BAGHDAD, Iraq: April 18, 2003 (AP) _ Toward sundown, on a patch of Kuwaiti desert 10 miles south of the Iraqi border, the first sergeant of Attack Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment called the men to attention.
Their commander, Army Capt. Chris Carter, a 31-year-old soldier from Watkinsville, Ga., strode up to the formation in full battle dress _ desert camouflage, flak jacket, Kevlar helmet.
“At ease!” he barked. “Bring it in.”
His 120 men, most several inches taller than their commander, gathered around him.
“Sometime tomorrow,” he said, “we’ll roll into attack position.”
Carter knew many of his soldiers had been clinging to the hope that somehow war could still be averted. Now, as they nodded their heads or stared at the ground, he could see the hope leaking out of them.
For miles around, a vast army sprawled over the desert: 200,000 American and British troops, Bradley fighting vehicles, M1A1 Abrams tanks, Apache attack helicopters, artillery pieces, cargo and fuel trucks, green tents bristling with antennas.
It was March 18, and all through this army, hundreds of other commanders were addressing their troops, each in his own way. Carter’s way held no trace of machismo. He tucked a pinch of tobacco in his cheek and spoke simply from the heart.
In the days ahead, he said in a slow Georgia drawl, thousands of life-and-death decisions would be made by thousands of soldiers, many of them little more than boys. But they were well-prepared, he said. Their training, equipment and spirit would carry them through.
“We are a moral army,” he continued.
When Iraqi soldiers surrender, “treat them with respect,” he said, and when they don’t surrender, “kill them.” But defeating Saddam’s army was only part of the job, he said. They must also earn the trust of the Iraqi people.
“We have to go in there and treat them right,” he said.
Carter and his men were about to be tested on a battlefield far from home. It would be a test of courage, endurance and training, but also a test of honor and common decency.
As the last light faded from the sky, Carter dismissed the company and walked back to his tent alone.
At 6:36 a.m. on March 21, Attack Company _ equipped with 10 Bradley fighting vehicles, three armored personnel carriers, Humvees and an armored ambulance _ rolled across the Iraqi border as part of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade.
Skirting towns and avoiding roads, the brigade raced north across the western desert, passing Bedouins herding livestock. Carter rode in a Bradley with driver Spc. Zachery Watkins of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., master gunner Staff Sgt. Bryce Ivings of Sarasota, Fla., secondary gunner Sgt. Robert Compton of Oklahoma City, communications specialist Sgt. Patrick McDonald of Stamford, Conn., and an Associated Press reporter.
As they lurched over the terrain, their helmets slammed into the roof and walls of the cramped passenger compartment.
The Bradley was an oven. The desert sun, radiating through the armor, made the inside walls hot to the touch; and long after the sun went down, the vehicle held the heat. The infantrymen sweated day and night in their bulky chemical protection suits.
To keep the men alert, Carter led singalongs: The Waylon Jennings-Willie Nelson hit “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” or Hank Williams Jr.’s “Family Tradition.”
Other U.S. and British troops, operating to the southeast, were already in fierce battles at Umm Qasr, Basra and Nasiriyah; but to Carter’s men, the war so far was like a field maneuver.
About 9 p.m. on the second day, that changed.
Fedayeen paramilitary fighters, driving pickup trucks through farmers’ fields, attacked the head of the column with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and mortar fire.
Through the night, from his position farther back in the column, Carter watched the red streaks of tracer rounds and the flashes of artillery fire.
Just before dawn, Attack Company moved forward to finish the battle, blasting Iraqi fighters with the Bradley’s 25 mm chain-drive “Bushmaster” cannon.
Attack Company and the rest of the force rolled on, arriving late that day near the city of Karbala. In just two-and-a-half days, the 2nd Brigade had covered 228 miles _ penetrating faster and farther than any invading army in history.
“The Hail Mary Move,” brigade commander Col. David Perkins called it. War planners had hoped the sudden appearance of a large force just a day’s march from Baghdad would shock Saddam Hussein into capitulating. It didn’t.
Now, before attacking Baghdad, the brigade had to wait six days for the rest of the 3rd Infantry Division, driving through one of the worst sandstorms in years, to catch up. Farther east, on the other side of the Euphrates River, two columns Marines were also pushing north toward the Iraqi capital.
On March 31, with the 3rd Infantry Division finally assembled outside Karbala, Capt. Carter and Attack Company drew a perilous assignment.
The division commander, Maj. Gen. Buford Blount III, intended to pour through the Karbala Gap, a mile-wide passage between the Euphrates River and a reservoir _ and a good place for Iraqi troops to try to stop the advance. Blount wanted to fool them into thinking the division would cross the river at Hindiyah, a town just to the east.
Carter’s company, reinforced by two tank companies, was ordered to make a feint toward Hindiyah, driving through the town and seizing its bridge.
“Yeah, hold a strategic bridge with an infantry company that has only two platoons,” Lt. Col. Philip DeCamp said with a wry smile. “A hell of a mission.”
Ivings, Carter’s gunner, confessed his fears: “Visions of Somalia; that’s all I can see.”
As Attack Company rolled through Hindiyah, Iraqi troops, hidden in alleys between houses and three-story commercial buildings, attacked with RPGs, machine guns and rifles.
“Scan left,” Carter ordered Ivings. “Open fire!”
The chain gun’s explosive shells slammed into enemy positions. The smell of gunpowder filled the Bradley’s passenger compartment as Attack Company and the tanks crept forward. As the lead Abrams reached the 200-yard-long, concrete and steel bridge, a chilling report came over Carter’s radio: “They are using women as shields.”
Carter climbed down from the Bradley’s turret and quickly deployed his troops and vehicles around the bridgehead. He was about to order two tanks and two Bradleys across to capture the east end of the bridge when told to hold his position. Perkins was coming to assess the situation.
Iraqi fighters tried to race cars across the bridge, but the Abrams tanks destroyed them. By the time Perkins arrived, the span was littered with bodies and wreckage.
Hold fast, Perkins ordered Carter. No need to get our men killed seizing a bridge we don’t need.
At 9:45 a.m., after three hours of near-constant fighting, a soldier saw an old woman lying near the middle of the bridge, waving for help.
Carter’s Bradley lurched forward, he and two of his men running in a crouch behind it as small arms fire cracked around them. As they reached the woman, Carter threw a smoke grenade to obscure his position. The other two men ducked behind the bridge’s girders to watch for Iraqi troops.
Carter inspected an Iraqi fighter lying nearby, confirming he was dead with a nudge of his boot. Then he knelt beside the woman, offered her water, and, fearing a trap, checked her for hidden explosives.
From across the river, Iraqi fighters opened fire. The Bradleys and Abrams tanks pounded them as Carter called for the armored ambulance. After medics loaded the bleeding woman into the ambulance and backed away, the command Bradley backed off the bridge, Carter and his men staying behind it for cover.
Later, Carter reflected on why he had put his men in harm’s way to save the woman. He had come to Iraq to fight “not just for the political aims of this conflict, but for the people.” he said. “To leave her out on that bridge would have gone against the grain of why we are here.”
Carter, a Southern Baptist, said that even as gunfire whistled overhead, he had felt safe on that bridge, felt that he was doing right and that the hand of God was protecting him.
After seven hours of fighting, Perkins gave the order to pull back.
“I bet they’re bragging right now about how they defeated the American war machine,” Carter chuckled as he drove out of town.
Attack Company now found itself at the rear as the rest of the division drove north through the Karbala Gap.
Killing time in the desert as hundreds of armored vehicles passed, Carter mused about how he would spend the summer. An avid Jimmy Buffet fan, he has been known to fill the back of his Chevy pickup with sand and a wading pool for pre-concert tailgate parties. Now, his girlfriend, Amanda Cofer, had met one of Buffet’s attorneys and had been promised backstage passes.
Chris Carter was going to MEET Jimmy Buffett!
Back home in Watkinsville, there was another celebrity folks were excited about: Carter. There he was in an AP photograph _ the local guy who loved to hunt and fish and cheer his lungs out for the Georgia Bulldogs _ rescuing a woman from a bridge in some place called Hindiyah.
“It’s exactly what I would expect from Chris,” said his 63-year-old father, Michael. “I get so choked up, I can hardly talk.”
Almost daily, Carter’s father, his mother, Shirley, his sister, Dede Holt, in La Crosse, Wis., and others all over America, followed Carter and Attack Company through AP dispatches and photographs from Iraq.
“Everyone is constantly praying for him” said Holt. “Even people he doesn’t even know.”
At the rear of the column headed toward Baghdad, Carter spotted a few cows along the road. They reminded him of his parents’ farm. They also reminded him that he had eaten nothing but Army rations for a month.
“I have five or six cows showing hostile intent,” Carter joked over the battalion radio. “I recommend we engage,”
“Steak night,” an unidentified voice chimed in.
On April 3, as elements of the division assaulted Saddam International Airport, Attack Company and the rest of the 2nd Brigade, prowled the southern outskirts of Baghdad.
As they passed through a sparsely populated farming area, two RPGs tore toward them from an orchard. One hit the turret of a Bradley commanded by Staff Sgt. William Gilliam of Hamburg, Ala., blowing off one of his fingers _ Attack Company’s first casualty.
Attack company responded with ferocious machine gun and cannon fire, pursuing the fleeing Iraqis and leaving their bodies scattered in fields and orchards.
“I feel bad for these guys,” Carter said. “They don’t have the capability to stand up to fight.”
On April 5, Attack Company, joined with the 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment, swept south through Suwaryah toward the headquarters of the Republican Guard’s Medina Division, blasting abandoned Iraqi artillery pieces and vehicles as they drove.
Attack Company made a game of it.
“Artillery piece at 3 o’clock,” Ivings would say.
“Take it out,” Carter would order, and three blasts of the 25 mm canon would leave it in ruins. Just like at the firing range, Carter thought.
As Attack Company rolled through Suwaryah, hundreds of men of military age lined the roads. They wore jeans or robes, but they had military haircuts. Many were barefoot, their military boots discarded in nearby ditches.
The men cheered and waved enthusiastically _ an eerie greeting from remnants of Saddam’s crack Republican Guard.
Don’t you think, Ivings said to Carter, that they are overdoing it a little?
Beyond the town, the convoy rolled into the Medina Division’s headquarters. Already ravaged by airstrikes that had left only a few beige walls standing, it was deserted. Carter halted the command Bradley at the gate, stood in the turret and fired three blasts from his pistol-gripped shotgun at a 14-foot-high portrait of Saddam, sending flakes of plaster flying.
Later that day, the force swept through two more Iraqi bases, finding hundreds of pieces of military equipment and tons of ammunition, but not a single Iraqi soldier prepared to use it.
On April 6, during a routine reconnaissance patrol, Attack Company drove into trouble at a farming village. RPGs streaked out of an alley, one of them hitting the driver’s hatch of the lead Bradley. Shrapnel penetrated, wounding four soldiers, one of them in the eye.
As the Iraqis fled toward a complex of levees and irrigation ditches, Attack Company pursued, firing cannons and machine guns. The back ramp of the lead Bradley opened and six men ran out, firing their assault rifles and hurling grenades.
Carter spotted two Iraqis sneaking up on the Bradleys through a water-filled culvert and ordered his driver to pull forward so he could throw grenades. Plumes of green water flew up, but the Iraqis kept moving. Standing in the turret, Carter shot one in the head with his shotgun.
He shouted at the other: “Kif, kif, kif,” Arabic for “stop.”
Only 15 feet away now, the fighter stood and aimed his RPG launcher. Carter cut him down.
“That’s what you get for trying to be a (expletive) hero!” he yelled.
The two dead men wore red headbands with “Allah Akbar” (God is Great) written on them in black marker _ the insignia of suicide fighters.
Hours later, Carter sat alone on the turret of his Bradley, watching the sunset and thinking about his first taste of close combat.
Carter had been looking ahead to something like this. He is a professional soldier, a graduate of the Army’s elite Ranger school. But when it happened, he said, the adrenaline had flowed so hard that he had lost all concern for his safety.
“I think every infantry officer has a desire deep in his heart to prove himself as a combat leader,” Carter said. “After a while, I guess you learn it’s not really something you should hope for.”
At 5:30 a.m. on April 7, Attack Company entered Baghdad, part of a convoy several miles long. Until now, U.S. troops had only probed the city. This time, they were going to stay.
As portions of the convoy split off for other objectives, Carter and Attack Company rolled toward Saddam’s New Presidential Palace in the heart of the city.
The lead Bradley smashed through the palace’s 12-foot high, ornamental iron gate and raced past rows of palm trees and roses. Iraqi guards sprayed a few rounds with AK-47 assault rifles, then fled.
“I do believe this city is freakin’ ours,” Carter crowed.
Carter and his men walked the bomb-damaged palace’s marble floors, gazed at its gilt-toned furniture, climbed the staircases to the fourth-floor swimming pool _ and used indoor toilets for the first time in months.
“This is why we are here,” Carter said. “That he would build things like this while his people starve is just unbelievable.”
After two nights’ sleep under the palace roof, Attack Company rolled through the gates and headed north on a four-lane road lined with cheering civilians.
Two blocks later, they drove straight into an ambush. RPGs flew from the narrow alleyways of the slums near the Ministry of Tourism. One hit a Bradley, wounding its commander, Staff Sgt. Thomas Slago of Los Angeles, who had been standing in the turret. The soldiers of Attack Company fanned out, the Bradleys’ cannons firing over their heads.
In minutes, the street fell silent. The soldiers, sweat-soaked under their flak jackets, crouched and listened but heard only the rustling of their equipment. The attackers had evaporated.
Attack Company spent the night behind concertina wire, guarding a bridge over the Tigris River as hundreds of men, women and children looted the tourism ministry.
A few civilians approached the concertina wire and _ sometimes in English, sometimes with sign language _ asked the soldiers to stop it. Carter wanted to, but didn’t have enough men to stop the looters and also guard the bridge.
“Don’t they understand they are looting their own country?” Carter asked aloud. “The new government will need all this stuff.”
As he looked back over 20 days of combat, Carter felt pride in his men. They had passed the test he had laid out for them in the Kuwaiti desert.
He also realized the war had changed him. “It has made me a lot less concerned about worldly things,” he said. “It’s not about possessions but about taking care of people we know, we love _ and taking care of people we don’t know.”
On April 10, in downtown Baghdad, Carter and six of his men sat around an armored personnel carrier for “Story Time,” the twice-daily ritual in which the reporter traveling with them read them the latest news: President Bush had declared that Saddam’s regime was gone for good and that the Iraqi people would soon be enjoying the blessings of liberty.
“Good, we’ve done our job,” Carter said between bites of an Army ration. “Now send us home.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: AP Staff Writer Samira Jafari in Atlanta contributed to this report.