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Horror glimpsed from inside a Humvee

Discussion in 'BBS Hangout: Debate & Discussion' started by gifford1967, Apr 22, 2005.

  1. gifford1967

    gifford1967 Contributing Member
    Supporting Member

    Feb 4, 2003
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    Very good first person article about combat in Iraq.

    Horror glimpsed from inside a Humvee
    For GIs in ‘throat of Baghdad,’ any mission could be their last

    By Ann Scott Tyson
    The Washington Post
    Updated: 8:45 a.m. ET April 21, 2005

    LATIFIYAH, Iraq - Sgt. Joshua Haycox steered our Humvee forward at a slow march, carefully keeping his distance from the vehicle ahead and scanning the road for bombs as the Army convoy pushed deeper into the chaotic region known to soldiers as the Triangle of Death.

    The largely ungoverned swath of farmland and villages south of Baghdad is cluttered with old munitions factories and compounds of elite Iraqi army units that formed Saddam Hussein's military-industrial base. Today, these backlands are also called the "throat of Baghdad" by the military, because a paucity of U.S. and Iraqi forces here has allowed insurgents to take root and stage attacks on the capital.

    "Hey, see that town on your left? That's a real bad place," said Col. H.R. McMaster of Philadelphia, commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. "Keep a sharp lookout," he told his men as the convoy approached the dusty, seemingly deserted outpost of Mullafayad.

    Within seconds, a powerful blast ripped into the Humvee a few yards ahead of us, shooting a cloud of debris high into the air.

    McMaster swore loudly, then yelled, "Stop!" We braced for additional blasts. When they didn't come, McMaster ordered Haycox to pull forward away from the area where the bomb went off and get into position in case of more attacks. The bombed Humvee swerved off the shoulder into a ditch and jolted to a halt. Two soldiers staggered out, one covered with blood. Seeing the men's shocked faces, I instantly realized theirs was the vehicle I had been riding in 10 minutes earlier. The Humvee's right rear door was ripped off, the surrounding metal burned black, and the gunner was sprawled face down on the side of the road.

    "Look for the triggerman! Where's the triggerman?" shouted McMaster's gunner, Cpl. Thomas Dillard, 26, of Beeville, Tex.

    Bursts of rifle fire rang out. The injured soldiers opened up with M-4 rifles; Dillard fired in the direction of the shooting with his .50 caliber machine gun.

    Haycox jumped out, fired back to keep the insurgents down and sprinted to the disabled Humvee. Back a few minutes later, he brought bad news. "Roger, we got casualties, sir. Sergeant major's hit and the gunner's hurt real bad."

    Talisman for the road
    Before the attack Sunday morning, we had all gathered round and bowed our heads while the chaplain, Maj. David Causey, of Fort Carson, Colo., prayed to God to keep us safe. "Lord, we're not so naïve as to believe we'll go through war unscathed, but we pray again for a safe mission."

    Then he reached into a cardboard box and pulled out plastic bags filled with lollypops, chocolate bars and sheets of paper bearing inspirational stories. To those who reached out their hands, he offered another bag, this one holding a small metal and wood crucifix.

    I gave the bag of candy to a soldier who didn't get any, and kept the one with the cross.

    We climbed into four armored Humvees and rolled down a dusty gravel road, pausing at the gate to the men's camp while they loaded their weapons with a sharp click-clack. We then headed onto the main highway leading south from Baghdad.

    "Fasten your seat belt so you won't get thrown if we roll," Sgt. 1st Class Donald Sparks, 38, told me. The amiable native of Houston advised against using the combat lock on the door, a metal rod that keeps the door shut during fighting. "I want to be sure that if I have to, I can get out real fast," he said.

    Soldiers here have refined the deadly calculus of traveling Iraqi roads. They know the rear seat on the driver's side is the safest in a Humvee. They know the lead vehicle in a convoy is often the least likely to get hit. They have memorized the worst stretches of highway, and the twists in the road that leave them vulnerable by forcing them to slow down. They also understand that no matter how hard they try, any mission could be their last.

    "Stay down real low" in the turret, Command Sgt. Maj. John Caldwell, of Elba, Ala., called to the gunner, Pvt. Joseph Knott. "Just stick your head out high enough so you can see."

    "Roger, sir," Knott said. A gung-ho private fresh out of training, Knott, 21, had fought for the gunner's job. Eager to prove himself, he often asked the more experienced gunner, Dillard, to watch him on missions and point out what he did wrong. Known among his peers as a gentleman, the native of Yuma, Ariz., aspired to join the Special Forces.

    Caldwell, 43, an imposing former linebacker from Alabama State who nevertheless has a soft touch, seemed almost fatherly toward his young charge.

    "Watch out here. This is the mixing bowl right here. This is a big, dangerous area," he called to Knott as we moved farther south to a tangle of highways. Soon, we entered the town of Mahmudiyah, in the so-called Triangle of Death. The town lies in a stretch of northern Babil province bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The area courses with a loosely allied web of insurgents as complex as the network of canals that make this terrain so hard to navigate for U.S. forces. Ten-foot-tall reeds grow in the waterways, offering hiding places for triggermen. Yet relatively few American troops have been dispatched to the region, one of several critical gaps between major U.S. commands in Iraq.

    "Already there were a large number" of insurgents in this region, McMaster said. "Then over time, as the insurgency coalesced, it moved its base to areas where there were not significant coalition forces. So I think that's one of the reasons why this area is a problem."

    On Sunday, Caldwell and McMaster were on a mission to prepare plans to strike back against insurgents, who have stepped up their attacks in the triangle in recent days, wounding or killing about a dozen U.S. soldiers in complex ambushes and roadside bombings. So far, attempts at counterstrikes have been hampered by a shortage of U.S. forces -- as well as a lack of local Iraqi police or functioning governments. McMaster said the regiment is now conducting aggressive offensive operations across the region that have netted more than a dozen insurgents.

    A fateful decision
    On the southern edge of the triangle, Capt. Ryan Seagreaves, of Allentown, Pa., told McMaster that he needed engineers to reinforce and expand his austere base so that there would be room for more Iraqi forces. He said he also needed dirt to fill protective barriers. Iraqi contractors are so terrified to work in the area that a convoy of 10 earth-filled dump trucks recently refused to travel south to McMaster's base. One driver fainted when told the destination, he said.

    The local government council has been in disarray since its leader was assassinated this month, and there are no Iraqi police officers in the town, Seagreaves said. His snipers and tank patrols are growing exhausted from spending days at a time on the streets and in observation posts watching for insurgents -- the only way soldiers can keep them at bay.

    "These guys have done a good job sucking it up, but they can't suck it up forever," Seagreaves said. McMaster promised to ask for reinforcements.

    Our convoy stopped at a spartan U.S. sniper outpost overlooking a bridge spanning the meandering, jade-green Euphrates. Both American forces and insurgents seek to gain advantage by blocking or destroying bridges and roads. Currently, U.S. troops have barred all traffic on three nearby bridges including this one, which is laced with barbed wire. Soldiers recently shot an Iraqi man who ignored warnings and attempted to cross.

    As we prepared to leave, I switched to McMaster's Humvee, trading places with a lanky, gray-bearded interpreter from Michigan nicknamed "Uncle," who declined to be identified further.

    Life fades away
    Ten minutes later, we were hit. McMaster radioed the regiment: "Rifle X-ray, this is Rifle Six," he said. "We have contact IED [explosives] and small arms fire. Request aviation immediately. I need medevac and air support," he said, his tone measured but urgent.

    He looked up at his gunner: "Focus on security, Dillard!"

    Two Bradley Fighting Vehicles carrying reinforcements came roaring down the road toward us and dropped their rear hatches. The infantrymen rushed out and crouched alongside a wall to direct their fire at a farmhouse adjacent to the bomb crater. One Bradley fired a few rounds, and the infantry squad swept into the house and detained five men.

    Within 15 minutes, two Apache attack helicopters were swooping low overhead, their crew looking for fleeing insurgents.

    Uncle, his face and uniform heavily splotched with blood, sat down and looked at me.

    "You were lucky," he said, his first words to me after the ambush.

    "I am so sorry," I said, offering to clean his wounds and feeling an intense wave of what soldiers call "survivor's guilt." I thanked God that Uncle had suffered only cuts and a broken hand. As it turned out, it was Uncle's second bombing in Iraq. The first was in 2003 when the native of Mosul worked with U.S. Army Rangers. Even after this close scrape, he said he planned to stay.

    "You're very courageous," I told him.

    "I'm an old man," he replied.

    Back at the mangled Humvee, an urgent effort was underway to save Caldwell. Trapped and slumped over in a pool of blood in the front seat, he was floating in and out of consciousness. The driver, Spec. Kanai Thiim, 28, of Honolulu, his face and neck peppered with shrapnel, was desperately trying to open Caldwell's door, punched inward by the explosion. Haycox, 22, of Choctaw, Okla., ran over with an ax and began swinging it hard at the lock. When that and then later a hammer failed, the men tried to pull off the roof, but it was too heavy. Finally, they used a metal rope and winch attached to another Humvee to rip the damaged door open.

    All the time, Sparks was calling to Caldwell by his nickname, urging him to hang on. "Come on, Battle. Talk to me, Battle," he said. "Stay strong, Battle." At a loss at one point, Sparks started singing one of the favorite tunes of his beloved sergeant major, an aficionado of classic jazz. For a moment, Caldwell weakly tried to sing along. Sparks was ecstatic.

    But a few yards away, life was draining out of Knott. Blasted from the Humvee along with the gun turret, he had suffered severe head trauma. His jugular vein cut by shrapnel, he was loosing copious amounts of blood. Soon, a medic at the scene said Knott was gone.

    Staff Sgt. Matthew Hodges, Knott's platoon sergeant, took out a wooden cross with rosary beads and laid it on the fallen soldier's chest. As Sparks rubbed the back of Knott's head, the soldiers bowed their heads. Huddled together in the dirt, they said the Lord's Prayer. "Our Father, who art in Heaven," Hodges began.

    Beyond them in the nearby village of Mullafayad, people began stirring. As they watched Knott's body being placed in a bag and carried away, Sparks, Thiim, and others felt a growing sense of rage. They tried to wash the blood off the road with water, then shoveled dirt over the spot. "I don't want the guys who did this to have anything to celebrate or dance over," Sparks said. "Not today. Not ever."

    As his platoon grappled with the loss of Knott, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's first soldier to be killed in action during this tour in Iraq, Thiim voiced a deep sadness, mixed with frustration over insurgent tactics. "It's just the worst feeling" to get hit by a road bomb, said Thiim, his neck bandaged and uniform bloodied. "You're just helpless. You can't react."

    This time, I knew exactly what he meant.

    © 2005 The Washington Post Company
    © 2005 MSNBC.com

    URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7578403/page/4/

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