Carl Cranston joined the Army in 1997, when he was still a junior at Sebring McKinley High School, not far from Canton, Ohio. He and his girlfriend, Debbie Stiles, had just had a baby, and they thought the Army offered the easiest path to job security. The country was enjoying what President Clinton liked to call “the longest peacetime expansion in history,” and Carl’s duties as an infantryman, they thought, would largely be a matter of his getting into shape, shooting awesome weapons, and learning skills like rappelling and land navigation. The Army allowed Carl to finish high school and, once he’d completed basic training, sent him to Schofield Barracks, outside Honolulu. Debbie gladly accompanied him. “The Army was the best choice we could have made, and I’d do it again,” she says. “Suddenly we were on our own, paying our bills. Eighteen years old, our first time away from home.”
The attacks of September 11th changed everything. The Cranstons were moved to Fort Benning, in Columbus, Georgia, so that Carl could join the 3rd Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade, a mechanized unit known as the Sledgehammer Brigade. He and his men were assigned to accompany Bradley fighting vehicles—the fast, heavily armed personnel carriers that became the backbone of the attack on Iraq. Seven soldiers, or “dismounts,” would squeeze into the Bradley’s stifling rear compartment, and Carl, by now a sergeant, was their team leader. The Sledgehammers were among the first units to cross into Iraq aft...
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