After surviving nine months of 120-degree temperatures, dodging enemy fire while loading ammunition on a United States Army tank for the 3-7 Cavalry in the battle called Iraqi Freedom, Weehawken native Stephen Tierney came home two weeks ago and immediately took a well deserved vacation with his six-year-old daughter, Leah.
And where does a soldier go after living without any true bathroom facilities for nearly a year? “Camping,” Tierney said, while enjoying a Saturday afternoon with his family last week. “That’s where Leah wanted to go. We went to Wendy’s and then went camping for a week.”
Needless to say, the long-awaited reunion with his daughter brought out a lot of emotions.
“I just picked her up and held her for 15 minutes,” Tierney said. “It was a long time coming.”
The 28-year-old Tierney returned home after enduring nine months of heavy combat action, remaining in Iraq for nearly five months after Baghdad officially fell and the statue of deposed leader Saddam Hussein fell in the downtown region.
Tierney was a waiter and a college student at New Jersey City University when he watched the World Trade Center fall from the front porch of his Park Avenue home. It was then that he decided to enlist in the Army, to try to find the terrorists who brought down the Twin Towers. “I felt like it was something I had to do,” Tierney said.
So Tierney enlisted in January of 2002. He was first sent to Fort Stewart in Georgia for basic training, where he was taught how to load ammunition into tanks.
“When I was taught that,” Tierney said, “I knew for sure that we were going to war.”
On Jan. 21, 2003, Tierney was transported to Kuwait to await deployment into Iraq.
“We were all there for training, but we knew what was going to happen,” Tierney said.
Almost exactly two months later, Tierney’s regiment was shipped northward into Iraq.
“We started on March 19 and we drove for two days before we ran into anything,” Tierney said. “When we hit our first city of Al-Samawah, that’s when we had our first conflict.”
Tierney said that he was basically out of immediate danger, considering he was operating inside a four-ton tank.
“Maybe they might be able to get us with mortars or if they ran right up on top of the tank, but nothing like that ever happened,” Tierney said.
The biggest obstacle the soldiers found during those early days of the war was determining which were Iraqi soldiers and which were civilians.
“That was a big problem,” Tierney said. “There weren’t many wearing uniforms. You’d find people standing on the road, waving white flags and the next minute, they were holding rifles. I heard of one story where an ambulance appeared to have broken down, awaiting assistance and then men came flying out of the back door, firing rifles.”
There was one conflict that Tierney will never forget.
“I can’t even remember the name of the town, but it was the first time we crossed the Euphrates River,” Tierney said. “The commanding officers told us to take the main intersection and hold it until every member of a convoy went through. It was raining and there was a sandstorm. It was like mud. Radar planes then spotted a 1,000-vehicle convoy headed our way from the Median Division of the Republic Guard. I heard the commanding officer over the radio say that it didn’t look good. He said, ‘This is what it all comes down to. Let’s do our job.’
Added Tierney, “We couldn’t see at all in the dark. I was really worried, but then, the Air Force came and took out the entire convoy. I heard them dropping the bombs all over the place and the bombs shook our tanks. After that night right there, I kept saying to myself that I needed to get the most direct route home.”
Tierney was asked how many casualties his battalion inflicted. “Many,” he said. “Too many to count.”
However, there was not a casualty among the entire 3-7 Cavalry.
“It was amazing,” Tierney said. “We went about 800 strong and I never saw a single member of our group even wounded.”
Tierney said that his platoon was assigned to take control of the Baghdad Airport, where he remained for a while. He never got to see downtown Baghdad, where the famed statue of Saddam Hussein fell.
“But we did get to see a bunch of palaces that were used by the elite,” Tierney said. “It was like a resort area for the Bath Party people and Saddam’s guests.”
While he was stationed near the airport, Tierney found the time to write personal letters to every fourth grader at Roosevelt School, students who had written letters to him.
“Each kid had asked different questions, so I decided to answer all of them,” Tierney said. “It just happened that right after we set up at the Baghdad Airport, my tank broke down and there were no parts coming in. So I was just sitting around by my tank and started writing the letters. I had plenty of time. I sent out the first batch and then another batch of letters came. I figured that I had to do it for the second class of kids as well.”
Tierney said that he received eight packages of toiletries and other items, like pens and notebook paper, from the senior citizens of Weehawken.
“It was really nice of them to do that for me,” Tierney said. “It gave me more opportunities to write home.”
Tierney also received letters from his mother, Joan, who included some copies of the Weehawken Reporter, including articles that featured him.
“I could tell by reading the articles that my mother was worried about me,” Tierney said. “That’s what hit me the most. I wondered, ‘Oh, my God, what did I do to my Mom?’ I knew she was really worried about me, but I tried to tell her I was fine.”
The weather was brutal. “It was a dry heat, but it felt like someone was blowing a hair dryer on your face all day,” Tierney said. “You were told to drink a lot of water and stay out of the sun as much as possible. But wearing the bullet resistant vests and the uniform, all you do is sweat. We were given a liter and a half of water a day.”
One day, Tierney was assigned to police a soccer field during a soccer game between Iraqi citizens and Army soldiers. The temperature that day reached 130 degrees.
Once Hussein’s reign of terror ended and the leader was deposed Tierney figured he would be returning home right away. But that wasn’t the case. The soldiers were being asked to serve as police officers in the tumultuous state.
“We weren’t trained to be police officers,” Tierney said. “We were trained to load the tanks and fire ammunition. There was a big problem determining who was on our side. It was scarier than the war. Since the war ended in April, we were serving as police checkpoints. We were told not to be too aggressive, but what happens when the people surround you and start asking questions? Trying to rebuild Iraq for them? I don’t agree with that. We did what we were supposed to do. We got rid of Saddam. But staying there just made for more anti-Americans all over the world.”
While Tierney remained in Iraq, he collected some interesting souvenirs, like Iraqi money, medals from fallen Iraqi soldiers and an unused Iraqi gas mask.
Tierney also purchased a watch on the streets of Baghdad that featured a picture of Saddam on the watch face.
However, the most eerie piece of memorabilia also came from an Iraqi street vendor. It was a cigarette lighter, but on the face of the lighter, there is an image of a plane flying into the World Trade Center and the plane on the lighter is illuminated with an orange glow.
“When I saw that lighter, I had to bring it home to show people here how they felt about us and what happened on Sept. 11,” Tierney said. “I feel if there was any reason why we were there, it was proven with this. This image was painted on the walls of all the police stations there. But this is really amazing. It made it easier for me to be there. They now say they love America, but they’re still walking around with guns. I believe some of the people are happy what we did, but the hatred for America is still strong.”
After doing the police-like work for four months, Tierney received word on July 23 that he was being sent home. It was his 28th birthday.
“We put the tanks back up on the trucks and headed back to Kuwait,” Tierney said. “I crossed the border on my birthday. I knew I was going home. I think it was different for me, because I didn’t see one American casualty. I know they happened. I heard stories from other soldiers about what they saw. I was fortunate.”
Tierney was asked to sum up his experiences in Iraq.
“At parts, it was exhilarating with the constant adrenalin flowing,” Tierney said. “Still, out of everything that happened over there, nothing compares with what I saw happen across the river on Sept. 11. If I went over there to help stop the tide of terrorism, then I feel it was worth it. Seeing that lighter summed it all up for me.”
Tierney’s tour of duty hasn’t come to an end. He received a two-week furlough and has since returned to Fort Stewart for another 16 months of his service commitment.
Eventually, he would love to return home and seek employment as a firefighter, either with the New York City Fire Department or the North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue.
For now, he’s trying to block out the last nine months of his life.
“I’m not thinking much about it now, but I still get a little unnerved when I heard a loud noise,” Tierney said. “I was on the turnpike and I heard a car backfire and I jumped a little. I was down the shore on the boardwalk and I was walking by the water balloon shooting game and when the balloon popped, I panicked a little. It’s going to be with me for a while.”