Volume 74, Number 52 | May 04 - 10 , 2005

Villager photos by Ramin Talaie

Sergeant Pedro Hector Mojica rested on top of a Humvee in February during his shift on the Quick Response Force in Forward Operating Base Victory in Baghdad, Iraq. Mojica’s unit patrols the most dangerous road in Iraq, Baghdad International Airport Highway.

Loisaida Guardsman guards Baghdad’s highway to hell

By Ramin Talaie

It is still winter in Iraq but the midday sun is strong enough that the outgoing soldiers from the First Infantry Division tan on top of concrete bomb shelters.

Sergeant Pedro Hector Mojica rests on the hood of his Humvee wearing dark shades as Blackhawk helicopters continue their parade of transporting personnel, journalists and V.I.P.’s. Mojica is a sergeant with the New York National Guard unit, the “Fighting 69,” based in Baghdad at Forward Operating Base Victor.

Initially the 69th was deployed to Baji, a town northwest of Baghdad. During the battle for Fullujah, the unit protected the roads and bridges as they were just getting used to their new home. Insurgents fleeing the U.S. Marines’ onslaught headed to neighboring small towns, such as Baji, looking for hideouts — making Baji, which was already a hotbed for insurgents activity, even more dangerous to U.S. forces. Its unpaved roads made it ideal for terrorists to plant bombs almost everyday.

Sergeant Mojica, 26, is a native New Yorker from Lower Manhattan. Mojica was born in Bellevue Hospital and calls the Alphabet City section of the East Village home. He attended Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side. About five years ago he joined the New York National Guard to get away from what he calls “the situation,” talking about bad elements in the neighborhood. He wanted to leave “the heat,” and make something of himself, as he describes it. His first experience in the war against global terrorism came as the 69th was mobilized after 9/11. His unit was activated by Governor Pataki to protect the city’s sensitive sites, such as subways, tunnels and bridges.

Mojica is committed to his duties as a soldier. “I would feel bad if was doing anything else right now,” he says as he proudly talks about his first tour of duty in Iraq. He is trained as a scout, an elite status among soldiers. Scouts’ job is to lead the troops into unknown territories. They are trained in unique combat situations by moving ahead of infantry, providing reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. They are highly trained marksmen and often work as snipers, a duty requiring steady hands and concentration.

At present time in Baghdad there is little need for his specialized skills. Along with other members of his unit, his time is spent doing eight-to-10-hour shifts around the clock seven days a week. The entire unit works on three shifts mainly guarding the Baghdad International Airport highway, known by the military as Route Irish. It is by far the most dangerous stretch of road anywhere in the country. Albeit that it is only 7 miles long, the daily attacks are routinely portrayed on the evening news and newspaper front pages around the world.

It was Mojica’s unit that was involved with the shooting of Italian journalist and former hostage Giuliana Sgrena. The incident, which is still under investigation, wounded her and left one of her bodyguards dead.

The infamous highway is riddled with private and Department of Defense security forces shuttling personnel back and forth between the airport and the Green Zone — the secure area where the coalition forces are based — not to mention the Iraqi police and everyday people going about their lives. The road, which was once lined by tall palm trees, is now dirty and highly hazardous for Americans. On one mission, we headed to a tall bombed-out skeletonlike structure known as “The Red Sniper Building,” taking its name from its color and the fact that it is a location frequented by insurgent snipers. Closer to the Green Zone, just around the corner from a highway exit, the twisted charred remains of what was not long ago a van rests on the side of the road. Broad, patched-up areas on the asphalt constantly remind soldiers of what has taken place there.

Mojica and his buddies sometimes refer to their job as Baghdad Highway Patrol, but they do not lose sight of the daily perilous mission. Putting on his armored vest as he gets ready for an operation, Mojica regretfully shows a reporter a helmet band of his buddy, Henry Irizarry, who was affectionately known as “Izzy.” They had been close friends ever since they met five years ago during basic training. Irizarry was killed in November 2004, during a second fatal attack on the 69th. The vehicle they were driving was hit by an I.E.D. (improvised explosive device), a roadside bomb made of a number of artillery shells. Four other people, also in the vehicle, survived the attack.

Mojica is very proud of the traditions and history of 69th, which date back to the American Civil War era, as well as the traditions of scout soldiers. He plans to use his skills and join the Special Forces or work on personal security details for governmental agencies once his Army contract is over. He’s looking forward to his leave this coming July and reuniting with his girlfriend and their child in Loisaida.

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