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`Minnesota Nice' goes to war

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq—Here's what happens when a nice girl from Minnesota—"Minnesota Nice" is what the locals call it—gets a .50-caliber machine gun and goes to war.

"I was not an aggressive person. I was the most passive person: `It's OK, you go first,'" said Michelle Maxwell, who works in a nursing home in Austin, Minn.

Then eight months ago, the Army National Guard specialist, 21, was sent to Iraq, taught to operate the heavy machine gun turret of a Humvee and told to shoot or run over anybody who threatened the truck convoys she was assigned to protect.

"I said, `There's just no way.' I put old people to bed. There's no way I could run over a kid," Maxwell said.

That was before she saw fellow soldiers in her transportation unit getting blown up on the roads of northern Iraq.

Now she talks about the "rush" of confronting insurgent attacks, forcing civilian traffic out of the way and stitching the pavement with her machine gun if another vehicle gets too close.

"You get here, and you see what's going on. You see IED (improvised explosive device) holes, people sent to (the hospital in) Germany. You've got to clear the way. You have to. You just have to," she said.

In Bravo Company, 50th Main Support Battalion, Maxwell finds herself in a conflict with no front line, where the enemy's weapon of choice is the improvised roadside bomb. The once-safe rear echelon job in a truck company is now one of the most dangerous, and female soldiers see as much combat as infantrymen.

Newly armored vehicles are saving lives, but the soldiers still face danger from a determined enemy using deadlier bombs that engulf their big, slow-moving trucks in flames.

Bravo Company describes itself as the wheels of the 42nd Infantry Division, its truck convoys moving food and prisoners, even tanks, to about two dozen forward operating bases throughout northern Iraq.

The company has about 250 soldiers, mostly from the Minnesota National Guard. About a fifth are women. The dozens of trucks that make up a convoy are inviting targets to insurgents.

"It is what a lot of people say is the most dangerous job in the division," said Maj. Jeff Howe, a St. Cloud, Minn., resident and the company commander. "The infantry division, they are the ones doing the hunting. We kind of feel we are the hunted."

A bomb killed one of the unit's soldiers this summer, Sgt. Manny Hornedo, 27, of Brooklyn, N.Y. About a dozen have been wounded.

The company's most dangerous route is a 170-mile round-trip run from its home base at Forward Operating Base Speicher near Tikrit to Forward Operating Base Warrior near Kirkuk.

That's where a bomb caught Spc. Anne Hanson's truck on Aug. 6.

"It started on fire almost immediately. It blew the fuel tank and both sides were on fire. My window broke and flames came in," said the 24-year-old Litchfield, Minn., nursing student.

"The heat inside the cab was so intense you couldn't breathe," said her fellow driver, Sgt. Matthew Perrier, a 45-year-old school bus driver from Richfield, Minn.

Perrier got shrapnel in his foot and burns to his face. Hanson got shrapnel in the foot, burns to her leg and a broken arm.

Hanson is believed to be the first woman in the history of the 42nd Infantry Division to get the Purple Heart.

"I wish like I had a dollar for every time I heard that," Hanson said. "It's an honor, but I don't think they should make such a big deal about it."

The truckers said many of their vehicles had only "hillbilly armor"—improvised metal plates—for the first six months of their deployment.

They started getting improved armor on all their trucks in June, just as "it started getting nasty, real nasty," Howe said. "It has saved countless lives."

The armor helps them survive initial bomb blasts, but the truckers still worry about escaping from their trucks when they burst into flames.

"Fire is a big deal to us," said Sgt. Jeff La Porte, of St. Cloud. "You are dead if you stay in the truck."

On a recent trip back from Warrior, Spc. Jessica Klein, a 20-year-old nursing student from Litchfield, Minn., drove the first big truck in the convoy, a gigantic vehicle called a Heavy Equipment Transport.

"When you first start, the trailer is hard to get used to, but after that it's fun to drive," she said, waving at a kid by the side of the road.

The convoy owns the road. Truckers drive aggressively, right down the middle of the highway. Despite the morning rush hour, the Humvees force all the civilian traffic on both sides to the shoulders. They don't obey traffic laws and stop moving only if a bomb is detected. The drivers urinate in bottles in their trucks.

"I've used a potato chip bag before," said Spc. Alicia Schiele, 21, a pre-law student from Apple Valley, Minn.

If a civilian car ventures too close, Klein will swerve right at it until the driver decides not to play chicken with a truck capable of hauling a 70-ton M1 Abrams tank.

"She makes me feel safe," said Spc. David Wolfley, 33, a St. Cloud resident who rides with Klein.

The truckers are suspicious of everything else.

Any piece of roadside trash might be hiding a bomb, the soldiers said. Anyone from an Iraqi police officer at a checkpoint to a ditch digger might be collaborating with the insurgents.

At 9:30 a.m., a couple of Apache helicopters appeared over the horizon to provide air support. Minutes later, the convoy halted. A suspected bomb was sighted ahead wrapped in a blanket by the side of the road.

The helicopters swooped around. An explosives disposal team was called. But after a half hour, the convoy commander ordered the trucks to drive off the road to bypass the area.

Twenty minutes later, they stop again for another suspected bomb. This time the truckers waited until the explosives disposal team arrived with a robot to blow it up.

At 12:50 p.m., another stop. Another suspected bomb.

The convoy detoured around it again, finally making it back home about 12 hours after it set out.

"That's a typical Warrior run," said Spc. Rob Morrison, 20, of New York. "The only difference was nothing blew up. Most of the time, s--- blows up."

Despite the dangers, Howe said many of his soldiers would rather go on missions than stay on the base.

"Guys get hooked on it. They gotta go," he said.

Maxwell said she volunteered to extend her job on a gun truck for a couple of months after the rest of the unit goes home.

"Because I can. I'm 21. I don't have anything," she said. "My parents gave my cat away."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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


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