Baumholder unit tackles mean streets of Baghdad
BAGHDAD — In an urban neighborhood where Saddam Hussein tried to erect the world’s largest mosque, a cadre of American artillery troops learn street smarts dodging grenades and the neon threads of tracer fire.
The soldiers of the 1st Armored Division’s Battery A, 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery, weren’t trained to kick in doors in search of terrorists. Yet they’ve had to endure one hot tour in one of Baghdad’s toughest boroughs.
Al Mansour is so treacherous that the Baumholder, Germany-based unit has pinned Purple Hearts on 10 of its 90-some soldiers. One soldier even has two. Last month, its medic died during a grenade attack and a hard hail of gunfire.
“It’s crazy around here, sir,” says Cpl. Wayne Santos, pulling guard duty out front. He pulls back his Kevlar collar to expose a bulging lozenge of a scar. “I was lucky, because I’ve got a 1½-inch hole that goes through the back of my neck.”
Yes, lucky. Lucky to be alive.
The experience of these troops — learning to wage war in ways they weren’t trained, facing frequent grenade attacks, working as part peacekeepers, part beat cops — epitomizes that of many soldiers serving in dangerous areas here.
And Baghdad remains dangerous. On Wednesday, six mortar rounds injured 34 soldiers and killed one in another part of greater Baghdad. According to military figures, 485 troops serving in Iraq have died during the war and occupation, 333 of those from enemy attacks.
Inside Battery A, hunkered on a site beneath the skeletal beginnings of the unfinished Great Mosque, it’s easy to find a soldier who has taken shrapnel.
“To date, we’ve had 26 attacks,” says 1st Sgt. Stephen Smith. Three were ambushes.
The troops trained at close combat in the Kuwaiti desert in the spring, but the soldiers are still surprised their artillery battery wound up here, patrolling a wasp’s nest.
“It’s just a fluke,” Smith says.
In a sense, so was the Dec. 17 firefight that ended in the death of Spc. Christopher J. Holland.
Prolonged exchanges of gunfire are rare. Usually it’s potshots or explosives.
“It was [a] 20-minute gunbattle, believe it or not,” Smith says. “It was the second time they stood toe-to-toe with us.”
Sgt. Ross Ella was there. The 29-year-old from Los Angeles remembers rolling into a section of town around 8:30 p.m. and noticing all the lights were out. When troops approached the power substation, guards refused to open the door.
Then came the grenades and gunfire. And the electricity came on again.
Holland was struck in the neck. Ella dragged him behind a wall and tried to treat the other wounded, eventually running out of bandages. He twice ran through enemy gunfire for more medical supplies.
“It was pretty much like ‘The Matrix,’” Ella says. “You see the green tracers going, ‘zip, zip.’”
A bulletproof vest saved a lieutenant’s life. A translator who was injured would be released from treatment the next day. Holland, the medic, was dead.
“I said, ‘Doc, you’re gonna be OK,’” Ella remembers. But his friend was in a pool of blood, and inside Ella knew. “There was nothing I could do.”
The night of Holland’s memorial service, troops were again attacked on the same street.
“It was real hard on us, the whole battery. When you’re a single guy, this is your family, and it’s tough to lose somebody,” says Pfc. Jonathan Mayberry, a 20-year-old from Tifton, Ga.
Mayberry himself survived two attacks this summer, and just days apart. He was awarded two Purple Hearts.
“I couldn’t see, couldn’t hear,” Mayberry says of the first attack, two grenades thrown at his Humvee on June 18. “I didn’t know I was hit until blood started dripping down my chin strap.”
Shrapnel pierced Mayberry an inch from his left eye and behind his ear.
In the same strike, Pfc. Dusty Veres, a 22-year-old from McAllen, Texas, suffered burning shrapnel wounds in both legs.
“It was almost like a movie,” Veres says. “I opened the door of the Humvee, and it blew up. I was just running and yelling, ‘My legs are on fire, my legs are on fire!’”
For two weeks, Veres used “a homemade little crutch” and then began walking on his own.
Mayberry would be attacked less than a week later. His patrol had stopped to pick up an Iraqi who was helping the Americans. An improvised bomb sent shrapnel into the back of Mayberry’s head.
Both soldiers admit they were wary of returning to the streets.
“I was nervous,” Veres says. “It was like starting over again.”
But when it was time, they just did it. They say there was no macho, psych-up routine, no magic testosterone trick. They had to go out again and so out again they went.
Mayberry was restricted from normal duty for one month after his second attack, but he’s still in Iraq. Soldiers typically leave a theater after attack injuries, but Mayberry says his unit is too small and sees too much action for that.
“I wish it were that way,” Mayberry says. Then he pauses. “But I don’t know. I’m serving my country ... maybe if I got some leave.”
He says he’d be too worried about his fellow soldiers to stay back in Germany while they fought. He says he couldn’t even stand being on restriction.
A few minutes later, however, he says, “I just want to get the hell out of here and go home.”
Sgt. Eric Chargois, 27, from Simi Valley, Calif., understands.
After all the unit has been through, privates are no longer taking the point, Chargois says. Instead, sergeants and lieutenants lead through the dark doorways. He says it’s not because they are brave. They are afraid to be the ones to tell a private’s wife he isn’t coming home.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through in my life,” Chargois says. “We weren’t trained for this. This is infantry and MP [military police] stuff.”
But despite the reminders and resentments — shrapnel wounds and a job they never expected — some remain hopeful for Iraq.
“Our time here wasn’t wasted,” Chargois says.
He believes Iraq will be a new place in a couple of years. The sergeants say water, power and sewage service are better now. They believe many Iraqis are grateful.
“Ninety percent are happy we’re here. It’s the other 10 percent,” Ella says. “They pretty much want us dead.”