The photo was sent to me as an e-mail attachment. It shows a vehicle that would never have been invented if madmen were not loose in the world.
The rear half of the vehicle in question bears a resemblance to a Chevy Suburban. But the fenders and undercarriage are covered with armor, as is the entire extended hood and front fenders. A rod carrying a rectangular black sensor of some sort protrudes 10 feet ahead from the front bumper. Another antenna or sensor sticks straight up from just behind the rear window. On top is more armor and what looks to be a crow’s nest of some sort. The truck has huge tires with heavy treads, and it is painted the same brown color as the desert through which it is driving.
Research on the Internet suggests that it is an RG-31 Mine Protected Vehicle. The name alone tells you the occupants of this vehicle spend their days in very nasty business.
And they do. They seek out mines and car bombs and other improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along the highways and byways of Iraq.
Using the photo zoomfeature on my computer and squinting hard, I can make out a man’s right arm resting along the inside front window of this route-clearing vehicle. That right arm belongs to the platoon leader of a company of U.S. Army combat engineers, 3rd Infantry Division: Lt. Eric Gentzel of Norwalk, Ohio.
On the day the photograph was taken, Lt. Gentzel and his men were employed in what is euphemistically called “route clearing,” doing what they can to make it less likely that innocent human beings will be blown up by the creations of the lunatics.
The photograph about which so much has been made in these few paragraphs was taken by one of the two battle captains for the 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment. He took the photo through the window of a Kiowa Warrior armed reconnaissance helicopter at about 7:30 a.m. on a recent cold, drizzly morning.
Flying that helicopter is dangerous business in itself, but it is easy to imagine the pilot smiling when he took that picture of Eric Gentzel’s route clearing vehicle.
That’s because the photographer and pilot, Capt. T.J. Root, is from Norwalk, Ohio himself. He and Lt. Gentzel graduated from Norwalk High School a year apart. They played on the same Norwalk Trucker football team. They had their names printed in this newspaper, at separate times, when they committed to serve our country in the military.
For Eric, that commitment came during his senior year in college. He later completed basic training and Officer Candidate School to become commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. Last October his unit was deployed to an area about 25 miles south of Baghdad.
T.J. Root earned one of the exclusive appointments to the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. when he was a senior at Norwalk High. On completing his training at West Point in 2004, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and was promoted to Captain in the summer of 2007. In more than 500 hours of combat flight time, Captain Root has done everything from flying security for Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq, to attacking insurgents planting roadside bombs. His position as battle captain requires long hours on the ground, but he still flies 18 to 20 combat hours each week.
Capt. Root shot the picture of Lt. Gentzel’s RG-31 on a road less than two miles from a place now called al Hillah. But, Capt. Root explains, “you’ve probably heard of it by its old name — Babylon.”
Eric’s parents, Bob and Kim Gentzel of Norwalk, say that their son is pretty tight-lipped about his work in Iraq. They think he probably does not want them to worry about him.
However, a single incident, related by Capt. Root suggests both the danger and the heroism of what these young men are doing. In an e-mail to his parents, Tom and Kathy Root of Norwalk, P.J. said that within the last month one member of Lt. Gentzel’s route clearing team had stepped on a land mine or IED and was badly injured. Another member of the team rushed to help, stepped on another mine and was killed. A helicopter squadron commander quickly got two medical helicopters to the area “which freed Eric and his guys up to provide care on the ground and secure their location. Certainly, the first aid that Eric and his soldiers rendered was instrumental in saving their guy’s life.”
This, of course, was a dramatic and observable rescue. But there is no way to know the countless other lives that are being saved thanks to the work of Eric Gentzel, T.J. Root and their teams.
Dozens of other men and women from our county have served and are serving in what has proved to be a military engagement unlike any other. They each have their stories; some of them have given their lives; and I wish I could recognize each of them for their sacrifice in service to our country.
But this is the story that came to me with a picture in my e-mail. And I thought it was amazing enough to share with you today.
There are more than 160,000 members of the military in Iraq, halfway around the word.
Yet there they are; two of the best and brightest from Norwalk, Ohio, saving lives and looking out for each other on the road to Babylon.