July 13, 2006 News » Cover Story

Faces from the frontline 

Alex Orum, SAW gunner 2nd Brigade Combat Team, Fort Carson Age 20 Griswold, Conn.

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Editor's note: In the profile below, Alex Orum, a former soldier diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, said he served in Iraq for a year. Documents obtained later in 2006, however, indicate he served in the country for three months, ending in late July 2005. This means that the evolution of his friendship with Staff Sgt. Michael Shackelford cannot be true as originally reported.

However, a thorough rechecking of his and other accounts, and all available documentation, corroborates other important elements of his story, including his PTSD diagnosis, his receipt of a Certificate of Achievement from the Army for his time as a S.A.W. gunner in Ramadi, and his claims of physical abuse by a sergeant.

A full two minutes after answering the door of his Colorado Springs apartment, Alex Orum still has trembling hands. At one point, he bites his palm to make it stop. Loud knocks at the door make him real jittery, he explains.

"Someone was throwing a bunch of bottles in the Dumpster the other day, and I dropped to my knees and almost cried, I was so scared," he says.

"Next time, please ring the bell."

Since he returned to Fort Carson last August, Orum says, his heart has raced frequently. His year as an infantryman with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team in Ramadi, Iraq, put him on edge.

Now a cook at a local restaurant, he often suffers through nights rife with bad dreams. One night, he awoke with his hands around his wife's neck. He has raged against the telephone and beaten holes into the drywall. But the 20-year-old veteran says he wasn't always this twitchy.

Three years ago, as a "Navy brat" from Griswold, Conn., he was yearning to carry a machine gun in President Bush's expansive terror campaign.

"I wanted to see what war was like up close," Orum says, pinching a dose of chewing tobacco into his cheek and running his hand over his spiky, gelled hair.

He leans forward on his worn couch, resting his tattooed forearms upon his knees. His wife, Donna, sits reclined, arms crossed, listening to her husband recount war tales that, up to this point, he's mostly kept to himself.

He remembers the first time he made his way to one outpost so isolated that soldiers had to dig pits in which to burn their trash and excrement. On his way in, Orum passed ragged soldiers who'd been there some time. "You're going to hell," they told him.

Orum's accounts are rife with acronyms. IEDs improvised explosive devices sometimes were attached to dead bodies. And there were V-BEDs, too, vehicle-borne explosive devices that thunder into checkpoints spewing sharp, deadly metal. Orum remembers one V-BED careening toward soldiers; when the driver was shot, it exploded.

"I was the one who had to go recover the body," Orum says, tightening his lips. "Do you know what that's like? At first someone is trying to kill you, and then you're going to pick up the bloody body."

Insurgents flooded Ramadi in late 2004, just after Marines led assaults into Fallujah. Explosions and sniper fire rarely slowed, Orum says.

"After a while, you're like, 'Someone's going to die today,'" he says. "Being where we were, the thought was that if anything happened, nobody would be able to get to us."

So the troops went on the offensive, with Orum serving as the breach man. At 5-foot-1 and 92 pounds, he was the rare soldier perfectly sized for stealthily vaulting over the 12-foot walls that surround many private Iraqi residences. Once inside, Orum used bolt cutters to open secured gates so his squad could rumble through and search for insurgents and weapons caches.

Orum whirls his arms as he describes the range of confusing emotions that flushed through him as he raided homes. He was terror-struck that someone might be waiting on the other side to blast a hole into him, yet he relished the idea of killing an enemy caught off-guard.

Then he actually pulled the trigger.

"The first time I shot someone, I felt really bad about it," he says.

He was so affected that he couldn't get out of bed. But Staff Sgt. Michael Shackelford, a 25-year-old from Grand Junction, reminded Orum of his responsibility to continue fighting, and consoled him with a carton of cigarettes.

Through the small gesture, the two bonded, and Orum began looking to the sergeant for guidance. Then, in November 2004, Shackelford was killed in a firefight. Orum was shattered, he says, pointing to a pin on his tan baseball hat that once belonged to Shackelford.

He wears another pin for Pfc. Louis Niedermeier, 20, from Largo, Fla., who died in Ramadi when he came under small-arms fire. There are other pins, and Orum can give a name for each.

"I've lost five or six friends," he says, before switching back to talk about the war zone.

Iraqis often prodded small children slowly toward the soldiers, Orum says. Some children carried rocks to throw. Some carried grenades. One child kept coming.

"I didn't want to shoot a 5-year-old," Orum says. "I had to."

He falls silent, and looks at the floor.

His pale face reddens as he recalls what happened to his best friend, Pvt. Ellory Singleton, a 21-year-old literally twice his size. When Singleton's Humvee struck an IED, Orum was told, he was injured so severely that he probably had died en route to medical care.

"I cried," Orum says. And then he wanted revenge.

"I wanted to kill every Iraqi."

Even Orum's commanders feared approaching him.

"I had a loaded weapon. They didn't yell. They came up and tapped me on the shoulder: 'Orum, you need to calm down.'"

When a small psychological combat-stress team arrived, Orum says they offered to send him to a type of resort for soldiers at one of Saddam Hussein's legendary palaces in Baghdad. He was given a brochure.

"I could cool off there," he says, although he ultimately declined.

For his time in Ramadi, Orum received a Certificate of Achievement from the Army. It notes his "meritorious service" and "phenomenal performance" as a gunner.

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