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Tuesday, December 21, 2004 News - Latest News - 'We All Have Angels on Us' Says Survivor of Attack on U.S. Base

blue skies and warmer than usual weather in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

Hundreds of US soldiers had just sat down for lunch in their giant chow hall tent.

It was about noon today when insurgents hit their tent with a suspected rocket attack, killing 13 soldiers, including two from the Virginia-based 276th Engineer Battalion. More than 50 were wounded civilians may have been among them.

The force of the explosions knocked soldiers off their feet and out of their seats. A fireball enveloped the top of the tent, and shrapnel sprayed into the men.

Amid the screaming and thick smoke that followed, quick-thinking soldiers turned their lunch tables upside down, placed the wounded on them and gently carried them into the parking lot.

“Medic! Medic!” soldiers shouted.

Medics rushed into the tent and hustled the rest of the wounded out on stretchers.

Scores of troops crammed into concrete bomb shelters outside. Others wobbled around the tent and collapsed, dazed by the blast.

“I can’t hear! I can’t hear!” one female soldier cried as a friend hugged her.

Near the front entrance to the chow hall, troops tended a soldier with a gaping head wound. Within minutes, they zipped him into a black body bag. Three more bodies were in the parking lot.

The military asked that the dead not be identified until families could be notified.

Soldiers scrambled back into the hall to check for more wounded. The explosions blew out a huge hole in the roof of the tent. Puddles of bright red blood, lunch trays and overturned tables and chairs covered the floor.

Grim-faced soldiers growled angrily about the attack as they stomped away.

“Mother ******!” one mumbled.

Sergeant Evan Byler, of the 276th, steadied himself on one of the concrete bomb shelters. He was eating chicken tenders and macaroni when the bomb hit. The blast knocked him out of his chair. When the smoke cleared, Byler took off his shirt and wrapped it around a seriously wounded soldier.

Byler held the bloody shirt in his hand, not quite sure what to do with it.

“It’s not the first close call I have had here,” said Byler, who survived a blast from an improvised explosive device while driving in a vehicle earlier this year.

Byler started walking back to his base when he spotted a soldier collapse from shock on the side of the road. Byler and Lieutenant Shawn Otto, also of the 276th, put the grieving soldier on a passing pick-up truck.

The 276th, with about 500 troops, had made it a year without losing a soldier and is preparing to return home in about a month.

“We almost made it. We almost made it to the end without getting somebody killed,” Otto said glumly.

At least two other soldiers with the 276th were injured, but it was not clear how serious their wounds are.

Insurgents have fired mortars at the chow hall more than 30 times this year. One round killed a female soldier with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in the summer as she scrambled for cover in one of the concrete bomb shelters. Workers are building a new steel and concrete chow hall for the soldiers just down the dusty dirt road.

Lieutenant Dawn Wheeler, a member of the 276th, was waiting in line for chicken when a round hit on the other side of a wall from her. A soldier who had been standing beside her was on the ground, struggling with shrapnel buried deep in his neck.

“We all have angels on us,” she said as she pulled away in a Humvee.

Wheeler quickly joined other officers from the 276th for an emergency meeting minutes after the blast.

Major James Zollar, the unit’s acting commander, spoke to more than a dozen of his officers in a voice thick with emotion. He urged them to keep their troops focused on their missions.

“This is a tragic, tragic thing for us but we still have missions,” he told them. “It’s us, the leaders, who have to pull them together.”

Just hours before the blast, Zollar had awarded a Purple Heart to a soldier from the 276th who was wounded in a mortar attack on another part of the base in October.

Zollar eventually turned the emergency meeting over to Chaplain Eddie Barnett. He led the group in prayer.

“Help us now, God, in this time of this very tragic circumstance,” Barnett said. “We pray for your healing upon our wounded soldiers.”

With heads hung low, the soldiers trudged outside. They had work to do. News - Latest News - 'We All Have Angels on Us' Says Survivor of Attack on U.S. Base

From the front

Now comes the part where I have to say that some of the items sent are being
given away to either the Peshmerga troops here in our camp or to the
children in the small village located within the boundaries of the Pesh
base. Most of the stuff goes to the kids in the village because the Pesh
have gotten to where they are almost demanding things – gloves, belts, etc.
I’m sorry, but this is done out of respect for the people who have so little
and “requests” are met kindly by me. You should see the eyes of these
children light up when you give them something, even though they may have no
idea what it is, because they have basically nothing.

The candy and snacks are great and I would also request some toothbrushes
and toothpaste for these kids. Dentists are a rarity here and those items
would help with the dental hygiene for these kids. They don’t have to be
expensive. I have bought some in town (along with some gloves for the Pesh),
but am operating on a low budget – the Corps doesn’t pay real well and I
have very little access to cash being 100 miles away from the nearest bank.
But we are doing what we can to help.

Oh, and any cheap plastic squeaky toys for dogs. We have two camp dogs and
the ones they have are all but totally chewed up. Bones, treats, anything
like that is good too. Again, cheap is word here. Bird seed would be nice,
but too heavy to ship I think.

For the past few weeks since I wrote last not much has been happening except
for a couple of trips to the border forts. One was with a company called
Aegis. They are a security based out of England somewhere. PCO (Project
Contracting Office) has hired them to check up on the border forts. It makes
no sense to me since the sites have been checked by the U.S. Army, the
contractor, the IBP, and me (USACE). This is redundancy at its worst and a
complete waste of time.

The first time I went out with Aegis, we got one of the up-armored Toyota
Land Cruisers stuck in the mud – these things weigh about 8,000 pounds. The
second time I went out with them, we got into an accident. It was between
our two Land Cruisers. Not a good deal – about $10,000 in damages between
the two vehicles.

Then last week, my area engineer and her boss wanted to see a couple of the
forts, so out we went again – in a 10,000 pound up-armored Ford Excursion.
We made it up to the two forts, but on the way back…. The local IBP Deputy
Commander decided to take a “short cut” back to the town on Penjwin. This
shortcut involved us fording a river. The water went over the hood of the
Nissan Patrol in which I was riding and almost over the hood of the
Excursion. We made it through the water when the Excursion died – water had
been sucked up into the engine. In addition the batteries had died. To make
matters worse, it had stopped in the MOAMP – the Mother of All Mud Puddles.
We watched as it began to settle into the mud and really wondered if we
should abandon the thing and hike out, since we were about 100 yards from
the Iranian border. The Iranians didn’t look to friendly when we were at the
border fort site and I thought about how easy it would be for them to just
take a bit if target practice on a stuck Excursion. Besides, night was
falling and its just not safe around there during dark hours.

We finally hooked a Toyota Land Cruiser to a Nissan Patrol and then both of
them to the Excursion. That did the trick and we towed the behemoth about 5
miles to the IBP headquarters. By this time it was dark and we still had a
two hour drive back to Suly. The IBP commander had his cook prepare some
food and while the Excursion was being worked on, so we ate hot tuna and

The truck finally started and blew about a gallon of water out of the
tailpipe. We hustled back to Suly and I have sworn NEVER to go out in a
up-armor again. Three times out in them, three separate incidents. I do have
the AK and the 9mm, so no worries there and besides, the unarmored Nissan
Patrols will go anywhere. I wish they were available in the states.

OK, anyway, back to the present….

My first thought upon waking this morning was, “I need to plan my funeral.”
Rather morbid, but it was there. Where the idea came from is beyond me, but
with the trips to the border, Kirkuk, etc., it is just one of those things
you think about.

Of course, both jobs are not going well. As I may have mentioned before, the
Iraqis have no concept of scheduling or task ordering, so we are behind
schedule. The recruiting center is a month behind and the police academy is
about 3 weeks behind.

There was a fight between a tile mason and an electrician the other day at
the academy. It seems the electrician was told to begin installing wiring in
one of the classrooms and the mason had just finished laying the tile. Well
the electrician just drug his ladder and tools in and began working.
Unfortunately, the mortar used to set the tiles had not set up yet and the
electrician caused the tiles to be moved and unleveled. The mason told him
to get out and the electrician refused, so the only left to do was to fight
about it. Both were escorted from site and told not to return. Standard
stuff, but it caused another delay and a substandard job.

Day before yesterday, the whole kitchen staff at the academy quit, sighting
non-payment of wages and poor treatment from the contractor in general. I am
not sure who cooked lunch for the students, but they did get fed. And the
problem has not been resolved yet. Who is doing the cooking? I have no idea,
but I was told that it is rumored that the contractor and his staff are
doing it….

I went to town today with the folks from DynCorp. Most are pretty nice
people. We just went to shop and look around. I did find a nice turtleneck
sweater and some Captain Morgan’s spiced rum – mmmm, mmmm, good. (Hope I
didn’t infringe on any copyrights there…) I’ve got the Coke, now, to find
some ice somewhere… I also needed to get a table and a couple of chairs for
my “office”, but I didn’t, so another trip MUST be made – too bad. We are
going to move the medic to his own hooch, so I will have room for meetings,
parties, etc.

Maybe not. I just got word that another Corps guy is coming here, an
engineer, so I will probably have to share the hooch with him. I tell ya,
its tough living and working in area 7 feet by 8 feet. Hell, even prisoners
have more room.

Well, didn’t get too far with this one. It’s been a week since the last
entry… Sorry.

Things have really begun to deteriorate here at FOB Kalsu. Besides the
captain being an immature wanker, the First Sergeant is now getting into the
act. I had just finished washing clothes and was headed upstairs to the only
dryer in the camp when he stopped me saying that the dryer was for “soldiers
use only”. Now I have been using this thing for over two months and all of a
sudden its for soldiers only? This aggravated me, but after I told him that
I had been using it, he said that, to be polite, none of his soldiers would
say anything, but that he would because he just doesn’t care for civilians
on a military post. He then added, and I quote, “You’re just damn lucky you
have a place to stay.” This went all over me like a bad suit. My uniform tag
says U.S. ARMY Corps of Engineers, so it would make sense, to me at least,
that we work for the SAME outfit. Besides, there are about 80 U.S. citizens
out of an area whose total population is close to a million and you’d think
that we could have some sort of camaraderie. But noooooo…. These “soldiers”
seem to think that this is THEIR land and THEY are in charge of EVERYTHING.
I have gotten so fed up with the captain and his command staff that I have
written letters of complaint to their commander (and I am not the only one.
Erinys, Aegis, DynCorp, ECCI, and KBR have all done the same) and requested
my commander that I be relocated to a hotel in town. Hell, even Baghdad
would be better than this. At least your own people aren’t sniping at you. I
have many more incidents of poor treatment of civilians by this command, but
“the dryer incident” was the last straw. So now my laundry is draped over
anything here in the hooch to dry. I hope no one comes here for any meetings
any time soon as my underwear, t-shirts, uniforms, and socks are

Well, I am supposed to go to Kirkuk today. I have mixed feelings about this.
On the one hand it would be nice to get to the PX and the bank and see some
friendly faces. But on the other hand there are the IED’s that have become
common between here and Kirkuk and I have a ton of work to do before the
next class at the police academy starts this weekend, the recruiting center
and the border forts, the water treatment projects, and the school
projects…. I just added it up and there are 101 separate projects for which
I am responsible with a total contract value of over $37 million.

The cold weather is starting to bother my right knee. I was in an accident
in Phoenix a few years ago and I think that is coming back to haunt me. It
was 36 the other morning and only got up to 38 during the day. I know some
of you are living in colder areas, but this is me and I am not a cold
weather person. Costa Rica is going to be nice… It’s gotten colder outside
and the fog is now freezing on the steps of the hooches, which are nothing
more than pallets placed to provide a bit of a stoop to clean your boots and
get inside. Rather slippery.

Its about 6 AM and its really foggy outside. Never would have thought it was
humid enough to be foggy, but then it did rain yesterday and I guess it will
burn off when the sun comes up. I will be taking another box of goodies out
to the kids in the village today. Like I said, they are really appreciative
of anything. School supplies are especially need. These kids love school and
are anxious to learn anything, especially about America. Their parents have
told them that we are here to help and they (the parents) are instilling a
sense of love and respect for our country. Kurdistan is a great place and
people are wonderful. They all, well almost all, appreciate what we have
done for them by removing an evil dictator. I have pictures of mass graves
and victims of the gassings in Halabja that are heart wrenching – men,
women, and children dead in the streets, some grotesquely bent from their
death throes, resembling the gnarled roots of old trees. This is what we are
here for, to prevent this sort of genocide from happening again. I just wish
that the government’s wheels would turn a little more efficiently so that
projects could get started and completed in a timely manner. Our electricity
here goes off many times per day and, with more moving to the area from
Turkey and Iran, its getting worse.

I know. Not very good paragraph structure, and I apologize for the
descripotions, but thoughts just pop in and I put there where they pop…

If anyone is interested, please rent or buy “Beyond Borders” with Angelina
Jolie ad Clive Owen. While the story is not set in this area, the basic
premise is very similar to the aid workers performing their small miracles
here. I have been through similar situations as the ones in Cambodia and
Kosovo, so I will tell you that you can believe that these things do and are
happening in the world today. And while I will not tell many of the things
seen and experienced, I will say that I am very happy and fell very
fortunate to have been born in the U.S.A.

And if there are any Kurdish restaurants in your area, go sometime and have
the dolma. It is wonderful. I have had it before and it’s great. Ground
beef, rice, and spices inside and onion shell and baked. Of course, it can’t
beat Jack Link’s original flavor beef jerky, but its close… LOL And the
“barbequed” chicken “kababs” are GREAT!

The jobs are progressing slowly. I have, again, had to pressure the
contractor at the police academy to get finished with the project. We have a
new class starting and they still have not completed the classrooms or the
barracks, the toilets (WC’s – water closets), the barber shop, the
instructor’s quarters, nor the shower facilities. The new class begins in a
few days and I have told him that either they are finished by Friday
(24DEC04) or he is to stop work and removed himself and all equipment from
site. Of course this is just a threat as I have no authority to do demand
that he cease work. It does or has seemed to work in the past, though. Maybe
they will get done on time, but I doubt it. And actually, he got a bit of a
reprieve. This class was supposed to start the 11th of December, but was,
fortunately, pushed back a couple of weeks.

The recruiting center is supposed to be complete in two weeks, but I have
doubts there as well. They are just now starting to wire the building and
plaster the walls in the east half of the building, the WC’s are not
complete and the kitchen is nowhere near finished.

The new DBE (Dept. of Border Enforcement) Academy has just broken ground, so
they haven’t had a chance to get behind schedule on it yet. There are 3 (of
50) schools complete – 2 on schedule surprisingly. The water
treatment/expansion projects are progressing well and are fairly on
schedule, but the border forts are running into trouble due to the weather
and insurgent activity. Some of these border forts that we are working on
are in sort of “no-man’s land”. We have reports of strangers visiting the
sites and asking many questions about whether or not these subcontractors
are working for Americans and about the security situation. I am going to
have go to Darbandikhan and sort his out with the local IBP commander to get
some IBP troops to provide security for these sites. Not a pleasant
prospect, but it’s my job, so I do what I have to do. At least it’s better
than it was in Baghdad and Samara.

OK, I am going to pack stuff in case I decide to go to Kirkuk. If I do, I
will need to be back here tomorrow or Thursday at the latest. Bye for now….

Soldiers' Angels

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