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Squad that had enjoyed good luck during war rocked by 2 casualties

FALLUJAH, Iraq—Two U.S. armored vehicles prowled slowly at dusk along the route known as Highway 1 outside Fallujah, one of the most dangerous towns in all of Iraq for American soldiers.

Two soldiers manning the turrets and a pair sticking out the rear hatches of each Bradley fighting vehicle scanned the sand and debris on either side of the road, searching for hidden roadside bombs, known in military lingo as IEDs, for improvised explosive devices. They are the biggest killers of American troops in Iraq's simmering 7-month-old guerrilla war.

The lead track approached a spot where the guardrail in the median strip had been torn down. The vehicle slowed to a crawl as the soldiers searched for telltale wires, disturbed ground, anything unusual that might indicate a hidden bomb.

"They like to put the IEDs in places like this," said Staff Sgt. Mark D. Vasquez, 35, of Port Huron, Mich. "They like to bury them down in the sand and then daisy-chain them together with a wire to another couple at the next spot. We once found a couple of 155 mm (artillery shells) buried in one spot. It makes it dangerous for us."

Vasquez and the other soldiers quickly checked the area, but spotted nothing suspicious. Slowly, the two vehicles moved on. The patrol ended without incident. It had been a good day.

That was Thursday. On Saturday morning, Vasquez and his squad went back out on the same mission, on the same route. At 8:15 a.m., their Bradley was hit by a hidden artillery shell. Vasquez was killed, along with one other soldier, Staff Sgt. Gary Collins, 32, of Hardin, Texas. Collins was the Bradley commander.

I had been on the patrol Thursday with Vasquez and Collins. I stood in the back hatch of the Bradley next to Vasquez for more than two hours. We shared cigarettes as we scanned the road.

I had shared cigarettes with Collins, too. And talked to him a lot.

Knight Ridder photographer David Gilkey and I accompanied Vasquez and his squad as they searched a building where enemy fighters had been suspected of hiding. Gilkey captured the last photos of the tough staff sergeant in action. Those photos show a quiet, confident noncommissioned officer leading his men, a nine-man squad, all of them kids, most of them not more than 20 years old, but all of them soldiers, away from home, away from their loved ones, carrying out the mission they were called to do, in a hostile land.

We don't have the same photos of Collins.

These men were both tough, competent noncommissioned officers. Both of them Army Rangers.

Looking for hidden bombs is tedious, often unrewarding work. It's a primary mission for Alpha Company, 1-16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division. While other units were out raiding suspected enemy safe houses and nabbing "bad guys," Vasquez and his fellow soldiers from Fort Riley, Kan., had more prosaic chores. Mostly, they spent their days sweeping the same 10-mile stretch of road, searching for the hidden killing devices. At night, they kept vigil outside a hospital operated by the Jordanian military and watched over a nearby highway cloverleaf, an important juncture on the U.S. military's main supply route in western Iraq.

Before Saturday, there had been close calls and combat wounds. But the company hadn't lost a soldier. Before I learned about the men's death, the draft of my story emphasized how lucky they had been. Many of them wanted to get more aggressive about going after the enemy.

"We need to cordon off these cities where we've been having problems and start policing them up," Collins had said. "It ain't going to be pretty, and innocent people are going to get hurt. That's kind of a hard way of looking at it, but I think that's what it's going to take."

Until Saturday, it had been a good run.

"Of the 38 IEDs that have been found in this area, we've found all but four of them," said 1st Sgt. Greg Westbrook, 40, of Carrollton, Ga., Alpha Company's top enlisted man. "We've only had four of them go off. So we've been a success."

That's 34 or more American soldiers who might have lost their lives had they been struck by the bombs.

Vasquez and Collins died so that other soldiers might live. They were leaders.

At the scene where their Bradley had been hit, I talked to Westbrook. "I don't know what to say, man," I told him. "I'm sorry."

Westbrook clasped my shoulder. He had tears in his eyes. "It's OK," he said. He paused for a second. "Why don't you come back in a couple of days," he said. "I think the guys liked having you around."

So far, I haven't had the guts to. What do I say to these men? What do I say to their families back home?

Gilkey and I had bailed out on Friday. We thought there wasn't enough action. I wanted to get with a unit that was seeing more. I wanted to write about the war.

Had we stayed, we would've gone on Saturday morning's mission. We might be dead too. Now I sit in Baghdad, trying to write about these guys, trying to tell their stories, trying to make sure their voices are heard. This is my mission.

Alpha Company arrived in Iraq in early September. On his first patrol, company commander Capt. Jim Rogers, 30, of Weslaco, Texas, was struck in the arm and back by shrapnel when two hidden 155 mm artillery shells exploded as his Bradley passed by.

"If we'd been in a Humvee, we'd have been blown apart," said Rogers, who spent several days in the hospital before returning to duty. "But we took it and just kept rolling."

Enemy resistance comes in cycles. The last few days before Saturday had been pretty quiet. Previous weeks had featured mortar barrages, gun battles with looters at a nearby steel plant and an almost nightly string of hit-and-run attacks.

Their worst casualty before Saturday came when a sergeant was hit in the arm by AK-47 rifle fire. The round severed an artery, but the sergeant was evacuated and Army doctors managed to save his arm. He's recuperating in the United States.

During that attack, gunmen hit two tanks posted on the cloverleaf with rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47s firing armor-piercing rounds and hand grenades with one-second fuses. Tanks are often vulnerable without infantry support, so Alpha Company was called in to help. A squad of infantry killed seven gunmen, but five soldiers were wounded in the process.

"We had a total of five Purple Hearts that night," said Staff Sgt. Eric Delagarza, 31, of Paris, Texas. "Out of nine guys, that's not good."

The dead gunmen, they later discovered, were foreign jihadis, or "holy warriors," Delagarza said. The dead men all wore the same type of dark uniform and had shaved their bodies bare in anticipation of entering paradise.

Just last week, a group of about 30 gunmen ambushed an 82nd Airborne Division patrol near the same cloverleaf. Alpha Company again was called in for support. A few of the gunmen were killed, but most got away. Alpha Company had no casualties.

"You come out here nine out of 10 times, and nothing happens," said 1st Lt. Scott Dillard, the company's executive officer. "But it's that one time out of 10 that it gets really interesting."

The hit-and-run nature of the guerrilla action frustrates many soldiers. They tell stories about how even kids on the street sometimes will act as if they're shooting at them.

"We need to start getting hard on them," Collins had said.

Other soldiers agreed.

"Instead of trying to police the community, we're just trying to stay alive," said Sgt. Raymond Hodge, 21, of Sallisaw, Okla. "It's like we're running from trouble."

Most soldiers said what worried them most were the hidden bombs.

Just a few days ago, Pfc. Donny Ottaway, 19, of Denver was on foot patrol when he stepped right over a 155 mm shell buried in the sand. Fortunately, no one was around to detonate it.

"You sit there and do something like that and you know somebody is watching over you," he said, grinning.

Young soldiers always go to war itching for action. But now that they've been tempered by battle, most of these soldiers said the only thing they wanted was to make it back home alive.

"I can go this entire time without seeing any more action," Hodge said. "It won't bother me at all."

This is the war. Mostly, it's calm; there's no shooting. There are no bombs going off. Then someone dies. It's random and senseless. Some get to go home. Others leave behind grieving families.


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

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