St. Petersburg Times
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Dispatches from the front

By Times staff writer, Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 6, 2003


Southern Iraq

Space for personal belongings is precious to the combat soldier, but there was never any doubt how Staff Sgt. Michael Vaughn would use some of his: for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers flag he intends to unfurl in front of a Saddam Hussein mural in downtown Baghdad.

Then he'll snap a bunch of pictures and send a copy to One Buc Place.

Vaughn, 29, of New Port Richey, is assigned to the 101st Airborne Division's 101st Military Police Company and helps guard the division commander, Gen. David Petraeus, as he tours the battlefield.

He cheered the Buccaneers through their first Super Bowl-winning season from Fort Campbell, Ky., last season, and already he's trying to get tickets for Tampa Bay's game against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville next season.

Infantrymen don't have much room for personal effects when they go to war, but Vaughn feels sure the Bucs would appreciate a photo of the team flag covering Hussein.

"I figured if you guys could bring me the Super Bowl, I can bring you Baghdad," he said.

-- Wes Allison, Times staff writer

* * *


Najaf, Iraq

The relationships between senior officers and the noncommissioned officers who work closely with them are often complicated. The officer may be in charge, but a good non-com is no sycophant. They spend a lot of time together, in difficult situations, often under stress.

And rank or no rank, men are men.

It was getting hot Thursday morning and Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 327th Infantry, was waiting in the middle of a wide avenue in Najaf, hoping for a meeting with a cleric who never showed.

He and the man assigned to protect him in combat, Sgt. 1st Class Pernell Wilson, were snacking on field rations when a disagreement arose about whether Wilson had correctly given headquarters their position.

Wilson, 33, of Philadelphia is a master gunner with a shaved head and dark shades and big arms. He may work for the colonel, but he's no yes man.

Hughes, joking, called him his "map b--."

"Is this the way you talk to someone who's going to take a bullet for you, sir?" Wilson said.

"You wouldn't take a bullet for me," Hughes countered. "You'd be throwing me down and shooting over my head. I know you. You're not taking a bullet for me."

"Well it sounded good." Wilson paused. "Would you take a bullet for me?"

Hughes took a bite of a cookie. "Sure."

Wilson: "And you don't think I'd take a bullet for you?"

"You'd take a bullet for me just to spite me."

Wilson: "I'm going to be a pain in your a- for the rest of this deployment."

"Well, then, nothing's going to change."

-- Wes Allison, Times staff writer

* * *


Near Najaf, Iraq

Iraqi soldiers were here when the bombs came. It doesn't look like they knew what hit them.

Journals remain spread on tables. Bread and dates are in the cabinets. A rat leaps from a vat of rice in the dining hall -- the last meal that was never eaten at the Iraqi 35th Regiment Training School.

Water and food supplies indicate that about 300 students and 20 to 30 staff members occupied the school.

The bodies have been removed. The number of dead was not available. Five small puppies are the only signs of life in the rubble.

They wag their tails at visitors but are hesitant to approach. They are cute and appear -- for the moment, at least -- well fed.

Soldiers follow them as they crawl over blasted rock, past the antiaircraft guns blown to bits, past the stores of flour, noodles, lard and oil.

The puppies are hungry. War has come.

The soldiers groan with disgust as the puppies arrive at their food source: their dead mother. They rip muscle from the dog's leg, exposing the bone. Baring their teeth, the cute puppies fight among themselves for the meat.

Uncomfortable U.S. soldiers make dark humor of it.

"That must be what someone meant when they said it was a dog-eat-dog world," one says.

"Those are the real dogs of war," another says.

-- Knight Ridder Newspapers

* * *


Persian Gulf

Lt. Andrew Turner had a phone call. He wheeled himself over to the desk. It was a brief conversation. Afterward, he wept.

Turner woke up in a hospital not knowing his helicopter had crashed, not knowing that he was the only survivor or that he had tried to go back in and save his three crewmates.

But the call from the commanding officer made all that clear.

"I had accepted the fact that they were gone," said Turner, 26, a pilot. "I didn't know the situation."

After a pause, he added, "I'll leave it at that."

They had been transporting Marines from site to site on March 30. Their day done, they had stopped to refuel. It was dark as they prepared to take off.

"Hour, hour and a half later, we would have been home," Turner said.

The Huey helicopter crashed and two crew chiefs and the captain died. Turner was thrown from the aircraft. He broke his ankle, which now has screws and a plate.

He woke aboard the hospital ship Comfort with two thoughts. One was: Where was his crew? The other: "Okay, what's my family thinking?' "

His parents had seen the crash on television, but a Marine chaplain showed up at the door to say that Turner was alive. And now the trees in his Winston-Salem, N.C. neighborhood are draped in yellow ribbons.

But still, there are questions. Turner doesn't know what caused the crash.

A Marine official has said the crash could have been caused by a mechanical failure.

"I may never know," Turner said. But "I have no regrets. If you can fix me up now, I'd go back."

-- Knight Ridder Newspapers

* * *


Outside Ash Shumali, Iraq

The new mission is about as romantic and swaggering as it sounds: protecting the rear. Maintaining lines of communication. Someday, as cold adult beverages back home apply a shiny coat of historical varnish, this day may be recalled differently. But now, it can only be survived, the hours marked not by minutes but by mosquitoes slapped dead on pink necks in the 100-degree heat.

Wars are fought with guns, but won with the roads behind them, the crucial lines of ammunition and food and fuel. The artillery unit of the Marine Task Force Tarawa, thick in Nasiriyah combat two weeks ago, is now playing traffic cop along Highway 1, which leads to Baghdad, and a connector road that does not even have a name.

"They told me last night, 'Watch the road,' " Lance Cpl. John W. Skinner, 21, of Alpine, Texas, said Saturday. He did, night-vision goggles strapped above his new mustache, and saw nothing before his watch ended. Not much to talk about over Skittles with the boys the next day. "Who wants to watch a road?" he said.

-- New York Times

* * *



Several Iraqis, all wearing Bedouin robes, were standing on a bridge just outside the town of Nasiriyah. Army Sgt. Charles Horgan, 21, was poised at the gun turret of a Humvee, on a scouting mission.

It was March 22, days into the war. The order came: Clear the bridge.

As the Humvee approached, the Iraqis began to walk away quickly, "acting really weird," Horgan recalled last week from his bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he has been since March 31. "They were really edgy."

Horgan, of Montana, said he spotted someone in a trench and then noticed he was armed. "Oh, great, this guy's got a rifle," he recalled saying to himself.

Horgan maneuvered the turret to point the machine gun toward the trench. And then he heard a whooshing sound from the direction of another bridge nearby. It was a rocket, he said, "flying down the road at us."

"I'm thinking, 'Wow, I'm in the war. They're actually shooting at us,' " Horgan said. "I'm thinking, 'It's too late now . . . I'm going to die.' "

"Then it slams into the truck," he said. "It's this horrible slamming of metal on metal. And then an explosion. And the explosion is like somebody punched me. And then my legs went numb."

Horgan was thrown onto the roof of the Humvee, stomach down. His right boot was torn open and filled with shrapnel.

He will soon return to Jefferson, a small community outside Helena, where, he said sheepishly, he is being hailed as a hero. Saturday, he was scheduled to receive a Purple Heart.

He never fired a single shot in combat. But he thinks about what might have happened.

"We don't consider ourselves heroes. It's a job we do. We got wounded, and we're not fighting anymore," Horgan said. "I don't know what's so heroic about that."

-- Washington Post

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