|04-26-2006, 06:34 AM||#1 (permalink)|
MSgt USMC Ret
Join Date: Aug 2004
Location: San Diego
Embedded with Marines in Iraq
Antonio Castaneda is embedded with U.S. soldiers assigned to the 4th Infantry Division in Baghdad.
MONDAY, March 31, 2 p.m. local
Last night I went on a night patrol with a U.S. Marine unit in western Ramadi. We spent a lot of time running down streets and taking temporary cover in the courtyards of private Iraqi homes. This was an upscale neighborhood near one of the city's most IED-ridden roads. These are villas with tall columns, flowered-yards full of palm trees. It was a moonless night.
The 3/8 Marines are relatively new. They've been here a few weeks, and they're getting used to what all troops around here call their "battle space."
The Marines entered about half a dozen villas, opening the front gates without asking the owners inside, and I was surprised that in most cases, the families didn't seem to mind. Some home owners didn't even bother to look outside, though they must have heard the Marines come in. One woman came into the kitchen to see who was around, glanced over and walked back inside. At another man looked through the window and did the same.
Others were good-natured, actually welcoming the Marines. We spent an hour with one family — a mother, a father and four sons and daughters. They were genuinely at ease, smiling, joking with their heavily armed visitors, bedecked with heavy armored jackets and night-vision goggles atop their helmets. The family's sandals were outside the door; the Marines trampled dirt-laden boots over a red carpet. One of the sons motioned at footprints on the carpet, shook his head, and smiled. One of the Marines had picked up beginning Arabic during a previous deployment outside Fallujah, and he was able to converse in simple sentences with them. In English, they said they had been watching the Oprah Winfrey show.
I asked one Marine: why doesn't anybody mind when they come bounding in? Wouldn't you be shocked to see soldiers hopping over the wall of your house? They're used to it, he said. Three years of insurgency has meant the citizens of Ramadi have gotten very used to Marines hopping into their yards for a bit of cover. The threat? Snipers and random small arms fire — you don't want to be exposed any more than you have to.
It was a quiet night, at least by Ramadi standards. Though at one house — the owner was out — the silence was broken by a loud boom. We could see a thick plum of white smoke rising about 300 to 400 meters (yards) away. I learned later that a roadside bomb had gone off as an American explosives ordnance disposal unit was arriving on the scene to disarm it. There were no injuries.
The base I am staying at is relatively small, at least compared to others. The main base in Ramadi is gigantic. It has a huge dining hall and scores of sandbagged buildings. The night I left my tent, one soldier slept in his bed with an M-16 poking out of his black sleeping bag. Another soldier lay awake reading a book called "The Arab Mind."
At this Marine base, there are guard towers along the sides, a basketball court, and lots of sandbags. There is one small internet room for the troops. I'm filing this via a laptop and satellite phone on a sun-blasted concrete ledge outside.
Yesterday, insurgents fired shots at a base watch-post, prompting the Marine stationed there to repost with three grenade rounds from a MK-19. Later, one Marine shot a man who laid a bag on a main road and started running off. A civilian vehicle stopped and picked him up afterward, apparently taking him to a hospital.
Trash is strewn along a lot of roads here, and there is always the threat that inside some of them are wires and bombs. U.S. vehicles sweep the streets constantly for them. Last night, the Marines avoided one awkward looking trash pile.
Iraqis outnumber Marines two to one here. They stay in separate quarters on the base. In a few months, they will take over this base and Marines will move elsewhere. Today they will roll out into one of the worst parts of the city for the first time in Iraqi army Humvees, with Marines close by.
The recruiting drive in Ramadi ended with only 31 people coming through. U.S. military officials had hoped for hundreds, but said even this small turnout was a step in the right direction. It is Ramadi, afterall, a heart of the insurgency.
Iraqi army officers said they'd find it hard to trust these new guys. They suspected them of being insurgents, or at least, some of them. Two other men who came by were suspected of trying to scope out the glass factory instead. They were detained, blindfolded, inspected and later, cleared and released.
In Ramadi, the recruits I spoke to said their main objective was getting a job. You have to support your family. But they also mentioned something else: they wanted local people patrolling Ramadi; they don't want U.S. troops doing it, and they don't want the Iraqi army battalions already deployed here doing it because they see them as foreigners, too. Most of the Iraqis deployed around the glass factory for example, were Shiite Muslims from Baghdad or southern Iraq. Ramadi is a mostly Sunni Muslim city.
Security was stepped up because insurgent attacks were expected. And they came, though by Ramadi standards, they were insignificant. A roadside bomb struck an Iraqi army humvee, and small arms fire followed. A gunman on a rooftop popped up, sparking a hail of return fire from both U.S. and Iraqi forces. Some anxious U.S. troops who wanted to get in on the brief gunfight were actually told by their commanders to hold back, and let the Iraqis do the return firing. Both did. Later, there was a loud boom nearby. A soldier told me a mortar round smashed through the building next door.
In Ramadi, at least outside the glass factory, there were no casualties I heard of. To the northeast near Tal Afar, though, a suicide bomber wearing a vest of explosives killed 40 people and wounded 30 others at an army recruiting office.
There is a lot of talk about progress in training this army, and I have to say, progress is definitely being made. I saw Iraqi troops training a year and a half ago in Tikrit. The guys I saw then were just starting out, fumbling with their guns, clearly not too interested in the duty ahead. U.S. advisers were rolling their eyes. A lot of the Iraqis quit.
But a lot of them stayed with it, and to see them today, you see a new level of professionalism. They're building the army from the bottom up. It's not easy, and there's clearly a long way to go. They need leadership. They need more training. And they need more equipment. Members of the Iraqi battalion I spoke to told me they still lack basics. They share flak vests. They either don't have, or don't have enough of: sniper rifles, mortars and night-vision goggles. These were the same complaints they made when I patrolled with them in Baghdad in 2004. Back then they complained insurgents had heavier weapons than they did.
Today, these guys said the same. Though they operate independently in some areas in Ramadi, they rely on U.S. forces for just about everything else: medical support, logistic support, firepower support. It won't be easy to fill all those gaps. One Iraqi soldier told me that if the Americans left, so would he.
THURSDAY, April 6, 10 p.m.
Sitting outside a sandbagged palace from the Saddam Hussein era that's now a U.S. Marine base, I set up my laptop and satellite phone and check e-mail. A sandstorm swept through a few hours ago, but it is clear again. It is a luxury to be able to check e-mail at all. There have been times in the past week that Marine commanders have temporarily cut off internet access for their troops. This happens when Marines die. It is vital that families are notified of deaths officially by the military, not by e-mails leaking back home.
I see a translator who I've ridden with through the city several times and we talk. He kneels next to me. "What is life but a vapor that appears for short while and vanishes away?" he says. "Life is very short. It is so precious. You learn to appreciate that here."
This interpreter, an American citizen born in Iraq, was with me when I rode over here in a small convoy for the first time. He had an M-16. I've never seen a translator with an M-16. "My life is precious, too," he told me, explaining he would only use the weapon in self-defense. Interpreters, especialy those who are born in Iraq like this man, keep their identities secret to prevent reprisals.
To put this level of danger in perspective, I have been asked by Marines — they were joking, of course — four separate times if I wanted to carry a weapon, a pistol at least, or an automatic rifle. I've been embedded both with U.S. troops in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and I've never been asked that question, even in jest.
Ramadi is perhaps the most dangerous place in Iraq. I don't know if the statistics back that up, but that is certainly the impression among all the Marines I've spoken to here, and myself. Everyday there are IED blasts, small arms attacks, snipers taking potshots. The level of violence seems leagues beyond the rest of the country. Everytime I have walked outside to set up my equipment at this spot, I have heard machine-gun fire. An aquamarine bridge along the edge of this base, now occupied by Marines, was firing yellowish flares last night to warn somebody to keep back.
Whenever we take a ride in Humvees out of the base, the gunner must brief me on what to do in case we are hit: by a grenade, by an IED, by a mortar round, by small arms fire. Each procedure is different.
Despite the violence, much of Ramadi is nevertheless normal. It is a functioning city. People sell fruit, appliances, air conditioners in the roads. You see children in the streets. Business goes on. Life goes on.
The center of Ramadi, though, is clearly a combat zone. Buildings have been shot up, torn through by rocket-fire, splattered with bullets or shrapnel, collapsed by 500-pound bombs.
In this area is the Government Center, a compound housing the governor's office. It looks more like a military base with Marines deployed along the rooftop in sandbagged posts covered with camouflage netting. Marines are here to keep the governor alive. Inside, industrial cables lay across the floor. Marines rest on cots in darkened hallways. Radios squawk with rumblings of operations outside. This place is attacked virtually every day by gunmen lurking in abandoned buildings surrounding it. They are no real match for the Marines' firepower, but they are relentless. One mortar round blew a hole in one of the wings of the building while I was there, but it didn't seem to bother anyone — though one police recruit was injured and taken to a hospital. The goal of such insurgent strikes is clearly to undermine local government. The commander of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Regiment, Lt. Col. Steve Neary, pointed out that despite such violence, the governor comes to work everyday.
Not all tasks are easy though. Insurgents burned down or blew up Ramadi's cell phone towers, and with them, the landlines. The city has no phone service. A team of foreign technicians was in Ramadi this week to try to fix that. Lt. Col. Neary was arranging air power and a Marine unit to accompany the technicians who were to inspect the site — it would have been foolhardy to do so unprotected. But a vehicle in their convoy was hit by an IED blast. That, combined with some mortar explosions, sent the team packing. Today, the Marines sent one of their own engineers, a Marine reservist, to the site.
I've gone on several Marine patrols and raids outside Government Center. Nearly all the buildings around it are abandoned. It's an eerie place. There are burnt out shells of cars. There is a lot of trash. Each pile of garbage, each stray bag, each pile of dirt could be an IED. It makes you cringe. Today we saw the carcass of a bloated black cow. Even that could be an IED. On many of the walls, there is black spray-painted graffiti. I take photos, and now I ask the interpreter if he can tell me what one of them says. In the photo, a Marine is standing on a corner with eyes on the scope of his rifle, providing cover as his colleagues run across the street. Behind him, on the wall, are the words in Arabic, "Long Live the Mujaheeden." Another we passed several days ago said, "Kill traitors before the Americans."
"There is so much hate here," the interpreter says. "You get a different look at life when you come to place like this."
TUESDAY, April 11, 9:15 p.m. local
CAMP VICTORY, Baghdad, Iraq:
As a reporter who usually shares living quarters with U.S. soldiers across Iraq, I hear my fair share of peculiar stories, some true and others exaggerated. I've heard few stories comparable to Cpl. Phillip Heyde's recent ordeal.
Heyde told his story as I was sitting on the hood of a Humvee, watching Iraqi soldiers inspect cars at a checkpoint down the road of a farming area in west Baghdad. These days the U.S. military is trying to shift security responsibilities to Iraqi troops — which makes for lots of conversation with idle Americans.
In late February, Heyde recounted, his unit found a roadside bomb while he was patrolling near the Baghdad airport to deter Iraqis from greeting incoming planes with gunfire. Heyde scanned the distance from the turret atop his Humvee and noticed a thunderstorm in the distance. Things seemed calm enough — until a blast struck his Humvee, sending him crumpling down.
Fellow soldiers said he was mumbling and flopping around on the road. Heyde thought he had been hit by a roadside bomb.
Instead, on the edge of the vast Mesopotamian desert, Cpl. Heyde had been struck down by a bolt of lightning.
AP) — AP West Africa Bureau Chief Todd Pitman is embedded with U.S. Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Regiment in Ramadi, Iraq.
THURSDAY, April 20, 2 p.m.
I first met Lance Cpl. Justin Sims the day I arrived at the Marine base here called Hurricane Point. He was sitting in front of the battalion headquarters on the top of his Humvee, ballistic sunglasses over his eyes, hand resting on his gun turret. He was a machine-gunner. It was a bright, clear morning, good light, good photo. I took a picture.
I rode through the city with him several times over the next week. Whenever we left the relative safety of the base, it was Sims who always gave me the rundown: what to do if hit by a grenade (yell 'Grenade!'); what to do if hit by small arms fire; what to do if hit by indirect mortar fire; what to do if we roll off the bridge into the river (he'll get out first and try to pull the rest of us out); what to do if hit by a roadside bomb and we roll over (grab Sims' legs and pull him inside); what to do if we get into a fire-fight. All these things happen in Ramadi, but most times you drive out, they do not. These are safety procedures, just in case.
We drove several times to Government Center, the governor's sandbagged headquarters, a wrecked building that is a magnet for insurgent attacks. The first time I went there we drove inside the compound and I figured we were safe. I got out of the car and started to relax — I thought the dangerous part of the trip was over. I started taking off my helmet, but Battalion commander Lt. Col. Steve Neary made it clear: "Get inside, you're not safe yet." The main threat inside the compound is the occasional mortar round, and possible snipers. We sprinted the few steps across the exposed inner courtyard while a Marine stood on the corner pointing his rifle into a bunch of four- or five-story buildings to provide cover. My luggage was in the back of the Humvee. Without asking, Sims heaved my huge duffel bag onto his back, ran across and carried it upstairs.
On another morning we were to leave Hurricane Point, the trip was abruptly canceled — at least my participation in it. Three Marines and a Sailor had just been killed when multiple artillery shells buried in the pavement exploded underneath their vehicle in the city. Quick Reaction Forces were called up to provide security at the site, and Sims and his crew left, leaving me behind. I wanted to go, but was told I could not. Later, I thought better of it — why put yourself in danger? I wasn't going to press it. As they left me on the curb that day, I remember thinking they would be doing this nearly everyday for the duration of their seven month tour — another six months. As I watched them leave, I remember picturing Sims rolling out of the gate everyday manning that turret the rest of the time he was here. Whether you agree with the war or not, it takes an enormous amount of bravery to go outside here and onto these streets everyday. There is a lot of anxiety when you leave. You never know if you are coming back.
Not long afterward, one Marine showed up at Government Center and played the Marine Hymn on a set of bagpipes for troops manning posts under a ceiling of camouflage netting on the rooftop. The bagpipes seemed way out of place. A Marine public affairs officer was doing a story about it, and had asked Sims what he thought. I heard Sims recounting the brief interview later. "This guy asked me how it made me feel," Sims said, smoking a cigarette one morning outside the Humvee. I thought Sims was going to say it was ridiculous. He seemed to be setting up a joke. But I was wrong. Sims said, "I told him, what do you think? It made me feel good."
Marines deployed in downtown Ramadi cope with the constant danger sometimes by joking around. Humor can help ease the mood. One morning we picked up the governor — who is escorted everyday by U.S. Marines to his office. The governor travels in his own mini-convoy of Mercedes Benzes and BMWs. It was a long wait that morning. The driver, the vehicle commander and Sims began betting — no money involved — on what color and make the governor's small convoy would be. Two white Mercedes Benzes and a Green BMW? Or would it be all white? Maybe a blue thrown in? The governor had a bunch of different cars and usually changed them up. I think the driver won.
Like most Marines of the 3/8, Sims had been in Iraq on a previous tour of duty. He was from Kentucky. He graduated high-school in 2003 and married the following year, just before heading out on his first tour in Iraq.
Once, I asked if any of the Marines carried lucky charms with them to keep them safe. Sims told me he carried only two things: a cross and most important, his wedding band, which he wore on a neckless around his neck.
On April 15, Sims was on the way to Government Center again, manning the turret as he rolled through the city, past U.S. observation posts and destroyed buildings. As they pulled through a deep moat of sewage water just outside a gate at Government Center, Sims was on the gun-turret facing the buildings behind them, providing security for the convoy.
A rocket-propelled grenade came out of nowhere, killing him instantly. In the dark dust of that moment, time stood still.
The driver and the vehicle commander were fine. Their interpreter, a bespectacled man more than twice the age of all of them, was in a rear seat, hit by shrapnel in the arm and leg. Some shrapnel hit a pistol that was in a holster on his hip — it may have saved his life.
I had heard about the fatality that day as I was talking to another Marine about the dangers they face. We were listening to yet another raging gunbattle audible somewhere outside the base.
I didn't know then that it was Sims who had been hit. It dawned on me when I saw the interpreter, deeply saddened, sitting outside in a blue chair where he always sat at Hurricane Point.
There were bandages around his arm and leg, blood covering his boots. "He was like a son to me," said the interpreter, who can't be named for fear of reprisals. "He had his whole life ahead of him."
Justin Sims was just 22 years old. I can't say I knew him at all. But I will not forget him.
|04-26-2006, 12:32 PM||#2 (permalink)|
Join Date: Feb 2005
Re: Embedded with Marines in Iraq
Fuck that place, and everyone in it not wearing digital cammies.
|embedded, iraq, marines|
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