Bound for Baghdad: V Corps mindful of hidden dangers on 36-hour convoy
It’s 11 p.m. on Wednesday, April 23.
Most of the 70-odd vehicles in the convoy have waited in the desert for two days. Nearly every one of them — Humvees, 5-ton and smaller trucks — has an attached trailer laden with electronics equipment, generators, office supplies, water, duffel bags and Meals Ready to Eat.
The majority of the soldiers accompanying the vehicles — members of V Corps’ headquarters — are either sleeping in the vehicles or on cots they have assembled in the desert.
“I’ve been sleeping here outside almost every night,” says Maj. Ronz Sarvis, an Army reservist from South Carolina who has been attached to V Corps for the past two months.
Sarvis is sprawled out in a Humvee. It is in one of five lines of vehicles queued in the sand, waiting to begin a two-day trip to Baghdad so V Corps can relocate its headquarters in the Iraqi capital.
The two soldiers who are to travel with Sarvis are not with him tonight. They are spending their next-to-last night at Kuwait’s Camp Virginia in semipermanent tents with fans and wooden floors. Thursday night they will be sleeping next to the Humvee, with three duffels strapped to its roof and its inside crammed with gasoline, footlockers, cots, water and food.
“This is going to suck,” says Sarvis, 40, a residence hall director for a South Carolina university.
The roughly 36-hour, 400-mile shift of the V Corps main headquarters last month would be the first time since World War II that a corps headquarters would move into a battle zone.
“We’ve never done anything like this,” V Corps spokesman Capt. Tom Bryant says. “This is historic.”
The V Corps soldiers are restless. They had followed the Army mantra “hurry up and wait,” and are tired of waiting. Most have been at Camp Virginia since after Christmas and are eager to venture into Iraq and reach Baghdad.
“It’s going to give us a chance to see what we’ve been working for,” Spc. Meka Sharima says.
In the morning, Col. David Brown, V Corps director of operations, gathers the 200-plus soldiers making the trip for a combination pep rally and safety briefing.
Most of the fighting is over, but real dangers remain, he tells the soldiers. He warns repeatedly that they will be seeing children, many shoeless, beautiful and poor, begging for food and water.
“Do not stop. Do not give them anything,” Brown says. “It will break your heart, but you cannot do that.”
To do so, especially with a convoy of so many vehicles, would be dangerous. The convoy could be mobbed and surrounded. The crowd could provide cover for Iraqi paramilitary forces.
After a 20-minute briefing and prayer from the chaplain, the soldiers separate into small groups for training on what to do in case of a breakdown and to review rules of engagement.
The rules sound harsh:
• Troops are authorized to use deadly force to protect themselves and their equipment.
• If they see someone with a weapon, they can kill them.
• If they see someone steal from a vehicle, they can kill them.
Despite those rules, the troops are told to use discretion. Although rules of engagement allow it, they should think twice before shooting someone for stealing an MRE.
When the convoy hits Baghdad, troops probably will see people with AK-47s, Brown warns. But, he adds, those types of weapons are part of the fabric of life in Iraq, and do not necessarily mean trouble. “Use judgment. Use discretion,” he instructs.
Soldiers are reminded that before they fire a shot — and they are shooting to kill, not to wound — there were other steps to take.
They should shout, shove and gesture … all steps clearly preferable to shooting to kill.
Brown reminds his soldiers to clean their weapons.
In the back of their minds, soldiers say, are thoughts of the fateful maintenance convoy that was ambushed the first week of war. Several soldiers were killed or taken prisoner. Some could not fire their weapons because sand and dust had caused bullets to jam in the clip.
If a vehicle breaks down, a private contractor, specially trained to work on the vehicles and traveling with the convoy, will try to get it started again.
If that doesn’t work, the vehicle will be towed.
After the briefing, Sarvis and the two soldiers in his vehicle, Spc. Jennifer Parsons and Spc. Christine Andreau, clean their M-16s. They break them down, brush the dust from the rounds and check that the bullets feed cleanly into the barrel.
The soldiers know this will be their last hot meal in weeks. Most scramble into the Camp Virginia dining facility where they have chicken-fried steak, ice cream and ice-cold Pepsi. Vehicles low on diesel are filled.
Sarvis’ Humvee is the first in the fifth column, which is roughly the midpoint of the convoy. His soldiers have until 9:30 p.m. to say goodbye to friends at the camp.
After that, they must remain with the convoy so that when it comes time to leave early the next morning, everyone is together.
Parsons and Andreau are also reservists and students at the University of South Carolina. They joined the military because they needed money to pay for college. Andreau was in the midst of a year studying in Puerto Rico when she was called to duty.
They have only done training missions until now. So as they set up their cots for the night, they are apprehensive and excited about what lies ahead.
“We trust Major Sarvis totally,” Parsons says. “He’s former infantry. He knows what he’s doing.”
Sarvis, 40, was a young lieutenant during Operation Desert Storm with an armored cavalry unit. He retired from active duty four years ago and took a job as a residence hall counselor.
“I used to make my job everything. I decided I needed to change. Now my family is everything,” Sarvis says. “I’d much rather be home.
“We’d all rather be home.”
Sunrise is around 4:30 a.m., and at first light, soldiers roll from their cots and vehicles, dress, brush their teeth, take anti-malaria pills and do a final vehicle check.
At 5:30 a.m. Brown has his final briefing.
The convoy had hoped to leave at 6, but it is 6:30 before the convoy snakes away from Camp Virginia and toward the highway that leads from Kuwait City to the Iraqi border.
Andreau is driving. Behind the Humvee, Army Staff Sgt. Shane Slaughter drives a 5-ton truck. He slept in the cab the night before and is ready to roll.
The morning is chilly and in the lower 60s. It is the coolest weather the troops will have on the road to Baghdad.
Already Andreau has on her dust goggles and has pulled up her tan neck gaiter to cover her face. The sand being kicked up by the 70-vehicle convoy has decreased visibility to about 30 feet.
Sarvis, anticipating hot weather, has taken the doors off the Humvee and stored them behind the second row of seats, but that also allows dust to blow inside.
The drive to the Iraqi border is stop and go, slow, a little faster and then slow again.
The plan for Day One is to drive, drive and drive.
Brown tells drivers they should be on the road until midnight. At that point, a preplanned stop at a refueling point, the convoy would rest for a few hours before the final stretch into Baghdad.
Sarvis wants Andreau to stay roughly 100 meters behind the truck in front of her. The shifting pace makes the task difficult.
At one point, Sarvis asks for a black marker that he gives the 20-year-old specialist. When he estimates the truck is about 100 meters ahead, he tells Andreau to put one small line on the windshield at the bottom of where the truck appears on the glass and another line at the top of the truck.
As long as Andrea keeps the lead vehicle within the “target,” he explains, she will maintain the proper spacing.
“A trick I learned from the armored cavalry,” Sarvis says.
Andreau’s spacing is perfect. And slowly the convoy makes progress.
Still it must pull over to the side of the road at least once an hour to allow stragglers to catch up.
In his briefings, Brown warned about the children. “They will be heartbreaking,” he had said. He was right.
After six hours, the convoy has traveled about 120 miles and is approaching the Iraq border and the former United Nation’s demilitarized zone.
This is an area with a series of hard turns that Brown and other V Corps leaders had warned the troops about.
After a succession of hard lefts and hard rights on a dirt road that covers the convoy in dust, the children appear.
In colorful, tattered clothes and bare feet, some children ask for food and water. Or they hold their hands to their mouths and pantomime food.
Others display stacks of Iraqi dinars, the Iraqi currency that features portraits of Saddam Hussein, and offer to exchange them for U.S. dollars.
At one point, a child jumps into the road, about 50 feet ahead of Andreau’s Humvee. She slows but Sarvis barks: “No. No. No. Keep going.”
Andreau does, and the child steps out of the way when the vehicle is 10 feet from hitting him.
For 45 minutes the convoy dodges children intermixed with men and teen-age boys until it returns to the highway near Umm Qasr. At the intersection of the highway and the dirt road, the convoy stops, causing half the vehicles to be caught in the flood of children and other Iraqis.
“That was heartbreaking,” Andreau says. “I almost began to cry.”
The refuel stop
After noon, the heat rises under a cloudless sky. A small thermometer on a backpack reads 98 degrees.
In the rear seat, Parsons dozes. As Andreau drives, she unpacks a gift from a friend of her mother’s. It is a red, white and blue bandana specially treated so, after soaking in water for 45 minutes, it remains cool. As she drives, she waits for the bandana to soak.
There is another stop and more vehicles lag. Soldiers fall out and take protective positions, while drivers remain in the vehicles.
After nearly eight hours on the road, most vehicles have just a quarter tank of fuel. The convoy nears Kenworth, a Convoy Support Center along the Iraqi highway.
As the V Corps convoy pulls in, so do two other convoys. The field by the side of the road is suddenly turned into a cloud of dust. Humvees are on the left and 5-tons and other trucks on the right.
The two specialists need to go to the bathroom.
Sarvis asks how long it will it take. They say that if they are fast, they should be back in four minutes.
They grab a poncho liner, which Brown suggested they take in his briefing, and run off.
“It’s not fair,” Parsons says. “The guys have it so much easier.”
This is the first bathroom break. On the map they have driven about 200 miles, and the day’s stopping point is 100 miles farther north. It is 3 p.m.
The final 100 miles does not come easily.
There is a blinding sandstorm; the convoy slows to 5 mph. Next comes a driving rainstorm, followed by another sandstorm. The temperature remains in the 90s.
Sarvis checks a commercial GPS he purchased in Kuwait City and tracks their progress.
Andreau and Parsons have switched, and now Parsons, 21, is the driver.
Both she and Andreau would rather be elsewhere. During the latest convoy pause they talk about what the desert has made them crave.
Parsons wants a cold glass of milk. At the dining facility at Camp Virginia, the only milk came in a box and was warm.
Andreau wants a glass of water. “I just want a cold glass of water with ice,” she said.
On this trip, that’s not going to happen.
The specialists take turns making and eating parts of an MRE. Sarvis sticks to crackers.
Around 8 p.m. it is dark. Sarvis checks his GPS and announces there are only 60 miles left. But now the convoy stops several times an hour. Minor breakdowns are becoming more common.
Fewer and fewer soldiers are climbing from the parked vehicles to provide security.
Sarvis says this delay was caused because Slaughter’s truck behind them has overheated, but the sergeant thinks he can get the vehicle running again by pouring water on the engine.
The next day Slaughter, a reservist and former Navy man whose regular job is working as a contractor on military vehicles, says he is surprised by the poor condition of the vehicles, which are maintained by contractors. Not only was the fan not turning on to cool his truck’s engine, but the power steering was faulty.
The next few hours are spent in the dark as the convoy inches toward its resting spot. It is midnight, and the convoy still has not reached its destination.
As a sandstorm — the third of the day — begins, the convoy arrives. Vehicles hurriedly gas up and then park at the edge of the road.
Despite the fumes of diesel fuel and the roar of trucks mixing with the blowing sand, dozens of troops get out of their vehicles, assemble their cots and fall asleep with their boots on. It is 1:15 a.m.
Saturday: The final leg
At first light — around 5 a.m. — the soldiers hurriedly dress. They feel lucky. They expected to get only an hour or two of sleep, but most slept hard through the night and were thankful Brown did not have them on the road earlier.
At the morning briefing, Brown, who drove in the lead Humvee, says he is happy with the way the convoy, after some false starts, had stayed together. Still, he had problems.
During one stop, he had walked back along the convoy, and it was not until he was at the 23rd vehicle that he found two soldiers — one a specialist and the other a staff sergeant — out of their vehicles pulling proper security.
“That was not good, but it was admirable in a corps that is so heavy with higher NCOs and officers that this specialist and staff sergeant were doing what they were told to do,” Brown says.
The daylong drive had one injury. A female soldier was bruised after she was tossed from her Humvee. She had not been wearing a seatbelt when her vehicle drove over a tank track.
“You need to be careful,” Brown said.
Then came a warning: The previous day, on the same route, a Humvee passenger from the 4th Infantry Division had been shot in the hand by a man on a motorcycle.
“The poop-heads are out there,” Brown said. “This is not over.”
When the convoy finally hits the road around 7 a.m., the scenery has changed.
The burned-out highway rest stops with mangled metal umbrellas and tables give way to blown-up, charred tanks and armored vehicles left by retreating Iraqis. The vehicles face Baghdad, not Kuwait, where coalition troops had amassed.
Brown says the positions are exactly what he had expected. He explains that U.S. forces had sped around the tanks and other entrenched fighting equipment and attacked from behind, from the direction of Baghdad.
“It’s great to finally see what you had known had happened. It’s history,” he says.
The children and young men touting Iraqi dinars give way to people selling cigarettes, whiskey and hashish. There are no takers from V Corp troops, whom Brown had admonished not to trade cash or purchase anything along the road.
As each mile speeds by — the convoy now averages about 60 mph — there are more people along the roads. At several points, Army engineers had improved the roads and bridges.
Coming from the opposite direction are tanks on flatbed trucks and convoys of artillery units. Brown explains that the mission was about to change to one of stabilization and humanitarian aid, and the artillery units could not be used for hauling off discovered weapons cachets.
The brown desert turns into palm trees, grass and wheat fields. At one point, women and small children are seen dredging a shallow pond for minerals that looked like salt.
Although Parsons tries to keep close to the truck in front of her, she has to stop for at least one road hazard: a Bedouin and his 50 camels pass in front of her vehicle.
Andreau and Parsons take turns snapping photos as they drive. Signs begin to appear for Saddam Hussein International Airport, and the convoy follows them. But as soon as it enters the clogged streets of west Baghdad, the convoy halts.
Everyone quickly exits the vehicles and, with weapons ready, stands guard. Again children, some looking as young as 3, come within a foot of anxious troops.
The children ask for food, but are happy just to be photographed.
Still, Sarvis, who has scanned the tops of the low buildings with his binoculars, is nervous.
“There could be snipers,” he warns.
The impact of the brief war is evident everywhere in Baghdad. Burned-out cars, trucks and tanks litter the shoulders of the roads. Power is out, but city streets are clogged with buses and vans.
Yet, as the convoy makes its way to a palace complex near the newly renamed Baghdad International Airport, V Corps soldiers are in awe of what they see.
There is an impromptu market along the highway selling bananas and tomatoes. It overlooks a portrait of Saddam, now pockmarked by bullets.
A group of women in Western-style clothes wait for a bus. Behind them is an underpass littered with charred frames of Iraqi armored personnel carriers and anti-Saddam graffiti scrawled by a U.S. military police company.
As the convoy twists down the off-ramp and into a neighborhood, a sign pops up: “Airport 2000 m.” The end is near.
Then, as the road narrows and becomes shrouded in large, leafy trees — a contrast from the miles of sand since Camp Virginia — the first bullets pop.
Brown had warned the soldiers they might see armed gunmen — they had not — and that gunfire, often celebratory, was a way of life in Iraq.
Still this takes the troops by surprise. Sarvis checks the clip in his M-16. Others ready their weapons and begin scanning the background. Sarvis says no one should worry until they hear the telltale sonic boom of the rounds indicating they are very close.
The shots start again, this time sounding closer. The convoy keeps moving.
Up ahead is a right turn into the former palace, believed to be similar to a rod and gun club. The convoy speeds in, passing the soldiers and Bradley fighting vehicles standing guard.
The trip was what Sarvis expected: hot, grueling, tiring and a little dangerous.
“I told you this would suck,” Sarvis says, as he guides Andreau into the temporary motor pool.
But Brown has a different view. Four hundred miles, 36 hours, no one was shot and just one minor injury caused by not wearing a seat belt.
“Not bad,” Brown says. “Not bad at all.”