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On patrol, danger is around the corner and over the hill

Editor's Note: This is a series of blogs that will appear regularly between now and May 28. For the introductory entry in this series, click here. A Journal-World special report on the 1st Infantry Division's time in the desert will debut June 6.

Second platoon of the 5-4 CAV is led by 1st Lt. Clint Edwards.

He's tall and lean with classic good looks. Edwards is only 23, but his presence belies his age.

In a Humvee, with two telephone receivers nestled into the webbing of his helmet, he's connected to his troops and the Kiowa helicopters above us at all times.

The 5-4 is patrolling a desert road in the middle of nowhere. There are no villages along the way, just a few vehicles that Staff Sgt. Chris Ream called out from a machine gun turret. Second platoon leads a convoy of three platoons, each featuring six Humvees and about 20 soldiers.

They're looking for improvised explosive devices, hunting insurgents and cleaning the routes and its six checkpoints of any illicit activity. The day starts slow but quickly escalates into what might be considered a disaster if the circumstances were real.

Every soldier at the National Training Center is equipped with a harness for laser receivers part of a device called the military infrared laser engagement system, or MILES.

Using blank rounds, which emit lasers on their rifles, machine guns and even tanks, the soldiers and their enemy can be killed or wounded in a figurative sense, if the MILES harness and the halo atop their helmet registers that they have been hit.

A beeping noise tells you if it's a close call; a constant beep tells you you're hit. Everyone participating in these exercises also carries a casualty card, which provides observers and other troops a way to know how badly they're wounded if they're hit. Some are mere grazes, others can be deadly.

Soldiers who "die" are out of commission for at least 24 hours.

The 5-4 starts and stops all morning. A suspicious vehicle passes without incident. The Kiowas flutter above and ahead.

Still, we stop every few hundred yards. The humvee drivers, such as Spc. Charles Wads exit the vehicle and walk in a 5-yard radius, then again in a 25-yard radius, looking for anything suspicious.

By noon, 5-4 has stopped a silver pickup truck and detained its driver. He had it coming, perhaps, by driving in erratically as 5-4 approached. Soon 5-4 stops four Iraqi Army soldiers from roughing up an Iraqi national. American troops almost come to blows with the Iraqis while trying to stop their overzealous allies from beating the man further.

Pfc. Levon Comer, a medic, tends that man's wounds.

But soon a frantic call comes over the radio. A white Chevy pickup truck is barreling toward them. More chatter on the radio and a call for warning shots follows.

Over a hill, we hear the clatter of a .50-caliber machine gun launching bullets into the pickup. The threat is neutralized; its driver killed. Upon investigating, the soldiers find it is a VBIED or a vehicle-born improvised explosive device.

The results would have been deadly for the convoy. But the engagement isn't over.

Several hundred yards away, men with weapons are spotted. Edwards gives the order to pursue the armed men, presumed to be insurgents. We wait in the Humvee and can't see a thing, but we hear the narrative on the radio.

Three soldiers rush the hill. They dodge brushy plants and slowly move up the hillside. Below them two Humvees aim their .50s at the slope, ready to provide assistance.

But they never had the chance.

Soon a voice over the radio relays the news. First the good: Four insurgents are dead. But the Americans have one killed-in-actions and three wounded.

And a look at the three wounded soldiers' casualty cards makes it clear: There are four Americans killed in action. Edwards calls for a medical evacuation, which would come by helicopter if the scenario were real. But with four soldiers unable to participate further, they pile in the Humvees and we continue.

Luckily, no one was actually hurt. Herein lies the main purpose of the NTC. Leaders like Edwards learn from their experiences. The next time a similar scenario occurs, more troops might attack, or more Humvees might engage the enemy.

By Edwards' count, the mission was a success. Two IEDs were found and eliminated. The troops may have won the confidence of the Iraqi man being beaten by Iraqi soldiers. Four insurgents are dead. And the roadway is clear.

For now.

May 28, 2008

Notes from the desert

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