Babenhausen soldiers' tally: Two months, 18 million pounds of munitions recovered
Stars and Stripes June 22, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — It’s been months since U.S. missiles stopped falling on Baghdad, but field artillery soldiers who arrived in Iraq before the shooting started still aren’t going home.
They have another mission ahead of them.
Soldiers from the 41st Field Artillery Brigade from Babenhausen, Germany, are part of Task Force Bullet, an effort to clear weapons and ammunition from a smattering of public places in Baghdad.
In two months, the Babenhausen soldiers have collected 18 million pounds worth, pulling them from houses, mosques, churches and schools, said brigade commander Col. Chuck Otterstedt III.
“This is definitely a nonstandard mission,” Otterstedt said.
There are two field artillery groups operating in the country, the 41st and the 17th Field Artillery Brigade out of Fort Sill, Ga.
“We’re going into public places and trying to get [ordnance],” said Maj. Michael Gabel, the 1st Battalion’s operations officer.
“It’s a public safety issue, and we’ve probably saved a hell of a lot of lives.”
The soldiers have found it all, from small arms ammunition to SA-2 and SA-7 surface-to-air missiles.
But there have been no signs of the elusive weapons of mass destruction that President Bush used as a reason for committing U.S. troops to the war.
“We’ve seen a lot of things that I’ve never seen before, but no WMD,” said Spc. Ayofemi Terrence, 20, an ammunition specialist with 608th Ordnance Company out of Fort Benning, Ga.
“You’d think we would have come across some, and we’ve been looking for some time. I’m not quite sure we’re going to find them.”
“We’re out doing something good here,” said Pfc. Josh Rogers, 25, adding he was “kind of shocked” to learn of the change in mission. “We have no training for this at all.”
But the soldiers are learning quickly and have tackled the job with a zeal he’s not seen before, said battalion commander Lt. Col. Jeff Lieb, 41, who pitched in to lift 120-pound boxes of munitions — leading by example.
The soldiers have learned the proper way to stack rocket propelled grenades and to stay away from ammunition labeled with a black band, indicating the presence of highly explosive white phosphorous.
“Make no mistake about it, this is a dangerous mission,” Lieb said.
The captured ammunition and weaponry are taken to two locations: a quarry named Red Rocket, which, by convoy, is about 90 minutes north of Baghdad, where it is destroyed; or a former Iraqi military base in Taji, where it is stored to be turned over to the follow-up Iraqi army. About 30 percent of what is found and recovered can be saved.
The soldiers of the 41st temporarily make their home in a desolate camp named Dogwood, about an hour’s drive southwest of Baghdad. There are no trees, no picturesque views, just bland-colored sand, a talc-fine powder the wind whips up and deposits in ears, tear ducts, mouths. There’s no running water; electricity comes from the noisy generators that pepper the compound.
But they are a creative and resourceful bunch: They jury- rigged a pump — normally used to spray down and decontaminate vehicles of chemical and biological agents — to a water buffalo that pumps water to a tank where water is heated by the sun and then flows to three faucets in three plywood boxes. Voilà: showers.
Hubcaps, iron plates and the like have been welded to steel bars for weights the soldiers lift during their free time.
The soldiers are almost done with their search and disposal mission.
“We’re days away from being complete in removing enemy ammunition out of Baghdad,” Gabel said. “We’re coming to the end of the show here.”
And yet, they still aren’t going home. Instead, they are moving west, Otterstedt said.
“I do what I’m told to do, and I’m used to changes. It’s no big deal,” said Pfc. Tommy Martinsen, 28, a surveyor.
Some are teaching local civilians the skills they picked up, to eventually transfer duties to civilian contractors. They want to pass on their knowledge, but they also have an ulterior motive.
“The sooner they learn to handle these,” said Sgt. Ferdinand Berrios, 26, “the sooner we get to go home.”