Camp Corregidor in Central Ramadi

April 26, 2006  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Weblog

I knew that on the basis of size, Ramadi is the most Mooj-laden and violent city in Iraq. That's why I tried to get here last year and finally succeeded in making it here this year. Still, even within Ramadi there are places that are more or less violent. So when the public affairs officer at Camp Ramadi asked where I wanted to go, I told him: "The redder, the better." Red refers to a hostile areas, as opposed to Baghdad's Green Zone. And to his credit, he delivered, sending me to the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne in central Ramadi.

During my entire trip, this was the only time I arrived at a new area before 4 am. So there was time for a debriefing with the commander, Lt. Col. Clark. He told me and a fellow reporter, one with Army Public Affairs, that if it was action we wanted we were going to get it. IEDs were the worst problem, even though firefights and other forms of conflict were frequent. A few weeks earlier they encountered a mini-"Blackhawk Down" situation. A Humvee was hit by an IED and two soldiers died. Then an M-1 Abrams tank was sent in to retriever the Humvee. They keep a large number of tanks and other armored vehicles at Corregidor -- for good reason. Unfortunately, an IED made a lucky strike on the tank, cutting the fuel line and setting it on fire. Fortunately, the men inside scrambled to safety but now things were really getting messy.

You just can't leave a tank, because it has equipment and armor available to nobody else. If the Mooj got hold of pieces they could determine ways of defeating these otherwise almost invincible behemoths. Further, they could sell their information to the Chinese or somebody else with a vested interest in blowing up M-1s. Had it been a chopper, it could have been destroyed with an airstrike. But not so a tank. Further, these tanks carry a powerful 120 millimeter main gun and three lesser guns. The rounds for these weapons were "cooking off" in the fire, keeping both Mooj and Americans at a distance.

So the 506th had to set a perimeter around the tank all night long. As in "Blackhawk Down," the burning tank attracted bad guys from throughout the city. They kept pouring into the area to kill the infidels. But with their night-vision equipment and laser pointers, Americans own the darkness in Iraq. The Mooj came and they died. By the time the tank had stopped cooking off rounds and been recovered, 30 Mooj had been confirmed dead and one additional American. In a sense, disaster had been turned to victory. But even for the 506th, three men dead was an exceptionally high toll in only 24 hours.

The colonel also told us that body armor and helmet were required any time we left a building, even I it was just a few feet to the next building. This was quite an inconvenience until you got used to it and the Army reporter with me said he'd been to forward operating bases (FOBs) throughout Iraq during the last nine months but had never been to one with such a requirement. But there proved to be a good reason. Civilian buildings that the Mooj could temporarily take over were so close to the camp they could practically heave mortars at us by hand. On average, the camp gets shelled every other day although I went four days before we were hit. Radar that detect incoming shells supposedly allow you 10 seconds to take cover, but I'm told it's usually closer to three. Plenty of places in the camp aren't even 10 seconds from cover. The body armor rule went into effect when the first round of a barrage crashed down about 10 meters from the entrance to the headquarters and exactly where two men had been standing. I took a picture of the depression in the thick sidewalk where it landed. Reddish flower blossoms covered it, almost as if it were still filled with blood.

I also got my first look at what an intact 122 millimeter mortar looks like. Yes, I know how big 122 millimeters is, but it was still a lot bigger than I had thought. By way of comparison, the largest mortars normally used by the U.S military are only 81 mm, which probably have less than half the explosive power. Those are the ones you usually see in movies.

An added "attraction" is that snipers also occasionally fire a round into the camp. There are at least two minarets within firing distance, and they use them knowing of our unwillingness to attack "religious" buildings even when they're clearly being used for military activity. They take shots at the raised observation posts on a regular basis, though hitting anybody walking in the camp would take an extraordinary shot. That said, one night I was using a tiny LED flashlight to guide myself across the camp, having wrenched my knee in a hole during daylight earlier. A shot rang out nearby and off went the light! I preferred the chance of another minor injury to a prospect of a bullet that almost certainly would be powerful enough to penetrate my body armor.

Unfortunately, Corregidor is also short on amenities. Just a couple of months earlier they received their first portable toilets. Before that, everybody peed into tubes planted into the ground and used an open latrine that regularly had to be emptied and the contents burned. Chow had also been awful, but by the time I arrived it was terrific. But on the whole, compared to places like Camp Fallujah -- much less the Green Zone -- it was something of a rat hole. The reporter who came in with me and took part in the same two firefights as me wanted out quickly not out of fear -- he could have abstained from further day patrols -- but because he had grown a bit too used to comfort and he wasn't going to get it there.

Myself, I could have stayed considerably longer knowing that I was practically guaranteed a firefight every time I went on a day patrol and knowing that I was grossly deficient in collecting interviews. That's what happens when you volunteer for every patrol. But my flight home was set. Still, the Mooj gave me a nice going-away present. Just an hour before my helo flight from the tiny LZ at Corregidor, they hit us with three 122 millimeter mortars that apparently landed fairly close. I was in an internet area at the time with insufficient roof protection, so everybody scrambled to put on body armor and get to a safer area. This time we did get our full ten seconds. I didn't even feel put upon. After all, you haven't really been to Camp Corregidor until you've been shelled.