are only considered in ‘active drilling’ status for six years. When your time is up, you can choose to say ‘It was a pleasure working with you, see ya later!’ Or, if the game’s still goin’, ‘Put me back in, coach!’ and renew your contract,” said Hatton, as he laughs about this comparison.

Looking at the 25-year-old UMD senior, you’d never be able to venture a guess as to the things those wide blue eyes have seen. Originally from Long Prairie, Minn., this self-proclaimed “small town hick” says he knew from the age of 16 that he wanted to be in the military. If not for the benefit of college funding, Hatton admitted he probably wouldn’t have enlisted.

Hatton spent the summer of 2003, between his junior and senior years of high school, in Fort Knox, Ky., at basic training. During these three months he met Tristyn Runia, whose friendship would prove to be stronger than any other in the coming years.

On April 5, 2006, shortly after being promoted from private first class to the title of specialist during his six-month deployment training, Hatton and his platoon touched down in Kuwait.

“You don’t know exactly what job you’re going to have in Iraq literally until you get there, and that’s what your time in Kuwait is for,” Hatton explains. “You train very, very specifically for your job for seven to nine days, and then you fly up to your unit.”

Hatton notes that joining your unit does not mean you’re thrown to the dogs the second you arrive.

He said, “You have at least three weeks of integration, or shadowing, with the person whose job you’re taking over.”

As with all situations in life, though, you can’t train for everything.

Over the course of talking to him for a few weeks, I found that more often than not, Hatton will refute the above statement with: “We are trained for every possible situation that could arise in a war zone by being put through them in a damn-near real setting.”

One particular conversation about training is different, as he starts to rattle off a rendition of his usual response, and then stops. Before I can inquire about his long pause, Hatton sits back in his chair. In one fluid motion, Hatton folds his hands into his lap, looks up toward the sky and lets out a long, deep sigh.

Only a minute or two of total silence has passed, but it feels exponentially longer while I wait for him to find words. When he finally speaks, I am reminded of just how much these boys really went through.

“Do you want know the first time I really felt like, ‘oh, shit…this is real’ when I was over there?” Hatton asks as he unfixes his gaze from the ceiling. I nod “yes” as his eyes settle back on me and the tape recorder on the table between us.

“It was probably our tenth convoy in Iraq,” Hatton said. “It was around midnight, and Runia’s Humvee was at the rear. We were both drivers at the time, and my vehicle was three or four ahead his. Everything was running as per usual, until I saw what looked like a Hollywood explosion that seemed to play out in slow motion around me. My ears were ringing so loud that everything else was inaudible.”

Hatton goes on to further divulge that the horror taking place in front of him was Runia’s vehicle being blown up by a roadside bomb.

Being that the military has a strategy for every type of situation, Hatton was forced to remain in his vehicle and sit idly by, wondering if he’d be shipping his best friend’s dog tags home. While he explains reacting to the situation as “almost second nature” because of their extensive battle drill practice, this was a moment that shook Hatton.

“That’s the moment it really hit me that this was real. By the time I was literally hit [with a bullet], the gravity of the situation had already set in,” Hatton said, wringing his hands.

In November of 2006 Hatton received his first Purple Heart when he was shot in the shoulder during a massive firefight. After a few months, Hatton was promoted to a gunner, which meant his new job was operating the gun on top of his Humvee. In February of 2007, he was awarded with his second Purple Heart after his Humvee hit a roadside bomb.

Hatton remembers waking up on the side of the road, covered in blood and having bit through both lips, after being thrown from the top of the vehicle like a rag doll.

“Yeah, those injuries could have sent me home, but I wasn’t going anywhere,” Hatton said.

Sixteen months later, Hatton found himself being “demobilized” and “reintegrated” in Wisconsin.

“Coming back was not as unnerving as people think. Sure, for a while we all hit the ground with every loud noise we heard and it’s still a struggle to this day,” Hatton told me, quickly adding, “There are still some social situations I’m put in around here that make me wish I was back in Iraq. I know that I am not quite normal, but I do everything I can to act like it.”

After a week of unwinding and completing piles of psychological tests, each soldier is referred to a veteran’s clinic based on individual evaluations. Hatton was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the severity of which labeled him with a disability rating of 30 percent. This percentage, after consultation with his own therapist, was reevaluated almost two years later.

“Having PTSD changes the way you act because you have to change to be able to cope,” Hatton said of his condition.

Now, with a disability rating of over 100 percent based on PTSD and other hearing-related issues, Sergeant Hatton is not eligible for redeployment. The rest of his unit leaves for Kuwait this May.

Decorated with two Purple Hearts, a Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, two Army Commendation Medals and 15 other medals and badges, Hatton will spend his remaining year with the military training new soldiers at the Duluth Armory.

Have you or anyone you know had experiences in the U.S Army? We’d love to hear your stories in the comment form below.

Related links: Iraq and Back: Part 2
Iraq and Back: Part 3

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