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Vet recalls time in Iraq, return to SCV

Jason 'Spike' Zigler was lead gunner on escorts for civilian convoys

Posted: May 26, 2008 12:14 a.m.
Updated: July 27, 2008 5:02 a.m.

U.S. Army combat engineer PFC Jason Zigler served as lead gunner on military escorts of civilian trucks carrying equipment and supplies into the Iraqi war zone.

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"Go out and find a veteran today, and thank him or her," said Jason "Spike" Zigler, a Santa Clarita Valley and Frazier Park resident and talented young videographer who returned home this spring after a nearly two-year hitch in the U.S. Army.

His tour included a danger-filled three-month special assignment in Iraq dodging improvised explosive devices or IEDs, rocket-propelled grenades or RPGs, and assorted small arms fire.

"It's great for people to get an extra day off work and have a three-day weekend and all that, but I think a lot of them have lost track of what Memorial Day is all about," Zigler said. "The message you should get from today is to think about the sacrifices people have made, and are making now, to sustain the way of life we love."

Attending Bowman High School and high schools in Burbank and Northern California before graduating, he enlisted in the Army in early 2006, almost three years into the war in Iraq, and weeks after his 21st birthday. He was on active duty from March 2, 2006 to Feb. 14, 2008.

Zigler was a Private First Class and Combat Engineer and awarded the National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal, and the Army Service Ribbon when he received his general discharge under honorable circumstances.

Glory was not his goal, however. "I wanted to go to Iraq, get the experience, serve my country, steer a couple soldiers in a good direction, try to save some people," he said.

Basic training
Zigler was shipped first to Fort Leonard Wood in Leonardwood, Mo. for basic training. "We went through nine weeks of combat engineer training and then AIT, or advanced individual training," he said, translating the military-speak for us civilians.

"Our (unit's) AIT was to learn land mine warfare," Zigler continued. "They taught us how to detect, uncover and disarm land mines as well as how to place land mines and use them effectively. We also took what's called ‘breeching lanes' training, which teaches you how to safely kick down doors, break through windows, saw holes in the sides of buildings - anything that has to do with getting through an obstacle in front of you."

He was then stationed at Fort Hood, Texas about a month and a half before the Army deployed him to Iraq on Sept. 13, 2006. He was assigned to the Third Army's 1-121 Field Artillery Regiment, supporting the allies' Central Command.

In Iraq
His unit's mission was to provide military escort for convoys of civilian truckers moving equipment and supplies in and out of the battle zones, or red zones, between the secure zones in Kuwait to the south (usually Camp Navistar) and Baghdad to the north (mostly to Camp Prosperity).

"We were there to provide security for the civilians since most of the civilian drivers there were brought in from India, and had their families (in Iraq)," Zigler said. "Our thing was to provide cover for them because they did not have any other means of defending themselves or the trucks. The force we left (Fort Hood) with was a little less than 200 people, and we were all doing about the same thing. Some were working in the ports and the majority of us were on the security rounds."

He was often the lead gunner riding point on convoy escorts. "As a combat engineer I knew how to spot out land mines," he said.

Zigler was also packin' some heat. "I usually had a .50-caliber machine gun, which is in the turret on top of the (Humvee). I also had an M-14 rifle for longer ranges or when we were going through urban areas, because you can move that around a lot faster than you can a (much heavier, bulkier) .50-caliber. I had an automatic sidearm and a Baretta 9mm handgun strapped to my hip, too."

A force not to be trifled with.

Roadside bomb attacks
Zigler obviously made it home safely, but his three months and 10 days in Iraq were not without incident.

"We would run into some small attacks on the roads, especially going up into the Baghdad region," he recalled. "Our convoy was hit two times by roadside bombs, IEDs, RPGs and small arms fire. RPGs are widely used around the world by terrorists. It's one of the cheapest rocket launchers you can get. RPGs and AK-47s are the two main weapons of any terrorist organization."

The first attack on one of Zigler's convoys happened en route from Baghdad to Kuwait. "We were leaving early in the morning so we could get back down to the next base or Kuwait at a fairly decent hour," he said. "So it was dark on a long stretch of one of the main highways with nothing else really around when we received the RPG fire. "The RPG hit my vehicle but did not detonate. Got really lucky there. We returned fire and pulled out of the kill zone real quick, assessed damage and casualties, and luckily there were no casualties and all we had to do was replace a window."

The second attack happened while driving the opposite direction. "About mid-day we were going from Kuwait up into Baghdad, and had just left Camp Falcon, one of the forward operating bases," Zigler said. "We were heading down a road, a wide open area, just one of those things you'd never really expect, and BAM! One of our trucks got hit by a roadside bomb.

"And I just remember feeling like somebody, like a big gust of wind, pushed me from behind. We heard over the horn (the radio) that we had been hit and were going to push out of the kill zone and do another assessment. There was some equipment damage - it blew the housing of the trailer off the truck. But once again, we were lucky. Nobody was seriously injured."

In a third, far more deadly situation, involving a terrorist attack on a squad of U.S. tanks, Zigler's combat engineer training may have saved another soldier's life.

"We were coming up into Baghdad from Kuwait, on the final leg of our mission, about 10-15 minutes out of Camp Prosperity, the largest forward operating base in Iraq in Baghdad," he said. "We were providing security for our convoy when we got a distress call from tankers (tank drivers) in the 112th Infantry Battalion - Abrams battle tanks. Our battalion commander tasked us out to go provide cover and first-aid if we could.

"We arrived on the scene and there were four tanks, and two had been hit by Dixie-chained IEDs (connected improvised explosive devices)," Zigler continued. "The bad guys know how far we usually clear out of a blast zone, and they put another explosive there. So two tanks had been hit by IEDs. In one tank, all four people were KIA (killed in action). In the other, everybody in the turret was KIA but the driver was hanging on to his life.

"He had managed to climb out of the vehicle and I saw him providing cover with his M-16 while he was bleeding out from his upper arm," Zigler said. "I jumped out of my gunner's position, told somebody else to cover the gun, and tried to comfort the young soldier - he was only about 19 years old. I had my combat lifesaver bag. The first thing that came to mind was a tourniquet for his arm. His bicep area was bleeding profusely. I took out the combat applied tourniquet, strapped that on real quick, got some dressing on the wound, and started an IV on him. After you put a tourniquet on somebody, you've got to mark on his forehead - I had a black Sharpie in my kit. You write a ‘T' and the time that you applied the tourniquet.

"I stayed there with him until Med-Evac came. While we waited, I asked him if there was anything else I could do for him, and he asked me for a cigarette, so I gave him one. The Med-Evac team arrived and picked him up in an armored personnel carrier, since we were so close to the gate (at Camp Prosperity). Usually they'd fly out a helicopter. And I went back to doing my job."

Zigler said once he'd completed his mission to Baghdad, he checked up on the young soldier. "I went over to the cache (base hospital) and all the doctors said he was going to be fine, and he thanked me and I thanked him, and we went on our ways. He was just getting there (to Iraq) and we were just leaving. I'm sure they sent the kid home. He was banged up and bleeding pretty bad. I'd like to think I saved his life."

A different perspective
After three months and 10 days, Zigler was flying with his unit back to the States. "My tour in Iraq was so short because when I had gotten out of basic training, the unit I was supposed to be assigned to was already in Iraq, and had already started moving their stuff back home, which is why in the meantime we got tasked out to do that (convoy escort) job," Zigler said.

His short but intense experience gave him a different perspective on the Iraqi people. "It's funny, most people back in the States would think Iraqi people don't accept Americans, but actually, the people over there welcome us," he said. "A lot of them want respect and thank us for the change of taking out Saddam. Iraqi people are great people. It's amazing they can survive and prosper in such a harsh environment. With the murders and genocides those people have gone through, it's also amazing they can still be so open."

Zigler noted most of the terrorists he and his crews encountered were not Iraqi civilians. "There are a lot of people coming in from Iran, Syria, different places around the world. You can tell (where they are from) by the tactics and equipment they're using, and the way (non-Iraqis) dress is a lot different. Iraqis wear certain colors, headgear, and other different things. Going back and forth over such a wide area, you start to become familiar with what different types of people are around and who's who."

Iraqi locals also come to recognize soldiers like Zigler on patrol. "They know who's coming through, when you're coming through, which company you are with and if you're good to the people and do your job," he said. "You've got to stay alert and do your job. If a situation presents itself you have to defend yourself, but there's a fine line there and if you are respectful to those people they will show their respect for you. It's very important for us to be diplomatic about doing what we're doing. As for me, as a gunner, it was very important for me not to just go firing off at everybody I saw."

Back to civilian life
According to a Rand Corporation study released this spring, 18.5 percent of American veterans returning from overseas duty - roughly one in five - are suffering post-traumatic stress and/or depression. Most were in the Marines and the Army. Too few veterans are bothering to find help because they are afraid of the stigma if they seek psychological help, the report noted. The cost to society in lost productivity and treatment is $6.2 billion.

Asked if he had any problems adjusting upon returning to Fort Hood from Iraq in December '07, then to civilian life once back home in the SCV in February, Zigler said, "A little, but I'm sure people who served longer tours have a harder time. I'm very lucky."

Still, it's been an adjustment. "You're trained and doing a job to look out for certain things for so long, then you're at home and you see certain things that would be a threat over there, but they're not here," he said. "Like trash bags on the sides of roads. That's usually a good place to hide explosives. Potholes. Someone walking down an alley. Just little things you take for granted every day. It kind of catches me off guard for a second, but then I realize, ‘Okay, I'm home.'"

In the first couple of months after coming home, Zigler said he did have occasional nightmares. "I wake up in the middle of the night, but all I have to do is look around me and realize where I am and I'm usually okay after that. It's actually getting better the longer I'm home. It only happens every once in a while now."

For Zigler, part of adjusting is keeping in touch with buddies from his old unit at Fort Hood. "I find it very important to stay in contact," he said. "There's such camaraderie that you build with people when you're around them pretty much 24/7. They just become your family. It's just like if you moved away from your family, you'd still try to keep in contact with them. One of my buddies just got married in Texas and another will get married in September, and it's important to me to be there."

Zigler hasn't yet contacted any veterans groups, but is considering it. "I was thinking about going to the VFW in Burbank and because I know some people down there. It would be cool to get around some other veterans and hang out. So that's definitely something to look into.

A mutual friend recently introduced Zigler to another young veteran, and they've gotten together to share a few of their experiences. "His name is Mickey," he said. "He's a Marine and a really cool guy. He served in Iraq, too, and we get together and talk about times. He was more involved with base operations, while I was moving around a lot, so it's kind of cool to trade stories. It really helps when you get to talk to other veterans and talk about the experiences you've had."

Zigler's family and friends have been open to hearing about his time in uniform, too. "I like to talk with them about it whenever I have the opportunity. I don't have a problem with that, as you can tell. Really, anybody who has an open ear, it's cool. When you've been through a traumatic situation in life it generally helps if you can talk about it. All my friends are really curious about exactly what I did in Iraq. They heard mixed stories - you know how the grapevine goes. It's cool to answer their questions and get to clarify as well."

War ‘eating up money'
What does Zigler think about the war in Iraq, and how it will factor into the upcoming presidential election?

"I can honestly say that people aren't too happy with the Republicans right now, and our (president) hasn't been doing such a great job," he said. "There's a lot of money spent in this war that can be spent for a lot better things. I think with the election coming up that our new president, whoever it is, needs to make a point of what they are going to do with this war. We're at a standstill right now and it's eating up a lot of money and a lot of resources that could be used for a lot better things. Schools, public transportation - anything. There are a lot of people who need help out here."

Aspiring videographer
Since he's been home, following a longtime interest in photography and videography, Zigler has been working on music videos and other shoots with a friend's production company and doing freelance projects on his own.

"I'm also looking for more of a full-time thing for myself right now," he said. "I videotaped a festival up in the mountains recently, and I'm in editing with that now. I did it for the organizers of the event and the people there, but also as a promotional tool, because I think I got a lot of really good shots and it can really show off the talents I have working with video cameras."

‘Spike' speaks
We couldn't wrap our conversation with Jason Zigler without asking the origin of his gnarly nickname.
"My buddy Jon (Andonie) gave it to me a while ago ‘cause I was like the guard dog of the group," "Spike" said. "I try to live up to that name as much as possible - try to take care of my friends and family, protect everybody that's around me. That's how the name came to be. It fits pretty well."

Today, when Zigler thinks about those who have sacrificed the most to preserve the life we love, Viet Nam-era veterans are first to come to his mind.

"Those guys are amazing," he said. "They gave up a lot and still haven't heard ‘thank you' enough. They came back to people picketing and throwing fruit and vegetables and spitting at them and stuff. We may have a rough situation going on right now (in Iraq and Afghanistan), but it's nothing compared to what they went through.

"Like I said, go out and thank a veteran."

Thank you, Spike.

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