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Troops Have a Nervous Ride to Nighttime Raid

One California National Guard company has lost four men in barely a week to roadside bombs. Now its members take helicopters to missions.

November 07, 2005|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — As his men geared up for the arrival of the choppers, Capt. Jeffrey Dirkse turned his iPod on full blast. Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" blared through the barracks.

"Hit 'em hard and hit 'em fast," he told the men of Delta Company, after the music used in "Apocalypse Now" had died down.

So many soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division have been killed by roadside bombs, troops have begun flying to their missions.

In the last six weeks, this area just south of Baghdad has become one of the main battlegrounds for American soldiers, and the fighting has taken its toll on this California National Guard unit of 700 troops, known as the Night Stalkers.

The battalion commander, Col. William Wood, was killed by a roadside bomb Oct. 27 as he responded to another explosion that had mortally wounded another soldier. Since mid-September, the Night Stalkers have lost 11 soldiers and more than 100 have been wounded. The 105-member Delta Company lost four men in eight days.

Every man in Delta has experienced the blast of a roadside bomb.

"We've been taking it bad," said Dirkse, of Ontario. "We've been hit well over 100 times. I lost count after 80."

Soldiers now stay away from Humvees when they can, preferring Bradley fighting vehicles or M-1 tanks instead. But even those cannot withstand the more powerful bombs. Recently, one 60-ton Abrams tank was lifted off the ground when it hit 1,000 pounds of explosives, leaving a 15-foot-wide crater. Two soldiers were killed in the blast.

The 1-184 operates in a Sunni Muslim area a short drive across the Tigris River from downtown Baghdad. The district is home to numerous farms that U.S. commanders suspect insurgents use as hide-outs and bomb-making facilities.

Initially, resistance in the area came from Saddam Hussein stalwarts. Grand mansions dot the riverfront, most of them property of former members of the dictator's Baath Party. But groups pledging allegiance to Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi are taking over, American commanders say.

"It's like the New York Yankees: Everybody wants to play for the Yankees," said Capt. David Conkle, the battalion's intelligence officer. "They've got the money, so they're winning. Nobody wants to play for the Expos."

Assassinations and sectarian killings are rampant in the area. On the day of last month's constitutional referendum, election workers refused to set foot in several polling sites here for fear of being slain, leaving frustrated American troops to watch over empty sites and long lines of disgruntled voters. A few of the Iraqis walked for hours to get to an open polling site, but most did not get to cast ballots.

To try to improve security for the National Assembly election in December, the battalion has stepped up offensives.

On Saturday, Dirkse and his Delta Company soldiers, nicknamed Demons, rehearsed for hours in a sandy patch at Forward Operating Base Falcon. By 8 p.m., 50 soldiers were lined up on the landing strip, awaiting five Black Hawk helicopters that would take them to search a cluster of houses for guerrillas and explosives.

Although they were supported by Apache attack helicopters carrying Hellfire missiles and an AC-130 plane with a cannon, the soldiers were jittery.

Some smoked cigarettes. A sandstorm was making its way from the Syrian border toward Baghdad, and Dirkse worried that having flown to their target, the men might need to walk for miles to a spot where they could get a ride back with a convoy.

Just as they were about to depart, a bomb exploded outside the camp, echoing across the strip.

Dirkse heard on the radio that the "iron claw" -- a vehicle that clears the roads of bombs -- had been hit and a soldier wounded.

A few minutes later, the helicopters landed, the noise of their blades deafening. The men ran to get aboard.

As they took off, the men hollered in excitement. Their night-vision goggles glinted green in the dark chopper. Below, lights thinned out as city gave way to palm groves and vast farm fields.

The helicopters touched down. The men jumped out and started making their way across a field, crisscrossed by plowed ridges. They slowed to wade through a 5-foot-wide ditch full of water, weighed down by rifles and ammunition.

Running along a dirt road lined by palm trees, the soldiers cast long shadows in the night. Dogs barked madly as the troops passed.

The soldiers arrived at the targeted house and took up positions in front. A few of them kicked in the door and began searching for suspects. A child's pair of red shoes sat on the carpet of the front room. In another room, propped up against a sack of dates, two tiny children's backpacks lay in a corner -- handouts from the Americans.

At least six women and children and three men were inside. After the house was emptied of people, Dirkse moved to the roof, where he monitored the platoons' work by radio.

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