- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

BAQOUBA, Iraq — In that quiet place between midnight and sunrise, four American soldiers set out into the darkness, swathed in burlap camouflage as they creep through a field pockmarked with gopher holes. The prey they stalk is insurgents who use rocket-propelled grenades to fire at U.S. troops.

Just before the sky turns blue, they will creep back to their Humvees, rejoining the scout platoon that shadowed them, another day’s work complete. Vigilance at this outpost in the Sunni Triangle never ends.

Humvees on pre-dawn patrols have been attacked with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) more than once as they passed this spot. Though no one has been hurt, commanders are eager to put a stop to the attacks.

“Hoss,” a rangy sergeant who prefers to give only his nickname, and his team of snipers with the 2nd Battalion, 63rd Armor Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, go to observe the site where the Humvees had their near misses. They choose a low spot in which to crouch, ready to strike if grenades are fired at passing Humvees.

If anything goes wrong, the scouts are ready to strike, too. Spc. Matthew Frank, 21, mans a mounted M2 .50-caliber machine gun from a high vantage point, watching the group as they navigate the uneven terrain in their burlap camouflage — a look that is more reminiscent of the “Star Wars” character Chewbacca than GI Joe.

This is quiet work, in which concentration is key. Fueled by a cocktail of adrenaline, chewing tobacco and a strong pot of Starbucks coffee, it’s easy to stay alert. They all know that if they let their thoughts drift, the next Humvee that drives on this road could be hit by a grenade.

“When they’re out there, I need them to use their noodle, not their testosterone,” says Hoss, who at 33 is the elder statesman on his team. Sgt. Kyle Watkins, 22, and Spc. Christopher Murphy , 27, spend their free time lifting weights, which helps them shoulder the hefty radio equipment and weapons into the field.

A few nights later, a tank patrol draws RPG fire in the same stretch of road. The patrol fires back, lighting up a grove of date palms.

Members of the scout platoon, all of whom have settled into their bunks to watch a movie, are on call tonight to respond to emergencies. Within moments, they are dressed and in their Humvees.

1st Lt. Matt Caldwell, 24, of Staten Island, N.Y., leads his men on foot through the palm grove to search for evidence of the RPG fire or proof that the tank fire reached its target. Seen through the single eyepiece of a night-vision scope, it is a tedious journey.

As the soldiers fan out in a wedge formation to search the grove, they stumble through a network of streams and ditches. The mud creates a suction effect, pulling their boots ever deeper as they try to keep up with the men ahead of them.

Again, the enemy is elusive.

The snipers and scouts are among 2nd Battalion’s specialized soldiers who are responsible for Diyala province. The northern portion of the Sunni Triangle lies in their territory, whose population is 40 percent Sunni Muslims, 35 percent Shi’ite Muslims and 20 percent Kurds, who are not ethnic Arabs but are mostly Sunni Muslims.

The province is best known to Americans for the town of Baqouba, where insurgents battled U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces during the bloody months of April and June.

The snipers’ work is performed largely under cover of darkness, which means these men keep the hours of vampires. After the night mission, the team ate breakfast together in the camp’s dining hall. Among the freshly shaved soldiers in desert camouflage just starting their day, the snipers stand out in their mud-caked forest camouflage, which is darker and helps them blend into the night.

“I feel like I’m at Denny’s [diner] after an all-nighter,” said Hoss.

Scouts cover more ground in their Humvees than do snipers, sharing round-the-clock duty with tank companies and a platoon to interdict roadside bombs and mortar fire aimed at the 1st Infantry Division’s base here.

A few days after the field mission, the snipers are called to protect a threatened police station in Hib Hib. Their No. 1 mission is to prevent squads of insurgents from planting roadside bombs — improvised explosive devices, or IEDs in Army jargon.

At 3:30 a.m., Spc. Christopher Murphy, 27, from Sacramento, Calif., spots suspicious behavior through his scope and relays it to Hoss: “I’ve got a guy in the van with his hazards on.”

“Just find me a guy putting an IED down,” Hoss says as he readies his weapon, placing the long gun on its bipod and focusing the night-vision scope to follow his target.

“He just got out of the vehicle,” Spc. Murphy tells Hoss, keeping his eye to the scope.

“Talk to me. I got one kneeling down,” says Hoss, moving his gun to another spot.

Spc. Murphy keeps an eye on the parked van. At 4:10 a.m., visibility is bad, but he thinks he sees three men putting something on the ground.

Hoss asks the Iraqi policemen to send a car out to patrol the area. In a combination of broken English and pantomime, they tell Hoss the police car is out of gas.

Something has to be done. Hoss decides to investigate the suspicious activity more closely.

“Strap it on,” says Hoss. This time as they set out on foot, they cross a mud field.

Pfc. Jody Casey, 27, from Wenatchee, Wash., takes over scope duty.

“I see four or five individuals,” Pfc. Casey reports.

Hoss tells him to look again.

“If we’re talking about five or six, we’re waiting for a ride,” he says, concerned that his four-man team might be outmatched.

The snipers creep through the field, intent on getting a better view of the activity. From the new position, they agree that the gathering of men is the start of a gas line. The city is suffering a gasoline shortage, and it appears some residents are trying to beat the rush.

“I can’t count the times I’ve walked away scratching my head,” says Hoss. “We let the right guys live that day.”

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