LATIFIYAH, Iraq -- Sgt. Joshua Haycox steered our Humvee forward at a slow march, carefully keeping his distance from the vehicle ahead and scanning the road for bombs as the Army convoy pushed deeper into the chaotic region known to soldiers as the Triangle of Death.
The largely ungoverned swath of farmland and villages south of Baghdad is cluttered with old munitions factories and compounds of elite Iraqi army units that formed Saddam Hussein's military-industrial base. Today, these backlands are also called the "throat of Baghdad" by the military, because a paucity of U.S. and Iraqi forces here has allowed insurgents to take root and stage attacks on the capital.
"Hey, see that town on your left? That's a real bad place," said Col. H.R. McMaster of Philadelphia, commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. "Keep a sharp lookout," he told his men as the convoy approached the dusty, seemingly deserted outpost of Mullafayad.
Within seconds, a powerful blast ripped into the Humvee a few yards ahead of us, shooting a cloud of debris high into the air.
McMaster swore loudly, then yelled, "Stop!" We braced for additional blasts. When they didn't come, McMaster ordered Haycox to pull forward away from the area where the bomb went off and get into position in case of more attacks. The bombed Humvee swerved off the shoulder into a ditch and jolted to a halt. Two soldiers staggered out, one covered with blood. Seeing the men's shocked faces, I instantly realized theirs was the vehicle I had been riding in 10 minutes earlier. The Humvee's right rear door was ripped off, the surrounding metal burned black, and the gunner was sprawled face down on the side of the road.
"Look for the triggerman! Where's the triggerman?" shouted McMaster's gunner, Cpl. Thomas Dillard, 26, of Beeville, Tex.
Bursts of rifle fire rang out. The injured soldiers opened up with M-4 rifles; Dillard fired in the direction of the shooting with his .50-caliber machine gun.
Haycox jumped out, fired back to keep the insurgents down and sprinted to the disabled Humvee. Back a few minutes later, he brought bad news. "Roger, we got casualties, sir. Sergeant major's hit and the gunner's hurt real bad."
Talisman for the Road
Before the attack Sunday morning, we had all gathered round and bowed our heads while the chaplain, Maj. David Causey, of Fort Carson, Colo., prayed to God to keep us safe. "Lord, we're not so naïve as to believe we'll go through war unscathed, but we pray again for a safe mission."
Then he reached into a cardboard box and pulled out plastic bags filled with lollypops, chocolate bars and sheets of paper bearing inspirational stories. To those who reached out their hands, he offered another bag, this one holding a small metal and wood crucifix.
I gave the bag of candy to a soldier who didn't get any, and kept the one with the cross.
We climbed into four armored Humvees and rolled down a dusty gravel road, pausing at the gate to the men's camp while they loaded their weapons with a sharp click-clack. We then headed onto the main highway leading south from Baghdad.
"Fasten your seat belt so you won't get thrown if we roll," Sgt. 1st Class Donald Sparks, 38, told me. The amiable native of Houston advised against using the combat lock on the door, a metal rod that keeps the door shut during fighting. "I want to be sure that if I have to, I can get out real fast," he said.
Soldiers here have refined the deadly calculus of traveling Iraqi roads. They know the rear seat on the driver's side is the safest in a Humvee. They know the lead vehicle in a convoy is often the least likely to get hit. They have memorized the worst stretches of highway, and the twists in the road that leave them vulnerable by forcing them to slow down. They also understand that no matter how hard they try, any mission could be their last.