AREA OF OPERATIONS RAKKASANS, IRAQThe radio inside the humvee known as Hellfighter 5 crackled on. Lt. Col. Marty Herbert's voice came over the airwaves, his normal easy reassurance replaced with sternness. "OK," he said, "when we come to a halt I want 100 percent security." A moment later it was apparent whydivision intelligence officers had received a warning that in the area a group of 10 to 20 Iraqi soldiers had broken up into two-man teams armed with rocket-propelled grenades.
Ground Attack Convoy Five, which left Camp New Jersey in Kuwait last Thursday tasked with the mission of helping establish a forward base for the 101st Airborne Division, had been delayed more than a dozen times over the course of their five-day trip, mostly by mechanical difficulties, sandstorms, or refueling problems.
The frequent delays, combined with the seemingly warm welcome by Iraqi civilians who greeted the column of soldiers by waving and giving shouts in Arabic of "Uncle," had put some soldiers at ease. "It is hard to believe this is war," said Pfc. Alejandro Espinoza. At some stops, soldiers played music and horsed around without their Kevlar helmets before being reprimanded by officers.
But at this stop, the atmosphere was serious. The convoy had ground to a halt when a rescue truck that had gone back to aid a humvee with a flat tire became lost. The convoy had stopped not far from an Iraqi town. The residents there had seemed friendly this day, but earlier convoys had reported being greeted with hard stares.
Iraqi guerrilla forces have been harassing U.S. forces' supply lines in the south as U.S. forces press north. The 101st ground attack convoys that rolled ahead of Convoy Five reported coming under small-arms fire. Other advancing forces have reported grenade attacks, snipers, and mined roads. A group of journalists reportedly traveling on the same road came under attack by Iraqi militias.
Beside the line of nearly 300 trucks that stretched 6 miles long in Ground Attack Convoy Five, soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division's Third Brigade (known as the Rakkasans) flipped down their night-vision goggles and scanned the horizon. A moon obscured by clouds gave a strange glow to the desert. To the unaided eye, black smudges looked like trucks, revealed by the night-vision goggles to be small bushes. The soldiers watched lights flicker in the distance, likely bombing raids in Baghdad and other cities. Then one light on the horizon began to zigzag across the desert. "Look at that light; it is moving," said Staff Sgt. William Walker. The light continued to move, then erupted into a golden shower of orange light, like an Independence Day sparkler. "Awesome," Walker said.
At the sound of the explosion, the men trying to fix the humvee jumped into another truck and raced to rejoin the convoy, abandoning the vehicle. Minutes later Staff Sgt. Matthew Murray and force of heavily armored Third Brigade infantrymen went to secure the vehicle.
The cause of the explosion was not immediately clear to soldiers and officers in the convoy. Even when the soldiers reached their new base, Area of Operations Rakkasans, there was no explanation. Many of the soldiers here served in Afghanistan, and the combat veterans were urging the others not to get worked up over it. "It is everyone's first days in Iraq and they may be overreacting," said Capt. Josh Neville. "You have to pick your time to be nervous."