Mortar Platoon Soldiers Patrol Streets, Get to Know Iraqis
By Spc. Ben Hutto, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
FORWARD OPERATING BASE HAMMER, Iraq, Jan. 14, 2008 An Iraqi policeman ran toward a group of soldiers as they approached the pump station outside Kassipa, near Salman Pak, Dec. 21. Bent over with his weapon clutched tightly, he appeared worried.
Army Capt. Chris Pearson, mortar platoon leader, Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, and Army Sgt. 1st Class Robert Lucas, the platoon sergeant, meet with Sheik Hamed, a local leader in Kassipa, a village near Salman Pak, Iraq, at his home Dec. 21, 2007. Photo by Spc. Ben Hutto, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The soldiers, from the mortar platoon, Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, sought cover as Capt. Chris Pearson, platoon leader, and Sgt. 1st Class Robert Lucas, platoon sergeant, ran over with their interpreter to talk to the policeman.
The pair followed the policeman to a pump station next to the Tigris River. The policeman explained that a sniper on the other side of the river was shooting at the station. His explanation was confirmed as the sound of rifle fire rang out across the water and a round struck the ground nearby.
On the road outside the pump station, soldiers strained to see where the gunshot came from. Sgt. Jason Neale, from Punxsutawney, Pa., reminded his soldiers to use the cover around them.
At the pump station, Lucas and Pearson scanned across the river for the sniper. Lucas saw a man move quickly from cover and disappear into the palm grove on the other side of the river. He was unable to get a clear shot at the shooter.
“I was in Fallujah my last deployment,” said Lucas, from Laguna, Calif. “It was all desert and hills there. … It’s all palm groves and dense vegetation here, near the river. Fighting tends to be more up close and personal.”
Pearson decided to continue with the patrol.
“We’re going to change up our route,” said Pearson, from Baton Rouge, La. “We went the same way the last time we were over here, so we’re going to change it up just to be on the safe side.”
Keeping their intervals and staying on opposite sides of the road, the soldiers of the mortar platoon pushed on until small-arms fire erupted from the right side of the patrol. They immediately hit the ground and sought concealment along the roadside, as enemy bullets whistled overhead. They began firing back into the thick vegetation.
“Is anyone hurt?” Pearson asked. When everyone responded they were OK, Lucas popped up and started directing his soldiers.
“All right!” Lucas shouted. “We are bounding around the corner! Move!”
Bodies low and weapons at the ready, two teams took turns guarding each others’ movements as they worked around to a small group of houses the gunfire was coming from.
Sgt. William Ball, from Columbus, Ohio, wiped blood from his face as he moved. A cut across the bridge of his nose, where an enemy bullet ricocheted off rocks in front of him and tore off his eye protection, proved only a minor inconvenience to the determined mortarman. Sgt. Newroy Henry, the platoon’s medic, went to inspect Ball, but was waved off by the soldier.
“It’s fine,” Ball said as he prepared to go into the first house. “It’s just a scratch.”
Methodically, the platoon searched each house and checked every male there for gunpowder and explosive residue. Neale and Spc. Jonathan Colton, from Peach Tree City, Ga., swabbed each man’s hand and arms, but every test came back negative. The homes contained no contraband or used shells, so the soldiers gave up their search.
“They’re gone,” Ball said. “They ran as soon as we started firing back.”
The platoon continued with the patrol despite having taken contact.
“It’s real good to get out,” Neale said. “Our guys need to get out and see the country and the people here. When the people here see us they try to give us gifts and chai. They attempt to feed us. Some of them know me by name. My team does a good job of interacting with people. It helps us out in a lot of ways.”
Neale recounted what it was like at Combat Outpost Cahill when he first arrived.
“It was hot out here at first,” he said. “After our first week here, we started attacking the insurgents, and the attacks have really fallen off. When you go (from) getting hit with indirect fire every few days to getting hit with indirect fire every other month, it’s huge.”
Lucas explained reasons for the improvement.
“The reason we haven’t been shot at in a while is a combination of the concerned local citizens and aggressive patrolling. We know the area and the people here,” Lucas said. “It makes a difference.”
Shortly after the attack, the platoon arrived at the home of Sheik Hamed, a local leader in Kassipa. Hamed greeted the soldiers warmly, making sure to shake everyone’s hand and offering chai to the platoon.
Pearson and Lucas talked with the local leader about the progress of several projects that Pearson and 489th Civil Affairs Battalion, a reserve unit from Knoxville, Tenn., currently attached to 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, had started in town.
As their visit came to a close, Henry checked on Hamed’s daughters, who had both been injured in a mortar attack two weeks earlier. The girls were cleaning and peeling vegetables in their backyard when a mortar round landed near them. Both suffered significant shrapnel damage to their legs.
On the platoon’s previous trip, Henry made sure the wounds were healing properly and changed both girls’ dressings. As the family gathered around, Henry gently examined each wound and made sure they were clean. An ugly five-inch gash on the elder girl’s upper leg worried him, and he applied more antibiotic cream.
“I know it hurts, but you have to keep it clean,” he explained to the family through the platoon’s interpreter. “The shrapnel will eventually work itself out, but you cannot let it get infected. Then we will have problems.”
When Henry was satisfied the family understood what needed to be done, he nodded to Pearson, and it was time to leave. The patrol continued their march down to a concerned local citizens checkpoint.
“We are working with them to help them protect their communities,” Pearson said. “We are near a major route, and we need the CLCs to help us monitor it. They have really stepped up and coordinated security here.
“Our platoon is trying to help the concerned local citizens to protect their community here. We are trying to help them with checkpoints, and the program gives them jobs. … By patrolling out here every day, we are showing them that we will work and fight with them,” Pearson said.
Pearson explained that the area was much more dangerous before 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, arrived.
“When we took over patrolling this town, no one wanted it,” he said. “The local leader here had been killed a year prior, and people here were afraid. … Sheik Ali (the leader of the concerned local citizens in the area) and the CLCs have done a good job of working with us to push the insurgents out of the area.”
The concerned local citizens manning the checkpoint were happy to see Pearson’s platoon and greeted them as they walked by. “It makes a huge difference having them out here,” Pearson said.
After patrolling for five hours, the platoon headed back to the combat outpost to get ready for their fire missions that night.
“They all work hard,” Pearson said. “You couldn’t ask for a better group of soldiers.”
First Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment is assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division’s 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, from Fort Benning, Ga., and has been deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom since March.
(Army Spc. Ben Hutto serves with the 3rd Infantry Division’s Heavy Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs.)