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FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ – Indiana’s 113th Combat Engineers started off Wednesday night with a bang, then things got better.

They safey exploded two land mines and hauled home a terror cache that included a clown’s bag of nastiness: a suicide bomber vest, perhaps 15 pounds of plastic explosives, mortar shells rigged as hand grenades, detonators, rocket propelled grenades and their launch tubes, launchers, a computer and propaganda by the drawer full.

Also in the win column: at least three suspected terrorists in custody.

Along the way, three terrorists ended up dead; two seriously wounded by gunfire. Nobody from the 113th got hurt.

The two land mines were called into the 113th command center as possible improvised explosive devices. Under the direction of Lt. Elijah Gray, the 113th headed for the west side of Mosul. Two Stryker combat vehicles – 19 tons of high-tech, high-speed imaging, firepower and attitude – had located the mines and secured the site in a relatively unpopulated part of the city, a safe distance from any homes.

The mines were at the side of the road. The 113th provided cover with foot soldiers and the big .50-caliber machine guns atop Humvees while 1st Sgt. Bob Chandler, an explosives expert from Toole, Utah, dispatched a radio-controlled robot. Chandler had a little trouble with visibility but nursed the robot into position from about 100 yards away. He directed the robot to place a charge of plastic explosive on ttop of one mine and nudged the other mine over so that they were touching and the explosive was on top of both. Detonation cord ran from the explosives back to the truck.

Fire in the hole! And what a fire it was. I was standing behind a Humvee almost the length of a football field away, and the shock wave from the blast felt strong enough to part my hair. The men loved it. “Yeah!” said one. “The colonel is going to be bummed that he missed this!”

It was rather a routine evening for these guys. We rode home through the mean streets of Mosul. They were empty, thanks to the curfew imposed by U.S. and local authorities. And dark, thanks to spotty electrical supplies here.

Call No. 2 came about 1:30 a.m. By the time we returned, shortly before 8 a.m., it was clear that messing with the 21st Infantry is a very bad idea.

Early reports are often sketchy in cases like this. The word was that there was a sniper and the soldiers pursuing him had seen a backpack on the second story of a house. It looked like it was rigged to explode. Lt. Gray briefed the Humvee crews and bomb truck experts that were to respond. Chandler, a man who just might have more guts than common sense – and more common sense than any three people I know – warned the drivers about mines rigged to trash in the street.

We drove to a very nice neighborhood in central Mosul. Unlike much of the city, it has hanging gardens and cozy balconies. Like most of Mosul, it has sewage running in the gutters. Because of the sniper report, Gray ordered lights out, so it took us awhile to find the spot. It was swarming with Iraq National Guardsmen.

“Where’s someone I can talk to?” said the lieutenant. “Where’s an American?” He found one. Chandler, Gray, Capt. John Pitt of the 113th and an infantry sergeant had a quick powwow while straddling a gutter full of sewage. A mortar shell was rigged to blow on the second floor and there was something spooky under a mattress. They decided that Chandler would don his bomb-proof suit and disable as many of the bombs as he could.

But first, they had to make sure the sniper, or snipers or whatever they were, would not cause trouble.

We waited. The moon wasn’t up yet, and it was very nearly pitch dark. Iraqi guardsmen and the Americans waited about 70 yards from the house, which was on a narrow street near the intersection where the Humvee gunners kept watch. Each of the four Humvees sports a .50-caliber machine gun – a real thumper. You had to feel for the guys in the turrets. They were standing there, exposed to any fire from above. They were exposed. The muscle of their big machine guns gave them a way to respond definitively, but it also made them a primary target.

Hoosier guardsmen fanned out and kept a sharp eye on rooftops, and shadows. We waited some more. Was there a sniper up there? Over there? Chandler spoke of his daughter’s pending wedding in a Mormon temple. Somebody said the radio reported a box of mortar shells was up there along with the backpack. Was an insurgent preparing to lob a mortar? Was he strapping on a suicide bomb?

The budda-budda-budda of automatic gunfire ripped the quiet darkness. There were two massive explosions. More gunfire.

It seemed awfully close. I followed Gray and Spec. Jason Carrera to the back of a ratty little pickup, thinking “OMYGOD! These guys are actually running to the sound of the guns!”

“Where’s Bill?” shouted Capt. Pitt as we crouched behind the truck. “Stay behind somebody,” he said. He didn’t have to worry about that. “The infantry guys are clearing the house.” Gray’s innards might have been jumping like migrating salmon, but you couldn’t tell it. “You should get back behind that wall,” he said in a voice he might use to direct someone to the men’s wear section of a department store. I did.

There was another prolonged exchange of automatic weapon fire, then silence. More gunfire.

Apache attack helicopters circled above. We waited, and waited. We went to a Humvee to see if there had been any radio traffic. The word was that three bad guys were dead, two badly hurt. Two Americans were hurt, but ambulatory. The bad guys had apparently jumped to the roof of another house. We waited. Nobody said anything about sniper fire, but the Humvee guys kept their eyes busy. The Indiana guardsmen collared a pedestrian for breaking curfew.

It was nearly dawn when the 21st Infantry’s Bravo Company hooked up with Pitt and Gray.

Capt. Mark Ivezaj was in charge of the infantry unit. In the gathering light, as his men carefully cleared more houses, he gave a quick overview: Iraqi commandos had made contact with a target, and returned fire. They moved into the house and saw that it was rigged with explosives. That’s when the Bravo Company came in, and received small arms fire. The bad guys had jumped to the next roof. The big blasts we had heard were insurgent grenades.

One of the Americans was cut by a grenade explosion. One was shot in the thigh. They were expected to be returned to duty right away. Iraqis took over traffic duty. Ivezaj said he knew of two people detained as suspected terrorists. There might be more. Several of the walls that mark property lines in this neighborhood were festooned with anti-American slogans, he said.

It was daylight by the time Chandler “reduced” the bombs upstairs by blowing them up. We were hiding behind a stucco garden wall when the bomb blew. By 113th Engineer standards, the blast was relatively tame. The ensuing search, or perhaps a tip from a terrorized neighbor, revealed a funny floor tile. It turned out to be an access panel to a crawl space crammed with explosives.

Ivezaj said deliberate searches in concert with an interpreter often yield valuable information. “Their neighbors come out and say, ‘Not only is he a bad guy, Good American, he is a bad guy and he is a bad guy.’ This was especially effective after the election. People are getting a lot more confidence in the system.”

He praised his interpreter, who we had seen dashing about with a camouflage scarf over his face to prevent retribution.

Like the 113th Engineers, Ivezaj’s unit had been at it all night. This was their second mission also. The first yielded nothing. “In the last two weeks or so, there’s been a lot more diehard guys (insurgents), a lot more willing to fight for their cause and to fight to the death.” He praised the Iraq Army and the cooperation with American units. “This is an Iraqi commando target that we further exploited,” he said.

All that was left was for Chandler to clear that crawl space full of trouble. It would require someone smaller than Chandler. The job fell to Indiana National Guard Cpl. Aaron Vance of Griffith, a member of the Thornwood High School Class of 2000. He was going to go down there.

“I’m going to be right there with my face over the hole,” Chandler told the young man. “So if you go poofy, I go poofy. You don’t have to do this.”

“No problem,” said the corporal.

It took awhile because Chandler and Vance were so careful. Memo to the Webster’s Dictionary people: Put Aaron Vance’s picture in your next edition beside the definition of the word “hero.” Or “guts.” The lad didn’t blink.

Soon there was quite a display in the driveway. It included a suicide bomb vest with detonator. It was made from a bullet proof vest that said “POLICE” in English and Arabic. Someone found it upstairs, crammed with plastic explosive. It was very much like the one that killed 23 people and injured 100 in the Forward Operating Base Marez dining facility just before Christmas.

Also in the hidey-hole: three bags of PE4 explosive, three grenades improvised from 60 mm mortars, three 152 mm artillery shells, eight rocket propelled grenade launchers, a box of motors for the rocket grenades, a computer, a handgun, a big sack of detonating equipment in a bag marked Iraq National Guard, an AK-47 cleaning kit, two bags of mortar shells and some C4 explosive. Chandler liked the C4.

“This is traceable,” he said. “Somebody’s gonna get smoked!”

The infantry guys were pretty fired up about the size of the cache. Not the 113th. Their biggest caches have filled a semi-trailer or a warehouse.

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 2, 2005