"I just want everyone to know who Matthew LaPlante is...
Matthew LaPlante isn't a journalist. He's out to hurt you... I believe this man is an ideologue who's out to hurt you, and he shouldn't be working in any major newspaper."
- Bill O'Reilly



WORLDS APART

24 hours in the lives of a Utah family separated by war

Matthew D. LaPlante and Jessica Ravitz
The Salt Lake Tribune
Oct. 2, 2005

Green and tan, steel riveted to steel, menacingly large black guns mounted to the roofs, six gun trucks rumble toward the gate, stopping in a suffocating cloud of dirt and dust. Out from the first vehicle, out from the dusty air, steps a tall, angular man in a bulky flak jacket. A knife is strapped to his chest.

He presses a full magazine into his rifle and turns to make sure his men are doing the same.

From the guard tower above him, in brown letters, hangs a simple, somber warning: "Complacency Kills." Hefting himself back into the truck, he nods to the driver.

It's 1300 hours in the Al Anbar province of Iraq. Lt. Charles Bradley Triplett, 35, is about to go "outside the wire" for a 24-hour patrol.

The sun hangs high, unrelenting in the cloudless desert sky.

•••

She sleeps on his side of the bed; Joe, the family boxer, is welcome to hers. She wears one of her husband's white T-shirts and his plaid flannel pajama bottoms. They still smell like Brad, and she can't bear to wash them.

It's 3 a.m. in Enoch, a rural community outside Cedar City. Sandra Triplett, 33, is sound asleep.

The sky is awash with stars, the air crisp, the night silent, peaceful.

•••

The quarter-mile-long convoy of Army Humvees bullies its way into oncoming traffic, past passenger cars and commercial trucks, over dirt frontage roads and back onto the highway.

Suddenly, traffic clears. In these parts, that's not a good sign.

Brad Triplett stares through the thick, bullet-resistant windshield, cracked several panes deep on both sides in earlier roadside-bomb explosions. Ahead, a dingy, white blanket has been left on the gravel shoulder. It appears to be covering something.

"What's that right there?" asks the driver, a dark-haired, muscular sergeant from Salina named Brett Hatch.

"I have no idea," Triplett says. "Go slowly."

Hatch guides the gun truck forward and turns, slightly, toward the blanket, too fast for Triplett's liking.

"Slowly, I said!"

The lieutenant steps cautiously from the truck and turns to see another Humvee approaching.

"Stop, damn it!" he yells. "Stop!"

Triplett stands maybe 20 yards from the blanket. Roadside bombs are known to have killed soldiers from five times that distance.

In the turret atop Triplett's truck is a red-freckled gunner named Brandon Bateman. He's a Richfield kid. Everybody calls him Boggs.

"Shoot it, Boggs."

Bateman lifts an M-16 to his shoulder and squeezes the trigger. Tufts of dust fly up behind the blanket. The bullets are going straight through.

"It's nothing," Triplett says, his voice awash in relief. "Let's get out of here."

It's 1332 hours in Al Anbar. Triplett's convoy rumbles back onto the road and picks up speed. His day has just begun.

•••

Sandra Triplett stirs as roosters greet the dawn. She wakes Julian, 13, who rises and lumbers to the kitchen, makes his own toaster waffles and retreats to his room.

While he gets ready for school, she brews a cup of English black tea. Joe and Metro, a Boston terrier — "he's daddy's dog," she says — jump for attention. She strokes them and talks about how she's used to Brad being away. If the Army National Guard isn't taking up his time, the Iron County Sheriff's Department is.

The family has been in this house for two years. Brad's been around for about seven months of that.

Such is life when you're married to a military man. But she knew it would be like this when she met him, in her native Germany, 17 years ago, when he was stationed there.

The only thing Brad complains about are lizards and spiders. "He won't let on, but I know he's scared," she says.

It's 6:15 a.m. in Utah. Mug in hand, Sandra contemplates her errands. Her day, too, has just begun.

•••

Never a dull moment in one of the world's most dangerous places. Triplett's soldiers, all members of the Utah-based 222nd Field Artillery, first stop to destroy a disabled truck that could hide roadside bombs. They help a truck driver who has been run off the road by a Marine convoy. They search two suspicious vehicles. They examine a 6-foot-high pile of dirt on a roadside for evidence of hidden bombs. And finally, hours after it was due, the convoy reaches its post near a deep blue lake south of Ramadi.

Soldiers eat from foil-covered dinner plates. A few of them toss a battered old football.

Triplett slides into the turret of a Humvee behind a grimy M-2 Browning machine gun and scans the horizon. He connects a matchbox-sized MP3 player to a small set of white speakers. The band is Three Doors Down. The song is "Here Without You."

His thoughts turn to his wife.

"You know we're going to have our 15th wedding anniversary next week," he says. "Great way to spend an anniversary."

He's already sent the Victoria's Secret gift card. He'll surprise her with three dozen roses and a letter. It's the best he can do from where he sits.

It's 1614 hours in Al Anbar. Triplett cranks up the volume as Islamic prayers begin in the small fishing village to the north.

•••

Sandra Triplett wakes Paul, 9, who throws his red comforter over his head. On one wall are postcards from his dad. They come from Army bases. They feature military equipment. They tout Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Julian, who has little interest in the military, plays Runescape on the living room computer. An obsession with the online adventure game is about the only thing the two brothers have in common.

After Julian leaves for school, Sandra turns to housework. She bags the garbage and makes her grocery list. She fetches laundry from the basement. A banner advertises Brad's band, Whoduhthunk. Playing bass and guitar is his No. 1 passion. Paul wants to learn guitar from his dad. Julian plays clarinet.

Brad's Bowflex XTL and a large screen TV gather dust. Sandra plans to get rid of both. "I already sold his truck," an old Ford Explorer, she says.

Paul snatches lunch money from his mom and races out the door without a word.

"Bye!" she calls after him. "Love you, too!"

The glass cabinet in the living room holds medals and certificates from the National Guard, her German dolls and crystal that belonged to Brad's great grandmother. The photos, displayed up top, include a portrait from a military ball.

It's 7:30 a.m. in Utah. Sandra has something to be grateful for: She won't have to find a new dress to attend this year's ball.

•••

Not content to remain on the post — "We'll never catch anyone sitting up here," he says — Triplett orders a squad of soldiers into their gun trucks to patrol the highways.

Ahead of the first Humvee, 100 yards or so, Hatch spots a man racing across the freeway toward a big commercial rig, the kind insurgents sometimes fill with enough explosives to blow up a city block.

"What the hell's he got in his hands?" Triplett yells. "Get him away from that truck!"

In a flash, the squad dismounts and races toward the man, surrounding the truck with rifles drawn.

The shouting soldiers beckon, and the man slowly steps out and raises his hands, a set of heavy cables draped over one arm.

He's just a civilian, forced off the road by another U.S. convoy.

Triplett spits in the sand.

It's 1732 hours in Al Anbar. The setting sun casts long shadows across a dozen soldiers and their trucks trying to pull the stuck rig from the sand.

•••

Sandra saves everything about the 222nd. Destined for a scrapbook, the materials wait in a hutch, right next to the boxes she uses to send Brad care packages: Everything from sunflower seeds and candies to natural remedies for his upset stomach and an Xbox video-game console.

For their anniversary, "probably the eighth one we will not be together for," she's sent a new game.

Seated at the computer, which she checks frequently, Sandra talks about the listserv that she's a part of — it's a support group, of sorts, for wives, mothers and girlfriends of Triple Deuce soldiers.

The 18 women build blogs, share photos and make sure to recognize birthdays and anniversaries.

She doesn't read the news much and prefers to just glance at photos. One she clicks on features armed, masked men. "See, I don't want my husband to be there," she says.

Other women get blue, but she won't go there. "He's gone so much, I'm used to it," she says. "I'm not going to sit at home and be miserable."

It's 9 a.m. in Utah. Sandra gathers dishes from the boys' rooms and washes the cat's face. Taped to the refrigerator is the paper yellow ribbon neighbors signed and posted on the front door the night before her husband left.

•••

Triplett’s gun truck is speeding through the desert, bucking and rattling as it climbs small hills and crashes through dunes to get to the highway. A car has been spotted, with its headlamps covered, and Triplett's unit must determine if it's a threat.

Within moments, the two vehicles have met head-on on the highway. The soldiers go through the same routine as before. The man exits with his hands high above his head.

It's a taxi. The covers are supposed to prevent rocks from breaking the headlights during the day.

Triplett rifles through the car, uninvited — a right he does not have doing detective work in Iron County — and finds nothing suspicious. He lets the man go and orders his convoy back onto the road.

The gun trucks return to the observation-post camp as the last rays of sun paint the horizon orange and purple. Prayers have started again in the town to the north.

The soldiers laugh about their relative skills at shooting foxes in the desert. Triplett is mocked for shooting such a small one.

He allows the ribbing. Smiling. Jostling back gently. The prayers subside and the desert is quiet again. It's 2056 hours in Al Anbar. Triplett's day isn't over yet.

•••

Showered and dressed, Sandra heads out the door. On the back of her Jeep Cherokee are two magnets: a "Support Our Troops" ribbon and one that reads: "All my heart is in Iraq."

She used to work at the Wal-Mart in Cedar City but went on leave and then decided not to return after her husband was deployed. Being there for the boys, "even if they don't talk to me," is her top priority.

Especially now.

The time apart, while not easy, makes her marriage stronger, Sandra says. They still hold hands when they're together.

"If you're not independent, don't marry someone in the military," she advises. "If you don't have the courage to do it on your own, don't do it."

Julian calls on her cell phone. He was hit in the stomach during a dodgeball game. He feels sick and wants to come home.

"Just tell them you feel nauseous and lay down a little," she tells him. She repeats the same instructions when he calls a second time. "He's the one who needs my help with things."

Her boys, they couldn't be more different. Paul is rough and tumble, does his own thing, wants to be just like his dad. Julian doesn't feel close to his father, who was away for much of his childhood. Brad's hard on him, she says. And she blames herself for being too protective when he was young.

Sandra wheels a shopping cart into Wal-Mart, just as she finishes outlining plans if Brad doesn't come home. He'll be cremated, they've decided. She'll keep him in a jar by her bed, so she can complain to him.

"My husband wants me to marry again," she says. Her mother-in-law feels the same way. "She says, 'You'll find someone you like again,' but I don't want someone else bossing my kids around."

It's 11 a.m. in Utah. Sandra turns to issues like selecting Pillsbury Toaster Strudels, apples and a loaf of Wonder-bread.

•••

Once again, the convoy pulls away from the observation-post camp and back onto the road. The headlights are off. Hatch drives with night-vision goggles.

The trucks stop a few hundred meters from a stretch of highway that has been the site of several recent roadside bombings. The soldiers watch silently, speaking in whispers. They fight boredom and sleepiness.

An hour passes in the cool, quiet desert. Triplett is angry at the moon.

"It's too bright tonight," he whispers. "They're not going to come out under this much light."

He orders the soldiers back to their trucks. They take to the desert roads, this time with headlights on.

Someone has left piles of rocks, tires, boxes and debris resting on the top of dirt mounds, just off the main roads. The bizarre markers frustrate the lieutenant.

"There's a bunch of that s--- up here, and I don't know what it means," he says.

Clues, perhaps, to the location of weapons caches. Directions for where to place bombs. Or nothing at all.

"Maybe they have a camera hidden, and they're out there just watching us try to make sense of it all, and it's really funny s--- to them," he says.

His soldiers fire off a few illumination grenades that burn with white brilliance as they float down under small parachutes.

"Let's see Hajji figure that out," a soldier says.

It's 2307 hours. The patrol returns to the observation post. Triplett writes a watch list under a red-light flashlight. His soldiers look it over and nod.

•••

Julian comes home first. Sandra digs up an old science project he did, with her help, which he can recycle for a new assignment.

A neighbor shows up to have Sandra help correct a letter she's written in German to a former exchange student's family.

"Ich habe 27 tone auf steine in meien garten," she tells the neighbor, who wants to write, "I put 27 tons of rock in my backyard."

Sandra's bracelets jostle on the kitchen table. There are two rubber bracelets: the camouflage one reads "Freedom"; the other, in white and blue, "Triple Deuce." A charm bracelet includes words such as "Army wife," "U.S. Army," "Thinking of You." She wants to have a piece made that reads, "Sandra loves Brad."

Today's been slow, she says. "Usually I'm huffing and puffing and going everywhere." While other wives may wallow, she stays busy. She dragged an entertainment unit down to the basement by herself. She took a sledgehammer to a recliner so she could fit it in a garbage can and hit her leg in the process. She moved into this house by herself. It drives her neighbors crazy that she doesn't ask for help, she says.

She checks the computer. Twelve messages from the Triple Deuce women. A reminder to answer one woman's poll: How many are taking anti-depressants?

It's 5 p.m. in Utah. The Tripletts climb into the sport utility vehicle and head south on Interstate 15.

•••

Triplett awakes, rolls from his cot and quickly takes his turn in the Humvee turret behind the Browning M-2.

The truck's radio hums to life. A convoy just a few miles away has been struck by a roadside bomb. The group has stopped to repair the damaged vehicle. The trucks' lights are a soft orange glow.

"Have you heard anything about injuries?" he asks over the radio.

"Negative," is the reply.

Triplett pops a few sunflower seeds in his mouth. His thoughts again turn to his wife in Utah.

"I'd like to know what she's doing right now," he says.

It's 0300 hours in Al Anbar. Pearl Jam hums from the speakers. A falling star splits the southern sky.

•••

It's dinnertime in St. George; the family meets with Brad's father and stepmom at Applebee's before going to the rodeo — one of the many events Triple Deuce families have been given passes to attend.

Brad's dad, Richard Triplett, served three tours in Vietnam with the Navy. Brad's deceased brother also was a Navy boy, as was his great-grandfather, who was at Pearl Harbor.

Sandra's grandfather, though he didn't talk about it much, fought for Germany in World War II — even met Hitler.

Looking for seats at the Dixie Sun Bowl, Sandra revels in the American flags that line the ring. Neil Diamond's "America" blares across the stands. A professional skydiver in a stars-and-stripes shirt jumps from a helicopter. An enormous flag attached to him unfurls as he falls. Sandra snaps photos. A crowd rushes to catch the flag before it touches the dirt.

The announcer welcomes the 222nd families and describes how the Triple Deuce, after being in Mississippi and before heading to Iraq, had 10 days of leave to come home.

"Fastest 10 days of my life," Sandra murmurs.

The newest members of the 222nd raise the flag as the crowd sings the National Anthem, hands over hearts.

"God bless America!" the announcer booms. "Let's give a big hoot and holler! We're feeling patriotic tonight!"

Julian's and Paul's lips turn blue as they slurp on Sno Cones and take in the rodeo. As they're leaving, they stop at the Triple Deuce table and its enlarged panoramic photos of the unit's soldiers. Sandra and Paul fruitlessly look for Brad. Julian just keeps walking to the car.

The boys fight over who gets the front seat. Julian wins. Both brood on the ride home. Without saying much, Sandra's sons head to bed. In Paul's room, camouflage pillowcases rest atop Sponge Bob sheets.

Sandra reads 29 new e-mails. "They're all depressed. I don't want to read all of this," she says. "I guess it must have been pretty bad, what happened in Iraq today."

What she doesn't want to know about is the rocket attack ¬— the worst of the unit's tour — on the base where most of the 222nd is stationed. A Marine has been killed.

Soldiers typically try to keep such details from their families.

She turns up the volume on the computer. If Brad sends an instant message in the middle of the night, she doesn't want to miss him. She changes into her husband's T-shirt and pajama bottoms and settles in with her book.

It's 1 a.m. in Utah when Sandra falls asleep.

•••

The soldiers rise from their cots and strap on their flak vests. Once again, the convoy rolls down the hill and stops at an intersection not far away.

There is a deep, blackened hole in the ground where the two roads meet. Detonation cords, rubble and shards of heavy shrapnel — about the size of thick potato chips — litter the ground.

Triplett scours the desert and looks down at the hole. "Three times in the past two months this place has been hit. We can't seem to get the guy."

The convoy continues to the lakeside fishing village. It's considered friendly, so Triplett and a few others jump out of their trucks to hand out candy and small toys to a few small children. One man stays behind with each truck, manning the Brownings while watching for snipers.

It's 1105 hours in Al Anbar. Triplett's shift is nearly over.

•••

The dogs are hogging the bed, nudging Sandra from her deep slumber. Too tired to move them, she stakes her claim to the bottom of the bed.

It's 2:45 a.m. in Enoch. She sleeps once more.

•••

Triplett splashes bottled water on his hands and face, rubs his eyes and looks to his replacement, Lt. Clayton Anderson.

Triplett extends a fist outward. "Good luck," he says. "Back to you," Anderson replies, pressing his knuckles against Triplett's.

For the final time this watch, Triplett's truck rolls down to the highway.

It's 1300 hours in the Al Anbar province. Stretched out before Triplett is a long, straight road. It stretches out into the dingy horizon. It stretches out to tomorrow.

And the next day.

And the next.