Lessons for life in streets of Baghdad


CAMP PENNSYLVANIA, Kuwait - If this had been Baghdad, Spc. Jim Kaminski might be a dead man. As it was, he got off rather lightly.

"Kaminski! Do push-ups!" screamed Staff Sgt. Damian Mackie. "You didn't point your weapon toward that corner once!"

Kaminski, in full battle gear, including flak jacket, helmet and assault pack, gently laid his black machine gun on the sand and did as he was told.

On a rare day with a cobalt blue sky and no wind, Kaminski and four others in Mackie's squad were practicing room-to-room combat in a make-believe house made of plywood. Soldiers regularly train at their home base for "military operations in urban terrain," or MOUT, but members of the 101st Airborne Division are taking an intense refresher course here in the desert.

"I throw a lot of 'ifs' at you, but those 'ifs' are going to kill you," Mackie told the squad. "You taking too long in a doorway could end up costing a lot of families their sons, roger?"

If American troops have to fight in Baghdad or other major Iraqi cities, the lessons will be important. Commanders say their goal will be to subdue Baghdad by cutting off Iraqi supplies and communication. But infantry troops will fly via helicopter to assault targets in the city if called upon, said Lt. Col. Ed Palekas, who commands the division's 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment.

It is a perilous brand of combat, as the Army was reminded in 1993 during a botched mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, where 18 Americans were killed in one day. On the street, shots can come from anywhere. In buildings, it's impossible to know in advance who or what is inside.

"It's dangerous for us; there's going to be civilian deaths and destruction," said Palekas, a blunt-spoken 41-year-old. "You don't want that to happen, but we're prepared to do what it takes to accomplish our mission. We won't fail."

Mosques, hospitals and similar locations would be off-limits to attack, but only as long as they remain out of the fight.

"If soldiers shoot at us from a mosque," Palekas said, "that mosque has just lost its protected status."

There is at least one member of this battalion with firsthand knowledge of street warfare. Staff Sgt. Chad Fowles drove a Humvee in the Somalia mission, which was portrayed in the book and movie Black Hawk Down.

Fowles, now a 30-year-old scout, was at the rear of a convoy during that mission nearly a decade ago. He speaks of it as if it happened yesterday.

"My Humvee's backside was exposed," he said, sitting outside his tent in a brown T-shirt and desert camouflage pants. "There were [rocket-propelled grenades] going. I was waiting for an RPG to come right up to our radio."

When a private in the Humvee's turret was wounded, Fowles readied himself to replace him, he said. But a sergeant told him to keep driving, so another sergeant, Lorenzo Ruiz, took the spot. Then Ruiz was shot and killed.

"He hung on for a while," Fowles said. "It was a wound they really couldn't help."

Soldiers here at Camp Pennsylvania ask Fowles about the experience.

"I tell them, 'A lot of things you just react to. There are things I don't even remember doing.' I say, 'I did that?'"

He also tells them that the only truly frightening moment is when the shooting begins with a barrage of noise and violence. Then the fear subsides and, with luck, you begin to react.

"Hatred consumes you," he said. "The only thing you care about is getting you and your buddies out."

As a scout, his job is to locate the enemy. Before leaving for Kuwait, he asked his wife to watch Black Hawk Down "so she knows I've been here before, that I know what I'm doing."

One lesson learned from Somalia is how to shoot better at close quarters. Soldiers once were taught to fire from a boxer's stance. A right-hander would step forward with the left foot. But that exposed part of the torso unprotected by the vest. Now the preferred position is to shoot straight on.

Mackie, 32, used to be in the battalion that fought in Somalia; he knew some of those who were killed. For him, this training has a personal dimension.

On this day, his 3rd Battalion squad practiced what to do once inside a house. Some "shoot houses" allow for live fire because there is Kevlar and other bullet-stopping material in the walls. Not this one. It was just plywood nailed together, standing between the chow tent and the cluster of antennas used to send propaganda into Iraq. Soldiers carry weapons, but say "pop-pop-pop" for sound effects.

It is enough, though, to practice basic maneuvers - how to enter a room, how to secure a hallway, how to talk loudly and clearly with comrades.

"My main goal is to get it where my squad knows what to do in any situation we get in," said Spc. James Forman, a 20-year-old from Mechanicsburg, Ohio. "I want to be able to do it fast."

The soldiers ran the drill again and again. Mackie noted every miscue he saw.

Someone didn't shout "room clear" fast enough. Someone else forgot to secure the hall. A 19-year-old private didn't know where to stand.

"Lots of young boys here," Mackie muttered.

They took it from the top yet again. The men lined up in the hall, ready to move into the first room. The lead man made the motion of tossing in a grenade. "Frag out," he said. On the word "Go!" three soldiers filed into the room, weapons drawn.

Each scanned a sector of the room. "Room clear!" came the shout. Outside, two others waited with guns drawn until it was time to enter the next room.

Mackie liked what he saw and called his five charges over for a review. Every man lighted a cigarette before the first word.

"Y'all are starting to scare me," Mackie said. His eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, but he cracked a smile.

"Some of you are looking like you might actually do this well."

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