Unit's Mission: Survive 4 Miles To Remember Fallen Comrade

Sgt. 1st Class Corey King, left, planned the route, while Capt. Ricky Taylor decided if troops would ride or walk. (By David Finkel -- The Washington Post)
By David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 9, 2007

BAGHDAD, July 8 -- Everything in the Army is supposed to have a task and a purpose, and this simple mission was no different. The task was to get 27 soldiers from Point A to Point B, from their neighborhood combat outpost to an Army base four miles away. The purpose was to attend a memorial service for one of their fellow soldiers, who had died eight days earlier while attempting to make the very same trip.

And so the leaders of Alpha Company had a decision to make: drive in Humvees and risk getting blown up by a roadside bomb, which is what happened to their friend, who bled to death as they worked to save him, or try to minimize the risk of a bomb by walking the four miles in searing summer heat, which would increase the chances of being shot by a sniper.

Such were the choices last week in eastern Baghdad, an area that has become more dangerous since the inception of the Baghdad security plan earlier this year. A largely Shiite area, it had once been less deadly than those parts of Baghdad with Sunni-Shiite fault lines. It was now twitching with daily gunfire, mortars, rockets, grenades and, most of all, roadside bombs, all targeting U.S. soldiers. The attackers were thought to be affiliated with the militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

All through June, more and more of those attacks were aimed at Alpha Company and its parent unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 16th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, which had arrived in eastern Baghdad in mid-February as part of President Bush's troop escalation. In March, its first full month of deployment, the battalion was hit by 12 roadside bombs, referred to by the military as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. In April, as soldiers began moving into neighborhood outposts and rounding up suspected insurgents, that number was 21. In May, as they met with local leaders and got some community improvement projects going, the number was 27.

And then came June, when there were 80 roadside bombings, with 13 other bombs discovered before they exploded. And it wasn't just bombs targeting the battalion: There were also 52 instances of direct fire involving small arms or rocket-propelled grenades and 26 instances of attacks with rockets or mortars. By the end of the month, one soldier had lost a hand, another an arm, another an eye, another had been shot in the face, 19 in all had been injured and four others had died.

One explanation for such a surge in attacks: "We're winning. They wouldn't be fighting if we weren't winning. They wouldn't have a reason to," said Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, the battalion commander. "It's a measure of effectiveness."

But he also described the month as "difficult" and "challenging," while his second in command, Maj. Brent Cummings, described it as "a crappy, crappy month." The commander of Alpha Company, Capt. Ricky Taylor -- who would be the one to decide whether to walk or drive -- called it "very, very difficult"; 2nd Platoon Sgt. 1st Class Corey King -- who would be the one to plan the route -- called it "ugly. Ugly. Ugly."

All were thinking about June 28, when the 2nd Platoon was midway between its outpost and the main base at 6:48 a.m. and an IED exploded so loudly that it was heard at the outpost and on the base, where it rattled Cummings's door, waking him up.

Quickly, Cummings was on the phone to Taylor, who was at the outpost, listening on the radio.

"What's it look like?" Cummings would recall asking.

"Sir, it's bad," Taylor said. "I can hear screaming in the background."

That turned out to be a soldier in the second Humvee of the convoy whose right arm had been severed and was screaming, "My arm, my arm!" He would survive.

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