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On the Road in Samarra

Another mission is accomplished north of Baghdad.

12:00 AM, Sep 12, 2007 • By JEFF EMANUEL
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Samarra, Iraq

LAST TUESDAY NIGHT, Charlie Company 2-505 (82nd Airborne Division) left "the wire" and departed Patrol Base Olson to perform a cordon-and-search operation in a neighborhood where a notorious al Qaeda terrorist used to live. "We think we killed him," said Company commander Captain Buddy Ferris, "so we're going to ask [the people here] if he's dead."

Charlie Co.'s Green (4th) Platoon left the base at 2230 and met the National Police just outside. The group slowly made its way to the targeted neighborhood. Upon reaching the first house, the soldiers quickly dismounted and the Humvees scattered to provide security. The soldiers knocked on doors, spoke with and photographed military-aged males, and searched houses and roofs. In the third house, we heard the loud, unmistakable crack! of bullets directly overhead. The National Police at Patrol Base Uvanni, in south-central Samarra, were firing at the Chem Lite glowstick the troops had placed on the house's roof.

"It's nothing new," said one soldier. "Every time we go out at night, Uvanni shoots at us, even when we tell them where we're going to be well ahead of time." One of our Iraqi Police companions radioed the NPs at Uvanni and ordered them to stop shooting.

We searched the rest of the houses without incident. In the last few houses, families were already gathered in the living room--with military-aged males separated from the other residents. They must have been informed of the mission by friends in earlier houses, or they simply knew the drill.

The platoon was divided into two groups: the breaching group, which went into the house first to search and secure it, and the follow-up group, which questioned the residents and conducted other "sensitive-site exploitation," or SSE. With only one interpreter ("Terp") for the entire platoon, the breaching group was often left sitting in the living room with a family that had questions, unable to communicate, since the Terp was stuck at a previous house helping the Platoon Leader conduct SSE. The families often offered us water, but we rarely accepted: We had our own water, and Iraqis serve tap water in a community glass, refilling it and passing it around until all have been served.

The night ended without incident. We searched ten houses, put many military-aged males in the database, and distributed "Tip Cards" with a phone number that residents could call to report "bad people" or terrorist activity. We also found conclusive proof that the terrorist was dead. We were back to the base by 0130 on Wednesday. The next mission wasn't until 1600, so we had plenty of time to rest or grab a workout at the PB Olson gym.

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON'S MISSION was intended to be very quick. We would depart the Patrol Base at 1600, and two platoons--Charlie Co.'s 2nd ("White") Platoon, and a tank platoon from Forward Operating Base Brasfield-Mora, headquarters of 2nd Battalion 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment ("II Panther")--would travel southeast to "recon" a target for a future raid. The tank platoon ("Dragoon") would screen White Platoon from enemy fire. Dragoon Platoon met up with a squad of Iraqi Police and made its way east along "Route Lakers," a major road. I was with White Platoon, which moved south-southeast along side roads and alleyways toward the southernmost point in central Samarra. There, we were forced to turn west on another major road, "Route Heat," a four-lane divided highway with so much enemy activity that Charlie Co. rarely drives it anymore.

As the Humvee column turned onto Route Heat, the lead truck, commanded by Staff Sgt. Kane Ogren, noticed that every civilian car was in the southernmost (eastbound) lane. He led the convoy across the median and into that lane--a decision that may well have saved lives moments later.

I was in the third Humvee in the column, along with Capt. Ferris, his RTO (radiotelephone operator) specialist Alexi Scalco, a driver, and a gunner. Spc. Scalco lent me his intervehicular communications system headset so that I could chat with the truck's crew and hear radio traffic. Scalco was the only man in the column with his ears exposed. As we crossed the median and turned onto Route Heat, Capt. Ferris--jokingly called "The Prophet" for knowing when and where things will happen before they actually do--said to Spc. Scalco, "You may want to plug your ears."

BOOM!

The thundering popping sound was accompanied by a ball of dust that engulfed the entire Humvee column. The IED had gone off in between our truck and the one in front of us, across the median and along the northern side of the westbound lane of Route Heat. Had we been in that lane, at least one truck would have taken the full force of the blast.