■ATTACK ON CHARLIE COMPANY
With the dog days of summer came an escalation of violence, in the form of more frequent attacks and increasingly bold activity on the part of the insurgency. In the second week of August, Charlie Company headquarters, now based in the Ishaki Community Center, had sustained a significant pre-dawn attack. The insurgents had launched RPG rockets from three different locations simultaneously, and although there were no serious injuries to American troops, it was apparent that the war, in this area anyway, had changed course. No longer were the insurgents content to ambush in small numbers; this was a sophisticated and brazen assault on a fairly large U.S. company headquarters. As such, it merited a response beyond a mere shrugging of the shoulders.
I decided to make the trip north to Ishaki to spend some time with Charlie Company. We left on 19 August, a small group of soldiers from my headquarters element traveling in a four-vehicle caravan. We often traveled in this fashion, with precisely this number of vehicles and soldiers. In any battalion, typically, the command group element consisted of two scout vehicles (Humvees) and two Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The Bradley carrying the battalion commander was known as HQ 66; the Bradley carrying the battalion operations officer was HQ 33.
■ A TOUGH-TALKING TEXAN
Our operations officer was Major Darren Wright, a tough-talking Texan through and through. An ROTC graduate from the University of North Texas, Darren had the dirtiest flak jacket in all of Iraq – and not because he spent a lot of time low-crawling around the country; he just had a bad habit of spitting tobacco juice down the front of his flak vest. Although he stood just a shade under six feet tall, Darren was broad-shouldered and strong, a cowboy to the core. In the simplest of terms, Darren was a warrior. As operations officer he was responsible not only for the day-to-day fight but also for long-range planning. It was the fighting, though, that Darren relished; this was a kid who could almost smell out the contact. He had keen insight and intuitiveness as to how we needed to fight and kill the enemy. In that regard, in fact, I’d say he was more skilled than anyone else in the entire brigade. I saw a lot of men in action, and many of them were woefully inadequate. Not Darren. I had pretty good tactical instincts when it came to combat, but Darren was even better; he was the rare soldier whose senses seemed to improve in the heat of battle.
But there were times when Darren’s eagerness was a detriment. A week prior to our trip to Ishaki, for example, Darren had violated one of my standing orders in regard to traveling with “white light.” When 1-8 Infantry patrolled at night, soldiers were forbidden to use headlights on any of their vehicles. The reason was simple: a vehicle using its headlights was an easy target. Of course, you sacrifice speed in the name of safety when you travel without white light, but I considered that to be an acceptable trade. Not everyone agreed, including, my brigade commander, Colonel Rudesheim. Darren typically followed this directive, but not always. On one night in early August, while rushing to a joint intelligence operations briefing involving American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officers at LSA Anaconda, Darren had authorized the use of white light. His patrol came under fire and two of our soldiers were seriously injured. Darren regretted his decision, and actually broke down in tears as I chastised him for needlessly risking the lives of his men. I told him he had only one more chance; any other displays of disobedience to rules designed specifically to ensure the safety of our soldiers would result in his leaving the battalion.
■ CATASTROPHIC IED ATTACK ALONG THE TIGRIS
His occasional lapses in judgment notwithstanding, I trusted Darren and appreciated his abilities, and I was happy to have him with me that evening as we traveled along alternate supply route (ASR) Amy toward Highway One, on our way to Ishaki. Darren and I would take turns leading on these types of patrols, since the lead vehicle was the one most likely to experience the first round of fire in the event of an attack. Both Bradleys were manned by highly skilled and proficient gunners, which provided a level of comfort. Still, we knew by this time that a Bradley offered something less than complete protection, since the insurgents had already demonstrated that they possessed weaponry sufficient to gut a Bradley. Within a few months, an American M-1 tank – one of the most secure fighting vehicles in our fleet – would take a catastrophic IED attack along the Tigris River. The turret of the tank was blown 60 feet from the hull, and the entire crew was killed instantly. That was unnerving, for until that time most tanks were thought to be impenetrable. But they weren’t; and the typical Bradley, while fast and more agile, was significantly more vulnerable to attack. Although we hadn’t seen it up close, we knew by August that certain RPG rockets could penetrate a Bradley’s armor. And a roadside IED could stop it cold.
On Highway One, approximately halfway between Baghdad and Samarra, was a large rest area, complete with a sprawling marketplace and a mosque. This particular stretch of highway was a route popular with Shias making their pilgrimage to the Golden Dome Mosque in Samarra, and so the rest area had been developed because of its proximity to the two cities (it also served as a highway exit into Balad). As we passed the rest area, with Darren’s vehicle in the lead, Darren got on the radio.
“You see those guys near the fruit stand?”
Indeed, there had been a group of young men standing at one of the markets as we passed, staring at our convoy. On a few occasions we would pass a group such as this, and one of the men would slide his hand across his throat, as if to indicate an impending execution. Sometimes this would signal an imminent attack; sometimes not. On this night there was no reaction from the group, but as we pulled away from the rest area, leaving the lights of the marketplace behind, and drove on through the blackness, a volley of RPG rockets hit Darren’s Bradley. One of them penetrated the vehicle’s armor, whistled into a back compartment and ignited several rounds of ammunition. Remarkably, despite the fireworks, the communications sergeant stationed near the point of entry suffered only some minor injuries (basically just cuts and bruises). The attack was successful, however, in completely immobilizing the
Bradley and cutting off all communications with its unit. Within seconds the entire convoy had ground to a halt: HQ 33, disabled, was at the front, followed by the two Humvees and, finally, my Bradley, HQ 66. Each vehicle was separated by a distance of roughly 40 to 50 meters.
Unable to contact Darren, I got on the battalion command net, which was monitored by the company commanders, company command post, battalion tactical operations center (TOC) and, usually, the brigade TOC. So within a matter of seconds, everyone knew that we were under attack, and they scrambled to respond by launching forces within the vicinity. Of course, a lot can happen by the time reinforcement troops arrive, and this was a classic example.
■ STAND AND FIGHT
Heavy fire (we later surmised the ambush force to have consisted of at least a half dozen insurgents) followed the RPG rocket attack – a withering barrage from machine guns and other automatic weapons, most of it directed at the Humvee in front of my Bradley. Our standing policy at this time was to stop and fight, so that’s what we did. Not everyone embraced this philosophy – in fact, the majority of units opted to drive out of the kill zone rather than fight the enemy, especially in the early days. The tactics adopted depended largely on the attitude of the commander, as well as the training and confidence of the soldiers (an infantry unit, after all, is trained to fight; a petroleum supply unit is not). I was a proponent of standing and fighting – of patrolling in platoon-size elements, armed with sufficient combat power to simultaneously close with and destroy the enemy while securing the perimeter, and treating and evacuating the friendly wounded. To me, those were simultaneous actions, rather than oppositional objectives.
Typically, however, an American unit under attack would scramble out of the area before assessing casualties and treating the wounded. Securing the area was an afterthought. I was something of an anomaly. I figured, We’re the American Army and we’re an aggressive force, and if we let them get away, it only makes them stronger. I have read so many stories about the impact of cutting and running, and it just drives me nuts. I can’t even relate to American bodies being dragged through the streets of Fallujah, and the military doing nothing about it. That type of scene was among my worst nightmares: to have any American soldier or contractor in my area of operation being kidnapped or executed and then put on television. Or even have televised images of bombed-out U.S. military vehicles burning in the streets, with Iraqi civilians dancing around the flames. That never happened in my part of the Salah Ah Din Province, because I refused to allow it. Even on Highway One, some units would leave their equipment and we’d come upon it, and it would be burning, and we’d secure the perimeter, run everyone out of there and, frankly, just shoot folks if they decided to come close to it.
■ GUNNERS WERE SPOT ON
Through my night vision goggles I could see the enemy – small green blobs about 50 to 75 meters in the distance, using palm trees and brush as a natural barrier, exchanging fire with the first Humvee. We began returning fire, as well. The insurgents ordinarily would not stand long in the face of fire from a tank or Bradley, for the gunners were too accurate, the weaponry too sophisticated and lethal. Once squared in the scope of a skilled gunner, you were as good as dead. See, if you get hit at close range with a 25-millimeter round from a Bradley Bushmaster cannon, you basically just disappear. One of those rounds will tear a leg off or cut a body in half even at longer distances. At a half mile, one of these rounds has a blast radius of more than ten meters, so you can easily decapitate a target without even hitting it. I’ve seen it happen: the head simply dissolves in a puff of smoke, leaving the body intact, still standing, for a few horrific seconds.
■ CHAOS AND A SHOOTOUT
But it takes time to involve the Bradley gunner … for him to lock in on a target, and so the chaos of the initial assault often involves a heavy exchange of small arms fire – in other words, a shootout. From my commander’s position in the Bradley, I instinctively emptied two magazines at the insurgent targets. Then my attention shifted to the second Humvee – the vehicle directly in front of my Bradley. I could hear yelling and screaming as the truck commander, Sergeant Raymond Quintana, scrambled to assist his gunner, Corporal John Wilson, who had been shot in the leg and was now perched helplessly in the gunner’s hatch, directly in harm’s way. Meanwhile, the driver of the Humvee, Private First Class Larry Bagley, slid out of the vehicle, clearly wounded, and fell onto the highway, fully exposed to the insurgents’ attack. All three men had been hit by small arms fire and were now desperately trying to stay alive. Stuck in the center of the kill zone, maybe 25 meters from the heaviest concentration of fire, they’d barely had time to react. The plan, it seemed, was to hit the lead Bradley with RPG rockets, immobilize it, cause the convoy to stop, and then rain fire on the vehicle closest to the ambush. On all fronts, the plan had succeeded.
■ PRIVATE GETTING EATEN ALIVE
Oddly enough, combat has a particular rhythm, and if you survive the initial contact, you can, if properly trained, react in ways you might never have imagined. As my gunner directed fire in the general vicinity of the enemy, I looked out at Bagley, his unconscious form slumped on the highway, the Humvee getting chewed up by machine gun fire, and felt a surge of adrenaline rushing through my body. I can’t explain this, really, and I certainly would not say it was the wisest course of action – battalion commanders are not supposed to take unnecessary risks – but I couldn’t just sit there in my turret and give commands while watching one of my privates get eaten alive. I think you kind of strip your rank off in that scenario. We were both soldiers … trying to help each other. We will do anything we can to save our wounded. That was my promise … that was our code.
I told my Bradley gunner to lay down a base of fire, and suddenly I found myself running through the attack, the bullets whizzing past my head and bouncing off the pavement and the vehicles. Ping! Ping! Ping! Everything became surreal, the action almost in slow motion. I have trouble watching a movie like Saving Private Ryan now, for it strikes too close to home, with the bullets whistling through water, and the disorienting, deafening blaze of combat. My legs felt as if buried in sand as I ran through gunfire to the side of the Humvee. I didn’t even try to fire my weapon, just ran as quickly as I could. My breathing grew louder, until it was almost all I could hear – even the crackling of gunfire and the rattling of bullets against metal and asphalt became little more than background noise. I
grabbed Bagley around the shoulders and dragged him to the opposite side of the Humvee, so that the vehicle now provided shelter from the attack. Quintana, meanwhile, worked feverishly on Wilson, whose leg was bleeding profusely. Or at least it seemed to be bleeding – I couldn’t be sure, since Quintana had been hit in the hand, and yet there he was, focused on saving his comrade, getting Wilson out of the gunner’s hatch and onto the ground on the other side of the Humvee, even as his own wounds gushed. And then there was Bagley, with a gaping hole in his neck, two square inches of flesh missing and providing a portal from which his life could flow.
I tried holding him, then yelling at him, anything to provoke a response; nothing worked. So while Quintana worked on Wilson, I applied pressure bandages to Bagley’s wound, hoping we could get help from the medics before he expired. And all the while the Humvee continued to be pelted by gunfire. By this time, though, the three soldiers
in the first Humvee had dismounted and were using their vehicle as cover while returning fire into the ambush line; Darren’s gunner in HQ 33 had also joined the fight, so it had become a more evenly matched battle. I was eventually able to get on the scout vehicle’s radio and call in a medevac, while simultaneously burning through another magazine of ammunition. I also called for more backup.
■ CUTTING OFF THE INSURGENTS’ EXIT
“Charlie Company needs to move!” I shouted to the battalion TOC. Partly out of anger, and partly out of tactical training, I had already begun to think about cutting off exit routes the insurgents might choose to employ. Moments after that call, the fire began to subside, a sure sign that the enemy had begun to flee. I picked up the night vision goggles and saw them moving with varying degrees of agility and speed. A few simply ran; others were dragging wounded behind them, slowly making their way up and over a canal embankment, until finally they were out of sight.
I wanted to go after them right away, but we had too small a group and too many wounded to close with and destroy the enemy with any degree of efficiency. I stayed until Charlie Company arrived and the wounded were taken out by Black Hawk. (This, by the way, was no small feat, because there were power lines along the right side of the highway, palm trees along the left side, and thick brush in the middle. And it was pitch black. So it took the bird two or three passes to land safely. I gained enormous respect for the chopper pilots in Iraq. Many of them seemed to have ice water in their veins.) Wilson’s knee was so messed up that he couldn’t fully extend his leg–it was stuck at a 45-degree angle–so we had to put him on the top rack of the bunks that are used to carry wounded. Bagley went on the bottom bunk. Quintana stayed behind, his hand already bandaged up.
■ SOLDIER MODE
As the Black Hawk rose above us, I felt a wave of emotion. I came to discover that most combat experiences follow a predictable pattern. First is the shock of the initial attack, followed by resolution (“This is real – I’d better fight back!”) and a series of instinctive responses. Simply put, you go into soldier mode – returning fire, seeking cover, giving orders and closing with the enemy. And it all happens within seconds. You care for your wounded soldiers, call for reinforcements, and move to destroy the targets. Eventually, as the fighting subsides, a different set of feelings takes over, with anger being the most dominant. That’s what I felt at this moment: a serious desire to exact revenge on the insurgents who had ambushed my unit and wounded three of my men.
This was the first time I had personally been involved in a prolonged, intense firefight, and I was proud of my response, as well as the response of my men. We had fought honorably. There is no way of knowing how a man will react when he faces combat for the first time, no guarantee that he will remember to do the simplest of things, such as firing his weapon. Some are frozen with fear; others (a precious few, thankfully, since they are often the most dangerous) are insanely drawn to the fire, and even seem to enjoy it. I came to believe that if a soldier survived his first contact with the enemy – his first firefight – then he stood a very good chance of surviving his entire tour in Iraq. But the rules of engagement were sometimes hard to grasp, as they are in any guerilla conflict. When the enemy is ill-defined and intent on nothing so much as creating fear and chaos, the order and discipline of an Army naturally begin to erode. Further complicating matters was what I considered to be the innate goodness of the American soldier, who has been trained to fight a particular type of war … a war that simply did not exist in Iraq.
Warrior King: The Triumph and Betrayal of an American Commander in Iraq by Nathan Sassaman and Jim Layden, is available from St. Martin's Press. 320 pages, $25.95.