SHERIFF OF RAMADI, PART 2
In early June 2006, the SEALs in Ramadi were preparing to engage the enemy in a way they had not done in their 45-year history. They would still operate with the jundis that they and the previous task unit had trained, and the intelligence and targeting cells would continue to crank out information on specific insurgent targets. But the focus of SEAL operations would be to support the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division of the U.S. Army in the battle to retake Ramadi. When the Sheriff stepped into the streets with his Soldiers and Marines, the Navy SEALs would back his play.
The order of battle on the eve of this struggle pitted four American Army battalions, one Marine battalion, and two Iraqi Army brigades against an unknown and fluid number of entrenched insurgents. For the Americans there were the 1-35 and 1-37 Armor battalions at Camp Ramadi, the 1-6 Infantry battalion (mechanized) at Camp Blue Diamond, the 3/8 Marine infantry battalion at Hurricane Point, and 1-506 Infantry battalion at Camp Corregidor. The Iraqi 7th Brigade was at Camp Ramadi with the Iraqi 1st Brigade just across Route Michigan from Camp Corregidor. All told, there were some 5,500 Americans and 2,300 Iraqis going into the battle of Ramadi. Among them was a Navy SEAL task unit with thirty-plus combat-ready SEALs.
INCURSIONS INTO INSURGENT TERRITORY
The battle began on 17 June, with two combat outposts (COP) being sited simultaneously in the southwest and southeast sides of the city. A third COP was established on 18 June in the southeast sector near Camp Corregidor. The outposts were named COP Iron, COP Spear, and COP Eagles Nest, respectively. These initial COPs were designed to block insurgent infiltration activity from the south. It took several days of fighting and building to seize and harden each of these three outposts and turn back the inevitable insurgent counterattacks. Over the course of the next seven months, thirteen COPs and several Iraqi police stations were established, then defended on a daily basis. SEALs were involved from the beginning in nearly all of these operations. Each of these outpost operations was an incursion into insurgent-controlled territory. Each one was different, but each was always combative—a story unto itself. I’ve chosen one of these operations as a surrogate for the SEALs’ role in this battle as it related to these outposts. It was the establishment of COP Falcon in southwest Ramadi on 25 June. This important COP was located at the intersection of Baseline and Sunset roads, in the heart of “Indian country.”
“There are a lot of moving parts to putting in a COP,” Captain Mike Bajema told me. “It’s a multilayered process that requires the organization of diverse forces and the staging of a lot of materials.” Mike Bajema was the Bravo Company commander with the 1-37 Armor battalion of the American 1st Armored Division at Camp Ramadi, and a veteran of close to three years of continuous duty in Iraq. Bajema grew up in Seattle and graduated fromWashington State. He’s an armor officer, a tanker, and professional Soldier to the core.
“The site of a prospective COP is chosen by the higher-ups with some thought to its role in the overall battle plan, the logistics, terrain, and even the psychological impact it might have on the enemy and the people in the surrounding area. Lives are at risk, so each one is sited very carefully. Once a site is identified, the next step is for the company commander who will be in command of the COP to make a reconnaissance of the area and, if possible, to put eyes on the buildings that will form the COP—kind of a combat suitability study. In the case of COP Falcon, I was the company commander, and I led the reconnaissance of the area, three days before we went in. It was an armored reconnaissance, and when we got close to the area, we began to get hit with IEDs. In those days, when you drove around Ramadi in a tank or a Bradley [Fighting Vehicle], expect IEDs. I did get close enough to see that the buildings we wanted to use would be inadequate, and we would have to have more structures than we’d initially planned on for this COP. This was a residential area, and our original plan was to occupy four residences. We ended up with eleven at COP Falcon. The taking and occupation of residents’ houses are done with a lot of care and approvals that go up to the brigade level and beyond. We’re not exactly the ideal tenants you want in your home, but the Iraqis we had to relocate for COP Falcon were well and fairly compensated.
SURPRISE IS CRITICAL
“Once we’ve confirmed the location, a lot of planning and organization has to be done in short period of time. The quicker we can move, the better chance we have of achieving surprise. The taking of a COP is a battalion-plus operation with help from the engineers and the SEALs. The engineers take satellite imagery and any photo-reconnaissance imagery, and design the outpost perimeter. This means they have to determine what exterior walls exist that they can make use of, and what concrete walls are needed to create a completely walled, defensible compound. The Army engineers, the Navy Seabees, and the battalion support platoon, along with my headquarters element, have to figure out how much is needed in the way of concrete barriers, food, water, concertina wire, generators, plywood, two-by-fours, ammunition, sandbags, et cetera. In other words, what will it take to build the COP and what will it take initially to sustain the COP? The materials, type and quantities, have to be calculated, staged, and some estimate made of how many flatbed trucks and how many trips it will take to move the materials from Camp Ramadi to the new COP location. For COP Falcon alone, the initial push called for 10,000 sandbags. In addition to erecting the walls, we had to build out eight fixed rooftop fighting positions. We had to plan for new wiring, lighting, power distribution, and communications. There had to be a forklift at the COP to unload pallets and move concrete barriers into place. There also had to be a very brave combat forklift driver. The build-out was a 78-hour mission, with the first 48 hours the most critical. I had to plan for rest breaks for all the engineers, builders, and drivers. The actual mission began with getting the security package in place, and that started with the Navy SEALs.”
“We had gone in a few nights earlier to do our own recon of this COP site,” Lars Beamon said of the COP Falcon operation. “It was one of several maritime operations we conducted in Ramadi.” COP Falcon was the first joint combat operation conducted by Captain Bajema and Lieutenant Beamon. There would be more, as the SEALs would soon sortie often from COP Falcon into southwest Ramadi. Their relationship from the beginning was prototypical of the Army–SEAL bonding. Here’s Mike Bajema on Lars Beamon: “We’re brothers from different
mothers.” Lars Beamon said of Bajema, “I never met a more capable and dedicated warrior than Mike Bajema.”
“We inserted by Marine SURC [Small Unit Riverine Craft] off the Habbaniyah Canal and patrolled in on foot,” Beamon said of the SEAL recon. “The Marines have some great boats—quiet, well-armed, and with convenient bow-entry doors. The Marines who man them know their business and are very professional on the water. We were very comfortable having them insert and extract us on missions. Once ashore we conducted a careful reconnaissance. We made a point to move about an extended area so we wouldn’t tip off the exact location of the new COP. Yet we were able to get some good IR pictures of the COP buildings. This was a pretty dangerous area, down on the edge of the Al Mualemeen District. When we got to the neighborhood where the COP was to be sited, we found two guys in the street planting an IED. We shot them both. Then we completed our recon and got back to the boats.”
The day before the operation was to kick off, a long train of trucks, tanks, supplies, and staged materials was carefully assembled at Camp Ramadi. Then there were extensive briefings for all units involved. There were final operational orders to be given, communications plans distributed and radio checks performed, pre-mission inspections held, and a massive amount of details that needed attention. Captain Mike Bajema was everywhere. Everyone involved were professionals and pretty much knew their jobs, but Bajema checked everything. This would be his COP and his company’s home for the next six months or more.
THEIR WORLD WAS ABOUT TO CHANGE
After dark on the evening of 24 June, an expanded SEAL element was again inserted by Marine SURCs. Those living in the houses that would compose the COP were still unaware that their world was about to change. The SEALs, their EOD techs, a Marine ANGLICO (Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company) air controller, interpreters, and their contingent of scouts quietly made their way to the objective. They were all traveling heavy, as they would be
out several days and, in anticipation of heavy fighting, they carried a great deal of ammunition.
“We didn’t have to wait long to make contact,” Beamon said, “as we killed an armed insurgent on the way in. It let the Army know we were on the job; when they rolled up, there was a muj facedown in the street at the entrance to their new COP. We went into the main house, a tall three-story residence. The scouts and the terps explained to the residents what was coming, and they took it stoically. These are people used to war. We set up shooting positions in
the upper stories, and called Mike to tell him we were in place. Our job now was to provide a sniper overwatch along the routes that the lead Army elements were going to use to get to the COP location. Since this area was known to be liberally sprinkled with IEDs, the Dagger clearance teams came in first, ahead of the armor. These brave soldiers and their heavily armored vehicles are charged with route clearance—in this case from Camp Ramadi to COP Falcon. These are the IED-removal specialists. They have a variety of equipment from specially configured Bradley Fighting Vehicles to large trucks called Buffalos that look a lot like garbage trucks. These vehicles have wire roller brushes, mechanical arms, and other physical-removal apparatuses. They also emit a broad spectrum of radio frequency energy to disrupt radio-controlled or cellphone-initiated IEDs. There is nothing subtle about a Dagger Team. They have racks of spotlights and they make lots of noise—audibly and electronically. They are manned by some of the bravest soldiers in the battlespace. The SEALs watched as they approached, specifically
looking for insurgents with shoulder-fired antitank rocket launchers (RPGs) who could threaten the Dagger Team vehicles.
Next comes the armor—the regular M3 Bradleys and the M1A2 Abrams tanks. They follow the Dagger Teams in and fan out around the COP to provide a cordon of security around the site. Close behind them is a company of infantry soldiers for additional security. There needs to be an area sufficiently cleared around the Falcon site in order to protect the builders of the COP. This could be a radius of a city block or more. With armor and infantry in place, Captain Bajema, his Bravo Company Bulldogs (the nickname for the Soldiers of Bravo Company of the 1-37 Armor), and their supporting elements come in and occupy the buildings. For COP Falcon, Bajema has two mechanized infantry platoons, a mortar platoon used as a light infantry platoon, a tank platoon, an engineering platoon, and a headquarters platoon. As Mike Bajema and his people move in, Lars Beamon and his snipers move out. Sometimes the SEALs will leave an overwatch element at the COP, but not this time. They patrol out from the new COP, past the infantry and armor, to set up sniper overwatch positions along the routes they’ve determined the insurgents are most likely to use to mount a counterattack.
FINE LINE BETWEEN SECURITY AND GOOD SHOOTING POSITIONS
“We liked to get out and into our shooting positions well before daylight,” one of the platoon snipers told me. “Usually we’ve identified the buildings where we wanted to set up, but sometimes we’d make a last-minute decision to change from one to another. It becomes an issue with the security of the position and the fields of fire. It seems as if it’s always a compromise between good shooting positions and good security—offense and defense. It’s never a perfect world, and in Ramadi we nearly always had to trade off one for the other. No two overwatches are the same. We like a building that has high shooting positions and fields of fire along two avenues—more if we can find the right location. This is not rocket science, and the bad guys know what makes a good shooting perch as well as we do. As much as we want the good shooting positions, we’re always looking for a building that doesn’t have too many blind spots—avenues of approach where the enemy can sneak up and get close.”
MECHANICS OF A SNIPER OVERWATCH
I spoke with a number of SEALs about these operations and their accounts varied along a familiar theme. This might be a good time to outline the mechanics of a sniper overwatch as they evolved in the battle of Ramadi. On occasion, a suitable abandoned structure was found, but for the most part, they were occupied residences, and the occupants had to be dealt with. This was done in various ways, by a polite knock on the door up to a full-on explosive breaching and building takedown, but usually the former. The residents were told what was happening and given assurance that they’d be paid for their inconvenience. Once the SEAL element went inside, no one was allowed to leave until the mission was finished. Sometimes these residents were cordial and amenable, and made tea for their surprise guests; other times they were withdrawn and hostile. But the work had to go on. In most cases, the scouts held the residents on the lower floor and tended to security while the SEAL shooters took to the upper floors or rooftops. Depending on the building and its configuration, it takes a while to get set up. And it also depends on how many guns were sent in for the overwatch. When there were no suitable shooting stations from windows or rooftops, the latter proving dangerous as the battle wore on, a hole had to be made in the walls for the sniper-rifle barrels. This was sometimes done with a loophole charge—a quarter-pound block of C-4 explosive to punch a shooting hole in the adobe-style walls. Most Iraqi homes and buildings were of a cinder-block, stucco-covered type of construction. This made for solid defensive shooting positions, but was often hard to punch holes in for sniper work. Here, again, the residents were compensated for this damage. That said, it’s hard to picture some American GIs in a French farmhouse paying for any damage they might have caused while they fought the Germans, but that’s how it was done in Ramadi. The Iraqi scouts held security in the lower floors and watched the residents while the SEAL snipers looked over their precision weapons and waited for insurgents. Once secured and sited, the residence became an overwatch position, sometimes called an OP.
“Once the SEALs got in place on the outer perimeter,” Mike Bajema said of the Falcon operation, “we were as prepared as we could be to defend the battlespace around the COP. Now the Army engineers, the Navy Seabees, and the support elements rolled into Falcon and started a 48-hour nonstop build-out of the site. Trucks began to ferry equipment and building materials in from Camp Ramadi, often taking sniper fire as they came and went. They dropped more than 200 twelve-foot concrete-wall T-barriers, set up 2000 meters of concertina, and strung God knows how many feet of electrical wire. It was a minor construction miracle.”
NO GLORY FOR ENGINEERS
“Those of us on the operational end of things often don’t often understand, or get the chance to appreciate, the work of the engineers,” Lieutenant Commander Jack Williams said of the COP construction crews, “but they were totally awesome.”Williams came into COP Falcon with armor elements to see his SEALs in their initial overwatch position at the COP site. He remained there after they moved out into the outlying overwatch positions to ensure that amid all the commotion, their locations and area clearances were known to other friendly units. “It takes some courage to do what we do, but in my opinion it takes a whole different kind of courage to keep your mind on your job—unloading trucks, setting up barriers, installing generators—while insurgents are out there trying to kill you. They worked like dogs, eighteen hours a day or more—exposed, wearing helmets and body armor in 115° heat. Those Army engineers and Seabees were true heroes. When they were building those combat outposts, all of us worked to keep them safe. We SEALs stood in their shadow; they were nothing short of magnificent.”
A FEVERED PITCH
Inside the perimeter of the new COP, engineers and soldiers alike worked at a fever pitch, laying concertina wire, moving supplies, and carrying sandbags amid the drone of generators. Outside the outpost grounds, between the new concrete barrier walls and the tanks and Bradleys on the outer security perimeter, Soldiers patrolled the streets, carefully searching the upper stories of buildings for insurgent activity. Skirmishes happened often. Overhead, F/A-18 fighters and drone aircraft circled the new COP while keeping human and electronic eyes on the surrounding area. At night, there were AC-130 gunships overhead as well. And well outside the foot patrols and the armor, Lars Beamon and his snipers kept watch on the streets of Ramadi, specifically along the routes the insurgents might take to get to those building COP Falcon. This was a relatively new game for the SEALs and the insurgents, and a learning experience for both.
SEALs train for this and know how to conduct sniper overwatches, but usually in the context of covering a single special mission, such as a raid or an assault, or to protect a conventional force patrolling in the street. They also train for these overwatch operations with the idea that they would be shooting from positions unknown to or hidden from the enemy. And for the most part, their training is for short-duration missions. Now they were going out and sitting in shooting positions from two to four days at a time. Sometimes the objective of the overwatch was area denial, as with COP Falcon, and sometimes it was to provide top cover for Soldiers and Marines patrolling in the streets in support of an extended combat operation, like a cordon-and-search operation. The insurgents quickly became adept at locating these overwatch positions. And if the SEALs managed to set up in an overwatch undetected, that advantage went away with the first shot taken. With this first shot, the overwatch often became nothing more than an elevated, covered position from which to engage the insurgents in a sustained gun battle.
INSURGENTS' FAMILIARITY RESULTS IN CARELESSNESS
The insurgents knew the city and the neighborhoods far better than the Americans. If they didn’t intuitively know the location of the best and most likely positions the overwatch might use, they quickly learned. They also learned how to move in the dead spaces where they were screened from their enemy’s fields of fire, both from the COPs and from the sniper OPs. For the insurgents moving on the street, these were life-and-death lessons in trigonometry; those who didn’t master this skill, or were careless or less nimble, were quickly killed. They learned from bitter experience just how accomplished these Sailors with sniper rifles could be. The SEALs took a grim harvest of insurgents in Ramadi, especially early on during the building of the initial COPs. In many cases, each of these insurgent deaths was a mistake on their part—and a lesson learned. They soon began to understand the methods and tactics of these skilled urban shooters and to develop countermeasures.
“Shooting these guys was very easy at the beginning,” a SEAL sniper told me. “They were careless. One day there were these two muj heading for a new COP on a motor scooter. One had an AK-47 and the other an RPG. One of our snipers got them both with a single round—one shot, two kills. But it gradually got harder. It was a Darwinian thing. We shot most of the stupid ones, and that left the smarter ones to evolve and survive. But we evolved as well.
And even for some of the hard-core fighters out there, all they had to do was make one wrong move at the wrong time or take one too many chances. When they crossed an open area, we might not get the first one, but we’d get the second—and the third if they were dumb enough to try it. We’re SEALs, and we were very good when we got to Ramadi. For the insurgents in Ramadi or who came to Ramadi, they became good or died in the process.”
ANOTHER WARRIOR IN THE BATTLESPACE
SEAL contributions to the battle extended well past precision shooting. In their role in Ramadi as “another warrior in the battlespace,” they came to be looked on by the conventional forces as a brother warrior rather than a special warrior. Yet few warriors arrive in the battlespace better prepared or with more extensive training. Most first-tour SEALs will have trained for two-and-a-half years before they go in harm’s way. Given that they have a maritime skill set that can command a third of that time, it’s still far more comprehensive than the basic and advanced infantry training afforded new Soldiers and Marines. These Sailors train and drill in ground assault and fire-and-movement—repetitively, and in different kinds of terrain. They practice these disciplines at all levels of training with live fire. Jack Williams likes to tell the story of one of his new assistant platoon OICs on his first combat tour. He was in one of the COPs when a call for help came in. One of the Army military transition teams (MiTT) and some of their Iraqis were pinned down by snipers and unable to move. This young officer quickly collected a squad of SEALs and
jundis in two HMMWVs and hurried to their location.When he got to the MiTT and the Army major in charge, they were still taking fire from the insurgent snipers. He immediately sent a SEAL-scout element to flank them. With suppressing fire from the flank, he split his remaining element into two groups and began to leapfrog toward the enemy position. They were able to kill one of the insurgents and drive the others off.
“You guys were terrific,” the major said in thanking his rescuers. “You must have a lot of experience in urban combat.”
“Not really,” the SEAL, a junior-grade lieutenant, replied. “This was my first firefight.”
NEXT: Analysis of the first time that SEALs operate in direct and continuous support of conventional forces in combat Sheriff of Ramadi, by Dick Couch, is available from Naval Institute Press. 288 pages, $29.95.