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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Colgan was determined to transform the platoon into a combat unit that could handle street patrols and raids on enemy safe houses, neither of which the Tomb Raiders had ever conducted. And so the hooch became a training center. Every afternoon the platoon practiced close-quarters combat and house-clearing techniques in the basement. Colgan rearranged the furniture to simulate different settings and ordered three $300 battering rams for kicking in doors. "Get in loud, fast and violent," he told them, while insisting that they treat those they found inside with respect. "They're young, they're new," Colgan wrote of the platoon in an email to his sister Liz. "But they're doing good."

It took just three raids, Whiteside says, for the team to gel. Over the next three months, the platoon conducted more than 40 raids on houses of suspected insurgents and former members of Saddam's regime in Adhamiya. In July, Colgan led the platoon on midnight searches of a Muslim cemetery next to the Abu Hanifa mosque, where insurgents were believed to be storing weapons. Colgan instructed the soldiers to bang the lid of each crypt; if it sounded hollow, the troops hoisted the 250-lb. granite slab and looked inside. On its second graveyard hunt, on July 4, the platoon netted a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher and 31 RPGs. A later search turned up a stash of the explosive C4. Afterward, the platoon nicknamed itself the Tomb Raiders.

Colgan's most valuable asset was his skill at gathering intelligence. "He was better and quicker than anyone else," says Lieutenant Lucien Ilardi, leader of one of the two other platoons in the Tomb Raiders' battery. Platoon leaders usually act on intelligence passed down from their commanders or from special-ops units, but Colgan generated tips himself. He cultivated informants on the streets and dined in the houses of new Iraqi friends. One gave Colgan a gold charm bracelet for the baby he and his wife were expecting. He memorized the names, residences and descriptions of top Baathists. On patrols, Colgan tirelessly chatted up locals, recording their complaints in a green notebook he kept in a Ziploc bag. "When that notebook comes out," Schermerhorn says, "we know we're going to be there another hour."

With Colgan at the helm, the platoon's morale soared. Even in 130° heat, the Tomb Raiders sometimes ran patrols five times a day on four hours' sleep. No one minded. "The first five months just flew by," says Whiteside. Colgan's disarming style seemed to soften the hearts of the people of Adhamiya. "There are very few people who can break into your house, arrest your husband and then by the time he leaves, have everyone waving and smiling. It takes a special person," says Whiteside. "We all thought, This cat is invincible."

--The Rookie's Mission

NOV. 28: Having arrived in Baghdad only three days ago, Orion Jenks has missed all that bonding. Now he is preparing for his maiden trip outside the wire. Yesterday Jenks spent Thanksgiving away from home for the first time, eating rubbery turkey with a bunch of strangers in a chow hall decorated with the corny Pilgrim motif of a kindergarten. The battalion required all soldiers at the base to speak to their families for five minutes on the phone, but the call only added to Jenks' longing for home. "I was hating life," he says.

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