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Convoy of Seabees plots, plans, keeps heads `on a swivel'

CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq—Shoot anyone digging beside the highway, U.S. Marine Lt. Marcus Williamson told his heavily armed Seabees. Shoot anyone on the roadside wearing black clothes and the yellow and green headbands of the radical Iraqi resistance. Shoot anyone with a gun.

But the No. 1 rule when running convoys through western Iraq, said Williamson, 35, is: "Keep your head on a swivel." Look everywhere all the time.

In the country they'd liberated last year, the 30 men had the wariness of wartime invaders.

They spent more than four hours preparing for the 26-mile, 45-minute drive from their Camp Fallujah to Baghdad International Airport. They plotted their responses to breakdowns, accidents and attacks until their reactions were second nature. They drilled in the rules of engagement—when they would fire. They worried about making a wrong turn.

The navigator of the lead Humvee had a trait crucial for success.

"Big fear of getting lost," said Engineer's Aide 2nd Class Oliver Taylor, 26.

Taylor, a native of Johannesburg, South Africa, hasn't allowed himself get disoriented since he got lost in Honduras at age 13 while helping his geologist father prospect.

"I can't get lost," explained Taylor, who uses a map to navigate and a global positioning system unit to verify his position on the map. On the inside of the Humvee's windshield, he'd written lists of numbers: way points, the convoy layout and the medevac (medical evacuation) frequency, which he and all 30 or so convoy members had memorized.

"The quicker I get back, the better I'll feel," said Seabee Builder Chief Clinton George, 32, of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74 in Gulfport, Miss.

The convoy left Camp Fallujah after midnight, and when it reached the six-lane highway from Fallujah to Baghdad, the race began.

"We are Oscar Mike," Taylor said, using the military term for On the Move.

"We're all about setting land-speed records," George said.

"The faster we move the better off we are," Taylor said.

The third passenger, 25-year-old Joshua Brand, an equipment operator second class, stood in the roof hatch and rode in the wind above the Humvee, gripping a .50-caliber machine gun. At home, he has a newborn son he's never seen.

Brand and the other gunners swung their weapons up as the convoy rolled beneath an overpass. They planned to get any sniper who might pop up.

George said little as the convoy—a half-dozen Humvees and two 7-ton trucks on a routine resupply run—got under way. He focused on the road, dodging every shredded tire, bit of trash or clump of dirt that might conceal or trigger an improvised explosive device.

The danger seemed especially vivid as the convoy passed burnt-out hulks of vehicles that insurgents hit last week.

So far, the Seabees have driven 5,000 miles in Iraq unscathed. They were fired on once. Another time, dismantling an unexploded device delayed their convoy.

Taylor is convinced that a certain candy, Gobstoppers, wards off bad luck. He had none of the lucky charm on the two unlucky trips. He brought Gobstoppers this time and passed them around.

A jackal darted across the highway as the convoy neared the American compound close to the airport.

A tank parked in the road served as a gate. It rolled out of the road and the convoy entered another fenced compound like Camp Fallujah where security is tight and U.S. troops feel safe.

The Seabees climbed out of their vehicles, unloaded their weapons and clicked the triggers of the empty guns into barrels of sand to make sure no bullets remained in the chambers.

"It sure is nice to be back on American land," George said.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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

Iraq

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