Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Standing Among Us

*Retold with permission

Not long ago, we got a new piece of equipment in our battalion that let us do on-site finger printing and iris scanning while out on missions. We just called it “the camera.” We’d carry it with us on patrols, and whenever we saw somebody suspicious, we’d just do a quick retinal scan, record their fingerprints, and keep on moving. If they were wanted, we’d haul them in for questioning. If they weren’t wanted, we’d at least have them in the system if we caught them again.

We did a patrol once where we’d put soldiers out on the ground and the humvees would shadow them on the street. The dismounts would walk from courtyard to courtyard and scan all the residents with the camera. We were looking for a specific person. Biff was carrying the camera that day.

That area, Mandita, was already known to be a stronghold for a small insurgent network called Na Shamani. They had no idea what the camera was, but they knew we were methodically moving down the street – apparently towards their leader, our HVT [high value target]. And I guess they were prepared for us, too.

In hindsight, the whole disposition of the neighborhood was different that day. The kids weren’t running around like they usually did. Even the adults were scarce. They never seemed to move more than a few feet from their doorways, then they’d duck back inside. They knew something.

Right before the lead humvee out on the street was about to make a turn down the next road, a white sedan pulls up and blocks the way, almost like it was an accident. In the rear of the convoy, the same thing happened, pinning us in.

Biff was standing in one courtyard holding the camera, and the rest of the dismount team was there, too. He was about to start a scan on the Iraqi standing there, and then suddenly we heard a distinctive hiss, a soft impact, and a rifle crack off in the distance. The first thing I thought was, “oh shit; that somebody’s been hit,” but when I looked around quickly, everybody was just standing there doing the same thing. Everybody seemed okay.

But then Biff’s hand came up sharply and he grabbed his chest. Blood was pouring out between his fingers. He’d just been sniped through the heart. Somebody outside yelled “take cover” and soldiers started jumping behind cars, walls, or running to the trucks.

This wasn’t a stray bullet that happened to connect. This was a skilled sniper shot. Whoever it was knew our body armor, knew its weak points, and also knew how to still hit the heart with a single shot. Biff fought it, though. He fought it hard.

He looked down silently, and slouched forward little as LT grabbed him in a bear hug. Then he dropped to his knees. Finally, he laid himself gently on the ground like he was going to go to sleep. The whole thing seemed like it happened in slow motion. Blood was absolutely everywhere by then, and a huge pool had already formed on the ground.

Doc rushed over and started working on him, but I know he recognized that it was hopeless. It didn’t matter, though. He was going to do everything he could. Doc just didn’t want us to lose him right there.

As everybody scrambled for the trucks, Doc loaded Biff into the nearest one, and then we took off for base. We’ve never driven that maniacally before. I think we did about 80, which is hard to do in the city. In fact, we blew out the truck’s engine, but it didn’t fail us until we arrived on base. Later, we had to tow it away.

When we got inside the wire, Doc rushed Biff into the aid station where they were prepped to receive a casualty. We just parked outside and waited. The whole thing was horrible for us. It’d happened fast, and back on the FOB was really our first chance to actually think about it.

After a time, our LtCol comes out with a female medic and tells us to huddle up. That meant bad news. He gets us close and quietly says, “he’s gone.” Every one of us broke down. When we’d had a chance to comfort each other a little, we had a moment of silence for him, and then they let us go inside in pairs and say goodbye to him.

The sniper didn’t have a clue with the camera was for, and they sure as hell don’t know our rank insignia, but since it looked like Biff was carrying an expensive piece of equipment and a radio, he was the one they shot. They’d assumed he was the one in charge.

We wanted to retaliate immediately. We wanted to go back to that street, kick down doors, and take in everybody that looked in the least bit suspicious. More than anything, we wanted to kill the sniper. We wanted to do something, but they wouldn’t let us. In fact, they strictly forbade any US unit enter that area for a long time. They did it on purpose.

Insurgents around here typically brag about what they did, then immediately leave town to let things simmer down. That’s just how they operate. In this case, the command was relying on it. They’d let the guy brag, let him run, and knew that he’d come back in time and brag some more. That’s when we’d move in.

Sure enough, it worked. When the Iraqi police received intelligence that the guy was back, we planned a huge hit on the place. Actually, it was the last combat raid conducted by US troops in Iraq, and it required the written approval of a 3-star general.

Four platoons of our soldiers converged on that place, along with over 200 Iraqi swat police. We even had Kiowas overhead for aerial reconnaissance. We detained 44 from the raid, and well over half of those where known criminals with some involvement in either the insurgent network, or the sniper attack on Biff. They even got the sniper himself, too, and some of us testified in Iraqi court during the trial.

The Iraqis did an aggressive and thorough investigation on the whole incident, reenacted it, gathered a lot of intelligence, and eventually they even traced the trajectory back to its source – a two story building where they’d sneaked onto the roof without the family’s knowledge or permission. It was a coordinated effort: two drivers to block the convoy, lookouts, a sniper, and even a spotter for the sniper. In total, at least six were involved in that one attack.

They officially closed the investigation a week ago, but the whole matter is far from closed to us.

The morning of the sniper attack, Biff was the one that did the prayer before we headed out. He asked God to watch over us and protect us, but then he asked that God soften the hearts of the Iraqis so they could ensure their own safety and we could go home. In my mind, that shows where HIS heart was: with the Iraqis, with us, and with his family.

I don’t think there are any good words that fairly explain who Biff was to us. At best, it just sounds like we’re raving about our favorite NCO, but he was infinitely more than that.

LT called him his “reality check,” and whenever we were doing something stupid, he’d politely approach the LT and suggest we do it another way. And you couldn’t argue with him, because was always right. Somehow he did it tactfully, respectfully, and with a smile on his face. He was always smiling, or telling a joke, or lightening everybody’s mood. He was like the glue that held together the whole battery.

When we were stateside, he was always over at one of our houses, either visiting with his entire family, or just hanging out with us. His three little girls would play with some of our other sergeants’ kids. His wife was a highschool teacher, his own highschool sweetheart, and they were inseparable.

He loved the Army, he loved what we were doing here, and he believed in us, in the Iraqis, and in the mission. When we got back home, he was going to submit a warrant officer package and make a career of the military. His absence leaves a hole on all of our hearts.

At the police station nearest to the attack site, one of the commanders approached our LT and emotionally admitted that he blamed himself for the attack on Biff. He was on the verge of tears. He felt it was a complete failure on his part, and that his police officers had missed something. He and the other police viewed us as their guests, and our safety was their duty – and they felt they had completely failed.

When we did the raid on the suspect’s house, it was that police commander’s unit that eagerly volunteered to storm the buildings. “Let us go in,” they insisted. “You’ve already lost one of your own.” It was personal to them because they’d loved Biff, too.

We all wear bracelets engraved with his name now, and some of our commanders do as well. Now, the whole brigade wants them. We just want to keep his name alive. We have to. Forgetting him is like disowning one of our own family members.

About a month ago, they did an enormous memorial service here on base. All the other units stopped everything and everybody attended. Air Force, Army… everybody. Their commands wanted them to know who Biff was, and that this is real. Many of those guys never leave the wire, so it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is still Iraq, and still a combat zone. It wasn’t just our platoon out there, either. It was our US police advisor and our interpreters. And the terps cried just as much as we did. They loved Biff just as much as we did.

When Biff got hit, he dropped the Lt’s green book he was holding, which contained the names, locations, photos, and even aerial reconnaissance for all our HVTs. In the chaos of getting Biff loaded onto the truck, nobody remembered to grab it. But Alex did [our interpreter], and he sprinted back into the courtyard and retrieved it. If he hadn’t, we never could have done the hits we did, and we would have been robbed of any sort of payback.

On the day of Biff’s funeral back home, the entire state of Iowa flew their flags at half mast. And three days ago, the Air Force named this base’s landing strip in his honor. Those are nice gestures, I guess, but I’d rather just have my brother back.

When he died, it brought us closer together, really the whole battery. Whatever disagreements we once had have completely disappeared. There’s no fighting anymore. There’s nothing to fight about. And we’re more cautious, too. We’re hyper alert. We look for cover constantly, and we watch the locals and the terrain like hawks. We don’t want this to ever happen again. One was enough.

Replacing him is basically impossible. We lost one sergeant, but it’s taking the combined efforts of at least three just to accomplish what he did with ease. Everybody’s trying, but it’s not the same. He was a gifted leader and role model for all of us. Some of us don’t talk about it, but that’s not me. I could talk about it for hours. It keeps him fresh in our minds and close in our hearts. The more we tell people about him, the more he’s standing right here next to us. And that’s all I really want right now. I want him back.

In memory of Staff Sergeant Leroy O. Webster, killed in action on April 25th, 2009. He was 28. Share his story...

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing Sgt. Webster's story. He will never be forgotten and will always be a hero.