Slow shift 'OK' for platoon on Baghdad patrol
June 15, 2005
BAGHDAD — So much can happen here in 12 hours. Ambushes. Car bombs. Drive-by shootings. Mortars. But sometimes, nothing happens at all.
Platoons of soldiers roll out at all hours in an effort to secure the streets and curb violence. Often their jobs put them in the line of fire. Often their jobs put them in a cycle of patrolling the same neighborhoods again and again, waiting for something awful to happen.
The mix of stress and boredom wears on everyone differently, even within one platoon. First Platoon of Company A, 1st Battalion, 156th Artillery is made up of Louisiana National Guardsmen. On a typical Sunday this month, a convoy of armored Humvees leaves Camp Liberty before 7 a.m.
Its mission is familiar: Show a presence to ward off insurgent attacks while being ready to respond if they, or anyone else nearby, gets hit. The streets are familiar — they’ve been patrolling this area for about a month and a half now.
The platoon hasn’t taken fire in the past few missions, and some in the group think that means their due.
“We’re going to get …” the platoon medic says, then silently mouths the last two words: “… blown up.”
Everyone laughs and shrugs him off. The medic, Staff Sgt. Keith Kershaw, 30, of Greenwood, La., is known for his drama. They call him TPM, The Peoples’ Medic. He swears he can help anyone, and if he gets to his patient before he dies, “well, then, you’re going to be OK.”
No one laughs at that.
Shortly after leaving the base, Sgt. Shane Garcie, 27, of Natchitoches, La., fires a warning shot at Iraqi traffic. A car got too close despite Garcie’s warnings; within the next hour, he’ll fire three more.
This platoon fires warning shots. They’ve lost three members already, including their lieutenant, Christopher Barnett, on Dec. 23. Barnett, 32, of Baton Rouge, La., had transferred to another unit a couple of weeks before he died, but he had been with 1st Platoon for years, and he was in many ways still its leader.
“We had already said goodbye to him” when he left the platoon, Sgt. 1st Class William Morris, 36, of Lake Charles, La., said. Then, within a matter of days, they had to really say goodbye.
Two more from the platoon died in March from a car bomb.
During the ride, Morris talks about home. When the Louisiana National Guard was mobilized in May 2004, his son was 9. When he gets back this September, the boy will be two months shy of his 11th birthday. For Father’s Day, Morris asked for pictures.
The neighborhoods that 1st Platoon covers are a mix of poor, middle-class, and commercial. Some of the areas are so affluent that the houses have small, green yards. Some stink of sewage.
Sometime between 9 and 10 a.m., Garcie, the gunner, uses his foot to tap on other soldier’s shoulders. It’s something he’s been doing frequently.
“I am the king of Slug Bug,” Garcie shouts, in reference to a game the platoon plays in which the first person in the vehicle who sees a Volkswagen Bug gets to punch, or slug, the others.
“We’ll do anything to keep ourselves alert,” says Morris who explains that the game is part of fighting boredom. They also talk about the architecture of the houses and what they would incorporate into their own dream homes. They talk about leave, the two weeks every soldier gets to go home. More than anything, they talk about going home.
After a short lunch, the platoon is back on the same roads. Stores are open now, selling jewelry, clothing, kitchen appliances, furniture, flowers, plants.
“Slug Bug,” says Spc. Philip Age, 20, of New Orleans. He’s replaced Garcie as the gunner, so that Garcie can get a break from the stifling dust and the pressure of constantly standing and looking for an attack.
At 2 p.m., the platoon checks in on a few families it has come to know. Kershaw, the medic, goes inside to see if he can help a woman who is sick.
A Western man treating an Iraqi woman proved challenging, he said later. She was having a problem that she didn’t feel comfortable discussing with Kershaw and a male interpreter. He was able to coax enough descriptions from the woman to take back a recommendation for a prescription. Next time he’s on patrol, he’ll take some medicine to the woman, he said.
Just before 4 p.m. the soldiers begin a walking patrol in a nearby commercial strip. They chat with merchants and use the opportunity to do a little window shopping. A couple of soldiers get some local phone cards, $10 each.
Around 5 p.m., Staff Sgt. Jonathan Meziere looks at his left hand, where his knuckles are scarred from burns.
“I had first- and second- and third-degree burns,” he said.
On March 26, a car bomb hit Meziere’s truck. “It knocked me silly, it didn’t knock me out,” he remembers. He came to and saw that his driver was lying on the ground a few feet away. His gunner lay nearby.
Both soldiers died; there’s a picture of one taped to the ceiling above his old seat.
Meziere has had enough of memories.
“Let’s mount up,” he says.
After another hour, a driver suddenly slams on the brakes just parallel to Morris’ truck. Age, the gunner, lets off a warning shot that flattens one of the driver’s tires.
The squeal of brakes and the almost simultaneous gunshot jolts everyone, including the Iraqi driver. He carefully gets out of his car and, speaking English, apologizes. “I didn’t see,” he says. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
The soldiers let him go.
First Platoon begins to make its way home. Children run after the trucks because another gunner has started throwing Tootsie Rolls. It’s a parade of sorts. Some of the adults wave, some don’t.
Then, finally, as the convoy turns onto a larger street, Morris pipes up.
“Slug Bug,” he says, hitting the shoulder of Spc. Edward Clement, 25, of Metarie, La., who is driving, on the shoulder. And then, a few minutes later, “Slug Bug twice.”
Morris cheers and gives the requisite punches. Three within a few minutes. He raises both hands in the air, celebrating.
Just before 7 p.m. the platoon pulls back in to Camp Liberty.
“It’s a slow, cool day,” Meziere said. “But that’s OK in Iraq. One day down, one day closer to going home.”