News

Treacherous ambushes cause bumps in the road to peace in Fallujah

16 Apr 2004 | Staff Sgt. Bill Lisbon

Small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosives pummeled a convoy racing critical cargo to Marines in Fallujah April 6, 2004, halting it in dark, unknown territory.

For close to 14 hours, the Marines, sailors and soldiers on the convoy were forced to wait until help arrived to bring the convoy home to the Marine base here.

Responding to a call for supplies and gear to support Operation Vigilant Resolve, including ammunition and a heavy-duty container mover, Marines from the 1st Force Service Support Group based at Camp Taqaddum launched the convoy in the late afternoon.

The operation, which kicked of two days prior, aims to account for the murderers of four U.S. citizens who were dragged through Fallujah's streets and mutilated, and to stabilize the city, a thorn in the side of peace for the coalition attempting to rebuild Iraq.

THE AMBUSH

At approximately 9:30 p.m., as the convoy rolled down a two-lane highway lined sparsely with buildings on either side, the MP's lead vehicle spotted rocks piled up in the middle of the road. This alarmed the Marines since a common tactic used by anti-coalition forces is the disguising of explosives in or along the road. One of the MPs, Cpl. Ronnie B. Sprouse, 31, of Asheville, N.C., hopped out to inspect the scene. As he looked over the rocks, gun fire rang out from his left. Sprouse jumped back into his humvee and the driver slammed on the gas punching through the rocks.

Then, a maelstrom unleashed.

As many as six buried explosives burst, ripping through rubber and metal and flesh, as the convoy pushed through the attack. Several RPGs zipped across the road and machine gun fire sprayed the vehicles, first from the right and then the left.

"Our belief was that it was a very well-coordinated attack. They were dug in on both sides of the road," said Gunnery Sgt. David A. Rodgers, 37, the convoy's security chief.

Without hesitation, the Marines answered back. Heavy machine guns positioned on the tops of most of the trucks erupted, sending hundreds of rounds toward the attackers as drivers buried their gas pedals into the floorboard. Passengers also emptied their rifles and pistols in defense.

Just as the tail end of the convoy broke through the first ambush, another one sprang at the front end, where the attackers had likely expected the Marines to stop.

"When we didn't slow down, they opened up," said Rodgers, a native of Toledo, Ohio.

Through yet another gauntlet the convoy endured.

A few kilometers down the road, the convoy came to a rest. It could go no further.

THE STARTING LINE

"Gunfire, RPGs and mortars ... we still deliver," reads a sign on their door.

The Marines of Combat Service Support Company 113 are no strangers to driving through ambushes. With Operation Vigilant Resolve in high gear, the Marines had already run five convoys in three days, most of which encountered some form of enemy attack. The crew of truck drivers was on its second mission in 24 hours.

Though based at Camp Taqaddum, the company directly supports Combat Service Support Battalion 1, who provides logistical support to the grunts of Regimental Combat Team 1 currently engaged in Fallujah.

"When they call us, we have to go," said Staff Sgt. Gerardo Acevedo, the company's motor transportation chief, and a 37-year-old native of Baldwin Park, Calif.

Nearby, the convoy commander, 1st Lt. Laura A. Schmitz, 24, took roll and briefed the convoy. The team also included trucks and drivers from Combat Service Support Group 15 transporting among other things a large container of mail. Several Army heavy-equipment transports and a 7-ton truck full of miscellaneous passengers trying to get to Fallujah added even more length to the pack, while a team of Marine military policemen from 2nd MP Battalion provided security.

With things heating up in Fallujah, Schmitz emphasized the importance of the gear reaching its final destination. Lives of troops at the front were on the line. Rodgers warned of the dangers along the way for the convoy's passengers. Their lives were on the line too.

On the day of the attack, CSSC-113 was hauling three trucks loaded down with ammunition, including C-4.

"If we get hit with an RPG, we're done," said Lance Cpl. Manuel E. Pena, a truck driver and 20-year-old Los Angeles native.

THE HALT

Walking down the row of vehicles, they knew they were in bad shape.

Smoke. Flat tires. Leaking cocktails of engine fluids. Wounded.

The injured were helped into other vehicles, at first. Into the back of the 7-ton full of passengers crawled a young lance corporal. He knew he was hit, but in the darkness, he didn't know where. As Marines discovered small pieces of shrapnel lodged into his arm and temple, he kept asking about his buddy, a gunner on another vehicle who had been shot up pretty badly.

Somehow, the ammo and the container mover made it through unscathed. However, an RPG ripped through a 20-foot-long metal container of mail, punching through the other side, but not without setting letters from home ablaze.

At least six of the vehicles wouldn't move another inch. A distress call was made. Rather than leave the vehicles, Schmitz was ordered to hold her position and repair what she could, while waiting for more transports and security to arrive.

The MPs began setting up a hasty defense, because at any moment, the enemy could take advantage of the stranded convoy. Anyone who wasn't helping fix the vehicles protected those who were.

Navy corpsmen assembled the wounded near the front of the convoy, where an Army Blackhawk would soon swoop in and scoop them up. Six needed to be evacuated by helicopter. Another two - a Marine and a solider - wouldn't report their wounds until later, opting to stand guard instead.

In the darkness, drivers and mechanics got busy changing tires and repairing what they could. The process was slow. Some trucks' tires were too big to change with the equipment available and would have to be towed by vehicles that wouldn't arrive until morning.

As dawn approached, another threat was anticipated. The forecast called for mortars.

The Marines dug in on the tops of berms on either side of the road and waited. And waited. Soon after sunrise, comfort came as a Marine Cobra and Huey helicopter patrolled the skies ready to pounce on any enemy brazen enough to attack.

Then, the answer to their prayers crested the horizon: more Army transports escorted by a squad of light-armored vehicles.

As the last vehicle was loaded, and gravity tugged on the eyelashes of the Marines who had been up all night, a mortar slammed into the berm. As the Marines sought cover, another one hit. Rather than wait for more, now that they were finally ready to roll, the troops sprinted to their vehicles and awoke their engines.

On the road again, spirits rose, but most passengers remained silent. Anxiety was high. Weapons porcupined from vehicles as Marines expected another attack.

With the end in sight a few kilometers from Camp Fallujah, the convoy halted again. A fire fight raged down the road. Once again Marines set up a defensive perimeter and waited. The pause was short, however, and anticlimactic.

Once inside the camp's walls, when the Marines were able to unload their weapons and peel off their flak jackets and helmets, they breathed easy. The convoy was over. Mission complete.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Unfortunately for Marines in Iraq, convoy ambushes aren't uncommon. Every time they hit the road, drivers and passengers face the potential of ending up wounded or killed, their cargo lost.

"I feel we have a bigger job this time around," said Pena, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Approximately 25,000 Marine troops are currently deployed to Iraq living in and working from stationary camps spread across the Al Anbar province stretching from Baghdad west to the Syrian and Jordanian borders. Required logistical trains connecting the bases are likely targets for enemy insurgents, since they are intermingled among civilian populations, which exist along supply routes.

Still, the convoys roll out daily. Therefore, the Marines must rely on their tenacity and the comrades on their left and right to survive.

"Considering the mishmash of units from various backgrounds, we all performed very well," said Master Gunnery Sgt. Dennis E. Ghiselli, 48, a communications maintenance chief with U.S. Marine Forces Central Command who hitched a ride on the convoy.

For some, the experience was their first taste of combat.

"It was scary," said Lance Cpl. Christopher T. Goss, 22, of Lexington, S.C.

Others recognize an increased intensity compared to the fighting in 2003.

"I thought that one was bad last year, but it's nothing now. It's throwing rocks compared to this," said Schmitz, a native of Fond Du Lac, Wis. As she prepared to hit the road again headed back to Camp Taqaddum, Schmitz laughed, "I'm never going on that road again."

As Operation Vigilant Resolve continues, even through a strained cease-fire, Marines in Iraq can probably expect more snares along the long road ahead.
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