OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM-325th 82nd ABN DIV-The Battle for As Samawah

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THE CALL WAS MADE AND WE ANSWERED

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"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy course; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat." --Theodore Roosevelt

 

Soldiers of B CO 2/325th cross the Euphrates River at As Samawah,Iraq,in the early morning assault on the city's north side April 4th. The Soldiers would complete their objective with no casualties

During fighting for As Samawah. Bradley fighting vehicle from 1/41stInfantry Regiment Mechanized breachs a wall. Troops in foreground are from 2/325th.

Soldiers of the 325th 82nd Airborne Divison pour across the Eupharates River in As Samawah.

Smoke rising is from sucide bomber vehicle stopped by gunners of D Co 2/325th with 50cal when bomber tried to run across bridge. Suburban with 34 propane tanks in back exploded killing the three attackers.

Heart of As Samawah where troops of the 82nd's 325th fought house to house.

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325th

Story BRIDGES SEIZED U.S. IN CONTROL

MY WAR - Fear And Loathing In Iraq

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Soldier from B CO 2/325th watch an Iraqi paramilitary unit's headquarters burn during an assault on the city's north side April 4th.

Soldiers of B Co 2/325th in As Samawah

Soldiers of 3/325th 82nd Airborne get some needed rest at railroad station after mission in As Samawah.

 SGT MAJOR FLOWERS feared by many respected by all.

Captured Iraqi Colonel's house used as Headquarters for 325th

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1st LT Justin Chandler comforts 2 Iraqi children during a fire fight. Their mother is wounded and is being attended to by medics just outside the picture.

The Bridge at Samawah
It was a small thing, the taking of this obscure Iraqi city. Unless you were there

By Monte Reel
Sunday, May 4, 2003; Page W12

APRIL 4, 2003: Early Morning

The city of Samawah reveals itself in the luminescent glow of tracers fired from an AC-130 gunship flying somewhere overhead. Jagged outlines of palms define the banks of the Euphrates River. Brick perimeters of low buildings appear, and then vanish with the fade of the illuminations. The breeze from the city carries diluted hints of burning. Closer, the smells are of chewing tobacco and of sour infantrymen who haven't showered in weeks. Silence is upset by explosions, then a ringing in the ears, then an impatient rooster crowing. Dawn is still several minutes away, but it's what everyone is waiting for, sitting on the soft dirt next to a cement factory, ready to cross a bridge with first light and march into the heart of a city of about 140,000 people.

Ready as they'll ever be, anyway. Dressed in full "battle-rattle" -- 30-pound flak jackets, Kevlar helmets, M-4 carbine rifles, canteens, protective masks -- many of these guys know what this place looks like without using their night-vision scopes. Three days ago they were on the south side of the river blasting away at Iraqi paramilitary forces who were returning fire with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and AK-47s. The firefight lasted nearly four hours, with casualties on both sides, the most intense morning most of them had ever known. Lt. Marty Martinez was in the rear of that battle. He spent that morning trying to arrange for a helicopter to land nearby to transport a soldier with a severe abdominal wound to a field hospital. The soldier lay in great pain until the helicopter finally came, three hours later.

They'd seen the steel bridge, the slow water flowing beneath it like creamed coffee, the mud-and-straw buildings in the poorer parts of town that seemed to borrow their architectural inspiration from wasps' nests. It looked like hell to them, a landscape robbed of all hope of redemption. They had to turn back from the bridge that day; it wasn't deemed safe. Even with this morning's preparatory shelling, it still might not be.

If you like pina coladas, and getting caught in the rain --

Martinez is singing, attempting to defy the gravity of the day. At 2 a.m., he boarded a truck for a slow and bumpy ride to the cement factory. On the way, a truck three behind his in the Army convoy flipped crossing a deep rip in the earth, breaking a soldier's leg and bruising about 20 other troops. They had left the makeshift headquarters of the 82nd Airborne Division's 325th Infantry Regiment at an abandoned Iraqi military camp several miles south of the city. There, on a wall decorated with a painting of the Iraqi flag, someone had chalked the words "Let's Kill Them All and Let God Sort Them Out."

It wasn't Martinez. He'd rather not.

If you're not into yoga, if you have half a brain --

He has spent most of his 30 years in Texas: San Antonio, Austin, Houston. He's been to Mexico, to those border towns that look a little like this one. A little, but not much. He could relate to the Mexicans in those towns, but in this landscape empathy is a slippery thing. The soldiers, for the most part, have a hard time distinguishing between the Iraqis shooting at them and the civilians. The nickname they use is "hajji" -- during these first weeks of the war, before most of the civilians get the courage to come outside and embrace the Americans, this applies to everyone here, soldier or not, kind of like "gook" applied to the Vietnamese. Not a pretty word, and one Martinez doesn't drop as easily as most of the grunts in Alpha Company. His first instinct is to pity the people here, but pity dies fast when someone is shooting at you. The older men in the streets, he's noticed in previous days outside the city, don't like to make eye contact with the Americans. It's unsettling, but he respects it. They seem to want nothing to do with pity.

If you dah dah dah dah dah dah -- Martinez can't remember the next line of the song.

"Oh, shut the hell up," says Sgt. Brian Hollis.

"I'm just trying to get it in your head," Martinez says. "I'm trying to drive you crazy."

A signal comes squawking over the radio -- it's time to move. Martinez flips down the night-vision scope attached to his helmet. The shapes marching in front of him glow green and lack dimension. An armored unit will roll across first, before his Alpha Company -- followed by Bravo and Charlie -- dashes across. Martinez is near the middle of the first group. The pace is brisk, with stops and starts.

They hear shots and fall to the ground, rifles pointed to the thickets lining the sides of the road. They lie prone for several minutes.

"What was your number?" Hollis whispers.

"Three."

"You had three, I had four."

They've made a bet: predicting the correct number of casualties their company will sustain during the bridge crossing and the street fighting that will likely ensue when they enter the neighborhoods on the other side. Whoever comes closest gets the reward of the next hamburger meal they stumble across in their boxes of prepackaged rations.

Shots are sporadic, distant. The soldiers reference a battlefield shorthand to tell if a bullet is several safe feet away, or if it's a very near miss: If it hisses in a whir, you're safe; if it cracks like a whip, you got lucky. These shots aren't close enough to do either.

"Let's move," Martinez says.

The Army likes using the motto "We Own the Night," a reference to its comprehensive allocation of night-vision scopes that the other side doesn't have. But dawn is breaking, and the U.S. troops can't claim possession. Their low, cautious postures scooting across the pavement of the bridge become easily visible. The commanders, much to the chagrin of most of the soldiers, want this invasion to be seen -- that's why they were waiting for dawn. They want to encourage the Iraqi fighters to give away their positions, and they're less likely to fire their guns if they don't know the Americans are coming.

"Move it!" Martinez says, hustling with short, quick steps. And just like that, he's on the north side of the bridge.

Nothing to it, no one hurt.

The pre-invasion bombing seems to have worked. All that's left of resistance seems to be a few poorly aimed potshots. A short burst of machine-gun fire comes from the roof of a building nearby; U.S. soldiers have entered the roof, where a sandbagged sniper's bunker -- already damaged by pre-dawn shelling -- sits on the corner facing the bridge.

"They must have found someone up there," Hollis says. "Must have been twitching or something."

Martinez runs to a low wall next to a building that seems to be some sort of municipal recreational complex; an outdoor swimming pool is half-full of dirty water. Other troops fan out into the streets of the town. Machine-gun fire erupts occasionally. Martinez and Hollis veer down a side street, scoping out buildings for use as an aid station by the regiment's medics. They spot a clearing where helicopters could land, a bombed-out room that could double as a morgue.

"We'll put the KIAs here," Martinez says.

Inside his pocket, in a Ziploc bag, Martinez carries a stamped letter. He has told Hollis it's there. The envelope is addressed to Martinez's mother, and the note inside tells her he loves -- loved -- her.

It won't be mailed today. This will be a good day. No U.S. soldiers will die, or even be wounded during the fighting. Martinez will get the next hamburger. He joined the Army 11 years ago and his first combat mission is a success. Samawah will be one model of modern battlefield victory, a footnote in a war that will turn out to be a short and decisive exercise in military might. But, as with most things here, a shift in a perspective can do more than a breaking dawn to cast a city and a march across a bridge in a new light.

Mid-Morning

The house sits on North Street, the road that shadows the riverbank. Inside the house, in a room without windows, five people pray as they have for hours: Khalil Ibrahim, his wife and his three children, ages 2, 8 and 11. All morning they've listened to bombs and mortars exploding all around them, have heard bullets carving bowl-shaped craters into the concrete of the house. The 8-year-old boy keeps asking if they are going to die.

Ibrahim says they won't, but in truth he's not sure. Bullets have pierced a door to his house. Too close. He has told the curious 8-year-old that the Americans want to "liberate" them, that civilians aren't the enemy and won't be killed. But now Ibrahim believes it is up to him to make sure it doesn't happen.

"Don't move," Ibrahim tells his family as he gets up to look outside.

At the metal door separating a small courtyard from an alley off North Street, Ibrahim peers through two bullet holes. He sees movement: camouflage uniforms, guns like none he's ever seen before. He's scared to speak, but he thinks he must. Somewhere along the line, choices have turned into obligations.

"Help," he says in the English he learned from medical textbooks he studied in college. "I am a civilian. I am here with my family."

A voice tells him to come out and put his hands up. Shouted questions follow in English: Who else is in the house? Are there weapons? Who are you, and what are you doing here?

Ibrahim was born on the south side of the river in 1968, the year Saddam Hussein's Baath Party seized power. For 35 years he's lived in Samawah, leaving only for medical school in Baghdad and for the military training all young males had to complete. That was the farthest he's ever been away from home.

In the 1970s, wars in northern Iraq meant strict rations on food, water, electricity. In the 1980s, the war with Iran meant the same. In the 1990s, it was the first Gulf War, economic sanctions, a lingering economic depression and an unresponsive government. But nothing has ever hit as close to home as this.

After thoroughly searching the house, the soldiers escort the family to another location and lead Ibrahim across the street to another building where interrogations continue. He thinks they are suspicious of him, asking him where he learned to speak English, wondering again why he's in the middle of the part of town with the most resistance to American forces. He can't seem to convince them why someone would want to live here.

The Americans might not see it, but when he looks at his city, the colors jump out. The relevant feature is not the dust so easily borne by the wind that it bleaches everything in the same chalky monochrome. It's the people, in their red soccer shirts and black burqas and orange tennis shoes and red-and-white checked kaffiyehs. It's the colored tiles inside the mosque, where he believes he can worship more freely than he could anywhere else in the world. He never wants to leave. The verb he uses to describe his relationship with the city is "love."

Fighting continues outside, but it's much quieter than it was before the Americans crossed the bridge. A few streets away, a truck once carrying 36 propane tanks sits in a post-explosion char, targeted by the U.S. forces as a potential suicide bomb. The driver's body lies on the road several feet behind what's left of his truck; his head does not.

Ibrahim peeks outside the house, and people he recognizes fill the corners of his vision: A young boy with a bullet wound in his gut. A woman he knows as the boy's mother with blood running from her head and shrapnel wounds all over her body. An old man with a hole in his thigh. Throughout the morning, soldiers are sweeping through the neighborhoods, meeting little resistance while clearing key buildings and capturing several prisoners of war. Ibrahim takes a count of the civilian wounded in his neighborhood and finds 12.

"I can take them to the hospital," Ibrahim tells the soldiers. "We have facilities to treat them."

The problem with this idea is that the U.S. forces believe that the 400-bed Samawah General Hospital is a main base of operations for the local paramilitary fighters. The fighters have occupied one floor of the hospital, division commanders say, leaving the other two to the patients and doctors. Ibrahim tries to tell them he believes that all the fighters have already fled the hospital in previous days, but the soldiers aren't going to take the chance. They tell them they are setting up their own aid station with medics in a building near the river. He can drive the wounded there if he can find transportation.

The idea riles Ibrahim. This is what it's like to be in the middle of a Hollywood war, he thinks, caught up in a propaganda campaign. The only reason they want to treat his friends and neighbors who have been wounded by American bombs and bullets, he thinks, is because they want the world to see that America cares: Watch closely as we kindly treat these poor Iraqis -- unfortunate victims of Saddam Hussein's evil regime! -- and shower upon them our bottomless grace and borderless humanity.

But what choice does he have? Not enough of one even to warrant a question. A neighbor has an old bus, white where the most recent coat of paint still holds, blue where it doesn't. Close to noon, he puts a dozen people on it and drives down North Street, hangs a right, then a quick left, and he comes to the U.S. medics station. It's a building with open holes where windows used to be. Black flies buzz, attracted to fresh wounds.

The medics rush out and carry the wounded civilians in on stretchers, laying them out in the building, gathering intravenous fluids and bandages and morphine.

"Who are you?" one of the medics asks Ibrahim.

"I'm a doctor."

"Do you speak Arabic?"

"Yes."

"You can translate?"

"Yes."

"Come with us."

Ibrahim grabs some thread to help with stitches. A man of about 50 has a broken leg, bloodied hands and a skull-deep wound that crudely parts his thinning hair. Ibrahim laces a thread through two folds of scalp and pulls them together.

As he works, he's surprised by an observation: The Hollywood vibe he thought he sensed has disappeared. The American medics, he thinks, are caring for the wounded better than the Iraqi doctors would. They are quickly tethering IVs, digging medications out of well-stocked plastic cabinets, attaching electronic pulse and oxygen gauges to the patients' fingers, shooing away flies, washing wounds as best they can.

Ibrahim compares these American medical workers to the Iraqi doctors he knows, who all have seen so many wounded civilians through the years that the impact of the grisly byproducts of war has eroded. In the last week, Ibrahim himself has seen hundreds hurt by the shelling. He's gotten used to it, despite himself. Even if he has his doubts about the future of his city -- he's not convinced a new government will be any better than the last one -- he's impressed by what he sees around him.

The medics never seem to have experienced anything quite like this. The horror is fresh. Maybe the soldiers have lost the ability to make choices, too, and the only option left for them to pursue is something related to valor. With so little optimism left in him, Ibrahim surprises himself by seeing this as a good sign.

Afternoon

Somewhere in North Carolina an electronic alarm on a telephone is blaring, "Out of the Army! Out of the Army!"

The voice is that of Greg Cintron, who is eight time zones away in an aid station in the middle of Iraq. He is anything but out of the Army. But in the ideal world that he now knows doesn't exist, he was supposed to be finished with his four years today. A couple of months ago, he programmed his phone's calendar function to broadcast the voice alarm on the morning of April 4. With the time difference, it should be going off right about now.

In early March, he was visiting his in-laws in West Virginia when he got a phone call from an Army boss. The conversation has become a central chapter in Cintron's personal history, and he has related it several times to the other medics here, mimicking the officer with a deep voice of authority.

"We need you to report tomorrow to deploy to Iraq," he remembers the man saying.

"Do I have to?"

"It's either that or go to jail."

"How long would it be?"

The man told him he couldn't predict exactly how long the deployment would last. The guy didn't get it. Cintron was asking about the jail sentence.

He didn't really want to join the Army in the first place; he did it to get married. His future father-in-law laid down a prerequisite for a marriage proposal: Cintron must be able to support his bride, Amanda. Then 21, after an unsuccessful stint at the University of Tennessee, Cintron figured the military was his fastest ticket to financial stability. He knew exactly no one in the military. The whole thing was a hunch.

He'd heard the Air Force guys got treated the best in the field -- "They stay in hotels on deployment," he'd heard -- so he repeatedly visited the Air Force recruiter's office near his home in New York state. A fake clock on the door said the recruiter would be back at 2:30 p.m.; he wasn't back at 2:30 p.m. For days, the clock said the same thing, and the recruiter was nowhere near the office. But the Army recruiters were always around, and as soon as Cintron said he might be interested, they worked him hard. Cintron describes his dealings with the recruiters as a war of attrition he was destined to lose. He decided to undergo training to become a medic because he figured it would be a way to reconcile his problems with what he describes as the Army's "kill-kill-kill" philosophy. Nicknamed "Slimtron" at 5-feet-11 and just 125 pounds, he had to waterlog himself before a weigh-in just to get admitted, tipping the scale at a passable 133.

And here he is, in some city he'd never heard of before, in an aid station that's just been filled with a dozen Iraqi civilians in various states of physical distress, all brought in by a man whose name, he will later learn, is Khalil Ibrahim. Earlier in the day, crossing the bridge was the single most terrifying experience of his life. He rode into the city after the foot soldiers crossed the bridge, crammed with other soldiers in the back of a military ambulance. He could hear the shots but didn't know if they were friendly or enemy fire. Cramped and unable to see, he thought he knew what it must be like to be inside a coffin. A few hours later, instead of packing to move with his wife to start a new life in West Virginia, he is bandaging the wounds of a 12-year-old boy Ibrahim found. A few of the boy's internal organs have become external.

He is drawn to the boy and can't take his eyes off him. The child looks strangely placid, and he doesn't even flinch as Cintron and another medic attend to his wounds. Cintron knows he must be in agony -- perhaps he's in shock. Cintron doesn't see the cots filling up with other civilians, doesn't notice Ibrahim translating their pain. Cintron and another medic are trying to attach an IV to the boy, but both arms are bandaged and won't permit injection. The kid is so dehydrated that they can't get a line into his leg. Finally, they make a connection in his neck. To keep the flies away, Cintron waves the back of his hand over the boy's face. The boy's pulse has gone from 156 to 40 in less than a minute.

"Oh, man," Cintron says, watching the numbers fall, a tremble in his voice.

But as Cintron hooks him up to an oxygen line, the numbers stabilize.

Cintron has forgotten this was supposed to be his last day in the Army. The fear he felt crossing the bridge now seems a little ridiculous. He vows never to forget the boy's name: Basama Mohammed.

In late afternoon, after the boy and all of the other wounded Iraqis have been carried to a helicopter and flown to a military hospital at an airfield in south-central Iraq, someone brings a box of letters to the aid station -- the first batch of mail the soldiers have received in more than a month. Thirteen of the letters are addressed to Cintron.

He sits on a sidewalk, his back against the building, sweat lending his face a shine. The first letter he picks is shaped like a greeting card and has Amanda's name on the upper left corner. He opens it, reads it to the end, then reads it again. There's a paragraph that trips his concentration each time he reads it. Amanda writes that she spoke to his father in New York on the telephone. She asked how he was doing. Cintron's father isn't a talker -- not inclined to heart-to-hearts, emotionally cool. But in the silence that followed her question, she writes, she could tell he was crying.

Cintron can feel the water collecting in his eyes. He is looking down, his gaze stuck on the print. Downcast lids are all that keep the tears from flooding out. He raises them.

Through his tears, he can see the other medics spread out on the sidewalk. Several are also crying. He can't stand this. He is supposed to be the one to provide comic relief here, the Corporal Klinger in this marathon episode of "M*A*S*H."

"Are you guys weeping?" he asks. "What are you, wimps? Soldiers don't cry."

During times of joking, which his unit relies on him for, he doesn't mind being in the Army. He likes the camaraderie. He has no idea how he should feel right now, and he's not sure how he does feel. No one died today in the medics station, which is good, though several died in the city, which must be bad. The middle of Iraq still feels like a terrible place to be stuck, but he can't deny he's lucky to be where he is. Samawah could have been much worse. The boy proved to him his time here wasn't wasted. The day Cintron was supposed to start a new life is almost over for him, and that life doesn't feel any closer. He and almost everyone else in his unit believe they will linger in Iraq, providing security through much of the postwar reconstruction period. He has no idea how long that will last.

He starts laughing, the same from-the-gut chuckle all the other medics have grown accustomed to from him. All along, the tears keep running down his face.

Monte Reel is a general assignment reporter for The Post.

2003 The Washington Post Company



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