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Tension ratchets up as platoon commander examines bunkers, tanks, mines

Name: Rod Richards

Rank: Marine gunnery sergeant

Age: 34

Hometown: Morton, Ill.

Job: Platoon commander


CAMP VIPER, Iraq—Approaching a massive Iraqi bunker system that can hold up to 1,000 soldiers, Gunnery Sgt. Rod Richards expects to face a nasty firefight. Or maybe he will find hundreds of dead bodies, if the Air Force beat him to it.

A few weeks ago, he was told the bunker was occupied. When the unit was given its mission, it looked bleak, he says.

At best, Richards is hoping that hundreds of Iraqis will surrender to a couple of squads of Marines.

Richards, a platoon commander in charge of 46 Marines, is taking care of flank security for a convoy heading north through Iraq. Using satellite pictures, they mapped the bunker system in a sandbox and developed a plan of attack.

Richards is riding in a 7-ton truck with 15 Marines, loaded with several types of guns. He also is in charge of another 7-ton truck with another squad of Marines led by Sgt. Kenneth Ferguson. The two trucks will provide security for a team that will clear the bunker.

As they approach the bunker, nobody is around. Everything is destroyed. There is no sign of life. No sign of death, either. It looks abandoned, says Richards, 34, of Morton, Ill.

They stop, and Richards looks through binoculars at small fighting bunkers, which could probably hold about four soldiers, built into the sand.

Richards directs his truck crew to approach the bunkers with guns ready to fire, but again, nobody is around. The truck takes off, and somebody screams: "Yee haw!"

A few minutes later, Ferguson spots a tank turret on the horizon, probably 800 meters away, north of the convoy they're protecting. Richards sees the turrets through binoculars and calls command.

"There's a turret facing me, making me nervous," Ferguson says.

Richards' trucks are in the open, in the middle of the desert, well within range of a tank.

Richards decides to attack.

If everything goes really well, we will lose a fire team or so, Richards thinks. Only four Marines would die.

If things go badly, he thinks, almost nobody will survive. His mission is to clear the area. If he fails, more than 80 people in the convoy could die.

Richards will take the tank on the left. Ferguson will focus on the tank on the right.

Two squads of engineers are about to attack two main battle tanks. They are carrying four anti-tank rockets, hand grenades and C4 explosives rigged with 10-second fuses.

The trucks, part of the 6th Engineer Support Battalion, race across the desert toward the tanks, but the turrets don't move. Richards' truck parks about 250 meters away from the tank. Richards can see the turret, hidden behind a berm, protected with barbed wire. His squad fans out across the desert and sets up the machine guns.

Things are going well, Richards thinks.

Ferguson calls in more intelligence: A third tank has been spotted.

Richards is working the radio. He tries to give the grid coordinates for air support, but the radio is cluttered with chatter. Someone from 1st Platoon is trying to tell Explosive Ordnance Disposal the location of some unexploded ordnance. A support platoon driver asks another driver whether he had eaten noon chow.

Richards is furious.

"I'd smash their face in, with a smile, if I could reach them," he thinks. It's an uncommon burst of anger.

Richards is normally mild-mannered. A Marine Reserve, he is the father of two who works in information technology at Caterpillar Inc.

Four Marines run up to a tank with guns and explosives, knowing they will probably not survive. They will be mowed down by machine gun fire or they won't be able to find cover in time to get protection from the 10-second fuse on the block of explosive.

Right before setting off the explosives, they discover the tank is a clever decoy.

Richards is proud of his Marines.

"Not too bad for our first encounter with a tank," he says.

A few hours later, Richards rides on the same truck, providing flank security for the convoy. The truck is about 250 yards off the road, churning through soft sand. Richards notices a rusty brown metal disc half buried in the sand. The disc disappears under the truck. Richards looks up and sees hundreds of little discs spread across the ground.

Land mines!

"Stop!" Richards screams.

The truck stops, and Sgt. T.R. Sparenberg sighs.

Richards calls command: They have driven into a minefield.

Richards hops out, carefully. He digs around the disc with a plastic spoon, trying to find out whether it is connected to an explosive. He's pretty sure it's an anti-tank mine. They go off from pressure, he thinks.

He should be good to go, working under the disc.

He doesn't feel anything under the disc, and with one quick move, he flips it on its side.

Nothing happens.

It's a fake, and he smiles.

Another Marine finds another type of land mine, small ones called Toe Poppers, which blow off feet.

Even if one land mine is a fake, they don't know about the others.

They drive the truck backward, out of the minefield. But there is a trailer on back, and it starts to jackknife.

"Stop!" somebody screams in back. "Turn the wheels the other way!"

Richards walks across the ground, leading the truck out of the minefield, and they reach safety.

"Fake mines, fake tanks," Richards says. "Someday, somebody isn't going to cry wolf."


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

ILLUSTRATION (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): IRAQFACES+RICHARDS