September 10th, 2009
This is how an American soldier is made.
For 27 months, Ian Fisher, his parents and friends, and the U.S. Army allowed Denver Post reporters and a photographer to watch and chronicle his recruitment, induction, training, deployment, and, finally, his return from combat. A selection of photos from Ian’s journey are posted below.
The story was written by Kevin Simpson with Michael Riley, Bruce Finley and Craig F. Walker. It was reported by Riley in Colorado and at Fort Benning, Ga., Finley at Fort Carson and in Iraq, and photographer Craig F. Walker throughout.
The multimedia project, including all the photos, video and special features, can be viewed at www.denverpost.com/americansoldier.
June 1, 2007. 2:03 p.m. Ian returns a phone call to Sgt. 1st Class Gavino Barron, the commander at Ian’s Army recruiting office. Barron was making sure Ian was on track for enlistment. When he was 17, Ian had joined the Army’s Future Soldier Training Program, which prepares recruits for the enlistment process. Barron recalls his initial impression of Ian: “He wasn’t in it for the money. He was only in it for God and country. That’s the reason most infantrymen join.
May 31, 2007. 11:26 a.m. Ian studies his transcript and diploma as he departs the Bear Creek High School commencement at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. He dismisses the importance of the ceremony but not of the diploma. “If I didn’t get my diploma, I couldn’t join the Army, I couldn’t do anything like that – and where would I be?” Looking back, he said, “I wish it went by a lot slower and I did a lot of things differently … grades.” Ian’s grade-point average was 2.0346.
June 7, 2007. 3:47 p.m. “I love my country to death, and that’s why I’m here … and that’s why I’m fighting for my country,” Ian says. “That’s why I’m going to Fort Benning during wartime. I love my country and want to fight for it.” Because of the Future Soldier Training Program, Ian will join the Army as a private first class, two ranks above a basic enlistment.
June 12, 2007. 2:14 p.m. Taking in one last day at Elitch Gardens amusement park before joining the Army, Ian rides the Big Wheel with girlfriend Ashley Hibbs and other friends.
June 17, 2007. 1:24 p.m. Ian sits with his dad in his waning hours at home. “For the last 18 years, it’s just been me and him,” Ian says. “And now, I’m getting up and leaving. I don’t know what he’s going to do. It scares me to think … if he’s going to be lonely.”
June 17, 2007. 8:27 p.m. Ian embraces “Buddha,” left, and Shane as he prepare to leave home with Army recruiter Sgt. 1st Class Nancy Alessandri, who speaks with his dad in the driveway. Alessandri took Ian to a hotel where he would spend the night before being bused to the Denver Military Entrance Processing Station.
June 17, 2007. 8:29 p.m. After Ian rides away, Shane and “Buddha” weep as they rest on Shane’s car. “As soon as we saw him driving off, that’s when we realized how real it was,” “Buddha” says.
June 18, 2007. 5:23 a.m. Ian lines up with other recruits at the Denver Military Entrance Processing Station at the start of an endless day that would take him to Fort Benning, Ga.
June 18, 2007. 11:26 a.m. Ian takes the Oath of Enlistment while his mom watches from the wall at right and his dad looks in from the back corner.
June 19, 2007. 12:18 a.m. Arriving at Fort Benning just after midnight, the new recruits line up in formation outside Johnston Hall as drill sergeant Jackie Etienne briefs them on all they have yet to do that night.
June 19, 2007. 12:51 a.m. A clerk uses Ian as a backboard as he tosses T-shirts into his duffle bag.
June 19, 2007. 8:10 a.m. Tom Abner, who says he’s shaved millions of heads in his 42 years on the job, adds Ian to that list with a shave that took just under a minute and a half.
June 19, 2007. 4:17 p.m. After securing gear in the barracks, Ian descends the stairs to join the rest of Bravo Company in formation. When the soldiers aren’t filling out paperwork, getting their teeth checked or learning how to properly wear their uniforms, they must stand in formation, reciting the Soldier’s Creed.
June 20, 2007. 10:38 a.m. The rigors of the transition to Army life begin to take their toll. Overnight, Ian says, he aggravated an elbow injury when he slipped in a stairwell; by morning, he could barely straighten his arm. He calls his father inquiring about medical records the Army needs to evaluate his childhood injury. He had never revealed the earlier injury to the Army, leading to the prospect of his being sent home.
June 20, 2007. 12:41 p.m. “I want to go home. It makes me feel like I have an excuse. I’ve been thinking about everyone,” Ian says. He waits to speak with Sgt. 1st Class Robert Russell, the recruiting command liaison, to outline his injury and make a new claim: A drill sergeant mistreated him for not seeking permission when he got an X-ray the night before.
June 22, 2007. 10:56 a.m. One of the recruits’ first tastes of basic training comes with the sorting of their gear. They are given a series of three two-minute periods to try to sort their bags, which have all been piled in a giant heap…” The Bag Drill.”
June 22, 2007. 11:11 a.m. It’s been three days of endless lines, little rest, second thoughts and, basically, life turned upside down. Now comes the hard part. For the next 14 weeks, Ian and fellow members of 2nd Platoon, Echo Company of the 330th Regiment will be broken from the regimen of their civilian lives through the grueling labor, discipline and harassment of basic training. Ian, who has put his initial reluctance during the days of processing behind him, is introduced to his place in the military chain by drill sergeant David Vance. “We see who’s going to quit in that first hour,” says drill sergeant John Eldridge.
June 22, 2007. 11:20 a.m. Because they couldn’t complete the drill in time, the new soldiers must hold their bags above their heads as punishment.
June 23, 2007. 12:06 p.m. On the second day of basic training, Ian checks his stance and the position of his hand as the platoon learns how to salute properly. The first weeks of basic training are intended to break the recruits down to nothing – an intense period of sleep deprivation, heavy physical training and psychological harassment – so they can be built back up over time in the Army mold.
June 24, 2007. 8:27 a.m. Day Three of basic training: The new soldiers are issued their M-16s. Ian held his awkwardly at first until receiving instructions. Then he became playful – after the drill sergeant passed – quietly making machine-gun noises as he pretended to fire.
Aug. 15, 2007. 6:05 a.m. The new troops’ day starts with a 5-mile march while wearing their rucksacks to an urban-combat training facility at Fort Benning.
Aug. 13, 2007. 10:24 a.m. Moving up from his PTs and fatigues, Ian is fitted for his Class A dress uniform.
Aug. 15, 2007. 7:27 a.m. Echo Company will spend the day training in vacant buildings. Drill sergeant Beauchamp has a lot of first-hand experience to share with the troops about urban combat: He served a tour of duty in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq.
Aug. 15, 2007. As his team prepares to clear and secure a room during a training drill, Ian is the first man in a four-man stack. The team includes, from left, Patrick Adams of Philadelphia, Richard Stotts of Newark, Ohio, Shadraq McBride of Florence, Ala., and Ian.
Aug. 16, 2007. 11:15 a.m. With some privates dressed as insurgents as part of the day’s urban-combat exercises, the 2nd Platoon takes part in an After Action Review of how the troops performed.
Aug. 17, 2007. 4:31 p.m. Cat naps are common but have their consequences. Troops aren’t supposed to sleep during the day, and when one does, he usually becomes prey to the platoon’s antics. Thomas Brenner of Toledo, Ohio, gives Ian the shaving-cream treatment.
Sept. 13, 2007. 9:28 a.m. It’s near the end of basic training, and the troops are deep into their week-long Field Training Exercise, or FTX, where they put all their newly learned skills to the test. Ian takes cover in the woods as his squad offers security for other platoon members raiding a trench.
Sept. 16, 2007. 6:53 p.m. Drill sergeant Eldridge uses his walking stick to encourage Ian during a ruck march. “Yeah, I get attached to some of them,” Eldridge says. “I even got attached to Fisher. I don’t know why. He’s a good kid; he’s come a long way. … They were young boys when they got here; now they’re a well-oiled machine.”
Sept. 17, 2007. 12:46 a.m. After a 10-mile march interrupted by attacks and missions, Echo Company stands in formation at Honor Hill. The new troops were welcomed by bonfires and a ceremony in which they were pinned with their Cross Rifles.
Sept. 27, 2007. 9:44 a.m. Ian and Bradford Taylor of Griffin, Ga., use a mirror in the barracks as they prepare for the Turning Blue ceremony, when they will be pinned with their blue cord signifying the completion of their training and their qualification as infantrymen.
Sept. 28, 2007. 5:45 p.m. He is welcomed at Denver International Airport with a hug from his dad as his mom and friends wait to greet him.
Oct. 10, 2007. 4:32 a.m. Eric Fisher talks with his son as Ian prepares to report to Fort Carson, just south of Colorado Springs, for five days of in-processing.
Oct. 16, 2007. 4:41 p.m. After finishing his in-processing at Fort Carson, Ian makes his way to his new living quarters in the barracks.
Nov. 28, 2007. 3:18 p.m. Ian, right, and Spec. Corey Snyder of Harrisburg, Pa., enter the shoot house with their team during a house-clearing exercise at Fort Carson. Alpha Company is going through Squad Battle Drill Training, four days running dry, blank then live-fire drills.
Dec. 15, 2007. 2:12 p.m. Kayla is excited as she talks about her engagement ring, but Ian is nervous as he awaits the fate of his store credit application. The ring – a princess-cut diamond set in white gold – took about five minutes to pick out; the financing took about 20.
March 8, 2008. 2:22 p.m. While at his dad’s new home near Morrison, Ian sits at the table with his essentials: cellphone, energy drink, cigarettes and a vial of Vicodin. In addition to his foot injury, Ian recently strained his back while weightlifting and is now taking muscle relaxants. Eric Fisher expresses concern about the drugs, but Ian dismisses it: “At least it’s not coke, Ecstasy, weed. … I’ve got like six‚ seven different medications now. They give it to you for a reason. I’m not going to just let them sit there.”
March 11, 2008. 6:28 p.m. Ian catches a smoke on the way to the camp. More vehicle problems lead the company to stop for the night after midnight just short of their destination. What should have been a two-hour trip took nine.
March 31, 2008. 9:20 p.m. Ian is not where he’s supposed to be – Fort Carson. Instead he and Pvt. 2 Jonathan Duenez are at Ian’s father’s home 85 miles away in Morrison. Eric Fisher, concerned about the young men being in danger of being AWOL, leans close to Ian and begins to whisper. Ian is laying on his bed with friend Ashley Gillen of Denver. The reason he says he’s skipped out on Carson: He is struggling with is breakup with Kayla.
April 2, 2008. 2:30 p.m. Platoon sergeant Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Weisensel passes Ian and Duenez as he prepares for their counseling session upon their late return to the Mountain Post. They stand in the hallway for over an hour, then spend a half-hour in the counseling. Afterward, Weisensel says Ian’s punishment for his extended weekend will be kept at the company level: two weeks of extra duties and a fine of $300 but no loss of rank.
May 4, 2008. 1:03 a.m. Ian escorts Cpl. Luis Maciel, playing the role of a detainee, to a truck.
May 5, 2008. 6:20 a.m. Spec. Louis Casado of Springfield, Mo., unwraps Ian’s foot for a closer look at the injury. “Bruising, swelling, tender to the touch – could be a sprain, could be a fracture. We’ll know after the X-ray,” Casado says.
July 13, 2008. 9:59 a.m. The Rev. John H. Bell Jr. lays his hand on Ian during a baptism at Wellshire Presbyterian Church in Denver. Ian’s mom said the greatest gift she could ask for on her birthday was to see her son baptized before he deploys to Iraq. Ian was surrounded by well-wishers offering their thanks for his service.
July 24, 2008. 2:12 p.m. Ian shows his frustration during a counseling session with Sgt. 1st Class Weisensel, left, and Sgt. Donoso. In addition to admitting his drug use, Ian returned late from the weekend again and lied about his reasons, putting him at severe risk of getting kicked out of the Army.
July 24, 2008. 3:54 p.m. Ian says of his platoon sergeant: “He doesn’t understand. I just want to go home‚ talk to my dad and be with Kirsten.”
Aug. 2, 2008. 12:24 a.m. During a party at Ian’s friend’s apartment, Ian’s frustrations surface. Ian and Kirsten had just broken up the night before, and he was confident he would soon be kicked out of the Army. “I think one of my biggest problems is I still feel like just a number,” Ian says. “That’s one thing I’ve always thought of myself as: just a number in the Army. That’s all I ever was.” Later, Ian and Kirsten discuss their troubles outside.
Aug. 15, 2008. 12:15 p.m. Ian stands with his new platoon. He has just a couple of weeks to get integrated with the group before leaving for Iraq. Ian is so happy to be out from the 3rd Platoon, he doesn’t mind the extra work he’s doing as punishment. “Whatever they tell me to do … it’s worth it,” he says.
Sept. 1, 2008. 1:48 a.m. “Buddha,” left, Ian and Cody Thulin, right, of Littleton embrace as they say their goodbyes. “I’m gonna fight for you guys every day,” Ian says. “I’ll pray as much as I can; I’ll pray every second that I can get,” Cody adds.
Sept. 1, 2008. 3:36 p.m. Ian and his dad share some time at the PX at Fort Carson. “Basically I said two things to him,” Eric Fisher says. “No. 1‚ I said, ‘I want you to be careful all the time and trust your instincts.’ No. 2, I said‚ ‘If you’re going down, give ’em hell. Fire till your last breath.’ At that point he squeezed me‚ like‚ ‘I understand,’ you know. And we didn’t say anything else.”
Sept. 3, 2008. Noon. When it is announced that their flight has been delayed, the troops take to the bleachers and most of them take to sleeping.
Sept. 3, 2008. 12:55 p.m. Ian makes his way to the plane and, ultimately, Iraq, as the troops depart for their year-long deployment. Ian calls his mom that night. The next morning, she says: “When I spoke with Ian last night, he sounded excited and happy to be finally doing something. It lifted my heart.”
Nov. 26, 2008. 6:23 a.m. Ian cradles his Squad Automatic Weapon, or SAW, through a briefing regarding the troops’ morning escort mission. As part of a weekly rotation, Ian’s squad is serving as a Quick Reaction Force and must provide security for shift changes at the Provincial Joint Command Center in downtown Diwaniyah.
Nov. 26, 2008. 3:53 p.m. A cross from a rosary is among the items Ian keeps with him at all times. There’s also a metal slug with an imprint of an angel, and a heart-shaped charm with his and Kirsten’s initials engraved on it.
Nov. 26, 2008. 6:24 p.m. Ian and the rest of his squad go through an evening briefing before an escort mission to downtown Diwaniyah.
Nov. 27, 2008. 8:07 p.m. Ian drives past an elaborate mosque in Diwaniyah. Earlier in the day, the Iraqi parliament approved the Status of Forces Agreement, which set a withdrawal schedule for U.S. forces but also provided authority for their continued presence in Iraq until that point. Troops were on heightened alert for any reaction to the news.
Nov. 28, 2008. 7 p.m. Squad leader Sgt. Lonnie Buthmann of San Diego wrestles Robinson outside the troops’ housing as Ian smokes. Now that their turn on the Quick Reaction Force is over, they look forward to more down time to do laundry, eat meals at a more leisurely pace and work out in the gym.
Nov. 28, 2008. 9:30 p.m. Ian slowly tears up a picture of Kirsten while sitting in his room. “If I was back home, I would probably be raising hell,” he says.
Nov. 29, 2008. 7:57 p.m. “When I come home from Iraq, I’ll be in the best shape of my life,” says Ian, background, who works out in the gym an hour to an hour and a half on alternating days.
Dec. 1, 2008. 11:09 a.m. An Iraqi girl leads her sheep past Ian’s Humvee in a poor section of Diwaniyah. Ian’s squad is escorting a team to investigate an undetonated mortar along a muddy road filled with sewage and garbage.
Dec. 1, 2008. 11:02 p.m. 1st Lt. Robert Munoz of Las Cruces, N.M., gets help from Ian in hanging Christmas lights in the platoon’s operations center. Munoz likes the center to be a gathering place for his troops – a home away from home.
Dec. 2, 2008. 9:19 a.m. Iraqis stand in frustration as Ian and Sgt. Buthmann explain why a road is blocked: A vehicle was overturned, and the path needs to be clear for it to be flipped.
Dec. 7, 2008. 8:04 p.m. The troops’ trip includes three stops: the university where the rocket struck, the neighborhood where the rocket originated and a witness was willing to talk, and a police station.
Dec. 5, 2008. 4:07 p.m. An Iraqi boy makes a gun out of his fingers as Ian’s squad passes. Platoon sergeant Sergeant 1st Class Nathaniel McClain says the local kids often pretend to shoot at soldiers with toy guns. “They don’t have to watch it on TV; it’s right outside their front door,” he says.
Dec. 7, 2008. 10:01 a.m. Confident of his preparation for his promotion test later in the day, Ian calls Ashley Gillen back in Colorado, still playing with the 9mm handgun he had just disassembled and reassembled as practice for the test.
Dec. 10, 2008. 7:47 a.m. Ian jokes with Robinson as they await their morning escort mission. The two have been together since the beginning of their Army careers, assigned to the same platoon in basic training at Fort Benning.
Dec. 10, 2008. 12:59 p.m. While back on Quick Reaction Force duties, Ian catches up on sleep fully clad in his gear, ready to go immediately when the call comes.
Dec. 10, 2008. 8:20 p.m. Ian, center, and Buthmann pull security detail for a meeting between a psychological operations team and some local residents who were near the site of a rocket attack two nights earlier. The meeting is over quickly; the team doesn’t find what it is looking for.
Dec. 11, 2008. 5:15 p.m. Ian joins in a birthday dogpile atop Spec. David Roper of Leavenworth, Kan. In addition to celebrating birthdays, the platoon received Christmas presents that had been sent by troops’ wives.
Dec. 12, 2008. 7:14 a.m. Sunrise in the desert – and Ian’s squad is ready to lead an escort mission.
Dec. 14, 2008. 12:07 p.m. Ian and Robinson (in mirror) get geared up for their unexpected escort mission.
Dec. 14, 2008. 4:49 p.m. Smoke rises from trash being burned at Camp Echo. The past three days have brought many complaints from Ian: shoveling dirt, sitting in the maintenance bay, picking up garbage.
March 7, 2009. 11:28 a.m. A phone call from Ian to say his plane has arrived gets Eric Fisher excited as Ian’s mom, Teri Mercill, watches the arriving passengers.
March 7, 2009. 11:37 a.m. Departing the airport, Ian’s first words are It’s cold. After the warmth of an Iraq winter, he smiles at being able to see his breath.
March 7, 2009. 8:57 p.m. Ian flirts with Devin Ervin of Highlands Ranch as they wait to go to a party. He invited her along for the evening, and they end up holding hands and playfully wrestling.
March 8, 2009. 10:33 p.m. The friends join in a circle, swaying to the music as “My Girl” plays.
March 23, 2009. 5:45 a.m. Ian flashes a peace sign to “Buddha” as he heads down the escalator to the concourse tram at DIA. “I’m at a loss,” “Buddha” says. “I can tell it’s going to hit me later today.”
Aug. 21, 2009. 11:11 p.m. It’s been five months since Ian went back to Iraq, and now family and friends gather in a gymnasium at Fort Carson to welcome troops from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team back home from their tour.
Aug. 21, 2009. 9:03 p.m. Ian and 343 other troops deplane at the Colorado Springs airport, where they were greeted by Maj. Gen. David Perkins, commander of the 4th Infantry Division.
Aug. 21, 2009. 11:10 p.m. As the troops enter the gymnasium to a patriotic fanfare of music and cheers, emotions overcome Teri Mercill.
Aug. 21, 2009. 11:19 p.m. When the soldiers are released, Ian races straight for an embrace with Devin, then shares hugs with his dad, mom and brother.
Aug. 24, 2009. 7:29 a.m. Ian’s squad leader put him in for an Army Commendation Medal to recognize Ian’s efforts in Iraq, primarily his duties with the Quick Reaction Force.
Aug. 24, 2009. 10:14 a.m. Three days after his return from Iraq, it’s a big day for Ian and Devin. At the Jefferson County clerk’s office in Golden, the couple swear to the accuracy of their marriage-license application. They were eager to get married immediately, but they do plan to follow up with a larger ceremony for family in the future.
Aug. 24, 2009. 11:23 a.m. Magistrate Ann Gail Meinster leads the couple through their vows in an empty courtroom. Later, Devin told her new husband as they left the courthouse, “You were nervous. Your hands were all sweaty.”
Aug. 29, 2009. 11:37 a.m. Newlyweds Ian and Devin settle in at the apartment with their new dog, Kyra, eager to start their lives together. “Everyone gets counseled in Iraq that life is not going to be like your fantasy when you get back home,” Ian said. “Well, I’m checking this off my fantasy list.”
The multimedia project, including all the photos, video and special features, can be viewed at www.denverpost.com/americansoldier.