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Convoys in Iraq safer, but stressful

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Editor's note: Doug Grindle, our Marlborough community reporter, has returned to the Middle East and is currently embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq. While there, he plans to send us articles whenever he can to provide our readers with glimpses of what is going on in the region.

As always, we are grateful to Doug and other journalists like him who put themselves in harm's way so that those of us safe at home can be wellinformed.

LSA Anaconda, Balad, Iraq – It is late afternoon and a convoy of armored vehicles is lined up in an gravel-covered yard inside this base of about 20,000 soldiers. Soldiers of Bravo Company 297th Combat Support Battalion load up their Humvees and ASVs – large armored cars equipped with enclosed turrets. Machine guns, water, ice, overnight bags and food are carried in the vehicles, which are bulky on the outside but small inside once loaded up. The vehicles are packed to the gills.

LSA Anaconda is a transport hub for central Iraq and these soldiers ride out with the supply convoys. Their machine guns and grenade launchers protect the unarmed supply trucks from harm. Searchlights are used to find hidden roadside bombs hidden along the highways. The armor protects the soldiers from any blast and from small arms fire. This job is dangerous, and among the 80 or so convoys on Iraqi roads every night, one, two or a handful of convoys will run across a roadside bomb.

PHOTO/DOUG GRINDLE Soldiers of the Bravo Co. 297th Combat Support Battalion are ready to head out on a night convoy. The soldiers protect supply convoys that run over most areas of Iraq. PHOTO/DOUG GRINDLE Soldiers of the Bravo Co. 297th Combat Support Battalion are ready to head out on a night convoy. The soldiers protect supply convoys that run over most areas of Iraq. Soldiers find about half of the bombs in the beams of the searchlights before they can detonate, but still it's a stressful job.

"It depends on which run you make. It seems like some runs are safer than others," said Sgt. Matthew Nore, from Anchorage, Alaska. "Especially when you go north, that's a tough run. Down south, that's a tough run because that's where most of the insurgent activity is. But, out east, most of the time when we've gone out east nothing really goes on."

The soldiers finish loading, eat dinner, pile into their vehicles and drive across base to find the convoy they are charged with protecting. Every day is diff erent, and every day brings a new convoy, driven by different drivers, often third-country nationals from the Philippines, Pakistan and a medley of other low-wage countries, whose English-language skills are usually non-existent.

This company has been here since November 2007, and it is part of a larger unit, called the 316th Sustainment Command, Expeditionary (ESC), a force of almost 20,000 soldiers charged with pushing the convoys through and maintaining several of the bases in Iraq.

Soldiers in Iraq doing this job face fewer dangers than they did six months ago.

"We have seen the numbers of IEDs [improvised explosive devices] go down," said Brigadier General Gregory Couch, the head of the 316th ESC. "The number of IEDs we're seeing on the road right now is 50 percent of what it was four or five months ago."

Attacks are down for two reasons, Couch said: more American troops are in theater and fewer Sunni insurgents are fighting, which has also allowed the United States to put more pressure on al Qaeda in Iraq.

"We've killed a lot of al Qaeda," Couch said. "Many of the Sunni factions have decided it's time to support government, that supporting al Qaeda was not favorable to them."

There are fewer of the Continued on following page deadly EFP roadside bombs – technically called "explosively formed penetrators," which cut easily through armor on the Humvees by using explosives to melt copper plates and shoot the molten slug at great speed through the side of the vehicle, and the men inside.

Fewer bombs is a consolation to soldiers like Nore. Today the convoy is heading north, toward a camp named Speicher in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, only a few hours away. This run is a familiar one, because the base at Speicher takes a lot of supplies.

The road is not a good one – there are several hot spots where insurgents like to set bombs. Tikrit is a bastion of anti-American feeling. So is Samarra, a small city along the road between Tikrit and Anaconda. Bad things happen here almost every day.

But least the soldiers know this road, which is good, because their lives can depend on that knowledge.

Insurgents like to set bombs in the same place time and time again. If soldiers know where those suspicious places are and, most importantly, if things beside the road look out of place – it can provide that vital clue in locating a bomb.

But these soldiers drive so many roads across such a large area that they do not enjoy that comparative advantage on many of the less-traveled ones.

"They say you're supposed to get used to the roads, but you travel so many road you can't remember each mile," Nore said. "You never know where it's going to be at and what's diff erent."

Night has long fallen by the time the soldiers join up with the supply trucks and they all lumber out the gate at Anaconda. As the soldiers pass through the gate, they halt a few seconds to test fire their machine guns.

A few hours later, they pull into Speicher and unchamber the rounds from their automatic weapons. Another run complete.

This unit from the Alaska National Guard is here for six months and will run about 50 of these missions. This run is just another day on the job in Iraq, where conditions are better but the war is by no

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