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2005 Baghdad, Iraq Convoy Patrol - Number 1...With A Bullet

Posted in Features on November 1, 2005
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Contributors: Jerry Garrett

Baghdad-"The roads in Iraq," writes a young soldier, "are the front lines in this war, which has no rear." United States forces in Iraq, for the most part, have retreated inside heavily fortified bases. The only time they have contact with the violent world outside is when convoys venture to pick up or deliver supplies, personnel, fuel, ammunition, or VIPs.

The author of that brilliant one-line assessment of the battlefield here, Sgt. Breeze Hennes, is herself a convoy driver-arguably the most dangerous job in Iraq. Insurgents focus their wrath on convoys. They revel in the casualties they inflict.

Last summer, I spent a week on convoy patrols with a Baghdad-based artillery unit, to see what kind of abuse men and machines take over there. It wasn't pretty.

A few dozen of us gather in the Kuwait Hilton's lobby, headed for our flight to Iraq. We're glad to leave Kuwait; today, it will be hazy, hot, and 131 degrees.

Ali Hassan, an Iraqi merchant who is flying with us, is asked to explain what Iraq is like. He says, "It is a rich country. The date crop, if it can ever get going again, is worth more than the oil reserves. We also have minerals, every kind of fruit and vegetable, animals, you name it. It is a very rich country. But the people are idiots."

We take off in an ancient C130 transporter during the height of the searing heat. We're well on our way to our destination when hot hydraulic fluid starts spraying from the roof. It's unlikely we'll make it to Baghdad, so we have to turn around. After an emergency landing, we're assigned a backup. It won't fire up. Finally, about sunset, one plane is determined airworthy enough to wheeze its way to Baghdad. It's about 10 p.m. when we finally pancake hard on a pitch-black runway, and are escorted by armored cars to the Baghdad "terminal." We sit for another three hours before we get an escort into town.

The unit I'm going to embed with is actually the one assigned to escort us from the airport, along notorious "Route Irish," which had been attacked, and overrun briefly, by insurgents three days before. While others in our group have to ride ugly "Rhino buses" (armored personnel carriers), I get to ride in the tail-end Humvee, in full armor and helmet. All very interesting-and I am probably quite wide-eyed during it all.

Car bomb wrecks everywhere ... on the roof ... in the street ... too many to clean up.

It's only about a 10-minute ride under normal circumstances. Passing three still-smoking car-bomb hulks reminds me there is no such thing as "normal circumstances" in Baghdad. Now it's a gauntlet of barricades, checkpoints, detours, and unannounced route variations.

Our convoy consists of our four HMMWV model M1114s, complete with roof turret-mounted machine guns and a crew of three, a semi hauling two SeaLand-type shipping containers full of luggage, and three armored Rhino buses full of personnel bound for the Green Zone.

We pass through a checkpoint that's just been rebuilt from a recent attack that injured 22.

On this evening, however, all is quiet. We roll into the heavily fortified Green Zone a few minutes later and leave off our escorted parties. I notice 13 Bangladeshis-contract laborers derided as "Sherpas"-piling into an unarmored minibus. They'd flown with us, wearing no armor whatsoever, while we had been ordered to do so. I later hear that the same kind of minibus was ambushed the next day by insurgents, who machine-gunned all aboard. I wonder if it was the same bus.

Our unit-the 1st Battalion, 76th Field Artillery, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Army Infantry Division, out of Fort Stewart, Georgia-is headquartered in a former palace and government office complex used by Saddam Hussein. It doesn't look very palatial these days. "Tomahawk Palace"-so-called because it took 16 to 18 direct Tomahawk missile hits during our invasion-is still standing ... barely. Its next-door neighbor, "The Pyramid," is an eight-story Aztec-style building that took even more hits. The facade is barely hanging on it. The inside is gutted. Some of our guys have their tents pitched inside.

The guys have thoughtfully built me a "VIP suite" by putting up a plywood wall at the end of a hall. The adjacent room has a washing machine, a small shower, and a private indoor toilet-almost unheard-of luxuries in Iraq.

After about two hours of sleep, I force myself to go to breakfast. The mess hall is a couple of double-wide trailers slammed together. It has several cafeteria-style food lines. In the morning, it also has an omelet station and a waffle stand. At lunch, it has a custom sandwich bar, and at night, there's a sundae bar. It costs the U.S. taxpayers about $60 a day to feed a soldier. Televisions blare in here 24 hours a day, on ESPN, except when anything even remotely related to NASCAR is showing on any other channel.

Chief (CW2) Ed Figueroa, from the motor pool, comes up and introduces himself. He invites me into the digs he shares with CW3 Curt Roy, who is in charge of the motor pool. Roy does an amazing job keeping a fleet of 58 Humvees in running order 98 percent of the time. "That's an average of less than one vehicle down per month," he proudly notes.

Wanted by Insurgents: Curt Roy, Jerry Garrett, and Edwin Figueroa.

The downside of that is no goldbricking. Everyone knows his ride will be ready for patrol. The Left-Handed Lemon Law here is that if your ride won't work, you don't go on patrol. Eyebrows are raised when someone does something like slam a shift lever into Reverse at 40 mph, knowing that awaiting a replacement transmission will keep a vehicle (and therefore its crew) out of commission for days.

After a meeting and orientation with the commanding officer, Lt. Col. D. A. Pinnell, it is decided I can go out on patrol after lunch, on the infamous "Prison Run." Today's run will not be as long as it usually is, because there is no need to go all the way to Abu Ghraib, a good 45 miles out of town. Instead, we occupy most of our time escorting VIPs to and from various destinations. We are told these are high-value targets that the coalition forces and the Iraqi government are committed to protecting and keeping alive. Hence our escort services.

Each Humvee in the unit is the M1114 model that comes from AM General and O'Gara, Hess & Eisenhardt fully armored. These 9,800-pound war wagons-12,000 pounds with people and ammo-are powered by 6.5L GM turbodiesels and 4L80E automatic transmissions. They have two-speed four-wheel drive with a locking diff. Though the Humvees run more freely in 2-Hi, most drivers keep them in 4-Hi. The M1114 is now in ample supply-until a soldier confronted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a December 2004 news conference about the lack of armored Humvees in Iraq, there were only 300 here. Six months later, there are 9,000.

Each vehicle has at least three occupants: A driver, a co-driver who is called the "TC," or tank commander (this is an artillery unit, so this is considered a "tank"), and a gunner. There are also two back seats for passengers. Each occupant carries an M16 rifle, with multiple clips of ammunition. Most guys also like to wear 9mm sidearms. The gunner also mans a machine gun of some caliber or other. The Humvees can mount up to 50-caliber guns, but 7.62mms are most common. Our Humvee also carries an AT4 anti-tank gun; others carry four-pack grenade launchers. All this firepower, plus a full tank of fuel, make this package of rolling thunder a potential fireball.

Lt. Andrew Betson (blond guy, center) briefs his platoon before the convoy's mission.

And that reminds us that we have a 25-gallon fuel tank. The Humvee is rated for about 11 mpg. But instead of a 275-mile range, it really gets no more than about 180 per tankful. Roy says he'd be surprised if they get better than 8 mpg. But the great thing about them, regardless of what their fuel economy is, is that they seldom break down. And in a combat situation, he says, that's the most important thing-indeed, the only thing, that really matters. Though M1114s can be destroyed by so-called "shaped charges," they can drive right through most improvised explosive devices (IEDs), usually with nothing worse than a flat tire.

Humvee tires are huge targets: 37 inches high, 12 inches thick, with 10-inch sidewalls.

The military has developed a tactic, thanks to the Humvee's bulletproof (literally) reliability, that allows us to drive everywhere at top speed on our missions. "We are in and out before the insurgents even know we were there," said Capt. Ted Putnam, whose idea it was to invite me to embed with this unit. Many vehicles run 24 hours a day, and are handed off from one patrol to the next, Pony Express-style.

Today, our runs take less than two hours. No incidents. This, even though the streets are teeming with people shopping, sitting in traffic, standing along the roadsides gawking at us, and just going about their daily business. They are used to us.

There are about 22 million people in Iraq. It seems about 99.99 percent of them want peace and to go about their daily lives. It's that .01 percent who cause all the trouble.

I notice a car body on top of a two-story building. "Why is that up there?" I ask our vehicle's TC. "It was a car bomb," he tells me. "When it blew, it landed up there."

After dinner, I hear the Muslim call to evening prayers, broadcast from loudspeakers on each mosque's tower. It's an eerie sunset. Unsettling. Bomb concussions and machine gun fire echo into the night.

Sometime after midnight, one of those sandstorms of biblical proportions slams into Baghdad. When I go out just before dawn, everything's covered with a fine, talcum-like powder. The sky has a multi-colored glow as various lights reflect off the dust.

After a quick breakfast in the mess hall, Roy and I meet up with the patrol. Six vehicles today, scheduled for a full run to all the prisons.

Our convoy arrives at Abu Ghraib; insurgents almost overran the gates in April.

First, we head for the al-Sadeer Hotel, where most of our charges congregate for pickup. The hotel, where they presumably reside, is owned by Kurds (whom most Iraqi Arabs hate) and heavily fortified. Last March, insurgents tried to ram a garbage truck stuffed with 200 pounds of explosives into the lobby. Security guards shot the driver before he could get too close, but it still exploded, injuring 40. What a place to live.

The "guests" are all heavily armed: Blue, SWAT-team-style Type IIIA vests, with ceramic armor plates, sidearms, and military-issue repeating rifles. I start to feel sorry for them, but then I realize: These guys are soldiers of fortune, gunslingers in their own private war. They volunteered for this: Their chance to star in their own John Wayne movie. They may not love the smell of napalm in the morning, but they love making two hundred grand a year.

Our Humvees take up positions guarding their armored Suburbans. We blast off at high speed through the growing crowds in the streets. Three prisons are in town, and those are fairly close together. Each day we drive a slightly different route, at varying times, to keep those who might want to target us off balance.

Today we also take the long drive out to Abu Ghraib, the notorious prison west of Baghdad. It's considered a "long-range mission," and we are gone all day. The route takes us out into agricultural areas, where Sunni Muslims tend their crops and their livestock in much the same way they did thousands of years ago: by hand, with back-breaking manual labor. The women work in full, black burkhas, which must be hot as hell inside-it's 110 today. The men dress in cheap cotton shirts and pants, some in long robes. Children dress like little kids anywhere; most don't wear anything, and splash in the puddles. This countryside is fertile territory for farming-and insurgents.

The patrol unfolds without incident-a rarity. We don't know if this was just a rare cool day in the hot zone, or the result of secret electronic counter-measures the Army is using experimentally with our unit to thwart remote-controlled bombs.

Next morning, the dust storm is gone, but its layer of dust is not forgotten. When a slight breeze kicks up later in the morning, so does all the talc of the day before. That almost scrubs our plan to take a couple of M1114s over to Saddam Hussein's mammoth troop reviewing stand/stadium known as the Crossed Sabres.

We want to see an M1114 do zero-to-60 runs. So I take off from the far set of Crossed Sabres, driving toward a mythical "finish line" under the final set-ironically, almost exactly a quarter-mile away. We can't really get zero-to-60s because the damn thing won't go fast enough. They have 60mph speedometers, and they can barely hit that. With 4,000 pounds of 1/4-inch-thick armament, they're lucky they move.

The turbodiesel does its best, as does its three-speed automatic with overdrive. But it's a struggle to peg the speedo. After turning off the A/C and shifting to 2-Hi, we just barely manage to touch 60. But it takes the entire distance to do it-and nearly 35 seconds. I can't ever remember driving a vehicle that had identical zero-to-60 and quarter-mile ETs. Either way, it's a New World Record!

Logbook note: Next time, run at night, remove ammo boxes, take off roof-mounted machine guns. They create drag.

The roof dome of Defense Ministry fell eight stories into the lobby after Tomahawk missile direct hit.

Last day in Baghdad: I wind up getting on the Oil-Electricity-Minerals Ministry runs. This is an interesting trip around the unpredictable east side of town. We escort ministers and employees to the various government-run offices. It's ironic, I think, as we pass hundreds lined up at each gas station, waiting for the precious fuel needed to keep all these zillions of rattletrap Iraqi cars on the road. The Ministry of Oil is keeping the tap wide open on Iraqi oil flowing to the U.S. Even pro-American Iraqis are cynical about America's system of priorities in Iraq, when it comes to oil. When the United Nations building in Iraq was blown up by terrorists, sending the U.N. delegation packing, it was noted there was not one single tank protecting the U.N., but there was a phalanx of them surrounding the Oil Ministry.

Colonel Pinnell joins us for a farewell lunch. He seems like a straight shooter. He looks you in the eye and tells it like it is. I like his definition of the ways to do things around here. "The American way-which I like to think is the logical, common sense way-is that if a suicide bomber attacks a checkpoint, we change the design of the checkpoint so that can't happen again," he explains. "The Iraqi way is that if someone blows up a checkpoint, and a lot of people are hurt or killed, it was God's will. So nothing needs to be changed. They leave it the way it was."

"God's will" explains away everything bad that happens. Accountability, ingenuity, and proactive behavior aren't core attributes here. Still, the colonel sees things getting better every day, and I have to agree with him.

Another uneventful trip on Route Irish to the airport. Wonder if anyone has made as many as four round trips on that notorious road without getting shot at? Over 200 miles of convoy runs, and no incidents. Lucky me.

"We didn't think you'd go on any," a soldier told me.

"That's what I came here to do," I said.

He laughed, "I know, but we thought after the first one, you'd want to hide out in the motor pool the rest of the time."

I thought, "You mean I had a choice?"

My plane back to Kuwait is, as usual, hours late. I try to pass the time before the flight out, by striking up conversations with a couple of soldiers.

The Baghdad skyline, looking north.

The first one is a sullen young sergeant, who clearly doesn't want to talk. I finally get out of him that he is from Ann Arbor, Michigan. I also find out that he is stationed at Abu Ghraib. He is also unmoved that I have been there. I ask him a pointed question, "Who are the inmates out there? The prisoners? Or you guys?"

Slowly he answers, "That's been discussed. I mean, they can have family visits. We can't. We can't ever even go out of the compound. There are guys there who have never even seen what's outside the blast barriers. The inmates get their meals brought to them.

"They may get out someday. I don't know if we ever will." He is six months through a one-year deployment that may get involuntarily extended. He's going home, on emergency leave.

The next soldier I chat up is another guy going on leave. He drives with convoys like I have. His experience has been frightful.

"My first duty was 'Go out and clean up human body parts' at a roadside bombing. I think, 'What's up with this?' Pieces of people scattered everywhere." He shakes his head. "Why should a young man have to see things like that?"

Another time, he says he was nearly shot by other soldiers. "We're working to disarm IEDs on Route Irish, and these guys from another convoy start machine-gunning us. Who did they think we were? Insurgents don't drive M1114s. Don't wear unis. The bullets were going by so close between the medic and me, you could hear the wind snap."

His worst memory, though, involves the popular female aid worker who was killed on the way to the airport about a month earlier. Her death made all the papers. The details didn't.

"Her convoy hit an IED," he explains. He saw it. It was his convoy. "The vehicle in front of her really hit it, but the force was directed back at her vehicle. It was one of those armored Suburbans, and man, it just came apart. Blew it wide open.

"Her body was thrown out on the street, on fire. She had third degree burns over 100 percent of her body. She was just laying there in the road, burning. We just got out a body bag, and came over and unrolled it. We were getting ready to put what was left of her in there, and we hear, 'I'm not dead.' It was her. She was still alive.

"Why did I have to see that? I'll never forget that. Why should anyone have to see that?"

I don't try to talk to any more soldiers.

Just before sunset, a huge blast shakes the whole area. Insurgents somewhere out in the cane fields have dropped a mortar round into the airport. It lands near a runway. Planes continue to take off. Black smoke wafts over the compound. Though I will miss the friends I've made, I am ready to leave.

Dear Four Wheeler,
My name is Specialist Johnathan Howard. I am currently stationed in Tikrit, Iraq, with the 42nd Engineer Brigade PSD team. This is our M1114 HMMVV that was hit by a car bomb from about 3 feet away. I would like to thank Uncle Sam and the American taxpayers for providing my team with brand-new, fully armored, turbocharged Hummers to protect us. All three of us in the truck were injured, but if it had been an unarmored Hummer, we would have been toast.
Spc. Johnathan Howard
U.S. Army

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