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.
Prefacing the entry with an obscenity, he wrote: "I'm still shaking. Boom! My humvee just got hit by an IED about two minutes ago. I am sick of getting hit w/ this crap. Aw man that was a big bomb that they blew up right underneath us. Thank God for keeping everyone OK in my humvee. Now that's a direct hit."
The First Losses
Tragedy hit the platoon on Feb. 13. While patrolling the outskirts of Balad around 4:30 a.m., one of the four Humvees overshot a right turn and tumbled upside down into a freezing, seven-foot-deep canal, and three soldiers drowned, along with an Air Force firefighter who fell in during the rescue effort.
Memories of the three popular men -- Sgt. Rene Knox Jr., 22, of New Orleans; Sgt. Chad Lake, 26, of Ocala, Fla., and Sgt. Dakotah Gooding, 21, of Des Moines -- hovered over soldiers "like a mist," said Tickal,
Tickal soon began to narrate what he was seeing, first in jottings in an all-weather field book he kept behind his Humvee's sun visor, then in the thick diary that his ex-girlfriend, Spec. Jessica Williams, a reservist, sent him from the United States.
"I am currently in Iraq, my tour is half way over," he wrote in June. "When we first got to Iraq I lost three friends in the first month: Gooding, Knox and Lake. Gooding and I were pretty chill. He told me how he met his wife and mostly how much he loved her. He was also the funniest guy I have ever met. He would always say, 'foreeeal.' "
Even as the scorching summer heated up, Tickal, a bespectacled 23-year-old who studied biology at the University of Central Florida before joining the Army, frequently began his entries: "Today is a beautiful day." A self-described "dreamer," he punctuated passages with smiley faces or frowning faces; on one page he sketched a picture of Garfield, the cartoon cat, firing an M-4 assault rifle from the turret of a Humvee.
Tickal described himself as apolitical: "Truthfully, I don't care who the president is. I would have signed up to come over here anyway." But he criticized the apathy of Americans who, he wrote, failed to understand the stakes in Iraq: "I hope people back home understand what we are doing, keeping our country free. Truthfully I think our country needs a kick in the ass. Most people believe it doesn't affect them. Who cares? Well, I CARE."
Tickal worried that he "could die any day." On July 4, he described a phone conversation in which Williams "asked me what my biggest fears are. I never told her but I imagine a car bomb going off all the time. People screaming in my dreams."
"If I was a cat I would be down to maybe 2 lives left, I hope," he wrote six days later. "There is no way I am going to die in a place like this."
By July, Blue Platoon was increasingly under attack.
The frequency of indirect fire -- mortars and rockets fired at Camp Paliwoda -- had diminished significantly. But the number of roadside bombs, which have accounted for about 26 percent of the nearly 1,900 deaths of U.S. military personnel in Iraq, had more than doubled, to nearly two a day, within the battalion's 20-by-15-mile area of operation.
Many of the attacks were concentrated in al-Ruashid, a Sunni tribal neighborhood northwest of Balad. The insurgents seemed to operate invisibly amid the orchards. The locus was a one-lane road known as the Isaki Highway, its asphalt surface pocked with an obstacle course of bomb craters.
Tickal's diary reflected the growing tension, the platoon's exhaustion and frustration. "The day is half way over. It's about 136 degrees out," he wrote on July 29. "This morning seemed to disappear. The heat kind of puts you to sleep."
On Aug. 5, the platoon was hit by a roadside bomb on the way back from picking up a commander, who was returning from leave in the United States. "I told the captain, Welcome home,' " wrote Tickal. Using a racial epithet, he wrote, "I am getting tired of getting bombed and not catching" them.
On Aug. 6, Charlie Company's "Red Platoon" captured some insurgents with an artillery round. "That make me feel really great when we catch these jerkoffs," Tickal wrote. "They think they can get away w/anything. The thing is that it could be anyone. Everyone is poor in this country and I don't blame them. If I was poor I would take a few thousand dollars to place a road bomb. Man, I hate these insurgents."
On Aug. 7, the company's "White Platoon" was "hit by an IED for the 6th time in 2 days," Tickal wrote. "This time Big Will got hit. His whole right leg was hit by shrapnel."
By Aug. 10, it was "full out war," Tickal wrote. White Platoon was attacked by two roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, wounding two soldiers. When Blue Platoon arrived to assist, the soldiers came under small-arms fire. "I kept on hearing, pew, pew, pew," Tickal wrote. "Taylor my gunner started unloading amo can after amo can into the wood line. We ended up being there about 2 hours. The first hour was nothing but gunfire."
Each day, the platoon would seek out information to find the men who were attacking them. The soldiers acted on tips and stopped at random houses. They questioned nervous residents through masked translators who went by nicknames like "Fly" and "Steve" and struggled with English themselves.
The platoon did not expect much. Few residents offered information; some were openly hostile. On the morning of Aug. 24, the platoon dismounted and strolled through a neighborhood of modest homes and mud huts. The soldiers came upon a young farmer, Bassam Hazim Mohammed, 19, sitting in the shade beneath an arbor.
"He says he doesn't like coalition forces," the interpreter told the platoon.
"I'm gonna tell him right now the fastest way to get rid of us: Approve a constitution, stop shooting at us, and stop blowing stuff up," said 1st Lt. Lamarius Workman, 31, the platoon leader. As he spoke, a few Americans split off to search Mohammed's home.
"So, basically, the easiest way to get rid of us is to just fake like they like us, just fake it," implored Workman. "I'm serious. Just sacrifice a little pride and fake it for six months and you'll see we'll be gone in no time."
Lyrics of Loneliness
As the grueling month wore on, Baker, the platoon sergeant and an accomplished trumpet player, recorded his latest song about Iraq with Anthony Blocker, 27, of Marietta, Ga., another platoon sergeant in Charlie Company.
The two men used a music software program and microphone, mixing the songs on a laptop computer in a tiny wooden studio that Blocker built in his room. Baker wrote songs about the three drowned soldiers, the platoon's desolate base, the isolation of being away from family. "If it feels like I'm gonna cry a little bit, then I know it's good," he said.
Baker called this latest song, "August." Its haunting melody was set against lyrics that spoke of loneliness and resilience during endless separation:
A year long
A year gone
Is so damn long
Baby, hold on
It won't be long
Till I come home
There's been ups
There's been downs
We stay strong
It won't be long
Till I come home
On Aug. 26, Blue Platoon went back on patrol at 8 p.m. It was the second patrol of the day; earlier that morning, the platoon had been shot at outside a mosque.
Dusk was fading as the soldiers made their way around the city, stopping to question residents, inspecting an Iraqi police checkpoint. The brutal afternoon heat broke, giving way to a soft summer night.
At 10:30, the four Humvees raced down the dangerous Isaki Highway. The platoon reached a shuttered white store at the end of the road, stopped to fix a jammed grenade launcher, then doubled back down the highway.
The convoy slowed to about 20 miles per hour and headed east, the vehicles' headlights cutting a path through the darkness. Every hundred yards or so, the Humvees swerved to avoid bomb craters in the asphalt road.
Baker, driving the lead vehicle, swerved right to avoid one of the three-foot-deep craters. Beside it, buried beneath the asphalt and unbeknownst to him, was another bomb. "I was just going around the hole and it blew," Baker said.
"The truck came off the ground, sir," he continued, recounting the incident the next day in his room. "It kind of lifted it up and set it back down on the ground."
"It felt like we were flying," said Fishbein, the gunner.
About 25 yards back, Young found himself driving toward an orange fireball. Rocks and huge chunks of the road smashed the windshield, spreading a web of cracks. Young jerked the Humvee to the right. "Stop! Stop!" yelled Hagood, who was seated in the passenger seat. The vehicle stopped in a ditch surrounded by tall grass.
The gunners shot illumination flares and lit up the night. Now, able to see across the orchards, the gunners opened a barrage of fire with their M-240 machine guns, hoping to kill the unseen insurgents who had detonated the bomb. The red-hot shell casings fell down into the Humvees; one landed on Smith, scorched him through his pants.
"Ow!" he screamed, swearing.
The soldiers became euphoric as they learned no one had been hurt.
Inside the lead vehicle, Baker and Sgt. Ernest Daniels, of Harlem, N.Y., patted the dashboard, thanking the Humvee for protecting them.
"Good job, baby," Baker said.
"Yeah, baby," Daniels said. "Good job, good job."
Young backed the second Humvee out of the ditch and parked in the middle of the road.
"Thank God, whoever's praying for us," he said as the shooting subsided.
Once bomb experts arrived to inspect the site, the soldiers got out of their Humvees and walked over to the crater.
It stretched about six feet wide and three feet deep. Thousands of pieces of rubble were spread across the road. Next to the new crater was the old one that had been used as a decoy. Inside it was a battery bound with masking tape and attached to a thin copper wire.
Young, Hammer, Hagood and an explosives expert followed the wire across the road, along a wide dirt path. The wire ended abruptly after about 50 yards away, at another path that led back into the orchard.
The soldiers used flashlights at the end of their M-16 assault rifles to search the darkened fields. They scanned the tall grass between the bushy, 20-foot apple trees, warily sweeping their weapons.
"Something's moving right there," Hammer said, pointing his rifle. "I got my laser on it."
The soldiers pointed in unison. Lights and three red dots danced over the grass, which seemed to move.
"It's a rabbit," someone said finally.
The soldiers hiked over gullies and through the scrub before finally turning back to the vehicles.
The Humvees slowly headed back to the base, Baker's vehicle hobbling on a flat tire. Their headlights were dark; to see, the drivers used night vision goggles.
About 20 minutes later, the platoon arrived at Camp Paliwoda. The sign outside the gate displayed the American and Iraqi flags and read: "Partners in Peace, Balad, Iraq."
Once inside, Young began to sing the Army promotional jingle: "Be all you can be."
Two days later, at the onset of a morning patrol, Tickal pulled out his diary. "The sun is starting to rise," he wrote. "Thank you God for another day on this beautiful planet. Yesterday my humvee's windshields were being replaced. Thank goodness for bullet proof glass, huh?"