A Year of Living Dangerously

Baghdad has taken a toll on the U.S. Army's 'Blue Spaders'

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Corrected on 9/25/07: The original version of this story incorrectly reported the first name of 1st Lt. Matthew Martinez.

BAGHDAD—The price paid for the gains in Iraq has been high, and no U.S. unit has paid more than the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment in the capital's Adhamiya neighborhood, where Sunni insurgents have been dug in for years and where Shiite extremists regularly target American troops. Thirty-five U.S. soldiers have been killed and 122 Purple Hearts awarded to the wounded since the Germany-based 800-member unit arrived a little more than a year ago.

Since the controversial concrete "wall of Adhamiya" was erected between hostile Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods last April to contain and separate the hostile factions, Iraqi civilian deaths in the area have declined from a daily average of 10 to two. And in a potentially important breakthrough, a previously anti-American Sunni sheik led a raid in August on the city's most important Sunni mosque, Abu Hanifa, located in the heart of Adhamiya, which uncovered large arms caches.

The troops of 1-26, known as the Blue Spaders for their distinctive spade-shaped regimental emblem, dismantled two of the most important car-bomb networks in Baghdad this spring, killing and capturing members, and similarly broke up both Al Qaeda in Iraq and Shiite extremist groups. They found and defused more bombs in the past year than any other unit in Baghdad.

But as the raids and the wall diminished Iraqi deaths, suspected Sunni militants turned to their deadliest tactic yet against the Spaders. On May 14, Lt. Matthew Martinez, 23, and his platoon were hit by a deeply buried bomb, which had been planted in a street where a U.S.-funded sewer line was being laid. The fireball from the blast set a humvee on fire, killing the driver instantly. Martinez and his men pulled out the other four soldiers, who were in flames, and doused the fires, while insurgents shot at them and burning ammunition exploded all around. The medic worked furiously, but two of the soldiers died, and one remains in critical condition at the burn unit in San Antonio. Martinez and his men have been nominated for Silver Stars and Bronze Medals with Valor.

Powerful. The next month, another buried improvised explosive device in the same neighborhood flipped one of their 35-ton Bradley fighting vehicles. The force of the explosion killed the five soldiers inside and their interpreter. Less than one month later, on July 18, yet another Bradley was hit by the same type of charge, killing the four occupants.

The horrific losses have bonded an already tight-knit unit, as have its successes. Operations officer Maj. John Meyer believes the raid on Abu Hanifa mosque may be a turning point for Adhamiya, and local councilman Omar Rachmani agrees: "The majority understands the terrorists won't lead them in the right direction, and the neighborhood is almost demolished."

So every day, platoon leader Martinez takes his men out on patrol to turn back the forces of chaos. "The government of Iraq," he says, "can't do it alone."