Monday, March 03, 2008

Photo Story Monday - The Home Stretch

He was walking down the street in the middle of the night, AK-47 in tow, without a care about curfews or carrying an automatic assault rifle in the open, strolling along like it was the most natural thing in the world. He didn’t likely hear the Americans infiltrating into the city, walking from a mile away as to not alert anyone with the hum of Strykers growing louder and more ominous. He certainly didn’t hear the sizzling crack that ended his life a split second before he hit the ground in a tangled mess of limbs; the only thing uttered posthumously about him said over static radio waves. One enemy KIA.

It had only been twenty minutes into Operation Arrowhead Ripper, the first large scale ground offensive in Iraq after the surge, and already one insurgent was leaking his fluids into the street. We expected a final stand, a decisive battle, a moment of reckoning where hopefully our dead wouldn’t stack as high as the enemy. Our battalion had been holding Baqubah for three months, sustaining high casualties in a town that al Qaeda declared their central hub in Iraq. Holding it with us was 3rd Brigade of 1st Cavalry, a unit that was taking a considerable amount of casualties since they had arrived several months prior. We would fall under their command but would soon take control of the area, giving them a rest by giving them the job of securing main roads in and out of town. A company of Cavalry Strykers was with us for the same purpose, and our snipers and scouts were inflicting their fair share of enemy deaths with their long scopes and small teams, pairing with a mortar platoon at times. For regular infantry, there were two companies, Alpha and Bravo. In just a couple months, our numbers dwindled so drastically that we could combine both companies to form a proper textbook infantry company.

Daily firefights and ordinance falling from the sky kept the routine and mundane at bay. We held several of the neighborhoods on the east side, creating combat outposts continually manned by rotating platoons within the company. Two smaller, dangerous neighborhoods stood on the west side, Mufrek and Khatoon. Chevy was killed the first day in the city, and ten days later (and a few blocks away) was the scene of a vicious IED that took several limbs from the Stryker occupants and left a burning hull. West of the Diyala River was the bad side of a bad town that we cleared and recleared but never held permanently. There simply weren’t enough men to control the entire city with the shrinking manpower we had.

Operation Arrowhead Ripper was the overdue answer of desperate calls for reinforcement. In mid June our sister battalion, 1/23, along with a company of 82nd Airborne and another out of Hawaii arrived at FOB Warhorse. We were grateful about their arrival but not the growing lines at the internet and chow hall. The offensive was going to be huge, with air assaults and ground infiltration happening in the middle of the night. It would last for weeks, with full support of helicopter gunships and planes dropping bunker busters. There was a new rocket system called a glimmer that we had never heard of being used, where recent digging and bombs were identified in the road by helicopters or satellites or some damn thing. Rockets would them fire straight down, creating a huge crater and destroying any IED in its wake.

With Baqubah’s bloody past, it was expected that this offensive was going to rival Fallujah in terms of destruction and casualties. The insurgents knew it was coming and had ample time to prepare their deep buried IEDs that had been lying in wait for months for just one American convoy to pass, justifying countless hours of waiting. Gates leading to courtyards were locked and chained shut so that no one could take cover behind a wall as machine guns lay in ambush, firing volleys down the avenue. As the insurgents prepared, we prepared. Rifle magazines and belts of machine gun ammo were changed out with armor piercing rounds to penetrate ceramic plates and make sure anyone shot would be down for the count. We had found countless vests in caches and on the bodies of insurgents killed, making us aware of how well they protected themselves. Nearly everyone was filling backpacks with extra ammo, extra grenades, shotgun rounds, crowbars, bolt cutters, smoke grenades, batteries, knives and stickers used to identify cleared houses. We were cleaning our weapons, checking sights for accuracy and putting fresh batteries in night vision goggles. We were calling and emailing family and friends, letting them know we’d be gone for awhile, and that we loved them.

Weighed down with armor and extra equipment, we set out in the early hours of June 19. The task force was starting in the south and clearing up in unison as one unit. We had the privilege of clearing Khatoon, the toughest nut to crack and our most unfamiliar area. Though 1/23 had their whole battalion, we were given the neighborhood because of experience. They’d take Mufrek, the smallest section of the west side. We pulled up along a main road and filtered out of the Strykers and into the black abyss of a huge field. There was a road running parallel to us that we didn’t take out of concern for small IEDs targeting dismounts. Instead we had chosen the less beaten path, a garbage and sewage strewn open area dotted with wild chickens pecking the trash at their feet. We would find, clear and hold a tall building until daybreak and begin clearing in the morning sun. Before getting there, our first platoon spotted a man walking down the street with an AK 47 slung over his shoulder. Muffled shots filled the air, no louder than the tin cans sent flying with awkward kicks from fumbling soldiers in the darkness, tink-tinking against rusted scrap metal. Over the company radio the report came in. One enemy KIA. Well, shit. Now they know we’ve arrived.

We found a house high enough to see the landscape surrounding us and decided it would be home for the next couple hours. It was abandoned like countless houses in the ghost town of Baqubah. On the floor in the living room was a pile of bootleg DVDs, the kind sold at the bazaar on our base. On top was a box set of 28 Clint Eastwood movies over four discs. Once the building was cleared and security was on the roof, I trotted down the stairs to rummage through the neglected treasures of entertainment. My backpack was tightly packed with chemical detection spray and 40mm grenades, but I found some room and crammed in the DVD set. So far, this mission wasn’t so bad.

I joined the rest of the squad on the roof, replacing a guy that took my spot as I was pillaging on the floor below. It was still dark and oddly quiet, muted whispers and a gentle wind the only sounds to be heard. Dozer was behind me facing the other direction, watching the road for any movement as I looked over a swath of houses and fields. In a low voice he suddenly calls out that he sees something. Four men run across the road to a small shack, one of them holding a bag that is quickly tossed in the weeds. He’s not the only one to see them; infrared lasers dance on the figures from another area, quite possibly our third platoon or the scout platoon. Dozer makes the call and opens fire, cutting down a couple of the men with a burst of his armor piercing rounds as Dodo fires alongside him. The other guns burp in perfect harmony, sending sparks on the road as God knows how many rounds are being fired at these four guys. One of them tries to climb a wall to safety and is shot in the back, making him drop like an anvil to the cracked pavement as blood streaks and splatters on the wall. I watch the whole thing unfold from over my shoulder, wanting to get into the fight but holding my position on the opposite wall. All four men lay in varying degrees of death. We’d wait until the sun to rise before going down to survey the damage. We didn’t want to take the chance of walking into an ambush set by any unseen figures.

Dawn came, and with it, glimmer rockets and bunker busting bombs. There was intel on several explosive-rigged houses and IEDs before the operation started, and they were being destroyed en masse as birds sang their morning tunes.

At dawn, this is probably the last thing I want to see besides Hillary wearing a robe

It was daylight, and another squad was sent down to check out Dozer's handiwork. They walked up to the guy who should have been the first one dead and saw he was still holding onto life by a thread, literally. His bottom half was almost completely sawed off from his torso, and he was throwing up his legs and twisting them like a freakish sideshow. He kept demanding water but no one had any, other than their backpack reservoirs with a personal hose. When his demand of water wasn't met, he threw rocks at the soldiers surveying the area. A pistol was found on one of the bodies, and a grenade not far from the half-man. When they came back to check on him, he was dead.

As we we watched what was happening below, figures in a building 300 yards away started moving. Dressed in white robes and carrying AK-47s, they're frantically pacing up and down stairs. Everyone locks on them. I load a grenade and flip up the sight, ready to send one sailing into the congregating group in the house. My squad leader calls it up, saying we're ready to engage. It comes back, negative. Don't shoot. They're Iraqi special forces.

There was a lull in action after that. The big, theatric battles imagined days before had dissolved into routine clearing. This street, that street. On and on.

We went into one side of the palm groves and came out the other, leading right into the backyard of a house we knew well. A few weeks prior, after getting sniped at and held down by a machine gun, we cleared a section of houses where one held a shitload of money, and one held insurgent gear. We found a huge roll of pistol belts, a ski mask, bayonets, AK 47 magazines and documents. No one was home at the time, but walking up to that exact house again was close to divine intervention. What were the chances?

We ransacked the house for a second time as the owners watched without expression. We told the man of the house that we were going to arrest him for possessing those materials we had found weeks ago. He claimed he wasn't holding them by choice, as some men stashed it there and told him to be quiet. We were bluffing, and we really had no way to take this guy with us, but he wasn't too convincing either.

Waiting to move on

It was back to the ordinary. We were taking extra precautions with doors, gates and floors with the danger of wired houses in the area. They had first been used years ago but were coming back in Diyala. Every door would be checked for wires leading up to it from inside, and we tiptoed across carpets or moved them out of the way.

Checking every gate meant peering over to make sure nothing was behind it. At one particular house, something caught my eye. See if you can spot it:

Guess what's wrong with this picture and win a free iPod

Whoever was there left in a hurry. They didn't even try to hide the staples of IED building, air tanks and artillery shells. A quick sweep of the house netted a sizable cache of all types of goodies, just sitting in a box for us to find. Anti-tank mines were stacked alongside like a tower of Jenga blocks, wobbling to one side. RPG shells were placed at random in the house, as were vests and ammo belts.

"Do you think the Americans will find this?"
"Naaaaaah. Just throw that shit in the box."

With the paranoia of a huge firefight swirling around, we had used all of our HC screening smoke grenades within the first few days of the operation. When we were resupplied, we were given colored smoke to use. Screening smoke puts up a solid white cloud that you can't see through, given you the ability to mask movement across roads, fields and any kind of open area. Colored smoke was for signaling; each color meant something. At the time, the colors only meant one thing: half-protection from the eyes of anyone watching.

Soon we ran out of colored smoke and were down to using training colored smoke. They were colored, but scaled back to use in training, so some 18 year old kid at Ft. Benning knows what happens when you pull a ring on a can of smoke. Why they were even sent to Iraq, I could never say. Why we got them, I could only guess.

It got so bad that we were throwing the last of the training colored smoke, but we still had more running, dodging and diving to do. We had been taking fire, and we were directed to move toward the mosque two hundred meters down the street. I was on the roof watching over a squad moving toward it. They had one final block to move across, but it was about fifty feet long. They yelled at me to shoot smoke grenades from my 203 to conceal them. It was a ludicrous idea. 203 smoke was chalky and abrupt and would do nothing except attract enemy fire. That, and there was a lower building right in front of me. It would be an almost impossible shot, near and low to the point where I had to forgo my sights and eyeball it.

I launched a grenade right over the edge, impacting the wall, the wind sending the smoke the opposite way intended. One of the machine gunners yelled, "COVERING FIRE!" and sent a burst down the street as his squad moved. One of them yelled for another. I loaded a red smoke, aimed at the same thing, and fired.

CLUNK...CRACK. The grenade smacked the edge of the building and went tumbling end over end. I sighed at the miss, but it took a favorable bounce into the street and did a better job than the first one.

As they moved into the mosque, we left the roof and the building to join them. It was my first time in a mosque, as they were usually off-limits to us because of their religious value. Dozer and I looked around for the microphone that lets you talk to the whole city but couldn't find it. Oh well.

White men sitting in a mosque is worse than any Mohammed drawing

We were getting close to finishing the clearing mission. It had been several days without adequate sleep, little food and less water. Headlines blaring about a big offensive in Diyala Province were seen and heard back home, without word from us. No one knew what was going on. But we hadn't been in firefights every day like we had expected. It was pretty much a bust.

The roads were still dangerous to tread on. When we finished up for the day, we returned to a house we took over as a makeshift base. The Strykers had a point where they had to stop or risk more IEDs. They held well short of our house, so we had to find a way to transport the necessities. Someone came up with the idea of using donkey carts.

We're Spending Our Money On What Now? - Moment #352: Using stolen carts to transport food and water over potential IEDs

Pushing the cart over pieces of rock and concrete made by falling glimmer rockets

The final day, we had pushed all the way to our stopping point: a large, open field right in front of us. We were waiting on the whole task force to get to that point on both sides. We stood in the blazing heat on the wide open rooftop, taking thirty minute shifts in the shade. As soon as I walked downstairs and took off my vest for a break, an explosion rocked the area right next to us. Smoke and dust billowed from what used to be a house a split second ago. We called up, "What the fuck happened?!"

The house just blew up. Simply put. Could've been a bomb maker with a trembling hand, or it could've been wired and blown to intimidate us.

It was quickly my shift, and I made my way up the stairs to replace Matt and Dozer. There were a few people out and about, strange for that part of town. Bill and I were shooting the shit and cursing the sun when another house erupted in a fireball, collapsing the roof and throwing bricks into the air like confetti. We both looked at each other with the most confused 'what the fuck' look on our faces. It seemed like any house could be next.

Soon after the explosion, we heard moaning and screaming coming from the house. Bill used his telescopic sight to see a man crawling out of the rubble, a blindfold hanging off his face a little. His skin was coming off and the lower half of his body crushed. He was yelling for someone, anyone to help. I don't know if he saw us there, helpless to his plight for water and care. There was only five of us and it was too risky to cross that field. He'd have to lay there.

We thought he was dead. The moaning stopped. No more screams. But he was soon alive again, resurrected to have his revenge against us. He tried to sit up only to fail, again and again. His blindfold kept sliding off his face a tiny bit at a time. He didn't have the strength to take it off.

A woman and her young daughter went walking down the street, approaching the house with the broken man hanging on to dear life. His saviors. Once they got to the house, they turned to look at the destruction and the pleading man. And they kept walking, as if they were window shopping on Park Avenue. Soon after that, he stopped crawling and yelling for good.

The street in front of us had more foot traffic throughout the day as people walked to the market and bicycled to other houses. I saw something on that street I would see in the next several weeks. It was a family, walking together, with a white flag held high. A sign of good faith.

On they strolled, past us, past the dead man and past the other destroyed house. Once they were out of danger, the little boy dropped the flag to his side as they walked out of view.



Anonymous said...

Worth the wait Alex!! haha! I forgot about the donkey carts!! Now that im out of the army and in college i could use those donkey carts for my books! Take care bud

Joshua M. Martell
Civilian, USA

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 03/03/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front lines.

MJ Athens said...

Great piece. Thought you migh like to see the Iraqi Army EOD team at work on this 155. I like the way the guy uses his AK as a pry bar.


Anonymous said...

In the picture that you mentioned had something wrong with it, I think it looks fishy that those framed pictures hang over the doorframe.

Is that what's wrong with the picture?

Anonymous said...

The GI boots by the door?


Unknown said...

Another great story, Alex! My guess for the photo is the pair of dangling wires hanging next to what looks like a switch plate.



Caroline said...

I love your pictures!

Anonymous said...

Chilling. I can understand you guys maintaining your position, but his own countrywoman???

What could she have been thinking? No wonder their history is full of death, destruction, and struggle. They don't nourish their children on the milk of human kindness.


Anonymous said...
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