Friday July 13, 2007, Guardian Unlimited
by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian
"A moving target is harder to hit than a stationary one," said Sgt. Ben Flanders, 28, a National Guardsman from Concord, New Hampshire, who served in Balad with the 172nd Mountain Infantry for eleven months beginning in March 2004. Flanders ran convoy routes out of Camp Anaconda, about thirty miles north of Baghdad.
"So speed was your friend. And certainly in terms of IED detonation, absolutely, speed and spacing were the two things that could really determine whether or not you were going to get injured or killed or if they just completely missed, which happened."
Following an explosion or ambush, soldiers in the heavily armed escort vehicles often fired indiscriminately in a furious effort to suppress further attacks, according to three veterans. The rapid bursts from belt-fed .50-caliber machine guns and SAWs (Squad Automatic Weapons, which can fire as many as 1,000 rounds per minute) left many civilians wounded or dead.
"One example I can give you, you know, we'd be cruising down the road in a convoy and all of the sudden, an IED blows up," said Spc. Ben Schrader, 27, of Grand Junction, Colorado. He served in Baquba with the 263rd Armor Battalion, First Infantry Division, from February 2004 to February 2005. "And, you know, you've got these scared kids on these guns, and they just start opening fire. And there could be innocent people everywhere. And I've seen this, I mean, on numerous occasions where innocent people died because we're cruising down and a bomb goes off."
Several veterans said that IEDs, the preferred weapon of the Iraqi insurgency, were one of their greatest fears. Since the invasion in March 2003, IEDs have been responsible for killing more US troops--39.2 percent of the more than 3,500 killed--than any other method, according to the Brookings Institution, which monitors deaths in Iraq. This past May, IED attacks claimed ninety lives, the highest number of fatalities from roadside bombs since the beginning of the war.
"The second you left the gate of your base, you were always worried," said Sergeant Flatt. "You were constantly watchful for IEDs. And you could never see them. I mean, it's just by pure luck who's getting killed and who's not. If you've been in firefights earlier that day or that week, you're even more stressed and insecure to a point where you're almost trigger-happy."
On July 30, 2004, Sergeant Flanders was riding in the tail vehicle of a convoy on a pitch-black night, traveling from Camp Anaconda south to Taji, just north of Baghdad, when his unit was attacked with small-arms fire and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). He was about to get on the radio to warn the vehicle in front of him about the ambush when he saw his gunner unlock the turret and swivel it around in the direction of the shooting. He fired his MK-19, a 40-millimeter automatic grenade launcher capable of discharging up to 350 rounds per minute.
"He's just holding the trigger down and it wound up jamming, so he didn't get off as many shots maybe as he wanted," Sergeant Flanders recalled. "But I said, 'How many did you get off?' 'Cause I knew they would be asking that. He said, 'Twenty-three.' He launched twenty-three grenades....
"I remember looking out the window and I saw a little hut, a little Iraqi house with a light on.... We were going so fast and obviously your adrenaline's--you're like tunnel vision, so you can't really see what's going on, you know? And it's dark out and all that stuff. I couldn't really see where the grenades were exploding, but it had to be exploding around the house or maybe even hit the house. Who knows? Who knows? And we were the last vehicle. We can't stop."
Convoys did not slow down or attempt to brake when civilians inadvertently got in front of their vehicles, according to the veterans who described them. Sgt. Kelly Dougherty, 29, from Cañon City, Colorado, was based at the Talil Air Base in Nasiriya with the Colorado National Guard's 220th Military Police Company for a year beginning in February 2003. She recounted one incident she investigated in January 2004 on a six-lane highway south of Nasiriya that resembled numerous incidents described by other veterans.
"It's like very barren desert, so most of the people that live there, they're nomadic or they live in just little villages and have, like, camels and goats and stuff," she recalled. "There was then a little boy--I would say he was about 10 because we didn't see the accident; we responded to it with the investigative team--a little Iraqi boy and he was crossing the highway with his, with three donkeys. A military convoy, transportation convoy driving north, hit him and the donkeys and killed all of them. When we got there, there were the dead donkeys and there was a little boy on the side of the road.
"We saw him there and, you know, we were upset because the convoy didn't even stop," she said. "They really, judging by the skid marks, they hardly even slowed down. But, I mean, that's basically--basically, your order is that you never stop."