Gettysburg Daily

The Soldier Experience With Licensed Battlefield Guide Michael Phipps

Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide Mike Phipps is on his third tour of duty in Iraq. Mike shares with us some thoughts on the combat experiences of the Civil War soldier compared to soldiers in the U.S. military today. This view was taken in July, 2009.

Licensed Battlefield Guide Mike Phipps is currently deployed to Iraq on his third tour of duty there. Mike is a 52 year-old native of Baltimore, Maryland. He began his military career 30 years ago when he was commissioned as an infantry officer from the ROTC program at his alma mater, The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. After service in the regular US Army and Maryland National Guard as an infantry officer, he went into the inactive Reserves in 1992. Mike returned to the Pennsylvania National Guard and then the regular US Army in the post 9/11 era as a non-commissioned officer. He is currently a Staff Sergeant with 2nd Battalion/ 5th US Cavalry-1st Cavalry Division in Sadr City, Iraq.

During his second tour with the 1st Cavalry Division, northwest of Baghdad, Mike was shot twice in the left shoulder and spent two months recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Mike married Ann Elizabeth Branaugh of Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 2005 and they have two children, Heidi and Robert. They currently live at Fort Hood, Texas. Mike also has a son, Patrick, who lives in Baltimore. Mike was an active Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg National Military Park for 20 years (1987-2007) and is the author of two short biographies of Union Cavalry Generals John Buford and George Custer. We wish Mike all the best and a safe return home to his family. We asked Mike for his thoughts on the experience of soldiers in the current conflict and how they compare to the experience of soldiers in the Civil War and Battle of Gettysburg.

To contact Mike Phipps by e-mail, click here to reveal his e-mail address.

To send Mike a “snail mail” (letter) here’s his address:

SSG Michael Phipps
Co A 2/5 Cav
1st Cav Div
Unit #6086
APO AE 09378

Some of the traffic in Sadr City, Iraq with which our soldiers have to navigate. This view was taken in July, 2009.

Michael Phipps’ description of the Soldier’s Experience is as follows:

My friend, fellow Licensed Battlefield Guide and Iraq veteran Dave Weaver, asked me to send some photos from Sadr City, and comment briefly on my experience as it relates to the War Between the States and the Battle of Gettysburg. Obviously, these are two completely different wars but some things about soldiering have remained the same for the last 2500 years. Iraq is no exception. I can only draw on my experiences from my three tours of duty in this country: Anbar province 2005, western Baghdad 2007, and Sadr City 2009.

Staff Sergeant Mike Phipps negotiates the traffic in his Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicle. The Bradley provides “mobile protected transport of an infantry squad to critical points on the battlefield and to perform cavalry scout missions.” This view was taken in July, 2009.

There are many more differences than similarities so I’ll start there. Our comfort level is much higher than a Civil War infantryman’s. We sleep in air-conditioned trailers in beds, have access to phones and internet, and eat hot meals; although the food at our small base makes McDonald’s look like a five-star restaurant. On the larger POG (“people other than grunts”) bases the civilian corporation KBR serves restaurant quality food while in the process making millions of dollars. Of course, KBR isn’t venturing into Sadr City. We carry a lot more weight than the Union and Confederate soldier: 300 rounds of ammo, grenades, kevlar helmet, and the heavy front, side, and rear armored plates weighing roughly 80 pounds – which when worn in the typical summer 120-130 degree temperature days can be a little uncomfortable. But I guess it’s better to sweat than be dead. And that’s the biggest difference; in the four years of the Civil War we lost 620,000 dead. In Iraq we have lost about 4400 dead. However, I can tell you that doesn’t ease your mind much when you see comrades you were talking to minutes before, blown to bits or missing limbs.

Here’s some of the traffic outside of Sadr City that our military personnel have to negotiate. This view was taken in July, 2009.

Another big difference is that the Civil War directly affected almost everyone in the country. Three million men served in both armies and suffered in addition to the 620,000 dead, million wounded in a population of 32 million people. Iraq, by contrast, directly affects almost no one in America – less than 1% of the population have served. Unlike Vietnam where the military was openly hated by a large segment of the population, we have been treated well by most Americans. However, because of our volunteer military (this is the only prolonged war in the last century that has not included a draft) most Americans are very disconnected from the war. It is almost as if we in the military today have been reduced purely to a topic of political conversation. If one is a Republican the war is worth it and going great; if one is a Democrat, the war should have never have been fought and is a complete fiasco. The truth is that none of that political discourse matters to any of us nor is either side wholly right or wrong. I have never heard a single political debate over here between soldiers. Whatever civilian political pundits and politicians say, we still have to leave the wire every day not knowing if that’s the day we die or lose a limb. I feel more like a forgotten Roman legionnaire on the frontiers of the empire than I do a Civil War soldier. Believe me, there are many here who feel the same.

“Another day at the office” for Mike Phipps and his Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicle. The Bradley carries a crew of three (Commander, Gunner & Driver) and a six-man Infantry section into combat. This view was taken in July, 2009.

I have seen conflicting studies on the socio-economic make-up of the Civil War enlisted ranks. Some say it was a “rich man’s war-poor man’s fight”. Other more recent studies, like Robert E. Lee’s Army by Glathaar, point out a much more diverse soldier population with a significant percentage of the army being upper middle class and above. Whatever the truth about the Civil War, there are few soldiers in Iraq that come from homes above middle class economic status (the officer corps does have a better representation of the upper middle class). My platoon is 80% poor to middle class whites (a majority of whom are from below the Mason-Dixon Line), 15 % poor to middle class Hispanic soldiers from the U.S., Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Guatemala; and 5% poor to middle-class African-Americans. Those numbers are typical in the infantry although there are also a large number of Pacific Islanders in the infantry from Samoa, Saipan, the Philippines, and Guam. In fact, Samoa has the heaviest percentage of population death rate in Iraq. Obviously, the upper-middle class and above have better things to do. To be honest with you, I don’t blame them. It’s no fun over here.

Some studies claim that approximately 9 million Iraqis live in poverty out of a population of approximately 31 million. This view was taken in July, 2009.

Here is maybe another similarity with the Civil War: General William T. Sherman once stated, “One class of men make war and then leave it to another class to fight it out.” I will say this without hesitation: The men I’ve served with are all better men than the ones who sent us and kept us here. If you don’t like this opinion, then all I have to say is that war is ugly because the truth is ugly – and war is honest. Bullets, IEDs, and mortar rounds don’t lie or say, “I was just kidding.” World War Two infantryman Willard Waller certainly spoke for me, when he stated:

The soldier has come to believe, with consider-
able reasons, that those who talk about ideals
do not fight for them, and those who fight do not
talk about them. The soldier knows when the nation
fights for freedom and for justice in far-flung areas
of the world, he must lose his freedom, his
comfort, even his identity for the duration of the
conflict. The ideals for which he is fighting
can have little meaning for any soldier as long as
the war lasts, while for those that die and for
many of the wounded they can never have any
meaning at all. He knows that those who speak
so glibly of ideals have no conception of what
the process of enforcing those ideals mean in
terms of pain ….and death and horror.

Licensed Battlefield Guide Mike Phipps received a Purple Heart for wounds received during his second deployment to Iraq. This view was taken in July, 2009.

The Civil War was for the most part a conventional war, fought between armies of the same race and religion. Both sides were led by generals, almost all of whom attended West Point, and served in the same U.S. regular army before the war. The Iraq war has been fought by a conventionally trained US Army with a lot of help from reservists and the state National Guard divisions. Our enemy has been, depending on the date and area:

1) A Soviet-Russian equipped and trained regular army whom we defeated in three weeks and whom we are now attempting to rebuild and ally ourselves with. Many of the Iraqi soldiers I have spoken to fought the Iranians in 1980-88 and against us in 1991 and 2003.

2) Iraqi Sunni guerillas (who are most likely responsible for my Purple Heart) – they are now supposedly on our side after we paid them off and are now called “Sons of Iraq.”

3) Foreign jihadists, including al Quaida, who simply want to kill American infidels.

4) Iraqi Shiite militias, supported by Iran, many of whom follow Muqtada al-Sadr. These militias are, in the main, our opponents here in Sadr City.

Lastly, the Civil War was not a religious war. We may not want to call Iraq a religious war, but to our enemies it is absolutely one. That makes it a religious war, whatever we may think.

Mike Phipps, on the left, back from a patrol with Specialist Mike Lesh from Pottstown, Pennsylvania. This view was taken in July, 2009.

As far as similarities with the Civil War, for me the biggest one is that like all Yanks and Rebs who yearned for home, I would like peace to break out so I can go home permanently to my wife Ann, my daughter Heidi, and my two sons Patrick and Robert, whom I miss and love very much. The other similarity is that seeing American soldiers killed and wounded is no different than 146 years ago. For instance, in June this year our battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Karcher, had both of his legs blown off above the knees by an IED. My platoon had to transport him by MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle to the Baghdad hospital because a sandstorm had grounded medevac helicopters. It took us almost an hour to get him there, but he refused to die and is now recovering back in the states. He was shot and struck with an IED on his last tour as well. This man has vowed to meet us on the parade field at Ft. Hood when we return. I have no doubt he will be there. On the same day that LTC Karcher was wounded, Sergeant Tim David was also hit with an IED and killed. It was his fourth tour. These men were just as brave as anyone at Gettysburg. A few days ago we were mortared, however the Mahdi Army’s aim was faulty and the rounds killed and maimed about a dozen children who were near our out post walking home from school. They didn’t know that was the time the kids get out of school? As Kurtz said in Heart of Darkness…“the horror.” No amount of veteran hardness can prepare you for that.

Mike with his “terp” (interpreter) Johnnie. This view was taken in July, 2009.

In conclusion, there will never be any doubt that the men of the Civil War suffered the greatest physical and emotional losses of any war in our history. I will always be proud of my 20 years (1987-2007) as a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg National Military Park trying to keep their sacrifice alive in people’s memories. I wonder if someone will remember us the same way? Finally, I would caution anyone reading this to beware of the “all quiet on the western front” news reports coming out of Iraq. Quiet is all relative. I remember once having a conversation with fellow guide Jim Clouse, who has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about Gettysburg. We were talking about the fact that the Vermont Brigade only lost one man at Gettysburg (ask Jim…he’ll tell you the
guy’s name). Jim said something like, “the battle was quiet for them, unless you were that one guy.” Wise words indeed Jim. A couple afterthoughts: I never understood my late friend and fellow guide Greg Coco’s feelings about Vietnam. I do now. I wish I could have talked more to him about it, although I did get to talk to him just before I deployed. I wrote him a letter from Iraq and received a very nice note from his wife Cindy informing me that Greg had died. Secondly, on a lighter note, Charlie Fennell, if you read this, I’ll tell yuh that Harry Heth or Hannibal Day would not have liked “the evenings” over here.

Staff Sergeant Michael Phipps relaxes back at the base with some other friends. Mike is scheduled to be reassigned as an instructor at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia upon redeployment from Iraq. This view was taken in July, 2009.

“Some folks are born with star-spangled
eyes, they’ll send you down to war.
but when you ask them ‘how much should
we give?’..they only answer “more, more,
more.” It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no
fortunate son.”

John Fogerty,
Fortunate Son

“This land is your land, this land is my land.
But this world is run by people who don’t
listen to music.”

Bob Dylan

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