Spec. Patrick Bledsoe heard an explosion echoing through the distance, and he was afraid.
This was two days after the cease-fire, four days after Ghost Troop's big battle, so probably there were soldiers blowing up another dead Iraqi tank somewhere nearby.
Still, Bledsoe went off to sit in the desert by himself for awhile, and when he came back nobody asked him why he'd gone. They didn't have to.
"There was not another person up on the hill it didn't happen to," said 1st Lt. Keith Garwick. "A certain part of you just dies," he said. "Somebody trying to kill you so desperately for so many hours, and coming so close. We just couldn't understand it. I still don't understand it.
"Those guys were insane. They wouldn't stop," Garwick said of the Iraqi army's Republican Guard, which hurtled wave after wave of tanks at him. Ghost Troop's gunners would blow up the oncoming vehicles, only to watch enemy soldiers jump out and start firing automatic rifles uselessly at the American armored vehicles.
"They kept dying and dying and dying," said 25-yearold Garwick, a West Point graduate and cavalry platoon leader from Fresno, Calif. "They never quit ... they never quit."
The Americans who fought there are calling it the Battle of the 73 Easting, a line on a map in a nameless part of Iraq.
The 150-man troop comes from Bamberg, Germany, and is part of the 2nd Armd Cav Regt, whose job was to sneak into southern Iraq and spearhead the VII Corps in its search-and-destroy mission against the Republican Guard. Upon finding them, the cavalry regiment was supposed to pull aside and let the heavy armored divisions roll in and annihilate the elite Iraqi forces.
And that's pretty much they way it happened. Except for the six hours that Ghost Troop spent fighting the Guards' Tawakalna Div on the 73 Easting.
"If the rest of their army had fought as hard as the Tawakalna fought," Garwick said. "We would have been in trouble."
Pfc. Jason E. Kick was driving a Bradley fighting vehicle on Tuesday morning, Feb. 26. The sky was still dark from an overnight rainstorm.
Kick, 18, from Pembroke, Ga., had dropped out of high school and joined the Army not long after turning 17. The "young buck" of the troop, he kept quiet and was making rank fast. He'd gotten a GED diploma in basic training and was talking about going to college.
He carried a small tape recorder and was narrating his impressions of the war into it. He wanted to send the tape home to his mom afterwards. He was also carrying his lucky cigarette lighter, the one he had with him when the Bradley shot 1,000 in Grafenwohr last year.
Ghost Troop had crept into Iraq from Saudi Arabia more than 12 hours before the ground war officially began. The cavalry soldiers drove due north for a couple of days, then began swinging to the right. By that Tuesday, they were driving due east.
"We expect contact at anytime," Kick said on the tape for his mother, in a slow drawl. It was a little after 8 a.m. "The units that were in Kuwait, that the Marines have driven out, are headed directly our way. And reinforcements, instead of going back into Kuwait, are also headed our way. So, uh, we're gonna hit a LOT of shooting."
At around 8:30 a.m., the sun broke out for a moment. Ghost Troop scouts spotted an Iraqi vehicle in the distance.
There were 20 enemy soldiers packed into the personnel carrier. They all got out as if to surrender, but three suddenly ran back to the vehicle and others fired rifles.
GIs said later there might have been some overkill when they blew apart the vehicle, but they wanted to make sure the three Iraqis couldn't get a chance to send any radio messages to their officers. They apparently didn't. There was a lot of blood.
"All I can say," Kick told his tape recorder, "is better them than me. That sounds cruel, but it's true."
It had been Ghost Troop's first kill of the war.
The debris turned out to be from the Tawakalna Div, and intelligence people said that the regiment would probably meet up with the front line of the Iraqi division near the 73 grid line, about 13 miles to the east.
By 1 p.m. the fog and clouds had gone. Instead, a ferocious wind raged in from the south, creating a blizzard of sand. Iraqi vehicles and infantry were scattered here and there. Ghost killed several more personnel carriers and, at around 3:30 p.m., three enemy tanks.
An hour later, they reached the 73 Easting. Off on the right hand side, Eagle, Iron and Killer Troops already were fighting against dug-in Iraqi soldiers.
"I had a feeling," said Ghost Troop's commander, Capt. Joseph Sartiano, 29, from San Francisco. "Everybody else was making contact. So I kicked all my scouts back and put my tanks up front."
A cavalry troop is half tanks and half Bradleys. Normally the Bradleys drive up front and the tanks hang back a little, ready to defend them. Instead, Sartiano lined up the whole troop along the 73 Easting.
Garwick, the Bradley platoon leader, was in position at 4:42 p.m. Most of the troop, he said, was behind a small hill and ridge, overlooking a wide, shallow valley that the Arabs call a wadi. Enemy vehicles and infantrymen were all over the place, dug in on the other side of the wadi.
"We've pulled up on line right now," Kick said into his tape recorder. "We're engaged in a pretty decent firefight right now ... we're shootin' again. I can see where we're shootin' at, but I can't see a victor." Victor is an Army term for a vehicle, just as Ghost means G Troop.
"This is chaos here," Kick shouted. "This. is total chaos."
Battle commands flooded the radios, adding to the confusion.
"I see smoke on the horizon," Kick said into his tape recorder. "That means we killed somethin'. What it is, I don't know ... White One, he's the platoon leader. You can hear it in his voice. He's all shook up. Time, 4:54 ... this is the co-ax (machine gun) firing. Time is 5:10 p.m. We're still in contact ... there's a few PC's (personnel carriers) here and there, mostly infantry. I just spotted the biggest damned explosion at about 12 o'clock. I don't know what the hell it was. .."
Garwick's platoon alone had already killed nine personnel carriers. The enemy had started shooting back at them at around 5 p.m. Artillery shells began falling around the Bradleys.
"A tremendous volume of small arms fire and shrapnel hit the berm to my front," peppering his Bradley and another, Garwick said.
Iraqi infantrymen ran forward and were mowed down.
The enemy gunfire increased, and air-burst artillery rounds began exploding over their heads.
Two Bradleys in Garwick's platoon were positioned over his right shoulder. At 5:40 p.m. he saw three tank rounds hit the ridge in front of him, each shot closer to the Bradleys on his right.
The last shot hit.
"One just got one of our guys," Kick shouted.
Bledsoe, 20, from Oxnard, Calif., was driving Bradley number G-16. All he saw was shooting.
"We were in a little wadi," he said, but the top of the vehicle looked out over the valley. "We were kind of skylined," thus easily visible to the enemy.
The Bradley's gunner was 23-year-old Sgt. Nels A. Moller. The coaxial machine gun was jammed, and the track commander, another sergeant, was trying to fix it when he looked up and saw Iraqi infantrymen running toward them.
He asked Moller, "You got the troops to the front?"
Suddenly there was an explosion.
From his seat at the gunsights, down inside the Bradley turret, Moller couldn't see the area right outside of the fighting vehicle.
"What was that?" Moller asked, hearing the explosion.
That, according to Bledsoe, was the last thing Moller said.
There was another explosion, showering sparks across the front of the Bradley.
"It was just like somebody hit us with a sledgehammer," Bledsoe said.
He jumped out and ran around behind the Bradley. Moller was dead. The other sergeant was slightly wounded. Friendly tanks were shooting over Bledsoe's head and enemy fire was hitting the berm in front of him. He jumped down just as there was yet another explosion.
Pfc. Jeff Pike, 21, of Binghamton, N.Y., was driving Sartiano's, the commander's, tank. It was never confirmed, but he believes this last explosion was Sartiano's gunner shooting a Soviet-built T-55, the tank that fired the shot killing Moller.
Bledsoe tried to get away.
"I low-crawled up to the other track," he said. "Knocked on the back door, but they didn't hear me. I went up and knocked on the driver's hatch. The driver opened it. I said, `We got hit. We got hit. I think Moller's dead."'
His own track, G-16, "was just smoking."
At 5:47, Kick spoke into his tape recorder. "It was one-six that got hit."
A few minutes later, he continued, his voice steadier. "The gunner of one-six, who was Sgt. Moller, is dead. The TC (track commander) and observer are on onefive right now. Sgt. Moller, Sgt. Moller was killed ... time about 5:49."
He paused a moment, then added, "Can't let this ... can't let this affect us or get us down at all. Or we're gonna die. And he wouldn't want that. He don't want that. But I'm scared."
Garwick, the lieutenant, told his men to keep fighting. Artillery, tanks and machine guns were firing all around them on the hill. More were destroyed. More fired.
"This is chaos," Kick reported at 6:04 p.m. "Total chaos ... got nine dead victors to our front. Enemy victors. And got more coming."
The sandstorm had worsened. Garwick could see only about 50 yards. But the thermal sights cut through some of the murk. With those, he could see more than half a mile.
Two more enemy tanks were coming.
Kick watched them get shot three minutes later. "Boom. Hit. Hit and kill. He hit it. That's revenge for Sgt. Moller. You sonuvabitching Iraqis. God, I hate them. Sgt. Moller was a good guy. We killed them. That's four Iraqi PC's killed for this track alone."
Garwick's scouts told him that 12 more tanks were coming. Possibly as many as 25. Iraqis down in the valley would just leap from their personnel carriers and run at Garwick's platoon, firing rifles. Getting killed.
All Kick could see was rounds going downrange.
It went on like this — total chaos — for nearly four more hours. At one point, Spec. Chris Harvey looked out from the back of his personnel carrier.
"All I saw were things burning," said the 24-year-old artillery observer from Virginia Beach, Va. "For 360 degrees. Nothing but action."
Garwick called for the Air Force, but the planes were diverted to another mission two minutes before they got to Ghost Troop. Instead, he held back the tanks by calling in artillery and rockets, pounding each wave as it appeared on the far ridge. The Bamberg squadron's executive officer watched from a vantage point a short distance away. It looked, he said, like Armageddon.
One of Garwick's biggest problems was that the radios were so frantically busy that he couldn't call through. Several times, he had to jump out of his Bradley and crawl over to the artillery observers to tell them in person where he needed them to shoot.
On one of these occasions, at about 8:30 p.m., he had crawled halfway to the artillery observer's vehicle when a round of airburst went off just on the other side of a nearby Bradley.
He and the artilleryman, Sgt. Larry C. Fultz, sought cover under Garwick's Bradley.
Another wave of tanks was coming in.
"We just sat there crying, just shaken, until we could get back out from underneath the Bradley," Garwick said. "The air bursts were coming right on top, ricocheting around us. We were in a corner of hell. I don't know how we made it out of there. I don't."
Days later, in a quiet tent in free Kuwait, an officer from the regiment tried to explain what had happened to Ghost Troop.
The Republican Guards' Tawakalna Div had gotten tangled up with the 12th Iraqi Armd Div, and both enemy units were trying to retreat through the same narrow piece of terrain, said Maj. Steven L. Campbell, 35, the regiment's intelligence officer. The Iraqi path of retreat, a shallow valley between two ridgelines, led straight into Ghost Troop.
Campbell theorized that the Republican Guard might have fought so fiercely because they were desperately trying to escape.
"Those guys wanted to get out of there, and those guys are supposed to be the best fighters. In my mind, they weren't trying to break the defenses (the line Ghost Troop was holding). The way the terrain was, they had to go through here to get by."
The soldiers in Ghost weren't the only ones fighting that night. At least half of the regiment's troops and tank companies were on line at one point or another. But most of them were fighting against dug-in soldiers. None of them faced the wave-after-wave onslaught that was aimed at Ghost.
More than once, artillery saved Ghost Troop. Helicopters helped kill tanks. And, near the end, when the troop was desperately short on ammunition, a tank company, Hawk, came in to relieve them.
In its 100 hours of combat, the regiment destroyed 100 tanks, about 50 personnel carriers and more than 30 wheeled vehicles, plus some anti-aircraft artillery systems, Campbell said.
He estimated that 85 to 90 percent of those vehicles were killed in the battle at the 73 tasting, but no one had yet counted the vehicles in Ghost's sector.
The equivalent of an Iraqi brigade was destroyed that night, the first ground defeat of the Republican Guards, Campbell said. Within 36 hours, most of the others were gone.
The morning after the battle, someone made a wooden cross and stuck it in the sand, and a chaplain came to say a few words about Moller. A colonel spoke, too.
Everyone from Ghost Troop was there, worn out men with sunken eyes, their faces covered with dirt and gunpowder. It was the first time in two months that they had all been together in one place, instead of spread out over the desert in training or combat formations. Several hugged each other, glad to see their friends alive, then gathered in a semi-circle, took off their helmets and listened to the chaplain and the colonel.
Then they were told to get ready for the next battle. It never came. Instead, a cease-fire was called, and the cavalrymen had time to sit among themselves and try to understand what had happened.
They said that Moller died with his hand on the trigger of the Bradley gun, looking for more enemy to shoot. His TOW missile launcher, the Bradley's main anti-tank defense, wasn't working, and Moller knew it before he entered the battle. Reason enough to stay out, but he didn't.
"He died like a soldier," said one of Ghost's artillery officers, 2nd Lt. Joe Deskevich, 23, of Rockville, Md. "He didn't run, and he didn't die for nothing."
He came from Paul, Idaho. Sartiano, the troop commander, decided he will take leave and visit the dead sergeant's parents.
The morning after the battle, Kick and another soldier stood in front. of their shrapnel-scarred Bradley and talked about Moller.
"He was about the only sergeant," Kick said, still with a bitterness in his voice, "who'd sit down and listen to your problems and treat you like a human being instead of a private."
That night, before the cease-fire was called, the scouts took more prisoners and had to stay up guarding them. Bledsoe, who'd been Moller's driver, said that he and the others had stayed awake by talking about Moller.
"We talked about it for three hours," Bledsoe said.
"We decided that when he went up on that hill, he wasn't worried about it. He said, `If they get me, that's just another bullet that was gonna hit somebody else.'
In Bamberg, the cavarlymen live in a place called Warner Barracks 2, and when they get back they want to give it a new name, Moller Barracks — if the Army will let them.
No one, however, really knew what to call the battle they had just lived through. The officers were all calling it the 73 Easting, because they were the ones looking at the maps. Staff Sgt. Waylan Lundquist, a 29-year-old tanker prom Aurora, Mich., suggested the Battle of the Tawakalna. Another man thought it should be Moller Ridge.
And none of them could judge how important it had been. They didn't know how hard anyone else had fought in the 100-hour war. They still don't. It might take months or years before the people who write history books will decide whether Ghost Troop is worth a page or not.
"At the time," said Garwick, the platoon leader, "none of us understood what was happening."
All they knew was that they'd had a tough night, one they found hard to describe in language that can be printed in newspapers. It had snowballed into chaos before anyone really knew what was happening.
The chaos was relative, though, and all battles are chaotic to the men fighting them. "All I did," Sartiano said, "was manage the violence." At his level on the battlefield, one rung up from Garwick, two up from most of the others, he had felt in control.
It had, after all, been a decisive victory. Captured prisoners confirmed that the Tawakalna had been caught completely by surprise. And Sartiano, like the others, was proud of it.
One morning Garwick gathered his men around to talk to them and admitted that he still wasn't sure what had happened.
"All I know is that a squadron's supposed to be able to take a brigade. A troop's supposed to be able to take a battalion. A fire team, a company. Our fire team took out a brigade."
He paused a moment, and the words seemed to be sinking into him as much as the others. "That really was above and beyond the call of duty."
Garwick, it seemed, had been changed the most. He'd been spoiling for a fight and got more than he expected.
"That morning I was so excited to have killed a Republican Guard," said the 25-year-old lieutenant. "And at the end of the battle, if I never saw another Republican Guard in my life, I'd be happy."
Or perhaps he's not so changed. He still wants to get married as soon as he gets back — his fiancee is an old classmate from West Point, now a military intelligence officer at Fort Polk, La. And he jokes about how his platoon will fail its next gunnery at Grafenwohr — the first target will pop up, and Ghost Troop will instantly blast 40 rounds into it.
The night after the cease-fire, when his men rolled into free Kuwait, he stood beside his Bradley and watched the eastern sky. Ghost Troop was camped in a quarry that had been turned into a Republican Guard stronghold, a city-sized maze of 20-foot ridges transforming the flat desert into a miniature mountain range.
Orange flames from the burning Kuwaiti oil fields glowed in the east — someone had counted 57 fires — and a little to the south of that, a near full moon was rising.
"I couldn't wait to see combat. What a fool I was."
The killing, he said, became almost too easy, and that seemed also to make him uncomfortable. He questioned his future, now that he's finished living what he thinks might be the most important night of his life. But what bothered him most was another question that really doesn't have an answer — he wanted to know why.
"Why did they fight?" he asked slowly, and repeated it. "Why did they fight?"
He looked again at the sky.
Sometimes, he said, he spins around the turret of his Bradley and aims it toward the moon. He switches on the thermal sights and target magnifyers and gazes for a time at another desert on another world, a quarter of a million miles away.