In Baghdad, battalionwide day off for rest is waylaid by explosions
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Like cavalry troopers on the Western plains, scout platoon members dashed toward their Humvees, threw on their battle gear and rolled out of Firebase Melody in hot clouds of dust.
The men were members of the 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Armored Division, a unit that had just started a rare battalionwide day off. The unit, based in Friedberg, Germany, has been in Iraq about six months and has had four soldiers killed, three in combat.
Battalion leaders planned to give the troops a breather from the stress they’ve been coping with in this increasingly tense, violent city. The day started with a dedication ceremony for buildings named after the unit’s dead, which was to be followed by a day of games and relaxation.
“It’s to get the guys’ minds off of the day-to-day combat mission,” said the battalion’s executive officer, Maj. Will Delgado, 35, of Middletown, N.J.
But now, at about 11 a.m. on this bright, hazy Tuesday, a call came in of a bomb blast in a busy traffic underpass in part of the city the battalion patrols.
Only minutes before, soldiers had been talking about how tense and unpredictable every day could be.
“It’s heatin’ up lately” said Cpl. John Coleman, 24, of Glenview, Ill., who stood in shorts and a black T-shirt after having competed in the rigorous “Tough Man Competition,” in which teams of soldiers raced each other carrying various heavy loads.
“A lot of stress, a lot of stress,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen next. It’s that kind of stress.”
The previous night, someone fired a rocket-propelled grenade or some other explosive device at the walled perimeter of the base, a former university compound.
The round fell short, and Iraqi guards and the battalion’s troops rushed to the scene in time to see a vehicle drive off. There were no injuries or arrests.
The night before that, a homemade explosive device hit one of the battalion’s Humvees, Coleman said.
“So when you’re driving around, you can never fully relax,” he said.
“You always gotta be on your toes at a moment’s notice, ’cause there’s no schedule to what they’re gonna do,” added Pvt. Chris Shannon, 26, of Morehead City, N.C., a member of the scout platoon.
“Sometimes you go out five times a day and sometimes you don’t go out at all.”
On Tuesday, shortly after barreling out of their compound, the scout platoon soldiers in Humvees found themselves threading through heavy, stalled traffic as they worked their way toward the underpass.
With Humvees sealing off the roadway at both ends of the underpass, other troops dismounted and walked in to where they found a small deposit of crumbled masonry and sections of wall pitted with shrapnel.
They stopped, probed the pittings with their hands and picked up a few pieces of debris in an effort to gauge whether the blast damage was fresh or old.
They radioed word of what they saw, and got ready to return to Firebase Melody. They were uncertain how long before the blast had happened, but it was not now a threat, they said.
Less than hour before being called out on the bombing report, the platoon had raced to their Humvees after an explosion was heard just blocks outside the compound.
In that case, it turned out to be Army demolition troops blowing up a mortar round that had landed in the neighborhood during a recent attack.
It’s those kind of incidents that made Tuesday’s day of sports and hanging loose so important, said Pfc. John Rogers of the battalion’s Company B.
“It’s definitely good,” said Rogers, “… to take our minds off some of the stuff that’s been happening around here.”