Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Walking the Line III

The Feathers

North Arabian Gulf
A strange white helicopter landed on the ship to fly us to Kuwait. It was a Puma, with "04" painted on the nose. A few sailors and soldiers boarded the Puma along with CSM Mellinger and company. I was sitting facing left, and as I strapped the lap belt, I fumbled with the shoulder harness. I was not alone in the confusion--the crew chief crouched around the cabin showing everyone how to use the contraption. The "shoulder harness" actually fastened around the right arm—for those sitting facing left—like a sphygmomanometer. So, it's like this: normal seat belt with another seat belt for my right arm, tight like a puffed-up blood pressure-thing, presumably to keep the passenger/victim from breaking sideways in half when the helicopter crashes. Still trying to fathom the design, I saw a sign: "Assembled in France," which translates into lingua cynica as "Designed with French money, then made by the cheapest labor the world over." And how about those nifty seat belts that are going to rip everyone's arms off when we crash? It's either that, or be broken in two. Good grief! Don't they have any Black Hawks that can grab us?

Luckily the Puma did not crash, leaving the theory of the ripped-off arms untested. Back in Kuwait, we continued visiting defensive emplacements around key facilities belonging to the Kuwaitis. The tour lasted into the next day when we zoomed about in a small Navy attack boat that guards a port, until finally, after more inspections the next day, it was time to leave.

As the Navy driver steered us down an expansive Kuwaiti highway, CSM Mellinger talked via cell phone with the leader of his patrol group who were back on an Army base awaiting his return. They remind me of that old television show about desert soldiers, "The Rat Patrol." Tomorrow we have to go back to Baghdad, and the Rat Patrol was hoping to strike out early to get a head start on the sun. CSM Mellinger told them to get some sleep if they wanted to leave early, make sure all were hydrated because--tough luck-- he wasn't leaving until they were ready and alert.

And so, at 2 a.m. the next morning, after a couple hours of sleep for me but more for the others, we start back, crossing the border from peaceful Kuwait into the Cradle of Civilization. The irony of this transition is marked by the soldiers donning all their bullet-resistant protective gear and readying their weapons for combat.

Hours and hours pass as we drive into the wavering distance, stopping for fuel at those few military waypoints that are situated just a tank-drain apart. We find that one is a bit too far, and the soldiers empty the jerry cans of diesel into the fuel tanks, and we keep going.

When we come to the spray-painted sign in the desert "watch out for dumbass camels," I know we're getting closer. Hours later, as we approach Baghdad, the traffic suddenly jams. A roadside bomb. These are always dicey: bombs often travel alone, but prefer to travel in packs. Bombs especially like it when snipers and machine guns wait nearby for people like us who happen to come along. And then, of course, if the enemy has mortars, he just waits until the targets stop, then he starts firing mortar "bombs," and after the first mortars hit, all the machine guns start firing, along with the RPGs, of course.

We pass on the left side of a long line of jammed vehicles that we know could be filled with car bombs and fanatics who are willing to blow themselves up. At times there are cars on our left and right. I wonder if the enemy is aiming RPGs at us. If the situation were reversed, this would be top of the list while the enemy slows to a near crawl.

American soldiers have already blocked the road; the bomb experts are nearly ready to destroy the IED as we pull up. The little bomb-robot wheels around—the mirage effect makes it appear almost cute—and puts plastic explosives onto the roadside bomb, then the little robot scampers away and seems to hide under a Humvee. Got to be a mirage; the robot is too big to hide under a Humvee, plus robots aren't smart enough to get scared. Boom! It's just a little IED. I doubt it could have killed more than a single gunner. The desert air is so hot already, the explosion doesn't even muster a mushroom cloud. Instead a clot of dust and smoke hovers over the debris for a second, staying close to the ground, and then just sort of floats and drags itself away.

Robot-controlled detonation of roadside IED

A soldier somewhere behind us spots insurgents with weapons on the left side of the road, where I had been looking. Every IED might be part of an ambush, so I had been scanning my sector--taking time for a few photos of the IED--but had seen nothing in my arc. I clicked the telephoto to the busted Nikon and scanned the area, but saw nobody with weapons. Of course, the weapons might be flat on the ground waiting for unarmed people to walk over, pick them up and starting shooting. And, then again, there are always those vests filled with explosives.

A small group of soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division is behind us, led by one LTC Pinnell, and he wants to attack the insurgents. I've never met the guy, but already am starting to like him. Pinnell asks CSM Mellinger if he will join the foray and, though we have little firepower other than some .50 caliber machine guns, another smaller machine gun, some rifles and hand grenades, CSM Mellinger throws in. This is a dilemma for the CSM. Battlefield circulation is part of his job, but it’s very important that he not become a casualty.

I am in the point vehicle when we get the order to come back. The driver U-turns and parks near the head of the traffic jam and SSG Helton—the commander of the Humvee I am riding in—dismounts to hear the plan being developed by the leaders.

Whenever we gather up at the scene of an IED, I expect every moment to be when the car bomb will drive into us. Time for the secondary IEDs to explode. Now come the machine guns. Any second now, those mortars should be coming in. RPGs. Nothing happens.

They set the plan and we mount up, and I pull my seat belt on, then take it off again. We drive across the dirt median--this is where the land mine will explode--nothing happens. I put the seat belt back on. We leave the road--this is where the real ambush kicks off . . . I unsnap the seat belt . . . the enemy probably let themselves be seen knowing we would come 'round to attack them. Nothing happens.

We ride off and partially envelope the suspect area--there are probably bombs under and around us--nothing happens. We move to different locations--mortars should be dropping any second. Nothing happens.

CSM Mellinger dismounts and SGT Schettino and SSG Helton follow closely. Together alone, they circle about a house looking for the enemy, but come across some kids playing who scamper away. The owner comes out and shows CSM Mellinger and SGT Schettino some bullet holes in the house, but it's unclear how they got there. We heard no firing, but we had no interpreter. Whatever the case, these appear to be innocent civilians, so there are smiles and waves and curious Iraqis who do not appear afraid of the soldiers.

Planning the hunt: CSM Mellinger and LTC Pinnell

LTC Pinnell and some more soldiers from the 3rd ID arrive, and they continue to search about but find nothing of concern, then begin new planning based on information about a possible carjacking that occurred close by. It might have been part of the IED attack. An Iraqi source who seems credible says that seven people were shot in a car.

The Iraqi police arrive en force, and all eyes are drawn to a Rambo-looking character among them who has a light machine gun. He looks cool, but has the tactical sense of a parakeet. Perfect target for a sniper. I took a knee.

Sniper magnet from the Iraqi Security Forces

A few more soldiers--I have no idea who they are--hitch on to hunt for insurgents we suspect were about to ambush us. So now we have the Rat Patrol, the small unit from the 3rd Infantry Division, the Iraqi police squad (with Rambo the convenient sniper magnet), and these new soldiers. Not exactly division strength, but the odds have improved as we mount up the Humvees again and start back farther away from the road.

We are heading into farmland, pursuing what Pinnell and Mellinger estimate was credible information about a carjacking that might be related to the IED. Seven people were reportedly shot in a car. After a short distance, the Iraqi police break off and head away, but neither LTC Pinnell nor CSM Mellinger were having any of that.

We keep pushing back further into farmland, and sure enough, the 3rd ID guys flush a suspicious car that starts evading. We drive down treacherous canal roads where one slip on the wheel and we'd slide down to the same watery end that has met many a soldier in Iraq, but luckily, the man at the wheel of my Humvee, SGT Mahoney, is a very good driver. But I start un-strapping combat gear in case there is a swimming drama around the next curve. Seat belt on or seat belt off? I snap and unsnap it without looking.

The 3rd ID guys are talking on the headset that the suspect car got away, but they see a group of kids up ahead. Keep scanning out the window. They stop at a little house and give some treats to the kids, then head back to the road to Baghdad.

Next day, CSM Mellinger told me that seven people had been found shot to death in a car just near the IED, and he said, "Sometimes you get the chicken, sometimes you get the feathers."