BAGHDAD, Iraq—Travis Roark saw fear in the eyes of the three enemy soldiers when he aimed his M-16 into their sand-bagged bunker along a residential street in the Iraqi capital.
He ordered them out, but he didn't like the way they high-stepped from the bunker. Checking more closely, Roark noticed a fine, ankle-high filament barely visible in the late-morning sun.
The 37-year-old Army staff sergeant had seen similar things as a demolition soldier in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He knew the enemy soldiers hoped he would try to enter the bunker, trip the wire and set off the explosives inside.
But he had no way of knowing about the booby-trapped man.
"It's only by the grace of God that I'm here right now," said Roark, a native of Whitesburg, Ky.
In two weeks of combat, Roark and the other soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division's Dragon Battalion had grown used to danger.
Only days before, the Dragon Battalion—the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment—had become the first U.S. force to engage Iraqi forces east of the Euphrates River.
Once across the river, it took the battalion nearly six hours to travel a 12-mile gantlet of roadway, a place they would later call "RPG Alley," after the rocket-propelled grenades the enemies used. Streamers of fire from the grenade launchers and the 40 or so tanks and armored personnel carriers hidden among the thick roadside tree lines lit up the night.
By midmorning, Dragon controlled "Objective Saints," a major highway intersection on the southern outskirts of Baghdad. The battalion lost one tank and suffered only one minor injury in the Battle of Saints.
"It was quite an adventure," said Lt. Col. John Charlton, the battalion commander.
The adventure had caught the Iraqi army by surprise; resistance around the capital began to collapse.
Resistance was nearly nonexistent there when Roark and 23-year-old Pfc. Joseph Humphrey left their Bradley Fighting Vehicle on April 11.
They were checking the alleys of a north Baghdad neighborhood when they found the bunker. Noticing the trip wire, Roark took no chances. He instructed the three soldiers to face a wall, get on their knees and place their hands behind their heads.
One of the soldiers was wearing a vest. With Humphrey at his side, Roark ordered the soldier to remove it. The soldier popped the Velcro. The hiss lasted only long enough for Humphrey and Roark to make an instinctive turn away from the blast that followed.
"It felt like I was hit by a Mack truck," the soft-spoken Roark said. "If I hadn't had him facing the wall, he damn sure would've killed me."
The blast cut the suicide bomber in two, wounded the enemy soldier next to him and blew a hole in the wall, covering Humphrey and Roark in blood and concrete. Their left sides would be sore for two days.
The third enemy soldier ran.
"When the bomb went off, it knocked my senses out," said Humphrey, of Hopkinsville, Ky. "I looked up and saw the colonel pointing."
Roark saw the same thing. They opened fire with their rifles, killing the fleeing soldier.
But it wasn't over. There were other bunkers at the intersection.
Charlton and two other soldiers joined the search. They saw an enemy soldier lying outside one of bunkers.
"We thought he was dead, but he popped up on one knee and started firing," Roark said.
Three other enemy soldiers—two armed with rocket-propelled grenades and another with an AK-47—popped out of the bunker. But they didn't get off a shot. The U.S. soldiers had already opened fire.
"It was like a scene from that movie `Tombstone,' during the part at the OK Corral," said Roark, an 18-year Army veteran. "It was pretty wild."
(Harper reports for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-DISPATCHES-HARPER