This Denver Post article was written by Kevin Simpson with Michael Riley, Bruce Finley and Craig F. Walker.
A Denver Post team follows a local teenager through his military training to a volatile industrial and agricultural hub in south-central Iraq.
Ar Ridwaniyah, Iraq – On a recent morning here south of Baghdad, insurgents detonated a remote-controlled bomb. It blew a crater in a hard-packed rural road seconds before a U.S. armored vehicle passed.
Within hours, Iraqi troops backed by the Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry stormed into a farm compound half a mile away. They’d planned to hit it the night before, when Iraqi Lt. Col. Jassim Abbas received a tip from a vegetable-warehouse caretaker that this was where killers hung out.
Now U.S. Capt. Andy Watson was inside the home, looking over items found around the farm. A bundle of batteries wrapped in black tape with wires sticking out. Switches and plugs disconnected from appliances. Cellphone chargers and boxes, minus the phones. Bullets swept under plush rugs. A pencil sketch showing main U.S. military routes through Iraq. Downloaded propaganda printouts urging Iraqis to join the Islamic Army and “do anything you can to resist the Americans.”
Watson and 1st Lt. Carlos Montalvan, liaisons working with the Iraqi troops, smiled.
“This guy makes bombs,” Montalvan said.
Nodding, Watson spoke into his radio headset to Capt. Michael Davis in a Humvee outside, coordinating this raid with others.
“Definitely a good hit,” Watson said. “Good info” gleaned by the Iraqis, he added.
Now they needed the triggerman who set off the bomb that blew that morning.
Three women sat silently in their kitchen as a dozen or so U.S. and Iraqi soldiers combed their home. A blue flame burned beneath a pot on the stove.
The owner’s two sons and a cousin next door were telling conflicting stories – that the father was at a hospital working, that he was a patient in the hospital, that he was away at a funeral.
Montalvan held up the sketched map and confronted the 15-year-old: “A map. Explain it.”
Watson figured: “Papa might be hiding in the mosque.” He radioed Davis, who had helicopters circling already. “I recommend we talk to people at mosques in this area,” Watson said.
Meanwhile, another team of troops pulled a man from a field near where the bomb exploded. They zip-tied his hands in front of him and led him to a truck for questioning and then detention.
“One of the guys who detonated the bomb,” Davis said.
Raids starting to pay off
These recent U.S.-Iraqi joint raids, part of a five-day “Operation Tigerwalk” blitz south of Baghdad, had started to produce results.
Troops in this area caught 10 suspected insurgents and, after initial questioning, ended up holding six for further questioning. They found three roadside bombs, a car bomb and four weapons caches. A cavalry squadron working to the east in the Tigris River Valley had found similar bombmaking materials, including a heap of explosives.
Iraqi troops played key roles. “They can get intelligence we can’t,” Davis said. “Not to mention the psychological effects on Iraqis. We’re genuinely trying to let the Iraqis take over. It’ll help us in the long run, because we are the ‘infidel.’ Some people may see the Iraqis as our puppets. But I don’t see them that way.”
With roadblocks everywhere, local farmers cowered and stayed home. American troops did what they could to be friendly. Following a meal under a palm tree, Pvt. Jose Martinez, a 21-year-old from Loving, N.M., shared his Skittles and oatmeal cookies with children during house-to-house patrols. Lt. Brian Hollandsworth gave out soccer balls and “Beanie Baby” ponies.
Still, the sight of big, armored men in splotched uniforms carrying guns and speaking a strange language, with helicopters clacking above them, made some kids crinkle their small faces and cry.
They “are terrified. They think you are going to kill them,” farmer Salman Muneef told Hollandsworth. Muneef later served soldiers tea.
Some Iraqis fumed. “As you have wives and children, we also do, and we are afraid for our families,” said Ahmad Suleyman, 36, brother of the owner of the house troops raided that morning. “We want the Americans to help us stay safe and walk on our roads without fear.”
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s henchmen killed hundreds of Shiite farmers south of Baghdad. Then regime insiders moved in, pushing some farmers to marginal land and then building big houses along the Tigris and Euphrates. U.S. commanders suspect these former insiders now may be orchestrating attacks.
The next day, as Davis and his contract interpreter, Somalian refugee Ahmed Hassan, 24, joined soldiers on patrol, an Iraqi woman in a headscarf dared to approach them. Davis hung back, letting Hassan listen to her.
She told him a man named Rahman Hamzi Mohammed, 25, who lived nearby, made remote- controlled bombs for insurgents. She gave directions to his house.
Troops then found Mohammed hiding – and also propaganda urging Iraqis to join Islamic Army fighters against America. They zip-tied his hands behind him.
Iraqi troops began questioning him. They hit his left shoulder with a bamboo switch repeatedly, just enough to cause welts to appear. They hauled him, blindfolded, back to a joint U.S.-Iraqi staging area, where they held him in the back of a civilian sport-utility vehicle. U.S. soldiers arranged to detain him officially in a guarded pen overnight, then later move him for further questioning.
Now guarded by Iraqi soldiers, Mohammed rubbed a swollen red welt on his left shoulder, wincing.
Speaking through an interpreter, he told a reporter he was innocent. “Some people don’t like me, and they gave false information. The first thing I wish is that our farms and villages are safe.”
Iraqi soldiers then pulled up his blindfold – his eyes darted side to side, scared – and thrust handfuls of water toward his mouth. He gulped water, gasping.
If anyone approached him about joining the Islamic Army, “I’d go report him,” he said. A grocery stall manager, he lived a simple life, playing soccer in the afternoons, he said.
“Don’t believe what these people say about me. If I was doing something bad, why would I stay in my house and not run away from you when I had the chance?”
Davis figured “he’s a little fish” but had him held nonetheless so that intelligence specialists might learn more.
U.S. commanders weren’t overly concerned about detainee treatment when asked about the interrogation. There were more raids to do.
“I’m concerned if the Iraqis go in too rough,” Davis said. “Obviously, that’s not our standard. … It’s their army, and I didn’t see any of that.”
Tall Afar, Iraq – U.S. soldiers in armored vehicles rattled in recently and stopped by the bullet-riddled Al-Farouk mosque. The soldiers stormed out of their vehicles and, crouching with rifles raised, dove into combat positions.
Lying on gravel, goat horns and excrement, Spec. Kris Guido, 21, of El Paso, peered through his rifle scope at what appeared to be masonry workers a quarter-mile away.
When one of those workers moved behind a dirt heap and lit a fire, Guido spotted it instantly. “Hey,” he said, notifying Sgt. Charles Rumschlag, 25, of Colorado Springs, also on his belly a few feet to the left. Rumschlag took a look and reckoned the workers might be “signaling.”
The soldiers – members of the Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry – were poised to fire on anybody raising weapons or placing roadside bombs.
A few hours before, anti-U.S. fighters in a building nearby had fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an armored Stryker vehicle. The grenade hit a protective grill, bounced off and exploded far enough away that no one was hurt. The day before, other 3rd ACR troops had hit a remote-controlled bomb and endured the blast – along this same strategic road in front of the mosque. The road, linking Syria with Tall Afar (population 200,000) and the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, is considered a major supply route for insurgents.
A day after this mission, a bomb nearby would seriously injure four U.S. troops, including two from the 3rd ACR, and hurt two other people.
Now on this morning, Guido, Rumschlag and about 25 others were acting on recent intelligence. Insurgents apparently were using the Al-Farouk mosque to stage attacks, according to a U.S. military intelligence file reviewed by The Denver Post.
Led by an imam named Mohammed, the mosque was “reportedly used nightly by AIF (anti-Iraq forces) to coordinate attacks,” the file said. Attackers had fired from its walls at soldiers. U.S. troops have avoided raiding mosques or other actions that would threaten similar holy places.
Young men recruited for attacks
Around June 2003, Sunni Iraqis who run the Al-Farouk mosque began recruiting jobless young men in the area to attack Americans, said Tall Afar men hired to work as interpreters. The recruiters offered $50 for attacks. Then they tried to coerce recruits into making more attacks by threatening to report their first deeds.
One 29-year-old interpreter working at the U.S. base south of town, who asked not to be identified for fear his family could be hurt, said people in Syria supported the mosque and took recruits to a terrorist training camp at Latakiya, along Syria’s northern coast.
“We hate them,” the interpreter said of the insurgents. “We know they are damaging our community.”
So the soldiers’ positioning on this recent morning also served as a show of force.
Yet troops peering through their rifle scopes also saw civilians just going about their lives: a man on a motorcycle passing a metal storage shed, a farmer leading geese, children walking to and from school, including girls in prim uniforms and head scarves.
Hard to know what was what. The strength of Iraqi insurgents today, says 3rd ACR commander Col. H.R. McMaster, “is their ability to blend into the local population.”
And the more insurgents increase the effectiveness of their bombs, the more they force U.S. soldiers to adopt a menacing posture. Armored Humvees that the 3rd ACR brought to Iraq on this second combat deployment no longer are sufficient. On this day, Guido, Rumschlag and others arrived outside the mosque in four M1A2 tanks and two Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
As they trained their rifles on possible enemies and watched traffic along the road from tank turrets, Apache attack helicopters swooped overhead. Guido heard them as he lay on his belly. “Cool,” he said, without looking up. “Feel safer.”
Interpreter exhorts troops
Inside Guido and Rumschlag’s Bradley, an interpreter waited – a 39-year-old father of eight from a religious sect that worships fallen angels – the Yezidi people.
“We belong to Malak Taus,” he said, referring to the “peacock angel” the Yezidis revere at a mountain shrine nearby. Like other religious and ethnic minority groups, the Yezidis had suffered under Saddam Hussein.
Now this interpreter was frustrated. Security in Tall Afar and other cities around here “is getting worse,” he said, asking to remain anonymous because he had been threatened after he began working for America.
The fire Guido and Rumschlag suspected might be used for signaling actually was for making gypsum for road construction, he said. And U.S. soldiers here by the mosque “aren’t doing anything. They’ve got to seize the city center. All the bad guys are in the city center.”
Around noon, troops atop tanks spotted a man along the road digging. Engines revved. The troops raced en masse to the scene. A crowd gathered, watching as the Americans in their armor stormed out and converged on the digger, who quickly set aside his shovel.
Rumschlag approached him. “Salam,” he declared. Peace.
The man stared back, dumbfounded.
And then, through the interpreter, Rumschlag demanded: “What are you doing?”
The man said he was Asad Rasol, an unemployed father of 11. He was digging to clear a roadside sewage ditch backed up with water that smelled bad, he said.
“Every day, we dig out this ditch to make the water drain better,” he said. Eyeing the soldiers and their tanks, he added: “We need this area to be safe.”
The troops accepted that, and with their interpreter rolled back to their position across from the mosque. They would sit there watching the road for another two hours, when another crew from the base would relieve them.
Lying again on his belly, Guido now spotted one of the masonry workers rising and falling in prayer.
He felt awkward training his rifle on this worker even though the man might not notice, he said. A matter of “respect,” Guido said. “I’ll just glance back and forth” at him now and then. “When they are praying, they don’t seem to pose a threat.”
Ar Ridwaniyah, Iraq – Hunting farm-to-farm for insurgents, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Daniel tramped through chest-high green wheat, drenched in sweat under his armor and helmet, boots caked with mud.
He sang, “Got to get some way out of here, said the joker to the thief.”
The 25-year-old from West Fork, Ark., said the slog through the field was probably what soldiers must have felt like in Vietnam. His father fought in Vietnam and returned home to jeers after thousands died on counterinsurgency missions like the one he was on now.
On a recent sweep south of Baghdad, the Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment began a mission intended to help stabilize the country without getting bogged down in a complex scenario similar to Vietnam’s.
Daniel and fellow soldiers from the 3rd ACR teamed up with 140 Iraqi soldiers – putting an Iraqi face on the fight against insurgents. So to his left and right and left, Iraqi troops also searched the wheat field.
One of the American soldiers found two Kalashnikov assault rifles and two green Russian crates full of ammunition stashed in the wheat. At a nearby farm, Iraqi Lt. Col. Jassim Abbas decided to question resident Ayad Talal about his neighbor.
At first Talal had said his neighbors were “good people.” But when told the neighbors had illegal weapons and ammunition stashed in their field, along a road where soldiers had been regularly attacked, Talal pretended not to know them.
Abbas had Talal kneel in the dirt with his hands tied behind him.
His brother, Faisal Talal, insisted they knew nothing. “If we knew anything, we would tell the American soldiers. Bad people put bombs on the roads. We are afraid of them.”
Abbas still pressed, alternatively standing over Talal, then squatting close to him and peering into his face.
U.S. 1st Lt. Carlos Montalvan watched the encounter. Talal “is probably thinking these guys could shoot me in the back of the head,” said Montalvan, 31, a burly ex-cop from Rockville, Md. “It is especially good in this case, because it is an Iraqi taking him away. It is Iraqi enforcement of law. Everyone in this area will know about this, and they will know that Iraqis, and the Americans, mean business.”
During a break on this recent day, Daniel and his cohorts slumped against the front bumper of a Humvee in 100-degree heat eating pre-packaged meals, sizing up their new partners.
“Last time, you wouldn’t hang out with any Iraqis,” Daniel said, comparing this with the cavalry’s first deployment in 2003 and 2004. “Now, we got ’em walking with us. I almost feel like a waste here.”
These Iraqi soldiers from an elite brigade seemed disciplined, said Daniel, the father of an 8-month-old girl. “If we could get a couple thousand more Iraqis like these, could be good.” One Iraqi that morning seemed eager to learn how to run a metal detector.
Staff Sgt. Gerald Betances nodded. “It’s easier having them with us, (to) deal with the detainees.”
These Iraqis eventually “could do this mission by themselves,” Sgt. 1st Class Robert Metzger said. “I’d have no qualms with that. That’s what we want. Then we could go home.”
Tall Afar, Iraq – The soldiers marched half-step – boots thudding softly, rifles barely rattling – and stood silently by the airstrip at twilight.
Nobody had ordered them here. Yet more than 200 massed to send off their dead.
A few hours before, insurgents in Tall Afar had killed four of their comrades – including two from the Colorado-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
And now – as the gray-blue sky broke into bright constellations and many men wept at the sight of a helicopter lifting off with the flag-draped bodies – these soldiers wanted payback.
“I want to go out and find the bad guys,” said Sgt. Jean-Marie Alexis, 37, a Haitian-born member of the reconnaissance squadron. “This is really frustrating. We can’t see them.”
Lt. Col. Chris Hickey, leader of the Sabre Squadron that lost two of the four, sympathized with Alexis and the others. His squadron lost eight during its year-long deployment in Iraq. Yet now, Hickey faced his men solemnly. He ordered restraint.
“What we cannot do is go into that city and burn it down,” Hickey said. “That’s what the enemy wants us to do. We are here to help the Iraqis establish democracy.”
So instead of lashing out the way armies have done for centuries, these soldiers stood silently on cold gravel, muffling inner wails.
“We have a plan,” Hickey told them. He reviewed how winning over Iraqis and harnessing Iraq’s soldiers would prove far more effective to defeat the anti-U.S. fighters.
But nothing will ease this “tremendous loss,” said Staff Sgt. Scott Muirhead, who rode alone in the back of a medic Humvee escorting the wrapped bodies to the waiting soldiers. “This is like getting kicked in the gut, and it takes all the energy out of you.”
This was an unofficial ceremony, the one that happens in the field when soldiers die. Official ceremonies are to be held next week.
Army officials identified the Fort Carson-based soldiers Monday as newly married Spec. Ricky Rockholt, 29, of Roseburg, Ore., and Pvt. 2 Robert Murray, 21, of Indianapolis, who dreamed of flying.
Also dead were 1st Lt. William A. Edens, 29, of Columbia, Mo., and Sgt. Eric W. Morris, 31, of Sparks, Nev. Both were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team), based in Fort Lewis, Wash.
The soldiers were killed on a reconnaissance mission Thursday afternoon. Army officials requested that The Denver Post not publish an account of the mission until relatives had been notified.
A convoy of five armored vehicles – two “Strykers” with rubber tires and three M1 tanks – had entered southwestern Tall Afar.
The city of 200,000 west of Mosul has become a hotbed for anti-U.S. fighters who have coerced residents to support them in battling “infidels,” U.S. officials and local men say.
The 3rd Armored Cavalry, along with a Fort Lewis-based reconnaissance squadron, are trying to help isolate and destroy the insurgents.
Around 4:20 p.m., one of the Strykers, carrying troops from both units, hit a bomb planted in the center of a dirt road. It blew through the bottom plate, right through where soldiers were sitting, and through the roof and rear of the vehicle. It flattened six tires.
The three tanks circled around the Strykers, firing at a man nearby who seemed to be running away, platoon leaders said later.
Two specialists newly trained in emergency medicine pulled out the wounded. Choppers clacked in to evacuate them.
But four soldiers died. Two other 3rd ACR soldiers – Spec. Nicholas Beintema and Spec. Bryan Lofton – were injured.
They are expected to recover.
Regimental commander Col. H.R. McMaster flew to the scene Friday morning and met with troops, then flew to Mosul and pinned Purple Hearts on blankets covering the wounded and dead.
This town, where insurgents have holed up, “is a tough place. We’ve got to figure it out,” McMaster said.
“The enemy wants us to overreact,” McMaster said. “We’ll pay them back. But we’re going to do it in a smart way that is consistent with our ideals and values.”
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.”
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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.”