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FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ – Who you gonna call if some twisted extremist drops off a bag of plastic explosive rigged to a hand grenade at your business?

Say he leaves a note with it, calls you an “enemy of God” and says close this shop right now or you will be cut from one shoulder to the opposite hip, and signs it The Army of Mesopotamia, a jihadist outfit linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Who you gonna call? The Indiana National Guard 113th Combat Engineer Battalion, that’s who.

More specifically, 1st Lt. Elijah Gray, and specialists Ashley Cole Sharp and Joe Gibbs and Cpl. Aaron Vance. They responded to such a call Sunday afternoon, as the temperature flirted with 110 degrees in downtown Mosul.

Gray had nominal control of the four Humvee crews escorting the bomb truck. He and his crew were the second vehicle in the convoy, the bomb truck was in the middle, two more Humvees behind. The Humvees carried .50-caliber machine guns in a roof turret, one pointed straight ahead, Vance’s to the right, one to the left and one behind. They have strict orders to “maintain sector,” which is to say they aren’t supposed to spin too far in either direction so there is coverage all around.

There was an important passenger in Humvee No. 3.

“Dude, the Colonel’s with us,” Gray said over the intercom. “That’s all I’m saying.” He referred to the 113th battalion commander Lt. Col. Richard Shatto.

“Roger,” replied Sharp.

It is easy to imagine Gray and Sharp hanging together in the guard for a long time. Their conversation suggests a couple of fraternity boys out on a lark. Perhaps in 20 years they’ll still be pals, still exchanging quips like Shatto and his Master Sergeant Mike Thomas. Gray missed the birth of his second son, Braden, three months ago, but managed to get leave and see the little guy when he was a month old. Sharp sold his interest in Buddy and Pals Cafe, Crown Point, when he was called to active duty.

Sharing experiences like that, and getting shot at as they were the last time I rode with them – a few bursts of AK-47 fire from a white station wagon that missed – tends to forge a strong bond.

They like guard duty, and are still unhappy about early coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom that suggested troops were concerned about “hillbilly armor” bolted onto their vehicles. “My platoon was ready to go,” Gray told me. “I think some of those guys (reporters) just talked to people who never go out of the wire (leave the comparative safety of base.) We were ready to go.”

“Roger that.”

They talked about the note that came with the bomb as Sharp swerved around trash, possibly booby-trapped, in the road. They felt for the business owner. His world was getting turned upside down (In fact, he decamped, leaving the keys to his publicity operation, which did – and perhaps still does – business with the local government.) The insurgents were threatening to kill him.

“And the Americans are going to kill you if they see you putting it (the bomb) out,” said Gray. “Here’s the kicker. The Americans are not going to be there every day afterwards.

“We got friendlies approaching on the left.” Vance cranked his turret, keeping sector.

“We got friendlies on the right.”

“Roger that.”

They hooked up with a U.S. Marine unit and pulled up to the site, which presented a lot of potential problems. The bomb was in a building. A lush hedge in the median of the street provided about a zillion places to hide bombs. Tall buildings and narrow streets offered snipers a place to hide. Kids played in rubble nearby. And half a block away was a busy four-way intersection, only partly blocked. Cars streamed through it. An unsmiling Iraqi machine gunner kept his eyes on the traffic.

The 113th took up positions, eyes and guns pointed outward.

“Hey, guys!” said Shatto. “Stay up against the wall in case there is a drive-by.”

Two Iraqi men talked rapidly to the interpreter working with the local Iraqi Army unit. They sketched a map showing where in the office the bomb had been placed. The bomb truck dispatched its robot.

Doorways were crowded with onlookers. One asked if he could move his car before they detonated the bomb. Through an interpreter, Shatto told him he would be able to move the car if it came to that. A boy of about 10 waved at the soldiers. A man next to him flashed a thumbs up.

Marine Maj. Frank Shelton, of Greenville, S.C., was happy to see a reporter along with the 113th. He’s got quite a story to tell. He and seven Marines have been living at Forward Operating Base Fortitude, a few blocks away, for six months. “I’ve got an Iraqi battalion,” he said. “Twenty thousand voted here (in Iraq’s historic first election in January.) These people like us. People here like the Iraqi army.

“We have won the insurgency here. I’ll make that claim,” Shelton said. “We have not been attacked in six months.” Shelton figures he might be the only outfit in Mosul, a city of something like two million people, able to make night patrols. Elsewhere in the city, the streets are empty at night.

Shelton carries a photo of one of the officer’s daughters on his shoulder with his identification. “He’s my best friend,” he said.

Disposing of the bomb turned out to be uncomplicated. The radio-controlled robot went in and pulled it apart. A few minutes later a bomb crew guy walked out carrying a wafer of plastic explosive and a grenade.

Men crowded into a doorway waved and cheered, posed for a photo as the 113th pulled out.

Another day, another bomb run.

Said Gray to driver Sharp: “Dude, drop me off at the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) before you get fuel.

“I got about 20 minutes to type up this report before the meeting.”

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 June 7, 2005