Sgt.Terry Noel, top, of Nanty Glo rides in an armored vehicle with Spc. William Miller of Harrisburg during their days together in Iraq, where they were responsibile for finding and destroying insurgent weapons caches.

Working from their base inside Ramadi, Iraq, combat engineers Sgt. Terry Noel, 21, of Nanty Glo and Spc. Dave Beas, 25, of Johnstown had to be ready on a moment’s notice.

A call would come in from infantry units searching for weapons caches.

“If they needed to get into an area, we’d set up demolition charges,” Beas said. “Whatever it took to get into the place.”

At a desert outpost a few miles to the east, Sgt. Shawn Lucas, 23, of Somerset patrolled a main supply route, guarding against roadside bombs and avoiding sniper attacks.

“It is a constant battle,” Lucas said.

“They try to do anything, anytime.”

Noel and Beas are members of the 876th Combat Engineering Battalion, Company C, based on Airport Road in Richland. Lucas is with the 103rd Armor, Company C, based on Stoystown Road in Friedens.

The three shared experiences from a year in Iraq, where they were deployed with more than 4,000 soldiers as 2nd Brigade Combat Team. The deployment included more than 2,000 Pennsylvania National Guard troops.

Although their day-to-day operations were significantly different, both local units were working to fight the insurgency and make Iraq a safer place for its citizens, they said.

The 876th engineers worked with soldiers rooting out insurgent strongholds in the city.

The Johnstown unit earned achievement medals for finding some of the largest weapons caches discovered in Ramadi.

Tanks from the 103rd’s Charlie Company were responsible for about 10 miles of the main supply route between Ramadi and Fallujah, two cities inside the Sunni Triangle region west of Baghdad

Like ‘Groundhog Day’

Insurgents’ resourcefulness and constantly changing tactics made the job challenging, but at the same time it became routine, Lucas said.

“We were out every day for six hours,” Lucas said. “We basically owned the highway.”

Company C’s tanks patrolled as mobile observation posts, challenging unauthorized vehicles in Saddam Hussein’s home area.

“They’re the most loyal to Saddam,” Lucas said.

Each day, the tank crew reported for about three hours before the scheduled patrol to check and prepare the vehicle and weapons, he explained. The actual patrol involved checking all sections of the highway and verifying authorization papers for Iraqi utility crews working on power lines or water lines through the area.

“Every day it was the same thing.” Lucas said. “It was just like (the movie) ‘Groundhog Day.’ ”

Despite the monotony, it was important for patrols to vary their routines because of the unpredictable enemy.

“They pick up on patterns,” Lucas said. “They will hit you right away.”

During the 103rd Armor Charlie Company’s year in charge, there were no successful attacks on convoys, Capt. Lyle Gardner said at a welcome-home celebration.

It was ‘real’

Like the Somerset tank company Guardsmen, Richland’s combat engineers relied on their vehicles and had to keep the armored troop carriers and tracked command vehicles ready to go at all times, Beas said.

But unlike the road warriors, the engineers’ work schedule was anything but routine. Some missions came on five minutes’ notice, while others were scheduled days in advance.

“Sometimes you’d have 13 missions within a week, other times, maybe 13 a month,” Beas said.

“They would come out of nowhere most of the time.”

Although their training included construction, the engineers’ primary work involved demolition with explosives, or “blowing things up” as Spc. Brandon Gilbert's mother, Sherry, said June 16 during the 876th’s homecoming.

“That is mostly what we did!” Beas said, smiling broadly.

Danger was a way of life, and all troops constantly had to be aware of their surroundings, Lucas said. That reality was brought home when Company C Staff Sgt. Ryan Ostrom of the Williamsport area was killed by a sniper’s bullet.

“Everyone knew there was a possibility of someone being killed in action,” Lucas said.

“This was real now.”

Two others attached to Somerset’s Company C also died from sniper attacks. They were Spc. Mark W. Melcher Bethel Park, Allegheny County, and Staff Sgt. Michael Parrot of North Carolina.

The constant threat of attack illustrated the difference between training for war and fighting one, Noel said.

“It was completely different from what we trained for,” Noel said. “It was real. You have to pay attention all the time and know what you are doing.”

‘You can’t hesitate’

Lucas became philosophical about the danger, consigning his emotions to: “If it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.”

He brought the same objectivity to a grim necessity of his job as a tank gunner: Shooting the enemy.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” he said softly, without elaborating. “You can’t hesitate.”

Pumped up by four months of training, soldiers went to Iraq expecting to help change the nation.

“I think we need to finish the job,” the 876th’s Sgt. Michael Dubovecky, 25, of Vinco, said in June 2005 at Camp Shelby, Miss., just before deployment.

“We will help give those people their country back. They have lived under dictatorship and oppression for so long.”

The reality of Iraq brought new plans, Lucas said.

Lofty expectations were set aside as soldiers’ focused on daily progress.

“You have to start stepping down your goals to meet little things,” Lucas said.

“Otherwise you’ll be very disappointed.”

All those interviewed agreed they saw progress during their year in the war zone.

“We actually accomplished a lot,” Beas said, citing the number of weapons seized during the first months of the 876th’s tour.

“We started finding less and less as time went on,” Beas said.

The Iraqi army and police forces gained skill and professionalism, Lucas said.

“There is more cohesiveness in the Iraqi army,” Lucas said.

“The Iraqi police started to become more like a democracy. It’s like, ‘I am the police. This is the way it’s going to be.’ Rather than being afraid of the insurgents.”

Noel agreed: “They did get a lot better while we were there.”Lo

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