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GIs return to their war zone and find it peaceful

Veterans of 2007's battle of Tarmiyah are absorbing the dramatic change since "last time": the peace that has transformed it from a battleground to an ordinary-looking Iraqi town.
Image: Benjamin Weber
This Feb. 19, 2007 photo provided by U.S. Army Sgt. Benjamin Weber, shows him, left, and his comrades from 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment taking up positions on the roof of their post in Tarmiyah after a suicide car bombing.AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Popcorn popping, thought Army Staff Sgt. Jason Fisher. That's the sound the bullets made as they hit the wall of the American outpost.

It was early morning and Fisher's comrades were still asleep. But he had stayed up overnight, processing suspects wanted in the killing of an American soldier two days earlier.

His outpost often took gunfire, usually sporadic, but this time it didn't let up. Then he looked out the window and saw it: a white truck barreling toward the converted police station.

Fisher turned to run. Suddenly, he was flying through the air.

The blast sheered off the front of the building, burying some of the soldiers. Others rushed to dig them out and find their weapons and flak vests in the rubble.

Coated in cement dust, the soldiers looked ghostlike as they made what would become a more than four-hour stand, outnumbered nearly 3-to-1 by militants.

It was Feb. 19, 2007, and the U.S. surge was under way. The battle of Tarmiyah would reveal how tough the core mission would be: push into territory held by Sunni militants and hold it.

Now Fisher and a handful of others are with the forces assigned to Tarmiyah, 30 miles north of Baghdad, and counting down the days until they leave, likely in early January — part of the U.S. plan to withdraw all but 50,000 troops by Aug. 31.

For those veterans of "Feb. 19," as they call it, these final days are spent coming to terms with that battle — of retelling stories of "last time...," "last time..." that offer a warning against complacency to their young comrades untested by war.

But they're also absorbing the dramatic change since "last time": the peace that has transformed Tarmiyah from a battleground to a fairly peaceful, ordinary-looking Iraqi town.


Back in December 2006, things looked grim. Tarmiyah, near the southern border of the dreaded Sunni Triangle, lay in the heartland of the insurgency. Threatened with death by al-Qaida-backed insurgents, Tarmiyah's entire Iraqi police force, whom the U.S. troops were living with and training, had simply walked away from the job.

The town's only defense was small detachments of U.S. troops rotated in for a few days at a time, taking them on a hellish 12 mile ride each way through gunfire and roadside bombs, on a route they called Coyote Road.

The following month, President George W. Bush unveiled the strategy called the surge — to flood Iraq with 20,000 more troops and extend the tours of some of the soldiers already in Iraq. For the men in Tarmiyah, a 12-month tour became a 15-month tour.

In February 2007, two platoons of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Calvary Regiment, 1st Calvary Division out of Fort Hood, Texas, moved into Tarmiyah. The 38 soldiers were part of Demon Company. On Feb. 17, a sniper killed Pfc. Justin T. Paton. He bled in the arms of his best friend, Fisher. It was a foretaste of much worse to come two days later, when Fisher saw the suicide truck bomb coming toward the building.

The truck bomb destroyed most of Demon Company's communications equipment and Humvees. But the soldiers managed to start a Humvee engine for just a couple of minutes — long enough to turn on the radio and report being under fire.

Aerial drone
Twelve miles away, at the large American base at Taji, battalion commanders watched the battle on video from an aerial drone. Word spread quickly. So many soldiers gathered at the operations center, pleading to go to Demon Company's aid, that commanders ordered them out of the room. Most continued to linger by the door.

The radio call from the Humvee brought Apache attack helicopters scrambling over Tarmiyah, cheered by the soldiers on the ground fighting about 100 insurgents who had nearly surrounded the post's perimeter, by the soldiers' estimate. One Apache was hit by insurgent fire and the pilot wounded, according to military reports.

When the battle was over, two of the 38 soldiers were dead and 28 were wounded. Sgt. Benjamin Weber, 23, of Traverse City, Mich., was hit in the face with shrapnel; Fisher's leg was sliced open.

After the battle, those still able to fight were consolidated into one unit. The original two platoons, "Blue" and "White" were melded into what was darkly nicknamed "the blight platoon."

"You lost your sense of security," said Fisher, 26, of Phoenix, Ariz. "Out there ... on patrol, you expected this. But not in the patrol base. Not where you slept. Not where you ate. Not where you played cards with your buddies. The patrol base is the place you were supposed to come back to and feel a sense of security. You didn't have that anymore."

In this photo taken Dec. 17, 2009, U.S. Army Sgt. Benjamin Weber is seen at his post in Tarmiyah, north of Baghdad, Iraq. Three years ago he was among soldiers fighting off a fierce insurgent attack on the post as the U.S. troop surge got under way. Now he is back at the old battleground, finishing up another tour of duty and finding Tarmiyah a much more peaceful place. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)Maya Alleruzzo / AP

The troops said the attackers suffered heavy casualties before being driven off, though the military would not release its official count.

The military moved into a youth sports facility in Tarmiyah. "Blight platoon" was withdrawn from the town, though its able-bodied members would be back within weeks.

Months later "blight" lost five more soldiers to a roadside bomb.

The rest stayed together until their return to the U.S. And when 2nd Battalion's Bandog Company became the latest to deploy to Tarmiyah, it included a dozen veterans of the battle of Feb. 19, 2007.

"Personally, I went in with a lot of animosity," said Staff Sgt. Jason Moore, 35, of Clinton, Texas. "There's a lot of bad memories up here. We lost a lot of good guys. Coming back here was like rubbing salt in the wound." The night before the first convoy came here, many had trouble sleeping. Commanders tried to ease anxieties, assuring the troops they were not returning to the same experience.

"It's not the Tarmiyah we left in 2007," said Capt. Mike Doyle, 30, of San Diego, the battalion's operations planning officer, who had been in the operations center as the 2007 battle unfolded on a video feed.

Last time, the men said, roadside bombs were constant. Last time, insurgents shot at the convoy. Last time, children would bang on pots to alert insurgents the Americans were coming.

'What the hell town is this?'
This time the journey on Coyote Road passed without incident. Tarmiyah still had checkpoints and blast walls, but stores once shuttered were open, and the main street was clogged with traffic. This time, children weren't banging pots; instead they ran to the convoy and waved.

On the way to Tarmiyah, "I was like, 'Who in the hell comes back to a place like this after all that?'" said Fisher. "And now, I'm like, what the hell town is this? This isn't Tarmiyah. People are waving at us!"

The veterans of "Feb. 19" are once again working with Iraqi police and soldiers, sometimes on joint patrols, stopping to talk with the very shopkeepers and others they suspect may have cheered, if not participated in, the 2007 attack.

"A lot of the guys ... are not able to relax around" the Iraqi forces, said Weber. "I don't trust the (Iraqi army) or the (Iraqi police). But I can hope that the Iraqis will do their job."

Some of the veterans keep copies of a propaganda video of the battle that turned up on Al-Jazeera TV, showing the truck bomb blowing up and insurgents celebrating at the collapsed outpost, claiming to have overrun the Americans. "That never happened," Fisher said contemptuously. "We held that place."

In an open courtyard, as Fisher, Weber and two others recalled "Feb. 19," newer, rawer soldiers stopped to listen.

"I think they need to hear this," Weber said later. "... It's important they realize it isn't a game. It's not fun. People die."

Standing on the roof of the post, bracing against a cold wind, Fisher clutched a silver bracelet etched with the name of Pfc. Justin T. Paton, his best friend.

"It wasn't just that day," he said. "It was this place."

Before returning to Iraq for their last tour, others in his platoon visited Paton's family. Fisher couldn't bring himself to do it.

"What do I say? 'I am sorry'?" he said.

The return to Tarmiyah has offered healing, in some ways. For some, the peace that has broken out in this small town may be a measure of assurance that the sacrifice was worth it.

Shortly after he got back here, Fisher received a letter from Paton's father with an invitation to visit.

After this tour, Fisher plans to make the visit.

"That's the only thing I have left to do," he says.