Last Patrol

March, 2004



MOSUL, Iraq - Modern wars come with soundtracks and as the scout platoon men dragged out of their racks in the pre-dawn chill of a recent Sunday morning, it was Lynyrd Skynyrd on the boom box:

"If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?
"For I must be traveling on, now, 'cause they're too many places I've got to see."

This scout platoon of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) had fought its way through the war and occupation without a single man killed. The men wordlessly strapped on body armor, web gear and weapons, fervently hoping that if they weren't moving on tomorrow, then maybe day after tomorrow. Their duffel bags were packed for home and they were suiting up for what was supposed to be their last patrol.

The 101st Airborne is going home, the second American division in Iraq to rotate back to the states as a unit. The 3rd Infantry Division has been home since last fall.

No one wants to get killed in war, but especially no grunt wants to go through a year of dirt and scorching heat and freezing rain and buddies with arms and legs blown off and things much, much worse than that and then get killed on the last day.

But these men have heard before they were going home. So on this particular Sunday morning, the men of the scout platoon approached the prospect that this was their last patrol with the paranoid caution of someone accepting a Christmas present that might be booby-trapped.

"They told us they'd have a parade and we'd be home by the Fourth of July. Then they said they'd fly us out in September," said Staff Sgt. Derrick Garner, 32, of New Orleans. "Don't tell me another rumor."

All around the 101st area of operations, similar scenes were replayed over the past few weeks. An infantry company searched a business district in downtown Mosul, a platoon went on a dead-of-night raid to snatch the man intelligence believed killed a much admired sergeant from their platoon and the scouts swept streets looking for hidden explosives planted by an enemy determined to kill as many Americans as possible.

The night before scout platoon's patrol, Sp. Kevin Nguyen, 22, of Fountain Valley, Calif., listened silently as his buddies recounted the day not that long ago when an AK47 round hit him in the head. Kevlar helmets - K-pots - may not be bullet proof but Nguyen's deflected the bullet enough that it careened around the top and planted itself in the helmet's back, creasing Nguyen's hair and burning his neck. Nguyen neither smiled nor contributed to the discussion. The next day, the patrol would walk right past the ambush site where Nguyen's K-pot saved his life.



At 1:30 in the morning, men from Charlie Co., 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, gathered in the dark around half a dozen Humvees. It was chilly enough that their breath left little white puffs but the cold rain that had been falling much of the week had subsided. Clouds covered the moon and stars. It was a perfect night for a raid.

The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Alfonso Ahuja, 41, of Cincinnati, read his men the description of the man they hoped to grab -- middle aged, olive skinned, balding, mustache. From somewhere in the crowd a cynical voice said, "That describes every man in Iraq."

What Ahuja, his officers and NCOs knew about the man, but which they didn't share with the men, was that intel believed the balding middle-aged Iraqi had planted the improvised explosive device that on Dec. 10 had killed Staff Sgt. Richard A. James Burdick, 24, of National City, Calif., a sergeant from one of the platoons on the raid. If they caught him, it would be the perfect last mission.

As the loaded vehicles passed through the outer gate of their base the only noise from the men was the metallic sound of rounds being chambered.



Soldiers from another company, Charlie, of the 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, began a shop-by-shop search in one of Mosul's most crowded business districts, blocking streets and creating a monumental rush-hour traffic jam. The Iraqis were more annoyed by the inconvenience than overtly hostile but the soldiers kept a wary eye on everyone. The number of bombs set to kill soldiers had spiked sharply in the past few days and it was just a few blocks from here that one of their sergeants lost a hand in an rocket propelled grenade attack. This daylight mission in the heart of town was to be the company's last.

"We don't say, 'Last one,'" Sp. Josue Batista, 23, of San Juan, Puerto Rico, said. "We just say, 'One more.'" Batista wore a scowl that would stop traffic even if he weren't standing in a truck bed behind a pedestal-mounted M240B machine gun.

"We've been through the war," he said. "This," and he glanced at his buddies searching TV stores, barber shops and juice bars, "This is gravy."



The scout platoon, accompanied by the mortar platoon of headquarters and headquarters company of 3-502, set out to search for the bombs insurgents had been planting with increasing frequency along streets near their base. The bombs, often artillery shells detonated by remote control, are hidden in the garbage, rubble and sewer openings that line the main roads. They are set off when American vehicles pass. But the scouts found a bomb three days earlier that appeared to them as if it were intended to kill soldiers on foot. It was hidden at the spot where the men usually loaded back on their vehicles after completing the patrol.

Garner had said the night before, "I usually call my wife before missions. I don't tell her what I'm doing but she knows from my voice." Garner paused, then added, "I don't call her any more before missions." He hadn't called her last night.



The dark-of-night snatch mission was underway. The men spilled silently from the backs of their cargo Humvees and took up positions spread along the eight-foot wall surrounding the house intel believed belonged to the bomber. The only light came from the faint green glow of their night vision goggles. The only noise was the idling Humvee engines. While they were prepared to tear the metal gate of its hinges, the 101st troopers have learned it usually works simply to knock.

A balding, middle-aged Iraqi man in a long gray robe answered the knock. Without protest he opened the gate. The troopers rushed past him and into the house that smelled of kerosene from the flickering lanterns that lit the rooms and from the beans and rice left in the kitchen from dinner. With the crisp teamwork of men who have done this hundreds of time, they fanned out through the house. When the final shout of "clear" had been heard, platoon leader 2nd Lt. Tony Nyberg, 35, looked at the man, now kneeling with two rifles aimed at his head. Nyberg, of Radclif, Ken., compared the photo intel had provided and compared the name on the man's ID card.

Nyberg keyed his radio: "2-7, 2-6. We have our man," was his succinct report.

"Roger that," Ahuja came back on the radio. "I'm waiting out here with open arms."

Nyberg, a former Special Forces NCO, told the men guarding the Iraqi: "Flex cuff him and let's get ready to move."

And then as an after thought, in slow firm tones, he said to a soldier whose M4 barrel was two feet from the Iraqi's head: "Do not shoot the man, OK?"



The search of the downtown businesses was complete. The troops jammed themselves into the backs of their trucks and Humvees for the ride back to the safety of their compound, where they hoped to spend the next couple of days packing up for the trip home. They loaded up laughing and insulting one another, flipping the bird to guys in other trucks. Sp. Adam Wright, 21, of Milan, Tenn., rested his M4 carbine in the crook of his left elbow, which he propped on the roof of the truck's cab. He made a quick adjustment to his sight and, as the truck pulled out, the smile disappeared from his face. The sergeant in the passenger seat shouted to the men in back: "Weapons oriented out of the truck."

Wright shot him a disgusted glance. "No shit," he said sarcastically.



Back at their compound, the night raid team sent the bomber suspect on his way to the "cage" for interrogation. A clearly pleased Ahuja said, "It could very well be their last mission. And it'd be a sweet victory if they ended getting the guy who killed Staff Sgt. Burdick. It would be a little closure for them."



The scouts and mortarmen, on their patrol looking for hidden bombs, spread out on both sides of the street, keeping good spacing. They walked past the spot where Nguyen took a round to the head, past where another of their men lost a leg in a grenade attack, past the garbage heaps from which they had been ambushed at least three times. They gave barely a glance as they walked past the stone ruins of the ancient city of Ninevah. It is one of the world's most impressive religious sites but they have run this morning patrol scores of times and they weren't in the mood for sight seeing. Just get it done and go home.

The patrol over, back on the Humvees and into their base camp, one of the soldiers broke into a smile, the first one on any face that day. "Home safe and sound," he said.

Nguyen, who was now also smiling, punched him on the back of his helmet.

"Don't jinx it," he laughed.



As it turns out, whether Wright jinxed it or not, it was not scouts' last patrol. They had moved out of the concrete walled building on the grounds of a palace said to have belonged to Saddam Hussein's wife and set up temporarily near the airport waiting for their ride out of the country. Their bags were packed, they were ready to go.

But the war wasn't over. Intelligence agencies kept coming up with more targets and they specifically asked for the 101st to take on the task. So one more time, the scouts shouldered their gear and on a night lit by a sliver of a moon they drove to a walled building that supposedly housed five suicide bombers.

This night, they didn't plan to knock. They blew the gates open and 15 scouts rushed into the house. As Staff Sgt. Charles Everhart, 23, of Columbia, Miss., started up the stairs, an AK47 opened up on him from the second floor. A second later a grenade, pin pulled, bounced at his feet. But the enemy forgot to untape the spoon and it just sat there. Two more grenades came tumbling down the stairs but by then the combat vets had taken cover.

In the confusion, the two enemy fighters escaped but then none of the scouts were injured.

Afterwards, Garner, who had stopped calling his wife before missions, said, "I probably should have called her before that one."

And no one in the scouts was saying it was the last patrol.

"I ain't saying nothing," Garner said.