Sunday, November 8, 2009

Boots on the ground: A reporters view

Apprehensive? Oh yes

Nov-12-2007 » Filed Under: 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment

A reporter with the Guardian Unlimited is currently embedded with the 2nd SCR.
David Smith, Guardian Unlimited

The steel hatch swung up behind me like a drawbridge and snapped shut. My fate was sealed. I was sitting inside an armoured, eight-wheel Stryker vehicle and would spend the next 10 hours patrolling 'al-Qaida's last stronghold in Baghdad'.

Apprehensive? Oh yes.

Fortunately the Stryker is probably the best there is and, I was told, able to withstand roadside bombs, the improvised explosive devices that have taken such a terrible toll on US forces. I tried not to think about the even more lethal explosively formed projectiles, which fire a slug of molten metal capable of penetrating the thickest armour.

With body armour, helmet, notebook and camera, I was sitting towards the rear of the Stryker with my back to the driver, in the middle of four soldiers who spent much of the journey standing at turrets with assault rifles. To my left and right were TV screens, clusters of wires and control panels, a fire extinguisher, an industrial strength laptop and, I noted, a box of sweets and an iPod. A thin film of sand clung to everything.

If I turned and looked over my shoulder in the half-light, I could see another bank of screens. One seemed fixed on a patriotic image of an US bald eagle spreading its wings paternally over heroic troops and vehicles. On another was a satellite photograph of Baghdad with blue icons representing important locations. Most fascinating was a laptop showing a live, roving aerial view beamed to us by a remote-controlled drone known as a Raven.

Occasionally, after shivering and distorting for a moment, it would fix a suspicious vehicle in its crosshairs.

All in all, amid the beeps and voices crackling over the radio, it was like being inside a windowless submarine or space capsule, with a similar sense of venturing into the unknown as we passed beyond the perimeter fence which makes the vast US military base Camp Striker something of a safe haven.

On yet another screen I could follow our progress via an external camera. It showed a series of streetlights and palm trees flowing against the sky, and sometimes caught the sun as a bright, beautiful circle. Finally, after a bumpy ride, it showed buses, cars, billboards, bridges, mosque domes, telegraph poles, and rubbish-strewn streets. We were in town.

The confidence of the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment platoon was infectious. If you had to trust your life to anyone, these professional men with their hi-tech weapons would be high on the list. Yes, they said, they still feel fear, but with routine they learn to control it: fear breeds alertness, and is better that than getting cocky or casual.

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