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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: TROOP TRANSPORTER OF CHOICE

The groundhogs are on patrol in Baghdad

A U.S. Stryker brigade team is at the forefront of the security plan.

February 24, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — In any other city, the sight of an old man standing next to a can on the side of a crowded street would go unnoticed. In Baghdad, it was enough to make U.S. Army Spc. Aurelio Cazares slow down his armored Stryker for a closer look and alert his gunner.

The vehicle's gunner fixed his viewfinder on the man and the object and zoomed in, just as a sedan stopped in front of them, blocking the view and adding further suspense to the moment. Then, the car pulled away, the old man crossed the road, and the Stryker's high-tech remote weapons system, which can detect heat in an object and determine the presence of explosives, confirmed that the can was harmless.

The Stryker moved on, and Cazares relaxed.

There aren't many things that worry him as he steers the 22-ton troop carrier, which resembles an oversized and massively overloaded camper van, through Baghdad's streets. Its steel-and-ceramic armor is far stronger than a Humvee's, making it the safest troop transporter by far on roads littered with explosives and snipers.

Nothing, though, can guarantee protection from some of the armor-piercing explosives plaguing U.S. forces in Iraq. Since August, three men from Cazares' 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, from the Army's 2nd Infantry Division, have died in such attacks.

"We haven't been hit, thank God," Cazares said this week after another day of patrolling.

Since U.S. and Iraqi forces put a new Baghdad security plan into high gear last week, the Stryker team has been at the forefront of sweeps and patrols, some lasting 20 hours at a stretch.

For the soldiers of the brigade, it has meant little sleep and the majority of their waking hours inside the dark, cramped interiors of the Strykers, whose bulk, speed and armor have made them the vehicle of choice in Baghdad's riskiest operations.

"We're kind of like groundhogs," said 1st Lt. Yeng Lacanlale of Seattle after a patrol that began at 4:30 a.m. and lasted 16 hours. "We get back, shower, eat, try to get a little sleep, and go back out."

Each Stryker can carry 14 people, making it easy to flood an area with troops, who pour out of the vehicle through a hatch in the back. The Strykers reach a speed of 65 mph and are relatively quiet as they trundle through the streets, giving them a stealth quality other troop carriers lack.

In addition to their armor, they are surrounded by a cage-like shield designed to repel rocket-propelled grenades. They lumber about on eight tires but can keep moving on fewer in the event of blowouts.

Cazares isn't sure why he was chosen to drive a Stryker. It wasn't his driving record back home in Weslaco, Texas, which the 28-year-old admits is less than stellar. He just knows that one day, someone higher up told him he was on his way to school to learn to handle a Stryker.

Cazares and the gunner view the outside world through periscopes, popping their heads out of the overhead hatches as little as possible to avoid snipers. As he moves through the streets, he eyes each trash pile, each rock and anything else that could hide a danger.

While he navigates, the rest of the unit shares the cigar-shaped back compartment, sitting kneecap-to-kneecap, shoulder-to-shoulder, on narrow benches in full battle gear, their M-4 rifles balanced between their legs. Two stand sentry, their heads poked out of overhead hatches.

Some talk about their families. Spc. Rany Grizz, on the same mission as Lacanlale last week, reminisced about his honeymoon in San Francisco a little over a year ago, and about his daughter, Evelyn, who shares his birthday: Aug. 29.

Some talk politics. Lacanlale speculated about the future of Iraq if Democrats opposed to the war hold sway in Washington. "It's pretty much a civil war between the two sects, and if we leave, they're just going to duke it out," he said as the Stryker streaked down a dark and deserted road.

Grizz chimed in, expressing doubts that the Iraqi security forces would be able to hold things together without the Americans to back them up. "They're good soldiers, but nobody takes care of them. They need more supplies, more support," he said.

Some just talk, like Pfc. Nathan Bratager, who wouldn't be in a Stryker if it weren't for a snowstorm in South Dakota.

A year ago, he was mopping floors and cleaning toilets on the graveyard shift at a truck stop there. The night of the storm, he spent all of his time shoveling snow. The floors and toilets went untended. The next morning, Bratager was fired.

Aimless, he wandered into a mall one day, walked through the door of the Army recruiting station that happened to be there, and signed up. Now he eagerly shows off the red blotch on his neck, the result of a sniper's bullet that grazed him in September as he stood sentry. "I even have a video of it," Bratager said.

Insurgents had filmed the attack and show it on their 24-hour satellite TV channel, which replays video of car bombs, mortar blasts and other attacks on U.S.-led forces.

Bratager, of Belle Fourche, S.D., said he had been considering enlisting since the Sept. 11 attacks. Now, he says, he has a job he loves, but a pessimistic view of Iraq's future.

"In about 20 years, I doubt we're going to be out of here. There will still be Americans in Iraq," Bratager said, accusing U.S. and Iraqi politicians of not doing enough to end the sectarian divisions.

He spoke as his patrol came to an early end. The mission had been changed, and the men had only to escort another patrol to the site of abandoned rocket launchers on Baghdad's far northeastern reaches. They were back at base by 1 p.m., cherishing a rare afternoon off but knowing there would be new orders the next day.

susman@latimes.com

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