This is the last 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.
Tristyn Runia was described to me as being your typical, stocky, “I’m in the Army” kind of guy, an impression that was not instilled upon me when we first met. Runia, fresh from a Harry Potter marathon, sat down across from me wearing a shirt with one of the “Seven Dwarfs” plastered on the front.
Runia, who described himself as being, “a pretty jovial type of dude,” always knew he was going to be in the Army. With a grandfather in the Navy, a father, two uncles and several other relatives having been in the Army, enlisting was inevitable.
In early 2005, two years after enlisting and finishing basic training, Runia was accepted into UMD. Around this same time, his platoon was mobilized and sent to Camp Shelby in Miss., to prepare for Iraq. This would put Runia’s new plans for college on a back burner.
“Bad doesn’t even begin to describe Mississippi,” said Runia in reference to the local lifestyle. “But the train up itself was pretty substandard.”
This was a brigade-wide train up, which meant there were over 600 soldiers of different ranks training at once, the stress level was exacerbated by the large number of troops involved.
“Everything in Iraq was still a new development, which brought constant changes to the rules of engagement and ultimately made the train up that much more stressful,” said Runia.
The next six months were filled with weapons training, modifications to operations training, battle drills and language immersion training. The most defining moment of the train up for Runia came during their most exhausting week at Camp Shelby.
“We were running a week of 24 hour ops,” Runia explained. “Each guy was on for twelve hours and then off for twelve. We were all so mentally and physically drained, and I accidentally shot off a blank.”
This might not seem like a big deal to most of us; after all it was just a blank, right? Runia’s punishment for “negligent discharge with a blank” was to write a letter to a fellow soldier’s parents, saying that he had killed their son.
“We didn’t send it off; I wrote it and had to read it in front of the entire company. Leadership really wanted to pound into us the severity of where we were going,” Runia said with a reminiscent look on his face. “We were going to Iraq. This is serious stuff.”
Runia kept that letter with him on every mission in Iraq, he said, “as a reminder of the stakes we’re playing for out there.”
Once in Iraq, the first few months were docile and filled with routine, five-day rotations while each soldier got used to their jobs. Runia started out as a driver of a scout vehicle. “My gunner, Bob, had the best eyes in the company. I think he found 15 bombs.” Runia said.
On June 21, 2006, at 11:30 p.m., Runia’s vehicle came in contact with a roadside bomb that not even Bob could detect.
“I remember just a big bang, a giant bright light, and then it was just darkness. I couldn’t steer but I could drive, so I pounded on the gas to get us about 100 meters off the axis,” Runia described with fidgeting hands. “I got out and found Bob had shrapnel in his face and [my T.C.] Lance had a burn on his forehead. It was nothing serious, but it kind of freaked everybody out.”
Runia recalled sitting in his platoon sergeant’s truck and smoking an entire pack of cigarettes in the hour and a half it took to get back to the camp. This marked the first time their company had been engaged by the enemy.
“The adrenaline for something like that is insane. You can’t repeat it,” said Runia. “You can go cliff diving up here in Duluth, or whatever, but you just can’t get it back. It’s unreal, that adrenalin, and it just runs and runs and then you just crash.”
One of the mandates for situations like Runia’s accident is that the soldiers involved had to call home to let their families know something had happened and they didn’t have to hear about it on the news. One downfall of that mandate is that the soldiers cannot give any information as to what they’re doing.
“I don’t think my mother slept for a week after that. She was crazy, calling everyone and trying to get information,” Runia said.
After that, there was a lull in the action. Runia described that as being the norm.
“War these days is a lot of sitting there, and sitting there, and sitting there, punctuated by moments of complete chaos and insanity,” he said.
This downtime allowed for Runia’s favorite hobbies: pranks and movies.
“We mess with each other constantly,” Runia said as he laughed. “The way you show you care about someone in the military is to do exactly that, piss them off. If you can take it, then you can be our friend.”
Runia claimed to have spent a jaw-dropping amount purchasing a couple thousand movies while he was in Iraq. Runia laughed as he remembered making a “library check-out system” for his movies.
There is a down side to all of this free time, which Runia said to be the constant thought of home.
“When you’re on a mission, the only thing any soldier is thinking about is that mission, I can guarantee you that. I can also guarantee when we aren’t on a mission, we’re talking about what we’re going to do when we get home,” he said.
Idealizing home so much was something Runia wasn’t surprised about. Coming back home, though, proved to be a bit rockier than he had expected.
He moved back to Duluth in July of 2007, where he attended UMD and lived with three soldiers in his company. Runia dropped out after the first semester and continued the therapy suggested by his psychological evaluations.
In August of 2008, Runia moved back in with his parents in Sauk Center, Minn. Runia took some time to decompress and get back on his feet. It wasn’t long before he was feeling better, and became a member of riot control at the Republican National Convention at the Excel Center.
Sgt. Matt Peterson extended a hand to Runia in asking him to move in with him back in Duluth. For the next two and half years the two lived together, until a month ago when their lease ended.
“Petey saved my life. That was like a safe haven for me.” Runia said, “The military really is like a brotherhood you don’t think about. I don’t know where I would be without these guys.”
Runia will return to Iraq with his company as the second in command of his squad. “These guys mean the world to me,” Runia said. “I wouldn’t replace them for the world.”
Do you have any stories about Iraq? Let us know in the comments.