Portrait Of A Platoon

HOW A DOZEN SOLDIERS--OVERWORKED, UNDER FIRE, NERVOUS, PROUD--CHASE INSURGENTS AND TRY TO STAY ALIVE IN ONE OF BAGHDAD'S NASTIEST DISTRICTS

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JAMES NACHTWEY/VII FOR TIME

NIGHT WATCH: Sgt. Marquette Whiteside of the Survey Platoon, Headquarters Battery, a.k.a. the Tomb Raiders, on patrol in Baghdad

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DEC. 5: Sergeant Aparicio is a popular guy. As his vehicle rolls through a graceful old neighborhood on the northern edge of Adhamiya, hordes of children chase after him, grabbing for the U.S.-produced Arabic newspapers and leaflets he is passing out to locals through his window. As head of the reservist psychological-operations team attached to the Tomb Raiders' battalion, Aparicio is responsible for canvassing the area, handing out pro-U.S. literature and listening to the complaints of residents. When he stops at a teahouse in a peaceful, predominantly Shi'ite area of Adhamiya, locals surround him and deluge him with complaints about the lack of electricity, shortage of medical supplies, chronic unemployment and high price of gas. Aparicio listens patiently, jotting down each petition in his notebook and promising to report them to his superiors. The crowds thank him and wish him well. As Aparicio climbs back into his humvee, he shakes his head. "We're going to hear the same thing all day," he says. "It's just a circle. You can never give enough."

The mood on the street darkens as Aparicio's convoy heads down Imam Street, the Sunni heart of Adhamiya. "You are animals!" a shop owner shouts at the soldiers. At one point Aparicio hands a newspaper to a well-dressed elderly man, who looks at it, tears it up and tosses it back at the humvee. Aparicio shrugs. "The people who are going to be won over have been won over," he says. "We've been here so long that we're not going to get anyone new on our side." But for all their doubts, the Tomb Raiders, like much of the military in Iraq, are determined to finish what the U.S. has started. "We're here. We definitely can't leave," says Whiteside. "Things would be a lot worse if we just pulled out."

--"It's Too Quiet"

DEC. 10: A little more than a month after Colgan's death, an eerie calm has settled over Adhamiya. Across Baghdad, the number of IEDs hitting U.S. convoys has plummeted. "It's too quiet," says Captain Mark Manno, who took over from Kielpinski as the Tomb Raiders' battery commander, during a meeting with his three platoon leaders. "I just feel they're going to try something."

In response to a mortar attack the previous night, the battalion commanders decide to flood Adhamiya with troops from four batteries to deny the insurgents territory to fire from. The Tomb Raiders are told to move out at 8 p.m., around the time when mortar attacks typically occur. It is on the return trip from this mission that Jenks, Beverly and the two TIME journalists are wounded.

--Back into the Breach

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