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. 12: Beverly and Jenks are recovering from surgery in the intensive-care ward of the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad. In a way, they seem as boyish as they did before the attack. While a DVD of Lord of the Rings plays on Beverly's laptop, Jenks laments that his PlayStation 2 console is on its way to Iraq just as he is being sent back to Germany. Both show visitors plastic cups that contain shrapnel fragments removed from their bodies. There is no bitterness or self-pity. Says Beverly: "You've always got to expect the worst, and I'm glad that's not what happened." Jenks is more frustrated about leaving Iraq so soon after arriving. "I didn't have a chance to do anything positive or productive," he says. For Beverly, the teenager who never expected to see combat, the attack strengthened his conviction that his service in Iraq had purpose. "I did good. I did good things for a lot of people," he says. "I don't know about the reasons we came here, but I'm glad we did."

The Tomb Raiders are now stretched thin. With Beverly likely to remain outside of Iraq for the rest of the deployment and Whiteside preparing for reassignment to another unit, only six soldiers who were part of the platoon when it was constituted in Kuwait will still be in country in 2004. For missions outside the wire, the Tomb Raiders borrow soldiers from other platoons, but they have to carry out their routine duties--monitoring the radio, maintaining vehicles, staffing the battalion's Internet cafe, manning guard positions on the roof--with fewer soldiers, straining their combat effectiveness. "Maybe we don't have enough personnel," Van Engelen says. "Maybe if we had more, they'd get more rest. Maybe they'd be more alert and energized when they went out."

Tonight is a test of their fortitude. "We're trying something different," Van Engelen tells the Tomb Raiders as they gather around a gray satellite map of Adhamiya, preparing for their first patrol since the grenade attack. "So far our footprint has been big. This has gotten us into trouble." Van Engelen believes that the platoon will draw less attention without the humvees. The soldiers can hardly remember when they last did a foot patrol of any kind, and this will be the first one they have ever done at night. Van Engelen wants the soldiers to walk in a cigar-shaped formation, rather than the typical V, so they can stay in the shadows on one side of the street. He tells them that if they spot anything suspicious, they have approval to shoot. "I'm telling you right now," he says, "if you can ID the target, you don't have to wait for your buddy to do the same thing."

Whiteside pumps hip-hop on his CD player while he screws a flashlight onto his M-4 rifle. Talimeliyor tries to untwist the straps of his backpack, which is loaded with a 6-lb. radio. "We've never done a dismounted at night," Buxton says, to no one in particular. The soldiers line up, cinching down their vests and adjusting their packs, checking the action on their rifles. Then they open the door and head out onto the street.

--"Who We Are"

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