Baghdad, Iraq – The days were getting longer, running together in a yellow, dusty haze as the mission of rooting out Iraqi fighters obscured all else.
Pvt. Allen Burns set his chin on his hand and just stared, “trying to zone away from this place.”
A 19-year-old tank loader from north St. Louis, he was leaning up against a concrete barrier that blocks potential suicide bombers from a base-camp phone center where other soldiers were talking with people back home. Tent tarps flapped in the distance and the sun rose, pushing temperatures above 90 degrees.
“I hate it here,” Burns said. “I run my life through my head. This is not how my life was supposed to be.”
He wouldn’t have to be here in Iraq, with the Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, if he hadn’t messed up.
He made counterfeit U.S. money – new $20 bills – using a fancy home printer. It was “easy to get away with” – an addictive habit that Burns said brought him up to $1,000 a week for clothes, video games, Reeboks, Nikes. In January 2004, federal authorities closed him down.
His probation officer told him Army service could clear his record. Otherwise, he could lose rights such as voting, Burns said. “I didn’t want to give up those rights.”
So he signed up for four years, snagging a $4,000 bonus.
“But,” he said, “I’d rather be in college doing my electrical engineering stuff.” That had been part of the dream that sustained him while growing up poor. He tinkered with circuits and frequencies. In high school, he concentrated on math up to calculus.
The other part of his dream: his fiancée, Shanetta. She recently had a miscarriage. Burns still yearns to create a stable family with her.
But he wasn’t calling home to anybody on this day. He felt deeper woes, too, he said. A sense that everybody he has ever known has betrayed him, that nobody can be trusted.
His best friend betrayed him by spilling the beans about the counterfeiting. And a few years back, his own mother had betrayed him.
Burns recalled how he had hidden $100 under a dresser “trying to save it.” She was deep into drugs then, he said. She knew about that money. One day it was gone. When he confronted her, he said, he knew.
“That messed my whole world up,” he said. “It caused me not to trust people. If you can’t trust your parents, how can you trust anybody else?”
He paused, then added: “I still try to hold on to the love I have for my mother.”
His father, an assembly line worker at Ford, often wasn’t around. But “he whupped me and grounded me” after U.S. Secret Service agents came to his house about the phony bills.
Among fellow soldiers here at a base camp south of Baghdad, Burns stays to himself.
He slept alone on his tank at first. He often eats prepackaged meals rather than joining others in chow lines. He watches and rewatches “The Incredibles” on a small DVD player and plays the computer card game FreeCell.
Before rolling north from the desert in Kuwait this month, commanders put Burns through a rapid-reaction training course to hone urban combat skills. He excelled. They recognized his skills by awarding him a red- and-white coin he keeps in his pocket. He did call home about that, telling his grandmother Rosie, who raised him.
“She was, like, telling me how she was living her life for me, and when she prays for me, she prays to God I’ll be OK,” he said. “It just made me cry that she cares so much for me.”
There’s one person here he reveres, too: Sgt. Ralph Johnson, 44, of Anderson, S.C., a 20-year military veteran who runs his unit. Johnson is someone “I’d take a bullet for,” Burns said.
The feeling from Johnson is mutual. “I keep an eye out (for Burns),” he said. “Good kid.”
Commanders have the soldiers making house calls south of Baghdad, an area heavy with insurgents.
“Hot as hell. Raiding houses and stuff,” Burns said.
The tankers start at dawn and finish about 9:30 p.m. Burns’ tank once teetered along a crumbling canal wall – and he thought it might tip.
This is dangerous work “putting our lives on the line,” Burns said. “Whether I live or die, I just want to get through with it. I just want to not be here.”
Baghdad, Iraq – Staff Sgt. David Henderson works long hours these days, trying to persuade soldiers to stay in the Army.
That’s an urgent priority as military chiefs struggle to line up recruits for U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where many of the 140,000 soldiers are on second combat deployments.
“We gotta do something,” Henderson said.
So here at a base camp south of Baghdad, he has set up in a tent by a banner that reads: “Reenlist 3rd Armored Cavalry” with a silk-screened photo of New York City when the Twin Towers still stood, framed in red, white and blue.
Inside, Henderson, 33, of Eaton, Ohio, and other Army retention officers help soldiers review options. They’re offering bonuses as high as $15,000 for those who commit to more time – up to $150,000 for some Special Forces soldiers.
And on a recent night, Henderson stood by the tent even as a crescent moon rose when many soldiers were sleeping. He was waiting for one who had promised to drop by.
That soldier – Staff Sgt. Ryan Marrero, 30, of Bayamon, Puerto Rico – had just completed a bumpy mission in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle chasing a white Suburban identified by a helicopter as possibly linked to insurgent activity in the area. Marrero rolled back into base camp around 9:30 p.m. and hustled to the tent.
Henderson had contract papers ready to sign.
Then, at a ceremony in front of a hastily hung flag, he and Lt. Stephan Bolton, 34, of Lawrence, Kan., administered the oath as Marrero held up his right hand.
He had collected a $14,000 bonus. It would help with housing in Colorado Springs for his wife and 6-year-old son, Ryan.
Marrero said: “It’s official, right?”
It is. And this retention work in the field is proceeding ahead of pace. Henderson and two other officers running the re-enlistment tent have re-signed 37 soldiers during one month away from their Fort Carson home base.
Two more career counselors are expected to join them in Iraq.
“Gotta be … new recruits”
At a recent flag-uncasing ceremony here, Sgt. Maj. John Caldwell urged all troops to consider re-enlisting, taking advantage of the bonus money that was now flowing from the Pentagon. Days later, Caldwell would be seriously injured during a convoy ambush involving a remote-controlled explosive device. One unit soldier was killed in the attack. His fellow soldiers still have gotten no word about Caldwell’s condition.
The war-zone re-enlistment campaign is a priority because recruiting lags at home in U.S. cities. But even if Henderson and crew surpass their quarterly quotas, he said, that will not be enough.
“There’s no way we can retain the numbers the Army needs. There’s gotta be some new recruits.”
Some of his conversations with soldiers here are hard. On a recent morning, Cpl. Willie Fanshier, 26, of Lufkin, Texas, serving her second stint in Iraq, sank into the folding chair by Henderson’s desk and practically begged. She was looking for a way to still serve the country in the Army, but also see more of her three young daughters.
Two stay with her mother, and the youngest with her ex-husband. She supports them on her earnings, but that’s not like getting to raise them.
“And being a fueler is not what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Fanshier said. She asked about Army medical work possibilities, or legal work – “something so that, when I get back, I could spend some time with my family.”
It’s not clear the Army can help. Fanshier could leave in June 2006.
“It’s hard to find a unit that’s not part of a deployment now,” Henderson said regarding Fanshier’s request. “I don’t even try to compete against family.”
Yet the more soldiers leave – especially those like Fanshier who have served repeatedly in war zones – the more pressure Henderson feels to persuade others to stay.
One possibility might be relying more on contractors to do more support work on U.S. bases abroad, he said, although contractors add significantly to their costs. “I don’t think the government could afford that,” he said. “I’d say it would increase taxes.”
Another possibility: Reinstate the draft. Military officials prefer a volunteer Army in the belief that soldiers serving by choice are more motivated.
Climbing out near a tracked medical transport vehicle marked with a red cross, Henderson met Staff Sgt. Victor Orozco, 34, of Colorado Springs. Orozco has served for nearly 14 years – “too long to get out,” he said. After 20 years, he will collect full retirement benefits. Here, Orozco helps run a 42-person medical clinic.
“But what I do here, there wouldn’t be much for me to do in the private sector. There’d be so many licenses required,” he said.
So he’d re-enlist, collecting a $2,900 bonus.
Tiger Squadron surgeon Maj. Roger Gelperin, 49, stood by to help swear him in.
And Henderson handled the papers. “All I need is your initial there … and your initial there.”
After that ceremony on the way to another, Henderson confided he’s planning to re-enlist, too. He has served nine years and could collect a $14,000 bonus. That would help his wife and two kids, he said. And he already ordered a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle for when he gets back from Iraq.
Baghdad, Iraq – Spec. Thomas Evans had just hit four in a row.
The sun was setting here, just south of the city, as the 28-year-old from Dixon Mills, Ala., was twisting free of his opponent and barreling forward like a freight train.
Pickup basketball in the Iraqi desert is a contact sport.
Sgt. Gilberto Ortiz tried to contain the 249-pound Evans, a former high school power forward. Ortiz stuck tight, jabbing a hand against Evans’ back.
“You’ll be sorry,” Evans said.
Ortiz: “I’m waitin’ on you.”
For a moment, their situation – living out of tents surrounded by sandbags in a dusty land where enemies are targeting them – eased a bit.
A month away from home with the Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Ortiz, 25, of San Benito, Texas, had been burdened with a seemingly unbearable longing for his wife, Nadia, and their 3-year-old son, Tristan.
“You don’t think about other things when you’re playing ball,” Ortiz said.
Today, while commanders plan complex operations in and around Iraqi communities, he and other soldiers plan more and more recreational activities.
Some stay up late playing dominoes, slamming them to the table, talking trash. Some brought golf clubs.
On a recent night, as Black Hawk and Apache helicopters swooped in and out of camp on patrols, soldiers under a floodlight beside tanks played volleyball. Others outside supply headquarters barbecued steaks and drank nonalcoholic beer. A platoon’s worth of soldiers pressed weights in a contractor-run gym.
That gym stays open until midnight, and the clap and thud of the rap inside drown out the occasional harassing gunfire outside the camp perimeter.
On the elliptical running machine, Capt. Ross Nelson, 30, of Colorado Springs, a helicopter maintenance crew chief, was sweating through his gray Army shirt. He perched a radio by the screen that measured how far he had run, and he occasionally tuned into it, in case anybody on the tarmac needed him urgently. “For me, this is stress release,” Nelson said.
Exercising regularly, as he does at home, “is part of a routine of normalcy,” he said. His two children and wife are a constant concern, he said, “and you go through times when you really miss your family.”
Meanwhile, soft chords from Sgt. Nathan Covey’s guitar wafted from the corner of one Tiger Squadron tent. A 19-year-old from Emporia, Kan., Covey bought the guitar in Kuwait, a $70 instrument made in China. It had just hit him, how long he would be gone. He has been playing guitar for three years and in high school enjoyed writing poetry. The song he was working on – he titled it “Until I Get Back to You” – began with him “hoping and praying that I’ll make it through.”
As Covey played, the flurry of activity around him receded, even as Pvt. Scotty Sausedo, 21, kicked a Hackey Sack his way.
“Definitely a good way to pass the time,” Covey said, left with red eyes from blowing dust during the day. “Get away from everything. You don’t gotta worry about all this stuff. Take you to a different place.”
The subject of this song: Nicole, 17, back at her home in Indiana. “Different from all the other girls,” he said. “It’s nice to have her to think about. It hurts, too.”
Before dawn the next day, he and his unit would roll from this camp on a long mission, living out of their tanks around Iraqi communities. Covey packed a notepad in his green duffel bag but not the guitar. “If an IED (improvised explosive device) hits us, it’s gone. And what am I going to do for the rest of the year?” Covey said.
“When I come back, if I do,” he said, “I want to have something to play.”
Baghdad, Iraq – A small striped bird sang atop a palm tree as Spec. Crysti Cason sat beneath it wiping dust off her weapon: a .50-caliber machine gun that fires hundreds of bullets a minute. She’s like a bird, too – 5-feet-4, 120 pounds, her gun nearly as big as she is. The soft-spoken 22-year-old from southwest Chicago is determined not to lose her head in hair-trigger moments of truth. She proved steady in a tough situation last week, facing down a potential suicide bomber.
Cason finds herself back in Iraq, at a camp south of Baghdad with the Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, in part because of a movie: “G.I. Jane.”
She saw a preview of the film with friends about six years ago and went back to watch it alone. “I know it’s just Hollywood,” Cason said, but actress Demi Moore’s character, a woman making inroads toward combat, inspired her.
She joined the Army at 17 as a high school junior. Back then, as a student council member and drama club president, she’d been aiming for theater school in New York.
Her father agreed to sign a waiver.
He’d served as a “tunnel rat” in the Vietnam War, parachuting into jungles and creeping into the underground mazes where guerrilla commanders directed attacks and where reconnaissance required muddy, often bloody, hand-to-hand fighting.
He can’t bring himself to talk the horrors of what happened in those tunnels. But one day with him in Chicago, looking through a box of memorabilia including his identification tags, his daughter spotted papers – his DD214 military record.
“I said, ‘Hey, Dad, can I see this?”‘
He let her read. She began to understand a bit about his service record.
In the Army, superiors assigned her to property-book duties – accounting work. She excelled. But from her opening interview on, she pressed the question: “When am I going on a mission?”
That flummoxed superiors. “I thought, ‘There might be something wrong with this kid,”‘ said Chief Warrant Officer Michael Hayes of High Point, N.C., who was in charge of the records unit.
“We said, ‘Hold it. Let’s do the property accountability work first.”‘
Yet they couldn’t help but notice what happened when she took her mandatory target practice at Fort Carson. She knocked down targets flawlessly. Her scores ranked excellent.
And in November 2003, she volunteered to go to Iraq. She manned guns there as the regiment adapted under fire for widely varied duties. Cooks became guards. Guards went out on patrol.
When Cason returned from Iraq, she began practicing more with the .50-caliber machine guns. Now, she’s one of the few women in the Army to emerge as a top gunner.
One day, her father visited. He had caught wind through colleagues in the record-keeping section – which remains his daughter’s primary duty – that she’d been angling resolutely to work as a gunner.
Her father didn’t object, Cason said. “I think he’s proud. He said he hoped I wouldn’t have to experience something like he did and not want to talk about it.”
There are fewer than 300 women serving in the 3rd ACR. Pushing against the barriers hindering women from serving in combat positions, Cason takes some flak.
Fellow gunners sometimes kid her about how the gun is almost as big as she is.
She flips it back. “I’m like, ‘Why am I with a bigger gun than you?”‘
Mostly, fellow soldiers are proud, calling her “high-speed.” Seeing a soldier so determined “feels good to me,” said Sgt. Tracy Williams, 28, of El Paso.
A few days ago, commanders picked Cason to man the gun in a rotating turret, providing the crucial heavy firepower defense of a major convoy rolling through Iraq’s deadly “Mixing Bowl,” a high-traffic area where remote-control and suicide bombers target U.S. troops.
It was uneventful for the most part. Until one of those hair-trigger moments: A light-colored van was following the convoy too closely, with a single male driver. It fit the profile for a potential suicide bomber.
Cason rotated the turret to face him. Her sergeant barked into her radio headset: “Stop that vehicle. Do what you gotta do.”
She raised her hand, motioning for the van driver to slow down, back off.
She leveled the barrel. She curled her finger, poised to fire warning shots in front of his tires, as trained, if the driver didn’t slow down.
He did, and the incident ended uneventfully.
“I don’t find fame or glory in shooting or harming people, especially if they are innocent,” she said. “I was relieved.”
Hillah Province, Iraq – The red sedan sat by the side of the road. An Iraqi man in a white robe and black “eqale” headband hunched over the hood as U.S. troops approached in four Humvees.
Col. H.R. McMaster, riding shotgun in one, was on his radio trying to arrange a meeting with troops to the south. It fell to Sgt. Matt Hodges, 28, of Union City, Miss., to check out the car.
Some soldier always has to go first, plant gutsy steps forward and find out whether an Iraqi encountered on patrol is a friend or foe.
Commanders say positive mixing with Iraqis is crucial for the United States to build understanding and win over those who otherwise might support anti-U.S. forces.
But actually making that first contact here – an area south of Baghdad where insurgent attacks are frequent – still is risky for soldiers who must venture out from their armored vehicles.
The patrol had begun with 20 or so troops from the Army’s Colorado- based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. At base camp, Capt. David Olsen, 31, of Baltimore had given the latest intelligence as they stood in the dust by their loaded Humvees. High- altitude sensors had spotted a suspicious cluster of Iraqi vehicles by a river.
“It’s been real quiet the last 12 hours,” Olsen had said, “which makes me worry.”
An hour out of base camp in the 90-degree heat along Iraq’s main north-south highway, Hodges strode resolutely across the asphalt in full battle garb toward the red car. Fellow troops held back traffic three soccer-field lengths away. Sgt. Gene Braxton, 25, of Fayetteville, N.C., backed up Hodges.
Also walking slowly toward the vehicle was a contract Iraqi-American interpreter whom the troops call “Uncle.” He asked not to be identified in this report for fear his relatives in Iraq could be targeted.
The Iraqi man in white stood, and Hodges said “As- salaamu laykum (peace be upon you),” touching his right hand to his chest – a gesture of respect. Uncle addressed the Iraqi as “Haji” (pilgrim).
The Iraqi said, “It might be the carburetor.”
Hodges: “Is there anything we can help you with?”
Iraqi: “If you will allow me, I’m just going to try to start the car and leave.”
Hodges: “Have you seen anybody suspicious around here?”
The man’s black-clad wife peered out from inside the sedan, a Toyota, and a younger woman cradled a small boy in the back seat. They were Shiite farmers, Uncle said.
Iraqi: “No, we haven’t seen anybody around here.”
Hodges: “There are a lot of explosives along this road. Would it be OK if we look inside your car?”
The wife and the woman cradling the boy got out. The man raised his hands toward the hot sun, frustrated, imploring.
Hodges: “Would you like any water?”
Iraqi: “No, thanks.”
Braxton opened the trunk. The man then reached in and grabbed a white sack and emptied it on the pavement.
Two empty plastic soda bottles fell out, along with a shop light with no bulb and a tire jack.
McMaster now approached. “As-salaamu laykum,” he said, touching his plated chest. The Iraqi man returned the gesture and then complained about the intrusion, his voice rising. U.S. soldiers had stopped him before, he said.
McMaster: “I apologize. It’s a very confusing situation because of the terrorists.”
Iraqi: “But why? I am a family man.”
McMaster: “Our apologies.”
Iraqi: “We can’t do anything. We complain only to God.”
McMaster: “Inshallah (God willing), we shall have peace here.”
The troops would encounter two more apparently broken-down vehicles on this patrol. Each time, Hodges, with Uncle, approached.
“If you don’t interact with people, it’s hard for them to understand your intentions,” McMaster said. “In order to succeed here, we have to connect with the Iraqi people. We need to understand their grievances.”
Baghdad, Iraq – During their first tour of duty in Iraq, Sgt. 1st Class Chris Joseph and his tank crew named their M1A2 Abrams “Allah My Ass.”
A supervisor nixed that as culturally insensitive.
Joseph and crew renamed it “American Oppressor,” which passed muster, and churned through the desert on missions near the Syrian border.
Now as the U.S. occupation enters its third year and the emphasis shifts toward helping Iraqis maintain and govern their own country, the soldiers call their tank the “Angry Beaver.”
It growled in the dust recently amid dozens of other tanks lined up in a camp south of Baghdad – a superpower show of heavy force in an area where remote-control bombs target troops.
From a distance, the tanks look hard, uniform, impersonal.
Yet soldiers delicately have stenciled black letters along barrels of tank guns. “American Muscle.” “Adrenaline Rush.” “Albert Taco.”
The naming “makes it yours – same as you name your favorite pet,” Staff Sgt. Nicholas Curnell, 32, of Charleston, S.C., said while sorting gear with members of the “Angel of Death” crew he commands.
Soldiers are naming things all around as the Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment begins a second deployment away from their families and friends.
Some soldiers name their guns. Sgt. Andrew Gieseke, 23, of Kansas City, Kan., calls his M-4 assault rifle “Laura,” after a former girlfriend.
“She was a heartbreaker. This baby’s a heartbreaker,” Gieseke said, slapping the butt. “I associate the two.”
Also hanging from his shoulder: a shotgun labeled “My Boomstick.”
One soldier even names dustpans, brooms and a fly swatter. It started at basic training in Kentucky, said Spec. Wesley Vanbruaene, 27, of South Bend, Ind.
“In the Army, you need to mark everything, or somebody will take it,” he said.
Here he named the fly swatter Doug E. Fresh.
“You’ve just got to try to make it fun because everything here sucks. That’s why I started doing it here,” he said.
Rows of tents – surrounded by sandbags – show increasingly personal touches. Seven Apache attack helicopter pilots recently declared theirs “The Purple Palace.”
They’ve hooked up three video-gaming consoles, four televisions, including one with a 29-inch screen, seven laptop computers, air conditioning, and carpet salvaged from contractor trash heaps.
And now, Chief Warrant Officer Roger Wood, 34, of Los Angeles lifted a white blanket to show off a couch.
“Look at this,” Wood said, gesturing at regal dark upholstery. “I mean, for the desert, this is a nice couch.”
Soldiers in neighboring tents call it a “Taj Mahal,” and “a mini Wal-Mart electronics store.” The pilots take pride.
“You have to,” said Chief Warrant Officer Larry Wilson, 33, of Winchester, Va. “We’re here for a year. A situation is always what you make of it. It’s not going to be home, but at least you can make something out of it.”
Back by his tank, Angry Beaver commander Joseph recalled how “my wife came up with the name.”
“We were just sitting on the couch watching television” with their two sons – a cartoon featuring two hostile beavers. His wife suggested that might work for his tank.
And in the open back of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle named Albert Taco, one crew member hunched over his helmet, painting intricate tan camouflage splotches as Staff Sgt. Carlos Richardson, 37, of Nogales, Ariz., the crew chief, climbed through.
Richardson remembered how, during an early morning motor-pool meeting at Fort Carson, he and fellow Apache Troop tankers were trying to come up with good names.
Their Bradley carries TOW missiles, depleted uranium- coated bullets the size of fire hydrants, and explosive rounds with the punch of five grenades.
Military tradition requires that tank names begin with the same letter as the troop name.
“But a name starting with a vowel is really hard. We came up with ‘Al Capone.’ Somebody had that. And there’s already ‘American’ this and ‘American’ that.”
As they chewed on all this, they also were chewing breakfast burritos and tacos from Albert Taco, their favorite place, southeast of Colorado Springs.
That solved it.
A little humor like that can build spirit – which is essential, Richardson said.
Regimental superiors, too, want to build esprit de corps. But they also worry that too many names and labels could help enemies track troop movements.
Commanders have been discussing whether to paint over the names on tank guns, or at least prohibit stenciled logos, Command Sgt. Major John Caldwell said.
“It won’t take the insurgents long to figure out who’s who if we aren’t careful,” he said.
South of Baghdad, Iraq – Hot gravel crunching beneath their boots, Pfc. Nicholas Sauceda and seven fellow soldiers gathered around the broken engine of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle on Thursday afternoon. They ran their fingers over the metal searching for an oil leak.
Their eyelids hung heavy after a nighttime mission that had them grinding along roads in gun-mounted Humvees outside their camp here, in an area military commanders say has experienced increased attacks on U.S. troops by insurgents – up to 72 a day.
Sauceda and crew are among up to 5,200 Colorado- based troops in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment starting their second stint in Iraq. As they gathered around the Bradley, they could have been catching up on sleep, but the soldiers – scouts trained for a variety of duties, including providing security for regimental commander Col. H.R. McMaster – prefer just about anything, including engine repair, to sitting behind sandbags on their rickety green cots.
“I just want to get it through with,” said Sauceda, 21, of Phoenix. “And the busier we are, the faster it goes by.”
With the possibility of running across improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, never far from their minds, and with occasional bursts of small-arms fire and mortar thuds in the distance, some of the troops have modest goals for this tour in Iraq.
Spec. Arturo Lopez, 20, of Mission, Texas, said: “Just hope I don’t get blown up.”
Here for about a month, Sauceda has already written five letters, used up eight 550-minute phone cards, and mailed a Kuwaiti blanket and ring to his fiancée, Megan Blanton, 19, a first-year student at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“It’s not like we don’t want to think about home,” Sauceda said. “But it makes the time pass harder when you’re always thinking about home.”
So they worked. It was hot. They wore T-shirts, no flak vests, as they picked over the Bradley’s engine. About halfway between northern Kuwait and Baghdad, the vehicle broke down at night. At dawn, Pfc. Reed Monson, 20, of Boise, Idaho, noticed a shiny black pool beneath it and, when he checked the oil level, found the engine was dry. A truck hauled the Bradley into camp here.
Now Capt. David Rozelle, 32, the company commander, wanted it fixed. Rozelle stood in the shade of a shipping container, watching. He lost his lower right leg when a Humvee he was riding in set off a land mine his first time in Iraq, in June 2003 in the western Anbar province.
After a few months back at Fort Carson with his wife and toddler, Rozelle became the first amputee to return for a second tour in Iraq. When his war is over, he’s slated to go to work at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
That’s the future. Today, he needs his soldiers to find the leak.
Sgt. Erik Houghton, 34, of Massillon, Ohio, spotted the tear. “In the hose, sir, to the oil filter,” Houghton called to Rozelle.
Rozelle: “That’s easy!”
Houghton: “Can you find me one, sir?”
Rozelle sent him to base aviation mechanics. “Take them this hose. They can make a new one.”
“Crescent wrench,” said Staff Sgt. Jeff Marjerrison, 28, of Widefield, south of Colorado Springs, moving to disconnect it from the engine.
Marjerrison and Monson muscled bolts loose, then sliced open an empty drinking water bottle and caught more black oil.
The aviation mechanics couldn’t make a new hose right away. That meant one less Bradley Fighting Vehicle for now. The 3rd Armored Cavalry has about 125 Bradleys, along with 120 or so main battle tanks and more than 40 helicopters.
Meanwhile, the troops turned to gearing up Humvees for another convoy through a hot zone known as “the mixing bowl.”
Gunner Pvt. 2 Martin Gaymon, 19, of Brooklyn, N.Y., welcomed the upcoming mission even as he reread a prayer card. He’d be out front on this one.
“As long as you are doing something, you feel like, the reason you are out here, it’s worth it,” he said as they headed out Friday morning. “I’d rather be out on a convoy.”
Sauceda would be driving a hardened Humvee behind him.
“I just want to get it done,” he said. “Get back in here with everybody alive.”
Hillah Province, Iraq – Rolling out on a reconnaissance patrol through Iraq’s deadly “Mixing Bowl,” Pvt. Martin Gaymon tucked two white prayer cards inside his bulletproof vest.
They give added “protection,” he says, against the remote-control bombs that worry the Colorado-based soldiers of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
Before the sun set on Saturday night, the 19-year-old hip- hop music fan from Brooklyn, N.Y., would earn a medal for extending that protection to his fellow soldiers.
The Mixing Bowl area south of Baghdad, named for the melange of traffic and people driving and wandering about, looms as one of the most dreaded hot spots in Iraq. Here, in this high-traffic gnarl of roadways and dust pits littered with metal debris, Iraqi fighters and suicide bombers, sometimes drugged, have killed dozens.
U.S. commanders call controlling the area a priority in putting down the insurgency. They’re regularly sending out 20-soldier, four-Humvee patrols like this one Saturday to find out who’s planting the remote-controlled improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. These often are mortar shells wired to cellphones.
Grinding along in one of the Humvees, Gaymon and his crew moved cautiously from their base camp. They clicked in their ammo clips as the sergeants pressed radio receivers to their ears. Gaymon scanned fields of blowing grass and palms from atop a Humvee in a rotating turret. He gripped a .50-caliber machine gun.
The soldiers saw barefoot boys waving, farmers bent near ancient Mesopotamian canals, small birds singing, a few cattle grazing. Here and there along roadways, men squatted by apparently disabled cars watching the troops pass.
Through the double-paned clear glass from his armored Humvee, Command Sgt. Maj. John Caldwell, 44, saw a black sedan parked on the side of the road facing traffic. He waved to a family inside. Eight or so tiny hands in the back seat waved back while a veiled mother looked out silently.
“When I wave, and they wave back, that’s a good deal,” Caldwell said.
The troops stopped periodically, checking suspicious debris, studying Iraqi vehicles.
In the middle of the Mixing Bowl, parked U.S. tanks provided support for 30 Iraqi national-guard soldiers atop an overpass.
Caldwell spotted one U.S. tank gunner who had taken off his helmet. He launched his 250-pound ex-Alabama State linebacker’s frame at the gunner.
“Hey!” he shouted – just the start of an enthusiastic warning to the gunner not to let down his guard or remove his protective equipment.
He later explained that “energizing” troops this way, “is a matter of saving lives. … Something can go bad here any second.”
On his gun, Gaymon stayed alert even as the hours wore on. “Run the gun, scan” is how he describes his existence out here. And in the 90-degree-plus heat, he spotted it – a green box the size of a footlocker hidden in a heap of concrete rubble. Red wires ran from the box.
“Whoa,” Gaymon shouted down to the crew in the Humvee.
Staff Sgt. Jeff Marjerrison, 28, of Widefield broke in on the radio keeping the Humvees connected. He alerted the others and the convoy stopped.
The troops then stopped traffic and called in an explosives disposal team as Iraqis leaned out of their windows to watch.
As Gaymon and crew headed back to their base camp, the bomb exploded, detonated remotely. No one was hurt.
In camp, the regiment commander, Col. H.R. McMaster, called them to join him after an intelligence briefing. He put a hand on Gaymon’s shoulder – “a powerful man, owns the regiment,” Gaymon later said he was thinking – and pinned a green commendation medal on his uniform.
Gaymon then went back to work, repairing fuel leaks and cleaning his gun.
“I guess one of them could have got blown up,” he said. “Hope we can find all the IEDs before someone gets hurt.”
Babil Province, Iraq – Every patrol down bomb-laden Iraqi roads is an act of faith for many of the soldiers here. They carry laminated “Soldiers’ Psalm” cards and pray for protection before rolling out in dusty Humvees from base camp.
They jam a tent chapel for religious services.
In the mess hall, some bow their heads before eating.
On cots, others stroke rosary beads.
The pre-patrol prayers in particular give comfort, says Pfc. Thouen Yen, a Cambodian-American father of three who escaped the Khmer Rouge killing fields as a boy. Poised beside Humvees with fellow troops of the Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment recently, Yen, 31, silently reread the psalm’s promise that God will keep them safe from all hidden dangers.
Superior weapons and high-tech equipment are sometimes useless against suicide bombers and remotely detonated blasts targeting troops. Over the past week, the Colorado-based soldiers found 25 roadside bombs. They pre-emptively set off 21.
The others damaged three Humvees, but so far, no one has been hurt.
“We live by faith every day,” Yen said. “Hopefully, we’ll all come back.”
Before heading out to a risky high-traffic area Tuesday, Yen and his crew prayed together.
Four versions of the Bible, downloaded into a pocket computer, help Spec. Clayton Palmer, 21, of Broomfield, study passages when he has spare time. Palmer and Spec. Oscar Prado, 32, of Milwaukee, bowed their heads Sunday in the mess hall. Heartbroken about the death of his 15-year-old Alaskan malamute, Nikko, shortly before he left Fort Carson, Prado reckoned that “my faith is going to be tested here.”
“The first time we were in Iraq, I relied on God. This time, I’ll rely on him more. The first time, we weren’t under mortar alert the way we were this week.”
Kneeling in a tent converted into a chapel, Sgt. David Rivera gave thanks that he had survived another week. He prayed for his wife and daughter back in Fayetteville, N.C. He prayed for the U.S. mission of regaining control in Iraq when some Iraqis want troops to go home.
“There are so many things the insurgents have now,” Rivera said. “They are getting smarter. They are looking for new ways to harm us. You know they are out there. Death could touch you any time.”
Some things he doesn’t tell his wife “because I don’t want her to worry about me,” said Rivera, whose duties include driving fuel trucks. And so he just prays.
Gripping his assault rifle while rolling past Iraqi farms, Yen gazed out sympathetically at farmers, their veiled wives and their children “who may have no food or shelter.” He wished he could help them.
A refugee who settled in North Hollywood, Calif., Yen grew up worshiping in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. He and his father fled Cambodia in 1979 and “now I must give my life” in service to the American people who embraced him and his family, he said.
Looking out through thick Humvee windows at Iraqis, “I have a profound sadness,” Yen said. “But I also hope the situation is getting better for these people here and that we all can go home in one piece.”