Sergeant detained in grenade attack

1 dead, 14 hurt in tents at 101st Airborne camp

War in Iraq

March 23, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAMP PENNSYLVANIA, Kuwait -- An Army sergeant was detained this morning after a grenade attack killed one soldier and injured 14 in command tents of 101st Airborne Division at this staging camp near Iraq, military officials said.

Eleven of the injured were taken by helicopter to nearby military hospitals, and at least four of them were said to have serious injuries. Army officials did not release the names of the man who was detained.

The attack in the command center of the 101st Division's 1st Brigade, at about 1:20 a.m. (5:20 p.m. EST yesterday), put the camp on highest alert and initially raised fears that terrorists had infiltrated the area.

Soldiers initially detained two Kuwaitis who had arrived in camp yesterday to act as translators.

But attention quickly shifted to an American sergeant who is a Muslim after he and at least three grenades under his control were found to be missing.

That apparently fit with the three distinct booms heard when the attack occurred, affecting three different tents, whose contents were left scorched and stained with blood.

In recent days, other soldiers who are Muslim had complained about derogatory remarks by members of the unit, and a generally hostile atmosphere.

Today's incident came as the remaining elements of the air assault division were completing preparations for missions in Iraq.

The blasts occurred in the center of the camp, near tents occupied by top officials of the division's 1st Brigade, which consists of three battalions. Soldiers sleeping hundreds of yards away were jolted awake by three booming sounds.

A missile alert sounded a few moments later, and soldiers in gas masks walked quickly to concrete bunkers. But they were told to return to their tents.

Members of Charlie Company were ordered to begin patrolling the pad -- the cluster of tents where the 3rd Battalion's 700 troops have lived since March 4.

At the battalion headquarters tent, Lt. Col. Edmund Palekas and other senior staff members in full battle gear crowded around the radio. Brigade officials who had been trying to help the wounded put out a lookout for the Kuwaiti interpreters.

When Palekas dispatched Charlie Company to guard the landing site for the MedEvac helicopter, he told Capt. Shane Dentinger: "Do not walk near tents. Stay in the open."

To reporters confined to the battalion headquarters because they were not in uniform, Palekas said, "We are securing our pad and minimizing movement to make sure nobody intrudes."

Just after 2 a.m., a radio transmission said two people had been seen running south of the battalion's motor pool and toward a berm.

By 2:13, the two Kuwaitis were in custody. A squad of soldiers moving in combat wedge formation crossed the sandy expanse, escorting an Army interrogator fluent in Arabic.

About 2:25, word came over that the missing sergeant should be considered "armed and dangerous."

"He's in the same uniform we are," an officer said over the radio. "He's a suspect right now."

Commanders quickly scrambled to account for every grenade. Soldiers were sent into every tent, latrine, shower and bunker to search for anyone who might be hiding. Two soldiers in every tent were required to be on guard duty.

Then, at 3 a.m., there were two more thunderous booms. Everyone in battalion headquarters threw off helmets to put gas masks on and sent each other uneasy glances.

"Gentlemen! Mid-air explosion!" shouted a soldier who popped his head in the tent.

Within minutes, Maj. Roger Dean told the dozen or so staff officers and sergeants that a Patriot missile had intercepted a surface-to-surface missile.

At 3:19, the sergeant was taken into custody, and despite the search for others, the tension eased a bit. A second soldier was arrested sometime later, officers said.

More than an hour later, Palekas addressed the captains, lieutenants, sergeants and sergeant majors. He was careful to say he was uncertain who was responsible for the attack, but he added that routines would be changed immediately. No one from the battalion would be allowed to leave the mini-neighborhood of tents without higher approval.

"When all this happened we tried to get accountability for everyone," Col. Frederick B. Hodges, the 1st Brigade's commander, told reporters. "We noticed four hand grenades were missing and that this sergeant was unaccounted for."

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