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But in Iraq, because of the stretched military, anyone is liable to be dragooned into the fighting. A month before the Seabees left for the Middle East, they were asked to ride in convoys that would certainly see fighting, though their average age was in the high thirties and most hadn't received extensive combat training in a decade.
The Navy sent the Seabees into combat without standard armor for their vehicles. Like many reservists, they had little choice but to fight without it. Some believe that the two men who died in the ambush may have survived if their vehicles had had the proper armor.
Family members of those who were slain blame superiors for the deaths. In Iraq soldiers are forbidden to gather in a group as the men had May 2 at Junction City. The grounds for why they were gathered -- a reason that goes all the way up the chain of command -- would make some family members call for criminal charges.
So far, the Navy hasn't begun any kind of inquiry into the incident, and most involved are more worried about recovering from injuries than blaming those at the top. They tell a story of their time there that's typical of the war in Iraq, a place where nobody can rest or congregate or even construct buildings without the fear of death.
As the Seabees rolled into Iraq in late April, Spanish River High grad Scott McHugh grabbed the radio in his Humvee to broadcast an inspiring message to his battalion. They rode north from Kuwait in a long convoy of construction vehicles, tractor trailers, Humvees, and troop transports. Even in the gung-ho military, 33-year-old McHugh had always stood out as the patriotic one. A second-generation sailor, McHugh joined despite his mother's disapproval. Before they left for Iraq, Allen and McHugh had spent an afternoon at the National D-Day Museum during a trip to New Orleans while others in the battalion partied on Bourbon Street. McHugh spoke with pride: "This is it, guys. This is history."
McHugh and the others saw their place as an honorable one in this second Gulf War. Here were a group of construction workers and welders, most pushing middle age, now called upon for battle.
With the Bush administration looking to avoid reinstituting the draft, the Defense Department is increasingly scrounging for fighters among support units that typically work behind the lines. A month before the 160-member Seabees battalion left for Iraq, superiors went through the ranks seeking volunteers to fight. Many Seabees left spouses, businesses, and school-age kids at home, so it wouldn't have been a surprise if few volunteered.
So many volunteered, though, that some were turned down. Sixty men were chosen, mostly the younger ones, to ride in the convoys. Few of the volunteers told their families what they would be doing in Iraq. Many loved ones would learn only after Navy officers knocked on the doors of the dead.
The Navy gave the Seabees a three-week crash course in Kuwait on spotting roadside bombs and shooting from speeding Humvees. They learned to leave bombed vehicles behind if they couldn't be towed quickly. The men were told to lasso or ditch vehicles within 15 minutes or be faced with a swarm of insurgents. It would soon become a crucial lesson.
As the Seabees entered Iraq, they let another convoy pass ahead of them as they fueled at a base along the border. Miles up the road, they saw the remains of part of it. A burned-out truck and tank transport smoldered on the side of the road. The charred remains were a stark contrast to the pale blue sky and nearly colorless sand that ran to the horizon.
Passing the destroyed vehicles was a sobering moment for the Seabees, even for McHugh, a man who typically laughed off adversity. McHugh's last venture into the desert a decade earlier had been during a cross-country trip with his college roommate, Duane Fulton. Not long into the trip, the beat-up truck they were traveling in broke down in the wastelands of Nevada.
"Scott just cracked up [laughing]," Fulton recalls from his home in Woodstock, Georgia. "No matter what the situation, that's just Scott's way of reacting to things. Nothing gets to him."
But as the convoy passed the smoldering tanker, McHugh wasn't laughing. Many of the men realized for the first time what they were in for.
It wasn't long before the men would get a taste of what Iraq has become. They made their base camp at Junction City, a collection of makeshift concrete and sheet-metal buildings 70 miles west of Baghdad. Just getting to the base was difficult. Coming and leaving meant passing through the outskirts of Ar Ramadi, a town popular with insurgents. Days after they arrived, the Seabees were ordered to assemble their first convoy. They would traverse the country's most dangerous corridor -- and then they'd have to fight their way back.
They traveled west on roads that follow the Euphrates River to the Syrian border. Troops have nicknamed the highway "IED Alley," for "improvised explosive device," G.I. jargon for roadside bombs. Insurgents regularly hide under bridges, inside houses, or behind burned-out vehicles. Manning the gun atop a Humvee, James Nappier told the others he didn't like the outlook for the trip. He had forgotten his flashlight, something he'd need if insurgents approached them at night, and somehow he thought it was an indication of how things would go.