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Walking the Line 2007 Part 2 of 3

West of Baghdad, Al Anbar Province is a vast, lawless frontier stretching to the Syrian border. The population is almost exclusively Sunni Arab, leaving little cause for sectarian violence but plenty of room for other reasons to fight. (View the region on this map and see the breakdown of religious affiliations on this one.) Major cities in Anbar Province, such as Fallujah, are fantastically dangerous. Yet the Marines and Army, along with some Navy and Air Force personnel, are probably stretched as thin here as the Border Patrol between the U.S. and Mexico. No matter how they spread it, our fighters simply do not have enough paint to cover the barn called Anbar.

The fighting is brutal. Snipers on both sides take their toll on heads, while hidden bombs can take America’s toughest tank—the mighty M1, weighing in at roughly 150,000 pounds—and heave it into the air, sending its heavy turret sailing a hundred yards, and flipping the rest of the burning hulk on its back like a giant, exploding turtle in what is called a catastrophic attack. When such bombs detonate under Humvees, the scattered remnants can fit into the trunk of another Humvee. Smaller IEDs and platter charges rip through the vehicles like a cannonball through fog, leaving some dusty mud-cratered roads looking like the moon.

As with “shaped charges,” which have been falsely touted as high-technology imports, EFPs or Explosively Formed Projectiles (a new and fancy name for a “platter charge”) are often just easy-fab cheap weapons that an illiterate person can be taught to make. That said, there is evidence that some EFPs in Iraq are higher-tech “factory made” bombs.

The cost of making an EFP or a shaped charge capable of wiping out a Humvee crew (or even a tank) might range from twenty to fifty American dollars. I do not know the cost, but the cost cannot be high. In Iraq, labor is cheap and the enemy will not run out of ammunition any time soon. There are probably hundreds of thousands of tons of UXO still in Iraq, and “plastic” explosives generally cost less than good beef in America. EFPs and shaped charges are relatively tiny but absolutely lethal when they hit the target. A large shaped charge might weigh a hundred pounds, but a person could carry several smaller EFPs in a backpack.

The idea that EFPs are recent developments specially invented to kill Coalition soldiers in Iraq is untrue. In 1989 a powerful German banker named Alfred Herrhausen experienced a roadside bomb in the form of an EFP. Mr. Herrhausen was being chauffeured to work in an armored Mercedes, with security vehicles accompanying him lead and trail, much like three Humvees convoying down an Iraqi road. Up ahead lay the EFP; at roughly 45 pounds it was small enough to fit into a schoolbag. When Herrhausen’s armored car tripped a light beam a heavy slug of metal blasted through the air at more than a mile per second, penetrating the armored door and shredding Mr. Herrhausen. One-shot, one-kill, the engineering of that horrendous assassination was incredible. After nearly two decades, no perpetrator has been caught.

Apparently many of the EFPs are being factory-made in Iran, and shipped to Iraq. During 2005, I asked many American and Iraqi commanders if they were capturing Iranians. They were capturing foreigners, surely, but what about Iranians? Not a single commander, Iraqi or American, told me that his people were catching Iranians. Times have changed. Today, American commanders talk about capturing Iranians. Not rumored Iranians, but real ones; some of whom are believed to be involved in importing EFP technology into Iraq. To be sure, EFPs are deadly, but from a broader military perspective, they are merely a nuisance.

In the approximately two weeks since my return to the war, I’ve probably heard about 50 IEDs and car bombs explode. This number is difficult to estimate: I’ve heard at least four large explosions in the past 24 hours in Mosul, yet I only checked the source of one explosion, which was an IED that injured a soldier. Some of the explosions are from “controlled blasts.” (Such as when our EOD experts destroy enemy bombs with “controlled blasts.”) Down in Baghdad, big explosions thud across the bases many times in a day.

Whether low or high tech, the difficulty for the enemy is not in making the EFP (or any other bomb), but in hitting the target, and so those soldiers and Marines who pay closest attention to tactics and lessons learned greatly increase their chances of survival. There is no armor in our arsenal—not even our best tanks—that can defeat EFPs or gigantic bombs. The best defense at the local level is down to simple tactics, such as knowing when to swerve and slavishly heeding instincts.

Driving to Anbar

Ramadi is the capital of Al Anbar Province and is the location for several stops on this patrol. The enemy snipers here have become good and even excellent. Just during the time we were in the area, they killed four of our people. No matter the metric, whether per capita or in absolute numbers, Baghdad is surely dangerous, but Anbar is worse in every measure, and Ramadi is the worst place in Anbar, which explains why CSM Mellinger keeps driving out there, walking the line.

The enemy follows different rules. Any attempt to explain the fate of two of our soldiers who were captured by terrorists in 2006 south of Baghdad would defy decency. It should suffice as coda that the enemy rigged their tortured and mutilated bodies with explosives. CSM Mellinger said that Iraqi forces had just caught one of the perpetrators and handed him over to our people. I asked if we were going to turn him back over to the Iraqis. The CSM said firmly, “We don’t give back people who kill Coalition Forces.”

Then he told me a story about a courageous and respected Iraqi commander who’d accompanied his patrols all over Iraq for nearly a year. When the dead body of this same Iraqi commander was brought into the morgue, doctors found gruesome signs of torture. His legs were beaten by planks of wood. A drill had been used to bore holes into all of his ribs, his elbows, his knees, and into his head. Doctors estimated the man endured this torture for days. Apparently when the fun was over, or they’d extracted what they needed, or the terrorists were worried about being discovered, or they had another victim waiting for their attentions, they shot him. CSM Mellinger, with just a momentary flash of anger in his eyes, said the Iraqi forces know who did this, and it’s only a matter of time. But time bends when every day in Iraq brings with it a hundred new stories of murder, torture and bodies scattered by bombs.

I was with CSM Mellinger in 2005 when he often visited the Combat Support Hospital in the International Zone. American doctors there were treating a severely burned Iraqi man whose unconscious body had been dumped at a trash pile after he’d been set ablaze. And there was the burned little Iraqi girl who was always unconscious whenever we visited over the course of three weeks. But she was lucky, because even in her coma, she was watched over by her father. Other kids had been made orphans by the same attacks that tore their bodies apart.

On this patrol, a soldier told me the story a young Iraqi girl who got shot in a firefight that blew out some important parts of her abdomen. Others around her were killed, but she would live, with a colostomy bag and no chance of ever having children. And when the soldier visited her, he said the young girl was not worried about who shot her, or who else had died around her, or what would happen to her tomorrow. She was worried about her goats. She was in the hospital shot to pieces worrying about her goats.

This does not look like a big or intense war to people at home. It doesn’t look like that because we have so few troops actually in combat. But for those who are truly fighting, this is a brutal death match where every mistake can get them killed, or make worldwide headlines. Yet when the enemy drills out eyes or tortures people with acid, it never resonates.

There is an explanation for why when some of these young soldiers and Marines go home and people are trying to talk with them they might be caught silently staring out a window. Many people back home seem to think they have an idea what is happening here, but most do not. And nobody is here to tell the story of our people in this war.

The patrol stopped at Camp Ramadi, linked up with CSM Frank Graham (left), the Brigade CSM. Graham was heading to a memorial for a fallen soldier.

Brigade CSM Graham led us to Battalion CSM Gary Williams, who stood quietly before us in a tan flame-retardant suit with a pistol strapped to his right thigh.

Finally, a place where soldiers won’t give me grief for wearing flame retardant gear.

The itinerary for a single day included places with names like Camp Ramadi, Blue Diamond, OP Shadow, COB Warrior, OP 546, COB Aggressor, OP 505, OP 7, Farajih IP Station, COB Anvil, Jazeera IP Station, and a dinner with soldiers from the 2-37 AR. This “Walking the Line” was merely one day out of three in a row in Ramadi and Fallujah.

Despite the daily combat deaths and severe wounds, morale among American and Iraqi forces seemed to range from good to high. One negative theme that arose from Americans repeatedly was the dreaded possibility of being extended in Iraq yet again. One of the units had been extended on its previous tour, and had already been extended on this tour, and there is the real possibility that might happen again. Despite this, in deed more than words, I sensed that overall morale was strong, especially given the conditions in which some our troops were living, particularly at the outposts.

Sergeant Brown

Everywhere we went, some captain or senior sergeant was bragging about some of his soldiers or Marines, and would ask CSM Mellinger to stay a while longer to meet a few more. People rushing out to find particular troops that a local American leader wanted to show off constantly put the CSM behind on his schedule. I have never seen him not wait. We often run late because of this, but CSM Mellinger just makes up for time by racing through meals, causing me to shovel breakfast, lunch or dinner down like a dog that hasn’t eaten in three days. I don’t know exactly what Sergeant Brown did, but 1st Sergeant was bragging on him and another soldier, and so the patrol stopped just to see them.

At one of the outposts, an Iraqi soldier began heating water in a plastic bottle, when an American soldier intervened, saying the bottle would explode.

The Iraqi tried to explain, but there was a language obstacle, and the young American soldier was insistent, and finally the Iraqi, seemingly to avoid the hassle, smiled and walked away with the bottle, though I knew the Iraqi was right, and he had taken care to leave little air in the bottle. It would work, I had done it myself. It was probably a bad idea to drink water heated in that plastic, but the water would have been good for washing hands.

Our Military Training Teams (MTT: pronounced “mit”) are spending up to one year embedded with Iraqi Security Forces, training and running operations with Iraq Police (IP), Army (IA), Border Patrol (IBP) and others.

We are turning over to the ISF some of our old Humvees. I’ve written about the paucity of decent equipment that most ISF units have to contend with. So when an officer in Kuwait told me the Iraqis are paying for the Humvees, the officer seemed to be spouting party line. So I asked how the Iraqis were going to pay for the Humvees. The officer promised to get the information, but by then I wouldn’t believe it anyway. Who cares if the ISF is paying for worn-out Humvees? Our people have ground the machines to the bone, the Humvees are burdens to us, and the ISF honestly needs them. Iraq can’t pay for the Humvees. “Don’t let my Southern accent and limited vocabulary fool you,” I wanted to say, “the Iraqis are driving over some of the greatest oil reserves on the planet and can’t even afford gas.” When it comes to trying to understand this war, politically motivated commentary is no help. Being wrong sometimes is just part of life, making mistakes is just part of life, but slathering lipstick on a pig wastes the lipstick, and annoys the pig.

The “White Apartments” in Ramadi are not white, and none of the soldiers seemed to know why they are called the White Apartments. What the soldiers did know is that they get into a lot of shootouts at the White Apartments, that al-Qaeda and local thugs use the place as digs; that they had kidnapped and murdered university students there, and that our people and the ISF were not out to capture these terrorists, but to kill them. And they would say it: we are here to kill the terrorists.

The soldiers said they had just burned up a bunch of cars they knew belonged to troublemakers at the White Apartments. When I mentioned that I knew a commander who was not allowed to burn enemy cars even when he found weapons in them (he burned them anyway, which I never reported because he was winning ten dollars for every two he gambled), the soldiers in Ramadi said they do it all the time. And they said they are winning despite the chaos and continuing losses. No matter what anyone might think of the strategy and tactics, straight-talk is easy to understand. That’s why I love to go out with infantry. Worst job in the world, not “cool” like Special Operations Forces, but devoid of pretense with lots of straight talk in small words, and no lipstick.

A gym at a Combat Outpost in Ramadi. It’s free, but the White Apartments are just down the road and the place often comes under attack.

Combat soldiers have simple dreams. Crude, but simple.

Soldiers constantly are writing on their vehicles, and while usually it’s pretty obvious what they are trying to say, this Humvee stumped several soldiers who stopped and said things like, “Buttermilk? What’s that all about?”

They talk in plain language. They write signs that say things like “Watch out for dumbass camels,” and this flashcard for clarity, “DON’T PUT YOUR SHIT HERE,” with an arrow pointing to the floor. There was no gear there.

They say things like, “Don’t stand up on this roof because you’ll get shot,” instead of, “The security situation in Ramadi is tenuous and so visitors are advised to wear helmets in the case of some untoward event or happenstance that might occur in a combat zone.”

Two soldiers invited one of CSM Mellinger’s crew and me to the roof of the Combat Outpost, and said the enemy snipers who work that area are very good, so we were ducking around all over the roof.

That’s a mortar impact on the roof, and the soldiers said it had exploded there some days ago.

Shrapnel pocks on the walls. Many roofs in Iraq carry such scars. One of the IP stations in Baqubah was a steady spackle-job, and I wrote of one sharp engagement there.

Up in Mosul, we arrived one day just after a mortar landed on the roof of the 4-West Police Station, and the IP blood up there was so fresh that it was still alive, but the IPs stayed on the roof and kept manning their positions. There are some sorry, corrupt and cowardly IPs in Iraq, but there also are some extremely courageous IPs, many of whom have truly become martyrs. Despite all we hear about the corrupt cowards who try to govern from London or the tribal militias who infiltrate the IP, some do want to get their country on its feet.

Americans normally put at least two people per guard position, but they are stretched thin in Iraq so many guard positions have one soldier, like this one in Anbar.

The soldier holding the weapon in the background is on CSM Mellinger’s crew, and he told me about coming under sniper attack with Mellinger just a few days ago. The American M16 and M4 rifles come in so many personalized configurations that it seems like out of a hundred different rifles, no two are alike except for the bullets they fire. The rifles are outfitted with all manner of lights, lasers and special sights. The sergeant in the background asked the soldier who is stationed at the outpost (yellow glasses foreground) to check out the sights on his rifle. The sergeant was sitting down to avoid sniper fire, and was looking through the “ACOG” scope (a favorite scope for combat soldiers that helps with quick and accurate shooting). The sergeant was back there for several minutes fiddling with that rifle while I talked with the soldiers. Finally, the soldier with the yellow glasses who had handed over the rifle to the sergeant, came closer to me and whispered, “Hey, what’s his MOS?” [Military job.] “I don’t know,” I answered. “Why?”

“’Cause he acts like he’s never seen an ACOG before.” We both chuckled.

A radio squawked saying it was time to get down off the roof. CSM Mellinger was ready to roll. We crouched down and made our way to the stairs.

Captain Adam Rudy briefing the CSM.

Downstairs, during a briefing, someone let slip that Captain Rudy had been catching a lot of good-natured flak for being on the cover of the Stars and Stripes three times. (That’s what can happen when someone commands a tiny atoll in the “Sea of al-Qaeda.”) It was hard to resist nailing Captain Rudy one more time and publishing his photo again, for which I am sure he will catch more flak.

A patrol with CSMs Gary Williams and Frank Graham.

This war is fraught with more paradoxes and seeming contradictions than I can track, but one thing I’ve encountered on every embed is the high number of people who know the most, and suffer the most, still believe we are winning. For the most part, anyway. While most of the young soldiers still hold hope for a good outcome here, others think it’s a lost cause. The same is true for Iraqis. Many are still pushing for better days, while others guzzle apathy tea.

I’ve heard senior Command Sergeant Majors and officers saying throughout 2005, and now in 2006 and into 2007, that this younger group of soldiers is far superior to the previous generation of American soldiers. The senior combat leaders tend to comprise an odd mixture between warriors and grandparents (truly, grandparents with grandchildren back home). Many have children who are older than these young soldiers who are fighting their hearts out and often being shredded before their leaders’ own eyes. There may be some cold and callous souls out here, but our senior combat leaders truly tend to be combat-hardened people who also know how to change diapers.

View from an observation post of one of the most dangerous roads in the world.

This M2 50-caliber machine gun can easily destroy any vehicle in this photo, but that does little good unless the soldier sees the attack coming.

On Christmas and New Year’s our soldiers shivered in the dark and cold at this Observation Post, one of many on the highway between Ramadi and Fallujah, watching through sensors and eyes for terrorists planting bombs.

High tension and easy targets.

The terrorists continue to blow up power lines, which are very easy targets spanning vast, desolate areas. They also target cell phone towers because local people use cell phones to call the IPs, IA, and Americans telling where the bad guys are. Cell phones are perhaps the single most lethal weapons against the terrorists, and so this Observation Post performs at least four functions. The OP is built in the shadow of a cell tower, next to high tension wires, just next to the highway from Ramadi to Fallujah, and it serves as an emergency aid station for those who get blown up, burned, or shot nearby.

The wounded come here and are treated in the searing heat of summer, or today in the frigid, windswept winter, in an open aid station with no walls, until a helicopter or other evacuation transport can arrive.

What are they thinking?

So what is the morale like here at this place where any person would definitely wish they were somewhere else? Some answers are in the photographs.

Little telltale signs of morale were everywhere.

The soldiers at this OP seemed to know that CSM Mellinger was coming, so of course they would have shaved and cleaned up if needed. But all over were the telltale signs of what is really going on in their heads. When morale dips below good, humor is the first casualty. Among other signs, there were stupid but funny little Christmas jokes everywhere we visited. The snowman above says, “Will Work for Crack.” Someone in some secret chamber of the Pentagon that might be called “Graffiti Command” might see this photo as a threat to national security, but it’s actually a sign of healthy soldiers.

Care package contents line the base.

People at home probably have no idea how much their little cards, letters, and goodie bags boost morale. Countless walls around Iraq are practically wallpapered with cards and letters. And soldiers and Marines do stop to read them. They especially love the cards from kids. There is nothing more uplifting over here than reading two dozen cards from kids who can barely hold a crayon, much less one of those fat pencils. If a kid sends a card, rest assured that card will be stuck on some wall somewhere and it will bring a smile to many a soldier and Marine.

Much of the goodie bags cannot be used for one reason or another, such as the popcorn in the photograph above. CSM Williams tried to help his soldiers buy microwave ovens in a PX (base store). They had the money, but there were no microwaves. (Some PXs sell giant microwaves and even flat-screen televisions are for sale on base.) It wasn’t something the soldiers were complaining about, just that CSM Mellinger asked them what they do with that popcorn when they live in a shipping container next to a highway in the desert between Ramadi and Fallujah. They all have generators, and boxes of unpopped kernels, waiting for the microwave oven.

Signs of humor everywhere: a Humvee-bunny apparently under attack by 60mm mortars.

More signs at the OP.

A Christmas tree decorated with bullets. A sergeant said that a soldier had used a grenade for a Christmas ball, but apparently that was a little over the top even for Anbar Province, and so the grenade was removed from the list of acceptable Christmas decorations.

Instant morale: four paws and a power tail.

The Army has prohibited soldiers from adopting dogs since at least World War II, but I have yet to visit a base where combat soldiers or Marines did not keep dogs, often secretly. I did not mention these dogs because it could mean a death sentence but they were always there. The “Deuce Four” battalion up in Mosul adopted a dog named Sheba, who one day brought the heart of a suicide bomber to the soldiers (long story), and the medic had to pull on the blue latex gloves to take the heart from Sheba. When “vector control” people tried to take Sheba away, soldiers told me, the battalion commander threatened the “vector control” people never to come back. A soldier told me that Sheba has retired happily-ever-after from Mosul to Colorado with a Deuce Four soldier.

Some smart people believe that we should never pass a law or make a rule that cannot be enforced, and some people think the smart thing to do about soldiers and their dogs is to just vaccinate the dogs and forget about it. Deuce Four soldiers said that Sheba alerted them at several important times. Another unit, the Tennessee National Guard, kept so many dogs that some of them slept right outside the mess hall and were too lazy to roll over. But at night those dogs were along the perimeter, coming and going out of the wire, and barking at anyone who approached.

The puppy in the photo above ran from soldier to soldier, got petted a while, wagged its entire body, and made everyone smile. While I was walking it ran between my boots from behind and I nearly crushed the poor thing. It yelped, and when I reached down to apologize and pet him, my heavy camera smacked him in the head and he yelped again. A soldier just rolled his eyes but the puppy stayed by.

End of Part Two

Walking the Line 2007 Part 1 of 3 | Walking the Line 2007 Part 3 of 3


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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