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A rapid survey of the other vehicles indicates none has been damaged. “That was probably an IED, or maybe a grenade,” says Sailhamer. “They usually hit us on this open stretch right by the mosque. There’s no houses around and they don’t like to endanger the populace.” The machine gunner does not return fire.
We turn into the narrow side streets and finally find the yard with the rocket. Patrol members scamper up to the roof to secure the perimeter. A few yards down the street, two elderly men dressed in traditional robes and headdresses wave and smile.
The Navy takes a long time to set off the disabling explosion. When it finally comes, it doesn’t work. They have to rig a larger device. While they work, neighborhood children gather and have to be shooed off.
Finally the second explosion comes. It is a deep, thunderous roar that rattles our vehicle. All the explosions so far have been distant shocks that were easily absorbed. This one penetrates right to my backbone. It is not a comfortable feeling. My enthusiasm for action is beginning to wane.
ON THE WAY BACK TO THE BASE it becomes clear that our driver is something of a malingerer. Most vehicles are weaving back and forth across the road to dodge potholes but he tries to straddle them.
“I want you to go around those potholes,” Sailhamer suddenly barks. “I don’t want you driving over them.”
“I didn’t touch them with the wheels,” the driver complains.
“I don’t care. You drive around them, soldier. If one of those things is connected to a pressure-sensitive wire, that thing will go off right under us. We’ll all be dead. Read my briefings every morning if you don’t believe it. Don’t take your job lightly, soldier.”
Like all malingerers, the driver soon finds a way to turn the reprimand into a way of making things worse. Soon he is driving so cautiously that we fall far behind the other humvees. “Keep up with those other vehicles,” says Sailhamer angrily. “And see me when we get back to the base.”
It is the only incident of “soldiering” I’ve seen since I got to Iraq. Almost everyone else is eager, conscientious, enthusiastic, and dedicated to the task. Of course there will always be exceptions.
Yet even the most conscientious in Iraq are still facing the luck of the draw. The next day, back in Tikrit, I meet a 22-year-old specialist who is on his way to Baghdad to take a weeklong course in avoiding IEDs. “We got hit twice a week ago,” he tells me. “We were parking on a hillside overlooking Siniyah when we hit a landmine. The explosion propelled the front tire 300 yards. It blew the engine right back into the driver’s compartment. But miraculously, none of us were injured.
“Then as we were driving out in the rescue vehicle, we got hit again by an IED. It melted the steel door but once again no one got hurt. The blast blew out my inner ear membrane but the doctor said it will heal.”
Among the 150,000 soldiers stationed in Iraq, the odds remain long that any one individual will be killed or injured. But every day someone comes up short. On both days I went out in Tikrit and Bayji, a soldier in another patrol was killed by a roadside bomb.
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