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FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ – American casualties in this war might not rank up there with the wholesale slaughter of Bull Run, Guadalcanal or Khe Sahn, but it certainly isn’t combat petite. Folks are dying in this city.

Weapons are required at the new mess hall. It is a new mess hall – known as DFAC, for dining facility, in the jargon of today's Army – because a suicide bomber snuck into the old one in December and killed 23 people, injured nearly 100. That was a couple of weeks before the 113th Engineers arrived. A gutty young soldier showed me photos of that bombing the other day, and it took my breath away. The word horrific barely begins to describe the carnage. The new mess hall has a grid of chest-high blast walls running throughout. The idea of the walls is to minimize casualties by deflecting the force of an explosion.

I’ve been patted down every time I entered the place. (By the way, the food here is far better than anything I ever had at an Indiana University dormitory.) Rifles are slung over shoulders, 9 mm semi-automatic handguns waggle from hip after hip. I was slightly unnerved at lunch (Tuesday) when I realized an M-4 assault rifle at the next table was pointed directly at my right ear. There is a measure of comfort in the fact that every diner is required to dry-fire his or her weapon into barrels of sand at the entrance to prove it is not loaded, and in knowing that it would take these soldiers only a second to load and begin blazing away if a bad guy made a move.

A tall row of thick concrete blast walls surrounds the 113th’s area, a space as big as several city blocks. Inside that, another blast wall surrounds each barracks area. One surrounds the headquarters – or Tactical Operations Center – where a high-tech array of communications and imaging gear helps officers keep tabs on the field. These walls are concrete, perhaps six inches thick and 10 or more feet high, three or four feet wide. Sandbags fill gaps between them. Little quonset-style mortar shelters are placed at regular intervals around the compound.

Night ride

Tuesday the crews of four Humvees assembled to accompany Lt. Col. Richard Satto on a night tour of work being done on Combat Operation Posts Baracuda and Tarantula. Both are on the outskirts of Mosul. As the sun set, several of the older sergeants drifted by to chat. There were a couple of hugs, lots of handshakes. Nobody came right out and said, “Don’t get yourself blown to smithereens.”

That would be bad form among warriors. But everyone here knows what can happen in a war without front lines.

“I gotta be responsible for all these kids,” groused a 50-something sergeant with a smile. “They don’t know nothin’.” You could tell he was proud of what he had taught them. Most of the officers who weren’t going on the mission made it a point to stop by and talk for a moment or two in the 91-degree heat.

It wasn’t just my imagination. There was an undercurrent of anticipation.

Staff Sgt. Steve Patterson gave the briefing. He outlined the route, made sure the gunners had night vision goggles. He told them it was better to go slow and safe than to go crashing around in the darkness. He noted that just because night attacks have been down lately doesn’t mean they have stopped altogether.

“Keep in mind they are putting out IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) at night, so they are out there,” cautioned Lt. Col. Shatto. In the event of a breakdown, the operational Humvees, each with a machine gun mounted in the roof turret, was to form a box around the disabled machine and keep the guns pointed out. “If we take fire, maintain your section,” Shatto said. “Your buddy is covering your back.”

I was in Shatto's Humvee, driven by Spec. Jason Carrera with Spec. Steve Brumfield at the machine gun. Capt. Jose Cuadra was in the other back seat. As we pulled out of the base, the Colonel snapped, “Okay, go red!” The four soldiers in the Humvee all readied their weapons. A few minutes later, not far from the Tigris River, Shatto turned to me and said, “We took fire right up here today. You missed it.” They hadn’t stopped to slug it out, but gunner Brumfield had returned fire.

This is wheat farming terrain – flat and open, few if any trees. Terrorists have been able to load up trucks and cars with explosives and travel the area almost at will after dark. The 113th is building 30 kilometers of berms and ditches to force them to use roads that can be more easily controlled. Their big bulldozers have been working at night because it is safer. As they chug away, they are covered by troops wearing night vision goggles.

Near the village of Shamisiyat, Cuadra explained that the berms weren’t tall enough at first, so they were enlarged. The dust was thick. The 113th calls this spot Tarantula.

The machine gunners stayed put. Other men fanned out around the perimeter. Lt. Col. Shatto and Capt. Quadra took a look. Standing there peering into the darkness, you couldn’t help but wonder just who out there was watching.

“It’s easier for the terrorists to control people here than in the city,” Shatto said. Fewer witnesses.

Cuadra, a member of the East Chicago Washington Class of 1985 and a biomedical engineer at a Chicago Veterans Administration hospital, is supervising this work. Our gunners remained alert as the big earth movers rumbled. A shepherd came by driving perhaps 40 sheep in a tight group. He seemed quite friendly as he waved and smiled, “Shalom. Shalom.”

We stayed for a few minutes, heard the colonel remind his troops to “Stay safe” and headed through Mosul for Barracuda. The city was a ghost town, with few lights, storefronts shuttered. The streets reeked of raw sewage. Half-wild dogs picked through piles of garbage. At night, the cradle of civilization looks and smells like an over-drawn movie about the end of civilization.

John Lubbe, a second lieutenant from Madison via Indianapolis, is in charge of the work being done at Barracuda. It involves more than trenches and berms. Here, the engineers are preparing what they call a Combat Operations Point on high ground. It includes space for prefabricated housing, an observation post and traffic control structures for the Iraqi army. Tons of garbage were strewn nearby. Lubbe had been asked by Iraqi authorities to bury it. Shatto warned him of “mission creep,” saying the thing to do is to concentrate on building the post now, and worry about the garbage later.

As at Tarantula, the big earth movers roared in the night, guided by their headlights. The noise was fierce. The wind was stiff. The dust was thick. Shatto was pleased.

“Go green,” he said as we returned to Forward Operating Base Marez. The gun chambers snapped. We were home. It had been a long 15 miles, but uneventful. It was also exhausting. My clothes were wringing wet beneath the body armor.

Bomb patrol

Shatto’s lead-from-the-front style was in full flower the next morning (Wednesday).

The 113th was called on to deal with improvised bombs shortly after 9 a.m. We climbed into our body armor, the soldiers went red, cocking their weapons as we pulled out of the base. LIttle kids waved as we swerved between concrete barriers in four Humvees and a bomb disposal truck.

We crossed the Tigris and made our crunching, grinding way toward a room full of unexploded ordnance gathered near a medical center. Members of the Iraqi armed forces had collected it. They were glad to see the American soldiers and led us to the stash. Ballpark inventory: 26 rocket-propelled grenades, nine RG3s, three grenades improvised from mortar rounds, 10 propellent charges for rocket-propelled grenades, and a 122 mm projectile.

A sergeant first class ordered the room cleared and a lane made to the truck. The explosives were passed from one soldier to another and loaded in the truck. Said the sergeant: “The thing with the RPG is they’ve been booby-trapping them. It makes life ugly.”

A uniformed Iraqi approached me and identified himself as Capt. Zuhier. “We captured this from the terrorists,” he said. “Your (reporting) is very important. Let the world know what we are doing. We work hard, 24 hours a day. We need your help ... We want support to kill the terrorists, but we don’t have the ability. As you know the terrorists have these rockets. We (Iraqi soldiers) don’t have. My soldiers, they visit U.S. to see their families. They tell us the media tell only bad things.

“As you know the neighbors of Iraq, they don’t like this situation to succeed – the democracy – because if this democracy succeed, they are in a dangerous time. They want to keep everything for themselves.

“You are not an Arab man, you don’t understand. My brothers from Arab land, they want to kill me because I want to make my country like a civilized country. Promise me. Promise me you will tell the world about our struggle. They want to kill me because I want a civilized country!”

He made me raise my hand and swear it. I did. Situations like this never came up in journalism school. Was I being a sap? Perhaps, but I’d swear it again. I hope Capt. Zuhier has a long and productive life. Go ahead, call me biased.

Several of the rocket-propelled grenades had been tampered with. “They try to drill out the primer so they could put in a blasting cap,” Shatto said.

We pulled out. Smiling Iraqi soldiers with improbably large mustaches waved at us. Kids gave us thumbs up. Shatto gave the command to go green, and rounds were unchambered.

We crossed the Tigris. Another call came in. There was a land mine in the median of a four-lane throughway. We stopped 100 or so yards away from where a Stryker from the 25th Infantry Division had dropped a traffic cone to mark the spot. Shatto headed for the bomb truck crew. His driver, Spec. Jason Carrera stepped up as I started to follow.

“Usually when we have a land mine, there is a second land mine,” he said. “So it might be a good idea to stay in the truck until we have the area swept.” He said earlier this week on a similar call they found a mine right next to the Humvee by Shatto's door. “Of course, if it is command detonated (by wire rather than by radio), it won’t make any difference (if you are in the truck). You will just suffer a little longer,” he said.

Shatto materialized. “Stay inside until we get a good sweep,” he said. I was happy to comply. Soldiers scouted the area near the truck and then turned their attention to the mine. I got out of the Humvee. There were probably 20 soldiers from the five vehicles. Most of them spread out to watch the perimeter. “Keep at least half your body covered,” the colonel said, directing me to a Humvee.

The bomb truck guys unloaded a tracked robot. It is about two and a half feet long and is fitted with mechanical pinchers, a camera and a radio. A specialist pulled out a suitcase containing the controls and directed it toward the bomb. As it moved out, it beamed back a live image which was shown on a screen in the suitcase. It trailed ignition wire.

There was trouble identifying the land mine. It was covered with grass. The robot’s claw brushed away the grass. “I got it!” said the bomb truck sergeant. Shatto wanted to know about a medium-sized local truck parked maybe 30 yards away from the land mine. Was it there when the call came? What was that box by its front left wheel?

“We've had s--- like that blow up on us before,” he said.

It turned out the truck had been there. It had trouble starting.

They prepared to blow the mine. The robot placed a brick of C-4 explosive on top of it. The colonel told me to “stay right there and stay clear.” He stepped between me and the distant land mine. Maybe it was just happenstance, but I appreciated it.

“Fire in the hole!”

We felt the blast. It was the length of a football field away, but to my uneducated ear, it sounded like it was on the other side of the Humvee. “That was a hell of lot more than a land mine,” somebody said. “Probably artillery rounds. Looks like there are some fragments.”

This is the moment when insurgents have set off a second, even a remote third, mine aimed at the bomb squad. That didn’t happen today. We headed back across the Tigris, past beautiful minarets, beautiful children, raw sewage and vistas of wind-blown garbage.

The radio brought word of another bomb. The Iraqi National Guard – sporting machine guns in the back of ratty compact pickup trucks rather than atop Humvees – pointed the way. There was a suspicious yellow plastic bag on the side of a street frequented by U.S. military traffic. It could be a lovely residential street, with plenty of nice greenery and nice adobe-like block homes and apartments built right up to the sidewalk.

The robot was deployed. It found two 122 mm artillery shells with some kind of remote control device – big hulking nasty things with the power to do a whale of a lot of damage. Manipulated by a young soldier, who asked that no names of the bomb team be published, the robot removed the blasting cap and dropped it across the street. The 113th’s interpreter grabbed his bullhorn and broadcast warnings to clear the streets. Iraqi soldiers were covering the other end of the street. An old man got past them and began walking toward us, and the bomb. He finally ducked inside.

An elderly couple appeared at a cross street between us and the explosives. If that thing blew, they would be vaporised. The interpreter screamed. The old man scooted ahead to safety. His mate shuffled along as fast as she could. The colonel dispatched Carrera and another soldier to keep the cross street between us and the bomb clear.

“Okay, whose vehicle is this?” he shouted, pointing at the lead Humvee, which was pointed directly at the distant bomb.

“Mine, Sir!”

“Before we blow this thing, you’re going to move it like this,” Shatto said, motioning perpendicular to the direction of the road.

“So I don’t blow the windshield like yesterday?”

“Yup.”

The robot set the C-4 charge. The interpreter blared more warnings.

Col. Shatto: “Hey, everybody, stand behind a (Humvee) wheel.”

“Fire in the hole!”

Shatto directed me to a spot where I could watch the blast through the Humvee’s bulletproof glass. It was a real whopper. It made the first one of the day look frail. There was an enormous flame, enormous noise and percussion that you could feel deep inside you.

“See,” said the colonel. “They don’t fight us one-on-one. They try to do that s--- to us!”

There were two more calls on the way home. One was a mortar round that had been fired at a police station and hadn’t gone off. It was up against a nearby building. The bomb sergeant pulled out his wallet and gave the kid who found it a couple of bucks. The other was an unexploded smoke grenade. The bomb guys put them in the truck and drove back to Forward Operating Base Marez about 3:30 p.m. after tossing a box of toys and candy to a passel of gleeful kids.

Editor’s note: W.S. Wilson is embedded with the Indiana National Guard’s 113th Combat Engineering Battalion, based out of northern Indiana and now deployed near Mosul, Iraq. Most of the 113th’s soldiers are from northern Indiana.

To contact Wilson: wsw@rochsent.com.

Published May 26, 2005