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Arkansas Guardsmen Making A Difference

Rachelle J. sends this article about an Arkansas Guard unit on patrol in Iraq.  It's a great story and I am going to post the whole article in case it disappears into the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's archives.


In 13-hour mission, 39 th unit takes gunfire, seizes weapons

BY AMY SCHLESING ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

    RASHIDYAH, Iraq — The humvee was a chaos of noise — popping gravel under the tires, a rumbling gun turret and the voices coming over three different radios competing to be heard.

    One of those radio voices overpowered the rest — it was reciting Psalm 23: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil."

    As the passage ended, a string of voices came over the airwaves to say "Amen."

    Sgt. 1 st Class Curtis Rohrscheib of West Helena picked up the microphone in his truck and said "Amen" as his humvee rounded a bend to exit Camp Taji. He and his platoon with E Troop in the 151 st Cavalry of Arkansas’ 39 th Infantry Brigade were heading to an area where they knew trouble lurked.     It has found trouble there before.

    It was the beginning of Operation Unforgiven, a massive search of Rashidyah, in the volatile Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad, where E Troop has been ambushed and attacked with roadside bombs more than eight times since arriving in Iraq in April.

    "All right. Keep your head down and your eyes open," Rohrscheib said to Sgt. John Woods of Beebe, the gunner in the humvee turret.

    The line of humvees left Camp Taji and headed east, then north in the cool, dark hours of early Tuesday. As they headed to Patrol Base Thunder, district headquarters for the Iraqi national guard, the radio warned that insurgents were fleeing Fallujah toward Baghdad and were blocking an expressway into the city. A day earlier an expressway north of the city had been blocked with palm-tree trunks and burning tires.

    The battle in Fallujah and the
final week of the Muslim holy month Ramadan combined this week, some believe, to increase insurgent activity in the 39 th’s area.

    Roadside bombings, car bombs, ambushes and mortar attacks have increased dramatically in the past two days.

    "It’s a good thing that our soldiers have gained experience in dealing with a wide variety of attacks because in recent days they’ve been able to show their expertise," Lt. Col. John Edwards, staff judge advocate with the 39 th Brigade, said Thursday. "This has been one of the busiest times I have seen since I’ve been here."     That proved to be true again Thursday when the Brigade’s 3 rd Battalion rolled into Rashidyah the day after Sunni clerics preached for a holy war against U.S. forces. The area has been a known bed of insurgents, with fighters periodically attacking E Troop and using schools to hide weapons.

    One week ago an elementary school boy lost his arm to a land mine he found at a school. The mine had been rigged for use as a roadside bomb and had a blinking red light. The boy threw rocks at it trying to knock out the light, and it exploded.

    "We’ve got differing stories about it," said Capt. Derald Neugebauer of Conway, E Troop commander. "That’s because they don’t want us to know they’re storing weapons in the schools."

    The plan Thursday was to sweep through Rashidyah, searching homes, schools and palm-tree groves for weapons. In the hunt, they found weapons, ammunition and explosives.

    They also found a fight.

    As the battalion organized at Patrol Base Thunder and integrated Iraqi national guard soldiers into the plan, one of the Iraqi soldiers told battalion officials "there are terrorists in the road with rocket-propelled grenades. Every day they’ve waited for you to return."

    With the sun, a morning mist rose from the fields as the soldiers rolled out of Patrol Base Thunder.

    Alpha and Bravo companies swept through town as E Troop trudged through the palm-tree groves.

    While members of E Troop walked, Lt. David Dixon of North Carolina, the 1 st Cavalry officer who heads the troop’s 3 rd Platoon, said, "You’d have to be pretty ballsy to hide a cache in this palm grove because you wouldn’t be hiding it. It would be out in the open."

    They walked across canals, through orchards of trees growing lemons, pomegranates and oranges, and found little. A farmer pointed them to a couple of old artillery rounds believed to have been left at a former training site for the Iraqi army, but the soldiers found nothing else.

    The soldiers began gathering on the road near a former ambush site and preparing to head back to Camp Taji. Soldiers joked and laughed with the Iraqi national guardsmen, sharing a relaxed moment.

    Nearby, soldiers questioned a suspect who had tried to scale a wall to get away while his house was searched. He was deemed to be mentally ill and was freed.

    Suddenly, a rocket-propelled grenade whistled by and sent soldiers running to humvees for cover. Iraqi national guardsmen hid in a nearby ditch.

    Gunfire came from the line of trees, and soldiers returned fire with rifles and humveemounted machine guns.

    "Get that 240 up and lay fire on that tree line," Sgt. Nathan Baker of Charlie Company yelled at his new gunner, whose 240B machine gun had jammed.

    Around the corner, where another part of Charlie Company had a roadblock, three 82 mm mortar rounds fell around the U.S. soldiers.

    As the battle died down, an Iraqi interpreter jumped from a humvee and opened fire at the trees with his AK-47 rifle.

   

"We spent too much time there for nothing, for nothing but a crazy man," the interpreter said of the time spent questioning the mentally ill man.

    When the shooting ended, Alpha and Bravo companies searched the palm-tree grove for insurgents while Charlie Company and E Troop held their positions.

    As they waited, Spc. Jay Malone of Madison tossed shell casings from the hood of his humvee. One had fused to a windshield wiper, where the hot brass of the round melted the rubber like glue. Soldiers had shot back with a vengeance, firing more than 1,000 rounds from 240B machine guns, about 900 rounds from M16 and M4 rifles, and 100 rounds each from the .50-caliber machine gun and the M-249 machine gun.

    Two Iraqi men who had jumped into the canal separating the road from the palm-tree grove when the shooting started were fished out, questioned and tested for explosives residue. One man was determined to be the shooter of the rocket-propelled grenade that started the fight.

    The battalion soldiers searched homes in the heart of town in hopes of finding the men who attacked them.

    As the humvees moved along the road, word came over the radio that Camp Taji was taking mortar fire. Explosions could be heard in the distance.

    The soldiers flooded the town, searching every house. Others searched people going in and out of the town.

    "There’s a lot of [Iraqi national guardsmen] here, much more than the three platoons we started with," said Lt. Marcel Robicheaux of Hot Springs, platoon leader for Charlie Company’s 2 nd Platoon.

    "They’re buzzing like bees through the houses."

    On the road, Staff Sgt. Wallace Rand and Spc. Robert Hoyt, both of Connecticut, found a blasting cap attached to a spool of wire tucked under the dashboard of a station wagon trying to enter town.

    "Look, a [roadside bomb] maker, Mac," Rand said to his gunner, holding up the cap and wire.

    It had been hidden above the gas and brake pedals in the vehicle.

    "It was hidden where nobody was supposed to find it," Rand said. "That’s what does the job, that’s what sets off a [roadside bomb]."

    "I swear on Allah," the man said. "I don’t know how it got in my car."

    He later confessed to buying the cap and wire.

    The seizure was just the beginning of what the battalion found in the village.

    More than 13 hours after it began, Operation Unforgiven ended with six detainees who were found either in possession of weapons caches or were suspected of being involved in the firefight. Also found was a grocery list of weapons.

    "Most of it came from the little town," said Capt. Shawn Gavan, battalion intelligence officer.

    In all, soldiers confiscated 19 AK-47 rifles, 14 82 mm mortars, 25 grenade fuses, 15 mortar fuses, five grenades, various other rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

    Back at Patrol Base Thunder, soldiers crowded around the piles of weapons, taking pictures.     "See what we did?" said Lt. Kevin Irvin, platoon leader for 3 rd Platoon, Bravo Company.

    Neugebauer looked at the weapons and ammunition and said he felt that the mission was a success.

    "Anything’s better than nothing."

Rachelle also sends a note that the author has a blog of her experiences with the 39th in Iraq. Check it out.  She has posts going back 8 months with lots of good stories and photos.

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