The unlikely soldier

This hippie musician turned helicopter pilot in Iraq just wants to come home
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As the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter prepared for takeoff, a French Special Forces soldier ran up to the aircraft, carrying a wounded insurgent over his shoulder. Other insurgents were stacked up in the back of the helicopter like a cord of wood, facedown with their arms and legs zip-tied to prevent movement.

The pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Shurd Rice, was on his first tour of war in Afghanistan. He looked back as the captured insurgent was thrown in. The man's intestines and other bloodied inner parts spilled out on top of the rest of the prisoners. The prisoner died during the flight, bleeding on the pile. Rice and his crew had to clean out the blood and pieces of internal organs after the prisoners were removed.

Ten years ago, when Rice was a hippie musician living in San Francisco, he never thought he'd be a soldier struggling to stay alive in a full-blown war zone. Even when he joined the peacetime Army before Sept. 11, 2001, he was simply looking for job training as a helicopter pilot. Instead, war has become this reluctant soldier's life.

After serving in Afghanistan, he found himself fighting a war in Iraq that he doesn't support. Now deployed in northern Iraq at Forward Operating Base Sykes — where I embedded with his unit — Rice has found the potential for death comes in larger, louder packages.

While performing repairs on the runway one afternoon in March, Rice was physically shaken by a rumbling explosion that rattled all the buildings across Sykes. Five miles away, a mushroom cloud appeared over Tal Afar. Then, 15 minutes later, another explosion ripped through the city's marketplace, killing at least 152 people. The Iraqi government called the bombing "the worst single attack of the war."

The city of 80,000 people is 40 miles from Syria, and last year President George W. Bush touted Tal Afar as the model city for Iraq's future, an area where Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians lived peacefully. By dawn, the day after the bombing, the Iraqi Police began executing random civilians — including women and children — as retribution for the bombing. At least 60 civilians were pulled from their houses and shot, according to military sources and an account in the Washington Post.

At this point Rice just wants to go home, something he was supposed to do in July, when his Iraq tour was scheduled to end. But then the military extended his involuntary obligation to keep fighting in Iraq another three months, as it has with all active-duty soldiers in the Army, even those like Rice who are at the end of their contracts and ready to get out.

"Let's face it: the reason we are here is the oil," Rice told the Guardian. "I don't know when I am coming home anymore."

ARMY OF ONE

The US Army requires a six-year commitment from soldiers who enlist and become Black Hawk pilots. What it doesn't spell out is that six years starts after finishing pilot school, and for some soldiers, who joined the Army in peacetime, the extended tours in Iraq and Afghanistan are indentured servitudes in hell.

Before the wars, even before boot camp, Rice seemed like an unlikely candidate for the life he now leads. In the early '90s, Rice played guitar in a band called Lovesake, which played the Café International weekly and regularly headlined at the Cannabis Buyers Club in San Francisco, where the band was paid in marijuana.

"I gave 110 percent to my music," Rice told us. He had a warehouse and a tour bus that he dubbed Cool Bus. But eventually, the band fell apart, and he left San Francisco for what he thought would be a short trip to Asia. He carried a classical guitar with him and often made his living as a human jukebox in faraway bars and roadhouses.