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KUWAIT CITY – My last few hours in Mosul underscored how much there is to learn about this unit of the Indiana National Guard’s 113th Combat Engineer Battalion.

The trip out of Mosul was long and uncomfortable – something on the order of 14 hours of waiting and humping heavy bags and sharing tight, lumpy space with unsmiling armed men – but nothing compared to what the Guard does in Mosul every day.

Lunch in the Forward Operating Base Marez chow hall, built to replace the one lost to the pre-Christmas suicide bombing that killed 23, was memorable. I sat with a sergeant who lives not far from Rochester.

He’s a little worried about the 21-year-old man (if that’s the right word) who recently came calling on his adolescent daughter. That’s a tough one when you are home, let alone when you are nine time zones away.

Next to him, another Hoosier sergeant. His wife feels their separation extremely. She has lost 50 pounds since he deployed. “That’s good for health reasons, but I’m not sure she lost them for the right reason,” he said. But he was upbeat. “We were having some trouble, but yesterday she told me she needs me. Now she wants me home.”

Next to that sergeant was a 22-year-old specialist who had seen inconclusive action that morning as rear turret gunner on a convoy. It had come at about 5:30 a.m., after a night of rattling around atop a Humvee, facing backwards to maintain his firing sector. As his convoy made its way through the empty streets, a car had suddenly bolted toward them. The convoy was going about 20 or 25 mph. He figured the car was pushing 60 mph.

Was it a suicide bomber? There was maybe a second to decide. The kid put two rounds from his big .50-caliber turret gun into the grill of the car. It didn’t slow down, which is remarkable considering the weapon’s stopping power. He gave it two more rounds. The car snapped into a 180-degree turn and slammed into the median.

In keeping with standing orders, the convoy kept going. It seems likely the questions will keep coming.

When authorities returned to the scene a couple of hours later, the car was gone. Had bad guys retrieved their bomb? Had the young gunner killed someone for speeding? Had the driver even been hurt? Had the soldier saved the lives of everyone in his Humvee? Was he a hero? Was he a chump? With the .50-caliber, he could have splattered the driver all over the front seat. Should he have done that?

He said that his battalion commander had asked some pointed questions, and that his crew mates, his sergeant and his platoon leader backed him up to the hilt. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said while packing away a big pile of fried chicken, “it’s not an issue, it’s a done deal.” There was something in the tone of his voice that made you wonder if, for him, it was really over.

Conversation turned to a popular and attractive young captain in the 113th, Missy Elliot. She was called to active duty here a few weeks after giving birth.

That led someone to mention Randy Scott, a sergeant from northern Indiana who missed the birth of his premature twin sons because he was wearing the uniform of his country. And Sgt. Adam Davis of Plymouth, who got word early one morning last week that his wife had entered the early stages of labor. He then spent the rest of the day driving an officer, a sergeant and a reporter around the unspeakably hot and dusty high ground east of Tall Afar. And Sgt. Travis Wheatley of Schererville whose wife asked me for a photo of her soft-spoken husband to take to the delivery room soon, considering how the chances are his leave won’t coincide with the the arrival of their second child in a two-year period.

After chow, we made our way to the parking lot. Next to us a boyish soldier, who looked like he ought to be in algebra class instead of half way around the world trading fire with people who blow up children, was lifting himself into a Humvee. He was on crutches, so getting on board was mostly a matter of using his arms. His stiff knee bears a vivid three-inch scar. “VBED,” he said. “They say I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.” VBED stands for Vehicle-born Explosive Device.

We nodded and drove back toward the 113th, where my bell was rung anew.

Shortly after I had arrived at Forward Operating Base Marez in May, Capt. John Pitt’s mother e-mailed a nice note about one of my stories and asked what the troops needed. I replied that I didn’t know, but the coffee in Tactical Operations Center was pretty lousy. On this day, my last at Marez, I received my first package. Mother Pitt, the dear, had crammed a big box full of gourmet coffee, filters and sweet treats and shipped it to me, a complete stranger.

1st Sgt. Steve Patterson drove her son Capt. John Pitt, Spec. John Bright and me to the airport. Pitt was headed to Italy for two weeks with his wife. Distant duty has separated them for all but nine months of their two married years.

I was begining to feel like I should hang around for a while longer and learn more about my hosts, the 113th. I like these guys.

Sure, there are a few clunkers, but for the most part they are funny, tough and focused. Their morale is far higher than I expected. They have been shockingly open and frank, even while planning risky missions, discussing strategy or reviewing secret electronics. Over the course of the last three weeks, several of them had routinely, quietly taken up positions between me and gunfire and bombs. “I’m just doing my job,” one of them told me with a grin. “You just do yours.” The generosity they have extended to me has been instinctive, profound. The more I thought about it, the less I wanted to go. It seemed that I had been negligent, or ungrateful or both. It still does. I wish I could tell you more about them. I wish their families could see them in action.

At the airport, they herded us into a pen and told us we would have to wait a long time, in some cases six or eight hours, before we left. My flight was to make a very brief stop in Baghdad. Among the passengers were four South African security guys. They carried a lot of firepower. The pre-flight briefing included a reminder that those carrying personal weapons were limited to 60 rounds of ammunition.

In the three hours before takeoff, I chatted with a taciturn command sergeant major from Missouri. This tour of duty will cost him not only one, but two wild turkey hunting seasons – a sacrifice that doesn’t rate with missing the birth of one’s twins, but is significant nonetheless. “I don’t like it, but that’s just part of it,” he said. Overhead, four helicopters laden with missiles and special forces troops followed an unmanned observation drone aircraft toward some doors about to be kicked in. They were going on a raid.

Just before dawn, 14 hours later, I made it to this swank hotel in Kuwait. I slept, took a long bath and then a nap. Evening shadows have mellowed the bright colors of the busy beach and soon will reach the three enormous tanker ships moored nearby. Maybe by tomorrow I’ll feel like I’m back on Earth.

Editor’s note: W.S. Wilson was 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 17, 2005