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Convoy traverses a perilous route

The Baltimore Sun

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.

The weather report calls for a high of 108 degrees. Military gun trucks are air-conditioned, but that hardly matters in a Humvee with a hole cut in the roof for the gunner. Required gear - Kevlar helmet, chest armor with shoulder protection and side ceramic plates, ballistic glasses, kneepads and fire-resistant Nomex gloves - only increases the discomfort from the heat and cramped spaces as the day grows long.

They set out just after 8 a.m., and for a while the journey is routine. Taylor's Humvee jostles a bit to find its place in the convoy. The gunners "go red," releasing the safeties on their weapons as they roll out of the gate. Sgt. Stephen Szabo, a 25-year-old student from Brentwood, jokes from another vehicle that his truck is not only "red" but "nuclear."

Soon, two trucks filled with Iraqi police officers appear in the distance, and their arrival is radioed down the line of military vehicles. The license plates of the pickups are checked against one from a recently stolen vehicle in Mosul.

At 9:33, the first real problem appears. Lead scouts notice the pothole newly filled with asphalt, directly across from two piles of rocks in a culvert.

"Do you see any tracks?" Taylor asks, referring to signs of vehicles.

His scouts aren't sure, so they look further.

In a half-hour, a decision is made. The site will be blocked off, a senior commander at Forwarding Operating Base Q-West notified and a call placed for help from the Army's explosive ordnance detachment (EOD).

The wait begins. An hour passes.

"EOD is on the way," Taylor tells his platoon. "No ETA."

Another hour passes.

The soldiers don't get out of their vehicles except to relieve themselves on the pavement. Helicopters swoop overhead, making whooshing sounds as they pass low and fast. An acrid whiff of diesel fuel fills the Humvee. Temperatures exceed 100 degrees. Nobody takes off his body armor. Uniforms become so soaked with sweat that they will stiffen like cardboard when they dry. The radio grows quiet.

Taylor's gunner, Sgt. Robert Feliz, 27, of Silver Spring, says he is losing feeling in his left foot and stamps it on the Humvee floor below him. The former Marine - and current Montgomery College student - has been baking under the desert sun, standing in the open-air turret; his only relief comes from sitting in a small sling with no back support.

Taylor takes out a list of Arabic terms and begins to study. His driver, Spc. Mike Connolly, a college student at Salisbury University who has served his last two deployments in Iraq with his father, scribbles himself reminder messages on the windshield with an erasable pen: write letters, scrap metal, Mass on Sunday.

At 12:25 p.m., a new report blinks on the lieutenant's mobile computer messaging system. The long-expected arrival of the explosives team will be delayed further: They are still 10 minutes from leaving Q-West.

Forty-five minutes later, two Army helicopters providing air cover for the convoy radio the lieutenant to check in.

"Did you search this guy out here with the sheep?" one of the helicopter's crew asks Taylor.

"Nah, we just had eyes on him," Taylor said.

"Well, he's in a pretty good lineup position for a detonator."

Someone chimes in to ask if Bravo brought an X-ray machine to examine the hole. They did not. With the shepherd the only person visible for miles, two scout trucks break out of the convoy and, with helicopters circling overhead, close in on the Iraqi tending to his sheep. The report back isn't encouraging.

"He said he don't have anything on him," one sergeant calls back, reporting that soldiers failed to find a detonating device. "We're going to check the path he came to see if he dropped anything."

Three armored vehicles from the explosives teams finally arrive. Soldiers expect to wait for these teams because of the high demand for their services.

Using a remote-control robot, they place charges around the suspected IED site and prepare for a detonation. But the first attempt at 2:17 p.m. goes off with a dull thud. Twenty-five minutes later, they try again.

Again, a thud, but this time the asphalt has been peeled away, exposing the bomb below.

A third try at 2:54 hits the IED. The jolting explosion sends a giant column of brownish smoke into the sky. Soldiers take out their digital cameras to videotape the sight.

"Wow, what a propane tank," Taylor said, who sings some lyrics from the Green Day song "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)."

"You sing Green Day, sir, but it's like Frank Sinatra," teases Feliz, his gunner.

"Sergeant Feliz, do you need a straw?" Taylor joshes back. "I mean, you're really suckling up now."

Seven hours outside their home base but no more than 10 miles down the road, the Humvee crew hoots with laughter.

Finally, the convoy can move on, crossing from open desert where sheepherders have tiny shacks to small villages of mud homes with satellite dishes. The small number of villagers worries Taylor, who says, "There are not a lot of people out."

"Yeah, not at all," Feliz responds.

Connolly chimes in: "Well, it's Friday."

"Yeah, like a church day for them," Feliz says.

"Plus it is close to happy hour," Taylor deadpans.

But the next town brings out more people and traffic along the road increases - families packed into four-door sedans, uniformed Iraqi soldiers riding on the back of an open, 5-ton truck, Iraqi police standing in the bed of a Toyota pickup, oil security guards dressed completely in black, masking their faces with scarves and clutching AK-47s.

An hour later, the landscape becomes more urban. Houses are larger, boasting columns and walled courtyards. The convoy stutter-steps its way along the route, with only brief stops compared with the morning's five-hour standstill.

Almost at its destination, a truck in the convoy breaks down and needs to be towed into the Sykes base. The delay almost forces the guardsmen to miss dinner, but the dining hall stays open late for them. Ravenous, they eat just before 9 p.m. Most will even get a mattress and air-conditioned room to crash in until morning.

But Bravo Company Capt. Matthew DiNenna, a Baltimore County resident, is visibly frustrated with the day. He pulls Taylor aside before bed and relates some of his displeasure, wondering why better information for higher command could not have been collected about the location and description of the IED found by the convoy.

Often standing apart from his men, DiNenna has a manner that is blunt and, at times, gruff. He has two priorities: completing the mission and keeping his soldiers safe. Those who don't perform up to standard will hear about it. "I'll be satisfied only when Iraq is at my back," he says, referring to the end of the deployment next year.

Later, the 37-year-old captain says he thought the communication led by Taylor during the convoy ride was much improved but felt he needed to push his young lieutenant to reach new heights.

Taylor, looking exhausted but still smiling, elects to sleep in his Humvee. It's so he'll never be far from the radio he has listened to for the past 12 hours.

The weather is changed by 7 a.m., with wind whipping up sand that coats every exposed body part. Gunners wrap clothes around the lower parts of their faces, looking like old-time bank robbers. All of them wear goggles, but they squint and wince when the gusts smack too hard.

The convoy is supposed to pull out at 10:30 a.m., giving drivers enough time to get their new loads of fuel, water and other supplies for Q-West. But conditions are now Category Red, meaning limited visibility on a route prone to insurgent attack.

Medic helicopters are unable to fly because of the weather. Without such air support, the convoy's departure is delayed. Connolly, familiar with such stops and starts after two tours in Iraq, pulls out a well-worn copy of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Good news arrives at 11:30: The helicopters can now fly. By noon, the convoy is rolling from the gates of Sykes toward Q-West.

But trouble crops up 90 minutes later with a report about an IED attack against one of the private truck drivers. Sgt. Stephen Engelmann, a 22-year-old college junior from Hagerstown, sees the explosion's plume of smoke and relays it through the rest of the military gun trucks. But the guardsmen have difficulty pinpointing the attack's time and location because private truck drivers not working for an American contractor do not have radios to communicate with the military during convoys.

Quickly, the convoy is stopped, and the damaged supply truck inspected. The cab has relatively minor damage, and the driver is unhurt. Taylor gets out of his Humvee to verify the hit but is unable to establish firmly an exact location and time of the attack.

The rest of the trip flows smoothly until just a few miles from the gate. The Humvee checks out a carload of Iraqi civilians and a man standing near a cell phone tower. Nothing suspicious is found after a search of the men, and a call for reinforcements from Q-West to investigate further is denied, essentially ending the day's mission.

In a swirling sandstorm back at Q-West, the men decamp from their vehicles as the sun sets, huddling up for a quick recap of the day. Following military tradition, leaders describe the highs and lows of the mission; then everybody can add his two cents.

"Good eyes on the scout," Taylor says of Thompson's vehicle and the crew's spotting of the first IED. "The triggerman could have been out there."

He also compliments the tactics during the return trip that secured passage around a blown-out overpass that had been bombed.

DiNenna addresses the group at the end, publicly praising its officers and sergeants for improving their communication and praising their soldiers' watchful eyes.

The briefing wraps up after 8 p.m., but the day is not done for Bravo. Exhausted but safe, they return to company headquarters for another three hours to check over their vehicles and weapons for problems. It is after 11 before most of them hit their beds to sleep, almost 40 hours after they first reported for duty.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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