Killer Troop settles into ‘home’ at COP Rabiy
MOSUL, Iraq — A combat outpost isn’t much to look at, but for many front line soldiers in Iraq, it’s what they call home.
With the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Mosul, the soldiers of Killer Troop’s 3rd Platoon spend anywhere from three days to a week living at Combat Outpost Rabiy before they rotate back to Marez, the big U.S. camp, for a few days of welcome rest.
They’re supposed to get three days. But the first day is always spent on vehicles and weapons maintenance, so it’s usually only 48 hours before they head back out to COP Rabiy again.
The 21 soldiers of 3rd Platoon have been on this rotation for two months. If the Army sticks to its current deployment cycle, that means they have a little more than a year to go before they head home to Fort Hood, Texas.
For now, they all agree it’s best to get used to it.
Rabiy sits on a couple of acres inside a former municipal compound. It looks like a former repair yard. But bombs have reduced the trucks to twisted hulks. The buildings are mostly rubble.
“It became a base for al-Qaida,” said 1st Lt. Rusty Morris, 27, of Sumter, S.C., leader of 3rd Platoon. “So, instead of us getting shot at from here all the time, we thought we would just take it.”
U.S. commanders originally planned to put the outpost in a building across the street. But two days before Killer Troop was set to move in, insurgents blew it up with a truck bomb.
Combat Outpost Rabiy sits at an intersection that was once a thriving business district. Now it looks like a German city the Allies bombed in World War II.
The stores and apartments sit mostly empty. They’ve been gutted by bombs and heavy weapons fire. Some have collapsed. The waterlines under the roads are broken, and lakes form in the street. The winter rains stopped more than a week ago, but the streets remain a muddy mess.
It used to be the most dangerous intersection in Mosul. A pair of M1 Abrams tanks now stand guard.
The fighters come anyway. Last week, Staff Sgt. Mark Vester, a tanker, shot three men in a car as they tried to plant a bomb not 500 meters from the outpost. He killed one with a .50-caliber machine gun and wounded two others. The dead man had an expired Iraqi army identification card. The others had forgeries.
“I don’t care if you’re president of Iraq,” said Vester, 28, of Midland, Texas, as he recounted the incident. “If you do something around me, you’re going to get shot.”
The U.S. soldiers live with about 60 Iraqis from 2nd Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Iraqi Army Division. The Americans call them the “Triple Deuce.”
The Americans say Iraqi soldiers are shouldering more of the burden these days. When U.S. forces accompany them, it’s often just to back them up. The new guys say that serving with Iraqis the first time can be unnerving.
“It kind of freaked me out at first,” said Pfc. Josh Johnson, 20, of Tecumseh, Neb. “They know who the new guys are, and they come out and surround you, and ask you all kinds of questions you’ve got no clue about. It’s an uncomfortable situation at first, but then you get used to it.”
Over time, many of the Americans have grown to respect their Iraqi colleagues.
“They operate differently than we do,” said Morris. “But they’ve got their informants out in the neighborhood. They definitely know what’s going on.”
“Home” at Rabiy used to consist of two big tents with cots crammed in so close together that you couldn’t step between them.
A week ago, engineers finished construction on what appears to have been a big garage. They boarded up the sides and ran electricity inside. They installed air conditioning and heating units.
The American soldiers have moved their cots and operations center to one side. The Iraqis will eventually move into the other; most are now living in a cluster of broken-down trailer huts cast off by previous U.S. units.
There are no showers at Rabiy. The toilets are burn barrels.
The U.S. soldiers try not to make any distinctions between themselves and the Iraqis. Before they moved out of the tents, a few of the Americans even shared a tent with some Iraqis.
The only distinction the Americans do make is for the latrines. A sign on one outhouse says it’s restricted for U.S. use only. A lock on the door keeps the Iraqis out.
You get dirty quick living in such an environment. One thing you learn quickly is that cleanliness is a relative concept.
“I feel like a filthy rat when I’m living out here,” said Pvt. Brandon W. Miles, 20, of Nashville, Tenn., displaying a set of grimy fingernails. “But I’m comfortable with the filth.”
There’s no hot food. The soldiers subsist on Meals, Ready to Eat, muffins, beef jerky, cereal and Pop-Tarts.
The youngest soldier in 3rd Platoon is 19 years old. The oldest, Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Snead, of Falls Church, Va., is 34.
Like every combat unit, 3rd Platoon has a mix of veterans and soldiers who are new to the war. Nearly all of the sergeants are on their second tour. Staff Sgt. Jeremy Zimmerman, 33, of Madison, Wis., is on his third.
Turnover among cavalry scouts is high. They are often picked to fill vacancies in other units. Only seven men are left in 3rd Platoon who went through pre-deployment training at Fort Irwin, Calif., a year ago.
There is an easy familiarity among the men that goes beyond their rank, a closeness that serving together in a war zone breeds.
Soldiers joke often about each other’s sexual orientation or ethnic background.
“It’s just a way we have of messing with each other,” said Sgt. Jose Regalado, 22, of Los Angeles. “Like the way they’re always calling me a Mexican. It doesn’t bother me.”
The insurgents in Iraq rarely fight U.S. forces head-on these days. They prefer remote-controlled bombs, mortars and rockets. When they do fire on them directly, it’s usually hit-and-run.
“That’s the worst part of it,” said Pfc. Wesley Waitman, 20, of Lexington, N.C. He’s fired his weapon only once, and that was at a house where insurgents were believed to be hiding.
A dozen or more blasts may rock Mosul on any given day. Most bombs are directed at Iraqi forces. The Americans present a much harder target. U.S. forces in Mosul have lost fewer than a dozen soldiers since December. Iraqi forces have lost at least twice that many.
After more than two months of rotating through Rabiy, Morris says the strain of constant danger and little action is beginning to show on his men. Many of the missions they get called out on have little payoff.
“Tedium is a big problem,” he said. “The guys are starting to get aggravated. They’ve started asking that horrible question — ‘What are we doing?’”
Morris tells them to “stick to what we know.” There’s a big-picture strategy at work that none of them is seeing. Their job is to hold Rabiy until it eventually can be passed off to the Iraqi army.
The reminders of danger are never far away. A huge explosion one recent Friday rocked the city just before 7 a.m. A suicide truck bomber had blown himself up at a police station about a mile away. The next day, five soldiers were packing up tents they’d recently vacated when the staccato crack-crack-crack of automatic weapons ripped through the air.
The fusillade sounded as if it were right overhead. Spc. Jeremy Epps didn’t even flinch, as the others scrambled for cover. They laughed at his bravado.
“Man, the neighborhood I grew up,” said Epps, 28, from Indianapolis. “That [expletive] don’t bother me.”
Later, the sun had begun to set when the warbling voice of a Muslim cleric rose from a neighborhood loudspeaker, calling the faithful to prayer.
A cleric at another mosque soon joined him, followed by a third. Their haunting voices echoed loudly across the neighborhood until they became one sound, as if it were the only sound in the world.
Five years later, this is just one platoon in Iraq, and this is how they’re living.