Superman

Route Tampa is the major supply route for Coalition forces in Iraq. Billions of dollars’ worth of gear and supplies are pumped up the northbound artery, while rumbling down the southbound vein back to Kuwait are damaged vehicles, units returning from a year or longer at war and convoys of empty trucks. Along the way, thousands of blue, black and clear plastic bags twirl, swirl and skitter in the hot dusty winds. The bags ramble about like so much plastic tumbleweed; aligning along the wind, drifting along the desert currents until they catch on nettles, concertina or the shards of wreckage. On those summer days so hot machines and bodies begin to falter, the air inside the bags is heated just a few degrees more, enough that some bags spontaneously buoy and drift away.

The convoys, sometimes hundreds of semi-trucks long, are guarded by gun trucks, but they have no real safety, apart from numbers. Down near Kuwait, Route Tampa is mostly safe, except for normal driving hazards such as crazy drivers rocketing around in their BMWs and Mercedeses. A couple years back, I saw a spray-painted warning on a concrete barrier that said something like “Watch out for dumbass camels.Only a combat soldier could have written that, I thought, or maybe a Marine. After he and his buddies had just crawled out of a flipped-over Humvee, its wheels still spinning, maybe one of them stepped over a couple of dead camels on the searing pavement, picked up a can of paint and sprayed that caution for all who followed.

Once inside Iraq, although there are relatively few bombs down by the Kuwaiti border, convoys have to watch for the lunatic local drivers, slicing through at 120mph, practically ripping the paint off trucks that more typically travel along at about 40 mph. I remember my first journey down Tampa from Mosul to Kuwait in a Humvee back in 2005. I was tagging along with CSM Jeffrey Mellinger, who seemed to be checking under every bush in Iraq to see how the troops were doing. The CSM could have flown in helicopters or whatever, but I’ve got photos of him on two separate occasions changing his own Humvee tires on Route Tampa—in extremely dangerous areas.

Of the enemy, Mellinger would say things like, “We’ve already killed all the stupid ones. Stay on your game. You can relax when you get home to momma, but not when you’re with me.” CSM Mellinger would tell his crew, “If there is the slightest notion in your head that something is not right, listen to it. Call it up on the radio. Tell everyone. If you make a mistake and call up something that’s nothing, that’s okay. But if you make a mistake and don’t call up something that is something, your Iraq tour might end under a flag. And that’s not okay.” He was very direct like that. His patrols were eventually hit a total of about 30 times.

Many of the attacks in Iraq are complex ambushes. The first part of the attack is more of a shaping move. It might kill some of our people, but it’s designed to move the rest of our soldiers where the enemy wants them for the follow-on. Early in 2007, I drove with CSM Mellinger to Samarra where an instance of that type of complex ambush had just happened. He talked with the platoon from the 82nd. Some of them looked pretty banged up. One of the young soldiers whose face was scratched up just kept staring in complete silence. I think they had just had about five killed in action when the enemy hit the rescuers. Happens frequently.

For convoys heading up Route Tampa, the safety of numbers collides with statistics as the frequency curve of attacks seems to climb to nearly vertical. The sights and smells of burning semi-trucks becomes more common the closer one gets to Baghdad. On a busy day and a long haul, it’s not unusual to be diverted or delayed a half-dozen times or more due to real or suspected bombs. The thousands of miles of roads circulating traffic around Iraq leave many advantages to the attackers, and there must be more species of attackers here than of frogs on the Suwannee River.

As Tampa stretches up to Baghdad, the road becomes like the jugular of Iraq, surprisingly vulnerable for something so critical to maintaining life here. Keeping just that one highway open is a 24/7 job, because it gets bombed many times every day of the week. All the jets coursing overhead peering down, and all the countless “cool gadgets” that make contractors shamefully rich, simply do not stop the bombs. While most bombs are detected before they can be detonated, or least cause no casualties if their discovery comes only after their detonation, thousands of deaths and severe injuries—Coalition and Iraqi—result from bomb attacks each year.

The bombs are as bad today as ever. The enemy learned several years ago, for instance, that during dust storms or bad weather, their advantages multiply because not only are they better able to lay the explosive, but we are less likely to have air support or medevac. Since the bad weather itself can serve to camouflage or cloak the bombs, the enemy is more likely to successfully mount a sustained attack and get away. This is no secret or it would not be on this page. The enemy knows these things.

The job of sweeping roads for bombs is called “route clearance,” and it’s a constant activity, serving like windshield wipers in a heavy storm. No matter how furiously the wipers (or route clearance teams) work, the storm keeps coming, and each swipe is only good for a brief period, if at all. For small IEDs terrorists can “seed” a road with “pop and drops” as fast as a mailman can deliver packages. Or they can lay an EFP—which can fit in a backpack and yet still destroy any vehicle in any arsenal in the world, including tanks—nearly that fast. Given the ease with which bombing crews can operate, constant high-skilled route clearance is needed on the main roads. Otherwise, the roads would be so riddled with deep buried bombs as to be “impassable,” and many in fact are just that.

Some IEDs—massive ones—are emplaced like money in the terrorist’s bank. They know where the IEDs are, and can use them as desired. So bombs can lie in wait for months, even years, with the wires running off hundreds or even thousands of yards into a village or other secluded area. Some of the bombs are so big that the enemy buries them with backhoes. The route might have been “cleared” a hundred times, then kaboom! game over.

In a city like Baqubah, where I sit writing these words [and whose roads I was on today when the soldiers I was with shot and killed two armed men just hours ago (15 July 07)], Al Qaeda and other groups have so seeded many of the roads that areas remain “black” (off limits to travel) nearly a month after the launch of operation Arrowhead Ripper. The terrorists’ main target is not Americans, but other Iraqis.

I remember watching a UAV downlink some months ago along with CSM Jeff Mellinger, and we saw Iraqi civilians lying on the road, including a child, after their car had been hit with a terrorist bomb. Once the terrorists stitch up highways and innumerable roads and entire cities with bombs, they have tremendous clout with the locals, because only the bad guys know where all the bombs are, and they can kill at will those who resist, including, if needed, busfuls of people.

Often the route clearing is performed by whoever is available, but if the threat level is severe (such as it was during the recent attack on Baqubah when more than 130 bombs have been found in the roads in less than a month, and I heard others explode today), the clearance team will consist of true specialists including EOD (bomb experts with their special gear) and engineers (also knowledgeable with explosives, and with their own special gear). Between all of them and their gear, they are like a little space program trolling for bombs. Some of the gear is super high-tech and equally secret, but after being here so long there is no way to avoid seeing it.

Fact is, after billions of dollars spent, the ultimate bomb-detecting gear remains the eyes and instincts of the soldiers. Some rare soldiers have such uncanny knacks for spotting bombs that they are treated like Rudolph the Red-Nosed bomb-spotter. Not every unit is lucky enough to have one, but those that do treat the bomb-spotters like treasure. It’s actually been quite a while since I have heard anyone bragging about someone in their unit who is so good that everyone notices.

No matter how good a spotter might be, it’s hard to see explosives planted in culverts, sewers and water pipes under the roads. And so it was for one of the platoons in the infantry company I now share a tent with in Baqubah. Eight of the company’s Strykers have been obliterated. And Strykers don’t obliterate easily.

Back in 2005, when I hardly knew the name “Stryker,” I came into combat with the 1-24th Infantry Regiment. I believe it was SFC Robert Bowman who told me that his soldiers so disliked the idea of the Stryker, that when they finally got Strykers at Fort Lewis, the soldiers tried their best to break the machines in training. SFC Bowman might refute this, and I’m not sure he was the man who told me, but Bowman is certainly the man who told me that all his soldiers were converts even before they finished training.

Those soldiers learned that the human body is not tough enough to break a Stryker without destroying the people inside, too. The Stryker is just too tough, too well-designed and too well-built. Before long, many soldiers began naming their Strykers, though I’ve never heard of anyone naming a Humvee. Even an up-armored Humvee is just a machine, a necessary carapace. But a Stryker gets treated like a member of the platoon. Soldiers take extra care of them.

When a Humvee is badly damaged, it gets turned in to the mechanics with nary a further thought. But when a Stryker gets badly damaged, the soldiers visit it and hang around it and volunteer to help the mechanics and technicians nurse it back to life. I couldn’t make up anything this bizarre.

LT Brad Krauss was the platoon leader of 2nd Plt, C-52 of 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, back in January when they were patrolling Tampa and a route clearance patrol happened to be going by. The platoon sergeant was SFC Wade Breaud. The 3-2 SBCT is, in laymen-speak, the “SWAT” or “QRF” for the entire country. In practical-speak, this means 3-2 drove those Strykers to the most dangerous places in Iraq and fought like badgers in major battles most people have hardly heard about (such as the time they killed more than 250 well-armed members of a crazy cult), making this one of the most experienced brigades in the entire war.

Stryker crews often refer to their vehicle as their “truck,” and Krauss’ crew had named their “truck” the “General Lee.” It seemed fitting. LT Krauss and SFC Breaud saw the route clearance team pass by going the opposite direction on Tampa, and to be good neighbors, decided to shadow the team in case it got hit. Attacks on this section of Tampa were frequent; hence the clearing team and the Strykers. The three Strykers of 2nd platoon cruised about half a mile behind the clearance team, and so the section of Tampa where the three Strykers were driving had been “cleared” within the last five minutes or so.

The patrols can be tedious. Fatigue accumulates after months of fighting, and it seems most units who are performing routine missions go against the grain of strict regulation and plug music into their comms to keep them alert. When they beep into the comms to talk, the music clicks off. It’s against the regs, but when everyone is tired—and weary—it works for a while. Some soldiers will listen to music before combat missions, sort of like Apocalypse Now, and that works, too. Gets the mind right. The Brits do it too, one unit I traveled with had a particular Rolling Stones tune. But that day was easy listening: Kenny Chesney was playing on the comms.

The enemy was holding a video camera. Enemy videotape was recording, and the camera was panning from the left side of Stryker, far past the other two lanes, because Krauss and crew were about to drive over a culvert the enemy had packed with explosives.

The crew consisted of four men. Specialist William Pfeiffer was alone up front and driving. Behind Pfeiffer was the crawl space called the “hell hole” that led to the crew compartment. Standing in the front left hatch was LT Brad Krauss, the platoon leader. To Krauss’ right stood Staff Sergeant Daniel Walwark who operated the missiles and a machine gun. In the large single hatch to the rear of the stood PFC Devon Hoch.

I don’t know which Kenny Chesney song they were listening to before the bomb exploded, but I played my favorite—“Me and You”—over and over while writing their story, wondering what might have been going through their minds just before the detonation. Although the bomb was massive, they couldn’t have seen it. It was hidden and packed into a culvert under the road.

Or-di-nary no, I really don’t think so. Not a love this true.
Common destiny, we were meant to be. Me and you.
Like a perfect scene, from a movie screen. We’re a dream come true.

[Moments to go]

Suited perfectly, for eternity. Me and you.
Every day, ’ell I need you even more. And the nighttime too.
There’s no way, I could ever let you go. Even if I wanted to.

[15 SECONDS]

Every day I live, try my best to give, all I have to you.

[ARMED]

Thank the stars above, that we share this love, me and you.

[GAME OVER]

For Krauss and crew, the great dream of a great song was interrupted:

(NOTE: If you are unable to view the above video in your browser you can also download the video in the following formats: WMV FLV AVI MOV)

As the bomb detonated beneath it, the General Lee arced like a dolphin from the sea of Hell. LT Brad Krauss can be seen flying out like Superman, if you look closely and imagine real hard. PFC Devon Hoch can clearly be seen standing in the back hatch. And that was it. Our guys’ lives seemed to be reduced to propaganda. The terrorists published reports that the soldiers were killed.

The story might have ended in the American press:

Four Soldiers Killed by Roadside Bomb Northwest of Baghdad

Four U.S. soldiers were killed today northwest of Baghdad when their Stryker vehicle was destroyed by a roadside bomb. Names of the service members are being withheld until notification of next of kin. The controversial Stryker vehicle is increasingly under fire by critics who claim that its armor is insufficient to protect troops in Iraq. Elsewhere, Iraqi and U.S. forces killed at least 50 people in Baghdad after three days of fighting in the area around Haifa street. About 130 people have been killed since Saturday. Separately, 27 bodies thought to be Shia were found shot. . . .

But that’s not exactly how it turned out.

Up front in the driver’s seat, PFC William Pfeiffer did not hear the blast but a flash caught his eye out of right periscope. Then he saw sky through a periscope—it seemed like seconds but the video shows less than that—as the Stryker was slammed onto its left side on Tampa. Pfeiffer was dazed. Some soldiers say of this experience, “My television blinked.” Or in more serious cases, “My television went black.” Pfeiffer’s television blinked off and back on. His eyes blinked open. He was still alive.

The detonation causes fine particles in the vehicles to dust-out the vehicle. The Stryker was filled with dust, but as it slowly cleared, Pfeiffer looked back through the hellhole and didn’t see LT Brad Krauss, who had flown like Superman out of the Stryker.

PFC Devon Hoch had been standing in the rear hatch and heard nothing. Hoch felt a crushing pressure and his television blinked out. When his screen blinked on, Hoch found himself atop of the missile rack inside the Stryker. Most men can’t even crawl into that spot. You have to be part snake to fit into there. Hoch knew he was still alive, but couldn’t figure out how he got stuffed into the missile rack.

Photo courtesy of C-52 of 3/2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team

SSG Daniel Walwark was in the front right hatch and he was hanging like wet laundry over his hatch. His legs dangled inside, while his arms and legs dangled outside. From the driver’s seat, Pfeiffer saw Walwark’s legs dangling still. Pfeiffer knew his crew was dead, and turned back to getting himself out.

SSG Daniel Walwark’s TV came back on, and he could see Krauss lying on Tampa straight below him. He could see that Krauss was half crushed by the General Lee, but Krauss was rolling back and forth. Walwark pulled himself out and slid down headfirst and broke his landing with his hands. His M-4 rifle had been blown away somewhere.

Walwark saw that Krauss was not crushed, but lying in kind of a ball and still had his headset on, which somehow was still attached to the Stryker with the cord stretched. In fact, Krauss was conscious and was hearing voices. Voices over his headset. He could hear SFC Breaud calling from the Stryker behind trying to figure out what condition people were in. Krauss could hear Breaud on his MBITR radio through the headset, but was dazed and hitting the wrong button to talk.

Walwark stepped out, seeing that Krauss was not crushed, grabbed Krauss’ M-4 rifle, and that’s when he recalls Krauss, who was rolling on the ground, and half out-of-it started yelling, “I’m invincible! I’m invincible!”

Walwark yelled, “No you’re F*&%’ing not! You’re F*&%’ing lucky!”

The front Stryker thought they heard small arms.

Walwark looked up at Pfeiffer’s driver’s hatch, expecting the worst. Pfeiffer reached up and cranked the lever counterclockwise and the frame had not even jammed the hatch. It popped right open, and Pfeiffer ripped off his headset and began to crawl out. His left leg was in serious pain, and he was dazed and confused but at least vaguely in the moment. His body armor had been blown open, as often happens, and he was staggering through the dust that had not yet cleared.

With Krauss rolling on the ground being invincible and not quite lucid—apparently in addition to being blown through the air, he’d landed on his head—Walwark was in charge, and he kept scanning for attack. He went back to find Hoch, who by now had wiggled himself out of the missile rack. Hoch was focused and in the moment, and standing on the back of the loader’s seat. Some of the tie-downs had snapped, so gear had gone flying and sandbags had gotten pushed inside, but Hoch was with it and digging for his M-4. Walwark peered inside, and not knowing what Hoch was doing, said, “Get the F*&% out!”

LT Krauss was coming back into the moment. He stood up on a leg in searing pain: he’d torn his hamstring muscle.

Meanwhile, Breaud was on the radio. No medevac was inbound. The engineers had at least turned around to help with security, but this was a total self-rescue. No backup was coming for a minimum of one hour, and possibly two.

By now all of them were on their feet: Walwark, who was riding herd on Krauss, Hoch, and Pfeiffer, told them to get back to Breaud’s truck. But when Walwark got his men to the truck, he suddenly bolted back to the General Lee for his M-240 machine gun. Walwark, though he had been effective at getting the men together, was still dazed and not quite all together. His M-240 had been destroyed, but Walwark did not realize that parts had been blown off, and the ammunition belt had been torn off and only about ten bullets hung out the side. He got back to Breaud’s truck and someone noticed Walwark was carrying gun parts as if he could fight with them. While looking everyone over, the medic, Sergeant Roel Mansilungan, gave Krauss a quick dressing on the head. An Air Weapons Team (helicopters) arrived after about half an hour.

But what to do with the General Lee? It would be up to two hours before recovery assets could arrive. [Photo courtesy of C-52 of 3/2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team]

Breaud remembered HQ had said it would be an hour or two before engineers could get out there, but it could be a fatal mistake to hang around. SFC Breaud and Krauss discussed options, and decided to self-recover, but they had to turn the General Lee back on its wheels, which amazingly were not flat. SSG Walwark said he could hook a chain to the tire and they could pull General Lee over with another Stryker. Breaud and Krauss thought it was a smart idea, and got out along with Walwark and Staff Sergeant Carl Felton to hook it up. When Krauss got out, Breaud yelled at the lieutenant to get back inside. One mark of a good lieutenant is that he knows when to take orders from his platoon sergeant, who probably has years more experience. Krauss got back in, but came out again to help and Breaud yelled at him again to get back inside.

Walwark’s ribs were severely bruised and excruciating, but he crawled up on the General Lee and hooked up. A couple mortar rounds came in but missed by about 300 meters. [Photo courtesy of C-52 of 3/2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team]

Walwark, Staff Sergeant Carl Felton and Breaud got the General Lee hooked to the tow bar, and then two Bradleys arrived. 3rd platoon from C-52 showed up with Strykers, along with a wrecker which broke down on the way and had to be towed by a 3rd Platoon Stryker. Since SFC Breaud had kept yelling at LT Krauss to get back on the truck, Krauss got back in the saddle: the hatch.

Krauss, looking dejected, but ready for battle. The General Lee is righted. [Photo courtesy of C-52 of 3/2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team]

The bomb was massive. This is the opposite two lanes. Explosives had been placed under both north- and southbound. [Photo courtesy of C-52 of 3/2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team]

So they were towing both the General Lee and the tow-truck back to Camp Taji. Kraus and Walwark each stayed up in the hatches despite what had just happened, and so of course they were heading straight for another bomb because that’s the way it is here.

The second bomb exploded, making a direct hit. Walwark was peppered in the face with gravel, a tire was shredded, along with damage to the slat armor and ceramic. SSG Brad Lobmiller was the .50 gunner. He was standing up, and was only a few meters from the explosion and was knocked back into the hatch. Pfeiffer and Breaud pulled Lobmiller into the back and suddenly Pfeiffer was the gunner. Through mixing everyone around, the crew from the old Stryker became the crew for the new Stryker, and Pfeiffer had gone from being the driver of the General Lee to the gunner in another, again proving correct the experienced platoon sergeants’ strict rules for making everyone learn everything about the machine.

Just after the explosion, Devon Hoch, who had been stuffed up on the missile rack after the first explosion, was in the towing vehicle up front and saw a man run out of some bushes about 50-70 west of the bomb that had just exploded (they were heading south now), and Devon fired about five aimed shots while the Stryker was driving and the man was running.

By now, 5 out of the 12 members of 2nd Platoon were wounded, but check out the LT! They took the LT to the Combat Support Hospital, and sitting there wearing no pants or even underwear, Superman got a hot doctor to take a photo with him!

The other four wounded were able to RTD (return to duty) immediately, but LT Krauss’ hamstring was hamstrung and truly messed up, so it took him three weeks and he was not supposed to go on missions; but he kind of, well . . . the official story is that he did not go on any missions until he was healed up three weeks later. [Photo courtesy of C-52 of 3/2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team]

But what of the General Lee?

The General Lee was taken to the Stryker hospital, where the mechanics said it would take 30 days to get it back into combat. Walwark, Pfeiffer and Hoch were given recovery time, but used their recovery time to check on the General Lee. They were upset to learn that the truck was sidelined for a month, and so they persuaded the mechanics to concentrate on the General Lee, but they didn’t have replacement armor. Another Stryker was torn up badly and had parts, but it was a different variant and the armor didn’t fit right. The mechanics, along with Walwark, Pfeiffer and Hoch made the armor fit, and General Lee was back in combat after only three days, and soon the whole crew was back in action. And they nearly lived happily ever after, fighting for months more, until one day they ran into the dreaded deep-buried IED, which some readers might remember can also destroy any vehicle in the world.

Many firefights and IEDs later, on 15 April, the General Lee, along with Superman and his crew, were back out there doing their thing. This time they were just south of the Shiek Hamed village. I’ve got a photo of the mangled General Lee, but we don’t like to publish things that help the enemy. Suffice to say that the General Lee took another one for the team, and again saved the crew. Specialist Joshua Rose severely bruised his right arm, but RTD about ten days later. But the General Lee was hit bad this time, worse even than when Superman sailed through the air. This time, fuel was leaking out, the tires were flat and the frame was grating on the road. But somehow the Stryker kept driving and nearly made it back to base before the last of the fuel had poured out onto the road (without catching fire).

That was the end of the road for the General Lee. After having seen battles all over the Iraq, and after saving the crew’s lives many times, the General Lee brought the crew home one last time.

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