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Dispatches from the front in Iraq

Journalists embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq  offer a close-up look at a nation in turmoil and give the folks at home an idea of what it’s like for their sons and daughters, a world away and in harm’s way.
Atlanta Journal & Constitution reporter Dave Hirschman, left, and photographer Curtis Compton, right, meet Iraqi plice officers while riding in a Bradley mission with Alpha Company, 1st of the 121st, out of Lawrenceville, Ga., in June. Hirschman and Compton are embedded with the Georgia National Guard 48th Brigade.
Atlanta Journal & Constitution reporter Dave Hirschman, left, and photographer Curtis Compton, right, meet Iraqi plice officers while riding in a Bradley mission with Alpha Company, 1st of the 121st, out of Lawrenceville, Ga., in June. Hirschman and Compton are embedded with the Georgia National Guard 48th Brigade.Atlanta Journal And Constitution / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

About three dozen reporters, photographers and members of television crews are now embedded with American forces in Iraq, far fewer than the 700 journalists assigned during the invasion of the country two years ago.

They offer a close-up look at Iraq in turmoil; they give the folks at home an idea of what it’s like for their sons and daughters, a world away and in harm’s way.

Some recent reports from the front.

Skies of Baghdad safer than the ground
By Dave Hirschman
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
CAMP TAJI, Iraq, June 25 — The flares began popping from the Black Hawk helicopter over the slums of Baghdad’s Sadr City.

Intensely red and white, the fireworks would have been right at home in the night sky over any Fourth of July celebration back in the U.S.

But over Baghdad, they mean something far more menacing.

The flares pop out when someone electronically targets the aircraft — a possible prelude to a surface-to-air missile attack.

A mirrored sensor that looks like a 1970s disco ball on the back of the Army helicopter picks up the threat and sends cascading flares as aerial decoys for heat-seeking missiles.

Crisscrossing the skies of Baghdad
“The system has a mind of its own,” said Chief Warrant Officer Ruben Rivera, 31, of San Juan, Puerto Rico, the pilot. “Sometimes the flares surprise me, too. They go off all the time around here.”

The Black Hawks are regular visitors here, crisscrossing the Baghdad skyline dozens of times a day in a military shuttle service known as the “Marne Express.”

The name comes from the Fort Stewart-based 3rd Infantry Division, whose longtime nickname is “Rock of the Marne” (from a heroic stand it made during World War I). The division sends a pair of Black Hawks three times daily to about a dozen military installations around the city.

The Marne Express has become the main mode of travel for soldiers in the Georgia Army National Guard’s 48th Brigade Combat Team as they hopscotch from base to base.

The stench of poverty
Helicopters are preferred because they keep soldiers away from deadly roadside bombs that have become the weapon of choice for the insurgents.

No missiles arose from the sprawling slums this day, just the stench of poverty.

During a two-hour circuit around Baghdad this week, the view from the helicopter quickly changed.

The urban cityscapes gave way to lush palm groves and the blue Tigris River. From there, the fortress-like Green Zone appeared below before it was left behind for squalid slums and the arid wasteland south of the city where American bases are encircled by concrete barriers, dirt berms and miles of razor wire.

The helicopters are armed with machine guns and travel in pairs. They rarely fly more than 10 minutes between takeoffs and landings.

Mixing it up in the air
Each is equipped with a satellite Global Positioning System. But Rivera, a compact, self-confident flier in the midst of his second yearlong combat tour in Iraq, knows the area by heart and prefers to navigate by looking out the window.

He varies his route and schedule each day to make himself a less inviting or predictable target.

He also flies low and fast for the same reason, sometimes climbing to clear buildings and power lines.

The 11-passenger Blackhawks still come back with bullet holes, though. Fancy flares are powerless against plain, old-fashioned bullets — and the helicopters seem to attract more than their fair share. But, so far, all of the Marne Express flights have come home from their missions safely.

On this relatively clear morning, air traffic controllers informed Rivera and his crew that a portion of Baghdad’s airspace was off limits due to “multiple explosions.” Several suicide bombers blew up themselves and their cars, killing more than 40 people.

Another dull day at the office
Apache attack helicopters were prowling the area around the attacks. Black smoke was on the horizon.

Listening to the conversation between Rivera and his co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Brian Hegenbart, as they skimmed the hostile terrain, it sounded like a couple of guys enduring another dull day at the office, not two men risking their lives.

They banked hard over the Baghdad International Airport, passed by a huge minaret they call the Space Needle and dropped like an anvil into the Green Zone at a tiny, walled heliport with barely enough room for both Black Hawks and their spinning rotor blades.

Rivera’s helicopter shuddered as it hovered a few feet above the ground, then plunked down and rolled to a quick stop.

Three passengers scurried out and two more climbed in.

“Only six point six hours to go,” said Hegenbart, 30, a career soldier from Sacramento, Calif.

Rivera nodded in agreement.

“Do you want to fly the next leg or should I?” Rivera asked. “On a day like this, I could fly all day.”

No conveniences of home here
By W.S. Wilson
The Rochester (Ind.) Sentinel
FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ, Iraq, June 7 — So, what is it like living here?

If you want to go off base, you’ll need permission from someone who is overworked, a convoy for cover and body armor.

For a notion of body armor, cut holes in a big trash bag for your neck and arms, put it on over long underwear and hang two 10-pound sacks of flour over each shoulder.

For the background noise, find and park an idling bulldozer in your front yard. Do all this with 17 of your best friends, and two or three people who bug the heck out of you. Share toilets and showers with them. Make sure the facilities are at least 20 or 30 yards away, sized for munchkins and right next to an aromatic aboveground sewage holding tank.

Walking like a duck
You’ll need lots and lots of fine dust — enough to cover every surface inside your house, especially your music equipment, so get with Dave Carr and have him tear out an old plaster ceiling.

Bob Macy can bring over enough gravel to cover everything six or eight inches deep so when you go out to get the mail, you walk like a duck.

As for the heat, turn on a pair of hair dryers and aim one at each ear. Get your warmest winter coat out of the closet and put it on over the body armor. Stand there for a couple of hours.

You won’t have to wear the bulletproof vest on the 10-minute walk to the mess hall, but you will be expected to carry a gun.

Share an 8-foot-by-20-foot room with a guy who snores.

Work the night shift for two days, then the day shift for a day, then the night shift.

Life goes on a world away
A lot of the people here are doing this, and getting shot at, with nagging doubts about their families. Kids are being born, breaking their arms, screwing up their algebra tests and wrecking cars without their fathers. They are graduating from high school, getting engaged and finding new jobs with one parent on the far side of the world.

A few of the wives back home have sent their husbands off to war and their youngest child off to college at the same time.

Folks are here for a year, time enough for spouses to move on. Here’s an e-mail I got yesterday from the wife of a young Indiana soldier I had photographed while he stood guard over a bomb disposal crew as it dealt with two 122 mm artillery shells rigged to blow up a passing American or two, or 30:

'I know you are probably busy ... '
“I know that you are probably busy but I was wondering if there was any way possible you could send me a picture of my husband. He is with 113th Company C. We are going to be having a baby here in a few weeks and I would like to have a picture of him to take with me to the hospital.

“I haven’t seen any pictures of him since he has been over there and I would really appreciate it. It would mean the world to me and I would be ever so grateful for you doing this! Once again, Thank you.”

Little wonder the chaplain sometimes looks like he has been up all night.

Small arms fire sometimes crackles in the distance after dark. It doesn’t seem to bother these people much. I’m happy to report that the incoming mortar fire that pestered this place for months before I arrived has stopped.

’Fobbits’ hold down the forts with pride
By Edward Lee Pitts
Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press
June 18 — A mostly friendly rivalry has developed here between 278th Regimental Combat Team soldiers primarily assigned to “front line,” or off-the-base, duties and support troops limited to tasks inside each of the regiment’s three camps.

The troops who spend long days “outside the wire” on combat and peacekeeping missions in simmering Humvees and heavy body armor taunt their counterparts inside the bases by calling them “fobbits.”

The name comes from combining the military abbreviation for a Forward Operating Base, or FOB, with the short, pointy-eared Hobbits from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

'You might be a fobbit if ... '
No one in the regiment can claim original authorship of the term fobbits. Soldiers with the 30th Brigade Combat Team out of North Carolina, who preceded the 278th in Iraq, handed down the expression to their successors. The North Carolina soldiers arrived here in early 2004, about the time “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” the final movie installment of the trilogy, won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Mention the word fobbit among the 278th’s nearly 3,000 troops and reactions range from wide grins to eyes flashing with anger.

Second Squadron Spc. Adam Shelton, of Greeneville, Tenn., who as a scout spends the bulk of his time away from Forward Operating Base Bernstein, proudly displayed a four-page list of “You might be a fobbit if ... “ jokes he penned.

His favorites had his scout bunkmates laughing as he read some of them out loud: If you think leaving “the wire” might be a fun adventure, you might be a fobbit, and if the second time you’ll be off the FOB is on leave, you might be a fobbit.

Outside, raids and minefields
Shelton, 25, failed to see the irony in the fact that he wrote the jokes while he pulled guard duty one night. But when pressed about his fobbit feelings, he admitted, “we wouldn’t be able to do our job without them.”

Fellow 2nd Squadron Scout Sgt. Tim Lyman, 32, of Bulls Gap, Tenn., said “if you have time to think about who’s a fobbit, you are closer to a fobbit yourself than not.”

About 40 percent of the regiment’s troops work outside the bases, while 60 percent work mostly inside the bases, according to the personnel office.

The soldiers who must train the Iraqi army, go out on raids, navigate the area’s many minefields and hunt bombmakers said they have reason to get a little worked up when they return “home” and compare their jobs to other soldiers.

Inside, shuffling papers
Some base troops work eight-hour shifts checking identifications at the Internet and phone rooms, clicking a counter as soldiers enter the mess hall or shuffling papers. Others spend their days building wooden sheds or installing satellite television in the rooms of paying “subscribers.”

Staff Sgt. Scott Stout, 28, of Rutledge, Tenn., said those who rarely leave the base often get worked up over events that regular patrol “veterans” don’t even flinch at anymore.

“Those of us who go out every day get a kick out of it,” Stout said.

Lyman said the fobbits who “sweat the small stuff” usually enjoy creating rules such as time limits on showers and how far pant seams can come down on a soldier’s boots.

But Capt. William Jessie, who leads the headquarters troop for 2nd Squadron, said support troops are there to ensure everything needed to fight a war gets where it belongs. He called nicknames such as “fobbits” disrespectful.

No glory in stock room work
“Everybody is over here, and everybody’s sacrificed,” said Jessie, of Claiborne County, Tenn. “A soldier is a soldier. Somebody has to haul the beans and the bullets.”

In fact, Lt. Col. Jeff Archer, commander of the regiment’s Support Squadron, said missions don’t happen without food, ammunition, fuel and maintenance.

Capt. Rhonda Jones, a commander of regiment troops who provide combat support by maintaining a supply room Wal-Mart would be proud of, said the jokes materialize because there isn’t a lot of glory in office or stock room work.

“On TV commercials you don’t see anybody filing paperwork or using a wrench,” said Jones, 38, of Sparta, Tenn. “You see all the war stuff. But ’bang bang’ stuff doesn’t happen without us. If we suddenly shut down for four or five hours, I guarantee you the entire regiment will know about it.”