The night we went out on a midnight raid of houses in Bayji, I made a big mistake. I forgot my camera.
I had been catching a little sleep on one of the dozens of cots in the Bayji police station when they woke me up for the patrol. In the confusion of putting on my body armor I forgot to put the camera back around my neck. When I finally realized I didn’t have it, I said what the heck? We’re just going to drive around the streets for four hours. I didn’t realize we would be raiding seven houses and have the best photo opportunities of my entire visit.
I must admit by the time I had been out on my third patrol, I was feeling a little more confident. There’s a certain bravado that follows as the fear subsides. In Baghdad Airport I met a 23-year-old private returning from leave who was bragging how many times his unit had been hit with mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenades. “They don’t like us,” he said. “We’re too bad-assed.” Much of the banter in the washrooms involves close calls and past barrages.
“A lot of young guys come over here and start feeling very confident about being under fire,” says Capt. Curtis Buzzard, executive officer of the first battalion of the 82nd Airborne. “Then they see somebody get killed or have a leg blown off and they lose their enthusiasm.”
I’M PRIMED FOR NEW PHOTO opportunities, however, so when a call comes in that an IED has been spotted on a highway overpass, I volunteer to go with the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) to investigate.
Iraq is so much under siege now that every highway overpass is regarded as a vulnerable piece of infrastructure. Iraqi Army outposts are set in bunkers near each intersection to prevent attacks. At one near the Bayji oil refinery, the guards report that a group of insurgents came running across a field early this morning and hurled a few objects onto the overpass. Then they ran away. The IA didn’t give chase.
My escort this time is Captain Peter Sailhamer, a 25-year old who has the manner and physique of a college swimmer. Like most of the young officers I have met over here, he has an amazing poise and maturity for his years. Beside me in the back seat is the company medic, who is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University. “I actually studied English literature,” he says. “I got all my medical training in the army.”
Disabling IEDs is the business of the Navy Seals, who wear an orange camouflage and congregate in small knots on the army base. The Seals disable roadside bombs with robots, little tinker-toy devices with a camera and a single arm that operate on the same principle as Hasbro radio cars.
The convoy approaches to within a hundred yards of the overpass and a Navy Seal sends the little device wheeling up the hill to investigate a long cigar-shaped object by the side of the road. It turns out to be a car muffler. Proceeding to the overpass, however, it hits pay dirt. There are IEDs on both sides of the road. Apparently they aren’t in danger of exploding because we drive up to take a closer look. They are ugly little specimens, like some exotic species trolled up from the deep. The heads looks like painted metal spray cans but have orange streamers attached that make them look like party favors.
“The streamer is a stabilizer so you can throw it,” explains the Seal. “The grenade is armor-piercing” — meaning it will cut right through the door of our humvees. “It’s something they’ve just developed,” he says. Even so, the crew feels confident enough to kneel right over them. After investigating, they ask us to back up so they can disable them by setting of secondary explosions.
WHILE WE ARE WAITING at a distance, I talk with Sailhamer about the technology. “IEDs are killing about 50 soldiers a month,” he says. “It’s our principal form of casualty. Sometimes they attach wires and detonate them from a nearby building. Sometimes they’ll activate them with a cell phone. Every humvee now has a transmitter that broadcasts on the same frequency as cell phones so we can jam their call. A lot of times you’ll see an IED explode just after we pass. That’s because we were able to delay the detonating phone call.” (I wonder about reporting this but he says it’s so well known among insurgents the Army doesn’t worry about publicizing it anymore.)
The lead vehicle of every convoy has a long pole extending from the front with a square metal plate hanging down like a flag. “That’s also designed to make them explode prematurely,” says Sailhamer. “These humvees are now pretty secure against side explosions but they’re vulnerable from underneath.”
“It reminds me of the old days of knighthood,” says the medic. “People used to go into battle weighted down with all that chain mail. Now we wear all this body armor and ride around in steel-plated vehicles. It doesn’t seem like we’ve come very far.”
A secondary explosion goes off with a small concussion and a puff of black smoke. After two more, we regroup and head into Bayji for another emergency call — an unexploded rocket that has landed in someone’s front yard.
As we drive down the main street of Bayji, past a large, blue-domed mosque, there is a sudden explosion. “Incoming bullet,” says the machine gunner in the turret overhead. “Can’t tell where it came from.”
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.