Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Day Like Any Other

It is a day like any other.

The sun has risen quickly, and in a few short minutes banished the early morning gloom. Looking to the east, the newly risen sun hangs like a huge fiery disk low over the rooftops of brick farm houses and the shaded groves of green trees. This early in the morning, the air is still cool, and the slight breeze blowing from the west is clean and refreshing.

Lying behind a chalky dirt berm, I readjust my position to get a better view of the road to the west. The partially paved road runs north and south alongside a major canal, and is pockmarked by the shattered asphalt and burnt-out craters from IED explosions.

Just a few days ago an IED buried beneath the road exploded and completely destroyed an armored HUMMWV, the front end of the vehicle shattered and the engine block sent flying in pieces thru the air.

We are here to capture or kill the insurgents digging the holes and laying the explosives.

Before dawn, my patrol has set up a traffic control point. Lying in wait, unsuspecting vehicles drive right up to the patrol’s position. When they get close enough, soldiers jump out of their hide site, and flash the vehicles with white lights. The vehicles are then stopped and searched. The key is to remain hidden until the vehicle is too close to turn and run.

It is a risky technique, but one that has proven to be very effective in the past.

To the south, about a kilometer away, the second half of my Platoon led by the Platoon Sergeant, has set up another traffic control point. This morning we are controlling access on two of the three main roads leading into a town known to shelter insurgents.

A Sergeant is lying next to me on the dirt berm, staring intently at something on the road.

“Hey Sir, look at this.”

A black, four door Daewoo Prince has approached our position, and has slowed down considerably.

I can see the occupants of the vehicle staring in our direction. It is possible that someone in the vehicle has spotted a soldier, or one of the HUMMWV antennas that stick out over the concealment offered by the dirt berm. The vehicle continues to slow, and almost rolls to complete stop, when all of a sudden the driver guns the engine, and the vehicle speeds south down the road.

Right towards the second half of my Platoon.

“Warrior 2/7 this is Warrior 2/6, we have a black, four door Prince that may have spotted us and just took off at a high rate of speed south along Route ‘Bull.’ He should be approaching your position.”

The radio clicks as the Platoon Sergeant responds.

“Roger, we’ll stop him.”

Lying on the berm and waiting for another vehicle to approach our checkpoint, I listen to the radio traffic between the three vehicles of the Platoon Sergeant’s patrol.

And then I hear something unexpected.

“This is Warrior 2/2, we are taking fire! Moving to engage!”

To the south, an element of my Platoon is being shot at.

Jumping up from the berm, I head to my vehicle. Picking up the handset on the more powerful vehicle radio, I call the Platoon Sergeant.

“Warrior 2/7 this is Warrior 2/6, what is your status?”

“Roger Sir, Warrior 2/2 has taken fire, we are moving to his position now.”

In the background I can hear the gunner of his vehicle crew shouting something.

I can also hear automatic weapons fire.

“2/7 this is 2/6, I need a grid coordinate to your position!”

“Roger, wait one.”

My entire patrol has stood up and moved to their vehicles, all eyes oriented south, the checkpoint operation abandoned.

Suddenly, my gunner exclaims under his breath.

“Oh Shit.”

A green star cluster has exploded in the southern sky, showering the area with luminescent phosphorous and marking an enemy targets position.

I key the radio again.

“Thundebolt X-Ray this is Warrior 2/6! My 2/7 element is in contact and is taking small arms fire. Approximate grid coordinates are MN 345 876. Are there any aviation assets available?”

The Battalion Command Center is more than 20 kilometers from my position, and communication is sketchy. The Battle Captain in the TOC comes thru audibly, but is broken and distorted.

“Warrior 2/6…. Negative… will call Brigade… vector aviation assets… standbye.”

So no air on station, but some is on the way.

That is better than nothing.

To the south another star cluster explodes in the sky.

Every fiber in my body screams at me to load up my patrol and head towards the sound of the fighting.

Instead, I wait.

My training tells me that without knowing the enemy situation, the location of friendly forces, and the direction to the enemy, rolling in with our guns blazing, without an informed plan could possibly be one of the worst things I could do.

The army calls it “tactical patience.”

I call it the longest ten minutes of my life.

The radio squeals with feedback.

“2/6 this is 2/7! We are being engaged from multiple positions to the east! We have one “Tango” down. Grid MN 3457 8761! Cross the canal to the east!”

He is out of breath. His voice almost frantic.

In the background, I can hear someone shouting and the sound of sustained machine gun fire.

One “Tango” down.

The soldiers have killed someone.

The gunner of White 3, listening to the transmission, can hold it in no longer, and from his turret he shouts at no one in particular.

“Let’s fucking go!”

The soldiers are eager to get to their brothers that are taking fire.

So am I.

I key the handset.

“Alright Move! Watch for fire from the East! Head over the Canal and then turn south onto the Canal Road.”

“This is White 3, Roger.”

The lead vehicle takes off speeding down the road. The engine of my vehicle whines as the driver floors the gas pedal. We should be in sight of the action within 2 or 3 minutes.

I take a deep breath and calm myself down, then I take a second to check my weapon.

Now is not the time to make a mistake.

“Thunderbolt X-Ray, this is Warrior 2/6! 2/6 element is moving to MN 3457 8761 to link up with 2/7! 2/7 reports one Tango down!”

With the engine of the vehicle screaming at our high rate of speed, I cannot make out Battalion’s reply.

The patrol rounds a bend in the road and crosses the main canal.

The sound of machine gun fire is intense.

As my vehicle comes to a screeching halt, I pick up my I-Com and yell, “Let’s go!”

Without waiting for a response, I open the heavy armored door and step out onto the hard packed dirt. Taking cover behind my vehicle, I survey the scene.

To my right and left, the squad of dismounted infantry flies out of their vehicles, and moves to take up positions along the berm of a second, smaller canal. The soldiers are scanning for targets, their weapons held at the ready and oriented toward the sound of the firing.

This second canal is separating us from the rest of my Platoon.

This close to the canal the farms are well irrigated. There is too much overgrowth and scrub brush to be able to see more than a few dozen meters. The insurgents are too well concealed for me to positively identify an enemy target.

I have no targets.

Without positive identification, I cannot engage.

We have to move.

Over the I-Com, I hear a transmission from the other patrol.

“Smoke to mark the target! We are taking fire from the small shack! Firing HE rounds!”

High Explosive Rounds.


Without warning, the gunner in the vehicle behind me stands almost straight up in his turret, and begins to engage with his M4, the single, sharp cracks distinct amidst all of the other noise.

He is shooting single shots at a target moving in the tree-line.

A target that I can’t see.

Shouting over the din of the fire, I raise my right hand over my head and spin it in a circular motion.

“Load up!”

The soldiers see the signal and dash back to their vehicles, no questions asked.

I key the hand-mike on my I-Com.

“2/7 this is 2/6! We are crossing the second canal now and are moving to your position.”

I have got to get to the rest of my Platoon.

The heavy armored HUMMWV kicks up a massive cloud of dust as it turns around on the narrow, dirt packed strip running north and south between the two canals. Gunning the engine, the vehicle lurches forward, turns east, and crosses over the second canal bridge. As it turns south and heads down a narrow road bordered on both sides by a chain link fence, I hear my gunner and RTO begin cursing in the back.

“Shit! Small arms fire and red marking smoke to our 9 o’clock!”

“Sir, we have got small arms fire to our 9 o’clock.”

To the east, at the 9 o’clock rounds are flying past the vehicle.

I hear them, but my attention is focused ahead.

Up ahead, the first vehicle in my convoy begins to engage a target, the gunner laying down well aimed suppressive fire. Up ahead on the road are the three vehicles from the other patrol. As my convoy pulls up to their rear vehicle, I get out and run up to the front of the column.

Behind the rear HUMMWV is the driver. He is a Specialist, and he is older than he looks. He is standing behind his vehicle, facing towards the sound of the gunfire, and keeping an eye on the tree-line.

“Hey, where are the rest of the dismounts? Where is the fire coming from?”

Adrenaline has surged thru my body, and everything seems sharper and more in-focus.

I speak to the Specialist as calmly as I possibly can, despite the violent pounding of my heart.

And at this moment, time stops.

Looking over my left shoulder, I see a line of dirt being kicked up by rounds impacting in a dry, dusty field. I look impassionedly at the small explosions of dirt and dust. A part of me absently tracks the line of incoming fire, watching the rounds hit the ground further away, and then move closer and closer to my position.

The rounds are impacting in a line that runs parallel to the vehicles.

Then I hear a cracking sound.

It is the sound of rounds breaking the sound barrier as they pass over my head.

Someone is shooting at me.

I scan the tree-line, my M-4 Carbine held at the ready and the Close Combat Optic leveled at the pale green grove of trees.

No targets.


Behind me, the Gunner of White 3 is still laying down suppressive fire, the sharp cracks of his rifle drowning out the more distant, yet distinct AK-47 fire.

I turn away from the sound of the firing.

Turning away is not an easy thing to do.

My instinct is to move towards the fighting and engage the enemy.

Right now, that is not my job.

Gaining situational awareness and maneuvering my Platoon is.

I look at the wide eyed soldier in front of me. He is staring in the direction of the firefight. I wave my hand in front of his face, and his eyes snap back in my direction.

“Where is the rest of the Platoon? Who are they engaging?”

“Sir, three or four guys with AK-47s were in a vehicle. The vehicle saw us, reversed, and then slammed into this fence and the guys bailed out! I don’t know how many of them there were! There are black ski masks, an AK-47, and a muddy shovel in the vehicle!”

He points to a battered black vehicle only a few meters away, tangled up in the remains of a chain link fence. The windows of the vehicle have shattered, scattering sharp glass everywhere, and the trunk of the vehicle is smashed in where it impacted a concrete fence post.

The engine is still running.

Glancing back at me, he continues while fingering his rifle.

“There is a two story house just over this fence and we shot a guy that was engaging us from the roof! I am not sure if he is dead or just wounded, but if you go down this road, and hang a right, you can get to the house. I know that 2/2 and some of our dismounts are in there.”

That is what I needed to know.

Turning around, I survey the field. The sound of gunfire has tapered off, and the rounds have stopped impacting on the field in front of my vehicle.

I can no longer hear any sharp cracks in the air.

Either the insurgents have fled, or they have been suppressed by the fire from White 3.

I key the handset on my I-Com.

“2/3 this is 2/6, get your men to my position. Bring along White 1! 2/2 this is 2/6, we are moving to your position now.”

Behind me, the squad of dismounted infantrymen breaks into two fire teams, each fire team taking an opposite side of the road. The soldiers are tense, their eyes scanning the undergrowth and fields for signs of movement. I find myself gripping my rifle a little too hard, and I have to force myself to relax.

I feel a surge of pride as I look at them. They look good. There is no hesitation in their movements as they close with the enemy.

Not one of them has flinched at the sound of gunfire.

I couldn’t possibly ask for finer soldiers.

Moving quickly, the squad heads north, and then east towards the sound of the gunfire, reduced now to the occasional single shot. Behind a tall chain link fence outlining an overgrown compound, I can see a two story farmhouse at the end of a narrow strip of dirt road.

The sporadic fire is coming from inside the compound, from the two story house.

My men are in that house.

The fence separating us is chained and padlocked.

No problem.

I turn and shout to the Squad Leader, pointing to the HUMMWV.

“Smash the fence!”

Without a moment of hesitation, the driver of the HUMMWV backs the six ton vehicle up and guns the engine. The heavy steel bumper on the front grill smashes into the sturdy chain-link fence head on, and with a shuddering crash the front gates of the fence shatter as the chain parts and the hinges give way.

We are thru.

Moving into the choking cloud of dust that has been kicked up by the impact, I am followed closely by the squad of dismounts scanning for movement.

Moving rapidly, I get up to the front porch of the two story house, where I can see members of my Platoon taking cover. The building is solidly built, with arching windows and tall columns on the front porch. The usual yellow clay brick walls are plastered over and the front door is an ornate wood. One of the expensive looking windows is smashed out, and protruding from the window is the short, deadly barrel of a squad automatic weapon.

The building is a veritable fortress.

Around me, the rest of the dismounted squad takes up positions that provide good observation and fields of fire. The Squad Leader is shouting at his squad, organizing them into position and getting them ready to move forward.

From inside the house, one of my team leaders approaches me. He is crouched low and moves quickly. His face is bright red and is covered with sweat. He is breathing heavily, as if he has just gone running in his body armor.

Despite his sweat slicked face, the team leader smiles as he gets to me.

“It is good to see you Sir!”

“It is good to see you too! Where is the fire coming from?”

He looks briefly around. His slight Latin American accent is more obvious than usual as he replies in a clipped voice.

“It is coming from everywhere! In fact, you might want to get down!”

That’s probably a good idea.

I take a knee.

“Where is the rest of the Platoon?”

He points to the east.

“We were taking fire from that shack, but we put some HE rounds into it and the firing stopped. Right now, 2/7 has his vehicle in the field to the east of the shack, and he is engaging targets up there! In the building we have one enemy wounded. He has been shot several times and is in a bad way! They are working on him right now, but he is going to need to be evacuated.”

“Roger. Get him stabilized as best you can. We can’t call a bird in yet, the LZ is still too hot!”

I am not going to endanger one of the Blackhawks by calling it into a hot Landing Zone.

At least, I am not going to do it just to evacuate an insurgent.

The Team Leader nods his head.

“Yes Sir, just let us know and we will work on calling a bird in.”

Turning away from the team leader, I move down the porch steps and up to the Squad Leader that is taking cover by White 1.

“Hey Sergeant, get your squad online! We are going to move thru this field to the right by fire-team, and link up with 2/7.”

Moving rapidly, the soldiers get online, separated from one another by 3-5 meters in this highly restrictive terrain. With the squad in position, the Squad Leader waves his right hand forward, and the squad begins to sweep by fire-team up thru an open field.

As we move, I continue to scan the hedgerow bordering the far end of the field. The hedgerow runs alongside a small irrigation canal, and is thick and full of brambles and reeds. Somewhere beyond the hedgerow is the rest of my Platoon and the remaining insurgents.

I cannot see beyond the hedgerow to outlying field.

I still do not know exactly what is out there.

The day is starting to get warm, and the heat is causing the sweat to run in rivulets down my face. My sunglasses have begun to fog up, making it hard to see. While I move, I take the dark ballistic glasses off and wipe them on my uniform.

It helps . . . some.

Approaching the hedgerow, the squad stops as our movement is blocked by an eight foot deep, water filled canal.

I key the I-Com hanging from my body armor.

“2-7, this is 2-6! We are in position along the first hedgerow to the east of the building at 2/2s position! What is your current location?!”

“2-6, I am about 25 meters to the north of your position. Keep your squad there! We have taken fire from the next hedgerow across the field and we have Apache support. The birds are coming in hot!”

Quietly, I move north along the row of silent, grim faced soldiers. On the other side of a short, chain-link fence is White 7, the Platoon Sergeants vehicle.

As I get up to the vehicle, I can hear the Platoon Sergeant talking on the radio with the Apaches. Behind him, the Platoon medic looks tensely out of the vehicles armored glass windows. In the turret, a young Specialist has his M240B machine gun moving and scanning for targets.

I notice that hundreds of spent shell casings litter the turret and the hood of the vehicle. The Gunner has fired hundreds of rounds.

Then I hear the Apaches.

The sleek, deadly machines drop out of the sky from the south, lined up on the hedgerow that runs north and south parallel to the open field to my front. As the Apache drops down low, I can see the 40mm cannon slung under the cockpit traverse, and a deep, ripping sound emanates from across the field as the Apache strafes the far hedgerow.

Immediately behind it, a second Apache drops low, and again, the violent ripping sound echoes across the field. A haze of dust rises from where the rounds have impacted in the pale green hedgerow.

The sound of the Apache’s cannon has a shocking finality to it.

I release a quiet breath.

Very little could have lived thru that.

As the echoing roar of the cannons fade, the field sounds unnaturally quiet.

High above, the sun glinting off their canopies and flashing in the morning light, the Apaches move into a holding pattern, circling above our position and watching for movement.

I give them a quick wave of thanks, and turn to the Platoon Sergeant.

"Where do you want us?"

The Platoon Sergeant faces me, his face flush with excitement.

“Sir, we have to clear out this open area.”

He points north, out across the hood of his vehicle.

"Roger, we were taking fire back by the house- the rounds were kicking up right in front of the vehicles."

He nods his head.

"We were taking fire from there also, and we just took fire from that house across the field."

Looking out across the fallow field, I see two separate cultivated fields bordered on both sides by fences and hedgerows. To the southeast is the house his position took fire from.

“Okay. I brought you two more dismounts to plus up your squad. Take first squad and sweep around to the right. I will take third Squad and flank around to the left. If anyone is still out there, we will either find their bodies or flush them out.”

Radioing 2/2, I give him permission to call for the Medivac to come and pick up the wounded insurgent. Within ten minutes of the call, a Blackhawk with a distinct red-cross painted on it's side lands in an open field that the Platoon has secured.

Despite the powerful prop wash, the soldiers rush to the Blackhawk carrying a stretcher with the wounded insurgent to the waiting Medics. One of my soldiers, also a trained Medic, boards the aircraft to accompany the insurgent to the hospital. In a whirl of dust and debris, the Medivac bird takes off and heads to the south, escorted by an Apache Gunship.

An hour later, the Platoon has swept the surrounding fields and raided farmhouses in the area. It is tense, exhausting work, as the soldiers scale fences in body armor, and move rapidly thru the dense terrain and the dusty, open fields.

Constantly scanning, the troops look for movement and watch for insurgents.

Any clump of trees could conceal an ambush.

Ambushes often have fatal consequences.

In 115 degree heat, the squads clear section after section of broken farmland and fenced in compounds.

But the hard work pays off.

In a clump of bushes, we find a bandoleer of AK-47 magazines, and the trail of one of the fleeing insurgents.

He has been wounded.

And he was not alone.

Heavy drag marks leading into and out of the deep, muddy canals show where one of the insurgents has managed to flee thru the irrigation system.

He had to have been helped.

Carried or pulled along by a fellow insurgent.

Despite our efforts, the two insurgents manage to get away.

The Platoon has lost their trail on a hardball road.

But not for long.

Later that evening, word reaches the unit that an insurgent has shown up at a Baghdad area hospital with multiple gunshot wounds, including one that was inflicted by the 40mm cannon of an Apache.

Before he dies, he admits to being involved in the fire-fight.

That same afternoon, at a different hospital, word reaches us that the insurgent evacuated by air has died after being operated on.

Despite doing all we could to try and save him, he could not recover from a massive loss of blood.

Thankfully, all of the Platoon’s soldiers have come thru without a scratch, and we have stopped, at least for a while, a group of insurgents that were burying IEDs on Route "Bull."

It is only later I realize that during the entire engagement, I never fired a single shot.

In Iraq, it really is a day like any other.
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