Originally published April 18, 2004.
They stand shoulder-to-shoulder inside Charlie Company’s small briefing room, 19 soldiers with Kevlar helmets strapped to their heads, tactical vests wrapped around their upper torsos and M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders. All eyes and ears are on Capt. Michael Mitchell, the company commander.
“I want you to keep your game faces on. Keep your thumb on the safety at all times,” Mitchell says, his voice deadly serious. “Look out for your buddy. Make sure your buddy stays awake.”
Charlie Company, one of four that comprise the Maine National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion, soon will leave the relatively safe confines of Camp Marez on a morning mission to “The Castle.” Once a prison used by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, it now serves as a training base for the fledgling Iraqi Armed Forces.
Charlie Company’s objective: Rendezvous with a 22-soldier detachment from the 133rd that has been working on The Castle for the last 10 days and escort them back to Camp Marez.
It sounds relatively simple. It isn’t.
Along the 70-mile round trip, the convoy will pass through the western edge of densely populated Mosul, where each building is a potential hiding place for an insurgent with an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) launcher, where a soda can or any other piece of roadside debris might be an IED (improvised explosive device), where a convoy caught in a traffic jam can quickly ignite a street demonstration.
Beyond the city limits, the convoy also will pass through the lush, green countryside of Iraq’s Ninewa Province, where the people appear friendlier, but also where a car broken down along the side of the road can be an ambush waiting to happen.
“This is the most dangerous thing we do,” Mitchell says, his face deeply tanned but for the sharp outline of his wrap-around Wiley X sunglasses. “Nothing we do is more dangerous than this.”
No convoy, large or small, leaves Camp Marez without a “safety briefing.” The 15- to 20-minute session is part pep talk, part logistics and yet another part contingency planning.
Sgt. 1st Class George Yanez of Gardiner, driver of the lead Humvee, first calls the roll and reviews the day’s mission and route.
Next, he announces the “order of march,” using small blocks of wood on a table to show which vehicles will be where. As he assigns a number to each of the seven vehicles – five Humvees and two flatbed tractor-trailers - Sgt. 1st Class Normand Roy of Lewiston taps the appropriate block with the tip of his M-16.
Yanez calls out soldiers’ names again, this time noting where each person will sit in each vehicle – and who among them has completed the Army’s “combat lifesaver” training. He announces the radio frequencies – one for convoy communications, another to call in a medical evacuation if needed.
While soldiers jot down the frequencies in small notebooks, Yanez holds up the satellite phone reserved for emergencies.
“In case I go down, just grab this phone and use it,” Yanez says, slipping it into a leg pocket of his desert camouflage fatigues.
Only one item remains on the agenda.
“Tactics in case of assault,” Yanez says, reading from his briefing papers.
The first option in the event of trouble will be to drive right through it. If the convoy must stop, the truck formation will be either “box” or “herringbone,” depending on the terrain.
“If the first vehicle gets hit by an IED,” Yanez reminds the drivers, “it’s the second vehicle’s responsibility to push it out of the kill zone.”
The briefing is over. Yanez gives the floor back to Mitchell.
“Remember,” says Mitchell, who lives in Skowhegan and works in his civilian life as a Maine State Police detective. “Take this very seriously.”
Ten minutes later, the convoy rolls through the Camp Marez gate, over the one-way puncture strip designed to stop intruders, and out into the streets of Mosul.
As they leave the post, soldiers tap their 30-round magazines against their helmets to align the bullets inside, insert them into their M-16s and lock in the first round. They keep their guns’ safety switches on, but they keep their fingers on the safeties.
“Ready to roll,” says Mitchell, drawing on a Marlboro Light that has burned perilously close to the filter and settling into the passenger seat of the second Humvee. Driven by Spc. Danny Churchill of Washburn, the dust-coated vehicle boasts a state-of-the-art horn and siren – a going-away gift from Mitchell’s state police buddies back home.
It’s a gift that keeps on giving. While Churchill hits the extra-loud horn repeatedly, Yanez threads the lead Humvee through Mosul’s morning rush hour.
Whenever possible, the convoy stays in the middle of traffic – the more the soldiers surround themselves with Iraqi drivers, the less the insurgents will want to detonate a bomb or launch a grenade.
A few miles into town, the olive-drab procession enters a large rotary clogged with Iraqi vehicles, some so old and battered that it’s a wonder they move at all. The route calls for a quick right-hand exit, but a dump-truck driver will not yield as Yanez tries to edge the lead Humvee over.
“Hit the horn! Hit the horn!” Mitchell hollers from inside the second vehicle. As Churchill complies, Yanez lurches to the right and scrapes the side of the dump truck, leaving a deep gouge in his Humvee’s bulletproof side window.
The truck slows and lets Yanez pass. Now it’s in Churchill’s way. Mitchell, leaning out the passenger window, loaded M-16 in hand, has seen enough.
“Hold up!” he barks at the truck driver. No response.
“Hey!” Mitchell bellows, all but jumping into the truck’s cab. “Wait!”
The truck lurches to a stop, holding up the traffic behind it. The rest of the convoy quickly passes.
Mosul flies by, a collage of sights, sounds and smells a world apart from these soldiers’ hometowns in faraway Maine.
Cattle and sheep graze on the sun-scorched grass at the edge of major downtown thoroughfares. Iraqi laborers, their faces wrapped in scarves, clean the dusty gutters with push brooms and shovels. Chickens roast on an outside rotisserie near a busy corner.
Wherever the convoy passes, heads turn. Iraqi police in light blue shirts, each holding a Russian-made AK-47 rifle, occasionally nod and wave. Young men in street clothes just stare, their faces drained of any expression.
Standing in the back of the lead Humvee, Sgt. Mark Ray of New Gloucester grips a 50-caliber machine gun with both hands. Next to him, Roy balances on one knee, his M-16 at the ready. Their heads never stop moving.
“If we see kids, great – they don’t want to blow up their own kids,” Roy explained before the trip began. “If we don’t see kids, well. . . .”
Now, as they pass through a major intersection, they see a small boy walking along the sidewalk, holding his father’s hand. A block later, another young boy leads a donkey down the side of the street.
Mitchell turns around in his seat as the convoy heads down a slight hill into a new neighborhood. “This is the dangerous part coming up right here,” he says.
It’s called Ambush Alley. For reasons known only to the insurgents, it’s a favorite spot for RPG and IED attacks – when Mitchell first came over as part of the 133rd’s advance team, an IED exploded near the back of a convoy in which he was riding and demolished a civilian car trailing the rear gun truck.
“All we could do was keep going,” Mitchell recalls. “But the driver (of the car) was probably killed.”
This time, however, Charlie Company speeds through unscathed. Moments later, the convoy passes beneath a large stone arch used as a checkpoint by the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.
Mosul, for now, is behind them.
The tension of the city dissolves into a countryside carpeted by green grass stretching for miles to the distant Chiya-e Bekher mountain range. A cement plant belches smoke in the distance, but the thatch-roof houses and occasional donkey cart evoke an almost timeless tranquility as the machinery of modern warfare rumbles by.
A young boy, herding a flock of sheep by the roadside, looks up as the first Humvee passes. He smiles broadly and gives a thumbs up to these strange-looking men in helmets and goggles.
Sitting behind Mitchell, Spc. Anthony Sturgis lifts his left hand from his SAW (squad automatic weapon) and waves back.
Sturgis, who graduated from Lewiston High School less than two years ago and seems older than his 20 years, carries an English-Arabic dictionary in his right-leg pocket.
“It’s pretty crazy to be out here in a different world,” he later says, when asked about the dictionary. “But understanding it allows you to control it – or not control it, but I mean . . . it allows you to relate.”
Back on the road, the convoy passes a small village where a girl, no older than 8, walks along holding two much smaller boys by the hand. At the sight of the trucks, she drops the boys’ hands and all three wave.
This time, Mitchell peers through his Wiley X’s, smiles, raises his fingers from his gun barrel and playfully waves back.
Just south of the town of Tall Afar, The Castle rises from the rolling landscape. The convoy tangles briefly with a few vehicles coming out the concrete-fortified gate and finally enters the spacious but barren grounds.
While here, the 133rd detachment led by Lt. Scott Lewis of Warren and Staff Sgt. Richard Hatch of Buckfield used its bulldozers and backhoes to improve the stone-covered parking lot. They also built a shed for the Iraqi Armed Forces trainees to use in room-clearing exercises, backstops for the camp’s rifle range and shelves for its supply room.
“During the day we were busy, but after supper we actually had a good time sitting around talking with the Iraqis,” Hatch says. “Their life, our life. How things are similar, how many things are different. Trying to learn their language, while they learn our language. An Iraqi worker I met has seven kids, I have six kids. . . .”
Did they discuss the politics swirling around the U.S. occupation of Iraq these days?
“We really didn’t talk about that much,” he finally replies. “Just a lot of personal stuff . . . getting to know each other.”
But for all the camaraderie inside the former prison walls, danger still lurks on the outside. At 5:30 this very morning, six mortar shells exploded on the roof of The Castle – a rude awakening that thankfully injured no one.
A few days earlier, frantic Iraqi soldiers pulled up to the gate with three wounded comrades in their vehicles. Insurgents in nearby Tall Afar had just hit them with rocket-propelled grenades from inside an elementary school. Classes were in session at the time.
Spc. Kevin Korenkiewicz of Gorham, the on-site medic for the 133rd detachment, now stands outside The Castle with Pfc. Miguel Cyr, 18, of Lewiston, recalling what happened next.
“One of them was only 16,” says Korenkiewicz, 22, shaking his head. “When he first came in, he was scared, he was hurt . . . he was going through a lot of pain. He had shrapnel in his arms and legs – it broke his hand and his elbow.”
Korenkiewicz had stepped in when he saw the Iraqis struggling to insert an intravenous line. He then stayed with the wounded soldier all the way back to the hospital in Tall Afar.
“It’s been quite a week,” Korenkiewicz says.
Ninety minutes after the convoy arrived, the equipment is all loaded and Charlie Company – now swelled to 42 soldiers and 13 vehicles – is ready to head back to Camp Marez.
But first, once again, comes the pre-trip roll call, a briefing and a warning.
“Actions on stop – 360 security,” Yanez tells the circle of soldiers. “Look up in the buildings. Look to your left. Look to your right. Look to the rear. Look all around. When we get down into Mosul, that’s where you need to be more aware than anything.”
“Stay tight!” hollers Roy. “The only time you relax is when we get into (Camp) Marez.”
Sturgis once again will man the automatic weapon directly behind Mitchell. What does he think about as he rides along with his finger on the trigger?
“You have to separate yourself,” he says. “You’ve got to be confident, you’ve got to get that different mindset . . . sit there and psyche yourself up. You don’t know what’s going to happen – so you’ve got to prepare for the worst.”
“Nobody here wants to get into any kind of conflict,” he says. “Everybody wants to have a safe ride, but we’re ready if we don’t.”
Another pause. Assuming this deployment ends the way he wants it to, Sturgis hopes to go home to Lewiston and become a pharmacist.
“I’m not looking forward to the day I pull the trigger,” he says quietly. “That will definitely change you.”
No triggers are pulled on the ride back to Mosul – even when the soldiers pass a teenage boy standing in the back of a moving pickup with an AK-47 pointed at the floorboard. The guns are perfectly legal throughout this war-torn country – only if the boy raises it can Charlie Company take defensive action.
But just as the convoy enters Ambush Alley, another kind of trouble arises: A rear truck radios forward that the small Bobcat bucket loader on one of the trailers has lost at least one chain, maybe two. It’s moving around.
Mitchell knows this is the worst possible place to stop. He radios back to hang on – as long as the Bobcat stays reasonably in place, they’ll make for safer ground.
The convoy emerges from Ambush Alley and gets through the rotary. Mitchell, on the radio, suddenly turns to Churchill at the wheel and tells him to get ready.
Seconds later, on a straight stretch of road in the middle of this often hostile city, Mitchell gives the order.
“Do a herringbone!” he tells Churchill. “(Yanez) blocks one side, you block the other side. Block the whole (expletive) road!”
All the way down the line, the 13 trucks alternately turn left and ride into the curb. The busy, two-lane road freezes.
“Shut the traffic right down!” Mitchell shouts over the squeal of the brake linings. “OK, everybody out!”
Soldiers leap from the trucks and set up a perimeter on both sides of the convoy, covering the repair crew as it repositions and secures the Bobcat with new chains.
Oncoming cars slow down, their drivers staring across the grass median. Soldiers on one knee, their rifles in the firing position, scan every direction for any sudden movement.
Ahead, the road is empty. Behind the convoy, traffic backs up by the block. The scene is eerily quiet, but the tension is palpable.
Finally, Mitchell gets the signal.
“Let’s go!” he yells. “Move out!”
And with that, the convoy melts back into a single line and heads for Camp Marez – now less than two miles away. The entire stop has lasted just two minutes and 40 seconds.
Mitchell manages a smile.
“Just another day at the office,” he shouts over the Humvee’s din.
One by one, the trucks turn into the serpentine entrance to Camp Marez. Each stops at a weapons-clearing station, where every solider gets out and completes an 11-step procedure to ensure every rifle enters the post unloaded.
Four and a half hours after it began, the mission to The Castle is successfully completed.
Mitchell ignites another Marlboro Light, one of several he has smoked down to the filter this day, and for the fist time visibly relaxes.
“Home sweet home,” the company commander says, exhaling. “You can’t beat that.”
Staff Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at: