Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Fallen

I must say that despite my best efforts, keeping up with this blog has been challenging. You see, I have internet in my trailer, without limitations, but I have to string the cord roughly 300 feet from the portal to reach my trailer and on several occasions, the cord has been severed and/or the connection lost. It works maybe 40% of the time and I pay $85 bucks a month for it! That's some costly instant messaging wouldn't you say? Point is, the only place I can update this is in my trailer and I can barely get on-line to email my husband! I do have internet access at the office but because they are government provided computers, we can't access most sites, especially if it has blog in the URL. It's quite frustrating actually because most news sites are blocked and articles I wish to read on the election or on the news that shapes our world aren't accessible. And since I don't have cable in my room, a lot of the time I feel fairly secluded from what's going on outside the cement t-wall barriers and constantina wires of the FOB.

But it's when I get outside the confines of this base that I truly find out what is going on. I am reminded, sadly, of the price many people are paying.

Two weeks ago, I was told to pack lightly for a pretty high-speed mission outside the wire. I didn't really know what was going on but I knew it wasn't going to be the kind of story I usually cover here on LSA Anaconda. This was, they said, the 101st Airborne Division's response to the death of three of their soldiers.

We left the FOB (Forward Operation Base) before the sun came up on a Friday, convoying through freezing rain and yes, snow in the desert. I traveled with the 2nd Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Their mission was to suppress the objective (enemy) using 1200 rounds of highly explosive ammunition (artillery) from their offensive staging area 10 kilometers away. Basically, they were tasked with raining explosive hell on an Al Qaeda base camp (the objective) just south of Samarra until ground forces could go in and finish the job.

To understand this operation, you must first understand the events leading up to it. On February 8th, soldiers conducting ground patrols in the area received word about suspicious movement within the high reeded farmlands in Samarra. Those soldiers, consisting of squads from Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, set out to recon the area. As they were doing this, they were ambushed by the enemy who, they later found out, were Al Qaeda insurgents conducting extensive operations against US and coalition forces in the area.

During the 3 hour battle, 3 United States soldiers died. 19-year-old PFC Ivan Merlo, 20-year-old PFC Phillip Pannier, and 22-year-old SGT David Hart. When our young men die, there is a price to pay. And that price came in the form of OPERATION FULTON.

It's unclear how many of the enemy were killed but what is clear is that their little sanctuary of hate in the middle of Samarra is now nothing more than an open air morgue of smoldering debris. No one wants to think of soldiers dying to further the war but in this case, these brave men truly did not die in vain. The offensive launched as a result of their deaths, Operation Fulton, unearthed one of the largest Al Qaeda strongholds in the region. Within those reeds were underground tunnel systems, dug-in fighting positions, medical stations, and escape routes. Al Qaeda planned and conducted attacks against US and coalition forces like dirty little tunnel rats until January 8th when our soldiers, including PFC Merlo, PFC Pannier, and SGT Hart fought and died to take them down.

When I cover stories like this, I am so humbled by what I see and hear. I talk to young men who helplessly watch their friends die and somehow, they still soldier on. When they talk to me, they are methodical in their thinking and speaking, almost robotic in their delivery. They are sad, I'm sure, but they keep emotion out of it. They have to. Because they aren't going home any time soon and this ambush may be just one of many they will face until that time comes.

It's also times like these that I'm reminded what my job is as a soldier. That although the last thing they want to do is recount what killed their friends, this is their opportunity, through me, to tell the story of their friends as soldiers, as heroes, as men. I'm humbled by that and I realize that if I didn't serve my country while holding a camera, you may never know the names IVAN MERLO, PHILLIP PANNIER, and DAVID HART and the sacrifice they made for all of us.

19 Year Old Ivan Merlo

20 Year Old Phillip Pannier

22 Year Old David Hart