The mission is to search houses and bulldoze roadside guardrails and other obstacles used to hide IEDs. Alpha Company has ridden to the edge of town in Humvees that look like sturdy, open-bed pick-up trucks. To stop bullets and shrapnel, the troops have welded thick metal sheets of Amox plating to the sides of truck beds. When that's unavailable they use sandbags and hang extra flak vests over the doors.
At the edge of Falluja the paratroopers dismount and fan out across the trash-strewn desert looking for booby traps, then sweep over the barren embankment of an elevated highway and down into the city. Overhead, two Kiowa choppers skim the rooftops looking for snipers.
Shortly after the 82nd arrived here in September, an IED killed one of its sergeants and wounded seven others, including a thoughtful 25-year-old lieutenant and platoon leader named Matt Bacik. Shrapnel caught Bacik in the side of his buttocks, exited through his right thigh, just missed his testicles and then ripped into his left thigh.
As the somewhat bashful Bacik explains, "I really don't know why my stuff is still there." He pauses. "The holes just don't line up." After two weeks in the hospital the young officer was back at Volturno and within a month back leading missions.
During Operation Dozer I am shadowing Bacik, who is in charge of Alpha Company's second platoon. At times I also follow one of his squads, led by the self-effacing and good-natured Staff Sgt. Chris Corcione.
After searching houses all morning, Bacik and another platoon leader from Alpha Company have moved up to "phase line dagger" and are about to cordon off and search more houses. They're briefing a superior on their progress when all of a sudden we hear two or three loud explosions, someone yells "RPG!" and the air fills with gunfire.
Bacik is running, sprinting as best he can under the weight of a flak vest, ammo and other gear. His young radio operator runs after him. The guns are still snapping away, the assault coming from several directions at once. Bacik rounds a corner and heads onto a narrow side street to link up with his most forward squad, which is closest to the explosions.
"Two-two move up, get those trucks out of the alley," Bacik says to the sergeant in charge of second squad, second platoon. We are a block from where the RPGs hit. When word comes in that some of the shots might have originated from an empty school, Bacik and Corcione's squad move to "search and clear."