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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Soldiers feel force of bomb

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

CAMP VICTORY, Iraq — A second vehicle bomb in about two weeks exploded yesterday afternoon near Hawai'i National Guard soldiers manning a checkpoint along one of the most dangerous streets in Iraq.

Combat medic Spc. Earl Riveira, 22, of Hilo, Hawai'i, treated Iraqis hurt in yesterday's car bombing. Hawai'i National Guard troops had been working at a nearby checkpoint when the blast went off along one of Iraq's most dangerous streets. No Hawai'i soldiers were hurt.

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Early reports on the blast, which obliterated the bomber's car and left a 2-foot-deep crater, placed the number of dead between three and five with eight wounded.

No Hawai'i soldiers were injured, although Spc. Spencer Hisatake, 36, from the Wai'alae area, felt the concussion several hundred feet away at a vehicle checkpoint.

"It felt like a force pushing you," Hisatake said. "The best way to describe it is like a vacuum."

The explosion occurred at a gathering point for civilian vehicles near the entrance to Camp Victory along Airport Road, a seven-mile drive the military calls Route Irish that connects with the heavily fortified International Zone in Baghdad.

Published reports earlier this year placed the number of attacks on the road at 135 in the four months up to early March, including 15 suicide car bombs, 19 roadside bombs, and 14 attacks with rocket-propelled grenades.

U.S. Army units block off the road to Baghdad International Airport as smoke rises from a car bomb that detonated near checkpoints leading to the airport, killing as many as five people and injuring eight.

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A private security contractor and Hawai'i soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 299th Infantry Regiment, share security duties at a checkpoint just outside Camp Victory, where they are based.

The car bombing was followed up with a shot fired from housing across the highway, a common tactic.

Hisatake saw a man with an AK-47 assault rifle using a child as a shield and ducking behind a wall.

"As a whole, (the attacks) can be every day. Other weeks, you don't hear a pin drop," said Hisatake, a Company A soldier with the National Guard who also served with active duty units in Panama and Operation Desert Storm.

Battalion commander Lt. Col. Kenneth Hara said the car bomber may have been targeting a security detachment.

Maj. Joel Gilbert, 35, of Juneau, Alaska, commander of Company A, 3rd Battalion, 297th Infantry Regiment, points out a detail to Sgt. Francisco Barba, 20, of Honolulu, after a nearby car bombing.

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"The first call I made was to this guy right here," Hara said, pointing to Company A commander Capt. Phil Stone. "Any of our guys?"

Over the nearly five months the more than 600 soldiers of the Koa battalion have been in Iraq at Camp Victory, there hasn't been a combat injury.

A convoy of armored Humvees from the Alaska Army National Guard's 3rd Battalion, 297th Infantry, attached to the Koa battalion as a company, was just over a half mile away when the bomber detonated the explosives, sending a thick plume of black smoke arcing into the sky.

The convoy set up a security position on Route Irish, a divided highway, and kept cars from continuing toward the base.

A black and white Hyundai sport utility vehicle parked nearby had a broken windshield and two flat tires, and a gray cargo truck also had a flat tire.

Five Iraqis in the vehicles had been injured in the blast, including a middle-aged man in blue jeans with blood streaming down his face from a forehead cut, and a bloodied left hand.

"Do you have wounds anywhere else?" asked Spc. Earl Riveira, 22, a medic who was born and raised in Hilo, Hawai'i, as he checked the man out.

Maj. Joel Gilbert, 35, the Alaska company commander, said the injured Iraqis drove away from the blast because many times, a second bomb will go off.

At least three Bradley fighting vehicles responded to the explosion as the Alaska convoy remained on guard down the street.

Iraqi army soldiers who had taken up positions between the highway and upscale houses across a rubbish-strewn field periodically fired warning shots to turn cars away.

Sgt. Francisco Barba, 20, from Honolulu, saw the flash of the explosion before he heard it. He was providing security as Riveira checked out the injured Iraqis. One had glass blown into his face, and an elderly man in a gray dishdasha, the long-sleeved robe worn by Arab men, had a cut on his forehead.

"It is sad," Barba said of the injuries. "But it's good that we're doing this because we want to win the hearts and minds of the people here."

It was the second vehicle bombing the Alaska company had responded to in about two weeks.

While the Alaska convoy was guarding the route, a convoy of the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry of the New York National Guard pulled up after grenades had been lobbed from an overpass at the armored Humvees.

Insurgents recently also had used a recruitment drive for Iraqi special forces to stage an attack near the same spot, which is by a statue called "Winged Man," dedicated to ninth century Moorish astronomer Abbas Ibn Farnas.

Two cars pulled up, fired at the would-be recruits, and then attempted to take a shot at the Alaska soldiers with a rocket-propelled grenade.

A U.S. soldier spotted the insurgent, fired at him, and the rocket detonated short.

"Depending on who you talk to, this is supposed to be one of the worst roads for getting hit," Gilbert said. "But to other units, there are roads out here that are worse (in the Baghdad area)."

The Alaska company patrols a portion of Route Irish and neighboring residential areas, while Hawai'i soldiers routinely guard the checkpoint.

"It's our mission — nothing to think about," Gilbert said of the duty. "My mission is to take care of Victory Base and make sure I bring all my men home."