DISPATCH FROM IRAQ: Although safer, Iraq still isn't Candyland

Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

Western Iraq -

Oct. 1, 2009, 1910 hours

It was supposed to be a four-hour trip to somewhere just outside of Fallujah. Instead, it took just over 10 hours.

Tonight, we were escorting a platoon of heavy equipment transporters (HETs) from an Arizona unit. It would be more like escorting the Bad News Bears. The main support route was crowded with convoys heading both north and south, which didn't help, and the intel that we had received at our convoy brief a few hours before, which indicated little threat or recent insurgent activity, was about to prove a bit off-base.

It all started just as soon as we left the forward operating base.

One of the third-country national's trucks blew a transmission and went down just 100 yards from the entry control point.

The convoy became separated as a result and had to stop while they swapped out trucks. During the delay, we sat blocking an intersection at the corner of a dark neighborhood. On an adjoining dirt road was a lone car occupied by a single Iraqi male driver. He waited patiently to proceed for more than 40 minutes with his flashers on hoping to get on with his night.

I flashed my light at him to get his attention and hollered from my turret to go ahead, waving him toward me. Instead, he waved back and putting his car in reverse, quickly backed into his neighborhood and out of sight.

The "share the road" policy that we currently operate under is far different from the way things used to be here. Gone are the days when Iraqis faced being shot for coming too near to a convoy. The Iraqis have not completely embraced the new policy and for the most part want nothing to do with approaching a convoy.

Winning hearts and minds isn't always so simple.

Forty minutes later, the broken down third-country-national truck had been towed back to the bone yard. We then drove slowly down the pothole-dotted dirt road toward the main support route to link back up with the rest of the column.

We drove along silently - Cedric Johnson, Jake Sere, Travis "Doc" Madden our medic, and I - until the silence was broken by the static-laced announcement from a HET driver that he had blown five trailer tires while exiting the base.

The HET trailer is equipped with five bogeys on each side. Each independent bogey supports four tires and wheels for a total of 40 tires and wheels per trailer!

The HET driver stated that five outside tires would need to be changed.

We pulled our truck up alongside to provide security, while the crew of the HET, assisted by the wrecker crew, swapped out the tires.

The city lights of Fallujah, formerly one of Iraq's most violent cities, were shimmering brightly just four miles to the east. I took comfort in knowing that there had been very little, if any, insurgent activity reported in recent memory. But I was aware that anything still was possible.

While I covered down to the east with my .50, Sere got out to assist with providing security on the west side of the disabled HET. What he saw was unbelievable.

None of the Arizona soldiers working on the truck had bothered to set up any security. Additionally, not one of them had a magazine in their weapon and some hadn't even bothered to take their weapons with them when they exited their trucks!

The one soldier with the M249 SAW didn't even have a belt of ammo in the feed tray, much less have it loaded.

When Sere asked in disbelief why no one had set up any security, or assumed anything that resembled a defensive posture just four miles from Fallujah, he was told, "Well, isn't that why you're here?"

Not one of them had the slightest situation awareness of where we were. Even in my headset, over the noise of both the HETs and our own trucks idling diesel engines, I could hear Sere, a Marine Corps veteran of the initial invasion in Fallujah, completely losing his mind.

Forty-five minutes later, with all five tires changed out, and with Coach Morris Buttermaker's Bad News Bears back in their trucks, we were underway again.

We had only driven a few more miles until Sgt. John Baum in the MRAP advised over the radio that the column would have to halt for an IED found in the median.

It took the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit three hours to respond.

With at least four hours of driving still ahead, the silence was broken by a transmission from the convoy commander, a guardsman from Arizona. One of our platoon's gun trucks had been struck by an IED on the route just a few hours south of us.

Our hearts sank as all of us gasped at once and muttered, "Oh, hell no! Hell no!"

Staff Sgt. Jake Roberts in Wolfpack 2 asked for clarification on who had been hit and what their condition was. The reply he received over the air was stunning.

"I'd better not say," the convoy commander responded.

All four of us in the truck shouted into our headsets in disbelief. We could not believe that the convoy commander had put something like that out over the air about our own people, and then left us hanging with "I'd better not say."

The convoy commander finally conceded to Staff Sgt. Roberts' insistence and could only say that it was one of our MRAPs and that all three crew members were being evacuated by helicopter.

We began going over in our heads who it could be. We finally narrowed it down to one squad and realized painfully who their MRAP crew was. I said a silent prayer for them and sat in my turret feeling gut-punched and helpless.

Hours later, we pulled into the FOB as the sun began to burn bright in the morning sky. As I broke down the .50 and we wrestled our gear out of the truck, Spc. Donald Hill, a fellow .50 gunner, came out to greet us.

He told me that it wasn't any of our people that were hit, and that everyone was OK. It was another gun-truck platoon from a different unit. Our sister squad had been misidentified.

All three MRAP crew members from an entirely different unit had been injured, but fortunately, none seriously. I greeted this news with both relief and sadness. I was relieved beyond words that it was none of our guys, but still stunned at how close to home this news struck me, and felt pain and sorrow for those who had been hit.

A veteran of the early days here in Iraq offered once gave me his take on my writing; he said he felt that I wrote from a "minute" viewpoint on the dangers here.

This person told me of how dangerous it used to be here compared to now, and how it's comparable to "Candyland" throughout Iraq these days.

Maybe so. I wasn't here then, and I have yet to experience combat or survive one IED much less several. I would agree though, that these days, attacks are indeed rare here - until they happen to you.

Less than 100 meters off the highway sat several small houses and buildings. The route we were on was not long ago a very unfriendly place to be. One could not swing a dead cat by the tail without hitting an IED here.

When they finally detonated the IED almost an hour later, it was anticlimactic.

Instead of a large explosion and fireball, there was a sudden bright flash, followed by a dull "whump" sound. The road was opened back up and as the sky began to lighten in the east with the approaching dawn, we were on our way again.

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