SAMARRA, Iraq -- As the rocket-propelled grenade loudly pierced the air, Spec. Justin Crawford recognized the whoosh and knew it was coming his way. His feet shifted quickly in the loose dirt, his eyes caught sight of the large armored vehicle nearby and he dived for cover.
"Then it felt like someone hit me in the jaw with a hammer," Crawford said. A small piece of shrapnel blasted through Crawford's mouth, ripping out two upper teeth. Two other soldiers from his company also went down with wounds.
U.S. Army snipers took over the top of this nearly 1,200-year-old spiral minaret at a Samarra mosque after the streets below became the scene of frequent attacks by insurgents in the restless city.
(Josh White -- The Washington Post)
As Crawford, 22, of Seattle, recounted the incident a few days later, the purplish, swollen wound high on his right cheek forced him to mold his words with the left side of his mouth as he contemplated how to eat the turkey and corn on a plate in front of him.
"Seconds after it happened, I knew I would be okay," Crawford said. "I was worried that they'd be concerned about me when other people were more badly hurt. I didn't come out of that day any more upset than usual. This stuff happens."
To Crawford, this stuff has happened twice. The wound he suffered Dec. 18 on a main street in Samarra was his second since arriving in Iraq, meaning a second Purple Heart award and a second term of recovery. The first came on July 8, when a car packed with explosives rammed a U.S. compound, catapulting pieces of concrete that killed five soldiers and left Crawford with a back injury.
For someone who didn't even want to be in Iraq, an enlisted soldier who expected to be sent home in October but was ordered to stay because of troop shortages, Crawford seemed eager to get back to Apache Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, to wage war in a city where the insurgency has been relentless.
"I don't think any soldier wants to go off to war and die, but we need to respond to America's needs, and America needs us to do our job right now," Crawford said. "The general feeling among a lot of guys is that they wonder why we're here or at least why we're still here, or what our mission is. It's not my job to question it.
"My country needed me here, so I'm here. I don't need answers. And I want to get back to it."
Crawford is one of the 150,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq as America's presence here moves into its 22nd month, a stretch of time that has been alternately frustrating and fulfilling to the young men and women who are far from home and far from done with their mission. They trudge through the desert, they secure hostile city streets, they patrol some of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the world, they suffer wounds, they die. They also feed poor families, build schools, train police forces, set up businesses and try to persuade Iraqis to embrace a new form of government.
They walk Iraq's cities with M-16 assault rifles, Kevlar helmets, desert-colored camouflage and ballistic glasses, hunting down insurgents and handing out candy to children.
At the top of a spiral minaret built nearly 1,200 years ago, there is an almost overwhelming sense of calm. The wind blows in crisp and clean, the Tigris River lazily winds by in the distance, and Samarra spreads out to the south and east, its clusters of squat, square buildings and dirt roads forming an intricate panorama.
Soldiers occupy this vantage point 24 hours a day, working in pairs for 12 hours at a time. An intersection below had become the scene of almost incessant attacks, and American commanders decided that placing snipers with .50-caliber rifles and powerful scopes in this circle of stone 10 feet in diameter, 180 feet above the ground, could deter the insurgents.
Attacks have, in fact, largely ceased at the base of the minaret, but the snipers have an ominous overview of other attacks launched regularly across the city. Sometimes they can see the kind of clothing worn by insurgents launching mortar rounds.
Mushroom clouds sometimes drift skyward around the golden dome of the al-Askari shrine in the distance; gunfire rips through the streets; the acrid smoke from car bombs mingles with the aroma of coffee the soldiers in the tower drink to stay warm and awake.