your connection to The Boston Globe

Loading up for a white knuckle ride out

EDITOR'S NOTE: Chris Elliott, a technical writer from Cambridge and weekend trumpeter, has been sending us reports from his band's week-long gig in the Iraqi capital.

BAGHDAD, Jan. 20 -- Our work here is done. Our last journey in Iraq will be a 12-mile trek in a Rhino down Route Irish, formerly the most dangerous road in Baghdad. The Rhino is a 13-ton military personnel transport vehicle with heavy armor on the top, bottom and sides, designed to withstand RPG and IED fire. In the past two weeks, there has been some insurgency activity on Route Irish. The tension in the holding tank for our transport is palpable, even among the officers who have done this dozens of times before. Dead and injured civilians are a bad PR move, and they are heavily invested in our security.

We are told that sometimes the Rhino doesn't roll until 3 or 4 a.m., even given an 11 p.m. manifest. They sweep the road with an electronic IED locator, take aerial photographs of the area, and also “mix it up” according to previous Rhino deployments as far as departure times. According to one officer I spoke with about the strategy, “The one thing you don't want to do is develop a pattern of behavior.”

Once at Camp Striker, we will sleep (or not) in a tent city, and then catch a 7 a.m. flight to Amman, Jordan. It is a 1 1/2-hour flight whose departure is also not without the possibility of trouble.

Ahead of our departure, we met a soldier from Exeter, N.H., named Suzanne Tetrault, a sunny, wonderful woman who came out to the Rhino holding area at this late hour to wish us well and to thank us for our humble contribution to our troops' morale. I cannot believe she took the time to do this, but she did.

At 12:30, an officer barked that we were ready to deploy, and to put on flak jackets and helmets. There is a sign at the holding area which invokes the stateside restaurant sign that reads “No shirt, no shoes, service,” only in this case it reads, “No flak jacket, no helmet, no Rhino.”

Our convoy is as follows: two up-armored Humvees, Rhino #1, two up-armored Humvees, Rhino #2, two up-armored Humvees, Rhino #3, two up-armored Humvees, Rhino #4, and two up-armored Humvees bringing up the rear. Eleven vehicles on the ground along with a Blackhawk helicopter escort in the air. Our detail leader told us that if we run into any enemy fire that stops the Rhino, that the chopper can land in three to five minutes to evacuate any injured.

He also said that the Rhino can survive most IED explosions, and that he had seen been aboard one that detonated an IED during a previous convoy. The front end popped up, slammed back down and kept rolling. His speech went something like this: “The Rhino rolls until it can't roll anymore. If it becomes disabled, another Rhino will come to pick you up. You'll know it's us. There are three escape hatches; on the side, in the rear and on the roof. The levers on the roof hatch go to the side, and the hatch opens to the front of the vehicle. It is not a gun turret, it is not an observation post. I don't need any hyper motivated individuals popping the hatch to act as a spotter or to return fire. The safest place to be is in the Rhino.”

Chris Elliott and his trumpet.
Chris Elliott and his trumpet.