After weeks of fighting, GIs in eastern part of city are guessing what a lull in the action might mean
Stars and Stripes May 20, 2008
BAGHDAD — Two days after the 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment took over what had been a relatively quiet section of eastern Baghdad, it stopped being quiet.
A sign on the wall at their base’s chow hall says a lot about how things have gone in the six weeks since.
"During mortar attacks when the staff has left," it reads, "DO NOT go behind the line and serve yourself."
Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah has been attacked by mortar and rocket fire more than 60 times since late March, when the battalion arrived. Soldiers have also seen fighting at much closer range. Four have been killed on missions, many more injured.
After months of relative calm, the eruption of fighting in Shiite areas of eastern Baghdad in March has suddenly and fundamentally changed the basic experiences of many American troops serving here.
Through late last year and early this year, soldiers who had trained for combat found themselves spending more time meeting with sheiks and local councils, or having tea with shop owners and residents.
But instead of "sheikfests" and chai, 1st Battalion’s soldiers came just in time for fighting.
"We haven’t really been doing a lot of shaking hands out here," said Spc. Christopher Marth, 20, of Fenton, Mich., a member of the battalion’s Company A.
Soldiers who aren’t getting shot at often complain about it — saying they aren’t doing their job. But during a patrol on Saturday, the infantrymen in Marth’s platoon, who have seen one buddy killed and two badly wounded, expressed more nuanced views.
"If I’m not out shooting people, I’m a waste of money," said Sgt. Carl Guthrie, 25, of Charlotte, N.C. "That’s my job, but you’re never happy about being in a bad place.
"This place is an anxiety attack waiting to happen," he added, smiling.
Pfc. Nathan Schultz, the platoon’s medic, is happy to be in a quiet area, but only if the rest of the platoon is with him.
"If they tried to give me a job in a hospital, I wouldn’t go," the 23-year-old Denver native said. "I wouldn’t leave my guys. At the same time, it sucks because when somebody gets hurt, I really know who they are. But I wouldn’t want it the other way, either."
An hour into their patrol, the platoon was talking to shop owners when a series of gunshots cracked out at close range. None of the soldiers ran, or really even ducked, and it turned out to be an Iraqi National Police officer firing at what he claimed was a sniper in a block of buildings across a long, open field.
"I’m just trying not to get blown up out here," Staff Sgt. Louie Gollette, 28, of Downey, Calif., said a few minutes later. His wife is due to give birth to their first child later this month.
"I’m worried about the EFPs," he continued, referring to explosively formed penetrators, deadly roadside bombs that have been a frequent foe here. "I’m not worried about that sniper over there."
Sgt. Bryan Brant, 22, of Somerset, Pa., said he’s been blown up six times. He took a little shrapnel to the leg in the last one. He shrugs about it. When it’s your time, it’s your time.
When their tour is over, 10 or so of the guys from the platoon are planning to go to Cancun, Mexico.
"You should come do a story about what guys do after they get back from Iraq," one of the soldiers tells a reporter, obviously relishing the thought of what he will do.
The beach and what soldiers do when they get back from Iraq is still a long way away, but this day, at least, passed quietly. The shop owners were friendly.
"It’s been hit or miss," said Lt. Eric Chapman, 24, of Columbus, Ohio, the platoon’s leader. "Some areas we’ll literally be dancing in the streets with the kids. Then there are some areas where you get a chill that goes down your spine."
Fighting has continued over the past week, but it seems like it might be tapering off, Chapman says. No mortar attacks on the FOB. No getting shot at or blown up in two days.
"It’s been almost disturbingly quiet the last couple days," Chapman says. "It could be the eye of the storm, or it could be that the storm is passing over."