Monday, July 09, 2007

A Daily Struggle

One element of the "surge" strategy has involved putting more soldiers in more neighborhoods, in relatively isolated outposts from which they would operate to secure neighborhoods where insurgents and militias were formerly unchallenged. Unfortunately this has made our soldiers more exposed and vulnerable. This most dangerous aspect, recounted in this Washington Post article, isn't sitting in these outposts so much as it's getting back and forth from and to them:

The task was to get 27 soldiers from Point A to Point B, from their neighborhood combat outpost to an Army base four miles away. The purpose was to attend a memorial service for one of their fellow soldiers, who had died eight days earlier while attempting to make the very same trip.

And so the leaders of Alpha Company had a decision to make: drive in Humvees and risk getting blown up by a roadside bomb, which is what happened to their friend, who bled to death as they worked to save him, or try to minimize the risk of a bomb by walking the four miles in searing summer heat, which would increase the chances of being shot by a sniper.

As the article makes clear though, a sniper would be the least of their worries:

With all that in mind, the plan he came up with, and which Taylor approved, involved beginning the trip just after curfew ended at 5 a.m. That way there would be people on the streets who the soldiers could watch for clues, but not so many people that clues couldn't be seen.

They would also try to avoid open areas and move along as many narrow streets as possible. That was because Shiites haven't shown a willingness to hurt their own people when detonating roadside bombs, although there were signs that was changing. A few days before, someone set off an IED as a convoy passed, even though a pregnant woman was in the way, which left her, according to photos taken by soldiers trying to save her, sprawled on the ground in shredded clothing, her face blackened and her rounded stomach coated with blood.

And they would drive -- but only some of the way. Most of the way they would walk, which is how they began at 5:15 a.m. Weighed down with 80 pounds of body armor, weapons and ammunition, and with the temperature already 90 degrees, 15 soldiers set off on foot, trailed by six Humvees, each containing a driver and gunner.

By now they had been out for nearly an hour. The sun was up and they took off their night-vision gear, then resumed walking as they neared a street that in June had become one of the most dangerous of all. Two hundred yards -- that's all they needed to go on this street, and the worst of it would be over.

They approached from a side street and paused at the intersection. To the left was an orange truck, parked and apparently unoccupied. To the right was an empty street, and that's the direction they turned, led by Sgt. King, who would later detail what happened, as would Capt. Taylor and several other soldiers.

King circled a pile of trash that turned out to be nothing but a pile of trash.

He examined a concrete block that was nothing other than a concrete block.

He looked down the street and saw a parked car, hood up, trunk open, and a man next to it who appeared to be holding a small container of gasoline.

He approached another concrete block and saw that it was actually a piece of foam -- and then he saw the wire.

"Get back! Get back!" he hollered.

"What is it?" Taylor, in the rear, radioed.

"IED!" King radioed back, and as soldiers began moving away, and King looked down an alley and locked eyes for a moment with a man peering around a corner, the bomb explode.

And after that, another one. Fortunately, the soldiers made it through both bombings, and the small-arms and rocket fire that followed, without anyone getting killed our seriously wounded. But as the news makes clear on an almost daily basis, this is not always the case.

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