Sand still plagues soldiers

Iraq – The boom of mortars and the pop of distant gunfire were heard in the 36th Engineer Group camp late Monday night as several Iraqis fired shots at the U.S. soldiers guarding the perimeter of the base. There were no U.S. casualties.

The U.S. soldiers returned the Iraqi fire with their small arms, said Cpt. Patrick Hogeboom of the 36th Engineer Group. They also fired illumination mortar rounds, flares, into the air. The light from the illumination flares, visible from the 36th camp, gave an orange hue to the night sky.

The Iraqis were probably members of what have been called the Fedayeen, but what the Army now calls “paramilitary death squads,” said Cpt. Wes Russell of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion/293rd Infantry Regiment.

The Americans saw two or three of the Iraqis retreat into a built-up area and assembled a force to pursue them, but had to move cautiously in order avoid an ambush. They did not find the Iraqis, Russell said. The shooting, flares and pursuit lasted about 40 minutes.

The shooting occurred in an area where the Army has been preparing to distribute water to Iraqi civilians. Russell said the local water supply is not functional.

The 1st Battalion/293rd Infantry Regiment, an Indiana National Guard unit based in Fort Wayne, Ind., has soldiers from throughout northeast Indiana. It arrived in Kuwait on Jan. 3 and has been in Iraq since March 23. The Fort Wayne unit is the first National Guard infantry unit called up for active duty since the Korean War and the first to see combat (having previously been under fire in Iraq), said Russell.

The staff of the battalion’s commander, Col. Ivan Benton, prepared “after action reports,” which are an assessment of what happened and what the military can learn from it.

“We are trying to understand what they are doing,” Russell said.

While the Military Police and the SPs (the Air Force version of the Military Police) provide security inside the wire, and the Military Police helps the infantry run checkpoints and guard the roads surrounding the base, the National Guardsmen provide the security outside the wire.

They patrol on foot as well as in Humvees equipped with thermal and night vision sights. In the past, the guardsmen have seen men digging up AK-47s and fired on them, forcing them to drop the weapons. The soldiers have to be careful, however, because both pro- and anti-Saddam forces have weapons caches in the area. Russell said the soldiers often don’t exactly know whom they are firing on.

Using a phrase from the Vietnam War, Russell said, “We are here to win their hearts and minds. We want to show them we are not here to occupy their country.”

He said firing on friendly anti-Saddam forces would not be helpful.

Maj. Sallese, the 36th’s operations officer, echoed Russell’s sentiment.

“We’re not here as occupiers. We’re here as liberators,” Sallese said.

Many of the soldiers here seem to have the same feeling. Whether or not they agree with the need for the war, most have the opinion that the United States will be doing the Iraqi people a big favor by removing Saddam Hussein.

The day after the perimeter shooting, unusually hot air blew in from the south. As night approached, a sandstorm hit. Although not nearly as bad as the one at the Camp Bucca site, it made the night very difficult. Many soldiers used their goggles when walking outside and some slept with their nose and mouth covered.

The sand has a very fine consistency, like baby powder, that is easily blown around and actually puffs up when you walk on it. The sand appears to be dried silt. Several people have found seashells in it leading us to conclude that this area was once under water.

It has been very warm the last few days, and there has been a lot of sand and dust in the air. Thus the sky is an orange-brown color that casts everything in an orange-tinged light. The effect is surreal.