CAMP TAJI, Iraq — In the first month that they were in Iraq, someone threatened, shot at or tried to blow up the soldiers of the Kentucky National Guard's B Battery, 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery 12 times. Last month, there were only three such incidents.
But confirmation that the roads have become safer came a few weeks ago when a flier went up in the 2-138's office at this base 20 miles north of Baghdad.
"Effective immediately," it read, "assume all civilian vehicles are friendly."
The order admonished soldiers throughout Iraq to yield to civilian drivers, allow vehicles to pass and avoid firing their weapons as they escorted convoys of concrete barriers, generators, water and food to U.S. military outposts.
It was a major reversal of a longtime policy that had made units such as the 2-138, which arrived in Iraq in August, the kings of Baghdad's littered highways. From their hulking five-ton armored military trucks, the soldiers of the 2-138 had flashed lights, shouted through loudspeakers and fired warning shots that trained Iraqi drivers to pull over and let the nighttime convoys pass.
"The world we've been living in, we own the road," said Staff Sgt. James Rawlings, a factory worker, student and father whose ride back home is a Mazda 626, not an armored M1083, the Army's standard cargo truck. Now, the U.S. military is "giving some power back."
Rawlings admitted that the new rules have put the 2-138 on edge. There's no doubt that violence in Baghdad is down, but it wasn't so long ago that car bombs targeted convoys. If things worsen again, the 2-138 figures it'll be among the first to know.
"We're the guinea pigs," Rawlings said. "Sometimes I think it's a little better; sometimes I think they're just waiting for it to cool down."
Even with the new rules, the unit's every move is planned. Each trip starts four days out, when the soldiers are assigned a mission. Two days before, they plan the route and decide which vehicles they'll need. They rehearse it four hours ahead by drawing the route in a huge sandbox and reviewing intelligence about risky areas, recent incidents and road debris that might be new improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
Every mission begins well after dark and ends, they hope, before daylight.
A recent three-day mission had them escorting tractor-trailers loaded with concrete blast walls to military outposts in southern Baghdad.
Behind the wheel on the front gun truck was Spc. George Patton — "Like the general, but middle name's Timothy." Just 19 and still surprised to be in Iraq, he was eager to take his leave in January, when he plans to spend his savings on an engagement ring and a black 2008 Kawasaki Ninja 650, or maybe a chrome-and-white one.
He volunteered to drive Gun One, the lead vehicle. His fiancee almost killed him when she found out, he said. His mother told him it was just like him.
Patton drove far ahead of the others, the first in line for an ambush or an IED.
"I was falling asleep at the wheel in Gun Four. If something's going to happen, it's going to happen whether I'm in Gun One, Gun Four or Gun Six," Patton said. "Hell, I'm here. I might as well have fun doing it."
Standing next to him, the gunner poked his head through a hatch in the cab and shone a spotlight on the landscape. He threw a chemical glow stick to mark any suspicious objects that might hide roadside bombs — burlap sacks, piles of concrete, unusual stacks of trash. The biggest fear is explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, the only commonly used weapon they know their armor can't stop.
From the passenger seat, the truck commander examined the ground for triggers and kept the convoy informed of what he saw. They never traveled faster than 35 mph.
The 2-138 has logged 150,000 miles since August, getting the up-close tour of war and reconstruction between the comforts of coalition-controlled camps, from Camp Anaconda, the vast military hub 70 miles north of Baghdad, to deep into Baghdad's neighborhoods.
Usually, the streets are empty and the power is out. The sky is black and the stars shine brighter than they ever did in the United States. The few times the 2-138 has been caught in daylight — when a mission runs late or requires quick delivery — the soldiers are shocked to see traffic jams and streets packed with people.
"Sometimes, we're blissfully ignorant of what we're really driving through," said Capt. Steve Mattingly, the unit commander from Bardstown, Ky.
The roads are safer, Mattingly said, but still he worries that they're courting disaster by changing their road policies. It was easier when they could stop traffic instead of trying to judge how dangerous it is.
"I have to worry about these guys 24 hours per day, in an office rolling down the road, in a place where people want to shoot us," Mattingly said. "You've got kids — and they are just kids — making life-and-death decisions. 'Do I kill this guy?'"
They remember the dark period shortly after they arrived, when 37-year-old Staff Sgt. Delmar White was killed by an explosive device that hit the M1117 Armored Security Vehicle he was commanding. Four days before a 150-car procession accompanied White's body for burial at Kentucky's Camp Nelson National Cemetery, Pvt. 1st Class Sammie Phillips, 19, was killed in a rollover accident in the same type of vehicle.
"It breaks your heart, you know?" said Staff Sgt. Jared DeAtley, of Fleming County, Ky. "You question a lot of things. Could I have done something else? Something more? But you can't question yourself over here — you just have to do what you've been trained to do."
The M1117 ASV has the smoothest ride, the biggest weapons and the best armor in the convoy. Its turret comes standard with a grenade launcher and a .50 caliber machine gun. Squat and claustrophobically compact on the inside, the four-wheeled M1117 is mostly windowless, with a few hatches for doors. But in case of injury or breakdown, it's the vehicle most likely to pick up passengers; it has room for a fourth person inside, unlike the convoy's trucks.
Spc. Chad Little, an M1117 gunner, said it's the perfect vehicle for him, safe enough that when it was fired at, he heard only a muffled pop. He likes to stick his head through the hatch, check out the surroundings, smile and wave. Before insurgents or militias lash out at a convoy, he hopes they'll remember the nice guy who waved from behind the grenade launcher.
On the road, most civilian drivers still pulled over, darkened their lights and made room for the long stretches of U.S. military vehicles. Soldiers of the 2-138 followed orders and used their spotlights to urge them back onto the road.
"You have to change your whole mindset," said Little, a bank employee from Radcliff, Ky., who holds a degree in anthropology. "Makes you a little nervous."
Change isn't easy. Rawlings remembers his first time on the road, the night he learned how to maneuver the truck, control traffic and scan for IEDs. Around 11 that night, the convoy passed a few Iraqi security officers talking on their cell phones. He thought he was searching for all the right signs, but by the time he heard someone yelling, "Stop, stop, stop!" in the headset, it was too late.
Rawlings saw the flash and felt the tremor as the IED exploded. The gunner leapt from the vehicle on a fruitless hunt for the triggerman. Shaken and delayed, but not injured, they continued to their next stop.
He likes the Iraqis he's met since then and wants to trust their security forces. But when he sees Iraqi police on the phone, he bristles and wonders who they're alerting to the approaching convoy. All he can do is open his eyes and let his truck creep down the road.
"Mission first," Rawlings said. "No matter what you do, you gotta finish your job."
McClatchy Newspapers 2007