Manhunt in Mesopotamia; A Massive Search for Three Missing GIs Highlights the Best of the Warrior's Code-And Its Consequences

By Thomas, Evan; Kaplow, Larry et al. | Newsweek, May 28, 2007 | Go to article overview

Manhunt in Mesopotamia; A Massive Search for Three Missing GIs Highlights the Best of the Warrior's Code-And Its Consequences


Thomas, Evan, Kaplow, Larry, Peraino, Kevin, Liu, Melinda, Dehghanpisheh, Babak, Barry, John, Newsweek


Byline: Evan Thomas and Larry Kaplow (With Kevin Peraino in Jerusalem; Melinda Liu, Babak Dehghanpisheh and local Iraqi staff in Baghdad, and John Barry in Washington, D.C.)

The credo is etched on the dog tags of every U.S. soldier in the 10th Mountain Division: "I will never leave a fallen comrade." Last week, after three members of the unit were ambushed and spirited away south of Baghdad, the U.S. military poured 4,000 American and 2,000 Iraqi troops into the area. As surveillance drones flew overhead and spy satellites snapped images from space, the men searched door to door, offering a $200,000 reward by loudspeaker and detaining hundreds of Iraqis for questioning. They drained a canal and sent out cadaver-sniffing dogs. At FOB Youssifiyeh, battalion headquarters for the missing soldiers, grunts and officers alike told NEWSWEEK that finding their comrades was the most important mission of their military careers. "Easily," said Capt. Christopher Sanchez, 25, a West Pointer from Los Angeles. "Just because I know these guys. They're my friends."

Late last week in an interview with the Army Times, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said he knew the kidnappers' names and believed that at least two of the three soldiers were still alive. But they remained missing. "Your soldiers are in our hands. If you want their safety, do not look for them," taunted a group called the Islamic State of Iraq--an umbrella group of Sunni insurgents, including Al Qaeda in Iraq. U.S. military officials tried to keep a brave face on the recovery effort, but some, not speaking on the record for fear of seeming downbeat or defeatist, were asking uncomfortable questions. Why had the soldiers been vulnerable to an ambush? Had their comrades been slow to mount a rescue? How long could they continue to divert massive resources from the larger mission of pacifying Iraq?

"Leave no man behind" is an ancient and noble warrior code. It evokes images of bone-weary Marines carrying the frozen corpses of their comrades on the retreat from Chosin Reservoir in Korea, or helicopters zooming in under fire to rescue surrounded Special Forces in Vietnam. But the cost of bringing back the fallen, dead or alive, can be high, as the Americans and especially the Israelis have discovered over the years.

The three American soldiers vanished from an area in ancient Mesopotamia that spookily resembles Vietnam--soggy lowlands of tall grass and lush palm groves. They were in a squad of eight soldiers, seven Americans and one Iraqi interpreter, sitting in a pair of Humvees, waiting in the dark of night to catch Iraqi insurgents planting IEDs. The GIs' location, nearby some houses, was hardly secret, and they had been positioned there at least once before--not the wisest move in a hostile region where, only a year before, a Humvee had been ambushed. This time, the Humvees were guarded by concertina wire, but the defenses were not enough to stop a grenade and small-weapons attack. One of the Humvees was burned, with occupants apparently still inside. A fifth body was later found in a house 50 yards away. The attack must have been sudden and overwhelming, because the soldiers were unable to get off a radio signal. …

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