CAMP ANACONDA, Iraq -- The freight convoy known as Dagger Three Seven snakes around the huge concrete barriers, blast walls and razor wire at the north gate and lurches out into Iraq, onto a two-lane road curving southeast through country known for violence and death.
It's just over 100 degrees, that time of dusk when the failing light and rising dust bathe the landscape in a deepening haze of gray, and the line of two dozen tractor-trailers and armored gun-trucks clanks and growls up toward 25 mph, headlights boring holes into a cloud of its own making.
"Pothole coming up on the right, road patches on the right." The report comes crisply over the intercom from Spc. Francisco B. Fimbres, a 36-year-old from Tucson, Ariz., jumpy from a couple of cans of Monster energy drink, up in his .50-caliber machine gun turret.
"Pothole and patches right -- roger, stay left," responds Sgt. 1st Class Ken Brockman. He reaches across his gun-truck cockpit jammed with electronic gear and flicks a switch to pass word to the convoy he is leading. Behind him, several hundred tons of combat supplies on wheels drifts left and undulates back right, avoiding the potholes and patches that could hold deadly roadside bombs.
Convoys this night are crisscrossing Iraq. They are the lifeblood of the U.S. military presence that daily consumes hundreds of tons of ammunition, water, rations, repair parts, mail, blood, lumber, razor wire, concrete barriers, computer paper, gun barrels, DVDs, toiletries, fuel, candy bars, instruction manuals, fresh lettuce and frozen chicken, all it takes to sustain an army at war.
And because road convoys are the military's lifeblood, they are relentlessly attacked every night, with rifle fire, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank pressure mines, anti-personnel mines, bombs made of stacked artillery shells detonated by C-4 explosive, explosive formed projectiles (EFPs), which burn through heavy armor with molten metal, and with "complex attacks" that combine several of these weapons.
The awful toll from this aspect of the war -- the Defense Department will not release the precise number of troops killed on convoy duty -- will continue as long as there is a U.S. military presence here, and as long as the Iraqi military cannot resupply itself.
So soldiers in Baghdad struggle to contain the violence and politicians in Washington debate war strategy, and the convoys go out each night largely unseen, one convoy after another, one night after another. Military technicians feverishly work to devise new gizmos to find and defeat each new variant of attack, and much of the time they are successful. The rest of the time, the burden falls on the soldiers who run security for the convoys, on the military truck drivers and on the $3,000-a-month civilian contract drivers who man the big rigs for KBR Inc.
Here is Army Sgt. Frank Vallejo, a long-haul convoy commander, swarthy and sweaty as he directs the unloading of new armored vehicles that will be used as convoy escorts.
Vallejo's convoy left the Army logistics base at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, crossed the border into Iraq and almost immediately was attacked with EFPs. He got the line of trucks turned around and herded them back to Arifjan, swapping out the damaged trucks and wounded and frightened drivers, then set off north again into Iraq. Six days later, his convoy rolled into Anaconda, a trip on which he said he logged 1,600 miles.
This night they will load up again, and after a pause of only 12 hours, will set out on the return trip.
The hectic pace is a testament to the shortage of drivers, Vallejo said, squinting in the sun as his trucks are loaded.
"We got trucks. What we don't have is drivers, and we are scraping below the bottom of the barrel."
For short-haul convoys that leave at dusk and return at dawn, the pace is equally hectic.
Each afternoon, the intelligence analysts plot the clusters of roadside bomb detonations and ambushes on their crowded maps and commanders struggle to find safer routes, and the gun-truck crews try to quiet the gut-wrenching fear with sleep during the day. As evening approaches, they strap on body armor and gather in a circle to pray for one more lucky run.
"Blessed be the Lord, our mighty fortress," murmurs Sgt. Brent Robinson, a 25-year-old from Tucson, Ariz. "Blessed be the Lord our strength," he says, as Fimbres sneaks a sip of Monster and Teresa Bovee, an Arizona National Guard sergeant who is the convoy medic, stifles a giggle and jams an elbow into a soldier snickering beside her.
War materiel arrives at this vast American base, the logistics hub for all of Iraq, by air from Europe and the United States, and by truck from Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait, and from here it's sorted, repacked and trucked out to dozens of military outposts and forward operating bases.
Dagger Three Seven is one small spoke in the hub, trucking supplies to a U.S. military camp called Warhorse. Before mounting up, Brockman gathered his soldiers and KBR's seasoned drivers, whose tastes run to beards and bellies. He settles them all with a long, doleful look.
Brockman's father fought in Vietnam, which explains much of the son's determined attention to detail in leading men in combat.
In a quick, businesslike briefing, Brockman runs down the mission: destination and route, recent enemy activity on the route, radio frequencies and call signs, ambush procedures and casualty evacuation procedures.
"If you see something, please don't hesitate to call," Brockman says. "If kids climb up on your trailer, call us and we'll send a gun-truck up and clean 'em off."
Deep into the night, Fimbres is sweeping houses and the roadside with spotlights sent from Sun City, Ariz., by Maxine Duprey, Brockman's grandmother. Her lights are mounted on the hood of Brockman's gun-truck, a heavily armored Humvee loaded with electronic gadgets to help track the convoy and to jam or otherwise defeat remotely detonated improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
Other IEDs are more difficult to defeat because they are set off by wire or the pressure of a truck wheel. And while the military has technological tricks to deal with these, there is no substitute for vigilance.
"Plastic bag, left side -- clear!" Fimbres has spotted a potential IED, scanned it for telltale protruding wires and found none. "Plastic bag clear," Brockman echoes.
When the convoy approaches a long pontoon bridge, Brockman's gun-truck leaps ahead into a blocking position to deter any oncoming traffic. Up in his turret, Fimbres scans the tree line while Brockman watches intently as one truck after another lumbers across.
This kind of experience, which brings Brockman's convoy safely out and back, is gained through long, nerve-jangling nights and days spent studying convoys that were hit: was it bad luck or some small human error?
The more convoys they run, they say, the better they get at it. But there's a catch.
"Our op-tempo is what bothers me now," says Lt. Col. Matthew Parsley, who commands Brockman's parent battalion, a National Guard unit out of Nebraska. The risk that comes with experience, Parsley says, "is that people get complacent. People get sleepy." Yet the pace, driven by the demand, is relentless.
"They are not machines," Parsley says about his soldiers. "I wish we could get some relief."