Thursday, October 8, 2009

It Began With Rocks (by Ben Shaw)

*Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.

*Retold with permission.

When we first arrived in Sadr City in early 2004, we were informed it would be a peacekeeping mission. The city itself was quiet, the locals were glad we were there, and Moqtada Al Sadr’s Mahdi militia forces were keeping everything in check. The unit we relieved said they basically just drove around the city every now and then, nothing happened, and that was about it. We would begin the reconstruction. The war was over, and we were there to rebuild the infrastructure.

The RIP [relief-in-place] was extremely uneventful. In fact, with the threat being as minimal as it was, none of us was carrying more than three or four magazines of ammunition. Our first movements alone into the city were equally dull. We just drove in, found key leaders, and started asking them what they needed to get the city back up and running, and how could we best assist them with it.

Their response was water, power, and sewage. With power and water down or intermittent as long as they were, the streets were overflowing with raw sewage. It was simple. While we worked to get the water and power running, we would escort a sewage truck throughout the city and begin cleaning up the streets. The locals seemed happy enough with this.

But after two weeks, however, the residents realized that we weren’t really going away like they assumed we would. We would be there for a long time, assisting in the reconstruction, yes, but still conducting patrols throughout the city. Apparently they didn’t like this, either. We were out on the day they began to express their opposition.

We were patrolling along, minding our own business, but as we slowly advanced, a crowd formed behind us. Before long, the crowd grew to a mob that filled the streets from one side to the other, thick enough that you couldn’t see the street itself. They were yelling at us and gesturing. Whenever we turned out backs, they pelted us with rocks, but when we turned back to them, they stopped. As per our rules of engagement, I considered it a hostile act, but I remember my squad leader screaming at all of us, “DO NOT FIRE ON THEM!” So, we’d turn our backs and get hit with rocks again. Frankly, I’m still amazed how effortlessly an Iraqi kid can wing a cinderblock from one side of the street to the other – at us.

As Sadr militiamen and civilians started lying in the street to thwart any further movement in humvees, Charlie company made the decision to head back to base. There wasn’t much else anybody could do without inciting a riot. We, too, returned and gave our report.

Another unit (a sister platoon) was still in the city, though, a platoon-sized mix of mounted and dismounted Soldiers. They were having problems with crowd control like us, and when they started taking fire (and casualties), they occupied a building at the end of a side street and elected to wait until the situation deescalated. Unfortunately, their communications were also completely down. Completely cut off from any support, medical evacuations or other assistance, their location completely unknown to any other unit, one humvee remained in the street outside the house, while inside the vehicle the platoon sergeant worked on the radio.

As he tinkered with the radio (unsuccessfully), the mob began moving down the street toward them. But this time it was different. They weren’t merely throwing rocks or firing sporadically. Instead, women and children rushed forward, while behind them men fired over them at the humvee. After a quick assessment, the gunner made a difficult, but wise decision: fire back.

I was on base at the time, getting ready to go on tower watch, when I heard the fourth of July open up inside the city. Turning to the Sergeant First Class in charge of the guard mount, I told him sorry, he was on his own. Those were our guys in the city. I was only a Specialist, but he wasn’t even my chain of command. We were supposed to be replacing his guys. It wouldn’t kill them to stand one more guard shift. What was happening in the city, however, might kill quite a few.

As the firing in the city intensified, Soldiers on base started crawling out of the woodwork. Cooks ran from the chow hall. Mechanics ran from the motor pool. Alpha company was being spun up as QRF [quick reaction force] to go find and help the platoon pinned in the city. While they prepared their vehicles and scrambled to find more, all these Soldiers asked if they could come along too; those trapped Soldiers needed help. The commander agreed, and soon they headed into the city to search for the missing, isolated platoon. They would never arrive.

As the convoy of humvees, Bradleys, and even an LMTV [flatbed, unarmored utility truck] moved closer to the pinned platoon, a large, coach-sized bus suddenly pulled in front of the lead Bradley and stopped. Moments later, a few cars pulled up to reinforce it. Somebody threw burning tires into the mix, too. In the rear, a similar blockade was driven in, effectively trapping the Alpha company QRF in a gauntlet. As they rolled to a halt, Sadr militiamen and other fighters appeared in every second story window and on every rooftop, firing down on the Soldiers. On the ground, children ran up to the vehicles and placed small IEDs or threw grenades at the vehicles. One hit the Charlie company commander’s vehicle. Of all the occupants, he was the only one that escaped injury or death.

In the ensuing ambush, Soldiers did the best they could, but with the odds stacked against them. From their elevated position in and atop the buildings, the insurgents began picking off the troops.

One of my buddies out there later told me that as he was firing, he looks over at his gunner in the rear of the unarmored humvee. He was jerking his machine gun back and forth from one target to another. As he sees his squad leader staring at him, he grins, holds out his left hand with three fingers up, and yells “third squad, baby!” He was missing the other two.

On the LMTV, originally packed with troops, Soldiers started dropping from injuries until only two remained uninjured, one of whom was a crusty old Staff Sergeant. He’d been in forever, and had already submitted his retirement papers. I’m sure he was thinking he’d just gotten into more than he’d bargained for. He scrambled throughout the wounded (and dying), plugging bullet holes, dressing wounds, and still firing. He tried to drive out the LMTV, but it was disabled. Thinking quickly, he commandeered a local bus and packed his crowd of casualties into it.

As the Bradley in the front finally pushed through/over the bus and cars, this Staff Sergeant climbed into the bus he commandeered and drove the injured back to base. He later was awarded a Silver Star for his actions. I’d say he deserved it, too.

I was on base during all this, and commanders were assembling whatever was left of my company (myself included) into another QRF to go out and help the initial QRF. We were told to get out there, help them out, and recover the down vehicles. By the time we departed the base, the aid station had a chest-high stack of boots from all the wounded. All told, 40 were injured that day, and ten were killed. It was later reported that we’d killed about 800 Iraqi fighters.

Later, I remember seeing the LMTV sitting on our FOB. In the back, empty water bottles floated in the pools of blood. When we finally went out, it was with orders to locate and recapture all five Iraqi Police [IP] stations in the city. Every last one of them was being occupied by Sadr militiamen. So, one-by-one, we attacked and cleared them.

As darkness fell, my unit halted at the third station and we were instructed to hold it, commencing the longest five days of my life. Every night, they’d hit us hard, and all day long we waited for another assault. By the end of five days with no sleep, I was a zombie. Tired, but still high on adrenalin, gaunt, but still puking. Eventually we were relieved and returned to base.

After all this, things quieted a bit in the city and we resumed normal patrols. Every few days, we’d get hit, ambushed or IEDed, so we’d cut power and water into the city, Muqtada Al Sadr would announce another ceasefire to his Mahdi militia, and things would be peaceful for a few days. Then it’d start up again.

As our tour continued, we did eventually make a lot of progress in the city, and by the end of things, we were more or less concentrated on reconstruction. Sadr, we presumed, had been tamed. But it didn’t last. Just as we had been “tested,” the new unit was as well. The very day we arrived in Kuwait on our way home, we learned the new guys were taking casualties. In reality, Sadr City didn’t calm down until we basically began to avoid it. I’m not sure if anybody’s in there these days.

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