Soldiers send positive messages
Editor's note: Mobile Register Editor Mike Marshall is on his third trip to Kuwait and Iraq since 2003, writing about Alabama soldiers and support personnel serving there. Because this story featured soldiers from this area, he graciously suggested it be reprinted by The Standard.
By MIKE MARSHALL
CAMP TAJI, Iraq – Insurgents sent a message to 1st Battalion, 117th Field Artillery Company just after dark Wednesday.
A 107 mm rocket arced through the sky like a meteor and exploded in the company motor pool, auguring a foot deep into the hard-packed soil.
Chunks of shrapnel drilled through truck tires and hydraulic lines as soldiers, most of whom were preparing to head for chow, dove for cover inside their nearby quarters. Nobody was hurt. The message: We're still out here.
Though it played havoc with the Alabama National Guard company's dinner schedule, the soldiers quickly shook off the attack. Camp Taji stayed “locked down” for about an hour while all hands were accounted for and security teams made sure that no one lurked outside the wire to unleash a second shoulder-fired rocket.
Thursday, the soldiers stayed busy fixing a dozen flats.
The members of the 1-117th, home-based in Citronelle, Greenville, Andalusia, Luverne and Geneva, are the new kids on the block at Taji, having arrived about three weeks ago. It's a virtual Alabama changing of the guard, as the unit right up the street – the Alabama National Guard's 3rd Battalion, 117th Field Artillery that I wrote about in earlier columns – packs up for home.
Back in the States, both Alabama battalions were trained to fire Multiple Rocket Launchers and howitzers. Over here, both are in the trucking business.
The soldiers of the 1-117th are so new here that they still like the food served at the D-FAC, which is militarese for “chow hall.”
Members of the 3-117th are barbecuing something just about every other night. The 1-117th has yet to fire up a grill.
Solders of the 3-117th, from Guard armories in Troy, Union Springs, Phenix City, Daleville and Elba, are getting ready to hold garage sales to be rid of items too bulky to ship back home.
The 1-117th will be among the bargain hunters, acquiring bicycles, DVD players and flat screen TVs configured for the 220-volt power that's standard over here. Such toys will help them get through the year ahead.
Aside from Wednesday night's rocket and a couple of mortar rounds that exploded harmlessly across camp the other night, the 1-117th has not been attacked. Unlike soldiers of the 3-117th, they have not experienced close contact with the enemy.
Or maybe they have.
Capt. Chris Chisum, 36, who grew up in Brewton, was on a 17-truck convoy Tuesday night hauling military equipment to a base north of Taji. Crews aboard the regular Army gun trucks providing security for the convoy thought that small arms fire might have been directed at them. It's not clear whether it really was.
Chisum has been commander of the 140-member 1-117th for five years now. He works for General Electric Corp., building wind turbines at a plant in Pensacola, Fla. His mother, Mamie Chisum, lives in Andalusia.
On that same convoy was 25-year-old Sgt. Matthew Ritchie of Mobile. The first thing that he learned when he and fellow soldiers were converting from artillerymen to military truckers was that you don't stop a convoy in potentially hostile territory unless absolutely necessary, and you make sure that emergency stops are brief.
During the run Tuesday night, a tire on Ritchie's fully loaded truck blew out and shredded. Strips of tread wound tightly around the axle.
Ritchie is the son of Thomas and Cindy Ritchie of Mobile and plans to marry 24-year-old fianc