RAMADI, Iraq — It had all the makings of a reality TV blockbuster — drama, violence and do-it-yourself home improvements.
Like some combat version of “This Old House” or “Trading Spaces Iraq,” U.S. soldiers, Marines and Navy SEALS seized two houses in Ramadi’s deadliest neighborhood Tuesday and converted them into a fortified patrol base.
Amid periodic attacks by insurgent mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and snipers, U.S. troops used heavy equipment and elbow grease to install electricity, erect sand-bagged gun positions and raise concrete barriers in a sprawl of city blocks that have, until recently, served as a safe haven for insurgents.
“This is like the enemy putting a little safe house next to our chow hall,” said Capt. Michael P. McCusker, commander of Warrior Company, 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment. “They don’t like this at all. Things will be getting very energetic here over the next few days.”
As Apache helicopters circled the dusty, bullet-pocked neighborhood and sniper teams dropped insurgent attackers with blasts from their .50-caliber rifles, the banging of hammers and the whine of electric saws echoed throughout the seized houses.
Troops attached to the Friedberg, Germany-based 1st Brigade, 1st Armor Division worked around the clock for roughly 36 hours to establish the patrol base, piling sandbags by the glow of chemical light sticks and scarfing down hasty meals of potato chips, cookies and MREs.
The base, dubbed Observation Post Grant, is one of seven such outposts troops have established in a recent campaign to neutralize insurgents in this violent, Sunni Arab city. Troops under the command of Col. Sean MacFarland have used the positions to launch daily patrols and operations in an area once given up to insurgents.
Commanders say the outposts have allowed them to reduce the number of insurgents and the frequency of their attacks as they “compress” the enemy into the city’s center, which some officers call Ramadi’s “heart of darkness.”
SEALs, infantrymen and tankers attached to the 1st or “Bandits” Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, moved to seize the buildings before dawn. Engineers and support troops quickly followed with truckloads of heavy construction equipment, generators, concrete blast walls, wood and sandbags filled by soldiers outside Camp Ramadi’s chow hall.
Insurgents began lashing out at sunup, presumably once they realized U.S. troops were building an outpost in the middle of their turf. Among the buildings that OP Grant overlooks is a mosque that insurgents have used to store weapons, treat gunshot wounds and foment anti-American sentiment at Friday services.
Maj. Matthew Van Wagenen, the Bandits’ executive officer, was rolling toward OP Grant in a supply convoy just as the first rays of sunlight hit Ramadi’s streets. It wasn’t long before a powerful explosion launched a cloud of dust and black smoke into the air some 50 yards from his Humvee.
“We’ve got a possible mortar strike or an IED (improvised explosive device),” Van Wagenen said in a radio transmission. As the smoke began to clear, Van Wagenen spotted the remains of a Humvee that had been split in half. “We’ve got a vehicle hit,” he said.
The major and his driver jumped from their vehicle and ran to the shattered Humvee. The truck had struck a roadside bomb and the explosion hurled the vehicle’s turret gunner through the air and broke another soldier’s leg. Surprisingly, all of the vehicle’s crewmen survived the blast.
When Van Wagenen’s Humvee finally wheeled into OP Grant, troops from the Baumholder, Germany-based 40th Engineer Battalion were busy knocking out window frames with sledgehammers and preparing the openings for sandbags, air conditioners and gun ports. Other engineers pulled electrical wiring through the building, which was littered with broken glass, weapons, power tools, clothes, schoolbooks, and piles of brightly colored pillows and mattresses — traditional Iraqi living room furniture.
“We’re combat engineers, so we’re usually blowing things up,” said Spc. Evan Hutson. “We’re jacks-of-all-trades, though. We’ve done seven of these so far and we’ve got the routine down pat. We’re going to try to make this place as comfortable as we can for these guys.”
As the sun continued to rise, a rocket-propelled grenade streaked onto the compound and exploded beside a Bradley. Sporadic bursts of gunfire erupted in alleyways and streets surrounding the outpost.
By 9 a.m., roughly two hours after sunrise, U.S. snipers had killed seven insurgents.
Van Wagenen, who had returned to the destroyed Humveee to help recover it, sought cover as shots fired by yet another insurgent snapped over his head. “They’ve got a pretty good shot out there,” the major said.
Commanders had established OP Grant in the same general area where a Navy SEAL was shot and killed several weeks earlier during a running gun battle with insurgents. In recognition of the SEALs’ role in helping to tame Ramadi, commanders dubbed Tuesday’s action “Operation Vicksburg.” MacFarland said that the famous Civil War battle of the same name was a shining example of cooperation between the U.S. Army and the Navy.
“Vicksburg also cut the Confederacy in half,” MacFarland said. “And what we’re doing right now is cutting the enemy’s safe haven in half.”
By noontime, U.S. snipers had killed two more insurgents, although the enemy continued to lash out. By 3 p.m. they had managed to destroy a second U.S. vehicle, a mammoth Abrams tank.
The tank had struck a roadside bomb several blocks away from OP Grant, and the blast set the war machine ablaze. The crewmen managed to throw open their hatches and scramble to safety as flames swept over the turret and hull. For the next several hours, the neighborhood was rocked by the periodic blast of 120-millimeter tank rounds cooking off and exploding inside the vehicle.
Throughout the mayhem, the engineers kept working, cigarettes permanently attached to the lips of some of them.
“This is routine for us,” said First Sgt. Jerry Bailey, 42, of Athens, Ga. “We’ll take a break if we get attacked and then go back to work. We don’t stop till we’re through.”
The gunfire had died considerably by early evening, and by nightfall soldiers were busy unloading their first pallet of sandbags — the most tedious part of establishing an outpost.
“Sandbags,” said Spc. Miguel Rivas, 22, of San Jose, Calif., a Warrior Company medic. “The only thing I’m going to remember about this deployment is sandbags.”
By daybreak the following morning, much of the compound was surrounded by a line of imposing blast walls. A generator powered an assortment of fluorescent lamps and air conditioners.
The only thing left to do was to build rooftop gun positions.
As the engineers hammered away at the positions, however, a deafening explosion erupted in the street three stories below. Unsettled dust and the bitter scent of high explosives drifted up to the roof.
“That would be incoming, girls,” yelled Staff Sgt. Ray Brown, 36, of Cascade, Idaho. “Get flat on the ground, and I mean NOW.”
The men pressed themselves against the tar and shingle rooftop, keeping their heads well below a short parapet that formed the roofline. “Hug the walls. There’s gonna be more,” Brown yelled to the engineers.
When the second mortar landed even closer, the engineers decided to take a break.
“Get your gear, guys, and pull it in,” Brown yelled.
By early afternoon Wednesday, the engineers were packing up and preparing to leave. Bailey, their first sergeant, looked around him at the freshly swept and cleaned outpost and took stock of his soldier’s handiwork.
“It didn’t turn out that bad at all,” Bailey said. “Not bad at all.”