When Pvt. Leslie Kendrick joined the Army shortly after graduating from Port Charlotte High School in Port Charlotte, Fla. in 2003. She thought she was going to be in an office shuffling papers and doing a little typing. It didn’t work out that way.
She was sent to Baghdad, Iraq to become an aviation operations specialist, an FM radio operator who stayed in contact with Black Hawk, Apache and Chinook helicopters. She was attached to the 1st Infentry Division, “Old Ironsides.”
“I didn’t want to stick around Port Charlotte,” the 19-year-old said. “I wanted to go out and do something with my life. I wanted to become something. It was also a way for me to pay for my college education.”
When she came home on two weeks leave she brought Specialist Robert Siebert a 21-year-old infantryman with her. She met her soldier-boy while they were serving with the 1st Armored Division in Germany after getting out of Baghdad. He’s a ground pounder and a Bradley Fighting Vehicle driver who served a tour in Baghdad with the fabled division.
When they’re not being soldiers, they like to hold hands and smile at each other a lot. They’re in love, but they’re not quite sure what their long-range plans are.
“You can’t make any real plans while you’re in the service,” she said. “I plan to get out of the Army in two more years when my tour is up, and go to college.”
Robert has similar aspirations.
“I’d like to start a family, but being in the military is not the way to do it,” he explained. “I’m going to go to college and be a computer programmer when I get out.”
Kendrick was 17 when she signed up for the Army, with her mom’s permission.
“I found out when I was in advanced individual training that I was going to Iraq. I was nervous, but I was more scared about telling my mom. I knew she was gonna to flip out,” she said with a huge smile. “Mom immediately went into denial and said, they wouldn’t send me out there. I knew they would, but she felt better thinking they wouldn’t.”
The 18-year-old Port Charlotte soldier went to Iraq in July. Her job was to track helicopters by radio and make sure they had the fuel they needed when they landed at a forward base. She was also responsible for seeing that the people they were flying to the front got to where they were supposed to be at the right time.
There are times when her job was tough, such as when a chopper hit a wire and went down in the sand. That happened fairly frequently over there. Then there were the times when a helicopter was blown out of the sky by an enemy missile of some kind. That happened less frequently because copter pilots take evasive action.They bob and weave in the air to make it harder for an insurgent to get a read on them with an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade).
Most of the time when she was in Iraq, Kendrick worked in a hanger at the Baghdad Airport with her radio equipment talking to airborne helicopter pilots. She was in a fenced in protected area without much connection with the outside world and the people in the country.
That was not the case for Stieber. He spent most of his time on the streets in a tough Baghdad neighborhood with an M-16 rifle in his hand, his chest and back covered with body armor trying to stay alive while maintaining law and order while fighting the ever-growing insurgent threat.
“I was assigned to a pretty rough sector of Baghdad guarding the Central Bank of Iraq and the roads,” he said. “We ran numerous patrols around our sector trying to find the insurgents. There was constant shooting at any given time.”
The night he remembers most in Baghdad was when his unit went into a bad neighborhood downtown looking for insurgents and trouble. They had a company of Abram tanks and two platoons of Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
“We rolled out of our operating base abut 11:30 p.m. and began searching the neighborhood, a couple of blocks away with 50 or 60 dismounted troops. We were just starting to get into position when the insurgents hit,” Stieber said.
“I was a Bradley driver that night and had just pulled into my position sitting in a lit parking lot,” he said. “Some of the tanks to the rear started making contact and returned fire with their .50-cals.
“My gunner was watching this alley. A moment later he saw the insurgents come out of a building directly in front of us. My gunner engaged and destroyed what he could of them.
“Out of the corner of my eye I saw the flash of an RPG. I saw a trail of fire coming at me. All I had time to do was grab the stick and pray,” Stieber recalled. “I had nowhere to go. I had Bradleys to the rear and 50-caliber fire to the front. All I could do was just sit there.
“The rocket propelled grenade went straight over my hatch. If it had hit the Bradley it would have destroyed it,” Stieber said. “It makes you pucker a bit.
“What was left of the insurgents just melted away in the darkness.”
His most painful time during his tour in Iraq came early on. His assistant gunner was killed by an insurgent with a grenade.
“He was my best friend and our unit was holding this position. Forty-five minutes earlier I had been in the spot where he was killed,” the young soldier recalled. “There was a wall to his right and the insurgent snuck up behind it and dropped a grenade over the wall.”
Stieber and some of his buddies were taking it easy when they heard an exploding hand grenade. They rushed to the site of the explosion and found his best friend had taken a piece of shrapnel in the eye that penetrated his brain and killed him. Another soldier was also injured in the blast.
What about the people of Iraq?
“There’s a lot of support for us and what we’re doing in Iraq. It all depends on the person,” he maintains. “It’s like when we were doing the door-to-door searches. If you treat them with a certain amount of dignity you’ll get the same back.”
It wasn’t until Kendrick and Stieber reached Germany on their odyssey back to the United States after serving their eight-month tour in Iraq the two found each other.
At a reception in her honor held at the Red Fish Chop House in Punta Gorda, Fla. Kendrick and her mother, Doreen, greeted their guests. She stood ramrod straight in her dress green uniform, her dark brown hair severely pulled back into an ornately braided bun capped by her black beret. She was the epitome of “An Army of One.”
“I am as proud as any mother can be of her daughter,” a beaming Doreen admitted.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, May 8, 2005 and is republished with permission.
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