Monday, July 28, 2003
ALDEN - During the war in Iraq, people kept up-to-date through newspaper and television reports. Even in an age when video communication is nearly instaneous, people still visualize a picture in their minds of what war is really lize.
Former Alden resident Army Captain Joel Heinzeroth doesn't have to do that. He has had a front row seat to the war in Iraq.
As part of the U.S. Army's 75th Field Artillery Brigade, Heinzeroth has witnessed and experienced every facet of the war, serving as captain of a site survey team, which main objective was to search for weapons of mass destruction.
"There is nothing that can really prepare you for the types of things you see there," Heinzeroth said.
The former Alden resident was scheduled to return this week to Fort Sill, Okla., and is slated to return to Iraq sometime in October.
"It is really up in the air at this point. I could be gone up from six to eight months. The time goes by pretty fast when I am doing something," Heinzeroth commented.
Upon his return to Iraq, Heinzeroth will be in charge of six artillery guns and 120 soldiers. His top priority will be to conduct traffic control points and patrol various check points outside of Baghdad. Heinzeroth said two years is the longest the U.S. Army allows a commander or captain to remain at the head of a post, due to fear of burnout.
Nothing he will encounter during his second trip to Iraq should rattle him following his encounters during his first trip.
Heinzeroth has served in the army for the past six years, following his graduation from Alden High School in 1992, and Northwest Missouri State University. He was stationed in Fort Sill, Okla., before traveling to Korea for one year.
One highlight for the Alden native was his promotion to captain in the summer of 2001. Heinzeroth then returned to Fort Sill, Okla. and was assigned to the 75th Artillery Brigade. The 75th team was eventually renamed as the 75th Exploitation Task Force. Ironically, Heinzeroth's crew received word that they would be heading to Iraq on Jan. 1...New Year's Day.
The United States' Department of Defense picked the 75th Exploitation Task Force to lead one of the most important missions of the war.
"Our mission was to search for the weapons of mass destruction," Heinzeroth said. Those were the same weapons President Bush mentioned in his speeches. And one of the administration's tenants as a reason for war.
"If we found them, we were to alert another squad that would go in and take samples," Heinzeroth said.
There were four site survey teams (SST's) and three mobile exploitation teams (MET's) on the mission. If Heinzeroth's crew found something, another team's objective was to take a sample and send it to Washington D.C. for analyzing.
The SST's consisted of 26 personnel, nine vehicles and seven hum-vee vehicles. Two Fox-NBC vehicles (Nuclear Biological Chemical) were also utilized. The Army Fox-NBC vehicles have nothing to do with the enbedded network news teams that were covering the war. They enable soldiers to stay inside the vehicles to take readings in contaminated areas.
On Feb. 12, Heinzeroth was flown in with 126 people and 50 vehicles on 10 C5's, the biggest cargo plane the U.S. Air Force has in its arsenal. Upon arrival in Iraq on Feb. 18, Heinzeroth endured 12-14 hours days of intense training, explaining the unfamiliarity of working with most of the soldiers on his mission.
Once training was complete, soldiers were assigned to two 3rd Infantry Division teams of Fort Stewart, Ga., or two teams from the Marines. Heinzeroth was placed in one of the 3rd Infantry Division groups.
The march to Baghdad
The first objective and an important hurdle for the U.S forces, was to secure the border into Iraq. Ten foot-high sand berms had been installed after the Gulf War in 1991. Once the berms were searched for land mines, six paths were cleared and marked to allow the U.S. toops to cross the Iraqi border. There was little resistance in taking the border from Saddam Hussein's regime.
In fact, Heinzeroth stated there was little resistance until U.S. forces arrived at Nasiriyah, a city about 150 kilometers from Baghdad.
"When we were going across the desert, moving these 167 vehicle convoys, I remember all of these dust storms that were kicking up, I could see other units off in the distance going in different directions to perform different missions. That is when it hit me...we were in enemy country," he said.
Hussein's militia put up a fight in Karbala, the last major town before Baghdad. Heinzeroth said one of the most difficult assessments to make during the war was the degree of danger.
"Basically the qualifying factor is the amount of organized resistance. When it is announced that a city has been secured by the United States, what we are saying is the other side is no longer fighting as a unit. That does not mean fighting no longer exists," Heinzeroth said.
When Heinzeroth's unit finally pushed into Baghdad, U.S. forces dealt with numerous attacks from Hussein's militia.
"They (militia) would pile into the back of regular trucks and attempt to filter into our rear units. We had to set defense parameters to make sure we were aware of those vehicles," Heinzeroth continued. "The people of Iraq were clearly told to stay away from us. Our group did have to shoot a driver because we were not sure if there was an explosive device attached to the person. That was a constant strain."
When Heinzeroth's group arrived in Baghdad, the infamous statue of Saddam Hussein had been pulled down four days earlier. The crew came upon numerous abandoned Iraqi tanks, many of which were partially destroyed in American air strikes.
"We set up headquarters at Baghdad International Airport for the next 30 days until June 1 and conducted various missions. We never did find any weapons of mass destruction. My team did not find anything," Heinzeroth said.
With their own hopes of finding Hussein, the liberated Iraqi people may have been their own worst enemy.
"People were damaging and taking stuff before we even had a chance to investigate it. There were even cases at the University of Baghdad, where foot and mouth disease cultures were stolen. It really damaged our chances of finding something," he said.
Being a farm kid from Alden, the last thing Heinzeroth expected to see in Baghdad was a Massey Ferguson tractor, but that is just what Heinzeroth found at the steps of one of Saddam's palaces.
Despite playing a role in the Iraq war, Heinzeroth has no reservations about returning this fall.
"This is what I do, and I think I will make a career out of it," Heinzeroth said.
Iowa Falls Times-Citizen