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Voyageur's Best Features of 2003

Lance Corporal Elijah Wencl

Back from Iraq
 
Elijah Wencl returns home from Kuwait and Iraq
 
by John Grones  |  October 7, 2003
 

On January 26, 2003, Marine Lance Corporal, Elijah Wencl, was activated and sent to Kuwait in an effort to overpower Saddam Hussein and his regime. He would be called upon to help complete a mission called: Operation Iraqi Freedom. The mission actually began on March 19. For Elijah, experience was not only surreal, but nothing like he expected. He is very happy with the outcome.

The war pretty much started the evening of March 19, or the morning of March 20. Elijah really knew war had arrived when his team got word that there was fighting at the berm, about two miles away from their post on the Kuwait border. “We dug holes and went to MOPP 4,” said Elijah referring to a term used when preparing for incoming artillery and missiles. “They did shoot some missiles, but they landed out in the desert. They missed us.”

Elijah’s team was attached to 2nd Amphibious Assault Battalion Regimental Combat Team #5, First Marine Division. At that point, they were given the word to load up, man their machine guns and head into Iraq. Engineers blew a whole in the berm for the convoy to get through. They headed in at 1 a.m. in the morning. Elijah recalls the orange skyline. “It was all on fire,” he said. “Of course, Saddam had blown up the oil wells. There were also lights in the distance. We were already doing bombing missions.”

Elijah was the heavy weapons gunner for his team. His job: to man the 50 caliber machine gun and the MK-19 automatic grenade launcher. Elijah had a good view as they entered Iraq. He was up in the turret and recalled the scene. “I had my NVGs (night vision goggles) on and we had a convoy a couple miles long. We were not at the very front, but we were part of the front. The first thing I saw when we got through the berm was a burning, blown up Iraqi tank just off the side of the road.”

“I just remember feelin’ that it was sort of like a movie. You were there, you were on guard, you were watchin’ what you were doin’ and you were all about business, but at the same time it wasn’t as scary as I thought it was going to be. It was a little bit surreal. It wasn’t quite like I thought it was going to be.”

They continued on and entered the Ar Rumaylah oil fields where they spent a few days setting up check points and directing the marine infantry toward the battle field. “The first time we knew it was the real deal...” added Elijah. “... we got up to a mine field that we had to drive through. I just remember seeing all these blown up Iraqi vehicles and a couple of dead guys laying there. We walked over and kind of looked at them. No one said anything for a few seconds.”

The mine field was marked, using a tank that had clearing devices on the front. A road was then roped off and identified. All totaled, Elijah’s team went through three mine fields. The marines major role in the war was to follow the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and clear all the little towns along the way.

Elijah also recalled the sand storm in central Iraq. It slowed the progress, but they continued. When the team finally reached their destination in Baghdad, they were assigned a key entry point. They directed traffic over the bridge that entered the city. “We directed military traffic over the one-lane bridge. That was our mission, to get all the marines into Baghdad so they could fight.”
The team was also in charge of clearing bunkers, vacated by the Republican Guard as they surrendered, and searching people in the crowd as they moved about. “We confiscated 55 AK-47s in one day,” he said, “just searching people in the crowd.” The team also found a couple of rocket-propelled grenades.

Elijah’s team also caught the Minister of Education in the crowd. “The crowd ratted him out, so we stopped him and searched him. He had a solid gold Saddam watch on, and our battalion interpreter came to talk to him and found out that they were actually planning an attack on us. So, we were able to foil an attack they were planning by catching him.”

One of the hairiest moments for Elijah and his team occurred just after they had crossed the Tigris River in southern Iraq. They heard machine gun fire and, when they arrived on the scene, they discovered that the convoy had been ambushed by terrorists. “It was a pretty sad deal,” said Elijah. It was at this point that Elijah witnessed the first innocent bystander casualties. “The terrorists had got inside a flock of sheep and fired upon the convoy. The convoy, not knowing where the bullets came from, returned fire. That’s where four or five innocent Iraqis got shot. A couple died. We treated them the best we could. It seems kind of unfair. These people were at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

One of the more rewarding events for Elijah happened in southern Baghdad. A 14-year-old Iraqi boy had been shot in the chest, and his parents came to Elijah’s team for help. Elijah immediately called in the Medivac chopper. “The chopper dropped him off four days later and he lived.”

One of the best parts of the whole experience for Elijah was getting the thumbs up from Iraqi children. “They would want to hug you,” Elijah shared. “They were grateful for us coming. It was great. Some of the adults that spoke English told us this.”

Everyone in Elijah’s team returned home without any injuries. He has now had time to reflect on his time spent in the Middle East. His reaction to the war: “I would just say that the Iraqi people, the majority of them, 80 to 90 percent, are overwhelmingly happy and thankful that we went there and did that. We had people who spoke English coming up to us, every day, thanking us for freeing them from his (Saddam’s) oppressive regime.”

Elijah also mentioned that the national media has definitely provided a skewed view of the whole war, and he felt there was a genuine need for what they did, especially for the people of Iraq. However, with what is still going on there, and in Afghanistan, the military’s hands are tied, troop-wise. “All these deployments and extensions has picked away at morale. There are a lot of people that aren’t going to re-enlist when their contract is up.”

“Hopefully we can get this thing wrapped up and done so the other people like Timmy Piispanen, and Clint Headley, and all the rest of the local guys, can get back too,” concluded Elijah.

Elijah picked up the Meritorious Corporal promotion two days before heading into the war. The promotion put him in charge of four other troops during the war.

Tim Piispanen and Clint Headley are both currently north of Iraq, serving in the National Guard. They are in the 142nd Combat Engineer Battalion and they are cleaning out underground ammunition bunkers. Sharon Piispanen, Tim’s mother, received bad news recently. She found out that the two men had hoped to be done at the end of Oct., but their mission was extended to April. “They told us that it could be even longer than that,” said Sharon. “Hopefully not.”

Clint’s mother, June, was also discouraged when she heard the news. She has also had the added stress of finding out that Clint had to have his appendix taken out three weeks ago. “He had them out there in Iraq,” she said, and the surgical procedures over there aren’t as sophisticated as they are here. “Following surgery, they flew him to Germany for two weeks to recuperate. He’s now back in Iraq.”

June and Sharon are both excited about the fact that their boys are expected to receive a two-week leave shortly. Unfortunately, once they are in the states, they are expected to pay their way home, which is a considerable expense according to June.

There is one mother in McGregor who is thrilled beyond words. Her son is back for good unless he re-enlists, which Elijah has not yet determined.

Elijah’s mother, Theron, said she was pretty emotional when she first saw her son get off the bus. She also expressed that she has not found any chance to really spend some quality time with him. Right now, he is fishing with his father, Barry, up on the north shore, near Grand Marais. “He’s probably been dreamin’ about this for eight months,” she said. “I can wait. I understand that people are going to want to hear about his experiences. He’s back, and I’ll get my chance to spend more time with him later.”

This article first appeared in the October 7, 2003 issue of the Voyageur Press.