Friday, August 14, 2009

When We Walked In War

*Retold with permission.

During my last tour, we patrolled into a relatively untouched area and were ordered to scout out and build a patrol base from scratch. We were coming to stay, not just pass through. With the threat being what it was in that area (arguably among the worst in Iraq), we were still expanding our presence.

Midway through the patrol, we stopped in a house to rest, posting guards on the roof to cover all the sectors. It was a hot area, we already knew, so Abrams tanks were on the way in to reinforce us.

No sooner had we gotten comfortable on the roof when we start taking pretty accurate small arms fire from across the road. There, making little attempt to hide himself, a man ran from building to building, fired a few rounds, and then moved again. Whenever he popped into view, the 240 gunners opened up on him until he ducked away again.

“Jack, Tommy, can you guys see him?” my platoon sergeant called to us. I don’t know about Jack, but I couldn’t see the shooter from where I was on the roof, so I low crawled along the knee wall to another vantage point. On the ground, a squad of Iraqi Soldiers stood there, for some reason not shooting.

“Hey, Jack, go with your team leader. You guys are going to be the maneuver element and flank him while we keep firing.”

“Roger.” We ran out of the building as the firing stopped. Nobody was shooting back anymore.

Sprinting down the street, turning, and carefully patrolling back up along the edge of a small palm grove, we found him lying on the ground. We called the medic. As Doc started working on him and patching his wounds (he’d been strafed pretty badly by one of the gunners), we hunted around nearby and eventually found his AK in the palms under a bunch of leaf litter. Doc’s immediate assessment was not good. This guy would need a medevac flight if he was going to make it. A ground evac wasn’t going to be fast enough. Several of us wished we’d been better shots.

In short order, the bird arrived, picked up the insurgent (with Doc as his escort on the flight), and flew off. We would keep patrolling on foot.

As we walked, we were attacked again with small arms, but this time the shooter was being less obvious about his location. As we took cover in a nearby house, one of the riflemen on the roof spotted him and took a shot with his M4. The firing stopped again.

Executing another flanking maneuver, we eventually came upon him. He was bleeding badly. We called for a medic again.

Doc kept him alive and marginally stabilized him, but he was going to need a med flight, too. So, we called in another bird and fanned out to provide perimeter security when it landed. When they had taken off, the CO [commanding officer] made a decision. We would clear the whole village, building-by-building.

By that time, the Abrams [tanks] had arrived, and they’d scan for an hour or so and rotate back to base for refueling. While they guarded the road, we moved through the whole village. We approached a small palm grove and cleared it. Then houses. Then more houses. I remember the CO asking, “you guys walked this far?” Yes we had, and we were suffering, too. And that was only the first time we cleared that village. By the end of things, we’d done it at least three times.

Anyway, we stayed in that house for two weeks before relocating to better one a short distance down the road. We also got mortared all the time in that position – most of it coming from somewhere inside Jenog village.

As we guarded one day, I heard a whistle through the air and a mortar round crashed down about 200 feet from our position. Before the dust had even settled, one of the sergeants grabbed me and we moved out to the impact site to do a crater analysis. The sergeant took some measurements, made some calculations, and called in a counter fire grid to the base. If they were still in that spot, they were in for a surprise. Moments later, we felt the earth shake as artillery shells pounded their position. That’s what they get for firing on us.

That same week, the engineers arrived with two conex boxes and a pile of Hesco barriers. They would be building our permanent patrol base for us. Just as they began to install the guard tower, they started taking fire, picked up their personnel, and just drove away, leaving us with a heap of building materials we had no idea what to do with. The CO ordered us to go clear the village again, which we did, but we didn’t find anything.

As I manned the guard tower one day, a blue bongo truck approached from a distance and wouldn’t slow down, ignoring our commands to stop or turn around. Defensively, we fired a few rounds and it completely disappeared, which was puzzling. After closer inspection of that area, we discovered that there was another road on the far side of the river, complete with another small village we hadn’t cleared. It was obscured from view by the river and some palm groves. Eventually, we were sent over to clear that village, too.

I remember approaching a house over there and seeing a girl out front completely covered in flies. You could tell she was mentally disabled. Through an interpreter, her mother told us that it was just her and her daughter living there with her husband. As we searched the house, we found det cord [explosive cord used to detonate IEDs], as well as a bunch of washing machine timers [commonly used to initiate IED detonations].

“What does your husband do again?”

“He’s a farmer,” she told us. We couldn’t find him anywhere, but detained three or four other suspicious males in the vicinity. While on a nearby roof, we started taking fire, yet again. As it continued, the CO wanted to move to a building some distance away that had better cover and overwatch. We would use that position to launch a flanking maneuver. Getting to that building, however, meant a dead sprint across more than 100 yards of open terrain.

“Jack, you’re in charge,” the CO hollered at me.

“Sir, what about the detainees?”

“Take them with us!” he roared, and ran off to shoot some more. I was only a private.

I found my sergeant and told him what he CO had said.

“What! That’s bullshit!” He quickly devised a better plan.

In small groups, we would “bound” across the danger area. One squad would remain in the original building as the base of fire, another squad would be assigned to haul the detainees, and when everybody else had gone across, my teammate and I would carry up the rear.

I have bad luck, though, so as the CO was sprinting across and I was firing, my SAW [M249 Squad Automatic Weapon] jammed. Silence. For a brief moment, I could hear the CO screaming at me as he kept running towards the far building. “WHAT THE HELL, YOU ASSHOLE! KEEP FIRING!” The 240 gunners on the roof, realizing what happened, picked up the slack and started firing to cover him while I worked on my SAW. That’s one of the things I don’t like about SAWs: they always jam when you need them to fire.

I got the gun back up fairly quickly, and before long, it was just me and my team mate Arnold left to run across the danger area. When he tapped me, I got up, and we both took off at a dead sprint.

Farm fields in Iraq have pretty uneven terrain, however, due to a crisscross pattern of irrigation ditches. As we ran, I stumbled in one and fell.

“Oh shit!” Arnold yelped, and doubled back, hauling me to my feet. Thankfully, we arrived without injury.

“Jack, why the hell did you fall back there?”

“I didn’t mean to, Sergeant.”

“I sure as hell hope not!”

Before long, the shooting stopped and a team of scouts arrived to help us find whoever it was firing at us. While they flanked around the palm grove, we would push through it and hopefully flush him out. We’d collapse on the objective.

When we did, though, neither team found anything, so we kept moving towards some huts in the distance to clear those too. By this time, we’d basically given up. Whoever he was, he was long gone. We were mistaken.

As we approached the huts, we saw some movement in the tree line – a guy crouched low and moving cautiously with an AK. As I raised my SAW to fire, Arnold fired first – right next to my ear.

“Why the hell did you do that!?”


When we ran up to the guy, we found him on the ground, shot in the head. Doc tried his best to save him, but he died right as the medevac chopper arrived.

“Brown, you took my shot.”

“Sorry.” It didn’t really matter. We’d gotten the guy.

When we had wrapped things up, we started back to our patrol base. We’d walked, patrolled, or run a good 10-12 kilometers.

That’s all we did on that tour: walk. House-to-house searches and foot patrols. And it’s not like that anymore, either. We used to walk everywhere, but now we just drive around in armored vehicles and try not to get blown up. Aside from planned stops, we really don’t even get out of the trucks. It’s a lot different now.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. Good analysis of the changing face of Iraq. Your early days, and how it is now. The evolution of a combat zone.