Kevin Sites  /  NBC News
Members of Bravo 1-36 of the 1st Armored Division take a break outside of Karbala.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/3/2004 9:38:23 AM ET 2004-06-03T13:38:23

He has 12 confirmed kills. One for every month he’s been here. But, he said it’s not unusual for his unit, Bravo 1-36 of the 1st Armored Division, which has been deployed in Iraq longer than any other division.

“Some have more, some have less,” shrugged 21-year-old Specialist Michael Auton of Lenore, N.C.

“When I got here I found out that pulling the trigger wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” Auton said. All except the first one.

“It was wow, I just killed a man,” he said. “You start thinking he coulda been a guy just protecting his family. But then you think, OK, he’s running around out here with an AK-47 shooting at us — then you just get over it. Move on.”

Auton isn’t even a sniper, just an Eleven Bravo, the army’s classification for infantry soldier, a grunt. But he’s seen more war and more killing at his young age than most of us can comprehend. And more than he wanted.

But now, after being on the verge of going home after a year in Iraq, his mechanized infantry battalion is dug into the powdery sand on the outskirts of Karbala. The soldiers are awaiting orders to go into the city and root out the remnants of the militia loyal to Shiite firebrand, Muqtada al-Sadr.

Settling back in
Auton’s unit was supposed to go home until there were twin uprisings in Iraq -- Sunni insurgents in Fallujah and al-Sadr’s fighters in Najaf and Karbala.

Because it’s the most experienced division in Iraq, the 1st Armored was rewarded with three more months in the combat zone.

Here on the edge of one of Shiite Islam’s holiest cities, home of the shrines of Ali and Hussein, the 1-36 makes a temporary forward operating base in primitive conditions.

Kevin Sites  /  NBC News
Specialist Michael Auton

The soldiers sleep on the platforms of their tanks, curl around the hardware of their Bradleys or simply lie in the dirt. The sun and heat are withering. There are no showers or toilets and they’re back to eating the high-calorie, long-shelf-life, constipating military MRE’s, (meals ready to eat) again.

Overnight this few acres of sand has become an American community of sorts.

The soldiers whittle, listen to music, prep their gear, or talk incessantly — the kind of juvenile banter you’d expect from guys on a yearlong camping trip in Iraq.

But then the chatter is punctuated by moments of candor, mainly about being away from home for so long.

“It’s like missing a half of a life,” said Private Vitaly Sorokin, who emigrated with his family from Russia to the United States and then joined the Army. “The more you’ve been here, the more you realize time pretty much stops here," he said. "You’re missing everything. It’s all taken out of your life for that period.”

“The biggest thing is missing my daughter,” said 26-year-old David Anderson of Mississippi. Since I’ve been here she started walking and she started talking. She’s two and half now. I’ve missed all the good stuff — I’ve missed all of it.”

“I’ll have been married two years in July,” said Corporal Timothy Turner of California. “This is going to be the second anniversary I’ve missed. My wife’s birthday is tomorrow and I won’t be able to call her to say ‘Happy Birthday.’”

Turner shook his head. “My life has stopped back home. Some people are going to go back and they’re not going to have a life. Some people are going to get divorces. Lives ruined.”

And once they finally do get home, they will still be faced with the complex task of finding their way in a civilian society again.

The troops are eager to leave their weapons and Kevlar behind, but the violence they’ve experienced here will likely be with them, in one way or another, forever.

“We all know what we signed up to do, we’re all infantry,” said Corporal Joe Coy, a 23-year-old Texan. “We all know our job, but still it’s a rough thing. It’s not a natural thing to take another human life — but every time we pulled the trigger, we’ve done it to protect our buddies left and right.” 

He paused for a moment, “In a bigger sense to protect everybody in the army, everybody in our country.”

Preparing for battle
Soon, the soldiers were back in action. Bravo I-36 was ordered to provide flank protection for another unit doing a nighttime raid near Karbala.

As soon as the order was given, the troops began their rituals.

Like baseball players, soldiers are incredibly superstitious. While they waited, they drew their own lines between good luck and bad, donning or pocketing those items that would protect them and vanquishing those with dark energy -- in this case, Charms candy.

Nearby, one soldier passed a couple of American flag patches to another. In between the bars on the patch were the words, "Dirty for Dirty," handwritten in ink.

They are calling cards to put on the bodies of dead enemies, a non-sanctioned post-mortem psyche-out, a way to to let al-Sadr’s militia know who they are and what they’re up against.

There also were crosses, Bibles, St. Michael medals and photos of their families taped to the inside of helmets. 

Corporal Coy had a silver heart locket. It holds a strand of his wife’s hair. “The knights in the old days used to have a lock of their lady’s hair, a symbol of good luck and good return,” he smiled.

Specialist Auton pulled on a small chain that led into his pants pocket. It was connected to a thumb-size book.

“It’s the Quran,” he said, a gift from his Turkish girlfriend that he met while based in Germany. He explained that some of the guys gave him grief for carrying the Islamic holy book, the same book so often found among bodies of the enemies they’ve killed in action, but he doesn’t listen to them. “It’s always there,” he said, and slipped it back in place.

One night’s mission
At 10:30 p.m. the soldiers packed into the Bradleys. When they arrived at the suburban neighborhood outside Karbala, it was nearly pitch black. The soldiers set up barricades on the street and waited.

But it didn't take long before things went wrong. Word came over the radio that one of Bravo’s Bradleys plunged into a ravine. It was still upright, but stuck at a steep angle in a few feet of water. It had to be towed out.

But then reports came that a second vehicle had gone into the drink as well. This one from Alpha Company — and the situation was much worse.

At the site, a quarter mile away, only the top of the Bradley’s turret was exposed; the rest was submerged in seven feet of water. The driver, relying on his night vision, didn’t have the depth perception to see the deep canal.

That Bradley filled up with water in seconds.

“It was dark, it filled up with water, people were panicking,” Specialist Joseph Lee said. “But I tried to stay calm, I knew that if I didn’t stay calm I probably wasn’t going to make it because I can’t swim.”

The longest swim was left for the Bradley’s driver, 18-year-old Ferdinand Delarosa, who couldn’t open the driver’s hatch above him because it was under water.

He had to turn around and wiggle through a small opening called the “hell hole” which led to the Bradley’s turret. His body armor got caught -- and for a moment he thought he might not make it out.

“I just kept trying to squirm my way through like a little worm through its hole — once I finally made it through; I just thought, I’ve made it this far I’m going to keep going.”

Once he got through, Delarosa swam up the turret and opened the top hatch. He had been underwater for nearly two minutes.

“I didn’t want to die like that, I didn’t want my mom to get a phone call like that,” he said. “But you’re life kind of does flash before your eyes, it does, I’ll tell you it does.”

While Alpha Company spent the next few hours trying to tow the sunken $5 million Bradley out of the canal, the soldiers of Bravo Company loaded up their vehicles and headed back to base.

They completed another night, another mission in Iraq.

NBC's Kevin Sites is on assignment in Iraq. More of his reports from Iraq can be found on his personal blog www.kevinsites.net.

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