Sunday, December 12, 2004

Both Sides are Improvising

Both Sides are Improvising … and Dying

With 25 Citizen Warriors in an Improvised War
“On Tuesday morning, in dawn's chilly half-light, a group of 25 marines mustered beside their Humvees at a base in the beleaguered town of Yusufiya for a raid. The target for Fox Company of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, was the family home of Sheikh Abdullah al-Janabi, who until recently led the insurgents in Falluja. The sheikh, who is 62, had become a fugitive, rated by American military intelligence as one of the most menacing figures in the 20-month-old war in Iraq.

The marines clambered into three "open back" Humvees, known among the troops as "suicide wagons" - pickup trucks armored only on the sides, with three-foot-high panels.

Though they had no inkling of it, the vulnerability with which they were setting out would soon become the focus of a new dispute over the war. The next day, in Kuwait, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was asked by a member of the Tennessee National Guard why his unit had to hunt through refuse dumps to find armor for vehicles that would carry them into Iraq.

That confrontation prompted assurances from President Bush to military families that "we're doing everything we possibly can to protect your loved ones," and a torrent of Pentagon statistics to support the contention that progress had been made in correcting mistakes made 20 months ago, when most of the 12,000 Humvees sent into Iraq for the invasion and its aftermath were unarmored.

Stung by the furor, the Pentagon announced that three-quarters of the nearly 20,000 Humvees now in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait carry protective armor. But realities on the ground are less comforting, as the vehicles used in Tuesday's raid showed. All the more poignant, the marines deployed on the raid, like more than 40 percent of all the 140,000 American troops in Iraq, were national guardsmen or reservists, citizen-soldiers, just like Specialist Thomas Jerry Wilson, the 31-year-old who confronted Mr. Rumsfeld over the armor issue.

Rooted in civilian life, these hometown warriors carry a heavier burden in Iraq than in any other American conflict of the last half-century. And Pentagon projections suggest that the proportion of reservists and guardsmen in Iraq could rise to 50 percent, particularly if the troop level of 150,000 planned for the Jan. 30 elections remains in effect afterward. ”


When scheduled troop rotations are completed early in 2005, the force in Iraq for the balance of the year will be composed of 6 brigades of reservists and guardsmen, and 11 brigades of active-duty soldiers. And many active-duty units have reservists performing support functions.

So in the 21st century, as it was at America's beginnings in 1775, it is the volunteer next door - the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker - who bears arms for his or her country, as much as the professional soldier. This presence, in turn, has helped to highlight the Pentagon's miscues in providing the troops at the front with the best available equipment, especially equipment that lowers the risk of serious injury and death.

While statistics are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence gathered by reporters in the field suggests that the old complaint of reservists - that they are often the last to get up-to-date equipment - still has some validity, even though Pentagon officials tend to deny it.

A week with the 2/24 Marines at their bases 15 to 30 miles south of Baghdad, in the heart of the area known as the Triangle of Death, was a window on the demands being made of reservists, and on the resourcefulness and resilience they bring to the challenges. There is little they cannot do, with hard work and improvisation, the battalion's officers say, reflecting the widely varied backgrounds of the men in the Chicago-based unit - doctors, policemen, engineers, teachers, carpenters, truck drivers, lawyers, computer specialists, community counselors, college students, to name a few.

These marines' tasks are as tough as any in Iraq, with the battalion's 1,200 men cast as spear-carriers for the new, more aggressive war-fighting, which found its starkest expression in the battle last month to recapture Falluja. The 2/24 has had no such concentrated target, but its men have been fighting a classic counterinsurgency war, carrying out nighttime raids and creating a permanent American presence.

They operate from new "firm bases" in the towns of Yusufiya and Latafiya and conduct extended vehicle and foot patrols in what had been a virtual no-go area for American troops until a few months ago.

For these men, the Pentagon's claim that all American troops in Iraq now go into combat with armored vehicles is contradicted by the experience of the strike forces that set out on the raids. All vehicles on the 2/24's missions have at least some armoring, but the devil is in the details. Some men ride in fully armored Humvees, with thick steel plating on every surface and the underside, as well as ballistic glass in the windows that can withstand small-arms fire and at least some fragments from roadside bombs.

These vehicles are now rolling off a production line in Ohio at the rate of 350 a month, soon to rise by an additional 100 vehicles a month. They will make, in time, a major difference to men like those who set out to raid Sheikh Janabi's home in the village of Jawan. For now, many of the 2/24's fighters ride in vehicles that are only partly armored, like the open-back Humvees.

The raid was conducted without incident, if also without any trace of the fugitive sheikh. But the unit has lost eight men killed in 60 days, several of them from roadside bombs, and there are few men in the battalion who have not endured the terrifying experience of a "daisy-chained" i.e.d., or improvised explosive device, a string of artillery shells dug into the roadside and set off remotely as an American convoy passes.

On other missions, the marines ride in Humvees that are even more vulnerable, with no protection beyond the bolt-on kits - mostly armored half-doors - that were the quick-fix solution for the rush of bombing casualties in the early months of the war. Matters were so desperate that soldiers of the 82nd Armored Division, deployed around Falluja, hastened through their turkey dinners last Christmas to resume welding metal plating for their Humvees from wrecks of Soviet-made personnel carriers from Saddam Hussein's disbanded army.

Along with the hazards of inadequately protected vehicles, the men of the 2/24 have had to cope with lesser privations. Chief Warrant Officer Jim Roussell, a 53-year-old Chicago police sergeant working with the battalion's intelligence unit, helps navigate predawn raids on insurgent safehouses with a pocket-sized satellite navigation device he bought with $500 of his own money, to make up for a shortage of the full-screen "satnav" devices the Pentagon installs in the best-equipped Humvees.
con·cept: Both Sides are Improvising