Michigan Reservists Travel Path Of Peril

November 18th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Michigan Reservists Travel Path Of Peril

Detroit Free Press
November 17, 2006
Pg. 1
Band Of Brothers
Wary Marines take deadly route in Iraqi desert killing field
By Joe Swickard, Free Press Staff Writer
FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Two Humvees, a pair of 7-ton armored trucks topped with gun turrets and a tow truck swing onto what has been dubbed Route Michigan, rolling toward sunset in the Sunni Triangle into one of the world's worst killing zones.
The convoy, delivering supplies to outposts in and around Fallujah and returning with suspected insurgents in custody, snakes around pits blasted in pavement by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), booby traps that can shred a steel-clad Humvee and the men inside. As they move west, the Marines are on the lookout for cars that could ram the convoy and explode and for snipers who could take a bead on the men.
A flock of pigeons alights from a rooftop. A major remarks that it could be a signal by the insurgents that the Log Train is passing.
The 1,100 men of the 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment -- more than 700 of whom are from Michigan, making it the state's largest reserve contingent in Iraq -- are living through urban warfare, trying to fight insurgents who seamlessly blend into the background. The fighting has gotten so bad in the Anbar province that Thursday, the U.S. Central Command ordered another 2,200 Marines to the region.
The Michigan Marines insist they got the best possible training, months of it in the California desert, but they are learning that nothing can really prepare them for the reality of this kind of combat.
"A few days ago, from out of a crowd of kids, one of them threw a grenade and it went off under the vehicle, and my executive officer's door was peppered," said Lance Cpl. Michael Rossi, a 28-year-old student majoring in urban planning at Wayne State University who lives in Detroit. "A crowd of kids, and one of them threw a grenade."
"Out here," he said, "nobody is safe."
Nine members of the battalion have been killed since the unit landed in Iraq in September, and it is a constant battle to remember to try to stay safe. To confuse snipers, the men are told when they are outside their vehicles to move suddenly every few seconds, so gunmen can't keep them in their sights.
Some of the men do dance steps to keep moving.
As the Log Train makes its run along Route Michigan -- one of Iraq's main east-west roads -- the convoy passes under signs pockmarked by gunshots. The men wear body armor and Kevlar helmets, and flame-retardant jumpsuits and gloves make sure all but a few inches of skin remain covered. They carry semiautomatic rifles and machine guns.
The route covers no more than seven miles but takes almost six hours to complete, with stops at outposts guarding the city's entrances -- where Route Michigan becomes a road renamed Fran -- and at the train station in Fallujah.
It's a delicate balance for the Marines, said Maj. Christopher Kolomjec, a Grosse Pointe Farms lawyer and father of three. It's tough to protect a population when snipers fire from crowds and mosques or mentally challenged youths are tricked in to planting bombs, he said.
"A Marine really has to think before he fires," Kolomjec said, his men tensing up as a pack of boys dashes past the convoy.
Grand, old and 50
At checkpoint 1 Alpha, one of the Log Train's stopping points, the battalion's Grand Old Man, 50-year-old Cpl. Dwight Mercer, was pumping iron in a weight room a short stroll from a sniper warning sign. At home in Michigan, he farms outside Port Huron and is a computer specialist for a Wixom aerospace company.
His plans to return to Iraq almost broke up his marriage. He and his wife, Kimberly, separated but reunited just before he deployed.
Mercer said his age might be something for the younger Marines to rag him about, but it doesn't stop him from responding. When a sniper dropped one of the men, Mercer was on the team that went looking for the gunman.
At the Fallujah train station, Cpl. Pete Mattice, 23, of Gladwin beds down in a room with about a dozen other Marines. His pillowcase is covered with a picture of his wife and his kids. Next to his bunk are photos of the pals he already has lost.
"A serious reality check," he said of the photos of the dead men, leaving it at that.
The men say the most difficult adjustment is the speed of the action once it starts and the emotions that take over. Maintaining focus, remaining professional, is key, the men say.
But it's not something you can fully prepare for. Lance Cpl Kyle Chase, a 21-year-old DTE meter reader from Howell, says it's a strange sensation: how events seem to move quickly yet in slow motion at the same time. And everything, he said, becomes very quiet.
"You can't just watch this on CNN," said Cpl. Todd Caccamo, a Canton Township trustee and manager for GE Plastics. At 34, with an MBA and a first child on the way, he calculates the cost of combat and patrols under sniper and bomb threats.
"Mentally and physically, it's totally exhausting; you're going 100 m.p.h.," he said.
"This war is not a light switch with just off and on. It's a dimmer switch, but one going dark to bright to dark at the quickest speed."
Trying to sort the good guys from the killers in a crowded city whipsaws the men.
"I'm not going to lie. Some days I feel I hate everyone," Caccamo said. "Then you look at all these people have gone through, and the next thing, you're just sorry and full of pity."
"This war is unique. ... It's personal."
Outside the battered Fallujah train station, which also houses a lockup where six suspected insurgents are held, a pile of AK47s and bomb detonators are loaded on the trucks. Behind steel plate and bulletproof glass, the Marines tighten their armor, double-check their weapons.
The trucks and Humvees fire up, and the Log Train rolls on through the night.

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