BRANCH OF SERVICE: United States Army
YEARS SERVED: 2002-2006
TIME SERVED IN IRAQ: Nine months
UNIT IN IRAQ: 82nd Airborne Division and 3rd Ranger Battalion
HOMETOWN: Chesterland, Ohio
HIGH SCHOOL: Gilmour Academy ‘98
BRANCH OF SERVICE: United States Army
YEARS SERVED: 2002-2007
TIME SERVED IN IRAQ: 7 months
UNIT IN IRAQ: 82nd Airborne Division
HOMETOWN: Bay Village, Ohio
HIGH SCHOOL: Lutheran West High School ‘98
“You talk to older veterans about how they stay friends with the guys they met in the military until they die, so it is really cool. I’m just thankful I had that opportunity.”
Army Captain Jim Asher just happened to be visiting his brother in Washington D.C. late July, 2005 when he received a phone call from his good friend, fellow Army officer Matt Bacik.
“They got me again Jimmy,” Bacik said.
“Aww, son of a bitch,” Asher responded. “What happened?”
Bacik was not in Iraq, as Asher believed, but across town being treated for serious injuries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Unexpectedly, the two were again placed in the same geographical area in the latest in a long string of odd coincidences that followed the two soldiers throughout their military careers.
For Bacik, it was a military career that would soon end due to a massive IED blast July 22. The explosion blew his boot off and mangled his foot and lower leg. In an instant, Bacik was leaving Iraq, a place where he had spent a significant amount of his military career, for good. He had no idea, when he phoned his buddy Jim, that Asher was just minutes away from the hospital.
“(After the phone call) I ran over to Walter Reed and Matt’s mom was there all shaken up,” Asher recalled. “I surprised him when I showed up because he didn’t know I was in the area.”
“I was pretty out-of-it in the beginning but I know he made my family and I feel much better when he showed up,” Bacik said. “My wife (then-fiancé) Deborah and my parents had all met him before so it was good for all of them to have a calming voice in the room.”
Asher and Bacik met in 2002 at Fort Benning, Ga. while both were beginning their careers as United States Army officers. As recent college graduates (Bacik from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Asher from Cedarville University in southern Ohio), the duo were attending Infantry Officer Basic Course (IOBC) before proceeding on to Army Ranger School.
“The first time I met him I thought, ‘Man, this guy is a punk,’” Bacik recalled laughing. “He just had a real smug look on his face. We became friends though and ended up having a lot of fun.”
In conversation, the two young officers were shocked to realize they unknowingly played football against each other in high school in 1997. Bacik, a native of Chesterland, Ohio, attended Gilmour Academy and Asher, from Bay Village, went to Lutheran West High School in Rocky River.
“We were in the same squad at IOBC and started talking about high school football,” Asher said. “We discovered we played in that same game and started recounting different plays.”
After completing Ranger School, both Asher and Bacik shipped to Fort Bragg, North Carolina to become members of the historic 82nd Airborne Division. It was there the friendship between the two Army lieutenants from northeast Ohio blossomed.
Along with Lieutenants John McNamara and Chris Carlson, Asher and Bacik formed a group of four friends that made the most of their time in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “Yeah, Jim and I had a lot of fun running around and drinking too much while we were at Fort Bragg,” Bacik said laughing.
During one training exercise, the two found themselves together in a trench while another platoon was preparing to “attack” them. “We were basically playing war,” Bacik recalled. “Jim and I were in this trench and it was November and so freaking cold. This was the culminating exercise of a week-long training and we just so sick of being out there so we just stood up and started shooting our blanks from our M16s like you would see in the movies. The officer responsible for making sure we were learning stuff got really pissed at us for that.”
Despite that incident, Asher and Bacik were both sharp young officers with promising Army careers ahead of them. When U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March, 2003, it was only a matter of time before the lieutenants from Ohio, both platoon leaders for infantry units, would be on their way to Iraq. By September, both men had orders to put their extensive training to the test and join the fight in the Middle East.
As platoon leaders, Asher and Bacik were responsible for a large group of infantry soldiers; some of them combat veterans with lengthy military careers. It was a tall order for a young lieutenant less than two years removed from college.
“You show up as a brand new lieutenant out of Ranger School and these guys have a lot of real-world experience, but at the end of the day the Lt. is in charge,” Bacik said. “It is very personality-driven as far as what the relationship shakes out to be. You have to really lean on those guys and draw whatever you can out of their experience and skill set.”
Asher lead a platoon of about 45 soldiers and it was on him to make certain that unit was ready to go into combat.
“The enlisted guys were the experts on the different weapons systems, they were the ones actually doing it,” he said. “I was focused on whether they were trained to a certain standard.”
“The big picture maneuvering-type stuff is what I was responsible for,” Asher explained. “On a mission, the enlisted troops are the boots on the ground; I was just directing traffic at that point.
Upon arriving in Iraq, Bacik’s unit went to Fallujah in central Iraq; while Asher’s squad moved on to relieve an undermanned Marines company in Mahmoudiya, directly south of Baghdad. Before shipping out, the Marines ominously briefed Asher’s unit on the “bad neighborhoods” in town, the ones they typically steered clear of. The city’s location in relation to Baghdad made it a key strategic position for both American troops and insurgents.
“That was one of the things we wanted to change,” Asher said. “We were going to go everywhere and a lot of those bad neighborhoods are where we made our first contact once we got there.”
It took just two days in Mahmoudiya for Asher to experience enemy gunfire for the first time. He decided to tag along with another lieutenant and about eight other soldiers to do a quick drive through of the city to try and get a feel for the layout. As the sun began to set on the unfamiliar land, Asher expressed concern and believed it was time to return to base but the other officer disagreed.
“He wanted to push on, so we go into one of the ‘ghetto’ areas and next thing I know I’m hearing AK-47s open up from one of the rooftops right above us,” he recalled. “We were able to return fire and get out of there. We weren’t outfitted to storm the building and clear it like we would have liked.”
Amazingly, none of the American soldiers were hit that night. In another part of the country, however, Matt Bacik would not be so lucky. Not long after arriving, Bacik earned the first of the three Purple Hearts he would compile in Iraq; all from IED explosions. “The first one was really nothing,” he said. “I just took a piece of shrapnel to the face and was back out there a day later.”
A roadside bomb October 20, 2003 near Fallujah was far more serious. Having lost a good friend in the blast, the events of that day are forever seared into Bacik’s memory. A large piece of shrapnel entered into the lieutenant’s body from the rear and passed completely through his left thigh and embedded into his right thigh. He ultimately recovered despite a massive loss of blood, but none of that mattered once Bacik learned his good buddy and squad leader, Staff Sergeant Paul J. Johnson of Calumet, Mich. did not survive the attack.
“I really looked up to him, he was the best squad leader I ever had and the best non-commissioned officer I ever met,” Bacik said. “Just about every day I replay it in my brain, trying to think what could have been done differently. I always come to the conclusion nothing could have been done so it doesn’t haunt me, but I certainly think about it a lot.”
Bacik was taken to the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad to recover. By Thanksgiving he was up walking again and by mid-December had rejoined his unit and taking part in missions. The next time Matt Bacik was wounded by an IED blast would be his last.
In January, 2004, filmmakers Garrett Scott and Ian Olds arrived in Iraq to begin filming a documentary about U.S. troops in Fallujah. For a month, the crew lived amongst the troops, performing several interviews and even accompanying them on missions.
“At first it was kind of cool, like ‘oh man they are gonna make a movie about us!’” Bacik said. “But after about a day it was back to business. Reporters were everywhere and I talked to a lot of them. Most of them had a view of what they thought was going on and it seemed they were just trying to get information from us to confirm it. I felt they were biased, sometimes towards us, but usually against us and I was always skeptical. The film crew [for the documentary] were the only ones who I felt were seriously just trying to document what was going on without placing any spin on it.”
The film, Occupation: Dreamland, was released in September, 2005 and featured Matt in several scenes, including interviews and scenes during missions. While being able to see himself in action in Iraq is a unique situation, Bacik doesn’t spend much of his time watching.
“I know what we did over there and I don’t need anything but my brain to tell me. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t out there because it is such a small snapshot of everything that went on."
In the early days in Iraq, American troops did not enjoy some of the luxuries that arrived in subsequent years. There was no access to the internet and troops would get 10 minutes a week on a satellite phone to keep touch back home. Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs, were the only available food.
“We didn’t have running showers for the first six months,” Asher added. “We just had an elevated bucket so if the water sat all night, especially in the winter; it was freezing cold when you turned it on.”
Asher made sure to monitor his troops for physical and mental health. Like Bacik, he relied heavily on his more experienced enlisted troops. “I had the best squad leaders I could have ever asked for,” he said. “Anything we did that was a success, I would give them 100 percent of the credit because they were the ones out there executing.”
On occasion, Asher would joke around with his troops to keep things light, knowing everyone was under a degree of stress. “I enjoyed spending time with the enlisted. The camaraderie is so strong and they weren’t worried about the politics,” he said. “They really focused on training and execution; it made my job easier.”
Asher noticed a steady increase in violence the longer his unit was in Iraq. In the early days they faced the occasional mortar attack or an IED consisting of a mortar round buried along the road being ignited by an insurgent hiding behind a berm. “By the time we left, there were IEDs all over, some consisting of daisy-chained 155mm rounds being set off by cell phone a mile away.”
Relations with the locals also deteriorated. Initially happy to have the American liberators in their country, many eventually grew frustrated over living conditions which made them less welcoming to U.S. troops.
“They wanted to know about getting electricity back and getting schools up and running,” Asher explained. “We were put in a role where we were acting as civil affairs but our mission is combat; we are infantry paratroopers. That was very challenging.”
Frustrations also mounted for American troops as they did their best to help the civilians, yet still faced constant attacks. “It kind of left a bitter taste in your mouth.” As a platoon leader, Asher had to ignore his own frustrations and focus on maintaining the morale of his enlisted corps.
“All of them came in wanting to do a good job and help out and we had to let them know nothing they did was pointless. They were going out there risking their lives but there was a reason for it. As cliché as it sounds, it was all about taking care of your buddy. The goal was to get everyone home. I told my guys all the time, I wouldn’t trade one of them for a whole city.”
When Matt Bacik shows hit two little daughters his prosthetic leg, he calls it his “robot leg.” Occasionally he tells them stories about his time in service and what daddy was doing overseas. What he hasn’t discussed with them is the hell he went through after an enemy IED mangled the lower half of his leg.
“Initially I just wanted them to cut the thing off,” he said. “But they wanted to try this and try that.”
One fateful explosion turned into an eight-month ordeal that Bacik will never forget. The giant tears in his flesh became infected and he would spend time receiving antibiotics intravenously. Doctors removed the drugs, but the stubborn infection continuously returned. Several excruciating times, Bacik headed back to the surgical table followed by more antibiotics. The process continued to repeat itself until Bacik could hardly stand to take anymore.
“At the eight-month mark, when a doctor told me they would amputate if I wanted, it was the biggest relief ever,” he explained. “When I first got hit and my leg was all chewed up I knew the foot was probably gone and had no qualms about it. When I got to Walter Reed they told me I wasn’t a good candidate for amputation because the skin on the leg was all cut up and it needed to heal first.”
As soon as his leg was amputated just below the knee, Bacik began to make a dramatic recovery. Within 30 days he was walking with the aid of the prosthetic and after 60 days he was jogging. Before all that though, he had some unfinished business to take care of.Prior to his deployment, Matt Bacik took his then-girlfriend Deborah to a jewelry store to pick out a ring. The plan was to get engaged after he returned from Iraq. After Matt’s injury, everybody was rightfully more concerned about his health than his relationship status, but Bacik never forgot the ring.
At his first opportunity and still in a wheelchair, Bacik returned to the Jeweler to pick up the ring. When the store manager, not expecting Bacik for a few months, recognized him, he was overcome with emotion at the sight of the wounded young man and tears began to stream from his eyes.
“He knew I wasn’t supposed to be back for awhile and when I rolled in there all beat up, I guess it hit him pretty hard,” Bacik recalled. With ring in hand, Matt and Deborah, who he credits nursing him back to health, made wedding plans and were married February, 2006.
The injury to his leg not only changed dramatically, the direction of Matt Bacik’s life, but also caused the parallel existence he shared with his buddy Jim to veer off course. As Matt was going through the ordeal with his leg, Jim remained stateside and was sent to New Orleans to assist with the aftermath of the devastating hurricane Katrina. After serving in Louisiana, the Army sent Asher back to Fort Benning to work at Airborne School and eventually Basic Training.
After completing his rehabilitation, Bacik was discharged from the Army and enrolled at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala. and ultimately earned his Master of Business Administration. In April, 2009, Matt started the Bacik Group; a highly successful management consulting firm with branch offices in three different states. He has remained involved with the military including doing work with the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit organization that assists to meet the various needs of severely injured service members.
Jim Asher completed his commitment to the Army and left active duty in June, 2007. He continued his life of service to his country, however, and is now a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Asher and Bacik remain close friends and talk on the phone about once a week. Bacik’s kids love to hear from “Uncle Jim,” who also sends them gifts on their birthdays and Christmas. Both men admit Iraq still comes up quite often as they continue to assist each other with the transition back to civilian life.
“I get more scared now thinking about some of the situations than I was at the time, “Asher said. “The mind is pretty remarkable. There must be defense mechanisms or something, because I didn’t feel scared. I was just doing my job and almost numb to the fear.”
“Coming home was quite an adjustment,” he added. “In a span of 48 hours, I went from combat infantryman to meeting my family at the airport and going out for a steak dinner, meanwhile, on the way I’m worried that an orange barrel on the side of the road was going to blow up.”
Like Asher, Bacik has no regrets from his service and time in Iraq.
“It takes some time to figure out what things you can take with you from the experience and what things you need to just let go,” he said. “Obviously I learned a lot from it and it definitely took a while to realize I wasn’t hunting anyone and nobody was hunting me. But I am never sorry I was over there and never sorry I got hurt.”