Perhaps the worst place for a soldier in Iraq is Anbar province, the heart of the anti-American insurgency. And the most dangerous place there is on the road where the bombs are. It was the fate of the Iowa National Guard to be ordered to run convoy protection on the highways of Anbar province.
Two years ago, 60 Minutes and correspondent Scott Pelley began following the soldiers and the families of the 1st of the 133 Infantry, Iowa National Guard. On the road ahead of the Iowa guardsmen lay casualties, both in Iraq and at home.
In March 2006, the soldiers traveled 6,600 miles. The guardsmen landed at their new home, the sprawling Al Asad Air Base.
There's a Subway sandwich shop and a coffee shop. The more the Army tries to make Al Asad like home, the stranger it seems: there's an armed guard posted outside the sandwich shop.
The guardsmen drew one of the most critical missions in the war: escorting the convoys that supply about 150,000 American troops. Everything is trucked in-millions of gallons of fuel, thousands of tons of supplies, from food to ammunition. The convoys are America's lifeline.
Scott Nisley is the guardsman who walked his daughter down the aisle. He's unique in the battalion. Nisely spent a career in the Marine Corps and retired as a major. But he missed the military and took the only job the Guard had to offer and sacrificed nine levels of rank. Now he's a staff sergeant, leading a patrol that scouts for the enemy ahead of the convoy.
Adam Wendling, who was so eager to get to Iraq, strapped a 60 Minutes camera on his helmet. On his very first convoy, the camera was off when Adam was hit by a roadside bomb. Seconds later, he turned the camera on.
"I saw a flash of red in front of me and then just felt like somebody hit me in the chest with a baseball bat, sucked all the wind out of me. And, there's smoke and debris flying everywhere, and it took, took a little bit to get back into sorts," he recalls.
Asked if he told his mother about that, Adam tells Pelley, "No, actually. I didn't. I didn't tell her about it. I didn't tell anyone about it actually."
The convoys are frequently attacked but there's not a lot the men can do about it. It's like waiting to get hit, endless hours of driving interrupted by an instant of terror. Some guys believe in God, some believe in the odds. Either way, they usually get through it.
To understand the experience, 60 Minutes cameraman Ray Bribiesca spent two months riding the roads with the Guard. The missions start before dawn and the routine is always the same.
There's the briefing, the prayer, and the blessing of the lucky ladle. Everybody gets ladled-it's a good luck charm that has been to Afghanistan and that the soldiers brought along to Iraq.
For this run, the 60 Minutes team squeezed into a new kind of truck called an "Armored Security Vehicle." Adam Wendling, the gunner during the mission, sits in a sealed turret, using a scope and joystick to aim his machine gun and grenade launcher.
"Adam, what's the mission? Describe to me what we're doing here," Pelley asks.
"Right now we're escorting KBR trucks," Adam explains.
KBR is an American contractor paid billions of dollars to deliver supplies. The convoy missions can last up to three days, some of them hauling supplies hundreds of miles from the Jordanian border. It's all hostile territory.
Asked what he can see up in the turret, Adam tells Pelley, "Right now I can mostly see desert rolling by. Mostly I just scan out in the desert to look for any potential threats."
Those threats are roadside bombs and suicide truck bombs. "Sometimes there are trucks out there, lurking in the distance and you keep an eye on them to make sure they're not doing anything they should not be doing," Adam explains.