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thedrifter
10-02-05, 07:13 AM
For Iowans, war 'never gets routine'
The Des Moines Register

A National Guard unit tasked with finding roadside bombs in Ramadi was told it could be a wild night and it was.

Ramadi, Iraq The Iowans, an hour away from their late-night trip into Ramadi, were told it might be a wild night.

"We have tips from town that three major areas are bad," said 2nd Lt. Nick Jones in a 10-minute pre-mission briefing. "Four IEDs may already be there. These are tips from locals, so you never know. Let's go see what we can find, folks."

Jones, 24, of Altoona, would lead 25 other soldiers from the Iowa National Guard's 224th Engineer Battalion into what may be the most dangerous territory in all of Iraq.

Their job is to move seven armored vehicles through the streets of Ramadi, locating improvised explosive devices the homemade bombs planted by insurgents that kill anybody who gets close. They are the insurgents' most effective weapons. The bombs have killed or maimed hundreds of Americans and Iraqi civilians. The Iowa battalion, nearly 500 men and women stationed in Iraq since January, is tasked with finding the devices. They're the only ones in Ramadi who do it.

Nobody needs to explain the danger. Four soldiers from the battalion have been killed in action, and 21 others have been awarded Purple Hearts.

The Iowans would be surrounded this night by patrols of Marines, moving through the city in Humvees and on foot in total darkness. The Marines' job was to protect the Iowans from attack, and to seek out and kill insurgents.

The mission might last two hours. Or six. It depended on how many IEDs were located and dealt with. And how much resistance the soldiers from the Bravo Company's 1st Platoon and the Marines would meet.

Jones was correct in his pre-mission briefing. It would, indeed, be a wild night in Ramadi.

Gun battles, explosions and rattled nerves. Fairly typical.

Jones was in the "Buffalo," a giant truck with an extendable arm that digs and attempts to remove IEDs from their holes. First Sgt. Scott Lewis, 30, of Fairfield was in the RG31 vehicle, an armored personnel carrier that's more of a rolling bank vault. Back home he works for Waste Management. Here he communicates, sometimes frantically, with the other vehicles in the slow-moving convoy and the roving Marines.

With Lewis in the RG31 were Spc. Brian Schaer, 22, of Drakesville, the vehicle driver; Spc. Stephen Troxel, 24, of Ottumwa, right front passenger seat, spotter and turret gunner; Spc. Jennifer Black, 30, of Ottumwa, the medic; and a civilian passenger.

The convoy was ordered to leave the camp at 10:15 p.m. Thursday.

"We do this three days on, two days off," said Lewis, as the vehicles pull onto a Ramadi street. "It never gets routine. It's dangerous if you think that way. I still get nervous."

The radio cut off Lewis. The Marines, already in the city ready to protect the Iowans, tell him they're in a firefight.

"Three of our people are engaged," the Marine told Lewis. "Small-arms fire. Two RPGs."

Everybody groaned. It's horrible news. Small-arms fire - including the most powerful machine guns barely scratch the armor on these vehicles. Those inside can survive an IED hit. But a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade can be deadly.

More radio chatter on the Marines' firefight. Marines have engaged more insurgents. The Iowans are told to hold position.

"God Almighty," Lewis shouted at nobody. Seven vehicles from the 224th are stopped on the street, vulnerable to attack, not yet close to the Marines.

"Troxel, gun," Lewis yelled into the front seat.

Troxel, who works at the Excel meat plant in Ottumwa, jumped into the turret behind the 240-Bravo machine gun and scanned the streets through the green glow of night-vision goggles. The streets are supposed to be empty Ramadi has a 10 p.m. curfew so anybody the troops see is a potential enemy.

Schaer, the driver who works at Rubbermaid back in Centerville, watched the street, waiting for the order to go. It's a tense 15 minutes.

Finally, the 224th was moving. Ramadi's streets are full of holes and concrete chunks, there from earlier IED explosions. The craters make perfect hiding places for new IEDs. Spotlights are shined into them and on trash where explosives could be hidden. Problem is, trash is everywhere. Bottles, boxes, bags, old shoes, junk of every kind. The soldiers look hard for wires or detonating cord.

IEDs are typically set off by remote control. Often it's a remote telephone base unit that initiates the blast. The insurgent waits until a target is over or near the hole where he buried the explosive. He then hits the paging button on the phone, detonating the bomb.

"It's knowing what you're looking for," Lewis told a guest riding in the RG31. "Knowing and being lucky."

"Buffalo arm is out," came a voice over the radio. It was Jones in the Buffalo. The soldiers have spotted a possible IED hiding place a crater hole filled with dirt. Lewis called the Marines to tell them the arm is working, digging. They need to be aware that an explosion is possible.

"Buffalo's sitting right where that one blew up across from us," Troxel said, back in his spotter position in the front seat, mentioning an explosion here the other day.

Nothing found. They moved down the street. Same thing. Buffalo arm, Lewis tells the Marines, some of whom are shadowing the Iowans, some still engaging insurgents. There's word that the earlier RPG sighting might have been wrong. Good news, if it's true.

There's nothing to do but wait and watch while the Buffalo digs. Troxel looked through his night-vision goggles and spotted a Marine sniper at a nearby building. Schaer watched a parked car and scanned nearby buildings.

Black, who works at Pella Windows back home, talked to a visitor about her little girls back in Iowa. Laney is 4 and Madison is 5. Madison just started kindergarten. Her mother was riding in an RG31 in Ramadi on Madison's first day of school.

It's quiet again on the street. No movement. Absolutely dark, except for the Buffalo lights shining on the arm claw that's starting to dig.

The explosion was massive. Then a shower of sparks and shrapnel. "Is everybody all right?" Lewis yelled on the radio to Jones in the Buffalo.

"Yeah," Jones answered from the Buffalo. "All OK."

There's no way to know whether it was a contact explosion or set by remote from an insurgent watching the Buffalo work.

"They want to hurt the Buffalo," Lewis said. "It's out of commission, we're done for the night."

Not this time. The Buffalo sustained no damage. The search went on down the street. Marines were moving on foot and in Humvees. The radio reported more small-arms fire a couple of blocks away. The Buffalo found an old blast crater filled with dirt. More digging.

"Two men walking south on Cinema (a Ramadi street designation) moving a pushcart to the west," the Marines told Lewis. Then more talk of another firefight.

"God," Lewis said. "We haven't even reached the bad places yet."

The column of vehicles was stopped for probably the fourth time, waiting at 11:20 p.m., while the Buffalo arm came out and started down.

The explosion was massive, the shock felt through the 31/2-inch thick armor of the RG31, maybe 75 yards away, a half-second flash-roar.

"Are you OK?" Lewis yelled into the radio.

No answer.

"Green chem light," said Troxel, watching a glowing green stick fly out of the Buffalo.

It's a way to communicate "all soldiers OK." Somebody in the Buffalo tossed out a glowing green chemical stick to get the word to Black, the medic, telling her there were no injuries.

The Buffalo arm was damaged in that blast, described by soldiers who had done this nearly a year as "more impressive than most." But no Buffalo, no more mission. The vehicles turned around and headed back toward Camp Ramadi.

They moved maybe a block and the Marines shouted over the radio they were in a gunfight with insurgents.

"Everybody sit tight," Lewis told the Iowa platoon over the radio. "Troxel, gun. We're in a hornet's nest. We're right in the middle of it. Everybody stay put."

The Marines sent a terrible message. They'd lost contact with a "dismounted" squad, meaning the men were on foot and couldn't be reached by radio. More chatter from the Marines.

"Look left," Lewis said. "There's gonna be a bunch of bubbas running over there."

Then it was over. The Marines recovered their men. The insurgents were either killed or they ran for it.

"Clear to roll," they told Lewis.

"Let's boogie," Lewis told the Ironhawk soldiers over his radio.

The Iowans headed back to Camp Ramadi.

"You know, every time we find one of those IEDs I feel like we saved somebody's life," Black said on the ride back.

They reached their base at the camp at midnight.

"That first one that blew," Jones said, "was buried in a hole with some dirt over it. It made like a 4-foot-deep crater. The second one was in like a box. I said to move the arm just a little bit, and bang. That was it. I'm thinking it was probably three artillery shells. Oh, well. It happens. We're done for the night."

"I'm going to bed," said Troxel. "Tired, you know?"

All of these young Iowans needed the rest. Tonight, the soldiers will do it all again.

Ellie