View Full Version : 'How the other half lives'

08-16-06, 06:53 PM
'How the other half lives'

HADITHA, Iraq –- The foot patrol had started much like any other for 3rd squad, 1st Platoon, until they spotted the old Iraqi woman sitting on her front steps.

Dressed in a long black abaya, she jumped up from her seat and dramatically began to wave her arms, pointing down an alley. “Qunbula!’ she yelled, the Arabic word for bomb.

“That naturally got our attention,” said Lance Cpl. Michael Cannava, 25, of Townsend, Mass.

“For the most part, we speak broken Arabic,” squad leader Cpl. Nathan Noble, 22, of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines’ India company explained last week. “With hand gestures and charades, we can stumble our way through sentences.”

The squad went down the alley to investigate, finding a black bag with an antennae sticking out. It was wrapped up tight. It looked like a bomb. They cordoned the area off and called in for assistance.

“It was a hoax,” Noble said. There have been a lot of them lately in this western Iraq town. Marines here believe local insurgents are leaving out easily spotted decoy bombs to lure them into traps, while conserving their limited ammunition supply for bigger attacks. Fake or not, troops have to treat anything that looks like a potential bomb as just that. Their well-known process of investigation and clearing of suspected bombs, however, creates an attractive target for insurgents, who may be waiting to use larger, more heavily concealed firepower on those responding to the scene, Marines say.

Any well-known or patterned military drill or operating procedure invites trouble. To counter this threat, Marines are staying off the main roads and using ever-changing zigzag routes through back alleyways they hope will throw off potential insurgent ambush attacks.

The hoax bombs are an effort to make the Marines less cautious. “They try to make us a little bit more complacent,” Noble said.

“They are smarter than a lot of people think,” Cannava added. “They got to our heads.”
The hoax only underscored for the squad the reality of the enemy they are up against. “It’s 360 degrees, you always have to have someone covering your back. No matter how comfortable you feel, you can’t let your guard down,” Cannava said.

“Sometimes you just can’t spot an IED (improvised explosive device or roadside bomb) no matter how hard you try,” Noble said. “We take all the preventative measures. At the same time, this still is a war.

“An IED scares me more than a small arms engagement,” he said. In a firefight, “you shoot at me, I shoot at you and we hash it out like men.” The absence of that clearly delineated battlefield creates a higher level of frustration. “It’s like boxing with no arms.”

The ability to face an enemy is important for troops in any war. Noble recognizes that troops in Iraq are anxious to move beyond the “void” of quiet patrols or roadside bombs set by an invisible attacker, and engage in one-on-one combat.

“Everyone wants their chance to prove themselves,” Noble said. “Those people who have been to combat wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

The next day, I was chatting with Lt. Justin Bellmen when our conversation was severed abruptly.


Someone yelled the code for indirect fire and Marines scrambled into the halls. Bellmen ran for the command and operations center, or COC. Like a shadow, I followed the 27-year-old India company executive officer into the crowded room papered with maps and patrol charts. Marines yelled into radios, trying to gauge patrol coordinates “outside the wire” on the streets of Haditha. India commander Capt. Andy Lynch walked in with a stunned look on his face, his chest heaving from running. He immediately began barking squad numbers. “Have we heard from them?” His voice carried a flat urgency.

Three observation posts around 3/3’s camp heard the small arms fire. The minutes ticked by and pieces of information came in over the squawking radio. Rounds hadn’t been aimed directly at the posts. Shots were fired from a vehicle down an alley. I could hear the radio transmissions, but they were fuzzy. Shots were fired from a roof.

All were aimed at 3rd squad, 1st Platoon –- Noble’s patrol. I thought of our conversation just a day earlier, when he spoke of ambushes and attacks on patrols. You could go on 500 patrols and nothing happens, he had told me. “Then on patrol 501, something happens and you find out how the other half lives,” he said with a laugh.

In the COC, everyone waited to learn what was happening with Noble and his patrol. Lynch stood by a radio, its receiver affixed to his ear. The squad had just left the base to start a night foot patrol when they walked into an ambush. Insurgents on a rooftop were waiting, as was a car with a machine gun. More than 80 rounds were fired at the Marines, and they sprinted for cover in the street where they could find it. Some kicked open metal gates for cover behind a concrete wall. Then, it was over. The car was gone. The gunmen had vanished, seemingly evaporating into thin air.

Drive-bys are common, Bellmen explained, as the commotion in the COC began to die down. “That’s how they do it, Compton style,” he said, referring to the California city infamous for gang violence.

“Will they be back in soon?” I asked Lynch of Noble’s patrol.

No, he told me. They had only just started their patrol and they had more ground to cover. “It’s probably going to be a while before they come in,” he said.