Monday, November 05, 2007

Photo Story Monday!

Today marks the beginning of a new weekly series. Every Monday I'll bring to you a riveting story from my tour in Iraq with pictures I've taken, unless otherwise noted.

This week's story:
The Firefight of March 24, 2007

Ten days after
arriving in Baqubah, we hadn't had a break in mission tempo. We went into Al Qaeda's Alamo without an understanding of the tactical importance of the city, but in the first hours we realized very quickly. We set out into the dense palm groves that blanket both sides of the Diyala River Valley without the support of our Stryker vehicles and a limited amount of visibility for Apache helicopters. We spent nearly five days walking through the groves, hopping over streams and slippery ditches. Given the large distance from our vehicles, we couldn't resupply food and water at whim. What we could carry is what we got, until we made our way back to an abandoned house on the edge of the groves every night. Carrying a backpack full of propaganda fliers, chemical detection spray, binoculars, signal panels, shotgun shells, extra ammo, grenades, 7-10 key locks (!), shotgun and disposable rocket launcher, I didn't have much room (or strength) to carry a lot of water. I opted for two quarts a day, one in my backpack, the other in my cargo pocket. I didn't even attempt to carry food rations. I'm pretty good at conserving water, but we'd start at daylight and I'd be sucking the last drops before noon. Our only option was to pick the oranges off the trees and eat them as we walked by. They tasted like a cross between sauerkraut, horseradish and evil, but biting into those oranges on the brink of heat exhaustion felt incredible.

Sooo thirsty

Sweet, sweet hydration falling into septic waste

After nearly a week of channeling Vietnam in the foliage, we got a break from the jungle and started regular patrols. On March 24, we ventured out into Mufrek, the little hamlet of doom on the west side of the river. Steve and I were the only ones in the platoon who hadn't been on leave since the tour started, and we were leaving the next day. Normally everyone got a few days off beforehand to get cleaned up and ready, but we were shorthanded. There was a chance to get out the 24th instead of the 25th, but it was only going to be a routine patrol beginning in the early morning and ending around 2PM, enemy action permitting. I would go, come back and get ready in a flash, hoping a helicopter would take me away to Baghdad that night.

Just past dawn our company was convoying down a road preparing to get out and start our foot patrol. A certain anxiety fills the air as you're about to dismount and spend your morning and afternoon with the mission of inciting an enemy reaction. You face IEDs in the vehicles but snipers and machine gunners on foot. The best of both worlds! The convoy continues on, heading toward an intersection down the road from where Chevy was killed when the all too familiar sound of a bomb hitting a Stryker fills the ears, minds and hearts of everyone behind the lead vehicle.

Instantly, shots ring out on the three sides of the intersection, hoping to hit the culprits in the abandoned neighborhood. All the vehicles stop and my squad dismounts, running into the immediate building on the corner of the intersection. Clearing from bottom to top, we reach the roof as rockets and machine guns shoot down the road. There are injured men in the Stryker that were hit: one with a missing leg, one missing a leg up to the knee, a dude with a shattered leg and pelvis and other guys with assorted minor injuries. We had no idea what platoon was hit at that point but figured it out to be our third platoon. We followed the lead of tracers shooting down the road in an effort to suppress while the injured were being carried out. I pulled out my camera and set it down on the edge of the rooftop, pointed in the general direction of the carnage.

Dozer set up his machine gun, a few feet from my delicate eardrums, and held down the trigger for all of eternity. After my hearing was reduced to a high pitched squeal, I did what I always do when everyone is shooting at nothing in particular: shoot at a fixed object to make sure my weapon sight is accurate. I was shooting at a water tank when Bill said "Get some HE out there!", which meant for me to shoot a high explosive grenade down the block. I saw lots of things exploding and impacting in the intersection down there, so I looked for a rooftop where a bad guy would most likely hide. Victor shot a grenade, sending it into the intersection. I launched another, impacting the roof I targeted. I didn't consider it then, but later I wondered if there was anybody on that rooftop, good or bad.

From the rooftop. At -0:36, my grenade impacts on the roof in the distance.

We got the call to move across the street and take the building overlooking a large open field. Kicking through expended brass and pieces of concrete in the road, we make it into the gate and head for the flight of stairs leading to a landing. At the top, an Iraqi Army machine gunner with a helmet three sizes too small grins at us as we make our way up. We have to cross in front of his barrel, so I tell him, "no shoot, no shoot." He's practically empty on ammo as we make our way up to the roof.

I kick over pieces of scrap metal to reach the edge of the roof and set up for a look over the field. At some point the company snipers join us and begin to locate targets in the buildings about 200 yards from us. With dueling grenade launchers, Victor and I set our sights on the building that housed the insurgents and put grenades over the courtyard wall and into the back door. The roof saturated with dudes watching the field, I turn to look at our previous position and the road we were shooting toward, now covered in smoke. A squad from another platoon had the building now, though the building is not as tall as ours. Down the road I see a few guys running from one side to the other. Before this, the streets were completely empty of cars and people. The one in the front had something long in his hand but I couldn't shoot him before he disappeared out of view. He was making his away
toward us, not away. His friend that was trailing him wasn't as fast. I shot twice, over the heads of the squad below, hitting him somewhere in the hip area. His body lurched forward into an awkward dive, and he vanished behind a wall like his nimble friend. I don't know what happened to him after that. The squad below yelled "What the fuck!" at me and I shouted back "There's fucking guys over there!" pointing over their heads. They didn't understand a word.

Hello, Dominos?

Shane searches for targets while Josh is monitoring the radio. Not pictured: Ken Jones fighting an epic battle with the Sandman

Not wanting to scare the hell out of anyone, I decide to go back to the field, where grenades and .50 cal rounds are destroying another building in the distance. Apaches begin strafing a building so close to us that we can see the brass falling from the helicopter. His wingman poises in the air and with a flash of light, sends a Hellfire missile into a building with suspected fighters. Everyone lets out a cheer. The roof collapses as the Apache circles back to shoot another missile. Sailing through the air, it completely misses the intended target and goes spiraling into the distance, never seen again.
Oh, shit. It circles back again and delivers yet another missile, this time hitting the building, completing the hat trick.

Our attentions turn to a building with columns a little farther being shot up with every caliber weapon imaginable. I'm not sure why it was being targeted, but I didn't see the point of shooting at a building with a puny rifle and opted to record the action. With enough practice now, the Apache lets loose with another missile. With a flash and a puff of smoke, the missile crashes into the roof of the building.


Hopefully this guy had occupation insurance

In the foreground to the right, the building with the collapsed roof

le tired

My squad leader resting after the firefight. The next day, he would be shot in the arm by a sniper

After the barrage of Hellfire missiles, the action died down and we held our positions for several hours before we started to clear the buildings in the neighborhood. The injured dudes were evacuated and made it back, less a couple limbs. After sprinting down the road, we discovered a few houses set up with wire and batteries connected to IEDs, positions set up to ambush us. Luckily we didn't make it that far. Iraqi Police went into the house Victor and I shot with grenades and claimed there were about seventeen dead insurgents with weapons, which is likely an outright fabrication.

We set out to clear the neighborhood at about the time we were supposed to go back to the base. So much for routine.



Unknown said...

WOW! Alex, your telling of the tale put me right there with you. Now we faithful readers of AOD are going to get a real feel for what you experienced with these more direct recountings, enhanced by still and video photography of the action you saw. I'm looking forward to much, much more!



Unknown said...

Thanks for this and looking forward to more. It's just confusion, isn't it? It sounds like from your point of view, there was no obvious enemy activity after the IED (except for the two guys), just US forces blasting away at what other US forces were blasting away at.

wounded warrior mom said...

Alex, I have been following your story with awe and admiration for almost a year. I know of no soldier other than my own whose writing can bring such pride and/or tears to my eyes. I am a mom of a soldier (3-2 5-20 B Co.) who returned with "less a couple limbs" but with the Grace of God returned alive. Your latest blog was a big kick in the pants that I needed. Thank you for reminding me to be grateful for the fellow soldiers fighting with him and his safe return. Keep up the wonderful writing. Kim Poppenhouse

Scot Celley said...


Good job!

It was my first time to your blog, and you've done a crack job. I really felt I was there, and I hope to see a compiliation of these compositions on bookstores sometime in the near future. It's been said that you don't choose writing, writing chooses you. Obviously, you're one of the chosen ones.

I'm a Navy vet (see: I think about the job you and your buds did there - and are doing there - often.

I will be visiting your blog often.


Barbara said...

Wow, Dude. I'm speechless. I stumbled across your site while voting for Michael Yon. You know him? Anyway, I'm having problems figuring out what's truth and what's fiction--honest to God, man. Hey, I'm sorry that the military didn't live up to your expectations. War's hell, man. Ask any soldier who fought in the Civil War, I, II, Korea, anytime in history. Millions of Moms have waited and prayed and cried over the years. Girls have waited..or not. This is not new. Get a GRIP, people. I can be as paranoid as any of you but...jeez. I hate this war, too...My son just spent three years in the Army. He's in the Guard, now. I think about this war every time I look at him. I've imagined what it must be like to expect to die 24 hours a day-365. I can imagine how I would stink of fear and raw nerves. But there is nothing new under the sun. You didn't discover death, nor evil, nor incompetence. They all existed before you were born. No, really. (And you are an excellent writer, by the way.)

Anonymous said...

echoing Barbara, I hate this war too and the administration that initiated it and risked American lives to carry it out. Every life but their own. It's no place for a 22-year old, it's no place for anyone. You're a good lad but I wish you were not there experiencing that.

You write very well, btw. Much better than any silly-ass chicken-livered pundit journalist. You could have a future in that. You will, if my prayers have any influence.

Take care of yourself.

The Minstrel Boy said...

good job alex. by the time i figured i was able to go there in memory to describe my experiences they were dim with time and all the other stuff surrounding them. you are wise to process them while they are fresh and your buddies who are still around can fact check you. there have been a number of times where i believed a memory of combat was clearly seared into my memory like a blue ray DVD and shit. only to have someone who was right there with me remember something different.

still, bravo for a job well done.

Rob said...

Where'd the videos go?

Rob said...

Whoops, nevermind. It seems I should have refreshed your post.

Don Wilson said...

Well written. nuff said.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this - it really helps regular people get a better understanding of what you all go through. Amazing and terribly sad, not sure how soldiers can ever get over the sheer terror they face - the ones that live. On Veterans Day -- thank you for your service and your courage. I hope the rest of your life is full of happiness and joy.

Anonymous said...

Sincere Thanks!
Thank you for your service in the US military and risking your life for our US freedom. Thank God you survived to share your experience with others. It gives us a glimpse of what it was like for you to put your life at risk for our American Freedom. Writing is a personal journey and is also personal therapy and a recollection of what happened through your eyes that nobody can take that away from you. Keep writing......

1texastornado said...

Thank You for your military service and risking your life for our freedom. Thank God you survived, to tell everyone of your personal experience.
God Bless you!