Maryland Guard in IraqMOSUL, Iraq -- The security alarm at the American base blared at 6:20 a.m., but the woman's message sounded as calm as an airport terminal announcement: "Incoming, incoming, incoming."
Seconds later, a mortar shell landed with a deep thud, producing a hazy cloud of black smoke on the horizon over a military airfield and sending Maryland National Guard soldiers at the pedestrian entrance to the military compound to their battle stations.
The attack at this coalition base in northern Iraq produced no casualties among the Towson-based Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment. And it hardly delayed the entry of hundreds of Iraqi day laborers and the semimonthly shift change of the contracted Iraqi security force employed to aid the Maryland soldiers.
But it is the frequency with which mortar shells and rockets are lobbed inside Forward Operating Base Marez by a shadowy enemy that leaves the Maryland Guard in a constant state of unease.
"The hardest thing is all of the random explosions and gunfire, and not knowing where or why," said Staff Sgt. Paul Dettmer, 34, a heavy equipment mechanic from Stewartstown, Pa., who leads soldiers monitoring the pedestrian gate. "We hear things, we react and then they tell us what happened."
Despite soldiers' concern about safety, incoming fire at the base is down significantly, from between 15 and 19 strikes a day in December to between seven to nine a day last month, officials said.
The base's commander, Lt. Col. Maria Kelly of the Ohio National Guard, credited the reduction to a "sustained" joint effort between American troops who are advising the Iraqi soldiers responsible for patrolling.
"The greatest thing about it is that it's happening when U.S. forces aren't out here en masse, with multiple battalions, as they used to have out here," Kelly said. "It's a very small presence. Patrols have been turned over to the Iraqis, and they've been effective."
The Maryland infantrymen in Mosul who arrived about a month ago are just a fraction of the 1,300 guardsmen from across the state who were activated this spring and poured into Iraq this summer. Most of the other companies from the Guard's 1st Battalion, 175th Regiment are based south of here at Forward Operating Base Q West, where units watch over supply convoys and guard the military camp from watch towers and entry gates.
In addition to the security force from Maryland, Forward Operating Base Marez, which is in an old Iraqi Republican Guard compound, houses about 4,500 soldiers, largely from Army's 4th Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas. Those soldiers, who once would have patrolled the surrounding province, now serve as military advisers to tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and policemen who are attempting to secure Mosul, one of Iraq's largest cities, and establish effective local civilian rule.
At the beginning of the month, Charlie Company officially took responsibility for guarding a pedestrian gate, vehicle inspection site and road entry point in Marez.
"It's not a glamorous job." Kelly said of the Maryland unit. Charlie Company commanding officer Capt. Paul Gump, she added, "will tell you that. It's not what he trained to do. But as the general here said, it's the most important mission on the [forward operating base]. No one can go outside the FOB and accomplish their mission until we secure this place."
The handoff ceremony between the units recognized the service of a military police company that was being relieved by the Maryland soldiers.
"I'm not big on public speaking, so I'll keep this short. Plus we have a mission to do," Gump told the audience. His men, he explained later, were not at the ceremony because they had already assumed their posts, several of which run 24 hours a day.
On the front lines is Pvt. Neal Javid, 23, of Bowie, who recently finished basic training and now helps inspect cars and trucks entering the Mosul base where a giant X-ray bar scans vehicles for explosives. He thought serving in Iraq might be something like a scene out of the movie Black Hawk Down, so he said he was pleasantly surprised.
"I think I might die from boredom than from enemy fire," he said. "But I'm not complaining."
When the attacks do come from outside the base's 31 miles of fenced perimeter, responses can vary.
Concrete shell bunkers reinforced by sandbags are supposed to be the refuge for soldiers when the alarm sounds. But as they sleep in a trailer under the gentle hum of air conditioning, many soldiers said, they often snooze through such warnings. With a live fire range at the base, soldiers also speculate that the sound of small arms fire they hear originates from friendly forces who are training, rather than insurgent snipers who are trying to gun down coalition troops.
Before a mortar attack one recent morning, Maryland soldiers scanned the dark corners of the pedestrian gate area. Spc. John Dawson, a 20-year-old student at the Community College of Baltimore County, pointed his flashlight into crevices between the sandbags, the seams between the blast walls and the brush along Toyota Road near the front of the gate.
"This is the most dangerous part," Dawson said, adding that enemy forces could place something here or ordnance could have landed but remained unexploded overnight.
When the attack hit 15 minutes later, he manned his battle station -- the doorway of the X-ray shack where he screens Iraqi workers for weapons -- his finger not far from the trigger of his M-4 rifle. The alarm was sounded in about a half-hour, allowing the soldiers to resume their work at the gate.
Iraqi workers are searched several times -- first at a guard post outside the wall and finally in a room with a full-body scanning machine.
Guards have scrawled key Arabic terms on the plywood wall at the first checkpoint to communicate more easily with the Iraqi guards and workers.
All who enter are patted down by contract security workers under the supervision of American soldiers before they wait in a fenced yard to be picked up by their employers on base. Barred items include the obvious -- no knives or guns -- and seemingly mundane yet critical tools for possible insurgent attacks, including cigarette lighters with built-in flashlights and cell-phone activation cards.
The checks have special resonance here after a suicide bomber evaded detection and killed 13 Americans during a dining hall explosion in December 2004.
A problem recently arose when Maryland Guard soldiers saw those contracted workers hand-searching their own relatives -- one of many things barred by security forces. The practice was caught and quickly corrected, Dettmer said.
"If they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing, they can be fired just like that. There are a lot of people who want these jobs," the sergeant said.
The colonel in charge of the base said she's seen an improvement in the security operations, including the influence of Charlie Company. In times past, she said, the deploying unit would assign some of its soldiers to the security mission but often had other competing concerns inside the base.
"Starting with the MP company that is just leaving, they are the first cohesive unit that we've had running the guard posts at every major control point," Kelly said. "It's a big bonus because it brings unity of command. I have one commander who can focus his mission on one thing ... and he has a vested interest in that."
Not all of the interminable hours guarding a post pass without some good humor. Soldiers bring juice and doughnuts and the occasional soccer ball to the children who flock at the outside of the gate. After protecting the gate after a recent morning attack, the mood quickly turned playful during breakfast.
"I always get the same. What if I wanted something different in my omelet?" Dawson joked with Sgt. John Kyte of Dundalk.
"This is Iraq," Kyte quipped. "Not IHOP."
Read Matthew Dolan's letters from Iraq at baltimoresun.com/iraq