By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 7, 2006
HIT, Iraq, Feb. 6 -- The troops of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit had every reason to feel a sense of accomplishment. Violence in this ancient town along the western Euphrates River had dropped sharply since their arrival. They were only a few days from heading home. And they had not lost a single Marine during two months in Iraq's most dangerous province.
Until Monday. Word spread around the 22nd's main camp, among those who had stayed awake late to watch the Super Bowl: Five Marines were hit about 1:30 a.m. while driving in an armored Humvee. It was a roadside bomb. They were unconscious.
In the morning, the Marines learned that three of their comrades were dead.
The 2,300 troops of the 22nd, many of whom are veterans of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, are familiar with war and its consequences. But their tour in Hit, a city of 30,000 to 40,000 in Iraq's restive Anbar province, had been unlike the others.
They walked the streets on foot, passing out candy, chocolates and the occasional soccer ball to waving children. Their patrols weaved fearlessly around lines of cars and through packed markets. For the most part, their house calls began with knocks, not kicks. It was their strategy to win the respect, if not the love, of the city's Sunni Arab population. They wanted to cut the road linking the heartland of the Iraqi insurgency with the Syrian border.
No unit was more involved in the Hit campaign than Charlie Company of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit's Battalion Landing Team. The company's 200 men did the majority of the patrolling here. And it was Charlie that suffered seven Marines wounded and three killed in a pair of attacks over the last week.
Led by Capt. David Handy, a native of New Bern, N.C., the company hadn't previously suffered a single man killed or wounded since coming to town in December. Handy recorded 18 violent incidents a week when he arrived, and said it was down to four thanks to an aggressive program of patrolling the city's streets 24 hours a day.
"I think we've built a foundation here," Handy, 31, said before setting out on another patrol in the rain-soaked city Friday. "I really do hope that I read in six months that the Marines are able to leave this city."
Apart from its strategic location, Hit has little but history to its name. Its founding dates to the days of Babylon, long before the prophet Muhammad or Jesus was born. Hollow stone ruins from that time still stand by the Euphrates on the edge of Hit, reminders of an age when conquerors showed no mercy to the beaten.'It's an IED!'
Within the next few days, the old rule the Marines had attempted to follow -- treat others as you'd like to be treated -- would be confronted by the more ancient wish for vengeance.
Charlie Company's bad luck began a few hours after Handy stated his hope. It had been a quiet day. They assembled a convoy of five vehicles to make the day's "chow run" to two other bases in the city, delivering a hot dinner of beef stew and peas to the units standing guard there.
The convoy cleared the final checkpoint outside what the Marines called "Hotel Hit," a beaten-up former teachers' college in the western part of town that serves as Charlie Company's headquarters. The three Marines in the last Humvee, accompanied by a reporter, were grousing about the wet weather when the sharp sound of an explosion ended their conversation.
It came from about 30 yards ahead. The second-to-last vehicle was hit. White sparks showered as the high-backed Humvee skidded to a halt a few feet forward of a crater three feet wide and about two feet deep. The explosion had come from an antitank mine planted in an opaque puddle along the road, only 200 yards from the end of the barbed wire and barricades protecting Hotel Hit.
"It's an IED!" a Marine in the front passenger seat shouted, using the military's term for an improvised explosive device. The convoy stopped and the Marines poured out of their Humvees. The empty street resounded with the Marines' hoarse cries: What happened? Secure the road! Is anybody hurt?
Their expressions were creased with a mixture of surprise, alarm, fear and anger.
Cpl. Tadeusz Zych of New York, the convoy commander and leader of 2nd Squad, 3rd Platoon, radioed in to the base. His squad fanned out, taking the front, rear and intersections of the street. Others rushed to the site of the attack.
The explosion had ripped the Humvee's tires off and sprayed the cab with shrapnel. Three Marines sitting in the rear stumbled out in a daze, deafened and shaken by the blast. The two others, who sat in the cab, were bleeding.
Lance Cpl. Janilson Silva of Brockton, Mass., was in the passenger seat and tried to get Pfc. Justin Reynolds, who had dislocated his ankle, out of the driver's seat. But Silva's elbow had been hit by shrapnel. Pfc. Alian Pequeno-Gimenez of Tampa came to help, getting Reynolds out of the car and onto the muddy asphalt.
It later emerged that Pequeno-Gimenez, known as "PG," was among those sitting in the back and was the most seriously injured. He had a concussion and was soon drifting in and out of consciousness.
Reynolds, of Elida, Ohio, lay on the ground as a corpsman stopped the bleeding with a temporary tourniquet. The Marines nearby pleaded with Reynolds not to look at the blood and swelling of his foot. Reynolds bore the pain with stoic groans as he was placed on a stretcher and loaded onto another truck. Handy, his face a mask of grim concentration, walked with swift strides from Hotel Hit to the shattered vehicle just down the road.
"Reynolds broke his leg. Silva hurt his elbow. PG is deaf," Zych said, adding an expletive as he sped back to the main camp northwest of Hit, leading the remains of his convoy. "Don't get off the road! Don't even think about it!" the 23-year-old native of Poland yelled at his driver while frantically fiddling with the radio, which had stopped working.
Zych reached the base and stepped out of his Humvee, enraged. "When I go out there again, there are going to be a lot of dead hajjis , I'll tell you that," he said.Walking the Streets
Two days later, Zych felt no need to use the nickname given to insurgents. He had walked the city again since the attack. He was still shaken -- it was his first combat experience, he said -- but his anger had softened.
"We didn't take it out on kids," he said.
Charlie Company kept on patrolling. On Sunday afternoon, the troops were accompanied by the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit's commander, Col. Frank McKenzie. He said he likes to walk the streets two or three times a week to get his own sense of how his strategy is working.
McKenzie, of Birmingham, sported long, dark hair before he joined the Marine Corps. He has vowed he won't shave again when he retires. Given to reading both the ancient historians and the New Yorker, McKenzie, 48, takes an old-fashioned approach to war, dismissing the more arcane theories debated by military strategists as "elegant irrelevance."
"I think that sometimes the American military was seduced -- we were intellectually seduced -- by guys who promised a solution to everything," he said, as he walked the trash-strewn streets of Hit, where rusted-out cars and dilapidated stone buildings mix strangely with well-kept riverfront mansions with brilliant green courtyards and dusty Mesopotamian palms.
To McKenzie, the centerpiece of fighting the insurgency in Hit is the routine foot patrol, backed up by the kind of Southern charm he uses to set the example for his troops.
To that end, he said, he doesn't detain people without a good reason, and says he has let three-quarters of slightly more than 100 detainees go back to their homes quickly. On two recent patrols, his troops waved and gave Arabic greetings, high-fives and candy to residents they passed on the road. When they were searching houses, they didn't mark the walls with spray paint, as other units here have done.
As he walked along the three-mile route, he kept an eye out for what he and his officers call "atmospherics": how the residents look and react to the patrol. The Marines received a warm welcome from children calling out for chocolate. The grown men, dressed in the conservative gray dishdashas and turbans more common in this rustic part of Iraq, glared at the Marines from their store stalls, but would slowly nod or wave when McKenzie's troops greeted them.
The commander said his methods have deprived the insurgents of the popular support they need to win, adding that the Americans have received growing support from residents who are willing to tip off troops as well as a city council made up of local tribal leaders.
"Do they love us?" McKenzie said. "No. They don't, and they never will. But can you get a reasonable system of government here? Yeah, I think you can. I see nothing fundamentally ideological here that prevents us."
There's one catch. "I think this country can be fixed, but I think it'll take time to do it," he said. He doesn't worry about having to come back; in fact, he wishes he could stay a little longer, to see Hit develop a police force and a trash collection crew.
"To be honest, I'm more concerned about my son coming here," he said. His son, K.R., is a third-year midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy.'The Bad Guys Got Lucky'
The second blow came that night, about 1:30 a.m. Monday. A roadside bomb had exploded beneath an armored Humvee from Charlie Company on a routine pickup mission from Hotel Hit to another base in the city.
The enormous bomb utterly destroyed the vehicle, McKenzie said. The explosion killed two Marines almost immediately. A third died later of his wounds, and two others were injured in the explosion. The names of the dead have been withheld by military authorities until their relatives can be notified.
"The advantage is always with the guy who plants the bomb," said McKenzie, who added that it was still unclear what type of explosive had hit the vehicle. "The bad guys got lucky. I don't know that a tank would have survived it."
McKenzie vowed that the attack wouldn't change his strategy.
"You've got a very small minority of people who are causing these problems. What they are trying to provoke is an overreaction from us," he said. "What we have to do is stay on the mission and not get caught up with the anger of the moment. And we go out and patrol, and that's what's going to happen today."