1st Battalion 22nd Infantry
A Bradley Fighting Vehicle from 1-22 Infantry patrols near a mosque in Tikrit
AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia
Matthew B. Stannard, Chronicle Staff Writer
Published 4:00 am, Sunday, February 1, 2004
2004-02-01 04:00:00 PDT Tikrit, Iraq -- An Iraqi man shouted out after the squad of American soldiers, two garbled English words
as they echoed through a narrow concrete alleyway.
Pfc. Matthew Bledsoe paused and swiveled his head to catch the words, the burlap strips dangling from his helmet swaying with the motion.
"Was that a 'f -- you?' " he asked. "Or a 'thank you?' "
It was a familiar moment in Iraq, a place where, as an American soldier, you often can't tell the difference between people
who want to kiss you and people who want to kill you.
There are few places in Iraq where that distinction is more difficult to make -- or more essential to make quickly --
than in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's adopted hometown and his onetime seat of power.
The soldiers who patrol Tikrit -- the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, known familiarly
as the 1-22 -- have been in Iraq for more than nine months and they are tired. Bone tired.
But there are smiles on their faces these days as they catch glimpses of new troops, their shoulders bearing the big red 1
of the 1st Infantry Division, whose soldiers are getting ready to take over in Tikrit.
After months of rumors, disappointments and dashed hopes, the 4th Infantry Division is preparing, within the next two months or so,
to go home. It will be the last of the divisions that fought the war in Iraq to leave.
It wasn't the kind of war they came prepared to fight. The battalion, more than 600 strong, entered Iraq from Kuwait late in the conflict.
They arrived from Fort Hood, Texas, trained and rested, with tons of the most lethal and sophisticated military hardware ever produced.
They were ready for serious combat.
Instead, they spent their first days driving north, taking pictures of shattered Iraqi tanks and of children trying to steal gear
strapped to the outside of the humvees.
Sgt. Mike Evans of Cobra Company knew the calm wouldn't last.
"I told them all before we left, 'Somebody in this formation ain't coming back,' " said Evans, 35, who made it to the Euphrates River
as a sniper in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and may be the most respected soldier in the 1-22.
"About six days after we crossed the border, we had our first casualty. That opened up their eyes real fast. This wasn't a simulation --
this was real," he said. "They grew up fast."
It was a lesson relearned in Tikrit. Although Republican Guard holdouts engaged the Americans in a series of short, sharp battles,
resistance was minimal at first.
Lt. Col. Steve Russell, commanding officer of the 1-22, said that at first the patrolling soldiers visited homes for dinners,
bought trinkets in the marketplace and tried to socialize with the locals.
"June changed all of that," said the 40-year-old officer from Del City, Okla. "That's really when the guerrilla war started for us."
LTC Steve Russell - Commanding Officer 1-22 Infantry
The hot months -- June, July and
August -- were bad ones for the 1-22. As attacks on the streets
of Tikrit increased,
so did the temperature. At times, soldiers were on rations of only two half-liter bottles of water a day as the
thermometer soared into the 120s.
Rumored departure dates in August -- and on Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas -- came and went. Each time,
the soldiers of 1-22 thought they were going home, despite Russell's estimate that the campaign would require a year.
Tempers flared. Fistfights erupted in the barracks.
In October, three members of the 1-22 were killed in attacks, two in a single weekend. And after each casualty, Capt. Xuan Tran,
the 1-22 chaplain, counseled soldiers who felt like turning their rage against the Iraqi people.
"We are human beings. And when you see your roommate killed ... you will experience some emotion," he said. "
(But) if we have that mentality, it could be very bad. It could be a massacre."
Russell and the 1-22 responded by locking down Tikrit, supplementing tank and humvee patrols with more foot patrols.
Al-Awja, where Saddam Hussein was born, was fenced off completely, and residents needed to show identification
to come and go. Attacks were met by force, and soldiers aggressively searched for insurgents.
"In the early days, we'd get a tip and search a whole block," Lt. Michael Isbell recalled.
"I remember one day we searched 132 houses straight."
Tikritis chafed under the tight leash, and the tough tactics drew some criticism from observers in the United States.
Russell makes no apologies: Different populations require different techniques, he says, and the techniques he chose worked.
"People have the notion that the American soldier is somehow untrained for this mission," he said.
"But our history belies that. We both know how to fight and how to handle civilians."
Attacks peaked in July, when there were more than 60, then dropped sharply in August to about 30 as the Americans' strategy
began to pay off. Then the insurgents switched tactics, turning to hit-and-run assaults and roadside bombs, and attacks
climbed to about 55 in November. But that number, too, has been falling steadily, Russell said, to about a dozen in January.
Tikrit began to come to life with new shops and people strolling in the streets. The city government began to function,
with a new mayor elected by a governing council of sheikhs. A week ago, police began to hand out parking tickets --
and people are paying them.
"Eventually, you learn to respect the city. But the city also respects us, " said Capt. Brad Boyd, 34, Cobra's commander
and a San Jose native who still limps from the shrapnel wounds he sustained from a roadside bomb in December.
"They understand we are extremely lethal if we need to be, but they also know we'd rather hand out candy."
Left: Captain Brad Boyd,
right: 1SGT Michael Evans both of Cobra Company 1-22 IN
Both are mentioned in this story.
These days, Tikrit has calmed
down so much that there is time for the soldiers to be bored, to
sit in the barracks
playing video games and killing flies with pocketknives. But it is an uneasy calm.
A few of the soldiers are torn between wanting to see action again before they head home and wanting things to stay quiet enough
to guarantee that they make it home alive.
The 1-22 is divided into camps across the region they patrol. Cobra Company is bivouacked in Hussein's "Birthday Palace,"
from which the former president would review parades in his honor, firing a rifle in the air from his balcony.
Boyd's bed is in Hussein's old bedroom.
Gator Company is camped in Al-Awja, in a party palace next door to Saddam Mosque,
where they cook Spam in the banquet-quality kitchen.
The specialty platoons -- medics, mortar-firers, headquarters and scouts -- are in the House of Saladin, a palace named
for the Tikrit-born general who defeated the Western armies in Jerusalem in the late 12th century.
The Tikrit compound offers good food -- king crab legs made the menu recently -- in a cavernous mess hall where colonels
and privates eat side by side. There are hot showers, laundry facilities and the "Ironhorse Resort," a palace boasting
a swimming pool, Internet cafe and a bazaar where local Iraqis sell "Saddam lighters" for $5 and pirated DVDs for $3.
About 70 percent of the time is now down time, the soldiers say. But the remaining 30 percent can kill you.
One recent night, the movie -- "A Fish Called Wanda" -- was just getting rolling. Wanda had double-crossed her partner in crime,
and was preparing to seduce Archie into telling her which safe-deposit box matched the key she had found in Ken's fish tank.
Then the first mortar hit.
"Goddammit!" snapped Sgt. Mark Dornbusch, 24, of Austin, Texas, as the first thunderous explosion echoed outside. "Let's go!"
The men of Gator Company jumped off the ornate couches and chairs and sprinted outside, strapping on body armor
and helmets as a second round burst just outside their walled compound.
For the next hour, they stopped and searched Iraqi cars throughout the city of Al-Awja, using pidgin Arabic to try to find
witnesses to the attack. No one would admit even hearing the thunderous explosion.
Eventually, Gator returned to its compound to track the mortars using the crater patterns outside their walls -- and to wait for the next attack.
It is a threat that never ends and can rarely be anticipated. Patrols regularly uncover caches of hundreds of mortar rounds,
rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and AK-47s.
"A couple of months ago, my dad asked me, 'Are you scared when you go outside the gate?' " Evans said.
"I said, 'No, I'm not scared. I'm terrified.' "
SPC Matthew Bledsoe of 1-22 IN on patrol in Tikrit
Photo by Matthew Stannard/The Chronicle
Leaving the relative security of
the palaces for any reason requires gearing up with an armored
vest, Kevlar helmet and loaded weapon --
about 50 pounds of equipment, just to walk the 100 yards to the shower.
And it's not just infantry troops who suffer. Engineers, support troops, even medics have died or been injured working with the 1-22.
One of the six soldiers killed in combat while serving with the 1-22 was Pfc. Analaura Esparza Gutierrez, a 21-year-old
supply specialist from Houston.
"I always thought cooks and females were behind the lines," said Spc. Felissa Maddox, 22, a cook who survived a roadside
bomb attack on her convoy in December. "The infantry guys do more patrols than we do ... (but we're) the same."
On the outer wall of the building where she lives, an unexploded rocket- propelled grenade can still be seen protruding from the marble.
"Every time you walk out of the gate, you take a risk," said Spc. John Ott, who fuels military vehicles.
"We wear 'American soldier' on our chest, just like they do."
The constant tension has led some soldiers close to a breakdown, Capt. Tran said. The rest maintain a state of hyper-vigilance
for anybody who looks like one of their attackers.
That means almost anybody in Tikrit.
The Cobra humvee roared up to the House of Saladin, and soldiers hustled an injured Iraqi man inside to the medics.
Outside, the wounded man's friend lay cuffed in the back of the vehicle.
Soldiers tried to explain the situation to the handcuffed man: An American soldier had been shot in the hand by a sniper
and reported a white truck leaving the scene. When a Cobra patrol spotted a white truck moments later, Evans stepped
in front of the vehicle, ordering it to stop. The driver failed to stop, the soldiers said, and Evans fired warning shots
into its engine and, finally, through the door, hitting the driver in the buttock.
The explanation, delivered in a mix of English and pidgin Arabic, did not seem to get through. The cuffed man looked from
American soldier to American soldier, saying, "No, Saddam" and "Yes, Bush," before weeping in panic and crying out to Allah.
No weapons were found in the truck. It was the kind of encounter that critics of the war point to as examples of American soldiers
responding too quickly and too harshly to threats of violence.
But on the streets of Tikrit, the soldiers say, they have to depend on instinct and "situational awareness" and can't lose time
worrying about their critics in Iraq or at home.
"I worry about me and my men," Cobra Spc. Jacob Lynn said.
Sgt. John Garza tucked a fresh plug of Copenhagen behind his lip and spat out the back of his Bradley, which was positioned
to observe the convoys beginning to haul the battalion's gear from Tikrit to Kuwait in preparation for their long-awaited withdrawal.
"Where (insurgents) have the advantage is we're looking for the bad guys in a crowd of civilians," said Garza, 23.
"They look for the guys with the burlap on their heads."
Some say the burlap strips, intended as camouflage, make their helmets more intimidating; some say they look like
Sideshow Bob from "The Simpsons" television show. In any case, the look, which they often use on patrol,
sets the 1-22 apart, which can be a good thing or a bad thing.
On one hand, they feel a certain respect from the Tikritis, who see the helmets and know they are the soldiers most directly involved
in securing the streets. On the other hand, they fear it makes them targets. Russell himself has been attacked more than a dozen times.
One roadside bomb exploded prematurely, killing two bombers about half a block from his convoy. His soldiers are certain
the attackers knew exactly who they were targeting.
Helmet belonging to SPC Erlane Fay of 1-22 IN with strips of burlap fastened to it
Photo by Matthew Stannard/The Chronicle
Still, members of the 1-22
continue their patrols, hoping their visibility will either
intimidate attackers into staying home --
or draw them into the open by offering a target.
"It's kind of like hunting with live bait," said Staff Sgt. Scott Feucht. "We're the live bait."
Feucht spoke in the middle of a patrol through Tikrit's streets, which were filled with Iraqis going about their daily business.
"This guy over here might be Mr. Nice Guy who wants to invite you in the house for some tea, while the guy across the street
might want to shoot you in the back with a friggin' RPG," Lt. Jason Lojka said.
Sometimes, the same person plays both roles.
"You might go by a house and the guy is smiling and waving, 'Hey, mister, mister, I love Americans,' " he said.
"And then you go around the house ... and find him flipping off the last guy in the column."
The soldiers' experiences have led them to have decidedly mixed emotions about the people they came to liberate.
A number of soldiers said they hold the Iraqi insurgents in something close to contempt, especially since they abandoned
traditional fighting for guerrilla warfare.
"They'll shoot you in the back or use IED's (improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs),"
said Spc. Rodrigo Vargas, 23, of Houston. "They're not going to fight you head on."
Some soldiers say the citizens of Tikrit became accustomed to the favors granted by Hussein and are ungrateful for their
new freedoms. Others say the Iraqis are lazy, pointing to the trash lining Tikrit's streets and human excrement in the gutters.
They bristle at the failure of some Iraqis to cooperate, their insistence that they know nothing of any insurgents, even
in areas from which attacks have emanated.
"They'll tell you, 'No fedayeen in Tikrit,' " Garza said. "If Jimmy Hoffa moved to my street, I would know who the hell he was."
Some soldiers privately admit that in the worst times, when soldiers die at Iraqi hands, they feel like taking a .50-caliber
machine gun into downtown Tikrit and mowing down every Iraqi they see. In those times, sergeants and officers try hard
to temper their soldiers' anger without dulling their edge.
"You don't want them going crazy out there, but you don't want them hesitating," said Cobra Staff Sgt. John Minzer.
"You try to train people: 'If you're going to shoot someone, you're going to have to live with that your entire life.' "
SSG John Minzer of Cobra Company 1-22 IN on left with captured Iraqi AK-47
Photo courtesy of John Minzer
But the soldiers' attitudes
toward the Iraqis are changeable.
"If there's people that have gotten killed or shot, your tolerance level for Iraqis goes way down," Sgt. Andrew Antolik, 23, said.
"If it's been a couple weeks of quiet, you'll go out and be like, 'Hey, what's up. Salaam aleikum. Shukran.'
(Peace be with you. Thank you.)"
Some soldiers say they have gotten to know some of the Tikritis, and they describe friendly encounters in the middle
of a patrol when they sip tea and talk about their families and religions.
"There's a lot of good people in this city that mean well. I've got a lot of Iraqi friends," Evans said. "About 20 percent
of the people are just idiots -- those are the ones you've got to watch for."
Today, with attacks on the decline, few soldiers seem to display a hatred for the Iraqis. Many view the Iraqis with pity,
as people broken by decades of war and despotism whose assumptions about how the Americans would treat them
were shaped by how they were treated by Hussein.
"They had an awful regime under Saddam," Spc. Stewart Tignor said. "They don't understand democracy,
they don't understand us. So really they're just trading one regime for another."
For many soldiers, the face of the Iraqi people is often a child's face. The children chase after patrolling soldiers,
accept their candy and trade pidgin English for pidgin Arabic, slap hands and have belching contests
with the patrolling soldiers as their parents watch warily from a distance.
They see the children as barometers: If children wave at a soldier while their parents are watching, they figure
the parents probably like the Americans, too, even if they don't show it. If a child scowls or throws a rock,
it suggests the parents are less fond of the Americans -- and their house might be due for a quick search.
But for other soldiers, the appeal of the children is simpler than that.
"When you see the kids, and you realize (Hussein) had these big palaces and the people down the street didn't have water,
you realize what this place is all about," Boyd said. "The criminals were running the place."
In the nine months since they arrived in Iraq, the members of the 1-22 have recovered huge caches of weapons;
they've done battle with insurgents, and they've even uncovered information during raids that helped lead
to the capture of Saddam Hussein. In the process, they've lost six soldiers.
Was it worth it? Each soldier has his own answer.
"Did I honestly think doing this and coming over here was going to stop terrorism? No. That's the dumbest thing I ever heard,"
Isbell said. "There are no weapons of mass destruction that we've seen. These people didn't even have an air force. ...
I didn't even see an army."
Other soldiers see Iraq as a containment zone for terrorists.
"Bullets flying all over the place; I'd rather that happen over here than at my home," Vargas said.
"I don't want my wife dropping my little girl off at school getting hit with crossfire."
Their estimates of how long it will take for Iraq to be at peace range from a year to 20 to never.
"We can spend millions of dollars in fixing up schools, fixing up roads, they're still going to hate us," Sgt. Curtis Keltner said.
"We're Westerners. They're never going to accept our culture."
SPC Sergio Cardenas of 1-22 IN kills time in his humvee in Iraq
Lifers say they expect to rotate
back to Iraq some day; some newer recruits say they will not
re-enlist to avoid that fate.
But most say they have accomplished their mission -- a mission they see as simpler and more straightforward
than the geopolitical consequences often debated in the United States.
"When you join the military ... there's a deep-seated notion of honor, doing the right thing, nobility," Isbell said.
"If I go (to Iraq) and give them some of the luxuries I've been living with, that's a good thing."
Rather than claiming to have saved the world from terror or chemical weapons, the soldiers say they see in the streets
of Tikrit a new life, new businesses, new possibilities, even if the people walking those streets still complain bitterly
that their lives were better under Hussein.
"If you understand the history of this area, I don't think they'd know peace if it bit them in the ass," Vargas said.
"You can get rid of a government. You can get rid of the dictator. But you can't get rid of the idea. Hopefully we can,
or at least show them a better way. ... If we show them a better way, maybe they'll choose it."
For many, the goal is worth the sacrifice they've made, said Staff Sgt. Tony Bach, a medic for Cobra Company.
"I question, why do I have to put a 19-year-old kid in a body bag?" he said. "But then I see a little kid.
And that's what we're here for -- to put an end to oppression."
As the sun set over the Tigris River behind the House of Saladin, Sgt. Ricky Hines threw another letter from home
onto the garbage fire. He has five chests filled with correspondence, he said. They sustained him during the war;
now he is done hauling them around. "It's time to go home."
The soldiers will go home changed. Many had never fired a shot in combat before they came to Iraq.
Now, they have killed and seen their friends killed.
Some have already seen the changes in themselves when they went home on leave. Some woke up dreaming of combat
or pulled their car over to check a box by the side of the road for explosives. Others felt naked as they walked unarmed
through crowds of strangers in the airport or the mall.
They've heard about "shell shock" and post-traumatic stress, and they talk about a handful of men of the 3rd Infantry Division,
who went home after the war and killed their wives or themselves. Suicide rates during this conflict have already been abnormally high,
according to the Army. Knowing that, some soldiers worry what will happen to their buddies when they get home.
"This battalion will have more deaths in the first 30 days after we get back than we did in the whole deployment,"
speculated Spc. Darryl Saylor, 25, of Baltimore.
But Russell and Evans, combat veterans both, said they don't worry about their soldiers. True, some have experienced
the horrors of war firsthand, but they have a powerful resource to help them cope -- friendships tested in battle
that will see them through the difficult transition ahead.
"The company has come and formed a band of brothers," Evans said. "Joes are gonna be Joes when they get back."
Spc. Percell Philips will take home a scar by his right eye and the bullet that lodged in his helmet after grazing his skull.
He considers himself the luckiest man in the 4th Infantry Division.
He shot his attacker dead. Later, he saw the man's corpse in a hospital and considered taking a photo
but decided he didn't want to take that memory home with him.
"I see my little nephews when I go home. They ask me how many people I killed," he said. "I tell them, 'None.' "
SPC Benito Garcia of 1-22
Photo by Matthew Stannard/The Chronicle
The 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry
is part of the 4th Infantry Division, considered one of the
Army's most advanced divisions
for its sophisticated computer network linking its M1 Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Apache helicopters.
Still, it nearly missed the major combat at the beginning of the war.
The military had planned to use the powerful mechanized division to invade Iraq through Turkey, but the Turkish parliament
blocked that plan, refusing to let the U.S. military use the nation as a staging ground. After months of delays, the division
moved to Kuwait in late March and rumbled across the border into Iraq on April 13, four days after the fall of Baghdad.
It sped north to the capital in 40 hours, secured al-Taji airfield north of Baghdad and on April 19 rolled into Tikrit,
a stronghold of Saddam Hussein loyalists, where it has encountered some of the stiffest resistance of the conflict.
In addition to attacks that killed members of the 1-22, other notable events:
-- July 29 -- Soldiers detain more than 175 suspected Hussein loyalists, including a top bodyguard, in a predawn raid near Tikrit.
-- Aug. 2 -- At least two U.S. soldiers are injured in remote- controlled explosions in Tikrit after elders of Saddam Hussein's tribe
bury the ousted dictator's sons, Odai and Qusai, in Al-Awja, where Hussein was born.
-- Aug. 12 -- American soldiers round up 14 members of a family that supported Hussein, including a Republican Guard officer
and one of the dictator's bodyguards.
-- Sept. 27 -- Troops uncover a huge weapons cache in Al-Awja, including 23 Russian-made surface-to-air missiles, 1,000 pounds
of plastic explosives, four rocket-propelled-grenade launchers and 115 rockets, 1,300 blasting caps and 423 hand grenades.
-- Oct. 30 -- To quell attacks, soldiers stretch concertina wire around the village of Al-Awja, requiring residents to show ID to enter or leave.
-- Nov. 7 -- A Black Hawk helicopter crashes near Tikrit, apparently shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade,
killing all six U.S. soldiers aboard -- four from the 101st Airborne Division and two from Army headquarters.
-- Jan. 7 -- Soldiers arrest 12 Iraqis wanted for attacks on forces in Tikrit, including the Oct. 1 killing of Analaura Esparza Gutierrez.
Source: Chronicle research
Fallen soldiers of the 1-22
During the United States' war in
Iraq, six soldiers serving with the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry
of the Army's 4th Infantry Division
have been killed in combat and more than 50 have been injured. Those who were killed are:
-- 1st Lt. Osbaldo Orozco, 26, of Earlimart, (Tulare County), died April 24 when his Bradley Fighting Vehicle flipped over
as it maneuvered to return fire during an attack in Tikrit.
-- Pfc. Jesse M. Halling, 19, of Indianapolis, a member of the 401st Military Police Company who was attached to the 1-22,
was killed by a rocket- propelled grenade June 7 while defending the Civilian Military Operations Center in Tikrit.
-- Pfc. Analaura Esparza Gutierrez, 21, of Houston, a member of the 4th Forward Support Battalion, attached to the 1-22,
was killed Oct. 1 when a roadside bomb struck her humvee near Tikrit.
-- Spc. James E. Powell II, 26, of Radcliff, Ky., died of injuries he suffered Oct. 12 when the Bradley Fighting Vehicle
he was riding in struck an anti-tank mine in Baji, north of Tikrit.
-- Donald Wheeler, 22, of Concord, Mich., was killed Oct. 13 when his unit was fired on by a rocket-propelled grenade in Tikrit.
-- Pfc. Ervin Dervishi, 22, of Fort Worth, Texas, died Jan. 24 when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the Bradley Fighting Vehicle
in which he was traveling in Baji.
Sources: Fort Hood Public Affairs Office; Lt. Col. Steve Russell
Above article from the SFGATE website
Additional photos added by the website editor
Home | Photos | Battles & History | Current |
Rosters & Reports | Medal of Honor | Killed in Action |
Personnel Locator | Commanders | Station List | Campaigns |
Honors | Insignia & Memorabilia | 4-42 Artillery | Taps |
What's New | Editorial | Links |