Mosul, Iraq (UPI) Sep 1, 2005
The men of Alpha Company wash burned oil and human flesh from rails of their Stryker vehicle. To their satisfaction, it was not any of theirs.
They were riding through the east side of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and last November the scene of some of the most pitched battles with the insurgency, when a suicide car bomber cut through the median between the second and third Stryker vehicles in the convoy and exploded.
Sgt. J. Robinson, 27, of Altheimer, Ark., was in the gunner position, exposed to the ball of fire and shrapnel. He didn't have time to duck back into the vehicle when the car bomber veered.
"It knocked me back but I'm a pretty big dude," he said.
Shrapnel took a chunk out of his helmet, and small pieces lodged in his finger and in his lip. This is his third car bomb -- or IED, for Improvised Explosive Device -- two of them in a Stryker and one in an up-armored Humvee.
"Around here everyone wants to ride in a Stryker," Robinson said.
The Stryker, a new, wheeled combat vehicle, is designed to move troops quickly into battle, but it is proven especially useful in Mosul. It can turn more quickly and in a smaller area than a tank, it is faster, and because it has no tracks it doesn't tear up the streets and curbs -- avoiding inconvenience and expense to local residents.
The vehicle, built by Sterling Heights, Mich.-based General Dynamics Land Systems, was named for two Medal of Honor recipients: WWII Pfc. Stuart Stryker and Spc. Robert Stryker, who served in Vietnam.
It boasts a digitized sensor suite that gives it much better access to intelligence information than older combat vehicles. A newly added steel cage looks ungainly - the Stryker is much wider on top than its wheel base -- but grenades bounce off before they explode.
Most importantly, it is proving to be very protective of the people it carries inside. According to the brigade's statistics, as of June, Strykers had been involved in nearly 700 direct engagements with the enemy -- among them IEDs, car bombs, and rocket-propelled grenade attacks. There have been around 250 injuries, but just over 200 of the injured returned to duty within three days, like Robinson.
There have been just four killed in Strykers.
Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Mike Gibler shows an insurgent's videotape of one massive attack downloaded from a website. He saw it with his own eyes when it happened.
The recording shows the Stryker being blown onto its side in a massive explosion. One soldier is ejected from the vehicle. What the short tape does not show is that none of the soldiers inside were seriously injured. The soldier on the ground suffered only a broken arm.
"I get very frustrated reading articles by complete idiots saying this is the wrong vehicle," Gibler said, referring to a harshly critical press report last December. "Is it invincible? There are no invincible vehicles."
"I'm not saying this for political reasons, but I guarantee this battalion would have lost 30 or 40 kids if we didn't have Stryker," he said.
The battalion has lost seven, four of them in Alpha Company, and none of those to IEDs or car bombs.
Sunday's car bomb left a deep crater in the road. The car's engine was flung about 50 meters and the suicide bomber shredded. An Iraqi civilian driving on the same road was killed.
"Here this guy is trying to get on with his life, suddenly thrown into this situation and he loses his life, and who knows what kind of family he left behind," said Capt. Robert "Blake" Lackey, 27, the commander of Alpha Co., 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division.
Lackey is sitting in his company headquarters, a minor palace in the zone now occupied by Forward Operating Base "Courage." Painted on the wall behind him is a monthly calendar marking his company's time here month by month. It is not ticking down the days but the insurgents and terrorists killed by his men. Each kill is represented by a stenciled stick figure of a man in a mask -- a common modus operandi for gunmen in Mosul. They will drive up to U.S. soldiers and begin shooting AK-47s, then jump back into their car, and melt back into traffic, removing their black masks.
There is an impressive number on the wall, close to a hundred. Showing a dark humor, there is one stenciled donkey, the unfortunate victim of cross fire when a gunman hid behind it in a battle. The company paid the owner of the donkey for his loss, and then added the donkey to the February kill sheet with a red hash mark through it.
"It's something unfortunately we are kind of callous to," said Lackey, referring to the wall chart of fallen enemy. "But these types of people aren't people. They are lower than animals. They prey on terror and intimidation to the local population. There is no need to feel sorry for them for all the violence they cause.
"It's something I feel very passionate about because we've gotten to know the people we live with," he says, referring to the residents of Mosul.
The insurgent methods in Mosul are different than elsewhere in the country, perhaps because they are physically closer to some of the most dangerous masterminds of the insurgency, and the virulence of their fight is not muted by distance.
Where the rest of Iraq is primarily concerned with improvised bombs, packed in cars or on the roads, in Mosul the threat is from heavily armed shooters.
Across Iraq, 70 percent of Americans killed in action are cut down by explosions. Lackey has lost four to small arms fire in direct engagements with the enemy.
"It shows that we get on the ground and ... with the people. We're not driving around in a big green vehicle, screwing up traffic and scaring people," Lackey says, with passion. "We have paid more than our fair share in people who we are not going to be taking home with us."
As high as the ratio of U.S. dead to enemy killed -- judging by the wall -- is, it is not enough for Lackey.
"A thousand terrorists are not worth one of my soldiers," he says.
"They use innocent women and children. They don't conduct themselves like real human beings and they're not."
He flips through digital pictures on his computer of battle scenes, evidence used to document the battles and as evidence in court cases against those who live through the fight.
The pictures are gruesome.
This is not the antiseptic long-distance battles the Army has trained for over the last 50 years. This is close quarters fighting, man against man, sometimes within a few feet of each other.
One picture is especially striking. 1st Sergeant Robert Ercoline, 34, is standing behind an Opel, staring into the camera proudly and with a small smile. The car doors are opened, and three men are dead. The driver's body is half in the car, is head resting on the pavement.
Ercoline won a Bronze Star with valor for this engagement. Ercoline and two other soldiers had stopped and were searching two cars. Two were looking through the first one and Ercoline was guarding the second. The man in the backseat of the guarded car looked nervous, so Ercoline told him to get out of the car. He doesn't speak Arabic, but by now many Iraqis know what "get out" means, when a soldier is holding an M-16.
The man didn't get out and when Ercoline looked in the window he saw him reach for an AK-47.
"I ended up blowing his brains out," Ercoline said, his tattooed arms crossed across his chest.
The pictures confirm that tale; the top of the man's head is gone, and custard-colored brains and dark red blood flow out of the hole.
It was not hard, he said.
"It's instinct. I've been in the Army a long time."
Lackey's commanders say he is one of the more effective company officers in the battalion.
He is one of the many young officers the Army and Marine Corps has empowered to deviate from standard doctrine to come up with creative, if risky, ways of beating his enemy.
"This is a platoon battle," said Gibler, explaining that it is the platoons that know the urban area, who watch the enemy, and who know what tactics work against them. To chain them to standardized techniques would sacrifice that expertise.
Alpha Company's kills were especially heavy in March. The company called it March Madness.
That month marked the introduction of a new technique that took advantage of one of Stryker's other characteristics: its obviousness.
"Whenever the terrorists see the Big Green Vehicle, they know it means Americans are around," Lackey says. "The enemy is focused on the vehicle so we used that to our advantage."
Alpha soldiers took fire from one place four times in two weeks. This annoyed them. The fighters in Mosul are believed to be "commuter insurgents" -- that is, living elsewhere and coming to a particular neighborhood to fight, and then melting into the crowds or traffic to escape.
But the insurgents were also gone for 12 hours. During those off times, snipers from Alpha set up hidden positions over-looking areas the insurgents liked to frequent -- often intersections where they could easily and quickly join innocent traffic.
Some time thereafter, a Stryker would drive into the neighborhood and disgorge soldiers. When the attack came, the insurgents were hit from behind by the snipers who had a god's-eye view of the street. It is a technique now known as a "baited ambush" and proudly touted by the brigade.
"We had a lot of luck in March because the enemy wasn't adapting, and that's mainly because we were killing every one of them and they had no one to go back and tell the others," Lackey said.
The battalion is returning to Fort Lewis, Wash., in about a month -- after a year in Mosul. Gibler is worried innovation and initiative like Lackey's will not be recognized and rewarded when they return to the peacetime Army, and all of the traditional constraints of hierarchy.
In Iraq, where companies and platoons operate almost independently in their battle space, sergeants are doing the jobs of lieutenants, lieutenants of captains and captains of majors.
"We've got to continue to challenge these young men or we will lose them," Gibler said.
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Bridge Disaster Marked Black Week In Iraq
Washington (UPI) Sep 01, 2005
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