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First Lt. Anthony Heisler surveys local residents in the Iraqi town of Hawr Rajab recently. Heisler’s “Buffalo Soldiers” squadron spent most of its deployment actively hunting down insurgents. And though the mission now is more directed at winning hearts and minds, soldiers remain on edge for the sound of a roadside bomb.
First Lt. Anthony Heisler surveys local residents in the Iraqi town of Hawr Rajab recently. Heisler’s “Buffalo Soldiers” squadron spent most of its deployment actively hunting down insurgents. And though the mission now is more directed at winning hearts and minds, soldiers remain on edge for the sound of a roadside bomb. (Monte Morin / S&S)

FOB FALCON, Iraq — Army 1st Lt. Anthony Heisler had just two weeks to go — and, as it turns out, a roadside bomb — before he could fly home and propose to his girlfriend.

As Heisler and the crew of his gun truck cruised down a ragged country road just south of Baghdad, a triggerman lurking at the end of an electrical wire detonated an Italian-made landmine under Heisler’s Humvee.

A ball of flames erupted from the plastic mine and punched through the vehicle’s engine block, its dashboard and its armored firewall. At the same time, an invisible force body-slammed Heisler and his men.

Blinded by a cloud of smoke, the 24-year-old platoon leader from Philadelphia recalled thinking to himself, “Am I dead? I don’t feel anything.”

But as the air cleared, Heisler noted that he was indeed alive and that his truck was thumping slowly and haphazardly off the road. He noted too that his driver was shouting in Spanish — which was weird — because the guy usually spoke English.

Heisler also noticed flames shooting up from the floorboards and realized that he and his men would be roasted alive unless they bailed.

“That’s when I started yelling, ‘Get out! Get out!’” Heisler said. “I knew the thing was going to burn up.”

While roadside bombs remain the top killer of U.S. troops in Iraq, soldiers in the famed 1st — or “Buffalo Soldiers” — Squadron of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division are coping with a particularly virulent strain of IED angst.

After spending their first six months of deployment in the relatively quiet environs of Hilla, the Buffalo Soldiers relocated to the heavily Sunni territories immediately south of Baghdad.

The area, which commanders describe as a former safe haven for key insurgent planners and suppliers, saw little U.S. military presence prior to the squadron’s arrival; the enemy’s response was swift and violent.

“Frankly, the insurgents got a little head start on us here,” said squadron commander Lt. Col. James J. Love.

In the last three months, the Fort Hood, Texas-based unit has lost eight men to roadside bombs. During one particularly nasty two-week stretch, the squadron lost 18 vehicles.

Love said that since the squadron has relocated to its new area of operations, soldiers have been increasingly successful in locating the bombs before they explode. So far, troops have found and destroyed 111 roadside bombs before they were triggered, whereas 87 of the devices have exploded.

Many squadron soldiers have either survived or witnessed multiple attacks and the legacy of these experiences is just now dawning on them.

“None of my men sleep anymore,” Heisler said. “Combat Stress (counselors) tell you to ‘file it away,’ to compartmentalize all this stuff while you’re here so that you can do your job. They say you’ll begin dealing with it when you go home. I’m not looking forward to that.”

In one such episode, a beloved sergeant in Heisler’s troop was killed when he stepped on a buried artillery shell.

“The spot smelled like gunpowder for two days,” Heisler said.

Few soldiers in Iraq are strangers to the gut churning anxiety that accompanies a drive “outside the wire,” down hostile streets or country roads.

However, the overwhelming prevalence of roadside bombs in areas like the town of Hawr Rajab has forced troops to cope with extraordinary levels of stress.

“It’s an ugly place,” Capt. John Bodenhamer said of the town, where three of his Apache Troop soldiers have been killed by roadside bombs.

In the wake of such attacks, some soldiers say they dread looking at other vehicles ahead or behind them in convoys. They’re worried that their friends’ gun truck will suddenly disappear in a cloud of filthy smoke.

After returning from leave recently, Heisler said he stepped on a roadside bomb his first day out in Hawr Rajab. Fortunately for the officer, the cordless telephone base station that served as a trigger had been crushed by a vehicle before an insurgent could detonate the bomb.

While Heisler was relieved the device was inoperable, the episode did little to ease his mind.

“The only way to deal with it sometimes is to try and relax and take a deep breath — that and pray that you’re going to be OK,” Heisler said.

Attacks in the squadron’s area of operation actually have fallen significantly since June.

Love said that as a result, the squadron has been able to switch from combat operations to civil engagement exercises. The goal, he said, is to persuade the vast majority of ambivalent or apathetic Iraqis in his area of operations to not lend active or passive support to the insurgents.

“You can go out there and whack the [bomb] makers and roll up guys every single day, but ultimately what you’re doing is playing a game of whack-a-mole,” Love said. “My job right now is to make sure that all those fence-sitters don’t go over to the insurgent side.”

Heisler recently returned to Hawr Rajab to survey local residents and to hand out toys.

“We still take great precautions when it comes to [bombs], but we’ve been able to switch gears,” Heisler said. “We’ve gone from combat operations to ‘Here! Have a Beanie Baby!’”

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