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Lightly Armed MPs Worry About An Ambush…Live Mortars, Firefight Menace Route

Lightly Armed MPs Worry About An Ambush

By Hilda M. Perez | Sentinel Staff Writer

March 29, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

NAJAF, Iraq -- After dealing with 16 enemy prisoners of war at a collection point south of Najaf, the Army's 3rd Military Police Company is given orders to move out.

In a horrific storm, the 49 vehicles and 113 soldiers roll north toward Baghdad for the next seven hours. Everything is amber as the sun is filtered through heavy layers of sand.

"What the hell," said Command Sgt. Maj. Chuck Medley, 40, of Huntsville, Ala. "It's like the end of the world."

Visibility is zero.

This route has also come under a heavy advisory for possible firefights and ambushes. The officers and soldiers are visibly nervous.

"That guy, he is a tough one," says Medley, pointing. "I swear I have never seen that look on his face."

The team has been ordered to collect 300 prisoners from the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, captured during a firefight in Samawah, to the south. The men are apprehensive as they pull into the sprawling complex. They have just learned that the 3rd ID can't provide extra security because it is spearheading the push north to Baghdad. The military police feel vulnerable. The company does not have the heavy weapons or manpower to repel an attack.

Soldiers, faces coated with sand, begin laying wire to create a holding area for the prisoners. The buildings, which include an ammunition-storage bunker and living quarters, were previously an Iraqi military-operations center. It is in the middle of a heavy firefight at nearby Rams. The NBC (nuclear biological chemical) inspector for the 3rd Military Police surveys the area but finds no traces of chemicals, which had been rumored to be present.

Inside the headquarters, the MPs find two Persian rugs full of sand, a large desk and a rickety chair.

"When Saddam was a captain, he had that chair," jokes 1st Lt Yani Hermann, 28, of Fort Stewart, Ga., referring to the circa-1950s furniture.

In the bunker, several locked doors have been smashed. The soldiers open them carefully, fearing booby traps. The rooms yield crates of grenades, ammo, mortars and C-4 dynamite, some of it marked from Jordan.

"Damn it. There is so much stuff here that could blow up. Hermann, get your ass out of there, son, and don't touch it," Medley shouts.

A storage area yields bags of grain and flour and about 10 trash bags filled with dates. The MPs give them to the prisoners. They also find several hundred bags containing soldiers' uniforms, including boots and socks, which are also given to the prisoners. There are rats everywhere.

The prisoners are also given MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat) and large bottles of water. An Iraqi army two-star general and a brigadier general are separated from the other prisoners. They stand out because they are well-dressed, groomed and fat. The regular Iraqi soldiers are skinny, worn out, and some are shoeless.

Master Sgt. Tony McGee of Florence, S.C., in charge of setting up the prison area, is concerned because an Iraqi "is wearing one of our brown shirts and using one of our rain ponchos. I want to know where the hell he got it from."

The MPs fear the prisoner may have been involved in a recent ambush and got the clothes from a U.S. soldier.

As they clean sand out of the Humvee, Medley looks at his driver, Spc. Sandy Rivera, 26, of Canóvanas, Puerto Rico.

"Right now, Rivera," Medley says, "I should be home cooking up a barbecue, drinking a couple of beers and flirting with the wife."

"I'd be in my hammock, between two palms, volleyball, bikinis, daiquiris, margaritas. That's what I am talking about, Sergeant Major," Rivera says with a grin.

Live Mortars, Firefight Menace Route

By Hilda M. Perez | Sentinel Staff Writer

April 7, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

April 4

The 3rd Military Police Company convoy sets out several hours before sunrise on what is likely to be its last stop of this war -- an area 10 miles from Baghdad. There, they will process and guard enemy prisoners of war (EPWs).

4:30 a.m.

The bats are still on their nightly prowl, swooshing down and threatening to hit members of the 3rd MP as they make their way to their vehicles for what they hope will be the final trek north. The pre-dawn sky is filled with shooting stars and bursts of artillery fire that make the Earth rumble.

"Rivera! Rivera!" Command Sgt. Maj. Chuck Medley yells to his driver, who is packing their Humvee.

"What?" retorts the half-asleep Spc. Sandy Rivera, thinking it is his friend Staff Sgt. Jose Rosario of Orlando calling him.

" 'What!' Is that how you answer an officer? 'What?' " Medley says. "Get me the last two maps: the one to Karbala and the one to Baghdad."

7 a.m.

The convoy has passed what is known as the Karbala Gap, a narrow choke point between Razzaza Lake and the Shiite Muslim holy city of Karbala, where earlier in the week U.S. troops had battled Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard. (The city fell Saturday to the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne after a battle with an estimated 500 fedayeen fighters and loyalists of Saddam's ruling Baath Party.)

The trek has been long and difficult. Visibility is poor because of the clouds of dust kicked up by the vehicles and those of an even bigger convoy from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, speeding toward the Iraqi capital.

"Rivera," Medley says, "I used to be a patient man."

"That was way before this war, right, sergeant major?" Rivera says, glancing mischievously at his commanding officer.

8:10 a.m.

"Regulator 6 to all MP elements. We are approaching our turn. Where all those trucks are turning left, we go right," says a voice over the radio from the convoy's lead Humvee.

The convoy makes a right turn onto a narrow dirt road. Within moments, Medley is questioning the directions.

"Rivera, I have a bad feeling about this one," he says. "Why in hell are we the only ones on this road? Why did everyone turn back there? This doesn't feel right."

8:45 a.m.

"Damn it. That is a mortar on the side of the road," an alarmed Medley shouts, raising himself in his seat, his Kevlar helmet hitting the Humvee's roof, so he can see the road more clearly. "Son, please keep this vehicle straight.

"Pistol 7 to Pistol 6. We need to halt the convoy. Be advised I just spotted a mortar. Sons of bitches," he interrupts himself. "I just saw another one.

"Halt convoy immediately," Medley orders.

9 a.m.

The officers begin assessing the situation. To their horror they discover that the narrow road is lined on both sides with live mortars, spaced about 5 feet apart.

A wrong move could be deadly.

Nervously, all the officers agree that as there is no turnoff they have no alternative but to proceed cautiously.

Sweat streams down the drivers' faces as they inch their vehicles forward, fearful that a tire could knock one of the mortars, causing it to explode.

9:05 a.m.

"This is the craziest . . . I just can't believe them," Medley says. " 'All good,' they said. Those guys are just used to operating under their own rules. They are in their own planet."

He is referring to members of the Special Forces. They had earlier checked the road and told the 3rd MP to take the shorter, paved route through the desert because it was clear of any potential ambush.

9:15 a.m.

Medley intently studies a map as Rivera concentrates on driving.

"Rivera. Look at this. Doesn't this look like something odd to you? Like a firing range."

Medley points to a series of lines on the map leading from the main road.

"It is a range," Rivera says. "Sergeant Medley, notice the box all around it."

"Rivera!" Medley shouts. "We are in the middle of a firing range, and this has us going through a large village, which I bet you is not secured. Stop the car!"

Medley jumps out of the Humvee, making sure not to step on one of the live mortars. He walks to another vehicle to talk to the commander.

As Medley returns, settling quickly into his seat, there is a large explosion to the right, about a mile from the convoy. Two Bradley armored fighting vehicles return fire.

There are deafening explosions to the front and left of the convoy.

"We are dead smack in a hot zone," Medley shouts. "They are in the middle of a firefight -- that's what the Bradleys are there for."

Medley then unleashes every curse in his considerable repertoire.

The convoy moves forward, the rumbling of the artillery and the proximity to the firefight unsettling everyone.

10 a.m.

Near another road, the convoy encounters the 101st Airborne Assault Unit of the 3rd Infantry Division, which is heading toward Baghdad.

Deciding there is safety in numbers, the 3rd MP convoy veers off and follows the more heavily armed one.

Around noon

The 3rd MP, which has now passed the convoy it was earlier part of, is finally heading in the right direction.

Suddenly, the vehicles begin to slow. They are approaching a gate with the arm raised. Ahead is a high terra-cotta-colored wall encircling what turns out to be an Iraqi military installation.

Crates of opened and unopened ammunition have been left at the side of the road. Used shells litter the roadway, and beyond, the Americans can see rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) still in their delivery system and set to fire.

"According to this map, they have this down as a processing center," Medley says. "I have no idea what they meant by that. It is obviously not a processing center."

"Oh, I think they meant processing all right, sergeant major -- of arms," Rivera says.

The Iraqi facility is a lot more modern than others the company has seen on its journey north from Kuwait. The convoy slows, almost like a tour ride at an Orlando theme park, as the men and women inspect row upon row of one-story barracks buildings. There is a large, well-equipped firing range, bunkers and buildings.

Crude booby-traps in the form of crates and explosives are chained to the trees. No one knows for sure whether the enemy is still around and could open fire at any time.

The abandoned Iraqi tanks are mostly burned and destroyed. A charred hand sticks out of the top of one. Near a palm tree is the upright body of an Iraqi man, a firearm at his side. He has been shot in the head.

A jack rabbit hops across the road, through the field of used shell casings.

"Hard to imagine that there was a heavy firefight here less than 48 hours ago." Medley says. "This was massive."

12:56 p.m.

Suddenly, there is a huge boom. The convoy halts. To the west, and far too near for comfort, the Americans can see smoke from an artillery explosion.

Medley grabs his binoculars and jumps out of the vehicle. Leaning on the hood on the driver's side, he peers through the glasses intently, adjusting and grasping them tightly.

Rivera watches and opens the door slightly.

"'Sergeant major, sir. You still have the cap on one of the lenses," he says.

"Oh well, I just need to be looking through one eye anyway," Medley says, smiling at Rivera and squinting one eye.

The firefight is just on the other side of the Iraqi military facility.

"This is going to get out of control." Medley says. "That's my favorite line from The Hunt for Red October."

It turns out the Special Forces were engaged in heavy fighting and had to call in air power. Within a short time, 300 Iraqis lay dead.

3:30 p.m.

Finally, the convoy is within a mile of the Euphrates River and 10 miles from Baghdad. Pockets of water and vegetation begin to replace the desert landscape.

"Son, sometimes life hands you lemons and you just have to make lemonade." Medley says, reflecting on the experiences of the day.

"Sir, sergeant major," Rivera says. "I think we made a ton of lemonade, but we didn't even have lemons."

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