View Full Version : Fallujah convoy: A little fear goes a long way

11-22-06, 05:57 PM
November 22, 2006
Fallujah convoy: A little fear goes a long way

By Will Weissert
The Associated Press

CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq — Being a little bit scared is good. Many Marines say it keeps them sharp during a war in which combat comes in spurts, separated by lengthy bouts of boredom. A fair amount of fear was in the air as a convoy of six Humvees made the 40-mile journey from Baghdad to Camp Fallujah.

“The IEDs,” said Sgt. Andrew Wharton, referring to roadside bombs known in the military as improvised explosive devices. “That’s what you’ve got to be worried about.”

“I try not to think about that stuff,” he said. “You just try to keep your mind on what you’re doing.”

Leaning out of the driver’s seat of a heavily armored Humvee, Wharton poured coffee he had been sipping from a plastic thermos onto the asphalt near the U.S. Embassy as the journey began.

Once considered among Iraq’s most-dangerous locales, Fallujah is less violent since U.S. forces overran the city in November 2004. But it is in Anbar, a largely Sunni Muslim province rife with insurgents.

“In Anbar, we’re in a fight,” Wharton said. “It’s a mixed bag. Some areas are worse than others.”

Wharton and other members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force’s Headquarters Group were to escort Brig. Gen. Robert Neller, the deputy Marine commander in western Iraq, to Camp Fallujah.

The journey was to take the convoy from the capital’s secure Green Zone to Baghdad’s airport, then onto a highway U.S. forces have dubbed Major Supply Route Michigan — nobody can agree on what Iraqis called it before the war. That highway stretches west to Fallujah and Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold filled with snipers and suicide bombers.

The Humvees carry as much armor as their frames can withstand. Their engines make deep rumbles reminiscent of school buses.

“If I run out of ammo, I may need one of you to hand me some more. Just reach behind you, pull the top of those containers and push them up here,” said Cpl. Michael Liston, an Oakland, Calif., native who served as gunner on the Humvee that carried a group of journalists.

The trip began in silence, with Wharton steering past a military checkpoint and over a dusty bridge across the Tigris River. Sgt. Walter Yenkosky, from Van Nuys, Calif., rode in the front passenger’s seat, while Liston pointed a machine gun mounted on the roof at oncoming traffic.

Iraqi soldiers patrol the road to the airport in tanks and have erected a chain-link fence with barbed wire on either side to make it harder to plant hidden explosives in the area.

Dented sedans and yellow taxis pulled over, while many vehicles in oncoming lanes slowed to a crawl as all traffic yielded to the convoy.

Mosques rose out of the sand in breathtaking blues. So did dilapidated and largely deserted playgrounds and apartment buildings painted in faded red and yellow. Blast walls of gray concrete and sandbags stretched in all directions.

The Humvees traveled single-file, nearing speeds of 40 mph as they careened around an interchange and entered route Michigan. They roared past burned-out cars and buses, shuttered factories and concrete buildings half destroyed by bombs or mortars.

Twice, heavy traffic forced the convoy to cross a median of sand, twisted metal guardrails and scrub brush and into lanes of oncoming vehicles. U.S. forces drive on the wrong side of the road to avoid bottlenecks that could encourage suicide bombers to strike.

The outskirts of the city quickly gave way to grazing sheep and cattle and cornstalks. Fruit was sold from stalls on the roadside and a furniture vendor offered wooden cabinets and chairs.

About 20 minutes into the trip, the Marines began to relax. Liston, forced to stand throughout a journey of more than an hour, shifted his weight, leaning heavily against the mounted gun. Wharton zigzagged to keep the Humvee in the center of the curvy highway, never venturing too close to the trash-strewn shoulder where explosives are often stashed.

The convoy rolled past Abu Ghraib prison, the high-walled site where photographs revealing inmate abuse sparked worldwide outcry. The blue overpass signs stenciled with white letters are all in Arabic except for the words Fallujah and Ramadi in one corner. A small arrow indicated both were straight ahead — and close.

A few minutes later, Wharton swerved abruptly off the blacktop, climbed a sand dune and made a sharp turn past a concrete gun tower, kicking up a cloud of sand that seeped into the Humvee through the joints of the doors and window jams.

“Welcome to Camp’s Fallujah’s south entrance,” Yenkosky said, as the Marines pulled over to register their weapons.

Unlike the vast expanses of Anbar around it, Camp Fallujah is secure, surrounded by a well-fortified perimeter.

The convoy was safe.