Tension tests Stryker troops
By Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporter
AD DULUIYAH, Iraq The driver of the battered red pickup ignored the warning cry to halt as he barreled toward the highway checkpoint. A young soldier raised his gun and had to make a choice: Shoot or risk a possible suicide attack.
Inside the truck was a little boy.
The soldier squeezed off a warning shot into the air.
It was the right call.
The truck was free of contraband, but it couldn't stop because of a faulty set of brakes, its driver later said.
"I saw a child in the back and that was the deciding factor," said Spc. Seth Downhill, a 22-year-old soldier from Grants Pass, Ore.
Downhill is part of the Fort Lewis-based Stryker brigade, one of the Army's most high-tech outfits in Iraq. The 5,000-soldier brigade is outfitted with a new generation of eight-wheeled vehicles equipped with cameras that can home in on images more than a mile away. Onboard computers display terrain and can fetch e-mail from base commanders.
But in the brigade's first month in the troubled Sunni region of central Iraq, it is the human factor that has proved as important as the computers and weaponry as soldiers tracked down weapon caches, resistance fighters and weapons dealers.
While the brigade lost three of its own in a freak, rollover accident Dec. 8, and has fired on and killed at least 15 Iraqis, most days were a long grind of traffic checks, foot patrols and house searches. In most of these tasks, soldiers had to exercise restraint and patience, allowing the intelligence teams attached to each company to circulate and gather informant tips.
The importance of this intelligence reflects the shadowy, hit-and-run nature of combat in Iraq. With no front line, it can be tough for U.S. soldiers to figure out whom and where to fight. Towns seem peaceful; shops offer fresh-picked, local oranges; mosques broadcast the daily calls to prayer. Outside schools, teenage boys wave and yell, "Hey, mister!" as the squads of Strykers cruise by, their fresh green paint now coated with the red-hued soil of central Iraq.
Then, as a convoy heads for the Stryker base, insurgents attack it with small-arms fire. Or a mortar round is lobbed at the Stryker base. Or a powerful improvised explosive device (IED) now ranked by many soldiers as the top threat explodes along a highway.
So far, two IEDs have damaged Stryker vehicles. One was a mortar shell that knocked a wheel off one of the $2 million Strykers; another triggered an engine fire that gutted a second vehicle but caused no serious injuries in its 11-soldier crew.
In Samara, one of the toughest towns in central Iraq, Stryker brigade soldiers arrived on Dec. 17 braced for a fight. But they found many residents were friendly, eager to gather around and gawk at the Stryker vehicles. Soldiers started knocking on doors and often paid cash compensation $20 to more than $40 to residents whose homes were searched and found to be clean of weapons. Some soldiers nicknamed this the "bread not lead" approach.
"We came in there blowing off locks and kicking down doors," said Capt. Robert Robertson, who commands 21 vehicles and more than 100 men in the Black Hawk Company. "But within a few hours we had pulled back into a whole other operating mode."
Robertson is a muscular West Point graduate from Georgia. A bachelor from a military family, he has a passion for cinema and professional wrestling, which he once toyed with as a possible second career. During missions that may stretch for days on end, Robertson sits in the narrow, low-ceiling interior of a Stryker, punching in keyboard messages and radioing orders to other vehicles.
The inside space can be tight. Two rows of opposing benches seat up to 11 soldiers who sit shoulder to shoulder. Looking forward, you can glimpse what's ahead as viewed through a remote-weapons-systems camera. Though foggy nights fool the camera, it usually conjures up startlingly sharp images of people who would otherwise be all but invisible to the naked eye.
At the very front of the Stryker, in a cramped space that looks like an airplane cockpit, is the driver. A periscope helps him see what's ahead. But he often opts to pop open a hatch and stick his head out for better vision.
During the mission in Samara, the Stryker vehicles were home to the soldiers, who lived out of the rigs at the edge of town for 13 days. By day, they gathered tips they would put to use during nighttime searches.
"The boys were living hard," said Lt. Col. William Buck James, battalion commander. "It rained about every three days. It was cold and it was muddy. They didn't quit and didn't complain, and kept up constant pressure. One of the sources who came up and started giving us targets, she called us ghosts. She said, 'We never know where you are coming from you are everywhere and you are nowhere. You come and go as you please.'
"In my mind, that was exactly what I wanted to do."
By New Year's Eve, when the Samara mission ended, the brigade has tracked down at least 26 significant weapon caches and detained 57 individuals, including seven labeled "high-value targets," according to Lt. Col. Joe Piek.
The Samara operation was by far the most critical mission during the Stryker's debut. Though three soldiers died in the rollover accident, the brigade suffered no combat deaths. Now it is leaving central Iraq and moving north to replace the 101st Airborne Division.
Last week, the Strykers still were running routine security patrols around camp, spread across a bleak expanse of land bereft of trees and grass. And one battalion got what seemed to be a hot tip from a credible source: Fedayeen soldiers, clad in black uniforms, might be gathering on the outskirts of Ad Duluiyah.
At the Tactical Operating Center, a dispatch center in a tent full of computers and staff, the meeting spot is pinpointed on an overhead map.
Soon, a Stryker is en route to drop off a sniper team.
The stakeout lasts deep into the night.
Once again, on this night, the enemy proves elusive.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company
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