Mortars a hazard of Iraq

LOGISTICAL SUPPORT AREA ANACONDA — A company of Fort Lewis soldiers is responsible for early detection and defense against the daily rocket and mortar attacks that strike this huge base 40 miles north of Baghdad.

Insurgents target LSA Anaconda and adjacent Balad Air Base more than any other U.S. military bases in Iraq, striking an average of seven to 11 times a week, said Capt. Rick Crosby, commander of a Fort Lewis Air Defense Artillery company that has been part of a mortar-defense task force.

The unit, comprising about 170 soldiers, operates a new anti-mortar system that has prevented many rounds from landing, Crosby said.

The unit is part of a first-of-its-kind joint task force that includes Navy personnel.

“This system has saved numerous lives here on Anaconda,” he said.

On Wednesday, incoming fire struck a northeast corner of the 18-square-mile base, about a mile from where this reporter was at the time. The blasts damaged three generators but caused no injuries. It was undetermined whether the impacts were from rockets or mortars, according to the base’s Air Force public affairs office.

Crosby declined to elaborate on the new anti-mortar system, saying it still is classified.

But the system and his soldiers have worked to prevent many strikes and potential harm, he said.

There remains a strong insurgent influence in the towns and villages surrounding the base and its sheer size makes it a tempting target, Crosby said. Balad sits in the so-called Sunni Triangle, which was a power center for Saddam Hussein.

Mortars directed at the base often are fired by remote devices such as cell phones so their operators won’t be detected. They can be fired from mortar tubes a mile or farther from the base, Crosby said.

Rarely do they cause significant damage or injury, although two soldiers were badly hurt earlier this year. One of them was blinded, base officials said.

Some shots appear randomly targeted to harass U.S. forces; others appear to be reaching for the airfield, he said.

“It’s a thinking enemy, and it wouldn’t be wise to just discount them,” Crosby said. “There seems to be a thought process behind what they’re doing.”

The system works in part with “Sentinel” radar stations, which are positioned around the base and track all aircraft, including low-flying objects.

The base’s automated warning system relies on the radar’s ability to detect incoming fire and its approximate trajectory. The system then can trigger alarms for personnel in areas where the round will strike without having to disturb sectors that aren’t at risk.

In the past, the alarm would shut down the entire base for an hour each time there were in-bound mortars or rockets, causing significant work to stop.

The newer alarm procedure means less chance of soldiers and airmen becoming desensitized to mortar alarms and doesn’t give insurgents the satisfaction of having caused major havoc by temporarily closing all operations, said Maj. John Hutcheson, the Air Force chief of public affairs here.

The Fort Lewis unit, C5/5 ADA, transformed last year from one assigned to Stinger missile-equipped Bradley armored fighting vehicles, Crosby said. The unit is slated to return home next month and will be replaced by another company from Fort Bragg, he said.

Other Fort Lewis news

About 170 members of the Fort Lewis-based Alpha Company of the 249th Engineer Battalion are returning home after a 6-month deployment at LSA Anaconda. The company builds and maintains power, water and sewer lines to keep the post running.

A transfer-of-authority ceremony was held Wednesday with members of the Bravo Company, based in Fort Bragg, N.C., which will be taking over the unit’s duties.

Unit leaders credited the soldiers for their work, which doesn’t grab headlines but keeps morale up by maintaining the power that turns on the lights, warms the food and runs air conditioners in the Iraqi heat.

“Nothing will make a soldier gripe more than if you mess with his mail, you mess with his chow, or you mess with his air conditioning,” said Sgt. Dennis Diaz, 35, of Yelm, who is returning to a wife and young daughter.

“It’s the guys behind the scenes keeping them capable of carrying the fight to the enemy,” said Staff Sgt. William Crawford, 33, of Yelm.