Convoy traverses a perilous route

A team of guardsmen carefully negotiates an Iraqi desert road where bombs could lie hidden at every turn

The Maryland Guard In Iraq

September 23, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

FORWARD OPERATING BASE Q-WEST, Iraq -- Along a desolate stretch of two-lane road crossing a sun-bleached desert, the team in Staff Sgt. Michael Thompson's scout vehicle spots the problem first.

To the untrained eye, freshly packed asphalt filling a large pothole would be nothing unusual. But the Maryland National Guard team knows the hole was empty two days before, so the road repair signals trouble.

Five hours later, Thompson and the rest of his convoy security team discover what lies buried below: a propane tank filled with 50 pounds of explosives attached to a remote detonator.

Looking for telltale signs of hidden roadside bombs makes daily convoys from this remote American military base in northern Iraq numbingly long and frustratingly slow. Every pile of suspect garbage, every eerily emptied-out town, every square foot of new asphalt without a military engineer's "safe" mark, saddles them with risky delays.

This day's mission is supposed to be completed in 12 hours. It will take 36.

After notifying home base about the suspicious road repair, the Maryland Guard's first move is to maneuver their gun trucks on perfect cue to protect the supply convoy from attack. Then members of 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment confront the most pressing questions.

If there is a hidden bomb, where is the trigger man? Is there a single bomb or a clutch of them? For the guardsmen laboring to reach a military base 37 miles away, no one has enough answers to move on.

The grueling convoy mission offers a glimpse of the threats faced by Maryland guardsmen - ordinary folks including a Starbucks manager, a bricklayer and a slew of college students. It has been two months since the group of more than 100 guardsmen assigned to Bravo set foot in Iraq, and they have become accustomed to the war zone's tension and danger. Still, getting a mission "outside the wire" makes them feel like the combat infantrymen they spent years training to be.

The first of the day's briefings begins at 5 a.m. with Lt. Vincenzo Dray Taylor. In civilian life, the 24-year-old from Columbia is a cook at the Bertucci's restaurant on Snowden River Parkway. He's known to break into song for no reason and think up word games to keep his crew from falling asleep on long trips. He has an easy smile and a quick laugh. But today he is a platoon leader of more than 20 men, and he is about to leave on his sixth mission.

In the predawn darkness, Taylor sketches out the route to Forward Operating Base Sykes. They'll only take a handful of roads - the exact routes are classified - but little attention is paid to the small towns and villages along the way. Experienced soldiers instead look for landmarks, Iraqi army checkpoints and road conditions to check for any changes that might spell trouble.

Taylor describes the order of his platoon's trucks - Humvees, tow trucks and armored security vehicles, v-shaped hulled trucks that look like tanks on wheels - assigned to guard the shipment of fuel, water and other goods.

He warns his soldiers of the dangers ahead. The sight of children waving from the side of the road usually means a reduced chance of attack from an improvised explosive device, or IED. But "if we don't see anyone out," Taylor warned, "we've got a problem."

He relays a description of a suspected al-Qaida in Iraq leader, believed to be in the Mosul area. But the description is so generic - brown hair, short mustache and not much more - that his platoon lets out a little laugh when Taylor tells them to "be on the lookout."

Taylor also positions each of the trucks' crews to stand in their order in the convoy. The lieutenant tosses out scenarios - a break in the convoy, a vehicle coming under fire - and the soldiers walk into flanking positions as if they were driving their gun trucks.

A half-hour later, soldiers join military contract truck drivers in a large hangar, where they sit in three sections of bleachers for a final briefing. Every soldier's and trucker's name is called. Their responses are both efficient and a grim reminder of the risks that lie ahead: the last four digits of their Social Security numbers followed by their blood types. But the true wake-up call comes moments later when briefers play a video from Baghdad.

An escorted convoy is seen on the screen snaking down a road when a dump truck suddenly pulls alongside the lead military vehicle. Seconds later, the truck explodes, and the entire screen is engulfed by a giant cloud.

"I just want you to be mindful of that kind of danger - suicide trucks filled with explosives," the briefer says as Bravo soldiers gasp at the sight.

One stretch of their route is considered a "Tier 1 IED site" - likely laden with buried bombs.

As the briefing concludes, soldiers load up on their own fuel: handfuls of energy bars, highly caffeinated power drinks, sugary cereals, bottles of water and Gatorade.

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