Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Good 15

*Retold with permission.

We landed in Kuwait at the beginning of my second tour expecting to head out to western Iraq, but those plans quickly changed – the first of many surprises. Before we’d even begun heading north, a frag-o [fragmentary order] came down the line directing us to Baghdad. With sectarian violence spiraling out of control, we were among a number of units diverted to central Iraq to help stanch the flow of blood.

As the first Stryker unit to operate within Baghdad, we quickly found our vehicles relatively unsuited to the narrow streets and confusing alleyways of the city, but we maximized our maneuverability as best we could. Wherever our vehicles couldn’t reach, our dismounted Soldiers certainly could, leaving us with 100% coverage of our battlespace. We would need it badly.

Our AOR [Area of Responsibility] within the city was bisected by a single large road. To one side lay Sunnis, and to the other, Shiites. Without question, their behavior was a godawful representation of humanity. On any given day, we would find between one and ten bodies, mostly murdered execution-style. We frequently be out on a patrol, hear a brief report of gunfire nearby, and rush around the corner to find somebody else dead or dying in the street. Of course, none of the locals ever saw anything. They were either terrified for their lives or part of the problem. We could never tell.

Various Shiite militia and terrorist groups would even go so far as to create fake checkpoints along the road, too. They’d set up quickly, murder a few Sunnis as they came through, and fade away just as quickly. They were always too brief for us to pinpoint and respond. They were so prepared that they’d have weapons and other material stashed along the roads at random intervals. They simply walked up empty-handed, “fell in” on their weapons, killed a few people, dropped the weapons again, and disappeared into the city. It was completely lawless.

We were assigned to work in partnership with a local element of the Iraqi National Police, which, at least initially, was a disaster. The unit, a predominantly Shiite group operating in a mixed Sunni and Shiite area, was rife with corruption. We suspected that many of the officers were acting on personal interests rather than the law, and in some cases working directly for various local terrorist organizations, to include handing over people to the terrorists. We’d have our interpreters monitor their comm traffic and hear them talking about us using code words. Our first order of business was getting them in line.

It took a month or two to vastly improve that police unit, but we were successful. When we first started working with them, we’d tell them we would begin our joint patrol at 0600, but arrive at 0545 to find them all still asleep. After immense effort, we changed that. We’d arrive at 0600 and find them geared up and ready to step. In time, they become some of our greatest allies.

The bulk of our operations were clearing missions. Using company-sized forces of US personnel and augmenting with national police, we would completely cordon off various sections of the city, bar all entrance and departure, and methodically search every home, every room, and property, documenting every “atmospheric” we could obtain.

Abandoned properties (and there were plenty of them) were usually either safehouses for terrorist operations, or housed weapons caches. We found several caches with an alarming number of silenced weapons. Homemade though many of them were, they were highly effective. If they were fired nearby, we’d never hear a thing. We even found a torture house, complete with chains, drills and other torture devices. It was sobering, to say the least.

One neighborhood and block at a time, we cleared our entire AOR, then started over again – this time at random locations, on a smaller scale, and with absolutely no warning. It turned out to be a highly effective form of terrain denial that left the terrorists confused, constantly on the run, and unsure what area was safe, clear, and welcoming to their presence. We were highly successful.

As our AO quieted down, we were temporarily relocated down into a more rural region on the outskirts of southern Baghdad. The units down there were getting hammered constantly and overwhelmed with IEDs along one particular stretch of dirt road, and the whole area was a known hotbed of Al Qaeda activity. Just as we had before, we worked with these units to methodically clear the fields, canals, palm groves and houses.

We also helped them man checkpoints every 600 meters along the road to help reduce IEDs. Somehow, the insurgents still planted a few – even 500 pound aircraft bombs. I have no idea how they pulled that off without detection. At one point, they managed to destroy an Abrams tank down there – so catastrophically that the turret was blown off of the vehicle. We never took the same route twice. We’d go in one way, and return another. Retracing our steps was virtually suicide.

Our outpost down there was a three story house bristling with weapons. Not only were we dealing with constant attacks outside the wire, but our base of operations was equally threatened. On just the roof of this building we had counter-mortar radar, at least ten crew-served machine guns, and within the small compound we stood by with multiple dismount elements, tanks, Strykers, and a quick reaction force ready to spin up at a moment’s notice. Rockets and other indirect fire, and sniper attacks were a daily occurrence.

Directly to the south of this position was the terminus of our AOR, and an area that nobody dared venture. Anyone who did was pretty much guaranteed an attack. One tank platoon tried it, but lost a tank within a few hundred meters. Not even helicopters entered that battlespace very often. They kept getting shot down.

We were mostly successful in securing our area, and as a new unit arrived to replace us, we prepared to leave, this time for the green zone. But unfortunately, that new unit wasn’t well prepared for their mission, despite our efforts to ready them. After we left, it wasn’t long before the three story house was overrun in a complex attack.

While a maneuver element of fighters distracted perimeter security with small arms fire, a suicide bomber in a dump truck drove as close as he could and detonated himself. They’d fired on him, but he made it within 50 meters of the compound, and the blast was still so powerful that it took down the t-walls and destroyed part of the building itself. I don’t know the exact figures, but the unit there sustained a horrific number of casualties.

After a short time in the green zone, we were pushed out to Diwaniyah to help a Polish unit that was having difficulty with their area. We literally had to fight our way across the city to reach them. We were also attacked as soon as we arrived inside the base, too.

It was actually a joint base, with Polish, Latvian and Mongolian forces. I had no problems with the Latvians, but the Polish weren’t very impressive, and the Mongolians had been restricted to base for being “overly aggressive.”

As was the case on the other outpost, we sustained daily mortar and rocket attacks – deadly accurate ones, too. Even on base, we wore all our gear. We had to. We began conducting round-the-clock counter mortar patrols with air support, and little by little began killing off all the ground fighters in the region. By the time we readied to leave again, the only significant threat that still remained was the indirect fire [mortars and rockets]. All the other fighters had been killed off.

I remember the day we left that place. I was parked next to a generator on the base, so I couldn’t hear anything. I was installing the .50 cal barrel when I looked up just the right time to see a mortar make a direct hit on the laundry facility. I’ve heard that laundry soap was a major component in a lot of the homemade explosives in the area, so I think that was the reason the entire building went up in a Hollywood-style fireball. A few of us jumped in a humvee and ran to see if we could help, but we didn’t move but perhaps two feet inside the remnants of the building before the heat and the smoke pushed us back. I don’t know if we lost anybody in there, and we were literally on our way out the gate when it happened, anyway. As we drove away, we received word that we were being extended from twelve to fifteen months. Morale, as you might imagine, slumped pretty low.

Our next assignment was the infamous Haifa Street, an area of Iraq known for its enormous high rises apartments, and some of the most derelict slums in their shadows. Our base was the most heavily fortified and defended in the theater. We, unfortunately, were the guinea pigs as we rolled through there. I remember being asked if I could elevate my .50 high enough to reach all sixteen floors of the nearby buildings from our position. I could not. The best I could do was the sixth or seventh.

As we had done before, we began our clearing operations, going from one high rise to another, clearing floor after floor. I was surprised at the number of foreigners in the apartments. Most were well educated, and perhaps one in three spoke English. Sixteen stories of stairs isn’t fun in full kit, believe me. One of the more interesting things we did was paint enormous numbers on all the roofs so we could call air support on specific buildings as needed. God knows we couldn’t reach their higher floors with our weapons.

Between the clearing ops, extensive atmospheric operations, and hiring a local leader as a valuable informant, attacks dropped off significantly in the area, and we focused our attention on the corruption within the local Iraqi Army units.

When we determined who the most corrupt officers were, we set up a sting operation. Under the guise of giving those officers awards, we lured them all to separate vehicles, closed the doors, and arrested them. The culprits included a few of their company commanders and even the battalion commander. That day, as we conducted a joint patrol, I distinctly remember that our weapons were pointed inboard – on the remaining soldiers. We weren’t sure if they intended to revolt. Thankfully, they did not. The arrests didn’t really disrupt our day-to-day operations.

What did, however, were the “isolation zones.” As part of the effort to cut down on free movement of fighters in vehicles, every neighborhood or “muhalla” was surrounded by high t-wall barricades and only one vehicle entrance was left open. At random intervals, that entrance would be closed and another opened. It was highly effective in reducing EJKs [extra-judicial killings], but severely impeded our own movement.

We’d get a drive-by shooting from a dude on a moped right outside the gate, he’d cut through a gap in the barricade, yet in order to respond, we had to go out, drive completely around the compound to the entrance, and then try to find the guy again. While we found it extremely frustrating and I personally thought it was stupid, over the long haul it was very beneficial. Violence was greatly diminished in each compartmentalized area. Our part in the surge, just as it was for many others, was a rousing success.

Despite our extension to fifteen months, despite the danger, the lack of sleep, the constant movement and stress, I actually had a good time on that tour. We were doing good things. I’d lost a few close friends on the first tour, and none of it had settled well with me when I’d come home. I didn’t feel particularly connected to anybody or anything. In many ways, I felt lost.

Though I have no idea what caused it, this second tour was good closure for me, like I was finally taking care of unfinished business. Despite all that happened to us, I came home in much better shape than from the first tour. Maybe it was my age. I wasn’t a year out of high school on that first tour. Whatever the reason, I walked away from the second much more settled than after the first.

Now, things are different. We’re in a supporting role instead of a kinetic one. Rather than conducting missions with an Iraqi Security Force accompaniment, THEY conduct missions and we accompany them if they request it. Since we’re here to enable them rather than do our own thing, the operations tempo has slowed considerably.

Personally, I think the Iraqi forces need more guidance. When we help them, they usually do quite well, but they’re not so good on their own. I think they’re unready to assume total control of operations. I also think they’re stretched pretty thin in some areas. They lack the personnel and equipment they need to fully control their own battlespace. As it is, they’re more reactive than proactive.

But I’m hopeful that it’ll work. It’d BETTER work. I don’t want any more US personnel to lose their lives for a country that seems increasingly ungrateful for our help. We’ve lost enough here already. Furthermore, while I’ve received closure for my service and my tours, I want closure for this war. In fact, the entire United States needs it. It’s time for the Iraqis to take over things and fully secure their own country; and it’s time for all of us to go home. We’ve been at this long enough.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It's Normal

The mission today was routine for this area of operations: drive out to a nearby Iraqi Army compound and facilitate a key leader engagement (KLE) between the Soldier’s troop commander and a senior Iraqi Army commander. For US personnel, these missions, while potentially lengthy, are often relaxed. Soldiers sit with Iraqis, drink chai (the Iraqi Arabic word for “tea”), chat with the Iraqi soldiers, and go home. But when the IED went off, the mission changed completely.

As the front vehicle rolled over the crush wire or pressure plate initiator, the device detonated under the front right tire, sending it outwards and airborne perhaps 50 feet. The associated suspension was sheared off, as the blast pressure ripped off the forward skirt armor and swung it back around to hit the vehicle again. The engine, fully eviscerated, lost all its oil and coolant onto the ground in a 30 foot slick before all forward momentum ceased. Inside, communications were down and alarms were sounding. This, believe it or not, is largely irrelevant.

Two things, however, are quite relevant. Foremost, save for a few rung bells and bruises, no Soldier inside the vehicles sustained any serious injuries. Of nearly equal import is what happened after the blast itself.

Inside the vehicle, a few gear items were dislodged and tossed about, alarms screamed into headsets, radios didn’t work, and a heavy layer of dust stirred up by the concussive wave, added to the confusion. Nobody spoke at first. But, as all three “topside” Soldiers lowered themselves back inside, the yelling began.

Each Soldier turned to the man next to him and, hollering above the din of the alarms, asked if he was okay. From the front of the vehicle, the driver scuttled back and checked on the vehicle commander, who in turn checked on him. The coaxial .50 gunner scrunched himself down around his periscopes and electronics and yelled to confirm that the vehicle commander was alright. In the back, the rear gunner demanded the condition of the rear sentry beside him, who more quietly posed the same question back to the gunner. He was still reeling from being struck in the back by two loose ammo cans.

Everybody, it seemed, was fine. Within moments, signals were sent to nearby vehicles, Soldiers snatched up weapons and serialized gear, and then retreated to cover behind another vehicle. Never were the words “I” or “me” uttered. Instead, only “you.”

While being assessed by the on-scene medic, the most common phrase was “I’m fine.” Seven hours later, while watching uninvolved troops take their own photos in front of his totaled vehicle, one involved Soldier had something very memorable to say:

“This isn’t funny, assholes. I could have lost a lot of friends in there.” Neither he, or any other, mentioned anything about himself.

In chaotic situations, it is a natural inclination to panic. “I’m scared” or “I’m going to die” are perhaps the most common statements, but not here. After determining that his eyes and mouth both apparently worked, every Soldier concerned himself with somebody else. How amazing, and how rare.

Later tonight, these same Soldiers will scour every obscure corner inside their totaled vehicle and pull out sensitive items, weapons, and gear. The vehicle itself will be shipped out of theater for total overhaul. In short order, the Soldiers will be issued another vehicle, into which they will transfer all their equipment. Tomorrow morning, they will head back outside the wire once again. Things will quickly return to normal, or at least to what’s normal out here. What might that be? Concern for somebody else, not oneself.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Not By Logic

For those that really want to know “what’s it like in Iraq?” simply eavesdrop on a few snippets of conversations while a unit is conducting a mission. Very little of what is said requires explanation. It familiarizes the listener with what’s on their minds, what’s in their hearts, and their past experiences in a combat zone (These are all reminiscent of previous tours in Iraq. The security situation is now, thankfully, much improved.)

“After the IED blew, they discovered that the gunner had slammed his head against a brick wall and died. All they found of the other guy was a torso covered by a flak vest, and a head.”

“The EFP [explosively-formed penetrator] actually saved his life. When it went through his knees, it was hot enough to cauterize the wounds. If that hadn’t happened, he would have bled out.”

“Can he walk?”


“A buddy of mine ended up losing one of his legs, the lower half of the other, and one hand. He’s a triple amputee now.”

“The turret was about 150 meters down the road with the guy still in it – or what was left of him.”

“They didn’t find much of anything of the two guys inside. Just a hand, I think.”

“No, getting shot isn’t much fun. I certainly didn’t like it when it happened to me last tour.”

“This is my fifth tour out here.”

“The two hits that really screwed with my mind were the one that mutilated my gunner, and the one that went off right next to our truck but didn’t hurt any of us.”

“I’ve seen guys shit themselves when IEDs go off. It happens. Others get back to base, see all the shrapnel damage, and when they realize how they were only a fraction of an inch from dying, they finally break down.”

“After the IED where they found the guy against the brick wall, that was only the beginning. When EOD showed up, one of the guys ended up getting his legs mangled when they got caught under the mine plow. Then a sniper took out another Soldier.”

And to these stories I can add the Marine in my battalion whose remains were picked off the roadside by a first sergeant carrying a trash bag, or the guy they found in pieces on a nearby roof, or the Navy Corpsman whose legs were both traumatically amputated when an antitank mine went off under a tire and caused the vehicle’s armor to fold back over him. There are others. And although these incidents are certainly (and thankfully) on the decline, it’s still Iraq and these events have replayed countless times. It’s not normal.

But it is reality for the troops, and consequence of the fact that they are well acquainted with their own mortality and the fragility of human life. Most people, I submit, would be utterly immobilized with fear or horror, but there is no place for it here. These conversations take place on missions, while vehicles navigate known insurgent hotspots, weave around filled-in IED craters and some not so refilled. The possibility remains that it may happen again.

“I don’t worry about it, really. If it’s my time, it’s my time, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

It would be a lie to say there is no fear here, because it is a natural sentiment in the face of imminent danger. But paramount to any fear or apprehension is duty. And what it illustrates is that nearly every man in combat arms is well aware of what fate may await him, but nevertheless reenlists, redeploys, volunteers to man the turret, to dismount and inspect the roadsides repeatedly. They will run hundreds of missions per tour, and many will be back here or in Afghanistan in less than two years time.

“People might think we’re bloodthirsty warmongers, but we actually want to go home more than they want us home. Nobody hates war more than those fighting them.”

What’s it like in Iraq? Dangerous, and sometimes people die. They did so doing their jobs, though, because their nation called them. Is it illogical? Perhaps, yet nations aren’t purchased and preserved by logic, but by men with hearts for duty and selflessness. You will find no greater demonstration of this than here. So again, what is Iraq like? Again, it is dangerous. But you will find yourself in good company, for it is also where America has collected her finest citizens.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 14, 2009


For perhaps the first time since coming out here, I directly asked two Soldiers what they felt the public most needed to know about them, about Iraq, and about the war. The following remarks, retold with permission, was the response from one of them.

“What I most want the public to know is that we’re out here acting under orders and executing a mission, and we’ll keep doing that until the mission is complete. Yeah, we think about things – we’re not stupid – but we’re here to carry out the mission with which we’ve been tasked. We’re unique in that we’re the ones the volunteered to trust the decisions of our leaders and take their orders. The options are to do that, or sit at home, bitch and complain about everything, but ultimately do nothing. I think it counts for something that we care enough to volunteer. It’s only maybe 1% of the population that does that.

“I think that if people came out here, they’d be a little more understanding. They’d see what we go through, and they’d also see what the Iraqis go through – and what we’re trying to prevent. They’re out here killing each other, and we’re attempting to intervene. Better that than nothing, I’d say. It’s better than just complaining about it.

“In general, I’d say people really support us. A number of folks back home understand us and understand what a combat zone is like – they always take care of us with tons of care packages and letters. They’re good people, and I think they should be recognized for it. Same with the people who don’t really understand, but really support us anyway. They have an idea that it’s difficult out here, they admit that they don’t really grasp everything in full, but they still stand behind us 100%. I admire that. And even the folks that don’t really support the effort, but definitely support the guys fighting it. I’m thankful they’re taking such good care of us.

“The ones I don’t particularly like are the ones that don’t get it, don’t support what we’re doing, and then somehow ‘punish’ us for the policies they oppose. But they forget that we’re not setting policy out here. We’re following the orders of our commanders, who are in turn following the guidance from THEIR commanders – all the way back to the elected leadership of the nation. In the end, it’s they who decide what’s going on here – even though most of them have never been to Iraq. If this is a chess game, we’re the pawns. You have to go a long way before you reach any bishops, castles or queens.

“I think that people back in the states are reluctant to blame one person for whatever they disagree with over here. They’re hesitant to put full responsibility on either an individual or a small body of leaders for their objections to things. It’s easier to blame all of us – the pawns – the 1% of the population that volunteered to do something for their country. We didn’t volunteer for the mission; we volunteered to serve. Sadly, we still get blamed a lot for the mission, which makes no sense.

“I think the hardest thing for us is that we didn’t expect to operate this way. We spend months training on machine gun and rifle ranges. We practice gunnery skills and clearing houses and detaining suspects. We practiced combat missions, because our job is to kill the enemy. Nowhere in our pre-deployment package did we get any classes on being ambassadors, statement or politicians. That job is best reserved for politicians; not men and women who were trained to shoot and destroy the enemy.

“How many people would have joined if they knew this was what they were going to be doing? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think it depends on the person and their specific reasons for joining."

He seemed finished with this monologue, and the vehicle went silent for a few minutes before he returned to chatting with his partner up front.

“Hey, so how long do you think we could survive in this town by ourselves? Think we’d make it through the night?”

“I dunno man. If I barricaded myself in a fortified building and I was heavily armed, maybe.”

“Yeah, I was thinking either that or run and hide all night. No way in hell we’d survive the daylight hours. They’d kill us…”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Haifa (By Ben Shaw)

*Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.

*Retold with permission

Until about eighteen months ago, Haifa Street through Baghdad was known as one of the most dangerous roads in central Iraq. You’d had a good day if you didn’t get blown up or shot at moving through there. None of us particularly enjoyed missions that took us along that route, since it was usually just a matter of time before we were hit with something.

We did a patrol through there in Bradleys one night, and as we hit a straight stretch, we started hearing rounds ping off the armor. We weren’t exactly sure where it came from, so my vehicle commander stuck his head out the commander’s hatch and peered out into the dark with night vision goggles. A second later, a round impacted right next to him, so he ducked back down and used the internal optics. In back, I switched on the screen to see what he was looking at.

There on thermals, plain as day, an Iraqi Army soldier was shooting at us from the balcony. You could even see the shell casings flying from the weapon as he fired. Then he stopped, looked around, took off his flak vest and helmet, and tried to look innocent. A moment later, he put his gear back on and resumed shooting directly as us.

Friendly fire isn’t unheard of in Iraq, but there are times when there’s simply no excuse for it. There’s no other vehicle like a Bradley. It’s loud as hell and easily identifiable. If you’re shooting at it, you’re doing it deliberately. It’s not like a single guy on the ground; it’s a huge, loud, armored vehicle with a 25mm cannon mounted on the turret.

My vehicle commander radios up the chain to see if we have any friendly troops in the area. Are there any known IA positions nearby? If yes, then why the hell is an IA soldier shooting at us? His inquiry went all the way up the chain, then back down. The answer: there are no friendly troops at that position. All fire is hostile. Yeah, no kidding… We all start dismounting as the 25 opens up.

A second later, the entire side of the building explodes as HE [high explosive] rounds level the entire structure. It was awesome, like the fourth of July. I was standing there in awe when a bullet from the opposite direction rips through the cargo pocket on my pants. Shit; we were getting shot at from the other side of the road, too.

Over the next hour and a half, we fought hard. People were coming out of the woodwork to shoot at us, and it got pretty harried a few times. We kept gunning with everything we had on the ground, both small arms and our main guns [25mm Bushmasters]. Overhead, helicopters fired away with their 30mm cannons as the hot, heavy brass rained down us below. Dangerous as it was, it was absolutely beautiful. We were finally doing something – and definitely taking out the enemy. Eventually, everything fell silent, and we headed back home. After that night, nobody really ever got hit hard on Haifa. Whoever they were, we’d pretty much cleared them out.

Sometime later, we were doing another night patrol on Haifa, and our driver turns a corner and plows into a tangle of concertina wire somebody had left in the middle of the road. Sure enough, it snagged in the treads and then wrapped around the sprocket. It was massive enough that we couldn’t continue to roll. We’d have to cut it out before we moved any further.

When we dismounted, the birds nest was so bad that thought we might have to break tread, which is complex, time-consuming, and just a major pain in the ass, especially in the dark. We figured we could get by without doing it, but it’d still take awhile.

As we screwed around trying to cut out the wire, we sort of lost track of time, and before we knew it the sun was up – and we’re stuck there on Haifa Street, vulnerable as hell, trying to get our Bradley operable. People were starting to come out and stare at us, too, so we pushed out dismounts and got the interpreters out to explain the situation.

The terps told the locals that we’d run into a heap of concertina wire and now we were stuck out there trying to cut it loose. To our surprise, they said no problem. Even more than that, they said we’re welcome there because we were out killing the bad guys. Then, to everybody’s total amazement, they came out, grabbed their own tools and equipment, and pulled out the wire for us. We were so thankful that we gave them all the waters and Gatorades we had on our vehicles, said a bunch of thank you’s, and headed back to base.

Haifa Street hasn’t been the same since that morning. Nothing happens through there anymore. It’s not a gauntlet now; it’s just another road.

Copyright © 2009, the Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved