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Coming of Age in a Mosul Outpost

Times Staff Writer

It’s long after midnight when paratroopers from Alpha Company enter the house and start moving room to room.

In the kitchen, decorated with plastic flowers and lace curtains, they ransack drawers and cupboards. In the bedroom, they find a small bottle of I Love New York eau de toilette standing half-empty, as if recently used. But the food in the fridge has spoiled. The soldiers’ target is long gone.

“Let me think of something creative,” Capt. J.T. Eldridge, commander of Alpha Company, tells an interpreter, who is poised in front of the house with a black marker at the ready.

“We know where the terrorists live, and we’ll come back,” the 28-year-old Eldridge instructs him to write on the wall.

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Next to the Arabic script, Lt. Brock Hershberger adds a signature: two curved As similar to the ones he wears on his shoulder, signifying “All-American” and the Army’s 82nd Airborne infantry.

He is marking his neighborhood.

Close to the Action

Eldridge, Hershberger and about 135 other paratroopers arrived in the northwest section of this northern Iraqi city in early January, taking up residence in a former food depot. They bunk in a walled compound of warehouses, sharing a few latrines. There is no running water or heat and electricity is sporadic. The soldiers live on military rations; the rats live on the crumbs.

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Most U.S. troops in Iraq reside on large bases. But in Mosul, where security deteriorated sharply after November’s U.S.-led assault on the guerrilla stronghold of Fallouja, about 750 American soldiers have spread out among 16 outposts in the city, including a sheep farm, a telephone exchange office and a bombed-out police station.

Commanders say that having soldiers live in town enables them to respond more quickly to car bombs and other types of attacks and allows them to patrol on foot, observing things that were overlooked by soldiers who passed through in armored vehicles.

Most soldiers stay at the outposts. For safety reasons and supplies, though, there is a daily convoy to “freedom” -- the main base about 10 miles away.

In the last two months, scores of Iraqi police and others have been found executed in Mosul. There have been multiple car bombs, and a suicide attacker took many lives at the main U.S. base outside town.

Patrols from the food depot, known as Gator, recently discovered the bodies of six men with their hands tied behind their backs and a large cache of weapons and explosives, both within a mile of the outpost.

Sudden Danger

Just before 5 a.m., the raid is over and Hershberger climbs into his sleeping bag. The warehouse is dark and cold. The soldiers decided to forgo propane heaters because the floors are slick with vegetable oil.

A mortar attack wakes him a few hours later. It’s close, but not close enough for him to miss a meal, he decides. He rips open a pack of cereal. The lieutenant, who dreads going hungry, spreads chocolate frosting liberally on cookies sent by his mother.

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On most days at the warehouse, when they’re not conducting raids or patrols, the soldiers man the guard towers and clean their weapons. They eat and sleep when they can. Their disjointed hours and meal times make the days run together. They talk about hunting, farm life, women and guns. There’s swearing and swagger over banana-flavored milk.

When breakfast is finished, one group of soldiers leaves to inspect the craters left by the mortar barrage. Hershberger and a few others set out to pick up fuel at Forward Operating Base Marez, the main U.S. installation in the Mosul area.

After four days of rain, the sun has finally come out and the soldiers are bright with the prospect of supplies and real food from the mess hall at the base. In parts of the city, the downpour caused water and sewage pipes to burst, flooding the streets.

“This is a nice truck, sir,” the driver, Pfc. Burim Dragaqina, 23, says as the Humvee lumbers out the gate.

“Yeah, brand spankin’ new. I bought it myself,” jokes Hershberger, whose large, light-blue eyes make him look even younger than his 24 years. He was sent to Iraq just after finishing West Point and ranger school and now is in charge of Alpha Company’s 1st Platoon.

The convoy reaches Marez, and Hershberger and another soldier are changing a flat tire on the fuel trailer when Eldridge calls him on the radio: Several people have been wounded near the food warehouse outpost, including one of his men.

Hershberger, who swears less than some in his platoon, loses his restraint as his group hastily makes its way back to the outpost, arriving at the scene of the violence in 20 minutes.

A middle-aged Iraqi is lying in the middle of the road, shot in the chest. His face is ashen. Another man sits next to him, his shocked face covered with blood. One finger on his left hand is nearly severed and dangles by a strip of flesh.

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A boy wearing a black pullover, khaki pants and a small wristwatch cradles his bandaged hand in his lap. He looks about 8, but says he is 5.

Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Johnson, 33 and freckled, gives a quick rundown of events. As the Americans examined the mortar craters, a sniper began shooting at them. One soldier, Spc. Rodney Beasley, 21, is wounded. The bullet entered behind his body armor, tearing up flesh.

While soldiers were evacuating Beasley, a taxi drove up on the nearby road. The troops fired a warning shot, but the taxi kept going. The soldiers opened fire, wounding the two men and the boy inside.

The soldiers load the wounded Iraqis into three armored cars. Seated in the back of Hershberger’s Humvee, the boy motions to the interpreter, wanting to know what has happened to his dad, who almost lost his finger.

It’s not as bad as it looks, the interpreter assures him. “It’ll be OK,” Dragaqina says in English. The boy, whose name is Hakam, smiles at the soldiers as they speed to Mosul Medical City. Entering the hospital, Hershberger puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“Come on, little buddy,” he says, looking a bit pale.

The soldiers have to take off, but Capt. Mike Franco checks in on them later. All three will live.

Thoughts of Loved Ones

Back at the outpost, the mail has arrived. Staff Sgt. Reggie Fox shows off pictures of his son, Kyle, born after he was sent to Iraq. There’s money on whether Fox will cry when he finally holds his firstborn. The young father is betting against it.

The 25-year-old Minnesotan is one of several Alpha Company members who plan to reenlist when their first four years are up. The paycheck is hard to resist, Fox says, especially now that he needs to support a family.

As a family man, Fox should think about fixing up his house a bit, Staff Sgt. Garret Brunton says. Brunton has been trying to convince Fox that the chain-link fence at his house near Ft. Bragg, N.C., looks “ghetto.”

“I’ll build you a picket fence. You can whitewash it,” Brunton says. Fox is unconvinced. In his neighborhood, he says, a white picket fence would invite a home-invasion robbery.

Brunton and Fox wear bracelets in memory of a friend, Spc. Solomon C. Bangayan, who was killed early last year when his convoy was ambushed in Baghdad.

This is their second tour in Iraq together. The two have been friends since they met three years ago, when Fox was a rookie.

“Now he’s leading soldiers,” Brunton says. “It’s like watching your kids” grow up.

Brunton, a 23-year-old Ohioan whose frequent smiles dimple his cheeks, is the father of two girls, ages 1 and 2. They live with their mother in West Virginia, an eight-hour drive from Ft. Bragg. Before he was deployed for the second time, he drove all night to see them.

Back in the U.S., there’s new life. Here, they’re surrounded by death and destruction. It’s hard to reconcile the two, Brunton says. “You just have to make sure that what happens over here, stays over here.”

At 4 p.m., they set out for a nearby cluster of houses, looking for information that might help them find the sniper and the insurgents who fired the mortars.

A couple of teenagers are moving tanks of propane in a yard. Through an interpreter, the soldiers ask: Did anyone hear the sound of mortars?

An older man leads them to his roof, where a napkin is stuffed into a neat, round hole. A mortar round fell here but didn’t explode, the man explains, pointing to the corner of his backyard where he buried the explosive.

The soldiers make note of it and continue their search. Hershberger tries in vain to get more information from the neighbors. Nobody knows anything about the sniper or mortar attacks, they say.

After the usual dinner of packaged Meals Ready to Eat, Hershberger and Fox drive to the main base to do paperwork.

As they near a motorist driving after curfew, Fox tells the gunner on the Humvee, “Give him a warning shot to let him know he shouldn’t be out this late.”

“No, wait,” he says, realizing that they are outside a compound of Iraqi Intervention Forces, one of the nation’s new military units.

“They’ll probably just light us up,” he says, fearing that the troops would react before realizing who is doing the shooting.

The Americans arrive at their outpost about 8 p.m. and are asleep on their cots by 9.

Before dawn, they have to search a nearby industrial area. Whenever they go out, they carry 40-pound vests of body armor and ammunition along with their weapons. But the real weight is caring for a squad of soldiers, some barely 19 years old.

“If I get hit, I don’t care, but I’m responsible for them,” Brunton says. “I told them I’d keep them safe. I told them, if anything happened, I’d go see their parents.”

Brunton keeps notes for a memoir, tentatively titled “A Month in Mosul.” But his stay might be longer than that. The soldiers groaned when Hershberger recently said their tour might be extended until April -- two more months in the Mosul warehouse. Still, the company is a family, and even the outpost can be a home.

“These guys,” Brunton says, motioning to soldiers napping on cots along the wall. “They get on my nerves, but I love them.”


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