From Balad to Baghdad, infantrymen pull MP duty on Iraq's highways
MAIN SUPPLY ROUTE TAMPA, Iraq — The radio inside Sgt. Jim Tomlinson’s armored Humvee chatters out details of a firefight along the road up ahead.
The infantryman calls to Spc. Stephen Lord, the machine gunner up top, to be alert.
“A unit is taking small arms fire, engaging the enemy on both sides,” Tomlinson yells. “51 Alpha.”
Lord knows what that means. Tomlinson’s words, 51 Alpha, refer to an overpass along the highway just inside Baghdad’s North End. A roadside bomb that insurgents planted there recently earned Lord a Purple Heart when it exploded above the 19-year-old generator mechanic from Allenstown, N.H.
On Monday, Lord’s platoon is tasked to escort a convoy of civilian tractor-trailers from Balad to Baghdad, a 30-mile journey through one of Iraq’s most dangerous zones. It’s hard to believe it’s just military police work.
But sometimes it takes good infantrymen to work a beat.
That’s the case with Company C, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry Regiment, a New Hampshire National Guard unit that trained as military police and now supports the 95th Military Police Battalion from its base in Balad.
The soldiers’ day starts just as the sun creeps above the horizon. Platoon sergeants and squad leaders gather for the day’s briefing. They talk about everything from recent enemy attacks to large potholes they’ve learned to avoid.
The day before, insurgents attacked a passing patrol with a car bomb. One soldier was killed, two wounded. Nearby an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter crashed after its engine failed.
Nearly every day the soldiers encounter roadside bombs or small-arms fire. Their Humvees’ bulletproof glass windshields are pocked with gunshots and spider-web fractures.
Their vehicles are taking a beating from long hours on the road and little time for maintenance, Tomlinson said. One crew called over the radio to say it was changing a flat tire. Another turned back to base with transmission trouble.
The platoon inherited the Humvees from the unit they replaced.
“Our mechanics are trying to catch up on the maintenance, but it’s hard,” Tomlinson says. “The vehicles are always on the road.”
But the platoon’s main duty is to provide security for trucks running supplies on the highway. They link up with the civilian drivers before leaving the gate.
The soldiers work with American drivers contracted through KBR. But often they deal with foreigners who speak little English.
Tomlinson and the rest of 3rd Platoon head out the gate at 7:30 a.m., heading south to Baghdad. At a major road junction, Staff Sgt. Chuck Campbell’s Humvee blocks Iraqi motorists to allow the convoy to make the turn.
“Preferably, you never want to get out of your vehicle. But sometimes you have to,” he says.
The stop allows the soldiers a chance to check out the competition, Iraqi drivers who share the roadway. It serves two purposes, Campbell says.
“On one hand you’re saying hello,” Campbell says. “And two, you’re looking inside their vehicles to see what they have.”
With the June 30 deadline for the handover of power to the newly formed Iraqi government approaching, these troops are expecting a surge in violence. But there’s little they can do to prevent attacks, they say.
“We must be extra, extra vigilant,” Campbell says.
Military intelligence offers little insight on the enemy’s plans for the upcoming weeks. So, the newly assigned military police write down every tidbit they can from radio reports and pass it out to one another. It’s their only view of the “bigger picture,” Campbell says.
Their concerns are not always about bullets flying in their direction. One day they caught an Iraqi boy throwing rocks. Tomlinson, a New Hampshire policeman assigned to public schools in his hometown, stopped and gave the youngster a stern reprimand.
Along the road south, near Camp Cooke at Taji airfield, Campbell points out where a car bomb exploded, killing a soldier and wounding two others. It’s an area of repeated attacks.
“This is a bad place, right here,” he says.
Meanwhile, Iraqi drivers are trying to weave through the rigs. The truck drivers speed up or lag behind. Inside the Humvee, the soldiers, staunch Red Sox fans, mix chatter about baseball stats and traffic directions.
“Get on him tight. Is he catching up at all?”
“No? OK, then slow it down.”
“Hey, did you hear that [Ken] Griffey nearly hit 500, he’s at 499?”
The radio hisses out a report of a roadside bomb near Baghdad International Airport, known to troops as BIAP, the convoy’s destination. Then come reports of troops engaging enemy fighters.
As they pass under 51 Alpha, Lord crouches inside the Humvee and watches for insurgents. With a pass to Qatar starting the next day, the last thing he needs is another attack.
As the convoy pulls into BIAP’s secured area, the platoon relaxes. But they will be out on the road again soon. It makes for a long day.
“It’s always 12 to 16 hours,” Tomlinson says. “But, you know, what else do we have to do?”