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Columnist
Naperville soldier death raises angry war questions
By Chuck Goudie | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 6/28/2010 12:00 AM

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"If you're close enough to need this bulletproof vest, then we've already lost the war."

That admonition was issued by an American Army sergeant to his squad members, a TV cameraman and me as we stood in the Saudi Arabian desert. We were all baking like cupcakes inside thick body armor.

It was early 1991 and the first Gulf War was about to start.

"If you're close enough to need this bulletproof vest, then we've already lost the war."

Almost 20 years later in Afghanistan, those very same words could be considered a reality check after the unnecessary battle death of 31-year old Pfc. Gunnar Hotchkin, a Naperville soldier, husband and father.

Pfc. Hotchkin and the other members of the 18th Airborne Corps' 161st Engineer Battalion, 20th Engineer Brigade were all close enough to the handiwork of enemy insurgents to need vests, rifles and sidearms.

For tens of thousands of American soldiers and Marines on the ground in Afghanistan right now, that is the story of the longest-running war in U.S. history.

Who could have imagined such a scenario back in '91, a decade before the Sept. 11 attacks? Then, conflicts were still straight up territorial and much simpler.

In January of '91, an enormous coalition of military forces gathered to soon begin an attack on Kuwait, aimed at dislodging Iraq and Saddam Hussein who had invaded months earlier.

"Don't worry," the sergeant repeated to me and his fire teams. "If you're close enough to need this bulletproof vest, then we've already lost the war."

What he meant was this: The imminent battle would be won by military toys and technology intended to keep death at a distance. If there was close-in fighting with pistols and rifles where you could see the whites of their eyes, then we would have lost the advantage and the war.

In 2010 Afghanistan, Pfc. Hotchkin's death shows that we are still seeing the whites of the enemy's eyes while war-ending, high-tech attack tools gather dust in defense department garages.

Hotchkin and a buddy, Spec. Joseph D. Johnson of Flint, Mich., were doing some of the most dangerous, hands-on work any soldier can do on a battlefield: looking for booby traps.

Their unit was patrolling in Isa Khan in the Kunduz province. They were looking for homemade bombs planted along the road so that American convoys could proceed safely.

It wasn't the kind of job that Hotchkin planned to do in his 30s to support wife Erin and their children, sons Tristan, 4, and Ethan, 7, and daughter Taylor, 10. He joined up in March 2009 when the homebuilding company where he was a foreman went under.

The '97 graduate of Hinsdale Central High School certainly never considered that he would someday be threatened by a man named Mullah Abdul Razaq.

But it was Razaq, a Taliban field commander, who was behind the roadside bomb attack that killed Hotchkin and Johnson on June 16, according to U.S. intelligence reports.

Razaq was well known to U.S. officials. Reports indicate they had arrested him in late 2001 but gave him immunity and let him go after he promised to behave and tamp down any Taliban resurgence. That didn't go too well.

So, three days after the deadly roadside bomb attack that ended Pfc. Hotchkin's life, an Afghan-U.S. security force hunted down Razaq and killed him. Razaq and numerous insurgent soldiers were taken out during a raid of their bomb-making compound, battlefield commanders report.

Too late for Hotchkin and family. A Hinsdale funeral was already in the works.

According to one dispatch, villagers told American soldiers that Razaq had been using nearby mosques as safe havens for insurgents and weapons storage because they knew that international security forces were not allowed to enter mosques.

So, not only is the U.S. infantry still fighting close-in battles nine years after the war began, they also have one hand tied behind their back because the enemy is shacked up in buildings that have been made politically off-limits.

In an interview with an Islamic website last February, Razaq even boasted about his "hit and run" war skills.

"We have furnished all public and private roads to Marja with timed mines," Razaq said. "For the sake of the local civilians, we have appointed Mujahedeen to watch these roads. In order to target moving and mobile targets, we have distributed heavy and long-range weapons."

If the roadside bombs built in untouchable mosques don't kill enough Americans, Mullah Razak said that he also established "martyrdom-seeking squads" to attack "possible enemy assembly areas." This would presumably include suicide attacks on U.S. forward operating bases.

Gunnar Hotchkin's death, sadly no different from the hundreds of other fatal roadside bomb attacks, does raise some angry questions:

• How many other Razaqs are out there; once in our grasp, trusted and let go?

• Why doesn't the U.S. start bombing mosques if they are being used as armories?

• When will Americans demand that the Pentagon use big-gun, high-tech tools paid for by billions in taxpayer money over the past decade?

That is the least that can be done for Gunnar Hotchkin's children.

• Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC 7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by e-mail at chuckgoudie@gmail.com and followed at twitter.com/ChuckGoudie.