BOND OF BROTHERS
TWO SERGEANTS OF THE 143RD
BECAME CLOSE FRIENDS WHILE IN
IRAQ, AND NOW, BACK IN THE U.S.,
THEY ARE WATCHING EACH
November 14, 2004
The two loners talk almost every day.
Five minutes on the phone. What are you doing?
Nothing special. How about you?
Most times, Joe Yorski doesn't tell Dan Lawler
how much it hurts to have watched his old life --
his pre-Iraq life -- come apart, his marriage over,
his family split in two.
And Lawler doesn't always mention the way he
can close his eyes sometimes and feel like he's back
in Baghdad, as if a mortar shell might fall at any
second to shatter his peace.
There's no reason to dwell on these things with
each other. Both already know. Even when it's not
mentioned, their year in Iraq is with them, living in
the pauses in conversation, pushing them closer
Lawler isn't sure why he picks up the phone in his
New Jersey office and dials Yorski at the New
Britain Police Department. He just can't help
wondering what his platoon mate from the 143rd
Military Police Company might be doing right
then. So he calls. And it doesn't matter what they
talk about. It's enough that they are connected
Both need that contact, because the war came home
with them. Not roadside bombs and gunfire, but
different dangers, the kind of trouble that rings
familiar to veterans of any war.
So as they try again to live normal lives, the loners
find themselves doing what they're used to:
watching each other's back.
On Oct. 26, 2003, Sgt. 1st Class Dan Lawler was
sitting in a Humvee in front of a Baghdad police
station when the night air flashed with fire and
shards of metal. The first detonations left his ears
buzzing, but were not loud enough to drown out
A mortar shell had hit the Humvee next to his.
Lawler and others from the 143rd moved toward
the screams. Three soldiers from another group, the
527th MP, had been hit. Two were in desperate
shape, their legs tangles of meat and blood. Lawler
found the third, her helmeted head slumped against
was unconscious but alive.
Lawler and another soldier cut Bosveld from her
seat belt and carried the 19-year-old between them
toward the station, stopping only when a mortar
explosion forced Lawler to his knees.
Inside, frantic work was already underway on the
blood-splashed floors. Soldiers with medical
training tried to keep the two men from bleeding to
death. Lawler, who had a combat first-aid
certification, focused on Bosveld. Her breaths were
shallow, her pulse was fluttering. Lawler didn't
know what was wrong with her. The only mark on
her body was a quarter-sized wound under her
armpit, but the life was draining from her.
``She stopped breathing!'' Lawler shouted in the
He and another soldier started CPR. Soon, they let
another two take over while Lawler went to help
with one of the wounded men. He checked to see if
a tourniquet was working. He looked at the
soldier's ruined knee -- a mess of jagged bone and
muscle, held together by scraps of skin.
Lawler took turns on Bosveld's CPR. Back and
forth, until she was evacuated to a hospital. She
The CPR didn't work. It couldn't. A small piece of
shrapnel had hit a spot not protected by her body
armor. It punched through her torso, burning a trail
through her insides that no medic could fix. Rachel
Bosveld, a homesick teen barely out of high school,
was on her way back home.
The argument between Yorski and his wife, Denise,
was the kind nobody wins. Yorski's head was full
of the falling towers of 9/11 and a friend he lost
inside. He wanted to go back to the Connecticut
National Guard's 143rd MPs, the unit with which
he'd gone to the first gulf war. He wanted to serve
his country in something other than a New Britain
Denise argued that he'd done his service. The Army
didn't need him. He would be abandoning her and
their two kids. This could jeopardize their
marriage. They even tried marriage counseling.
For the 34-year-old Yorski, though, having a family
was reason enough to serve, to want to defend his
country. I gotta put my foot down, he told himself.
I gotta do this.
When he was satisfied that his wife and kids would
be OK in the big house they were building in
Cromwell, that they would manage without him, he
made the arrangements to re-enlist. He signed up to
be Staff Sgt. Joe Yorski again. But he didn't expect
his unit to be called up so quickly. The 143rd was
among several in Connecticut that would get a look
inside another Middle East war.
His wife kissed him at the Brainard Airport
send-off. She gave him a card. The message inside
seemed to promise that his family would be
waiting for him when he got back.
Yorski took it with him to Iraq. But as the months
passed, he didn't receive cards or letters or the care
packages that other soldiers got. Something was
wrong at home. He talked to his wife from a phone
bank in downtown Baghdad while his squad
guarded the street outside. He was starting to
wonder if the words on the card still held true. He
applied for emergency leave, but it was denied. He
waited for a regular R&R and was among the first
to get one.
Yorski flew home for the two-week leave. A friend
gave him a ride to his house. When he got there, his
wife called the police. Her complaint: He'd shown
up unannounced. He learned his wife was seeing
another man and had decided to serve him with
divorce papers. He had a handful of days, his first
in the house they had built, to get reacquainted
with his kids and get a lawyer.
The Army told him he didn't have to go back to
Iraq. No. I've got a squad, a bunch of young kids,
Yorski told himself. I still have a job to do.
So he went back to Baghdad and to 3rd Platoon.
The platoon was run by Lawler. Yorski had a
growing friendship with the platoon sergeant who,
when he wasn't snapping orders or chewing his
soldiers out, reminded Yorski he had a family in
Iraq that needed him, too. Lawler pushed Yorski
right back into his duties. The two men bunked 5
feet from each other. In their scant off hours, they
would talk about family life and missing their
For Yorski, ``Dan was a big help.''
A few weeks ago, Lawler drove a rented minivan
through Wisconsin, down a long stretch of country
highway, seeking a way to quiet his dreams.
As 70 mph took him past farms and fields, red
barns and grain silos, he wondered how he would
handle himself when he got where he was going.
He practiced what he would say. Lines like ``I'm
honored that you would allow me in your life.'' But
he didn't know what might come out. His stomach
He drove past a road sign. Berlin, population 5305.
He turned right, into the cemetery, where autumn
had changed the trees into a cold firestorm. A few
more turns, a few lengths of narrow road through
the headstones, and he was there. He stepped from
the van to get this thing settled.
A woman approached him. ``Hi, I'm Mary.''
Lawler was finally standing across from the mother
of Rachel Bosveld. He told her he was ``honored to
come up here.'' He and another soldier, Spec. Alex
Wilde of Southington, had flown out together.
Lawler told her more people from his unit had
wanted to come today, the first anniversary of the
Oct. 26 night her daughter was killed, but they
couldn't make the trip. He didn't tell her that he had
been unable to call her, week after week since he
got home. That during the drive he thought he
might break down once he got there -- the tough
36-year-old sergeant crying in front of everybody.
The mother invited him over to the gravesite and
reintroduced her daughter. The memory of the last
time he'd seen Rachel, on the floor of the Baghdad
police station, crashed back into his head, but he
stifled the emotions that came with it. He took off
his hat and bowed his head. The dark stone read:
``Rachel K. H. Bosveld; Nov. 7, 1983; Oct. 26,
2003; daughter of Mary and Marvin; sister of
Douglas and Craig.'' Douglas Bosveld's grave was
next to hers. He had died young, too, leaving Mary
Bosveld with one son -- who is re-enlisting in the
Army, with Rachel in mind.
Mary Bosveld listened as the story of her
daughter's last night spilled from Lawler, of how he
had leaned on her Humvee before the explosion.
``Talking, you know, soldier stuff.'' Lawler
snapped his fingers to show Mary Bosveld how
quickly the attack had come. ``It was very ... very
confusing.'' He told her how they did what they
could for her daughter.
The mother had invited dozens of people to the
cemetery to stand beside Rachel on this
anniversary. A few came. She was trying to be
cheerful, but she wore this anniversary like a
Lawler had hoped to be inconspicuous, but that
was futile for the big man in uniform everybody
knew had come so far. He stood dutifully in the
cold. Gray clouds piled like smoke on the horizon,
growling with thunder. There were awkward
silences between the gusts of wind that set the
carpet of red and gold leaves trembling.
``She was really looking forward to her birthday,''
Mary Bosveld said of her daughter's last letters.
``But we buried her on her birthday instead.''
Mary Bosveld urged Lawler to take a few roses
and a copy of a poem her daughter wrote when she
was 12. ``Take a part of Rachel with you,'' she said.
He didn't say it, but Lawler doesn't need flowers or
a poem to carry Rachel with him. He has no choice
about it. ``I didn't know the girl,'' Lawler said as he
drove away. ``I never met her. Do I have a bond
with her? Yeah. I was there when she left this
The walls of that Baghdad police station he'd tried
to leave thousands of miles in his past had long
refused to let him out. But already, as he drove
away from the cemetery, the walls were starting to
crumble. He felt better. He knew that the young
soldier did make it home to her family, in a way.
Lawler went home to his wife and three young
boys in North Brunswick, N.J., back to his
corporate job at Bed, Bath & Beyond. As the days
passed, it started getting easier for him to spring
out of bed before dawn, eager to start the day, just
like he used to before the war.
The dreams still came, once or twice a week, but
less than before. Sometimes, Rachel Bosveld was in
them. He would wake up slick with sweat, tasting
the air of Baghdad in his mouth.
But there's good in the bad. The darkest days in
Iraq left him with a shield against thinking the
speed bumps of daily life in America are anything
to worry about. He's taking things slowly, trying
to keep a piece of wisdom in his mind, common
advice for returning soldiers: Don't make any major
life decisions for a year.
``I'm happy to be alive,'' Lawler said. ``Every day
is a great day, because I wake up and I'm here with
Not every vet has that solace.
Yorski sat in Room 407 of Middletown Superior
Court on Oct. 29. In the nearly empty courtroom,
in a businesslike ceremony, he was watching two
lawyers and a judge dismantle a decade of marriage.
It was only the day before that Joe and Denise
Yorski had finally set the terms and avoided a trial.
They had split their possessions to match the rift
between them. That included a shared custody
arrangement for Micayla, 6, and Ryan, 5. Now,
this last step would mark the legal end of the
family they had been. They sat in the front row,
across the aisle from each other, both dressed in
funeral black and neither talking to the other, while
their attorneys bantered cheerfully.
``Yorski vs. Yorski,'' the judge called. Denise
Yorski took the witness stand.
``Has your marriage to the defendant broken down
irretrievably?'' the judge asked.
``Yes,'' she answered.
Such a short answer to define the months of an
emotional and often ugly separation whose
foundation, in Yorski's mind, was 9/11 and the
obligation he felt to fight back. Abandonment, to
her. Duty, to him.
It was a story familiar to others in the 143rd.
Yorski wasn't the only one of the returning soldiers
whose life would be radically changed. He could
look at his squad and count a number of
relationships broken, whether by long absence or
because some soldiers were different people when
they came back.
Yorski stood in the courtroom, his right hand
raised, answering the question of whether he would
swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing
but the truth. In the last minutes of his marriage, he
made the same promise as he had at the beginning.
Afterward, as Yorski walked to the courthouse
parking lot, a car pulled to a stop next to him. At
the wheel was the Middletown pastor who had
married him and Denise. Yorski told him why he
had been in court that day, but the pastor, whom
he hadn't seen in years, had already heard about
their troubled marriage.
After talking with the man, Yorski left the
courthouse certain that he had done all he could in
his marriage and that God would understand why it
He would talk soon with Lawler, who worried
about whether his friend was OK.
Yorski would say he's as OK as he could be. ``The
life that I had when I deployed is completely gone,
blown to bits,'' he said. But the divorce was over.
He's back at the police department in his old job.
His ex-wife, who is a Realtor, is closing the deal on
his next house, near the one they built together, so
the kids won't have to change schools. And he's
already getting used to the complex routine of his
new parenthood, the half days and alternate nights.
One morning, Yorski made a peanut butter and
jelly sandwich for Ryan. Micayla had already been
off to school for hours. So Yorski was getting his
youngest ready for afternoon kindergarten.
Father and son played Mr. Mouth, in which
players flip plastic disks into a rotating frog's
mouth. Ryan was a few pieces behind and was
giving up, complaining, ``You have three left.''
``So?'' his dad said. ``Don't quit.''
A few minutes later, the phone rang. It was a
mortgage broker with good news -- a very low rate
for the interest on Yorski's new home. It's smaller
than the dream house they are selling, but both
children will have their own rooms. Yorski will
move there soon, to the centerpiece of his new life.
He already traded his old car for a new one, bearing
the license plate ``143-MP.''
He and Ryan headed outside. ``Ryan, get your
jacket zipped up. Let's move out.''
Yorski drove him to his bus stop and waited until
the bus arrived. Then Yorski climbed back into his
car. When he drives, he still scans the road ahead.
He watches overpasses for attackers. He can't help
``For me, I've had a hard time shutting it off,'' he
said. ``I'm wondering when that's going to end.''
Lawler comes to Connecticut often. He's a native,
and his extended family is here. He still thinks of it
as home. He even chose to serve in its state Guard.
He has plenty of reasons to make the long drive to
Connecticut. His family is here. His unit is here.
And Joe Yorski is here.
It wasn't until the two men got home that they
really leaned on each other. Soldiers at war are
never more than a few steps from the people they
have to trust with their lives. They sleep, eat and
fight together. It ends abruptly one day, and
suddenly a soldier finds himself alone in a quiet
bedroom, at his office desk, in his patrol car.
Yorski and Lawler ease that strain over the phone
line. And they meet up. The platoon Halloween
party. A road trip Yorski took in his new car. And,
of course, the monthly drills for the 143rd.
They've both stayed in the unit, watching as a lot
of the others left, dropping the company from four
platoons to two. But Lawler wants to serve as long
as they let him, making good MPs out of the new
guys that are arriving, even returning to Iraq if the
unit goes again. And Yorski is still one of Lawler's
squad leaders. Yorski won't look for a third trip to
the Middle East. Two were plenty, though he said
he doesn't regret going back to the 143rd, whatever
it may have done to the family life he had. He's got
a new family now.
All the leaders of the 143rd get together before each
monthly drill. Lawler and Yorski have a routine.
When this month's meeting came around, they met
in the parking lot of the West Hartford
headquarters a couple of hours early and climbed
into Yorski's new car. The two sergeants set off to
look for a restaurant, settling into the relaxed
chatter of brothers. Talking about the soldiers who
are trying to slack off after getting back from Iraq,
about the 15-year-old dress-blues uniform that
doesn't fit Yorski anymore and how he should sell
it to one of the young guys.
Yorski started talking about something and got
sidetracked. Lawler accused him of holding
``I tell you everything,'' Yorski insisted. ``You
They talked through dinner, Yorski's acid sarcasm
pitted against Lawler's gung-ho optimism. Then it
was back to headquarters. The two swapped
greetings and jokes with those they had been to
war with, speaking an impenetrable language of
shared memories and unspoken words. Somebody
shouted to Lawler that he had mail.
``From Iraq?'' he asked.
The letter was from an interpreter he had worked
closely with -- Mustafa. Grinning, he tore open the
carefully addressed envelope, and read Mustafa's
greetings out loud.
``Oh, man,'' Lawler read. ``I miss you a lot. Even
my children. They kept on asking me about the
The three-page, handwritten letter closed with a
taste of today's Baghdad.
``Dan, the situation is very critical and bad,''
Mustafa wrote. ``Sometimes I feel like I am in the
middle of nowhere.''
Yorski and Lawler understand. They know chaos
owns the streets of the Baghdad they left behind.
But the war is fading for these two, and the
wounds dealt by that far-off city are starting to
``Those ghosts at night might not come back to
bother me,'' Lawler said. Still, he knows he'll carry
some scars, the marks of the Rachel Bosvelds and
Mustafas he knew. ``You can take the soldier out
of Iraq, but you can't take Iraq out of the soldier.''
As for Yorski, he has realized 34 is plenty young
enough to start over. He's feeling that thrill of
anticipation, the first peek through the next door.
Whatever comes, it'll come to a pair of loners, made
brothers in the middle of nowhere.