Sunday, May 2, 2004


One man’s dispatches
from northern Iraq

Editor's note: P. T. Brent, a Honolulu businessman and former Marine, has been traveling in Afghanistan and Iraq with U.S troops. The following are some of his observations from the past few weeks.

Beans, bullets and bandages

During World War II, the Army was resupplied by the "Red Ball Express," a euphemism for a transportation convoy company that kept the troops supplied with the essentials for life in combat, such as beans, bullets and bandages.

A National Guard unit from New Hampshire is charged with this challenge in northern Iraq. It's based out of Balad Air Force field, now called Anaconda by the new landlord, the U.S. Army. Normally, trucking is a fairly safe profession, but not these days -- the Mahdi Army (Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr's militia) owns the highways.

While the Marines at Fallujah are rapidly running out of Class One supplies (water and food), convoys recently have been detoured, reversed course and returned to base and for the most part shot up by RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), IEDs (improvised exploding devices) and small arms fire.

The KBR contractors returned yesterday with an RPG rocket stuck in the fuel tank. They incurred a score of KIAs and WIAs (killed and wounded in action).

Washing Machine Charlie

The nightly bomber at Guadalcanal during World War II was called Washing Machine Charlie (a nickname given to the Japanese aircraft that attacked U.S. military targets at night). His strange-sounding engine was heard by the Marines on the ground as he bombed their airfield each night. Here he is again at Anaconda with the Mahdi rockets, mortars and small arms fire nightly from 2100 to midnight. Their schedule is as faithful as old Washing's was. They seem to retire during the day, with the exception of a few surprises. The personnel here live in their helmets and armored flak jackets almost around the clock. At the Seabees' headquarters you see Navy people in shorts and an eclectic array of clothing beneath their flak jackets, with their helmets and M-16 rifles at 0100 waiting for the all clear.

Daisy chains

One young Marine was riding shotgun in our convoy as we halted for an IED, the new, 21st-century lexicon for a roadside bomb. This Marine, who would not like to be identified, stated, "The most powerful military force in the world cannot maintain control of a few hundred miles of highway." Perhaps he has a point. The ordnance personnel arrived after an hour and exploded it in place. They took daisy chains of as many as two dozen at a time and exploded them using the signal from a cell phone tied to the highway guard rail.

Last week the first fatality to the 7th Trans was incurred when several artillery shells exploded at a bridge overpass, killing one soldier while the other one was thrown clear as the truck went over the bridge.

One 7th Trans sergeant said he accompanied the body to mortuary affairs in Kuwait and a friend met it in Delaware. "I never, never want to have to do something like that again," the sergeant said.

These are citizen soldiers from small towns in or near New Hampshire. They barbecue and train together and are far more bonded than most military units as they do not transfer, but stay in the same hometown year after year. They respect and love one another. It shows when you attend their 0550 briefing for an emergency convoy to Fallujah with Class One supplies for the embattled Marines.

Mission canceled

They have a sense of mission and the importance attached. They have another briefing at 0800. Red, amber and green are the codes. Their mission has all "red" highways. They discuss overpasses and the remedial actions for hit trucks or soldiers. They review the rules of engagement, which are always evolving with the increased pressures coalition forces are suffering. Just when we get rolling, the word comes to hold up -- an early convoy was hit heavy. After standing by for hours the mission is scrubbed. Half the trucks make a run for Baghdad only to be detoured to another base after being struck hard by the Mahdi.

It is Easter 2004 and also the first celebration of the liberation of Iraq. But there is little happiness at coalition headquarters because whether spoken or not ...

... the Mahdi now own the highways in northern Iraq.


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