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Dispatches from the field in Iraq

UN CHECKPOINT 6-A, Southern Iraq—The ground attack began promptly at 7:59 p.m. local time with a thundering artillery barrage. Those of us with the infantry on the front line in Kuwait could see the 155mm rounds streaking overhead. The powder charges left red traces in the sky before the rounds hit seconds later across the border in a series of muffled thuds and faint white flashes against the dark horizon to the west.

"Game over, dudes," said Apache Company 1st Sgt. Michael "Todd" Hibbs, 36, of Boise, Idaho. "You should've split when you had the chance."

The barrage lasted 15 minutes. Reports came over the radio that Apache Longbow gun ships had spotted artillery up on the border and were firing rockets. The order came for Apache Company, 1-30th Infantry, in the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, to move.

We loaded up in our vehicles and began inching towards the border, about a kilometer away.

Progress was slow, as we waited for combat engineers to clear enough attack lanes across an anti-tank ditch and defensive sand berm that marked the Iraqi side of the demilitarized zone.

The next half-hour was marked by something just short of chaos. We'd move forward a few hundred meters and stop. Scouts from another infantry task force ended up on the wrong attack lane and had to be ordered off. The engineers weren't clearing the berm fast enough. There were reports of firing from the Iraqi side of the border, and of oilfields burning to the north, in the Marine Corps sector. But so far, we'd encountered no enemy fire.

At 8:49 p.m., a report came over that an Apache had gone down just on the other side of the border. Battalion and company radio nets crackled with frantic traffic. Had they been hit by enemy fire? No one knew for sure.

Apache Company got the order to move forward and secure the crash site.

A half-dozen Bradley Fighting Vehicles and two M113 armored personnel carriers roared through the berm and set up a defensive perimeter around the downed Apache. Hibbs skidded to a stop in his M113 a short distance from the aircraft.

"Let's go," he shouted.

I hopped out through the rear hatch. The Apache helicopter lay nose down in the sand, canted to one side. Hibbs raced to one side of the bird, I went to the other. The pilot on my side was waving a flashlight. A squad of infantry soldiers came running up from a nearby Bradley.

The pilot on my side had one hand extended. I grasped it.

"Are you OK?" I shouted.

"Yeah, we're OK," the pilot yelled. He told me his name, but I couldn't catch it because of all of the noise. He pumped my hand furiously in an adrenaline-fueled handshake and wouldn't let go. Sentences tumbled out, one on top of another. "We just came down kinda hard. But we're gonna try and get it cranked up and fly it outta here. Thank you guys for getting here so fast."

We ran back to our vehicles. Within 15 minutes, the bird was up again and flying back towards friendly lines.

"That's why those guys are the best pilots around," Hibbs yelled at me, through his M113's communication system.

I nodded absently. My heart was pumping like a jackhammer.

Apache Company pressed forward toward the Iraqi border outpost atop a small hill that had been the target of the artillery barrage.

Soldiers rushed forward to sweep through it. There was little left but blasted sheet metal from a couple of trailers, one of which had taken a direct hit, and a tattered Iraqi flag atop a metal pole.

A soldier ran past the flag, then doubled back, pulled the pole down to one side and cut the flag down. He stuffed it under his flak vest.

There were no Iraqi soldiers there. Whoever had been there had obviously left.

Ten minutes later, Apache Company was back up on its vehicles and pushing ahead. I piled into the back of Hibbs' M113, sweating hard. I pulled off my flak vest, unzipped the heavy top of my biochem protective jacket and crammed my skull into one of the carrier's communications headsets. Within minutes, I was fast asleep, as if I hadn't slept in years.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.