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Firing artillery often is a war waged against grid points

SAMAWAH, Iraq—The radio squawked, and seven soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division sprang toward the howitzer parked in the Iraqi desert. They were among the troops leading the assault on pro-Saddam Hussein paramilitary fighters operating out of Samawah, a city along the Euphrates River.

"Shell H.E.," a crewman called out, requesting a high explosive, rocket-assisted round for the 105 mm cannon, followed by the most powerful propellant charge: "Zone 8!"

The patch of sandy turf behind the big gun turned into a bevy of soldiers passing shells and charges, calling out coordinates and checking settings.

The recruitment ad boasts of an "Army of One," but in the war in Iraq, artillery is precise teamwork waged by men who have no idea whom or what they're firing on miles away.

It's a war waged against grid points.

About two and a half miles away from the big guns, the radar team for the unit, the 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, had picked up the source of enemy mortar fire. They were ordering the artillery batteries to lay fire on the spot where the mortar rounds came from.

"Set ready!" yelled Jason McCormick, the gunner, a 25-year-old from Greenville, Ala., who would extended his enlistment by six months to see combat. In six years of artillery work, he had never fired the maximum, Zone 8 round.

The howitzer chief, Sgt. Abel Watson, then took over: "Fire!"

The soldiers felt the concussion in their chests and the blast in their ears. But the men who do the firing can't see what happens when it's a radar shot.

"That's the worst thing," said Sgt. James Hinton, 23, from Louisville, Ky. "We want to know whether we hit something."

Hinton and three crewmates sat around a table made of plywood on top of ammunition crates under a camouflage netting.

"We'd also like to know what we're shooting at," said Pfc. Jason McBride, a 21-year-old from Port Angeles, Wash.

Across the table, Sgt. Elijah Caddy responded that, sometimes, they had a pretty good idea.

"If it's a timed fuse," said Caddy, 23, of Tulsa, Okla., "then you're shooting at personnel," because it sprays shrapnel.

If they could picture that they were firing on people, would they ...

"Hesitate?" Caddy finished the question. "Nah." The targets might be on their way to attack the U.S. infantry.

Artillery teamwork stretches up to the front lines, where members of the unit are attached to infantry battalions as forward observers who radio back locations for the howitzers to fire on. The commands go through fire support and fire direction officers. The location is checked for friendly units before the order is cleared, all in a matter of seconds.

In their training exercises at Fort Bragg, N.C., the crews move the guns around much more and generally are much busier.

Now, they wait to be called on, passing the time by building up their defenses around the guns or playing checkers with a set made out of water bottle caps and a meal-ready-to-eat box.

There's less busy work than in peacetime, acknowledged 1st Lt. John Turner, 24, of St. Paul, Minn., but "definitely higher stress."

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

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