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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This is not the war this Army unit--officially known as the Survey Platoon, Headquarters Battery, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment of the 1st Armored Division--was trained to fight. On a traditional battlefield, field-artillery survey units stay behind the front lines and use gyroscopic devices to measure the distance to enemy positions so the Army's big guns can hit their targets. That was the job this platoon, based in Giessen, Germany, pictured for itself when it received deployment orders in March, before the start of the war with Iraq. The group, now nicknamed the "Tomb Raiders," was told to prepare for combat in the event of a prolonged siege of Baghdad. That battle never came. The platoon reached the capital in late May, nearly a month after President Bush declared the end of major combat operations. But the demands of the occupation of Iraq forced the Tomb Raiders to assume the duties of infantrymen--patrolling streets, conducting raids, hunting insurgents and imposing order in one of the most volatile neighborhoods of Baghdad. In that respect, the platoon embodies the ways in which the 120,000 American men and women in arms serving in Iraq have had to adapt to the evolving challenges of making the country secure.

Drawn from disparate backgrounds, the platoon's members provide a portrait of the military's diversity as well as insight into the motivations--and fears--of America's fighting forces. Its soldiers include Sergeant Marquette Whiteside, 24, an African-American gunner who pines for his 6year-old daughter; Specialist Sky Schermerhorn, 29, an idealist now gnawed by doubt about what he is fighting for; and Buxton, 32, a brainy Gulf War I veteran who since being deployed has taught himself Arabic and missed the birth of a son. Specialist Bernard Talimeliyor, 24, a native of the U.S. protectorate of Yap, Micronesia, was so moved by the events of 9/11 that he decided to enlist, even though he had never seen mainland U.S. Two noncommissioned officers, Staff Sergeant Abe Winston, 42, and Sergeant David Kamont, 34, serve as mentors to the platoon's three youngest G.I.s, Private Lequine Arnold, 20, an African American from Goldsboro, N.C.; Beverly, an amateur artist from Akron, Ohio; and Jenks, who joined the platoon in late November. Grimes, 26, the only female soldier attached to the unit, maintains a steely grit around the guys but cries on the phone to her father when she talks about what she has witnessed in Iraq. Sergeant Jose Cesar Aparicio, 31, a reservist, heads a psychological-operations team attached to the platoon. The leader of the Tomb Raiders, First Lieutenant Brady Van Engelen, 24, took over command two months ago and is still fighting for his soldiers' respect.

The platoon has served in Iraq for seven months and expects to stay for five more. In three weeks with the Tomb Raiders, over the course of 30 patrols with the unit and sister platoons, TIME journalists witnessed the tedium and the terror, the sacrifice and resolve that epitomize the lives of G.I.s across Iraq. Like thousands of Americans in this war, the Tomb Raiders have absorbed losses that have changed their lives forever. Theirs is the story of what the Army looks like today and what this war has become.

--Danger in the Shadows

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