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On patrol in Iraq

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National Guard Sgt. Nick Bope describes convoy duty in Iraq as long periods of routine broken by occasional roadside bomb attacks.

Bope, 21, who lives in Ottertail, is in the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, but he is based out of Cottage Grove, not Detroit Lakes, because he grew up in White Bear Lake.

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While the Red Bulls are serving in various parts of Iraq, Bope's unit mostly protects truck convoys moving back and forth between Baghdad and Tallil Air Base, located about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad and 13 miles southwest of the city of An Nasiriyah.

The population is mostly Shiite Muslim, and tends to be friendlier to Americans than the Sunni Muslims north of Baghdad, he said.

"For the most part, it's a little less violent down there," he said recently while he was home on leave. "As we get closer to Baghdad, it gets worse -- we still get mortared on our bases there, and there are IEDs (improvised explosive devices) all over ... sometimes, when you're the first convoy to go, you're looking for that stuff."

It takes two to four days to convoy to the base in Baghdad and back, and then Bope's unit gets a few days down time before starting over again.

The troops patrol in armored, machine gun-equipped Humvees called gun trucks. They escort semi trucks driven by civilian drivers, who often come from developing nations.

"We make sure they aren't stolen or bothered. We've lost civilian drivers before - there were two killed (by roadside bombs) in two straight runs."

Those in the front of the convoy keep their eyes peeled for signs of trouble, but Bope said often there are no signs. Insurgents or mercenaries paid by insurgents plant the hidden bombs right in the middle of roads or alongside roads, adjusting their tactics as U.S. troops catch on to their methods.

"They're really intelligent people," Bope said.

Those on convoy duty in Iraq say it's a bit like playing the lottery -- because of the randomness of the attacks, you never know when one will occur.

And because the insurgents detonate their devices from hiding, rarely showing themselves, it can be a frustrating war to fight.

"We've been hit more times than we've seen them," Bope said. "It's like playing the lottery, you either get hit or you don't -- the whole route is fair game."

Bope is a medic, but has not yet had to use his medical skills on fellow soldier or civilian drivers.

Earlier on in his deployment, he did use his diplomatic skills with the local Shiite population, when it was his job to patrol the outside perimeter of the base.

He made friends with the people and occasionally met with tribal leaders.

"There's a difference between city people and rural people. The people near our base live in mud huts. We're near the Euphrates and there are slightly fertile areas where they can pump water out (and plant crops). They're usually very friendly -- the kids loved to see us."

In his current job of convoy escort, Bope doesn't get to talk to many Iraqis.

"There are some Iraqi police and highway patrol along the way, but there's very little Iraqi interaction on this mission."

Bope signed up for a six-year hitch in the National Guard when he was 17 and a junior, which is when he also went through basic training. He graduated from White Bear Lake high school in 2003.

He said troop morale is high.

"I think people are doing surprisingly well," he said. "There are very few instances of casualties so far ... It's good to stay busy with our missions, it makes time go a lot faster."

Bope is majoring in biochemistry and Latin at Gustavus Adolphus College.

"I would have been a junior by now," he said. "I'm just waiting patiently to come back."

He hopes to attend medical school when his military obligation is fulfilled, and plans to use his Army medical training to get started.

Meanwhile, duty calls in Iraq. Bope works nights and says he likes the hours: It's cooler, and there's a nine-hour time gap between Iraq and the United States He says 4 a.m. is a great time to communicate with folks back in the States.

His father, Rob, and stepmother, Kathy, live in Ottertail and his mother, Mary, lives in Arizona.

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