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  1. #1

    Cool Small gestures

    Small gestures
    by Kimberly Johnson

    HADITHA, Iraq –- “If anything happens, stay in the vehicle.”

    Staff Sgt Reggie Daniels was frank as we climbed into his Humvee before making the journey from 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment’s headquarters at Haditha Dam to India company’s outpost deep inside the city.

    Daniels, 35, of Albuquerque, N.M., had just moments before received word over his radio that a roadside bomb had detonated and that another had been found. He asked me to put on my Nomax gloves, worn by troops here to slow burning should there be an explosion. The extra covering left me feeling smothered as I climbed into the Humvee with the busted air conditioner on a day when the temperature was well beyond 100 degrees. The center console of the truck underneath the gunner’s feet was dusted with dirt and pebbles. Strips of duct tape held up an American flag on the windshield, right above a cheat sheet of Arabic phrases. “Af-bouk ala saf-ha – pull off the road,” and “En-zel min al-siara – get out of your car” were printed neatly in black marker.

    The drive from Haditha Dam slices through a barren and craggy desert moonscape. Through my little windowpane in the backseat, I saw chunks of twisted and rusted metal on the shoulders. A towering angular power line trail stretched from the dam across the horizon, sloping down into specks with the increasing distance. I smelled gas. I spotted improbable patches of green amid the dirt mounds. And I remembered the last time I had been on this road, last summer. It was almost a year ago when mortars came thundering down on both sides of the speeding 7-ton truck I rode in, marking my first clear realization of what it felt to be a target.

    Daniels explained that we would be making a couple of side trips to re-supply marines with ice and cold drinks. This battalion has adopted an approach of constant presence in trouble spots through foot patrols and small remote outposts -- a tactic they say has led to decreases in attacks, such as roadside bombs. The convoy stopped at each post just long enough for Marines to exchange coolers and greetings, then we were off. The Humvee tires churned up a wave of reddish dirt onto my window, so much so that I couldn’t see anything through the thick cloud until it settled.

    As we drove into the town of polished brown adobe houses, Iraqis stood on the sidewalks staring blank faced as we drove past. An old man in a dingy dishdasha, the traditional Iraqi garb, took the last swig from a glass Coke bottle. The road paralleled the Euphrates River and its banks were lush with date palm tree groves. Through the thick growth of trunks, I could glimpse water. A man stood along the tree line, holding the hands of two children as they watched the convoy pass. To the side of the road sat a small garden outlined by lanky sunflower stalks.

    “There are a lot of people out,” Daniels said. “That’s a good thing.” Sweat beaded on his face. Marines here in Haditha, like most troops in this war, are convinced locals have insight into impending attacks. They take comfort in seeing anything that looks normal. We drove further into the city, bounding over dirt roads and through cluttered residential neighborhoods, and entered 3/3 India company’s compound. The outpost is a collection of former municipal and education buildings, most of which are visibly scarred by the pockmarks of past battles.

    The camp compound is bare, but comfortable. Marines here eat two hot meals a day and a MRE for lunch. Clotheslines have been strung up in rows in an inner courtyard. Sandbag steps lead out to a plywood lean-to with three toilet seats, behind which is the odoriferous burn pit that constantly sends up black smoke. There’s no Internet, so downtime between patrols is spent sleeping or watching movies on the big-screen television in the small chow hall. Marines are able to call home using satellite phones.

    India’s executive officer, Lt. Justin Bellman, used one of those phones to propose Friday night. The muscle bound 27-year-old officer from Newark, Del., beamed as he described how it had taken him three tries to work up the nerve as the satellite phone kept losing its signal. When he finally got the question out, his intended asked if he was down on bended knee. He looked around the courtyard to see if anyone was looking, and stooped down to humor her.

    Attacks in Haditha seem a fraction of what they were last year when I was here last. According to battalion commander Lt. Col. Norman Cooling, 41, of Baytown, Tex., there have been three car bombs since March. Still, he added, “We get shot at ever single day.” India company keeps up an aggressive patrol schedule in this western Iraq city, scheduling dozens daily throughout the roughly 4-square-mile urban area to outlying areas about 20 miles away.

    India's commander, Capt. Andy Lynch, 31, of Chicago, says he doesn’t like his family seeing the articles that refer to the city as an insurgent stronghold. “They read stories like that and think it’s much worse than it is,” he said.

    But, he added, “It’s no secret the insurgents are running a murder and intimidation campaign.” The public execution last year of an undetermined amount of Haditha police officers shot in the city’s soccer stadium has crippled recruiting efforts, Lynch said. Not one person showed up for the most recent police recruiting drive. The locals' fear of reprisals for cooperating with U.S. troops has prompted him to create patrol plans that include home visits on entire blocks to give residents “plausible deniability” when they talk to Marines. But according to Lynch, locals in Haditha are helping Marines in little ways, like tipping them off about roadside bombs or marking them with rocks.

    Part of Lynch’s strategy in this city is to demystify the concept of coalition forces to the point locals see him as an individual. He doesn’t want India Company to be perceived as a nameless foreign army. “That goes a long way when you’re trying to push the tipping point to our side.” He urges his Marines to shake hands with locals and give out candy.

    “I tell my guys, it’s a small gesture and it might not mean anything, but it might mean everything,” he said. “We’re still the guys in charge, but you don’t have to be a jerk to do that.”


  2. #2
    Your feet melt to the concrete'
    by Kimberly Johnson

    HADITHA, Iraq –- Cpl. Nathan Noble leaned on his knuckles over a laminated map of Haditha.

    “Alright, you guys ready to kick this?” The face of the 22-year-old leader of 3rd squad, 1st Platoon, gave way to seriousness as he began his evening patrol briefing for the roughly dozen men in the room. He rattled off military street names: Mouse, Market, Nut. He traced routes with a finger. His squad surrounded the big plywood-topped table in a makeshift conference room, sitting on wooden risers that outlined the room’s perimeter. They would be conducting a census patrol, which meant they would go into homes to document those who lived there.

    “We’ve got three hours, so we’ll see how many houses we can hit,” he said.

    I had met the tall squad leader, a native of Woodford County, Ky., not long before the meeting. Iraq marks his third deployment in the past four years. “The face of this war is a lot different from Afghanistan,” Noble said, making a comparison to his last deployment. “The operating tempo far exceeds Afghanistan. We keep a constant presence in the streets.”

    And unlike patrols in Afghanistan, here in Iraq, “Your feet melt to the concrete,” he said.

    Noble began to quiz his squad on what they were to do should they lose communications or begin taking sniper fire. Each Marine he called on parroted back the standard operating procedure with flat voices, seemingly verbatim from well-practiced military code.

    Within minutes of his briefing, Noble and his squad quietly lined up at the barrack’s door with their weapons ready right before they spilled out into the darkened city streets.

    “The best way to keep a pulse on the city is going to some of the key leaders' homes at night,” the company commander, Capt. Andy Lynch, 31, of Chicago, told me earlier in his office. India Company is part of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines. His quarters are in the office of the former school superintendent in what was once the city’s education administration building. A cobalt blue oriental rug covers the stone tile floor. Heavy black printed fabric drapes the windows. Two neatly made-up beds flank the room on either side of a stately desk in its center.

    India company patrols the same stretch of ground patrolled by the previous unit, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. A small number of Marines in 3/1, which has since returned to the United States, are under investigation for the deaths of Iraqi civilians in an incident last November. The investigation is examining charges that the Marines killed civilians after a Marine was killed by a roadside bomb. Marines from India company, 3/3, who deployed here in March, however, have no knowledge of what happened that day, and Lynch believes locals understand that. “They know that there was a different captain who came to talk to them before me.”

    Haditha investigation aside, locals are naturally standoffish of U.S. troops who wear so much protective gear, he explained. “A lot of civilians are –- I wouldn’t say afraid of us, but intimidated by us,” he said. To combat that, he added, “You have to interact with them on a personal level.”

    Marines here will continue to face a hectic patrol pace until Iraqi security forces ramp up, a goal that presently seems daunting. According to 3/3 battalion commander Lt. Col. Norman Cooling, 41, of Baytown, Tex., an Iraqi army battalion here that once had more than 600 soldiers now has been whittled down to about half that strength, a product of poor pay and liberal leave policies, he said. Deadly insurgent intimidation campaigns aimed at dissuading locals from participating in the new government are succeeding here -- there is no city police force.

    “No one wants to collectively step forward,” Lynch said.


  3. #3
    "Shell on the right side of road!"

    AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq –- Kilo Company is nothing, if not consistent.

    My last night with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment company in downtown Ramadi seemed overrun with combat drama, much like when I first met them. On that day, when I traveled with the governor’s convoy taking him to work at the Provincial Government Center, two gun battles rang out and I was made to sprint to evade potential sniper fire. My last night had the same flavor, and included a protracted battle from the roof -- right before what seemed like the drive from hell.

    I was to leave the government center in the middle of the night, on a convoy headed back to the battalion’s main head quarters at Camp Hurricane Point. The shooting and explosions had stopped for over an hour by the time I walked with Lt. Brian Wilson, 24, of Columbia, S.C., towards his Humvee. It was dark and my eyes were slow to adjust. “Here,” he said. “I have nightvision. Take my arm,” as he led me.

    Wilson explained as I climbed in behind his driver that we would make the relatively short drive to Hurricane Point, after supplies were dropped off at another outpost down the street. He had found a space for me in his Humvee, but I had to share it with a light machine gun. I had barely situated my gear when he unceremoniously placed the long weapon between my legs. The butt of the gun rested next to my right ankle and the muzzle was tucked under my left armpit. It was the only way we would be able to travel with the weapon that stretched more than a yard. And in that one instant, Wilson had undone a long-standing personal record I was beginning to hold dear. All these months in a war and I had never touched a gun, despite constantly being in their presence. But on that particular night, it seemed an improbable record destined to become undone.

    The Humvee, with the young officer in the front passenger seat, fell in with the convoy and we drove the few short blocks to the outpost that had just been under insurgent attack. The truck slowed, and Wilson barked out an order.

    “This (expletive) better dance,” he told the Humvee’s driver, Lance Cpl Cory Bumbarger, 20, of State College, Penn. “They got shot at by two RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) down here two hours ago,” he said. Bumbarger knew the drill, and the Humvee lurched forward slowly, then pushed backwards in reverse, then forward, then backwards. The rocking motion makes for a hard target.

    “Hey, USA TODAY, you get car sick?” Wilson yelled to me over the engine roar. The motion initially wasn’t overwhelming, but as the waiting drug on, I felt a twinge of queasiness, brought on, no doubt, by the power of suggestion. Wilson and the three other Marines in the truck scanned every darkened recess of the broken buildings around them. They saw a light move through one of them, but couldn’t see from what. Down a side alley, the gunner saw something suspicious and shot at it with his M-16 from the turret. There were no shots back and I felt a deep relieving breath rush out of my lungs. My eyes were adjusting to the lack of light and I could see stars through gaping holes punched through concrete floors. The Humvee continued its dance.

    “Man, I’m going to puke,” Wilson said as he waited impatiently. He wasn’t happy about having to wait so long in the open and wanted to get moving, if for no other reason than to set his stomach on a constant course. “An IED went off right here,” he said, reminiscing of a past improvised explosive device attack. The conversation filler seemed like needless foreshadowing and put me on edge.

    Wilson got a radio call and we sped forward. The Humvee swerved from left to right to dodge deep standing puddles of cloudy water and cratered potholes. Bumbarger had it floored and the engine whined in exertion. He swerved to the left.

    “Did you see that sir? Shell on the right side of the road!” His voice was tense and sounded panicked. We had just past a 60-mm artillery shell roadside bomb lying in the next lane over. Wilson yelled the finding into the radio. I braced myself for the possibility of hearing an explosion. None came. We sped ahead, and into the gate of Hurricane Point, abruptly ending my night of tense action and what was just another day for Kilo.


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