ISKANDARIYAH, Iraq — Blackouts are ordered at night. Even flashlights are forbidden. Conspicuous landmarks are dismantled. Officers tell their men not to salute them, for fear they will be targeted by lurking snipers.
In the wake of a mortar barrage that killed California National Guard Spc. Daniel Paul Unger nearly four weeks ago, life has changed drastically at Forward Operating Base Kalsu, a scar of bulldozed earth and rubble that is home to Corona's Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 185th Armor Regiment.
Life is also different at the unit's brigade headquarters in Balad, about 68 miles north of Baghdad. There, on Wednesday, a rocket streaked into the Anaconda logistical base and exploded in a crowd of off-duty soldiers, killing three and wounding 26 others.
The explosion, which hurled shrapnel through walls, plate glass windows and vehicles, prompted commanders to order their soldiers to wear flak vests and helmets at all times. That particularly uncomfortable precaution was instituted as temperatures climbed well above 100 degrees.
There were no Californians among the casualties from Wednesday's attack, although a number are based in the camp, which is home to about 17,000 troops from several units.
Base Kalsu, roughly 20 miles south of Baghdad, is along the bottom of the volatile Sunni Triangle. The camp is just east of the Euphrates River in the heart of the Fertile Crescent, a vast swath of lush farmland and grape orchards nourished by a network of canals. Although the rural countryside the soldiers patrol is breathtaking, the base itself is bare of all vegetation and is home to only a cluster of tents.
The tents are riddled with shrapnel holes, but living quarters have been reinforced with a triple layer of sandbags. And the death of the first California National Guardsman in a combat role since the Korean War has weighed heavily on the minds of some soldiers.
Four other California National Guard troops, assigned to support units, also have died since the U.S. occupation of Iraq began.
"When you get attacked, that's a life-altering event," said Maj. John McBrearty, executive officer of the 1-185th, and a screenwriter in civilian life. "You realize quick that this isn't fun and games. This isn't summer camp anymore."
"A lot of guys look up at the ceiling of their tent a lot," said Platoon Sgt. David Harpst, 38, a postal employee from Oceanside. "They're wondering what's going to come through it."
Still other guardsmen complain bitterly that the attack was made all the more deadly by bureaucratic inertia within the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led entity that now governs Iraq. The coalition, soldiers and officers say, prevented the Army from removing a towering network of antennas that once populated the base. The structures, they say, were probably used as reference points in guiding the mortars onto Kalsu.
"You could see those things seven kilometers away," said one soldier. "To have them there was just asking to be hit."
The towers were a remnant of the first Gulf War, when the base was an Iraqi air defense and radar station that was heavily bombed. About a dozen antennas survived. Towering more than 300 feet over the base, they were connected by a Rube Goldberg network of wires and piping.
Before the National Guard's arrival in Kalsu roughly two months ago, the 82nd Airborne Division had occupied the base and requested permission to remove the towers on the grounds that they made the small base visible from a great distance. The request was denied by the coalition, according to 81st Brigade Combat Team officers, because the towers were part of Iraq's infrastructure.
After the May 25 mortar attack, another request to remove the structures was approved within days. Explosives were strapped to the base of each antenna and detonated, sending the structures crashing to the ground.
Soldiers in Unger's unit said they felt more at ease, but were still troubled that the towers had not been removed earlier.
"I guess it took three deaths for them to change their minds," McBrearty said.
As part of the 81st Brigade Combat Team, members of Unger's unit, Alpha Company, are among the more than 4,000 California and Washington National Guard troops charged with defending strategic points along the military's main supply route between Kuwait and Baghdad.
As the U.S. occupation drags on, regular Army and Marine units have been replaced by "citizen soldiers" from the reserves and National Guard, who now make up nearly half of U.S. forces in Iraq. The guard units include more than 1,000 soldiers from Southern California.
Alpha Company is stationed in one of Iraq's most rustic forward operating bases, a place that even commanders describe in stark, scatological language.
At Kalsu, water shortages caused by insurgents are commonplace. One Iraqi contractor who delivered water to the base was ambushed and killed last week. Another had his hands chopped off as punishment for aiding Americans.
Unger's unit had been stationed at Kalsu for almost two months before the May 25 attack, and up until then, soldiers said they had faced only haphazard launches of mortars and rockets, which caused few casualties.
"They were pretty much amateurs," said Sgt. Daniel McNasby, 30, of Norco. "On the 25th, though, they were dead center. These guys were professionals."
The attack began shortly after 3 p.m., when soldiers at Kalsu's front gate heard the hollow thump of mortars being launched. At first, they thought the mortars were being fired from the base by U.S. soldiers.
But within seconds, the shells began exploding inside the camp, landing on tents, slamming into vehicles and flinging deadly shrapnel through the air.
At the time of the initial blasts, Unger was supervising a group of Iraqis who were cleaning the camp's showers. As the first mortars exploded, the workers appeared stunned and did not move. Unger shouted at them to run and directed them to a nearby bunker.
Just as the Iraqis found cover, a chunk of shrapnel punched through Unger's chest, dropping him to the ground. As Unger lay mortally wounded, the barrage continued, keeping medics and fellow soldiers pinned inside their bunkers or sending them dashing for cover.
A medic, Sgt. Les Mershon, 43, of Blythe, said he was tortured by the sounds of men screaming for help.
"The worst feeling you can ever have is to be running for a bunker or sitting in a bunker when the mortars are dropping," said Mershon, who works in a prison psychiatric unit in civilian life. "There's nothing you can do, and guys are calling for a medic."
In five to ten minutes, 20 mortar shells crashed into the base, killing two Vermont National Guardsmen from another unit and injuring a dozen others. The barrage also destroyed a makeshift mess hall and wrecked more than 20 vehicles.
Once the mortars stopped falling, medics struggled to keep Unger alive, but his wounds were too serious. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Unger, who friends say was cheerful and deeply religious, has been greatly missed by his fellow soldiers, some of whom went to high school with him. A skilled center fielder, Unger had dreamed of playing college baseball, but passed on a scholarship so that he could serve in Iraq.
McNasby, who played college baseball, said Unger once challenged him to a throwing contest to see who had the better arm. The two hurled practice grenades as far as they could.
"He out-threw me by 2 or 3 feet," said McNasby, who works for Aon Corp. in Los Angeles. "It was like he won a million dollars. He was gloating and so happy that he out-threw someone who played college ball. He would have made a great baseball player."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times