Friday, May 07, 2004

Colonel Strangelove: How Our Operations Center Came to Love the Bomb; Mazin Suddenly Shows Up At My Door

7 May, 2004 2350 Camp Golf, Najaf

Our first major assault on Najaf was yesterday. I wasn’t able to write about it right away because of the operations tempo and mortar battle later that night.
[1] had visited the TOC, so I figured something was going on. I then read the operations order for operation “Knight Face-off,” which verified an operation in Najaf was ready to kick off on order. I surrendered to the fact that we were going deeper into Najaf and focused on what would be needed on my part to help. That would mean running the radios and tracking the battle and passing info to the brass. LTC Jagger would be running the operation to take back the governor’s palace from his tank. CNN would go along in one of our up-armored Hummers. The operation would kick off at 1645 on 6 May.
Crusader tank company, or elements of it, along with Apache troop scouts rolled into Najaf, while Iron Troop (attached to us) approached Kufa from the east, across the Euphrates in a fake attack posture that successfully lured Al-Sadr into believing we were attacking from the east. Sadr’s militia came out of the woodwork near the Kufa Bridge, with RPGs and AK-47s. Iron reported 28 dead enemy, and continued to draw fire and return fire without being decisively engaged. Iron was under a lot of fire, and mortar impacts, but not long after calling in the 28 enemy KIA, they killed an additional 12 Mahdi Army dead.
About this same time, SSG Siegel asked for help on the radios because he was stressing out. I jumped on the radio in time to monitor the takeover of the governor’s palace and the ensuing firefights in the surrounding areas’ alleyways and side streets. CPT Berlin responded very well to all the attacks on his company. It’s hard to believe he is a seasoned combat tank commander now – probably seen more combat than 3rd Infantry ever did invading Iraq. “Knight X-Ray, Crusader 6,” he called. “We’re taking heavy RPG fire to the west! I’m going to attack to the west and neutralize the threat,” he announced while small arms could be heard firing in the background. I had one of my radios listening to his company frequency too, so I heard everything going on on the streets. He was given permission to attack, and he did under heavy fire. He identified a small side street where some fire was coming from. They went to the south side of the neighborhood street. A machine gunner was set up on the far end of the street on a curb and opened fire on CPT Berlin’s tank.
“The rounds were flying right past my head,” he later told me. He was up in his TC
[2] hatch when the Iraqi gunner fired on his tank. “(Berlin’s tank gunner, name I can’t recall) opened up on him with coax and just tore him up.” CPT Berlin got off his tank to recover the Iraqi’s machinegun, AK-47 and ammunition. Digital photos were taken of the corpse to show the man behind the machinegun, in case there was any doubt.
At some point around the same time, a Mahdi Army militiaman came around the corner with an RPG, and then ran away. Crusaders regained contact with the fighter and shot him with coax, but he ran away wounded. I heard the crews on the radio (company frequency) trying to shoot the dropped RPG warheads to disable them. They succeeded.
CPT Berlin found the wounded man not long after the man was shot. He drove up in his tank and dismounted. “The guy was mortally wounded,” he explained later in our TOC as we reviewed the digital photos taken of the KIA, “By the time I ran up to him, his eyes kept rolling in the back of his head,” he said. “He understands democracy now.” CPT Berlin is a good guy, a good guy in a bad situation. His character is unquestionable.
We looked at the pictures and came to the one of the RPG fighter. “Yeah, this guy is riddled with holes,” CPT Berlin explained while pointing things out on the laptop computer screen. “Here you see some wires (you could see wire around the body), an RPG warhead was wired to the body, almost with a death switch-looking configuration. It looked like his buddies were trying to rig him up for detonation before we got him.” He pointed to the green headband laying in the human mess (trademark of Sadr Mahdi), “Here’s his, ‘I’m a Sadr asshole’ headband,” he said dryly, but in a tone of honesty and cold reality. He didn’t rejoice, he just told what happened without any showing of emotion or glamour. As he spoke, I noticed dried blood splattered on the inside of his right pant leg and several blood stains at other points on his uniform.
LTC Jagger and CPT Peters of Apache troop seized the governor’s palace with support from A Co. and C Co. The operation went well. At the Ministry of Culture and Agriculture, as well as the palace, the soldiers were greeted by Iraqi guards from the Iraqi Protection Service or Facility Protection Service. They were cooperative and worked with the Army to help secure the area. The operation was a success. The Kiowas spotted an RPG fighter in the Ali Shrine graveyard, but other than that, the city appeared calm.
“CRACKBOOM!!!” I felt a shock of compressed air slap my face. I noticed the windows in front of me in our command post fly open and dust was hanging in the air. People were running out of the TOC (Major Ramirez was one of the first to run away) as soon as the blast went off. Ferrello, my assistant, sprinted away instantly at the explosion’s extremely loud blast. I jumped up immediately too and got three feet away from the radios when I felt the tug of the microphone in my right hand. CPT Smalls was the only other soldier who stayed at his station.
‘What am I doing?’ I thought quickly, ‘I can’t just leave the radios!’ I scolded myself. When you are in a blast like that, your senses and thoughts are stunned for a few seconds – I know this all to well. I got under the table, ‘Knight Log, this is Knight X-Ray, initiate battle hand-off procedures on order, Knight X-Ray is under indirect fire at this time,’ I said with a clearness and calmness even I found surprising later. A mortar round landed outside of the building on the other side of the wall facing me. On the other side of that wall was also the signal truck. It’s like a small RV that is always manned. It carried equipment related to running our digital phone network, our military internet as well.
“Someone check the sim (signal) guy!” someone yelled as they slowly began to come back into the TOC. He was OK, the generator took some shrapnel, flattening the trailer tires and chipping holes in brick and plaster wall.
Everyone came back into the TOC and thought it was funny I was under the table. I thought it was funny they all ran away. We laughed and went on with what we were doing before the blast. Our artillery team picked up the enemy mortar launches on radar, and the decision was made to fire artillery on the area where repeated mortar attacks had been launched. Iron Troop was also taking some limited mortar fire from the same place. 3 rounds of devastating 155 millimeter artillery were fired.
“ROUNDS OUT!” SFC Capone announced. Moments later, “DOOM, DOOM, DOOM!” echoed all across the place. “ROUNDS COMPLETE!” SFC Capone announced to let everyone know the fire mission was complete.
“Knight X-Ray, Knight 6,” LTC Jagger called in a few seconds later. “Yeah…the IPs hauled ass when they heard the 155 go off.”
Down at the governor’s palace, most everything was under control and the objective was seized before sunset. It would be a major blow to Al-Sadr’s militia. There wasn’t much resistance to the attack. I talked to Haider, our translator, about the public reaction. “It’s really a surprise,” he said to me in great English as he exhaled cigarette smoke. “All the people say they’ve been waiting for a big U.S. attack and that they want Sadr gone. At one checkpoint we had set up, an old man started yelling at the soldiers. I thought he was angry at them, but what he was saying was, ‘Why do you just sit here? Sadr is in Kufa now! Go get him! We want him gone!’”
Later, Major Stanton asked if I thought our base would get mortared that night. ‘Yes, Sir,” I answered. ‘They have to hit us after a defeat like today, or else they’ll look too weak.’
“So you think they’ll lose face if they don’t?” he asked.
‘Roger, exactly,’ I answered. He nodded with his good-natured grin, hinting that he was thinking the same thing.
“THUD…..CRABOOM! CRABOOM!” started going off, several times while I was sitting in my room. Many times you can hear the mortar launch in the distance, even if you are sitting indoors. It sounds like a muffled “THUMP.” You stop what you are doing and count to three or so – then CRACKBOOM! Usually it lands in the distance, about 200 meters away, but the mortarmen adjust and each “CRACKBOOM” gets louder as it gets closer to our building – their main target, which also happens to be where I sleep. Usually, at least one round gets within 75 meters of our building or somewhere close to it. That’s when you say to yourself, “Goddamn it!” not because you are scared, but because you are angry.
About 14 rounds hit us, and they sounded louder that the usual 60mm rounds. They were probably 82mm. One round fell next to one of our armored personnel carriers (an M113) that was set up waiting to fire mortars at the enemy mortaring us. It actually landed between the track and the large, multistory building next to it. Just minutes before, soldiers had been standing there smoking cigarettes. CPT Nash was on the other side of the wall where the blast went off. He later recalled, like an AME preacher, how loud it was. Lord have mercy! SFC Rocker later told us what happened:
“I shit you not gentlemen,” he said in his strong, military-but-non-threatening voice, “that mortar almost scored a direct hit on us. There was nothing but smoke. I looked at the other side of that aluminum alloy armored vehicle and could see big thumb-sized chunks taken out of it from the shrapnel. That mortarman is getting extra frisky. Had those smoking soldiers stayed there a few minutes, they would have been Swiss cheese,” he confided.
Not long after those very impacts, we were able to determine where the rounds were coming from. “Acquisition!” one of the fire support (field artillery) guys yelled. The Q-36 radar interface screen displayed a grid showing where the enemy rounds were being fired from. In the TOC, grids were being yelled and our mortar team was ready to fire back. At about the same time, two Air Force F-16s were conducting combat air patrol when they noticed the flashes of light below in the night. Our regimental air liaison people began talking to them. We also had a Hunter UAV in the air that identified a mortar tube in a field that was still hot from being fired. It was abandoned because our mortars fired a few rounds at the point of origin grid location and apparently the enemy mortar team ran for cover.
“The F-16s have eyes on the mortar tube and our rounds impacting,” CPT Nash said as he spoke to an ALO person on the land line (telephone) to our regimental HQ’s at Camp Duke in the desert. “If you want, the F-16s say they can adjust our fires,” CPT Nash said.
“Adjust fires with F-16s?” LTC Jagger reflected amused, “That’s a first, they don’t teach that one in school. Do Air Force pilots even know how to adjust fires?” Major Stanton grinned widely. “Well, if they think they can do it, let’s do it,” LTC Jagger said. “This shit has got to end before someone gets killed.”
So our mortars fired several salvos of mortar rounds, and CPT Nash stood with the telephone up to his ear as he relayed adjustment data to our arty guys who relayed it to our mortar guys outside in the parking lot. The pilots talked to the ALO guy in the desert HQs who talked to CPT Nash on the phone.
“UP 80!” CPT N yelled. “LEFT 20!” and several subsequent adjustments, until we fired over 30 120mm rounds into an open field in Kufa. “F-16s reporting mortar tube still standing!” CPT N announced.
“Call Assassin and have them fire and try to take that tube out – they get one shot,” Knight 6 (LTC Jagger) said. Assassin is our artillery battery sitting outside An-Najaf, they fire 155mm.
“Regiment also reports F-16s are armed with 500 pound bombs,” said Captain Nash. Everyone looked at each other and laughed,
“500 pound bomb? For what?” Everyone agreed that the pilots we could hear flying overhead must have been itching to drop a bomb. You could also sense unseen forces pushing the Knights to request a bomb drop from regimental TOC.
“I think a 500 pound bomb is a little too much,” Knight 6 said as he sat by the phone. Everyone stood around him wide eyed with excitement, and silently chanting “DROP THE BOMB, DROP THE BOMB” Stiller, Pedro, and I looked at each other with the same expressions, we all agreed everyone around us had gone crazy.
“I can’t believe this,” Stiller said in a way indicating his disgust, “they can’t wait to drop a bomb on a freaking mortar tube.”
“They’re like little kids playing Army,” Pedro went on, “they have their plastic soldiers knocking over the bad soldiers, this is all it is,” he chuckled at the absurdity.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I guess little boys who play soldier sometimes grow up to be big boys who play soldier. Some people never outgrow the pulling-wings-off-insects stage or burning ants under a magnifying glass stage.’
“I mean,” Stiller went on, “why are they going to drop a freaking 500 pound bomb? Look, they can’t resist the temptation. Do you think they’ll drop it?” he asked.
‘Actually, I think they will. It’s too enticing, and I think Colonel Leroux is crazy. When we first got to Iraq; I believed our leaders were intelligent. Now, nothing surprises me – not even dropping a 500 pound bomb on a mortar tube,’ I responded.
“No shit,” Stiller went on, “after Sadr City, everything changed, everyone’s gone crazy, human beings don’t even exist anymore.” Pedro and I agreed.
Stiller killed an RPG gunner firing on his truck on April 4 when Sadr City exploded into urban warfare. He was with Foley and SSG Newsome. He took him down with an M240. That next night when he returned, I left him alone, gave him some space, let him be. I knew he had killed someone, and since he’s a good guy at heart, I figured he would take it hard, regardless if the guy he killed was trying to kill him. People kept walking up to him that night trying to shake his hand and congratulating him. He looked like he wanted to vomit, and he stared at the floor, disturbed look on his face. I wished everyone would give him some space. I never talked to him about this, but he began talking about it when we were talking about dropping the bomb. “You know what happened with me and Sadr City, right?” he asked. We nodded. “Well, everyone kept coming up to me and wanting to shake my hand and patting me on the back and shit. Telling me what a good job I did. I though, ‘What the hell is wrong with these people?’ Yeah, the guy was trying to kill me, but you don’t have to celebrate that shit.” My notions earlier about Stiller’s state of mind following Sadr City were confirmed.
“Well, what would a 500 pound bomb do?” Knight 6 asked nobody in particular.
“Sir,” Major Stanton answered, “it has a 100 meter kill radius. Other effects occur at different distances, such as hearing loss, etc.”
“Well,” Knight 6 said, “I’m not going to drop it unless the old man says so. A 500 pound bomb is overkill, like swatting flies with a sledgehammer.” Knight 6 left the room, “Come get me if anything else happens.”
We weren’t going to drop the bomb? The excitement in the TOC fizzled a bit. The artillery already fired, but the F-16s continued to circle and reported the tube was still in the field.
We got another phone call from regiment. CPT Nash answered. “So Rider 6 (Colonel Leroux) gives the go-ahead if Knight 6 wants to use the bomb?” he repeated. This later turned into the message, “Rider 6 is giving the go-ahead to drop the bomb.” Excitement began to grow again. Someone went to go get Knight 6 from his room. As he came into our HQ, he said, “OK, now what is going on?” I spoke up as he came in,
‘Sir, I think there is some confusion over the colonel’s words…,’ and then I stopped. I could feel eyes in the room telling me desperately to stop talking and stop interfering with the inevitable bomb drop. I just wanted him to know the truth. He walked past. CPT Nash handed him the phone. It was a little frustrating hearing all the confusion. Knight 6 then talked directly to the regimental commander (Rider RTOC).
“What’s going on?” Knight 6 asked the other person on the other end of the phone. “Well, you’re giving everyone here a woody,” Knight 6 said skeptically. “What does the old man say?” There was a pause. “Well, go wake him up and find out.” Knight 6 wasn’t too thrilled about the prospects of dropping a bomb.
“It sounds like Rider 6 wants Knight 6 to take responsibility for dropping the bomb.” Stiller said.
After some chatter, it was decided to drop the bomb, but it would be dropped at a safe distance from the nearby houses and still be able to destroy the seemingly indestructible mortar tube.
Everyone went on top of the roof to get a view of the bomb drop. I stood on the roof and listened to the F-16s circle Najaf. After a few minutes you could hear an F-16 coming in fast and low from the west heading east towards Kufa. This would undoubtedly be the attack bombing run. Off in the target area, we saw a dim ribbon of flame – nothing spectacular – rise from the horizon. Seconds later we heard the “BOOM” from the explosion. You could hear the jets continue circle. “That’s it?” Sergeant Gonzales asked. “That was weak!” Everyone agreed that the MK-82 500 pound bomb was no more exciting that a common mortar blast. The excitement fading, everyone left the rooftop soberly.
‘Well, now it will be safe to call Nora,’ I thought. I figured the Mahdi Army had enough for a night. I went to the phone and waited for quite a while for quite a while for Serano to get off the phone. He got off the phone after a mortar exploded behind the building, followed by a few more.
I didn’t mind the mortars, because no one was on the phone then! I got on the phone and called you. It was so good to hear your voice, but how to explain what was going on? We talked for only a few minutes before a loud explosion sounded and I had to get off the phone abruptly. I thought it was incoming, but it was actually outgoing. I determined it would be smarter to go indoors for the rest of the night. Sometimes you have to tell yourself you must go inside, no matter what.
I love you Nora, I can’t wait to live normally – peace is such a luxury. You are the greatest source of peace for me on this earth, and I am so grateful to you for all you’re doing! MUAH!

At this stage in the fight, unofficial estimates put the death toll at 1,400 fighters killed. The number of wounded was estimated at 4,000. Force protection on the base became an increasing concern, especially with the probable brownouts (sand storms). Some were worried that a crack team of Sadr special forces would penetrate the compound and blow up our TOC building. Whenever the weather or visibility deteriorated, guards were posted on the TOC entrances.
The mortar attacks had become so routine, that people began to sleep through them. I always jumped out of my cot and ran into the operations room to see what was going on. Foley would always roll on his side and curse me for getting up. I had to laugh as he kept his eyes shut and pulled his sleeping bag over his head even while rounds were landing next to our building. Many of the doors in the TOC building had to be padded to keep them from slamming shut. Many times, a door would slam and make a sound similar to that of a mortar exploding. The sound would send some from the command staff running from their rooms and into the TOC. Sometimes people in the TOC thought the noise was a mortar exploding. After a while, people would say “DOOR!” out loud to let all those around know that we weren’t under attack. It became funny after a while.

It was around this time that I had an Iraqi visitor show up at my door. I was shocked. It was Mazin, Assad’s brother from Baghdad. He came all the way from Baghdad to see me, despite the fighting in Najaf. I was worried about his safety. I thought the Mahdi militia would be watching the base to see who was coming and who was leaving. Mazin has a poor wife and several kids. He was living in some abandoned Iraqi Army buildings when we left Baghdad. The Army was his only source of income, and after we left Baghdad, his future looked bleak. The Army paid him very well. Some of the mechanics from our battalion donated a refrigerator, bags of clothes, and other items to his family. His wife was overjoyed. The unit that replaced us in Baghdad wasn’t interested in hiring him. So, he came to Najaf looking to work with his American friends again. It was extremely risky.
I opened my door, and there stood Mazin. I thought I would never see him again – but there he was in front of my door. I immediately jumped up and gave him a big hug. We walked down to my truck so I could smuggle him a case of my MREs. He was staying with Haider (Assad’s cousin), who was a translator for Apache Troop. The day that Mazin arrived, we were hit hard by mortar fire. Mazin was worried. He talked to me about the situation in Baghdad. I don’t know if it was true or not, but he told me that all of the laborers we had once employed were fired. He said they were replaced with Christian Iraqis, because they pose less of a security threat. He said the Army wasn’t hiring in Baghdad, and he needed a job – it didn’t matter what job.
I asked around and talked to a few in the leadership about his situation. The problem was, we were frequently under attack, and there were no tasks for general laborers. We had some laborers off and on, but no permanent ones. I wasn’t able to help Mazin at all. I would be in the TOC all day and then come outside to speak to him periodically. He waited for good news, but there was none. He would have to go back to Baghdad empty handed. I really felt like I let him down.

[1] Assistant Division Commander Maneuver
[2] Tank commander’s hatch (positioned on top of the turret)


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