Embedded with the 101st
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Embedded With the 101st Airborne

Sat Jan 7, 9:58 PM ET

AP writer Ryan Lenz is embedded with the 3rd Brigade of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division in

 

Iraq and will be filing periodic reports on life in that unit.

 

 

The Associated Press

Thursday, January 19th, 2006 03:21 PM (PST)

 

 

AP writer Ryan Lenz was embedded recently with the 3rd Brigade of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. Here are his reports on life in that unit.

---

 

 

 

TUESDAY, Jan. 17, 11:45 p.m. local

 

AMMAN, Jordan

 

I'm racing down the highway in Jordan, smoking American cigarettes with a man named Mustaffah, who wears a tight, black-and-white New York Yankees stocking cap. His English is broken, which reduces our attempt to talk to humorous gestures.

 

I have traveled for five days to get here, tucking myself into the back of crowded Humvees with soldiers headed for leave, getting delayed by Black Hawks that never came or were too crowded when they did. The last leg of the trip was through the streets of Baghdad in the back of an armored Mercedes with draped rear windows.

 

All of it makes this ride jarringly normal in comparison. The countryside in Iraq rolled past for weeks filtered through 4-inch bulletproof glass as I watched soldiers at the wheels of Humvees weave to avoid the pot holes and scan the horizon, always scanning the horizon.

 

Mustaffah points at the dark sky over Amman, pulls hard on a Marlboro cigarette and chuckles. I look up but have no idea what he sees or why he's laughing. The scenery blends and blurs with everything I've seen before.

 

I roll down the window and a blast of cold wind hits my face. I haven't shaved since Nov. 27, but it feels good to feel the wind. Litter doesn't pepper the roads here. I look up at the trees on the roadside and begin to doze.

 

"Mister," Mustaffah yells. We're almost to the airport and he taps the digital clock on the dashboard. Midnight. My plane leaves in two hours. We're right on time.

 

Inside the airport, I'm a walking luggage rack. Bags hang from my back, chest and shoulders. This must be what the soldiers in Iraq feel every day when they leave for patrols weighted down by 100 pounds of body armor and weapons.

 

I feel guilty for making the association as I leave and they stay.

 

Inside the airport, civilian contractors and businessmen mill in packs. Some I recognize from trips between military posts in Iraq. They recognize me and we smile.

 

"Didn't I ride on a Black Hawk with you early this week?" I ask a man who sat across from me on a choppy ride from Tikrit to Baghdad. The last time I saw him he was covered in guns and bullet cartridges. He must work for a private security firm.

 

He nods, says he's going home to California. I don't ask his name, but wish him good luck. The air feels lighter and maybe it's because of a collective release. There's no fear here of explosions or mortars, no bombs or gunfire.

 

I collapse near the gate to wait for my plane and begin thumbing through a beaten copy of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" that I've taken with me on trips for years. The book falls open to a poem I know, and the opening lines fit the occasion.

 

"Adieu O soldier/You of the rude campaign, (which we shared)."

 

Man, the soldiers would laugh at me if they saw me reading this, I think. They'll probably mock me if they see me again. I dog-ear Page 405 and put the book away.

 

___

 

 

 

Posted 1/13/2006 2:29 PM

Soldiers do it themselves, improve Humvees

By Ryan Lenz

TIKRIT, Iraq — Soldiers exposed to Iraq's increasingly lethal roadside bombs, which can rip through armored Humvees, are drawing on wartime experience and stateside expertise to protect their vehicles with stronger armor and thermal detection cameras.

 

Parked Humvees wait to be shipped overseas at the Red River Army Depot in Hooks, Texas.

By Mario Villafuerte, Getty Images

 

The upgrades are being done by individual soldiers and units as the Pentagon decides how Humvees should be changed, and follow public criticism of the Bush administration for not armoring all Humvees ahead of the war.

 

Nearly three years after rolling into Iraq in trucks covered in many instances only by canvas roofs, the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade is adding extra layers of armor to its Humvees.

 

Col. Michael Steele, the brigade's commander, said he ordered the improvements because the insurgents' roadside bombs — known to the military as "improvised explosive devices" — have become bigger and harder to detect.

 

"The responsibility of the commander is to figure out what we need to respond to this evolving threat. The easiest, the fastest and most appropriate answer is add additional armor," Steele said.

 

Iraqi insurgents are also using more anti-tank mines and making bombs that can penetrate the Humvee's current armor. Among the more deadly devices are explosives shaped to funnel a blast through Humvee plating — sophisticated bombs that officials suspect are being imported from neighboring countries like Iran.

 

Because additional armor won't always stop such explosives — one bomb destroyed an Abrams battle tank last month, for instance — a National Guard unit in Baghdad has added detection devices and other measures to protect its Humvees.

 

Drawing on the part-time soldiers' backgrounds as mechanics, electricians and carpenters, the 126th Armor Battalion based in suburban Grand Rapids, Mich., added thermal imaging cameras and a 6-foot boom that can be lowered in front of the Humvee. Dangling chains and an infrared countermeasure on the boom can help trigger explosives before the Humvee is directly over them, said Lt. John Caras.

 

Caras, a former Marine, was the driving force behind the improvements, which have been made to six of the unit's Humvees.

 

"Right from the beginning, I was looking for ways to go on the offensive," he said of the upgrades, which also include extra bulletproof glass around the Humvee gunner and lights and sirens to help with traffic control.

 

Many Humvees around Iraq also jam signals like cellphones, garage door openers and other remote-control devices used by insurgents to detonate explosives.

 

U.S. troops in the past have hardened soft-skin Humvees by using upgrade kits or by whacking spare steel onto their vehicles, and the Army's chief of staff now requires that all combat vehicles in Iraq be armored. The military now has more than 25,000 armored Humvees in the country.

 

Commanders in Iraq and at the Pentagon have debated how to further improve the Humvee. The Army also has tested several vehicles to replace it, but a successor has not been developed.

 

There have been 43 bomb and mine attacks on Humvees operated by the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade since it came to Iraq in September, killing nine soldiers and injuring dozens.

 

Given those numbers, Steele said the need for new armor was apparent.

 

"There are a whole bunch of IEDs that are above the current protection level for the armored Humvee," he said. "Everybody has been trying to do something over the last couple of years."

 

Army officials would not comment on where Humvees have failed or detail how the armor improvements differ from current designs.

 

Nearly all the 530 Humvees in the Fort Campbell, Ky.-based brigade, which is deployed to north-central Iraq, will be upgraded at a makeshift assembly line the brigade created at Camp Speicher in Tikrit.

 

Maj. Tom Bryant, the brigade spokesman, said the armor program is not a reaction to faulty equipment but a response to change on the battlefield.

 

"We're not interested in creating controversy," he said. "It's about saving soldiers lives."

 

While the brigade plans to upgrade all its Humvees, the program is not in official use elsewhere. Francis Harvey, the secretary of the Army, was briefed on the improvements to the Humvee's armor months ago.

 

There is no Humvee armor strong enough to protect against roadside bombs packed with thousands of pounds of explosives, which the Army categorizes as "catastrophic IEDs," Steele said.

 

"There is nothing wrong with the Army," he said. "But I'm not willing to wait. I'm not sure I would be the priority and I don't know how many of my guys could be hurt or killed between now and then."

 

The National Guard unit's Humvee improvements also have been passed up the chain of command, but it's not clear if the military plans to make the changes on more vehicles.

 

Caras said the additions like the infrared camera — which might detect the thermal footprint of a bomb hidden among roadside debris — help turn the Humvee from an armor-wrapped defensive shell into an offensive vehicle.

 

"It's about moving to where the problem is and counteracting it," he said. "Your purpose is to move against any enemy that's out there."

 

Commanders in both units say insurgents are adept at hiding their work and improving their bombs. And they are quick to learn.

 

"All the stupid ones are dead," said Capt. Jamey Turner of Baton Rouge, a brigade commander in Beiji.

 

Ryan Lenz reported from Tikrit. Jason Straziuso reported from Baghdad.

 

 

___

SATURDAY, Jan. 7, 5:15 p.m. local

BEIJI, Iraq

Soldiers have cursed the cold wind that sweeps across the desert for weeks. It chills the bones and gives mornings teeth-chattering discomfort as they run to the showers in short sleeves, flip-flops and stocking caps.

In Iraq, the winter chills mean the rains have already begun brewing in the distance.

And so the storms came today, slow and steady. Rain pattered the tin hooches and turned dusty clearings into dark brown muddy seas. The desert floor absorbs most of the water, but still murky puddles slosh beneath their steps.

Life in Iraq has improved in leaps for soldiers. They run to chow excited about what's on the menu on occasion, buy new music at the post exchange and even enjoy professionally laundered uniforms. The weather alone can rip those comforts from them.

Those who can hide in their rooms as the rains fall. Others continue their patrols or stand guard in towers on the FOB's perimeter. The rain can't stop their watch.

But they look to warmer temperatures and a summer that will come before they return home, and most say they'll take soggy trousers from the rain over any day when temperatures rocket well over 100 degrees.

It's a balancing act of extremes in the desert.

___

SATURDAY, Jan. 7, 10:30 a.m. local

BEIJI, Iraq

It was candor you don't expect to hear over coffee in the morning — a soldier talking about a dead comrade, a man he knew well and will never see again.

I had the conversation in the logistics center with a group of men who receive the bodies of soldiers in the unit who die in roadside bombings or insurgent attacks. They wait as the bodies come in and help gather a soldier's belongings.

Last week Sgt. 1st Class Jason L. Bishop, 31, of Williamstown, Ky., was killed. The soldiers talked about the media coverage of his death, and they couldn't understand why his life was not as important as his death in the news reports.

Why does America seem so fascinated with the death of soldiers, they asked. They are at war, and soldiers at war die.

The flag-draped coffins that arrive in the United States aren't the untold story of the war — it's the lives of soldiers that need to be remembered.

Sadly they are rarely told, the soldiers say.

The soldiers carry green books to take notes. They are government issued journals with white-lined pages. Bishop had written a letter to his infant son on some of the pages, and the soldiers in Iraq wanted to ensure his wife got the book.

That's what the people at home need to know, they said.

___

FRIDAY, Jan. 6, 11:55 a.m. local

BEIJI, Iraq

To search for weapons in the desert is to embrace frustration. Soldiers know this well. Today they scoured the sandy hills on the banks of the Tigris River.

Gnats and bugs swarmed their faces as they combed the river banks. The area holds an infamous reputation — the road leading to the dusty clearing has been dubbed Smuggler's Road.

They look for freshly turned dirt, listen through headphones for a mine detector to sound. They joke that insurgents are lazy and wouldn't make weapons too hard to find. But they find nothing, and the fatigue and frustration show on their faces.

Of the number of fronts in the war against insurgents, the search for weapons caches may be the most important, soldiers say. If you can't find the people, rob them of their ability to tap untold amounts of ordnance buried in the desert.

Choke them out, as the theory goes.

___

THURSDAY, Jan. 5, 12:20 p.m., local

TIKRIT, Iraq

The towering American colonel looked on his Iraqi counterparts who sat in folding chairs at Camp Speicher to observe a U.S. ceremony to mark one division leaving Iraq and another officially taking over after months here.

Col. Michael Steele, commander of the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade, was the incoming commander. He paused before he spoke and looked at Iraqi generals sitting in folding chairs around him. They will be his peers until he leaves.

"Freedom isn't free," he said, then paused with a dead on stare. "But we can't give you your freedom. You will have to earn it." He went on to describe a freedom that has "a flavor the protected will never know."

I've heard him give variations on this speech before in Kentucky at Fort Campbell. He told soldiers this at a memorial service last spring, which the Rakkasans hold annually.

But the speech unfolded in unexpected ways today. He was talking to fellow soldiers who are experiencing first hand freedom Steele and all his soldiers would give their lives to protect.

____

SATURDAY, Dec. 31 11:57 p.m. local

BEIJI, Iraq

It wasn't a ball dropping in Times Square, but it surely marked the occasion.

A throaty boom in the distance, and the sky lit up like a patchwork of lightning-like flashes just before midnight. Most of the soldiers were asleep, and they ran from their hooches alarmed, wearing only gym shorts and carrying rifles into the chilly night air.

A lone soldier who just moments before had been manning the radios met them in the darkness, yelling "controlled det" (slang for detonation). Explosive ordnance workers had destroyed an arms cache miles away. No one knew in advance that it was coming.

The soldiers shuffled back to bed, grumbling when they heard, and I watched.

I had been walking around the FOB (Forward Operating Base) just before the explosion, waiting for the minutes to tick down to midnight. (I haven't missed observing the first minute of a new year in 15 years.)

While the holiday marks a chance to begin fresh with a whole new set of goals and opportunities for so many, the day passed without any such consideration by the soldiers here.

There were no New Year's resolutions; no promises that this year they would lose those 15 pounds or quit smoking or treat themselves to that exotic trip to far off places. In fact, many of the soldiers won't see home again until 2006 has passed.

The only countdown soldiers here know is how much time they have in Iraq and how much longer until they go home. Counting in minutes becomes unbearable.

____

FRIDAY, Dec. 29 10:15 p.m. local

BEIJI, Iraq

A soldier died today in an explosion that echoed for miles and lasted only seconds.

The moment a soldier dies is something you don't think about in the States when the Army releases a name. The circumstances of the death — a routine patrol. The aftermath — a drum roll of gunfire you can hear but can't see as soldiers respond to the blast.

These are details left to those who live constantly aware that an IED hides on the roadside for someone, maybe them, and families who will forever remember the day the phone call came to let them know that hidden bomb had found their loved one.

Soldiers who knew the soldier who died picked themselves up out of their grief. They headed outside the wire to drive the streets that have taken soldiers before. They carried on with tasks that would fall to the side anywhere but here.

In Iraq, it's important for soldiers to acknowledge the dead and pass along the names. But they all do their damnedest not to dwell.

____

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 28, 12:35 p.m. local

The power went out and blackened the hooches today. Soldiers poured from their doorways, griping loudly and kicking the rocks and sand at their feet.

A generator that powers a group of buildings where soldiers live overheated and blew just an hour ago, leaving only the radios in the command post working.

Soldiers depend on electricity. Sun comes up, lights go down. Sun goes down, lights come up. But when there's no power, the veil comes back with a reminder of where they are.

Profanities fill the air as soldiers return from their patrols to find darkness.

Electricity affords soldiers some of the comforts of home. Sony PlayStations, computers, DVD players. Coffee makers from Europe. Without it, another world waits just outside the gates.

It's easy to forget that "other world" with a chow hall open four times a day and a constant flow of movies mailed from the states. But when the power's gone, soldiers become intimately aware of how splendid it is to feel clean, wear fresh cloths, sleeping in the comfort of a bed or easing back in front of a television can be.

And, yes, soldiers have televisions here.

Veterans who have been in Iraq before, who slept on tanks in the desert during the invasion and ate MREs for months, talk about how good they have it now in comparison. Hot meals and warm showers, cold water and air conditioning.

But when the power dies, that disappears and their surroundings come creeping in. The lights no longer shine on glossy pinup girls. Coffee makers stop burping. Even the computer station down the road giving them access to the world outside turns black.

They are detached and left with nothing to do but think of where they are.

There's truth in the adage that if a soldier can't adapt to his surroundings, he'll laugh at his misery to bide the time until things change.

The conversations outside the hooches brim with laughter now.

___

TUESDAY, Dec. 27, 2:35 p.m. local

Some days on the Forward Operating Base (FOB) slog by without excitement.

Since brigade headquarters left, the combat units on the post have had to split their time between patrolling surrounding villages and pulling guard duty.

It's called force protection, and the soldiers resent it.

Soldiers watch the unmoving desert for hours from guard posts. Commanders struggle to keep up their patrols with a third of their company gone.

And the soldiers wait for their shift to come around, trying, just trying to get a few hours of sleep while the sun beats hard and bright outside the hooch.

Boredom. Fatigue. Monotony. A soldier in Iraq knows these things just as well as the thrill and the rush of adrenaline a patrol can bring.

___

MONDAY, Dec. 26, 8:15 p.m. local

An explosion rumbles like thunder on the horizon and no one moves. Soldiers stare blankly into the air for a few seconds, processing the sound.

A symphony of blasts rocks the outlying areas of Iraq every day. Controlled detonations of discovered munitions, practicing mortar teams, heavy gunfire. They are part of the day and seem part of the atmosphere — like police sirens at home.

But with time anyone can tell the difference in the way they sound and feel, the way the explosion moves the ground or shimmies building walls.

Controlled detonations are fierce, with a boom that travels miles. The blast sounds tired when you hear it. Outgoing mortar fire is robust and lacks the sound of an impact. (You can feel the ground tear apart with incoming fire.)

I heard incoming fire today and knew immediately it was different. Two hours ago a mortar round hit a few hundred yards away from soldiers' quarters. It rang out in the quiet of the desert night.

The soldiers stood with wide eyes. A pause. The radios rang out with calls for accountability. Was equipment damaged? Was anyone hurt? Was everyone found?

Weeks ago Cpl. Jimmy Lee Shelton, 21, of Lehigh Acres, Fla., died during a mortar attack launched just after the morning call to prayer from a nearby village.

No one was injured in this blast, but luck had something to do with it, the soldiers say. Safety is a perception.

___

SUNDAY, Dec. 25, 7:30 p.m. local

They binged on turkey, stuffing and ham. They crowded in the darkness to get a moment on a telephone to call home to their families. They gathered outside their hooches, smoking cigars in the cold and laughing about home.

Christmas at war is unlike any holiday I've seen, not because of what the soldiers have or don't have, who they miss or even where they are. It's their ability to make even far off lands seem a bit like home.

For days leading up to Christmas morning, they had strung tinsel from doorways and hung vibrant red, white and green holiday cards on the tan metal walls of their hooches. Artificial Christmas trees stood tall in dining halls and command posts.

But on Christmas morning, when the mail truck arrived packed with boxes — goodies from mom, letters from girlfriends, wives and husbands, toothpaste and underwear — the soldiers weren't awake to see it come.

I'm not sure they even expected anything from home.

Having just returned from an early morning mission, they were sleeping when the truck unloaded. In the dead of morning they raided a village just outside of town, they hammered down doors, inquired about insurgents, dug deep for weapons caches.

And when they awoke, they weren't heavy with homesickness or quiet with nostalgia.

Christmas was just another day with a job to do and a letter from home. Oh ... and the food was a little better than normal.

___

SATURDAY, Dec. 24, 2:55 p.m. local

Soldiers nowadays have become media savvy warriors slung with guns and filled with an up-to-date knowledge of what's going on in the world around them.

That alone separates them from their predecessors, those men who went to war and were left cut off from home and in the dark.

Newscasts appear at chow time. Copies of "Stars and Stripes" circulate from hand to hand in hooches across post. Those of us who aren't soldiers but know about them from Hollywood movies have an idea that deploying to war is a complete severing of ties.

Hardly the case.

To illustrate the point, soldiers had a copy of one of my articles printed and taped to a doorway in their command post. They had it within hours of its release for publication.

___

FRIDAY, Dec. 23, 5:05 a.m. local

The morning call to prayer came just as the helicopters slammed the ground. The door flew open, and the soldiers disappeared into the darkness.

Before I could move, an unseen hand grabbed me, pushed me and I fell chest first into the sand. The silt from the desert floor coated my teeth and filled my mouth with a grinding crunch.

I pulled my helmet back from over my eyes, expecting the soldiers to be on the ground with me. Instead, they were on their knees, rifles cocked and pointed. They scanned the outskirts of the village through green video screens of night vision goggles.

So this is an air assault, I thought.

An air assault, the modern version of an insertion tactic the Army first used in Vietnam and the calling card for the 101st Airborne Division. Helicopters fly in the black of night and land with soldiers itching to move on an objective.

The objective today? A tiny village with mud homes that seemed cast from the bible more than the 21st Century. Soldiers searched through the morning for an insurgent thought to be living there who had killed five of their friends.

The man wasn't there, and the soldiers ended with a disappointment they were reluctant to discuss. They happily talked about my "digger" that began the morning, though.

I have an excuse, though. They had night vision goggles. All I had was color blindness and compromised depth perception. Hey, you roll with the punches.

___

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 21, 4:20 p.m. local

BEIJI, Iraq — Fear. It's a dirty word among the soldiers in Iraq. Even if they feel it, they don't discuss it, or let anyone know it's there.

They laugh at movies, gig each other and even play practical jokes. A passer-by can tell when they're happy, homesick or pissed off.

But fear hides well in Iraq.

Maybe the battlefield makes normal men and women harder than they would be elsewhere.

Capt. Jamey Turner, commander of the unit I'm with, quickly reminds soldiers under his leadership that becoming a target is a matter of perception, and that the line separating a soldier from a targeted observer is thin.

If a soldier is scared, he will cross the line.

"If you look like an easy target, chances are you are one," he often says, setting his jaw and locking his stare on them. "You've got to dominate your enemy."

And they listen, these youngsters whose counterparts in the states are in school or partying on a Friday night.

Fear is here someplace, I'm sure. It's just beaten every day.

____

TUESDAY, Dec. 20, 9:30 p.m. local

ZUWAD KHALAF, Iraq — The voices came from the other side of a sand dune or over the radio, carrying an air of untouched desert in all directions.

"Found another one," someone with a metal detector would yell as he swept the desert floor for buried explosives.

Soldiers pile into Humvees or run to help. After another five minutes, a yell would come and they would run again, burning with curiosity.

Missiles, rockets, mortars and mines, all wrapped in plastic and buried with care — mountains of them near a half-demolished brick building on an open desert plain in northern Iraq.

It was a rare moment. One in which soldiers let their guard down and enjoyed an accomplishment. They laughed and swore as they formed daisy chains of arms and hands to move the weapons from the ground into trucks to take them to be destroyed.

They sang lewd boot camp marches as they filled one truck, and still munitions appeared in sandy holes that looked like graves when emptied.

These soldiers knew the weapons they had found could just have easily been found by someone else, whoever it is making the bombs they find on the roadsides: Homegrown insurgents, foreign fighters, whoever.

But today the weapons were in American hands. They knew it and laughed loudly as cars slowed to watch on a highway in the distance.

____

SUNDAY, Dec. 18, 10:30 a.m. local

BEIJI, Iraq

Brunch in Iraq? Yup.

Every Sunday, the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division are treated to an American-style brunch of scrambled eggs, pancakes, hash browns — the whole nine yards.

Now there aren't glasses of mimosa or bloody marys on the table, and it's still dished out with the lightning speed of a military meal.

But I suppose it's the thought that counts.

___

SUNDAY, Dec. 18, 3:30 a.m. local

BEIJI, Iraq

A big screen TV flickered with images from half a world away — soldiers wives and children gathered at Fort Campbell during a live satellite feed.

It was a holiday present. A surprise.

One by one, sleep-deprived soldiers shuffled to a microphone, donned a floppy set of headphones to hear their loved ones thousands of miles away.

They laughed, watched as their children made faces into the camera, and wished their families the best for the holidays. It wasn't a lot of time they had to talk, but it was striking how the Internet has affected even soldiers at war.

Just as paper-and-pen letters have fallen out of favor back home, soldiers in Iraq have the luxury of high-speed Internet connections to keep them from becoming strangers to their families during long deployments.

Every night, lines of soldiers of all ages file out of a bombed out building on Forward Operating Base Summerall where they can call, e-mail and see their families and friends via Web cams.

The downside may be for historians. When the history of the Iraq war is written, there won't be any letters from soldiers to their friends and family to chronicle their days in the field.

___

FRIDAY, Dec. 16, 8:50 p.m. local

BEIJI, Iraq

You find yourself thinking in acronyms, nicknames and abbreviations if you live with the Army.

You swim in a pool of jargon and shorten everything.

After waking up in the morning ready to move, you are "G2G," or good to go.

The soldiers strap on their "happy gear" or "battle rattle" and SP, start patrol.

There are even nicknames the soldiers use for their weapons. An M-16 is a musket. A .50 caliber machine gun jutting from the turret atop a Humvee is a "Ma Deuce." There's even a machine gun known as a "Saw." Perhaps after the sound it makes.

It's a dizzying world for an outsider.

But even I've found myself making appointments for interviews in military time and planning my day around "ops," or operations. My "hygiene ops," "chow ops," "writing ops," "sleep ops," "e-mail ops."

It's an addictive way of speaking, even graceful — in a weird abbreviated way.

___

FRIDAY, Dec. 16, 2:15 p.m. local

SHARQAT, Iraq

Soldiers watched from a sandy hillside as an election they helped make possible went on without them.

Under strict orders to leave the process to the Iraqis, they paced anxiously as voters strolled casually into rundown buildings to vote in Iraq's Sunni Arab Salahuddin province north of Baghdad.

They got into their Humvees, got out again, smoked cigarettes, chewed tobacco — anything to pass the time. They talked about guns, bragged about marksmanship and gave impersonations of "Dirty Harry" — all the while waiting for a calamity that never came.

The closest came when children from the village crowded the surrounding hillside, taunting them and asking for money. Their shrill cries sounded too much like a Western movie where indistinguishable voices come from the hillside.

An interpreter named "Norton" who travels regularly with soldiers from the 33rd Cavalry Regiment taunted the kids and tried to chase them down. But he stumbled where they seemed fleet-footed. The hillsides were their playground, and they knew the terrain well.

The night before the election, the soldiers slept on cots in an Iraqi ammunition depot outside Sharqat waiting for the election. I had awakened with them hours before sunrise to ride to a point in Sharqat where they could oversee the polling sites.

They wanted to be ready to move if anything happened but nothing did. We returned to post early this afternoon, showered and slept. Was it disappointment that kept them quiet on the way home?

The soldiers say that a boring day is a good day. So a boring election would be a good election. An election without bombs or IEDs would bring them one step closer to coming home, mission complete.

Staff Sgt. Jason Scapanski, 33, of St. Cloud, Minn., put it this way. "Sometimes it feels like we're beating a dead horse, but maybe this here today will be the culmination of it all."

___

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 14, 8:10 p.m. local

BEIJI, Iraq.

The radio had crackled just minutes before with a soldier screaming that his Humvee had hit an IED planted on the side of the road near Sharqa.

No one was injured, a tire was destroyed, and soldiers from the 33rd Cavalry Regiment's Bravo Troop had begun searching nearby homes for someone, something, anything that might have been used as a detonator.

They found a young boy in a room that had walls covered in pictures of Hollywood models. A pornographic American film played on the television. The boy smiled sheepishly as soldiers led him into the courtyard where a group of women had gathered, laughing.

That's when they found the old man, chained to the wall and pawing at a bowl of rice covered with flies in an alley filled with rotting food and feces. His beard was matted with grime, and he mumbled through chewed food that spilled from his mouth.

The man reached out as soldiers passed him. Maybe he was asking for help. Maybe he didn't know what he was doing. I couldn't look and began to gag.

The soldiers I'm with say they've seen this before in Iraq's tribal villages: families that have chained relatives to the walls because of age, senility, disability or disfigurement. Apparently they are seen as an embarrassment to the family.

I had seen it once before. At another home just a block away, soldiers found a disfigured boy chained to the wall. They were talking excitedly about it when he somehow worked himself free from his shackles and wandered closer.

The soldiers spun around, offered him candy and shooed him away with yells.

Finally one soldier led him by the shoulder toward a group of women that were peering around a stone wall who seemed to know who he was.

The soldiers had just been attacked, and the boy was becoming a distraction.

The unit detained six men today from another house they searched after the explosion. They found automatic rifles, $900 in U.S. bills, license plates from Dubai and a picture of the homeowner standing next to

 

Saddam Hussein's brother.

But tonight, it's the man in the alley and the boy on the street who have kept everyone talking.

 

 

MONDAY, Dec. 12, 11:25 p.m. local.

 

BEIJI, Iraq.

 

FOB, short for forward operating base in military slang.

 

Fobettes, a nickname for those soldiers who never leave the fortified compound, who stand by on the radios, who make sure soldiers are fed three times a day.

 

There's a general disdain for fobettes among those who routinely go into the villages in Iraq armed with rifles and a vest full of ammunition. While they listen to heavy metal music and pace around their Humvees before leaving, fobettes play videogames, watch DVDs and write letters.

 

Life on a military compound in Iraq can be like like a college dormitory. The only thing missing is the booze.

 

---

 

SUNDAY, Dec. 11, 5:15 p.m. local.

 

BEIJI, Iraq.

 

Going outside the wire. It's a slang expression for leaving the security of a military base in Iraq to travel on highways pocked with holes from roadside explosions.

 

Silence runs deep during that moment soldiers cross the barrier lined with concertina wire and guard posts. At first their silence struck me as boredom, which sometimes it surely is if nothing happens.

 

But after several patrols into the villages around Beiji, I've realized it's an uncomfortable mix of excitement, fear and the realization this could be it that keeps them silent.

 

Have you been blown up yet? The question is normal among soldiers in Iraq. Sgt. Marcus Barnes, a 22-year-old from Birmingham, Ala., said this when I asked him the question recently. "I ain't been blown up yet, but my time's coming."

 

The reality is that soldiers sometimes die in a flash of tearing metal while on patrol in Iraq. They've burned to death, been shredded by shrapnel that tears through the skins of their vehicles when a artillery shell disguised on the side of the road blows up.

 

A soldier told me not to worry the first time I went out with the 101st Airborne Division. "If we die, we won't be around to know about it," he said. He slapped me on the back and laughed.

 

A convoy rolls past a pile of sand on the side of the road; I grit my teeth. If there's a pothole in the side of the road, my stomach turns to the point of nausea.

 

But the truth in Barnes' statement can be comforting. The fact that IEDs blow up nearly every day across Iraq make even the shortest of drives a tense moment.

 

There's a saying the soldiers tell each other often. Being bored is OK. A boring day is a good day.

 

 

---

 

THURSDAY, Dec. 8, 5:20 a.m. local.

 

BEIJI, Iraq.

 

The darkness. It struck me first about this place even through the flames from gas flares at an oil refinery on the horizon that dazzle the sky outside Beiji in a burst of orange.

 

The darkness penetrates everything at Forward Operating Base Summerall, where the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade has deployed. I'm told you get used to it, but my eyes haven't adjusted yet.

 

Gunfire broke the early morning silence just a moment ago. Before that, loudspeakers just outside the camp's wires bellowed a call to prayer. Soldiers working in the largely Sunni Salah ad Din province say they can set watches by it.

 

It took an overwhelming five days after leaving New York to arrive here. Two nights in a Kuwait City hotel room, waiting for transportation that never came. Two nights on a stained nylon cot at the Convention Center in downtown Baghdad, waiting again.

 

Traveling through Iraq has proven to be a troublesome nightmare. Heliports jam with lines that form at dawn with soldiers eager for any available space on a Blackhawk. Flights get scrapped because of mission priority.

 

It takes some finagling to move anywhere.

 

One Blackhawk crew mistakenly left me stranded about 15 miles outside Baghdad at Camp Taji, a former Iraqi airfield where an aviation brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division flew Apache helicopters. (My screams of I-Z, short for International Zone, must have sounded too much like Ta-ji through the din.)

 

The soldiers were getting ready to return home in about a month, and many already were wearing red and white Santa Claus caps. They ran through hallways of the post's buildings, laughing and skipping. They were going home soon. It was understandable.

 

I spent six hours trying to arrange a flight out with a National Guard sergeant from Texas stationed at Camp Taji who wanted instead to tell me about the videos and animated cartoons he makes in his free time.

 

"Sergeant, I'd love to see your cartoons, but can you help me get to Baghdad?" I pleaded. He found me a flight leaving after dark, but insisted I watch some of his films while waiting. He sent me away with two DVDs, films of the soldiers he made.

 

Moving by helicopter is necessary. The threat of roadside bombings before the parliamentary elections on Dec. 15 has made traveling by Humvee too dangerous.

 

I finally arrived with the soldiers from the 101st around midnight a day ago. More than a hundred hours in transit had left me exhausted when the Chinook finally landed, dropping a dozen or more soldiers out.

 

I fell asleep on a cot again, this time in a motor pool, choking on the smell of grease and diesel fuel.

_________________

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#2

Cindy. I read every word this morning. Kind of humbles one doesn't it? As I sit here and read and complain how chilly my Michigan house is in the morning, then walk over to the thermostat and turn it up a few notches.

 

Hmmm, have to work today, but will do so from the comfort of my store and attached house. Gee, do I want to drive over to my friends house and help her with her computer, or will I wait until tomorrow and do it then. I'll wait till tomorrow. That's my perogative!

 

And now I'm trying to decided what to eat for breakfast before I open the store in 50 minutes. Ah, let's put on a fresh pot of coffee and savor in the aroma as it fills the walls of this old country establishment.

 

Ya, what do we have to complain about? Kind of humbles one doesn't it? :unsure:

Marion J Chard
Proud Daughter of Walter (Monday) Poniedzialek
540th Engineer Combat Regiment, 2833rd Bn, H&S Co, 4th Platoon
There's "No Bridge Too Far"
Reply
#3

Sure does Marion...I am humbled frequently these days..Love ya Sis

Reply
#4

I know this may sound nuts to some, but I've often thought that I'd loved to have been a photo journalist during WWII. I know, as I've stated, some of you will think I am absolutely crazy. Maybe I am. That's just me.

 

Saw a show on a female Nam correspondent the other day on TV. Fascinating. She got right in with the guys and became a respected person. Saw some things no one would want to see. She explained about the sound of bullets whizzing by her head. Heart-stopping. Thrilling. Scary. Depressing. Any number of adjectives and synonyms come to mind.

Marion J Chard
Proud Daughter of Walter (Monday) Poniedzialek
540th Engineer Combat Regiment, 2833rd Bn, H&S Co, 4th Platoon
There's "No Bridge Too Far"
Reply
#5

Seems to me I recall too many mornings, sitting in a foxhole and heating up a canteen

cup of water, over a old wax k ration box as a fire to make a cup of lukewarm powered

coffee during the '44/45 winter days. Same damn dirty clothes for 3 to 4 weeks. Guess

I would have taken this new war instead, in a heartbeat, bad as it is. However, being away from ones lovedones hasnt changed a bit. That is allways hard to take. But, just

losing electricity so the coffee makers, air conditioning and the T.V. and game boys dont work got to me.

Reply
#6

But, just losing electricity so the coffee makers, air conditioning and the T.V. and game boys dont work got to me.

 

Ya, I would have to agree with your assessment. All war is war, but not having your internet doesn't even compare with what you guys went through. Not having electricity for a few hours. Not too bad of a hardship. Yes, it still sucks and makes you appreciate what you don't have, but...

Marion J Chard
Proud Daughter of Walter (Monday) Poniedzialek
540th Engineer Combat Regiment, 2833rd Bn, H&S Co, 4th Platoon
There's "No Bridge Too Far"
Reply
#7

Marion I updated this one. I guess he is finished reporting the war over there . From what I gathered the last post says he was reporting instead of is reporting.. I agree it seems a bit trivial to be in a tit if you dont have a coffee maker that will work. Their forefathers had so much harsher things going on. Not to take away from our troops today becuase I have 2 sons over there. It is a different kind of war and they also make sacrifice and its not always I can use my game boy etc... Its a different time. I know the things my sons have said they miss was being inside a building and having toilets that flush.... to quote taywhen he was on R& R in Qutar " to be staying inside a building and to have toilets that flush call me spoliled but I miss having that" now thats not an exact quote ...I know they sacrifice but it certainly isnt WWII. But they still put their ass on the line if they could find a front line... and they are far from home its different but they dont all cry about their luxurys from home not working some of the mjust miss their families toilets that flush and other things.... I hope am not being snippey or appearing defensive I just think his reporting that makes all of them sound like a bunch of whiney hineys over trivial things. All of them are not,some may be but I know 2 that arent..Hugs at ya Cindy

Reply
#8

I know this may sound nuts to some, but I've often thought that I'd loved to have been a photo journalist during WWII. I know, as I've stated, some of you will think I am absolutely crazy. Maybe I am. That's just me.

 

Saw a show on a female Nam correspondent the other day on TV. Fascinating. She got right in with the guys and became a respected person. Saw some things no one would want to see. She explained about the sound of bullets whizzing by her head. Heart-stopping. Thrilling. Scary. Depressing. Any number of adjectives and synonyms come to mind.

Marion!!!! We are soul sisters. I always thought that would be the best job on the planet. Were you watching the biography of Dickey Chappell? She had the heart of a lion and the kahoonas to go places a lot of troops didnt even want to go.I will have to look at my old term paper and see if I covered her. She was something else thats for damn sure..Hugs at ya Cindy

Reply
#9

Comrades in arms. Okay at least one person doesn't think I'm :wacko::wacko:

 

I came in part way through a show on female war correspondents. I was running in between the store and house, so only caught part of something. Wish I could tell you more.

Marion J Chard
Proud Daughter of Walter (Monday) Poniedzialek
540th Engineer Combat Regiment, 2833rd Bn, H&S Co, 4th Platoon
There's "No Bridge Too Far"
Reply


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