At Gator Swamp Outpost, the war is close and personal

GATOR SWAMP OUTPOST, Iraq—It's only five or six minutes as the Blackhawk flies from the comforts of Camp Victory, Baghdad Airport, to a couple of small Beau Geste forts occupied by American soldiers in the most dangerous place in Iraq.

The 10-mile journey south crosses land that is almost biblical in its simplicity—with mud-walled farm houses amid towering date palm trees, herds of sheep tended by shepherd boys, and chickens scratching idly in the beige dust. But this land is almost biblical in its violence as well.

Capt. Howard Donaldson of Detroit is the law on this side of the Tigris River. He is 33 and old for an infantry captain. He served in the Air Force Reserves as an enlisted man before he went through ROTC and became an Army officer. He commands A Company 2nd Battalion 502nd Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.

His command post, a two-story building, sits in the middle of a potato patch, and that patch is now surrounded by coils of razor wire.

"This is uncharted territory here and we are in a race to get the necessary intelligence and information on this area," Donaldson said.

A few hours earlier three of A Company's troops were wounded in a brisk firefight with Iraqi insurgent snipers. A fourth soldier, Spec. Denver Rearick of Waco, Ky., was shot in the back but saved by his body armor. Rearick said he heard gunfire, thought, "They're shooting at us," and suddenly felt a blow to his back that knocked him facedown.

Back at the Gator outpost a few hours later Rearick stripped off his jacket and T-shirt while a medic, Spec. Wayne Webb of Clifton, Va., checked him out. There was a round red circle on the upper right side of his back perhaps four inches across. "Doc, it only hurts when you touch it," Rearick said. "I'm OK. Damn lucky too."

Fellow soldiers peeled the ceramic plate out of the body armor. A 7.62 caliber bullet had almost penetrated the plate. Almost, but not quite. Denver Rearick would live to fight another day.

Lt. Nicholas Williams of Los Altos, Calif., leads the 2nd Platoon of A Company. His platoon mans a smaller outpost named, with a healthy dose of the black humor that is so beloved of combat soldiers, The Alamo. The Alamo is located in an abandoned and battered old schoolhouse across a big canal from the Gator outpost.

"We own the only bridge across the canal for miles," Williams said. "The bad guys don't like that."

Not long after A Company took over this area of poor farmers, the company's senior non-commissioned officer, Sgt. 1st Class Aram Bass, was killed by an improvised explosive device on Nov. 23. Since then five more troops have died. Scores have been wounded, most of them lightly enough to return to duty.

"The guys are amazing," said Sgt. Michael Maloney of Cincinnati. "You might want to quit, but they won't let you."

Williams echoed the thought, saying, "We drive to work every morning through a minefield. You don't know when the day starts if you will be alive when it ends, but the soldiers are up for it every day."

Donaldson said the company's mission is a tough one. "There are al-Qaeda cells operating 360 degrees around us. There are no front lines."

Donaldson said this is a war of improvisation and adaptation between the Americans and the insurgents. Early on, the deadly IEDs were triggered by infrared beams broken by American armored Humvees. The Americans then equipped their vehicles with an upright bar that stuck out six or eight feet from the front bumper, so the enemy mine hit the front of the vehicle instead of the crew compartment.

The enemy then shifted to pressure plate detonators. The weight of the vehicle set off explosives buried beneath the road. Insurgents watched the road from a distance, and when they saw a U.S. vehicle approaching used a cell phone to switch on the pressure plate detonator.

The waltz has just begun, and already has been costly on both sides.

One thing is certain: The Americans in this little part of Iraq known as the Triangle of Death have no intention of losing.

Lt. Col. Robert Haycock of Delavan, Ill., commands the 2nd Battalion and this day has flown in to visit with his company commander at Gator Swamp and the men at The Alamo. "I'm lucky to command these soldiers. America is lucky to have such sons and daughters. After a year this place will look better for sure. We are already seeing children coming out to play and people coming out to talk."

In places like these tiny outposts, they don't debate the war. They only fight it and shed their blood in the name of their country.



Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young