Monday, April 02, 2007

Baquba, Iraq

BAQUBA, Iraq, March 31 — In the last moments of his life, Sgt. First Class Benjamin L. Sebban saw the flatbed truck speed into the concertina wire guarding his small Army patrol base near Baquba.

“Everybody get down! Get down!” he screamed. Soldiers dropped to the ground.

A combination of the strong wire and muddy gravel stopped the bomber, who then detonated explosives packed into the truck bed. A 50-foot-wide fireball enveloped the base, an L-shaped school that weeks earlier had served as an insurgent hide-out. Soldiers were slammed into walls and windows, they later recalled, battered by pieces of brick and glass turned into shrapnel.

Unaware of a deep wound beneath his body armor, Sergeant Sebban, a 29-year-old medic, shook off the blast and staggered to his first-aid station to treat casualties, other soldiers recalled. “Let’s get ready!” he shouted, one soldier said. Then he collapsed. He bled to death even before the evacuation helicopter arrived to carry him away, 17 minutes after the 6 p.m. attack.

At almost precisely the same time another helicopter landed in Baquba. It carried Col. David Sutherland, commander of the American combat brigade in Diyala Province. He was returning from the large military base in Balad, where he had visited wounded soldiers and gone to the morgue, where he saluted and then prayed as he placed his hands on a long black body bag containing the body of a military policeman killed that day by a sniper in Baquba.

It had been a long day for Colonel Sutherland and his brigade chaplain, Maj. Charlie Fenton, who have taken it on themselves to visit every dead and badly wounded soldier in the 5,000-strong unit, the Third Brigade Combat Team of the First Cavalry Division.

But it was still not over. After arriving in Baquba, Major Fenton walked into the brigade headquarters and heard Colonel Sutherland on a loudspeaker informing officers that a soldier from another brigade had committed suicide in Muqdadiya. Then he was handed a list of nine new casualties, the dead and the wounded. At the top was Sergeant Sebban. Four hours later, he and Colonel Sutherland climbed into another helicopter, bound once again for Balad. “We’ve never had to see this many at once,” Major Fenton said as he walked in darkness in helmet and body armor to the landing pad just after 11 p.m., trailed by soldiers grasping stacks of Purple Hearts in navy blue leather cases.

The two officers have made the round trip to Balad more than 70 times since arriving in October. But on that day, March 17, the brigade suffered its highest daily toll, with two dead and 14 wounded.

Altogether, the unit has seen 39 soldiers die in five months, more in that brief span than the number killed in any brigade that preceded it in yearlong deployments here. Names of the dead are written on a piece of metal affixed to a tall concrete barrier on Forward Operating Base Warhorse, near Baquba. With the death of Sergeant Sebban, the barrier ran out of space. A new barrier was just erected next to it.


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