Thursday, May 12, 2005this is. These are people's husbands and wives, sons, daughters, neighbors...it just boggles the mind.
Demise of a Hard-Fighting Squad
By Ellen Knickmeyer
The Washington Post
Thursday 12 May 2005
Marines who survived ambush are killed, wounded in blast.
Haban, Iraq - The explosion enveloped the armored vehicle in flames, sending orange balls of fire bubbling above the trees along the Euphrates River near the Syrian border.
Marines in surrounding vehicles threw open their hatches and took off running across the plowed fields, toward the already blackening metal of the destroyed vehicle. Shouting, they pulled to safety those they could, as the flames ignited the bullets, mortar rounds, flares and grenades inside, rocketing them into the sky and across pastures.
Gunnery Sgt. Chuck Hurley emerged from the smoke and turmoil around the vehicle, circling toward the spot where helicopters would later land to pick up casualties. As he passed one group of Marines, he uttered one sentence: "That was the same squad."
Among the four Marines killed and 10 wounded when an explosive device erupted under their Amtrac on Wednesday were the last battle-ready members of a squad that four days earlier had battled foreign fighters holed up in a house in the town of Ubaydi. In that fight, two squad members were killed and five were wounded.
In 96 hours of fighting and ambushes in far western Iraq, the squad had ceased to be.
Every member of the squad - one of three that make up the 1st Platoon of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment - had been killed or wounded, Marines here said. All told, the 1st Platoon - which Hurley commands - had sustained 60 percent casualties, demolishing it as a fighting force.
"They used to call it Lucky Lima," said Maj. Steve Lawson, commander of the company. "That turned around and bit us."
Wednesday was the fourth day of fighting in far western Iraq, as the U.S. military continued an assault that has sent more than 1,000 Marines down the ungoverned north bank of the Euphrates River in search of foreign fighters crossing the border from Syria. Of seven Marines killed so far in the operation, six came come from Lima Company's 1st Platoon.
Lima Company drew Marine reservists from across Ohio into the conflict in Iraq. Some were still too young to be bothered much by shaving, or even stubble.
They rode to war on a Marine Amtrac, an armored vehicle that travels on tank-like treads. Marines in Iraq typically crowd thigh to thigh in the Amtrac, with one or two men perched on cardboard boxes of rations. Only the gunners manning the top hatches of Amtracs have any view of the passing scenery. Those inside find out what their field of combat is when the rear ramp comes down and they run out with weapons ready.
Marines typically pass travel time in the Amtrac by extracting favorite bits from ration packets, mercilessly ribbing a usual victim for eating or sleeping too much, or sleeping themselves.
On Monday, when the Marine assault on foreign fighters formally began, the young Marines of the squad from the 1st Platoon were already exhausted. Their encounter at the house in Ubaydi that morning and the previous night had been the unintended first clash of the operation, pitting them against insurgents who fired armor-piercing bullets up through the floor. It took 12 hours and five assaults by the squad - plus grenades, bombing by an F/A-18 attack plane, tank rounds and rockets at 20 yards - to kill the insurgents and permit recovery of the dead Marines' bodies.
Afterward, they slept in the moving Amtrac, heads back and mouths agape. One stood up to stretch his legs. He fell asleep again standing up, leaning against the metal walls.
Squad members spoke only to compare what they knew about the condition of their wounded. Getting the latest news, they fell silent again. After one such half-hour of silence, a Marine offered a terse commendation for one of the squad members shot at Ubaydi: "Bunker's a good man."
With the operation underway, Marine commanders kept the 1st Platoon largely to the back, letting its men rest.
Commanders had hoped the operation would swiftly capture or kill large numbers of foreign fighters. But the foreigners, and everyone else here, had plenty of warning that the Marines were coming - including those ready to fight at Ubaydi.
By the time the squad from Lima Company crossed north of the Euphrates, whole villages consisted of little more than abandoned houses with fresh tire tracks leading into pastures or homes occupied only by prepubescent boys or old men. Men of fighting age had made themselves scarce. The AK-47 assault rifles ubiquitous in Iraqi households had disappeared.
Many Marines complained bitterly that commanders had pulled them out of the fight at Ubaydi while the insurgents were still battling, to start the planned offensive. "They take us from killing the people they want us to kill and bring us to these ghost villages," one complained Wednesday on the porch of a house commandeered as a temporary base.
Uneventful house searches stretched into late afternoon, the tedium broken only by small-arms fire and mortar rounds lobbed by insurgents hiding on the far side of the river.
This correspondent had just gotten off the Amtrac and the reconstructed squad from 1st Platoon was rolling toward the Euphrates in a row of armored vehicles, headed for more house searches, when the vehicle rolled over the explosive.
Marines initially said they believed the blast was caused by two mines stacked on top of each other. But reports from Marines that they had seen an artillery round and two hand-held radios near the blast site raised suspicions that the explosion was caused by a bomb that had been activated remotely, Lawson said.
Hurley and others pulled their comrades out of the Amtrac as flames detonated - or "cooked off," in military jargon - its ammunition. As Marines carrying stretchers ran to the Amtrac, bullets snapped out of the burning hulk and traveled hundreds of feet. The Marines ran back through the fusillade, carrying out the wounded. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon," some shouted, desperate to get the wounded out.
The four dead were trapped inside the vehicle, Lawson said.
"We passed right over it. We passed right over it," one of many Marines in the convoy ahead of the burning Amtrac said of the explosive, puzzling over why he was still alive.
"That's the last of the squad," said another, Cpl. Craig Miller, whose reassignment last month had taken him out of the unit. "Three weeks ago, that would have been me."
Late Wednesday, helicopters flew out Hurley and the remaining members of 1st Platoon for time off. They are to return after the platoon is remade, Marines said.
Another Lima Company platoon commander ordered his men to bed early, in preparation for the next day's operations. Mourning could wait.
"We don't have time," the commander said.
Wednesday, May 11, 2005marches on!
Judge Approves End of United Pension Plans
Tuesday May 10, 7:08 pm ET
By Dave Carpenter, AP Business Writer
Judge OKs Termination of United Pension Plans, Clearing Way for Largest U.S. Pension Default
CHICAGO (AP) -- A federal bankruptcy judge approved United Airlines' plan to terminate its employees' pension plans on Tuesday, clearing the way for the largest corporate-pension default in American history.
The ruling, which carries broad implications for U.S. airlines and their workers, shifts responsibility for United's four defined-benefit plans to the government's pension agency.
That will save cash-strapped United an estimated $645 million a year, part of the $2 billion in annual savings it says it needs to line up enough financing to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy as soon as this fall.
But the cost will be painful to its employees, who stand to lose thousands of dollars annually off their pensions when they are assumed by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.
The PBGC, the government's pension insurer, initially opposed United's plan. But it agreed to drop that resistance last month in exchange for up to $1.5 billion in notes and convertible stock in a reorganized UAL Corp., United's holding company.
United's pensions are underfunded by an estimated $9.8 billion, of which the PBGC would guarantee only about $5 billion. The previous largest U.S. pension default was Bethlehem Steel's $3.6 billion in underfunding in 2002.
Judge Eugene Wedoff said the settlement, while disputed, does not violate any law or United's collective bargaining agreement and he noted that employees at companies such as United could end up with fewer or even no benefits if no arrangement is made and the company goes broke.
"The least bad of the available choices here has got to be the one that keeps an airline functioning, that keeps employees being paid," Wedoff said.
United Chief Financial Officer Jake Brace said the ruling is crucial for United to come out of bankruptcy.
"It's not a good outcome. It's unfortunately a necessary outcome," he said. "This is not in any way a joyous day. It is an important step in our restructuring and in making our airline successful and viable for the long term."
United's effort to dump its pensions has been watched closely by the rest of the airline industry, where record fuel costs, the lowest fares since the early 1990s and stiff competition have caused network carriers to lose billions of dollars. Tuesday's ruling, following a step taken successfully by US Airways Group Inc. in February, clears the way for similar actions elsewhere.
United's biggest competitors would be under the most pressure to follow suit. American Airlines, the largest U.S. carrier and a unit of AMR Corp., has said it will keep its pension plans but is concerned about No. 2 United gaining a financial advantage with the elimination of its pensions.
On Wednesday, flight attendants for American will gather in Washington to lobby for federal pension reform that would allow carriers to extend the amount of time they have to replenish underfunded plans and provide relief to airlines that seek, through collective bargaining, to preserve rather than terminate their pension obligations.
No. 3 Delta Air Lines Inc., which has said it is in danger of being forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, faces $3.1 billion in pension payments over the next three years.
An overflow crowd of current and former United workers showed up at bankruptcy court Tuesday, with more than 100 packing the courtroom and dozens more listening to piped-in proceedings in a separate courtroom.
Unions representing United's flight attendants, mechanics and ramp workers have expressed their ire at both the airline and the government's pension insurer, PBGC, for agreeing to drop its opposition to United's plan last month. In exchange for that settlement, the PBGC would get as much as $1.5 billion in notes and convertible stock in a reorganized UAL Corp., United's holding company.
Attorney Jeffrey Cohen said the PBGC, which might have been unable to halt United's plan in any case, made the agreement as "a matter of last resort." Disputing the flight attendants' contention that the deal violated its mission, he said the agency concluded that cutting a deal was in the best interest of not only those with pensions at United and other companies but also for taxpayers who fund the pension insurer.
In addition, he said, "We think it helps clear a path to the exit door" for United to leave bankruptcy.
Lawyers for United's unions spoke ardently earlier Tuesday against the proposal.
Robert Clayman, an attorney for the Association of Flight Attendants, drew loud applause and cheers from employee spectators in both the courtroom and auxiliary court with an emotional appeal to preserve the pensions and workers' secure retirements.
"Without equity there is no justice," he said.
Jack Carriglio, an attorney for retired United pilots, said the airline should be ashamed of the agreement and warned of the consequences among angry employees.
"A strike is a real prospect if that agreement is approved," he said. "Also, this will have a grave impact on United employees' morale."
United's controversial move risks provoking action by employees who already have agreed to sharp cuts. Unions have raised the possibility of striking if United terminates the pensions and has its labor contracts overhauled.