FORWARD OPERATING BASE SYKES – The Humvee has much to offer.

It has robust armor and multi-layered glass that can stop most bullets. The Humvee – about $150,000 a copy – has survived explosions that would vaporize your family sedan. It can present a variety of sobering fire power, and chug up steep rocky hills like a goat. It can ford more than four feet of water and cruise at alarming speed while darting through traffic with five soldiers aboard. It is the Jeep writ large.

Soldiers are fond of it.

But it ain’t comfortable.

Sitting anywhere in a Humvee can test one’s character. Spending time in the back seat is a little like entering the crawl space beneath your home. You can get to the other end, but you have to want to go there. I’d like to be able to tell you how some of these big tough soldiers spend so much time in the back seat of a Humvee – and with such good cheer – but it is beyond me. The average 11-year-old probably has enough leg room in one of these things.

If you are wearing body armor, you’ve got even less room. If you’ve got a big gunner as we did the other day – Jason “Tank” Amstutz, the pride of Bedford and an accomplished wild turkey hunter – while touring the area east of Tall Afar, well, let’s just say the word cozy doesn’t quite suffice.

Humvee shock absorbers are built to last, not to soothe. Covering terrain like this riding in the back of a Humvee is a little like playing nose guard on a high school football team – expect a few lumps.

I’m told it is worse in the front passenger’s seat, but I’m not sure I believe it. Granted, it is narrow up there and many Humvees have a battle computer and radios that take up lots of space that would be dedicated to rider comfort in a conventional vehicle. But not being able to straighten your legs even a wee tiny bit takes a heavy toll. So does the roar of the air conditioner.

The muscular transmission rides high, to make for better ground clearance. This means there is a relentless source of heat that is almost always in direct contact with your leg. There is little lateral room. Just don’t snivel. You are about 40 kilometers from the Syrian border, in an area with more than its share of bad guys. These guys are busy. They don’t want to hear about how your kneecaps and shins are getting barked by sharp metal, or how your thighs are cramping or how your lower back is screaming.

By way of contrast, we spent Thursday night in a vehicle that soldiers have dubbed the Winnebago. It is the Buffalo, a behemoth that is virtually impervious to land mines. (Mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades coming from above are another matter.) The Buffalo has a mechanical arm with a claw which is used to probe for mines and improvised explosives. The big rig carries a stash of plastic explosives to detonate booby traps.

Unlike the Humvee, the Buffalo sports seats are comfortable, and there’s leg room. What our Buffalo did not have, sadly, was an air conditioner. It had been blown up by a bomb a few days earlier and the mechanics were waiting for a belt. Of course, that’s not enough to stop the Indiana National Guard from going out on a mission.

With all the blast windows and hatches sealed, and six passengers all sitting on top of a motor big enough to power such heavy armor, it got hot and nasty in a big hurry. I didn’t bring along my thermometer, but it was hotter inside that Buffalo than it was east of Tall Afar today, and that was 115 degrees, 98 in the shade. It was the hottest I’ve been in more than three weeks in Iraq. Memo to Don Rumsfeld: Get these guys an air conditioner belt, stat. They’re already working 12-hour shifts starting at 8 p.m., without whining. They deserve it.

The driver was Spec. Joe Gomez. Sgt. John Grafton worked the claw. Cpl. Omar Valez rode shotgun with his M4 assault rifle, rigged to spit grenades. S.Sgt Dean Jones, a cop from southwest Michigan, was in charge. Their teamwork was every bit as crisp as that directed by Peyton Manning in the last two minutes of a playoff contest. The basic approach was to go slowly – 5 mph or less – and use the lights to scour the roadway for signs of trouble.

When they came to a suspicious depression, Gomez stopped the vehicle. Grafton worked the claw like a maestro. My guess is that he could pick up a dime with the thing. It is very exacting. Even with all that armor, you don’t want to go thrashing around where there are explosives. Grafton probed maybe half a dozen spots, usually craters from previous blasts that might have been rigged anew, but found no cause to demonstrate the efficacy of the armor.

They worked in concert with three big tanks to clear a route dubbed Santa Fe between FOB Sykes and Tall Afar. Once the Buffalo had warranted the safety of a particular stretch of the road, one of the tanks took up a position where it could watch it for the rest of the night with its night vision goggles, thermal imaging and the Lord knows what else. When the Buffalo got to the turnaround point, we returned to high ground and waited on standby. We were at it from about 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. Nobody seemed bothered by the fact that there was absolutely no place to lay down and stretch out in a Buffalo.

Gomez, a student at Purdue Northwest is an outgoing lad. He sees things turning around here. A couple of nights ago they heard enough gunfire to convince them that some of the locals are fighting back. “They’re standing up for themselves,” he said. Soldiers at Marez sometimes call Tall Afar the Wild West. On this night, we heard only a smattering of distant gunfire, and the big tanks did not let fly with their cannons.

The crew was called out again at 6 a.m.

Dust layers Tall Afar

Tall Afar dust must be experienced to be believed.

It is as fine as fine can be, something on the order of talcum powder. In the parking area for Humvees and the big bad Buffalo, the dust is several inches thick. The stuff comes roiling out in front of moving tanks and Humvees, makes terrific plumes behind them and manages to coat just about every single surface inside every building, and every pocket, nook and cranny of every housing unit.

It covers absolutely everything inside your bag, your shaving kit and your clothes. The only place I found that wasn't covered with dust was the inside of the shower stalls.

There are big piles of bottled water scattered all around these bases. Ice is available only from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. The laundry is open three days a week here.

At FOB Marez, 60 or so kilometers to the east just on the other side of Mozul, the laundry is open all day long every day with pick up 24 hours after drop off.

These little bombs not the deadly type

The 113th crew returned from its reconnassance of a combat outpost site east of Tall Afar parched and tired.

But not too tired to load up water balloons and orchestrate an ambush of Lt. Col. Richard Shatto as he and old friend First Sgt. Dan Ronay took their ease in front of Ronay’s containerized housing unit.

The 113th hit them hard. They came from above, from behind and from both sides. Shatto was quick enough to avoid most of the balloons. Ronay got nailed.

When the ammunition ran out, passers-by were treated to the sight of eight or 10 hale, hearty and grinning soldiers arrayed in the front leaning rest position before the hooting colonel and the sergeant. But for the Apache attack helicopters overhead, the scene could have been summer camp.

Tank Amstutz had a different moisture problem. A day in the turret had left him dehydrated. There were several soldiers with basic medic training on hand. They rigged an IV bag, pumped in a little solution. He was fine the next morning.

Editor’s note: W.S. Wilson is embedded with the Indiana National Guard’s 113th Combat Engineering Battalion, based out of northern Indiana and now deployed near Mosul, Iraq. Most of the 113th’s soldiers are from northern Indiana.

To contact Wilson: wsw@rochsent.com.

Published June 13, 2005