For Charlie Rock, No Hero's Welcome

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Charlie Rock Company's patch of desert has been quiet for 24 hours when First Sergeant William Mitchell hears something on the radio. His face stiffens with the information. He leans out of the wind into his half-track, wincing at the sandstorm whipping around his face from the rear. He grabs his M-4 assault rifle and halfway out of the track's back door yells at his master gunner, Sergeant Robert Jones, "You need to call HQ right now and tell them we have 10 men, 200 meters to the north, with AKs and RPGs." Jones jumps on the radio. "Break, break, this is Checkpoint Zero, Zero, Two, Two. We have possible contact with enemy soldiers. We are checking it out and moving into position now." The reply is instant. "Zero, Zero, Two, Two, this is Battle Five. If you have positive IDs, do not wait for them to fire. Destroy them."

Outside, Mitchell links up with Lieut. Robert Carnahan and two six-man squads from White Platoon carrying M-16s, heavy SAWs (squad automatic weapons) and 240-Bravo machine guns. Flanking them are three Bradley fighting vehicles. Mitchell, 34, briefs his men that a passing farmer has told a sentry about 10 men sweeping around for an ambush. On his command, the Americans run north through the choking red dust and throw themselves on the ground against a nearby railway track. "Jesus, we can't see s___!" says Carnahan. The squads hold their positions as the Bradleys scan the area with thermal imagers.

Nothing. Carnahan then gets a call from Brigade. "We have a new mission," he announces to his men. "We're pulling out and moving back east to another checkpoint." Pause. "Dammit. Pull back again?"

When the commanders of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division spoke to their men on the eve of war, they talked about being the fighting vanguard of a force that would be "liberating" Iraq. In the ranks, the soldiers ate it up. They envisioned scenes like the liberation of Paris, with jubilant locals welcoming them.

Instead, Charlie Rock is guarding swatches of desert where danger swirls like sand devils and then disappears. Sure, kids still pester the troops for candy and water. But the grownups aren't in a hospitable mood. In fact, small groups of Iraqi soldiers, many in plain clothes, are letting the heavy metal pass—70-ton M1A1 Abrams tanks and Bradley troop carriers—and lying in wait for the soft-skinned, lightly armed trucks hauling fuel, food and water.

Every day, the journey to Baghdad stretches ever longer as Charlie Rock and other units like it that expected to be on the front line are finding themselves policing a road and facing dogged Iraqi resistance. There were seven attacks last week on the 800-strong task force of which Charlie Rock is part. Welcome, liberators.

A growing number of Iraqi ambushers have been captured or killed. But Charlie Rock remains riled up by news of the American maintenance crew some 30 miles away that may have made a wrong turn, leading to the deaths, possibly by execution, of seven soldiers and the capture of five others. The grunts are furious. Iraqi deserters or scouts unfortunate enough to come across Charlie Rock's newly ordered checkpoints are bearing the brunt of the company's outrage. "Don't look at me. Don't f___ing look at me, or I swear to God I'll cut you in half," yells Sergeant Patrick Dunleavy at Khaled, 23, who says he is fleeing Baghdad and who, from his uniform, appears to be a Republican Guard deserter. "Man, sometimes I wish we didn't have the Geneva Convention. You see what they did to our guys?"

The soldiers of Charlie Rock have learned to treat every Iraqi they come across as a potential enemy. The unit's commander, Captain Jorge Melendez, 31, thinks the guerrilla attacks will continue sporadically for "two or three months." Mitchell had hoped to be back in the U.S. by mid-April after three months in Kuwait, but he has resigned himself to a long, frustrating and bloody haul. "I've stopped telling her when I think I'll be home," says Mitchell, pointing to the picture of his wife Melina and son Garrett, 10, that is strapped to the outside of his left arm. "All I know is, home is after Baghdad. And God knows when that'll be."