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Mortar attacks part of daily life at Balad air base

The Duluth News Tribune sent staff writer Chris Hamilton to Iraq with the Duluth-based 148th Fighter Wing unit to get a glimpse of life on duty. His stories from near Baghdad start today and continue in tomorrow's newspaper and online.

BALAD AIR BASE, IRAQ - The loudspeaker is deafening. The message is alarming.

"Indirect fire attack," a woman's voice plaintively declares. "All personnel should remain vigilant."

At least once a day for the past year, mortar attacks hit the gigantic base where about 300 of Duluth's Minnesota Air National Guard 148th Fighter Wing have been living for almost two months.

But if the explosive-propelled grenades weigh heavily on the minds of members of the 148th, they they aren't showing any fear on their faces.

"It's not bad here at all," Maj. Matt Fritz, a South Dakota National Guard pilot attached to the 148th, said early Wednesday between brushing his teeth and shaving. "You get used to it pretty quick."

"You wouldn't be human if you weren't scared," Staff Sgt. Dusty Sicard said. "It is how you deal with it that matters."

Sicard, a 28-year-old medic from Winona, Minn., said he knows it's a cliché, but there's a reason people put on the uniform. Ultimately, everyone knows that once you put it on, your life could be in danger, he said.

They take their work seriously but find time to joke; nicknames are common.

But stress exists beyond the insurgent attacks for lots of reasons: being away from home and loved ones, as well as responsibility for difficult, strenuous and dangerous jobs, 148th members said.

Almost all of them wear their flak jackets and Kevlar helmets only when traveling their living quarters to their jobs, if at all. The safety measure is not required of anyone on base.

Capt. Janus Butcher, the 148th's flight surgeon, said it's no comparison to what the soldiers and Marines have to deal with every day.

Soldiers from Minnesota's Red Bulls or 34th Infantry Division, some of whom are based in Balad, have taken heavy casualties lately, Butcher said.

The men and women of Duluth's 148th live in trailers rented to the government by a private company and fortified with 15-foot concrete T-walls.

One private contractor from Texas, Craig Pelton, worried that if a mortar landed nearby, it would knock over the wall and crush him in his sleep.

"I feel a heck of a lot safer than last time," Master Sgt. Al Young said.

Young was among a similar-sized group of F-16 fighter pilots, maintenance workers and other personnel deployed to Balad Air Base in 2005. The bombardment then was constant, he said.

Sicard said there were more than 120 attacks in four months, and dozens more "red alerts."

Still, Young said, more than a dozen mortars dropped into the compound last week. And he's seen several hit as close as 200 yards away.