On the road to Baghdad
March 30, 2003
AT U.S. ARMY AVIATION CAMP, Central Iraq — Soldiers from Army aviation units pitched their tents last week at a new camp within striking distance of Baghdad after a grueling three-day journey from Kuwait.
They barely slept during the long haul, and while morale started out high, tempers frayed by the end. Some fell asleep at the wheel of their trucks as they waited during long delays. Trucks broke down, and troops endured long, long waits while other convoys passed.
“It was like second grade,” said Capt. Cory James, fuel and ammunition platoon leader for the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment. “Long and hard.”
Although it crawled along at less than 5 mph, three times the lightly-defended convoy found itself ahead of the 3rd Infantry Division tanks that were supposed to clear the way. It passed within a few miles of two cities, An Nasiriyah and As Samawah, even as U.S. forces battled to take them.
The odyssey left some soldiers irritated at their V Corps commanders, whom they felt left them dangerously exposed on traffic-choked roads across southern Iraq.
“They’ve been trying to go too far, too fast,” said one field-grade officer. “I’m all about blazing a trail across the desert, but that’s what M1s and Bradleys are for, not Humvees and trucks.”
It pleased many soldiers, though, to pass through Iraqi towns where villagers smiled, waved American flags and made throat-slashing gestures while saying Saddam Hussein’s name.
“I saw one of the kids put a peace sign up,” said Staff Sgt. Kamilah Harrison, 30, of the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, the 2-6 Cavalry’s sister regiment from Illesheim, Germany. “Some of the people here might not be our enemies.”
The convoy left Camp Udairi, Kuwait, just after dawn March 21. Soldiers said they looked forward to seeing Iraq.
“I’m kind of scared, because I’m leading the convoy,” said Spc. Angel Febus, 23, a 6-6 Cavalry driver. “Nothing is going to happen, really … I hope.”
About 700 vehicles started out in the convoy from the six units operating in Iraq and Kuwait under the umbrella of Task Force 11th Aviation:
• the 6-6 Cavalry, an Apache Longbow squadron;
• the 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment, a Black Hawk lift unit from Giebelstadt, Germany;
• the 2-6 Cavalry, an Apache squadron;
• the 11th Aviation Regiment’s headquarters company, also from Illesheim;
• the 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, an Apache Longbow squadron from Fort Hood, Texas;
• and the 7th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment, a maintenance unit from Illesheim.
Over the next 69 hours, though, some would get separated or lost. The last units would straggle into their destination about 12 hours after the first.
‘Wake them up!’
A series of sandy berms separate Kuwait from Iraq, and one single-lane road goes through them. The units arrived late Friday morning, only to find thousands of Army vehicles waiting to cross.
They sat for hours in virtual parking lots, waiting to join the line of big trucks, little trucks, fuel tankers and Humvees crawling across the border.
Although it is only 15 miles from Camp Udairi, the convoy didn’t cross into Iraq until nightfall.
It moved in fits and starts through the night, stopping and starting for no apparent reason. Some drivers earned the wrath of their superiors by nodding off during the stops. Many of them had not slept the night before.
“We’ve got people falling asleep, not realizing the convoy is moving again,” shouted Lt. Col. Glenn Barr, Task Force 11th Aviation’s deputy commander, over the radio during the night. “Wake them up!”
The entire convoy suffered from poor communications because fewer than 10 percent of the vehicles had radios. Every convoy restart meant soldiers had to run from truck to truck to notify each other. One sleeping driver could stop the entire convoy.
On Saturday morning at 5:25, the parade stopped for three hours of rest and refueling. During the stop, 3rd Infantry Division tanks and Bradleys roared past — the first of three times the convoy would outpace the shock troops that were supposed to be fighting ahead of it.
Four hours later, the convoy drove forward a few miles — only to find their route blocked by the 3rd ID tanks, which were fighting a battle with the Iraqis south of the disputed city of An Nasiriyah.
It wasn’t the last time they would find themselves in the thick of things.
The units backtracked to Highway 1, a six-lane artery running toward Baghdad. They pulled off the road about 10:45 a.m. while another 3rd ID tank unit roared ahead to fight.
“We’re gonna park our butts here till we get called forward,” said Maj. Carl Coffman, executive officer and convoy leader for the 2-6 Cavalry, irked at finding himself in front of the warfighters twice already that morning.
Medevac helicopters swooped down from the south early that afternoon, and the 11th Aviation troops soon learned why. Half a mile ahead of them, some Iraqi irregulars fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the 3rd ID units passing by on the left. The explosion injured two soldiers, who were treated by 6-6 Cavalry medics and then rushed to a hospital in the rear.
‘America good, Saddam go’
By Saturday afternoon, the convoy had split in two: the faster-moving Apache units, the 2-6 Cavalry and the 6-6 Cavalry led the way while the 5-158 Aviation and the 7-159 Aviation lagged behind. The 1-227 Aviation, by design, had left the convoy on a different route, and the headquarters company hung back to look after the stragglers. Another group, the 212th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital from Miesau, Germany, fell in with the faster units.
The two Apache units moved ahead, driving without lights while the drivers donned night-vision goggles. About 10 p.m., as they hurried toward the town of As Samawah, still more 3rd ID tanks overtook them. The soldiers were stunned to see flares in front of them and rockets firing overhead. Once again, they had run into battle.
“We may just have to circle the wagons and stay here,” Coffman said.
The 3rd ID tanks pulled forward in the middle of the night, but the 11th Regiment trucks stayed put until sunrise Sunday, with soldiers struggling to sleep in their cramped seats. Coffman and his 6-6 Cavalry counterpart, Maj. Dale Watson, struggled for hours to raise Barr, the convoy commander, on the radio, but he and the other units had fallen too far back to reach.
So the units moved ahead, then got stuck once again, in a small village along the Euphrates River. Hundreds of Iraqi boys and young men swarmed the road.
Some of them waved American flags and flashed peace signs. Several held out Iraqi money bearing Saddam’s portrait and made smashing gestures on it with their fists. One boy shouted, “America good, Saddam go!”
They scrounged through boxes of trash looking for MREs some of the troops had left beside the road.
The boys gawked most of all at the female soldiers. Some of them whistled, stared or tried to talk to them. They were fascinated by blond women, such as 2nd Lt. Lorren Pogson, 24, the chemical officer for the 2-6 Cavalry.
“It was unnerving,” Pogson said. “It was almost like a show. They’re seeing us out there, uncovered, while their wives and daughters are out in the fields carrying water.”
Although not hostile, the crowds began to seem threatening because of their size. Soldiers put on serious looks and waved the youngsters down the road with their rifles.
The convoy couldn’t move because of the battle ahead in As Samawah. Finally, Watson and Coffman got orders to take an alternate route to avoid the city.
It’s a lucky thing they did. A convoy not far behind 11th Aviation’s didn’t hear about the route change and blundered into the fight. Iraqi guerrillas captured some soldiers and killed others.
The detour took the convoy on a dirt road that passed through what looked like the pit of hell. It was a brick-making factory, half a dozen buildings with smokestacks surrounded by craters of filthy water. Dirt-smeared men and children squatted on mounds of earth that lined either side of the road, aiming tired, joyless stares at the passing troops.
Just beyond the factory stood a village, where men, children, and even women in colorful clothes — some wearing Christian crosses around their necks — swarmed alongside the convoy looking for food. Then some U.S. Chinook helicopters flew over, and they went racing back to the safety of their mud-brick homes.
Half an hour later, the convoy halted again at an intersection. It waited as two other Army convoys passed by, then nosed out to take its place in line. Eighty miles still remained to the new air camp.
Just before sunset, the convoy drew cheer when they saw the aircraft from their respective units fly over, headed north toward the new camp. Coffman rigged his radio so he could talk to the pilots as they flew by.
“We sure are glad to see you guys,” he told the 2-6 Cavalry’s Squadron commander, Lt. Col. Scott Thompson.
But the journey’s worst moments lay just ahead.
A breakneck pace
About 7 p.m., the convoy came upon a stretch of road where three lanes of Army trucks tried jockeying for position on a single paved lane. Several trucks had gotten stuck in the sand, and wreckers snarled traffic more as they struggled to pull them out in total darkness. The stink of diesel hung in the air.
The jam lasted for hours, and it stretched tempers to the breaking point. After 60 hours on the road, drivers fell asleep as they inched forward. The trucks kicked up clouds of dust that made drivers’ night-vision goggles all but useless.
Stymied, impatient and utterly exhausted, drivers began to make mistakes. In the 2-6 Cavalry alone, four trucks got mired in sand. One later rear-ended a tanker from another unit and had to be abandoned, along with its load of ammunition. No one in the unit knew about the accident until hours later, and they didn’t track down the two soldiers in the cab until four days later.
Mechanics and wrecker drivers worked fast and hard to keep the trucks running.
“Our motor-pool guys just rock,” Coffman said later. “Every one of our vehicles except one got here, and that’s a testament to their ability to fix things on the fly.”
After 1 a.m. Monday, the two units finally unraveled the mess and got moving. Knowing the Apaches awaited them at the camp, Coffman and Watson pushed the speed up to 30 mph, a breakneck pace in a convoy that had rarely topped 10 mph even when moving.
Even with lights on, trucks in the convoy lost sight of one another. But the drivers rushed themselves to the breaking point and pulled into their new camp around 4:30 a.m. The route was littered with Army trucks that had rolled into the ditch. They arrived only two hours after the quartering party, which had left a day earlier to begin setting up camp.
As soon as the convoy parked, soldiers pulled out their cots and laid down to rest. Some curled up on the hoods or the cabs of their trucks. Others, wired from the trip, reflected on the journey.
“It’s been a long, hard, challenging drive,” said Staff Sgt. Malachi Martin III, 32, of Gary, Ind., a 6-6 Cavalry soldier. “My butt has never felt the way it feels now.”
“We’re really earning our combat pay now,” said Sgt. Daryl Fatula, 30, of the 6-6 Cavalry said during the trip. “All I can say is ‘It’s war.’”
— Stars and Stripes reporter Steve Liewer is embedded with the 11th Aviation Regiment, 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, which is currently in central Iraq.