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Humvee ride through the night frightening

SAMAWAH, Iraq—I took a ride in a Humvee the other night and was convinced I was going to die.

Let's call the main characters in our story Sgt. Maj. Barney and Sgt. Gomer. They were ordered to help organize a convoy of a half-dozen trucks and Humvees from the headquarters at the 1st battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, to their brigade headquarters and back. The convoy was running several hours late. By the time it started on the return trip, night had settled in.

Barney and Gomer finally loaded up the Humvee, with me and photographer Jim Barcus of The Kansas City Star in the back seats. The darkness was worsened by blowing sand. Their radio was not properly reset so, as the last vehicle in the convoy, they could not communicate with the first. The soldiers in the first Humvee gave Barney and Gomer a walkie-talkie, and finally the convoy departed. Within seconds, and without ever leaving the brigade camp, we lost the rest of the convoy.

The vehicles were all using the seemingly oxymoronic "blackout lights," which are very low intensity head- and tail-lights to avoid being shot at. Like their radio, though, Barney's and Gomer's lights didn't work, and Gomer never has gotten the hang of his night vision goggles.

"That's a tent," Barney said to Gomer as they tried to find the trucks in the dusty dark.

"Roger that, sergeant major, I see the tent," Gomer said, as he realized he had mistaken it for a truck.

The same scenario played out several times during what should have been a brief trip back to the battalion: Barney and Gomer lose sight of trucks; Gomer nearly runs off the road; Barney radios the convoy to stop and wait; Barney cannot understand the radio transmission over the walkie-talkie; convoy stops; Barney and Gomer catch up. Repeat process.

Before leaving the brigade camp, Barney is asked how long the drive will take. Answer: 25 minutes.

Actual time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

The following day we waited for a ride back, in a truck this time. We figured we were safe; tucked into an abandoned cement plant that the 1st Battalion had taken over.

That's when an Iraqi mortar round exploded behind the building. I was convinced I was going to die.

But it only bounced me out of bed.


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