For a U.S. Platoon in Iraq, Merciless Missions

Sgt. Patrick Hagood, left, and Sgt. Ernest Daniels examine bomb material.
Sgt. Patrick Hagood, left, and Sgt. Ernest Daniels examine bomb material. (By Steve Fainaru -- The Washington Post)
By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 9, 2005

BALAD, Iraq -- On an asphalt road surrounded by apple trees and date palms, a bomb went off beneath an armored Humvee leading a midnight patrol. The towering fireball, followed by an explosion, lit up the night and propelled the five-ton vehicle two feet into the air.

The Humvee fell and sputtered to a halt, its bulletproof windshield cracked, its electrical system shut down. Inside, four American soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter choked on dust and grit. The attack was witnessed by a reporter riding along on the Aug. 26 patrol and later described by soldiers involved.

"My face! My face! I can't see!" screamed Sgt. Jason Fishbein, 30, a diminutive gunner from the New York City borough of Queens. Along with the Humvee's other occupants, Fishbein was unharmed; the gray dust had momentarily blinded him and it was sweat -- not blood, as he feared -- that poured from his face.

"Man, I got a headache now," said Cpl. William Young, the 24-year-old driver of the second Humvee, which careened into a ditch as fist-sized chunks of asphalt hurtled toward it. Young reached into the back seat, where Sgt. Joseph Smith, 29 and deaf in his right ear from an earlier blast, handed him an extra-large bottle of migraine medicine.

Six hours after the attack, and with only a few hours of sleep, the soldiers of the 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company, 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, were back patrolling the bomb-cratered streets of Balad, an agricultural city about 50 miles north of Baghdad. The attack quickly faded, taking its place alongside myriad others that have occurred during the platoon's first eight months of a yearlong combat tour in Iraq.

The experiences of the 17-man "Blue Platoon," as the unit is called, go to the heart of the growing debate over the continued involvement of U.S. troops in Iraq. The days are infused not with the politics of war but the stark realities of it: tragedy and loss, loneliness and exhaustion, resilience and camaraderie in the face of a stubborn and deadly insurgency. The platoon's daily life has been ordered by nothing more than the merciless patrol schedule, twice-daily, four-hour combat missions that inevitably place the soldiers in the paths of attacks aimed at killing them.

"I can tell you right now: We ready to go home," said L.B. Baker, 38, a lanky trumpet player and farmer from Belcher, La., who as platoon sergeant is responsible for holding the unit together.

"I tell my guys every day, 'Look, this is the home stretch,' " Baker said. "I don't want them to relax right now. It's not the time to start thinking this is a game."

In three days of patrols culminating in the roadside attack, the physical and emotional toll of prosecuting the war in Iraq was vividly apparent in interviews, personal diaries written by the soldiers, and even songs they recorded in makeshift barracks studios. Weighted down by 50 pounds of body armor and ammunition, the soldiers venture out every day in 120-degree heat to find the insurgents. More often than not, they never do, even after bombs explode directly on them, a source of endless frustration compounded by what the soldiers said is the unwillingness of most Iraqis to help them.

"It's always kul shee maku ," said Sgt. Rob Hammer, a 32-year-old squad leader from Sublette, Kan., reciting the Arabic phrase for "there is nothing," which the entire platoon has memorized.

In such an unforgiving environment, the Americans said they found meaning in their commitment to each other, "the friends who would take a bullet for me, friends who would kill their own selves to save my life," said Sgt. Patrick Hagood, 24, of Anderson, S.C.

In the tense moments after that Friday's bombing, Blue Platoon's medic, Pfc. James Tickal, 23, of Oviedo, Fla., first checked to make sure his soldiers were okay. He then took out a brown, leather-bound diary he keeps inside his Humvee and recorded the incident in the middle of rubble.

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