‘Just Be Scared Later’ – Victories in Combat and Classrooms

Posted By Mike Padgett

Nov. 17, 2011

PHOENIX, Ariz. – It would be misleading to call Adam Reich’s story over the past 10 years the evolution of a soldier. That’s because his time in the military, including a year in Iraq, is only part of his story.

Reich’s journey evolved over a decade. And it likely matches the challenges faced by many wondering about their future. His story begins in the fall of 2001. He was a 19-year-old student unsure about his future, starting classes at Northern Arizona University. Then, on Sept. 11, as he watched the 9/11 terrorist attacks unfold, he felt compelled to join the military. Eventually, he enlisted in the Army, fought in Iraq, and returned to his studies in Arizona. Today, Reich is an attorney in Phoenix.

In that decade, from 2001 to 2011, Adam Reich found his rhythm. That part of his journey saw him exchange college textbooks for Army uniforms. His takeaways from the military included infantry training, proficiency on a turret-mounted .50-caliber machine gun and other weapons, and combat experience.

He always will remember helping retrieve a soldier’s body. And the time mortars rained during an ambush, injuring several soldiers. And the firefight in which 16 Americans were injured.

“You see all that, and that stuff is going to haunt you,” he says.

On the plus side, Reich gained training as a military policeman, which later sparked his interest in law school. And along the way, between NAU and Iraq, Reich was pleased with what he learned about himself.

Phoenix attorney Adam Reich recently talked about his journey of self-discovery, which started the morning he watched the news about the 9/11 attacks. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Reich, 29, believes his words can help other troops returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. He has more focus on his future and more appreciation for what he learned about himself. He has a stronger work ethic. Most importantly, he enjoys the challenges of working as a lawyer.

On Veteran’s Day, as he does on Memorial Day, Reich exchanged emails and phone calls with a few of his former battle buddies. He didn’t attend any parades or military receptions. Those events are important, but surviving combat creates lifelong bonds that only soldiers can fully appreciate.

Reich credits his safe return from Iraq to that bonding, his training and loyal teamwork. He also attributes his safety to a St. Christopher’s medal that family members carried in World War II and in Vietnam, a bandana with the 91st Psalm, and a ritual involving a specific candy.

But let’s start at the beginning. Reich’s religious medal, his bandana and the candy will become obvious.

Awakening to terror attacks

Reich’s story about the last 10 years of his life begins early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The alarm on his roommate’s radio, set to National Public Radio, went off about 5:30 a.m. in their dormitory at Northern Arizona University. It was a Tuesday.

Reich says “it was regular NPR stuff for a couple minutes, and then they break in with what was going on in New York, that a plane had hit one of the Trade Center Towers.”

“And so we wake up and we turn on the TV. And from then on, I mean we saw the second plane hit, live, like a lot of people did.”

NAU canceled classes that day. “It was pretty much nonstop watching the TV, like I’m sure a lot of people were that day, for I guess about 12 hours for us after that.”

Terrorists had hijacked four airliners on the East Coast. Two of the planes were flown into the World Trade Center’s two office towers. A third was crashed into the Pentagon in Washington DC. A fourth one, said to have been targeting another prominent building in Washington, was crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers overpowered the hijackers.

Reich says feelings of wanting to do something began welling up inside him while he watched the day’s news. He had just started classes at NAU, studying political science. He had rejected a notion about studying at a military academy “because I didn’t think I wanted to be in the military.”

But “attacks like Sept.11 can kind of change your opinions on stuff like that.”

“It was kind of a wakeup call, I guess,” he says.

Many Americans watching or reading about the attacks that day have said they were ready to join the fight against whomever was responsible for the terrorist attacks.

“When Sept. 11 happened, it had such a profound impact on me,” Reich says. “I was ready to join up pretty much Sept. 12. There was a lot of that mentality around the people my age at that time.”

Uncertain future

Reich had enrolled at NAU because he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, as a career. He started with political science classes because two of his relatives were congressmen.

His uncle, Congressman Jay Rhodes, served from 1987 to 1993. Rhodes, 67, died in January from complications following an automobile accident a few months earlier. Rhodes was the son of the late Arizona Congressman John Rhodes, who served in the same congressional seat from 1953 to 1983.

Reich says that after the 9/11 attacks, he talked with his parents about his feelings. They urged him to delay enlisting until it was determined who launched the attacks. Reich says his parents were right, so he joined ROTC. He did that for a year. He says it was a good introduction to the military, but he needed something more.

On Sept. 10, 2002, one day before the first anniversary of 9/11, Reich joined the National Guard. A few months later, in mid-2003, he was in Fort Benning, Ga., undergoing basic training as an infantryman.

In December 2003, after learning about pending activation of the Arizona Army National Guard’s 860th Military Police Company, Reich signed up to get reclassified as a military policeman. His training was in the summer of 2004.

The 860th MP Company was deployed in October and November 2004. Reich says the unit left for Kuwait in February 2005, “and we were in Iraq in early March of ’05.”

‘Just be scared later’

It was in Kuwait when Reich, still fresh from training on a .50-caliber machine gun as a turret gunner and now headed for Iraq, received some advice about courage and fear. That wisdom came from a combat-seasoned turret gunner headed back to the states.

“What I asked him was, I asked him how he dealt with it, when he was getting shot at, how did he know that he was going to be able to stand up (in the turret to fire). What he told me, I actually carried with me for a long time. I still kind of think about it.

“He said you can be scared all you want but the second that it goes off, you’re going to have to stand up one way or the other,” Reich says. “You just have to recognize the fact that you just need to make your legs move. And if you do that, take the time to be scared later.

“If you’re consciously thinking about it,” Reich continues, “you can will yourself to do anything. Just be scared later. And I remember that happened. I really had that experience, and I had to stand up and shoot back. I actually thought about that advice, because I was terrified.

“And there was just that split second that I was terrified. And I just said, ‘Okay, I just need to stand up.’ And I stood up and I did my job.”

The 860th MP Company was assigned to FOB Cuervo, a forward operating base in eastern Baghdad. Later, Reich was part of a platoon assigned to a tiny outpost called Camp Ashraf as a quick response force, or QRF.

“We were the first responders to a lot of things out there,” Reich says.

After a few months, the 860th – including his platoon – was transferred to FOB Liberty, which is closer to western Baghdad and near Baghdad International Airport.

The .50-caliber “Ma Deuce”

Reich had volunteered for training with the .50-caliber machine gun, a weapon with a lengthy history. The versatile machine gun has been used in several wars and in many areas of combat, ranging from tripods in the battlefield to use on jets and helicopters. The weapon is called “Ma Deuce” because its designation is M-2.

The weapon’s power and deadly reputation made Reich and his vehicle key targets for the enemy. Reich used the .50-caliber less often than other weapons because “the .50-caliber bullet would travel through buildings and harm civilians. I only used that when we were engaged in heavier fighting.”

Adam Reich, shown seated in the turret of a Humvee, was responsible for the safety of the vehicle and its occupants. Photo courtesy of Adam Reich

“That weapon could punch through a wall and keep on going without any problem,” he says. “I only used that on a few occasions in firefights. The weapon is so powerful that I felt it should be rarely used.”

The .50-caliber “was always at the ready to disable a vehicle that was charging our convoy, but thankfully I never had to use it for that,” he says.

Most of the time, Reich and other troops relied on other weapons, like the M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon, or SAW. “I used this weapon for warning shots, which means I used it virtually every day.”

As military policemen, Reich and other platoon members also carried 9 mm semi-automatic pistols. In addition, Reich kept a rocket launcher in his turret.

Shooting from a Humvee’s turret

As a turret gunner, Reich sat in a turret on top of a Humvee. His responsibility was protection of the Humvee and its convoy.

“Now if you’re in a sustained firefight, obviously you have a different job,” he says, “but in just traveling your job is to stand up, tell cars to get back, fire warning shots if necessary.”

One day, the platoon was escorting a communications convoy on a two-lane highway across the desert. Reich stood up to tell a truck to keep back from the convoy. He was facing the rear of the Humvee when an improvised explosive device (IED) went off on his left, which was the Humvee’s right side.

“So it knocked everyone in the truck unconscious,” Reich says. “It was relatively minor, as far as IEDs were concerned.”

Still, the explosion left Reich with hearing loss in his left ear, which qualified him for a Purple Heart medal.

Only the driver was evacuated for medical treatment. The explosion left the Humvee with a couple shrapnel holes and blast damage. The passenger door, which took the brunt of the blast, had to be replaced.

Reich felt lucky because the injuries he and others sustained in the explosion were minor. The IED had been buried in the road. Luckily, a secondary explosive device on the other side of the road malfunctioned. An EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) unit was called in to deactivate it.

Religious medal from two earlier wars

At some point that day, after the explosion, Reich remembered the religious medallion in his buttoned left shirt pocket, under his protective body armor. The tiny St. Christopher’s medal, in its little plastic box, had been bought in London in the early 1940s by his great-uncle, who fought in World War II.

Years later, the medal was carried in Vietnam in the late 1960s by Reich’s uncle, former Congressman Jay Rhodes. The day that Reich left for Fort Polk in 2004, he received the religious medal from Rhodes.

“All of us returned, and for all of us, (the religious medal) clearly worked,” Reich says. “For me, it was much more about a connection to family.”

The St. Christopher’s medallion that Adam Reich kept in his left shirt pocket, under his body armor, had been carried by other family members in World War II and in Vietnam. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Reich carried the religious medal every day in Iraq. If he forgot it, he would go back to get it, even if he had to make the Humvee driver turn around.

Other platoon members had personal rituals or superstitions. The gunners often would bump their helmets, like football players, before they’d leave their compounds. Reich wore a camouflage bandana printed with Psalm 91.

“There was always stuff that you did,” Reich says. “I know a lot people that had very specific traditions.”

‘Jolly Ranchers’ candy

Though some Iraqi families and neighborhoods objected to the presence of Americans and other troops, others appreciated them.

“It depends on the neighborhood,” Reich says. “No two neighborhoods are really the same. And even below that, it comes down to families and people.”

Reich says children usually were quick to interact with foreign troops, partly because the children knew the soldiers often would give them candy. Reich and his platoon usually carried plenty of wrapped hard candies.

“I was known for having Jolly Ranchers because I thought they were lucky,” Reich says. “So we’d have big bags of Jolly Ranchers in our truck and we’d throw them out to them.”

Adam Reich, right, was the designated lookout the day this photograph was taken. His lieutenant, middle, and an interpreter talk with local children and give them candy or other items. Photo courtesy of Adam Reich.

The candies were more than treats for the children. They became good luck charms for anyone in Reich’s Humvee. “For me, that was one of my big ones, is everybody in my truck had to eat a Jolly Rancher when we were going out the gate.”

“And I swore by them,” he continues. “And I still do. I got to the point that when I got back (to the states) and I was going to class, I would take Jolly Ranchers before I’d go to exams.”

Reich believes that if you feel lucky, you’re going to be lucky. Not necessarily that the candies are lucky, he says, “but that I feel more confident when I have them.”

Many people, whether soldiers, attorneys, teachers or journalists, have prayers or rituals they whisper or perform before tackling challenging tasks. They might have a special coin or religious statue or medal they touch each morning.

Reintegrating into society

Each veteran’s challenges returning to life back in the states will be unique, based on their experiences and personality, the support they receive from family and friends, and their individual goals, Reich says.

When the 860th MP Company returned to Arizona in 2006, the soldiers were welcomed by family and friends at a ceremony. Later, many families held their own ceremonies.

“And so it was great for me coming home,” Reich says.

Reich was staying with his parents until he decided what he was going to do. It was at his parents’ home, after they left one morning for work, and out-of-town relatives had gone, when a new reality made its appearance.

“I remember waking up and I was alone,” Reich says. “And I sat on my parents’ couch and I had no idea what to do with myself.”

He was facing the rest of his life, but with little idea what to do or where to start. “I didn’t have a place to live. I didn’t have a job. All my friends were somewhere else. I didn’t have a car. And it was overwhelming, just overwhelming, the feeling of helplessness. I had no idea what to do.”

No idea, that is, until he began setting new goals for himself. Those goals became the keys to ending his temporary feelings of isolation.

Friends’ deaths

Some returning soldiers have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Reich says he is aware of four suicides among soldiers he served with. Two of the soldiers he knew well.

“For veterans coming home, I think the thing is, you have to lean on each other first of all, always. There is still a group of people, if I had problems, I could call and they would come, no matter what they were doing, no matter where they were. And I would do the same for them, in a heartbeat.

“You have to remember that that’s there and not feel overwhelmed,” he continues. “You come back and you’re cut loose. You’re not surrounded by the military culture, except for maybe one weekend a month.

“It’s very easy to feel alone, I guess, and you don’t need to feel that way. There are always people you can call. With veterans in general, I think you could pretty much call any other veteran and they will be there if you were telling them that you were having trouble.”

“There are a lot of programs out there to help people,” Reich says. “If you buy into the tough guy culture too much, that asking for help makes you weak, or that recognizing that you need help makes you weak, that’s just going to make it worse.”

The Veterans Administration offers a free hotline for veterans and their families and friends. The Crisis Hotline, which is staffed 24 hours every day, is 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), says Paula Pedene, public affairs officer at the Phoenix VA.

Veterans can also turn to VA for help at http://veteranscrisisline,netwww.phoenix.va.gov, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PhxVAHealthcare or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PhxVAHealthcare.

Pedene adds that veterans seeking counseling services may visit the Veterans Center emergency department on the campus at the northwest corner of Seventh Street and Indian School Road in Phoenix.

Personal goals

Reich says he sidestepped feelings of isolation by setting goals for himself.

“And so what I ended up doing was, I ended up just setting goals for myself. So first it was, I’m going to buy a car so I can go to Flagstaff. And then I’m going to be back with my friends. And then I’m going to find a place to live, and I’m going to start school.”

“I just tried to find goals to set for myself. I wanted to get back in school. And then I wanted to go to law school, and then I wanted to graduate. Having a timeline that I wanted to get to, helps you get by.”

When he returned from Iraq in 2006, Reich had about 30 credit hours from NAU. At the start of the next semester after his return from Iraq, he enrolled as a sophomore in Arizona State University. Over the next two years, he took 94 credits.

Some of those ASU undergraduate classes were related to law, which fit well with his military policeman training. Anticipating graduation in May 2008, Reich took the entrance exam to ASU’s law school in December 2007. He passed the exam, was accepted by ASU and began law classes in August 2008.

After graduation, Reich received offers from three metro Phoenix law firms. He accepted Fennemore Craig’s.

“One of the things I got from the military, especially being a turret gunner, was trust your gut,” Reich says. “When your gut is telling you something, it is telling you something. And for me it was, come to Fennimore.”

Reich says that during the journey that started 10 years ago, he has become more confident, a little more reserved but more determined about his future. Making decisions in combat can do that to a soldier.

Given the chance to relive his journey, when he set aside his college studies to join the military, Reich says he would change nothing.

Reich’s newest victories include marriage, the recent purchase of a home and starting work at Fennemore Craig.

“I would do it again, in a heartbeat,” Reich says. “I think I learned that I can do kind of what I set my mind to.”

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Advice on how to help veterans and their families is available at www.joiningforces.gov.

A video showing the firepower of the .50-caliber machine gun is available here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=28mQ8CJ4nqY.

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Nov 17th, 2011

One Comment to '‘Just Be Scared Later’ – Victories in Combat and Classrooms'

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  1. Carol Romley said,

    Mike:
    Great story about one of our countries heroes. I really enjoyed reading about Adams life. Thanks so much.

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