Saturday, January 27, 2007

Saved, But Not Saved

Early on a Tuesday morning last week, we began the day before the sun came up. The mission was simple: park vehicles on the on-ramp to a Baghdad highway and randomly block in traffic to conduct searches. We’d stop dozens of vehicles at a time and paw through the whole thing while others frisked the occupants for guns, detonators, fake IDs, anything rousing suspicion. We did this for a few hours until another platoon came to relieve us around lunchtime, and we would fall back to a base to rest for a few hours. We rushed to the chow hall, hoping to get back to the vehicles for some shut eye. Others walked to the free internet to kill some time. On my way back, our driver came running up to us saying “We have to go, we have to go now.” We cursed the thousands of possibilities why we had to return an hour early and walked in that direction. On our way back we ran into our sergeant major, who urged us to hurry up, saying a Blackwater helicopter crashed (Blackwater is a security firm for State Department officials in Iraq. They also train foreign military). At that point we rushed to the vehicles and headed in the direction of the crash site, having a very general idea where it was.

Our Strykers went blazing through neighborhoods hot on the trail. After a few minutes, ominous words came across the radio. “We just passed a bunch of bodies on the side of the road. They looked Caucasian.” We hit a U turn and doubled back to the bodies when several men started running away, some covered in blood. Since the rules of engagement are counterintuitive as I’ve pointed out in an earlier entry, we couldn’t shoot because they did not pose a threat to us. They made their way through alleys and side roads, escaping our grasp. Our vehicle, being in the lead for the effort, dropped ramp nearest the bodies. We set up near a corner, and I turned to see a white man, stripped of almost all his clothes laying face down, blood pooled all around him. No sign of the downed helicopter. We went further into the neighborhood to capture anyone making an exit. A few steps to the alley, we encounter three more American bodies in a group. I don’t have much time to notice their faces but I catch a glimpse of glassy eyes and tattooed arms. A trail of blood leads through the alley but abruptly ends. A shotgun blast erupts as my team leader shoots a lock off a door. We enter and clear the building, finding no signs of activity. I notice an expended AK47 round near some drops of blood outside the door. We continue through the alley, picking up no signs. We round a corner and see the ground totally swamped with blood. Divots, holes and ruts are all filled to the top. It all leads to one closed door halfway down the alley. A kick to the door opens to a surreal image: a helicopter, almost severed in half, crashed into a roof of a house. It sits on the second story ledge, so we begin clearing all the rooms in the building. I tear down sheets used as doors leading to dark, empty rooms probably occupied until a helicopter came roaring in. We used a broken wall to climb up to the crash, sending bricks falling down to the ground. Inside of the helicopter tells the whole story. Expended rounds from American and insurgent weapons. They tried to fight their way out after the crash. It was assumed they died in the crash according to early reports in the news, but there were obvious signs of struggle. In a few minutes, waves of Blackwater members stormed the area to get ahold of any sensitive documents and equipment. Our medic began to put the bodies in bags for their men to carry back. Security was set up for this, and after awhile, people in the neighborhood began coming out to investigate. We waved them back into their houses and apartments.

The call came to load up after roughly 45 minutes to an hour after we went to the ground. Smoke was thrown to conceal our movement to the trucks. We were moving back to the scene where the bodies were left, presumably to be loaded on a vehicle by insurgents to later show decapitated heads on internet clips. As always, progress was thwarted.

A constant hum of machine gun fire erupted from the tall building across the street from our position. Not ordinary machine guns, but DShK guns, suitable for shooting down airplanes and demolishing vehicles and buildings with their 12.7mm rounds. Two platoons, 60+ men, took the building we first looked in. Machine guns were taken to the roof. Couches and desks were placed as stands to shoot from the high windows. The order to fire was given.

On the decibel level, gunshots must be close to a jet engine when in the confines of a building. The sound of rifle and machine gun fire filled the entire neighborhood, but on the bottom floor, it was the loudest thing I have ever heard. People in your face shouting can barely be understood. Since I’m a lowly specialist in a building full of higher ranking men, there was no window for me to return any fire. They were reserved for the heavier SAWs and team leaders. My team leader began to have malfunctions with his rifle but would not jump down so I could replace him. I watched as others fired for twenty minutes straight, even taking a video of the offending building getting pummeled by rounds. I was finally directed to shoot a grenade from the launcher underneath my gun, something I haven’t done yet. I relished at the opportunity to send a grenade into a window occupied by a machine gunner. I stepped outside on the corner of the building, loaded a grenade and flipped my sight up. I am seconds away from shooting when a cease fire is called. Everyone foolish enough to be outside the building comes back in. We begin the long process of loading up, but this time we make it. All in all, I didn’t fire one round.

It’s obvious from what you have read in earlier accounts that I believe we make no progress in this war, that this has been a constant waste of time and effort. For seven months that has been true. But on January 23, we have tangible progress. We could have never saved the Blackwater guys from being killed, but we saved their remains from being taken and were able to secure them for their families. Various reports construe that around eighteen insurgents were killed in the fight, along with some civilians caught in the crossfire. Some of our guys suffered cuts from falling bricks but no one was seriously hurt. But those who were there will carry the image of those four Americans in the streets forever.



Dad said...

That's some brilliant writing, Alex! It really captured the moment and provided some excellent (if grisly) mental images of the sights and sounds of the recovery and subsequent firefight. The video clip was a nice additional touch. We're going to have to start calling you "Ernie" (Pyle)!



Anonymous said...

Excellent Synopsis

This was indeed a brilliant summary of your experiance with the Blackwater Recovery. It gave me chills just reading it. I do however disagree with the aforementioned statement regarding Ernie Pyle.



Anonymous said...

This is haunting.

Anonymous said...

P.S., please take care.

Anonymous said...

I am the daughter of one of the pilots. I thank you so very much for securing their bodies, so that they could be brought back home to us.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I just read your blog and I want to thank you for your part. Although it was difficult to read, It answered some of my questions, and to be truthful, brought up more questions. You see, one of those men was my fiance. He was an amazing man, and will be missed dearly every single day... Please take care of yourself and again thank you for what you do, and what you did.

Alex Horton said...

Thanks for leaving your comments. Among the many thoughts going through my head at the time, I was grief stricken from the tragedy that would befall four families on the same day. I'm proud to have helped to secure all of them so they may be sent home. Bless you.