Last September medics from the Idaho National Guard’s 116th Brigade Combat Team trained in an exercise where a crowded mess hall was rocked by explosions. The medics, training at Dona Ana, N.M., rushed into a darkened room filled with smoke and screams; the dead, dying and wounded.
There was an eerie prescience to the drill as the Idaho soldiers begin their yearlong deployment in northern Iraq just as a suicide bomber killed 22 and wounded 60 by setting off a bomb in a crowded mess hall in Mosul.
The 4,300 brigade soldiers, headquartered at an air base near the city of Kirkuk in Iraq’s northern oil fields, have arrived at an intense and interesting time. They come a month before scheduled elections that have created increasing tension, and a month after an assault on the city of Fallujah that was intended to break the back of insurgents who had essentially taken over the city for much of this year.
While many insurgents were killed or captured, “The immediate aftermath of Fallujah … resulted in an influx of what we believe were displaced insurgents to the area near Hawija in the western portion of our area of operations,” wrote Maj. Thomas Williams, an information officer with the 25th Infantry (Light), the unit the Idaho brigade was sent to relieve.
Hawija, a Sunni Arab city 28 miles southwest of Kirkuk, is the area where North Idaho combat engineers are stationed as part of an infantry task force that includes soldiers of the 163rd Infantry of the Montana National Guard. Their base, forward operations base McHenry, is said to be the most intense of the seven FOBs staffed by soldiers from the 116th.
Six Kurds were murdered in Hawija in two incidents last weekend, according to news accounts. Early this week a suicide bomber exploded his car near a Humvee carrying four soldiers and an Iraqi translator near Hawija. The five were injured. None of the soldiers was from the 116th, military officials in the region said by e-mail.
There have been successes around Hawija this month, Williams wrote: “During a series of engagements, Iraqi Security Forces and Coalition Forces killed over 25 insurgents and captured several others in these brief but violent engagements.”
The captured insurgents included Hassan Saqlawi, believed to be an associate of Iraqi al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the primary targets of the Fallujah assault, Williams said. Another was identified as Said Ali Soufian, believed to be a former financier for the insurgents.
Several Iraqi newspapers said al-Zarqawi, who escaped the net around Fallujah, was spotted heading into Kirkuk in an ambulance. Williams acknowledged the rumors but said there has been no confirmation the insurgent leader is in the area.
But not all is war. The soldiers of the 25th Infantry, whose tours have been extended until March in order to provide a heavier U.S. military presence before the elections, have created a lane of Christmas scenes painted on panels, similar to the one they have every year at their home base, Schoffield Barracks in Hawaii. Individual companies have also created lighted Christmas trees from rebar and other materials at hand.
Williams said the troops also plan “Operation Papa Noel” to deliver gifts to Assyrian Christian families around Kirkuk. A variety of religious services are scheduled, as is a holiday meal for soldiers.
E-mail contact with North Idaho soldiers has been sporadic. But it appears the last 12 soldiers – left behind in Kuwait with three Humvees to escort a convoy – arrived at their forward operations base just in time for Christmas Eve.
One of the highlights of their deployment so far could be titled Rummy vs. Mad Max.
The topic was Humvees, specifically whether or not they had armor.
Even on the tarmac at Alexandria, La., last month, while waiting to board a plane to Kuwait, Col. Steve Knutzen, commander of the brigade’s combat engineers battalion, insisted his soldiers would be patrolling in tank-tracked armored personnel carriers, or APCs, known as M113s.
“We aren’t going to be in Humvees at all,” said Knutzen.
By the time they got off the planes in Kuwait, another combat engineer wrote, “Found out we will not be using our M113s. Didn’t break my heart – I hate the APCs.”
Instead, the engineers were assigned Humvees of various vintages. They came two and three at a time, the soldiers wrote, with the military switching and swapping almost every day like some mad game of three-card monte.
Most of the Humvees were older-models (M1025 and M1026) that are upgraded with armored panels and bulletproof glass. A very few were the new M1114s, which are thoroughly armored and have a stouter engine, transmission and shocks to handle the extra weight.
“From what I have seen the 25s and 26s are in pretty rough shape,” wrote Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Kincheloe, 48, a high school teacher and counselor from Harrison. “The vehicle I initially drew had a nice view of the road through the floorboard. The transmission blew and it was taken away to vehicle heaven – at least I hope they bury that sucker.”
This is the reality Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld walked into face-first when he addressed 2,300 soldiers from the Idaho and Tennessee National Guard who where headed in-country. A Tennessee Guard soldier asked a blunt question about why soldiers had to dig through garbage dumps for metal and glass to armor their Humvees. Rumsfeld, in video footage, appeared stunned not only by the question, but also by the outburst of cheers, whistles and applause it prompted.
“The day before Donald Rumsfeld paid us a visit,” Kincheloe wrote, “the first sergeant (Michael Kish) and I were up on ‘Mad Max Hill’ digging through scrap metal piles to find pieces to build cupolas for the gunners.”
Mad Max Hill – named for Mel Gibson’s character in post-apocalyptic movies – has become a bustling operation where soldiers cut and shape metal and glass into armored panels for just about any Army rig.
“I have seen some very interesting creations rolling out of here – this generation of soldiers did grow up watching Mad Max,” Kincheloe wrote.
Cpl. Steven Hanson, of Bonners Ferry, is the gunner in Kincheloe’s Humvee and was among the 12 Charlie Company soldiers left behind in Kuwait an extra week. Hanson is a veteran of the invasion, attached to the 4th Infantry Division in 2003.
These last dozen soldiers had been told they would be crossing the frontier on Christmas, prompting Hanson to note: “So remember while you all are having a Christmas dinner I might be getting shot at by an AK-47 or even an RPG, so just keep us in your prayers. Of course it will make an interesting story when I get back and people ask me what I did on Christmas of 2004.”
On Tuesday, Hanson wrote again to say the convoy of trucks had finally assembled and the three “gun trucks” were ready to roll.
“Today is finally the day we are leaving sometime, but what time they did not tell us. I am a little excited to leave, seeing how this will not be so much of an adventure or expedition trip like last time, but a trip to see how things have changed since I was here over a year ago,” Hanson wrote. “Well, got to go and finish the last-minute checks before we move out. Ping you later.”
He signed off, “Take care from your local American solider. Cpl. Steven Hanson.”
Kincheloe ended his letter with this:
“I hope everyone has a great Christmas and New Years … if you think about it, raise a glass to us.”