Several weeks ago, a checkpoint manned by the Iraqi Civil Defense Corp (ICDC) was overrun by bandits. In addition to attacking the Coalition and the ICDC, the bandits had been destabilizing the roads south of Kirkuk and Tuz by committing acts including, well, highway robbery. Soldiers from Echo 196 subsequently were able to locate four of the bandits, who were heavily armed with mortar rounds, rocket launchers, and AK-47s. A firefight ensued, in which a medic was injured, and all four bandits were killed--three by Apache air support. This is a high-tech war, and so I have been able to see digital images of the results from the battlefield. The pictures reveal the realties of armed conflict, and as one soldiers suggested, will remain burned in his mind long after he returns home. Talking to a group of soldiers about the raid, they credited Sgt. Perry Hamilton of 3d Platoon with what they thought was the most honest explanation of the troop’s feeling about the battle: it was not that the platoon wanted to kill them, but that under the conditions of the firefight, it was either us or them. Of course, in the larger scheme, the need was equally urgent, because these bandits were directing their attacks not only against the Coalition, but against innocent Iraqis who they terrorized on the roads. Following the attack, a funeral was held by a village in the south for the four bandits. In addition to being the home of the brother of one of the bandits, intelligence suggested that the village housed a significant number of anti-Iraqi forces and substantial weapons caches. So early on Thursday morning, the unit with which I am embedded joined a large cast in raiding the village.
When the order came down for the mission, Lt. Spears of 3d platoon gathered his men together to give them an overview of the mission. Spears is a veteran of Desert Storm who frequently jokes around with troops, but today it was all business. He warned them that the road they would be traveling down had not been used in some time, and was expected to be loaded with IEDs. The village they would be hitting was thought to hold some pretty bad guys, and a lot of weapons, so they should be ready for anything. I was standing next to Sgt. Ward, who was active duty for 17 years before joining the Guard. He noted how quickly the crowd of troopers, who began by joking, became quiet and serious once the briefing began. I noted how quickly the look their eyes changed—grew more stern, concerned, and serious—as the reality of the mission sank in.
The operation was largest I have witnessed to date. The raid was to begin with an air insertion of troops by Blackhawk helicopters, followed by a large ground component. But as the vehicles were staged late Wednesday night, lightning began to appear on the horizon—no rain, just lightning and gusts of wind. We subsequently received word that the Blackhawks were a no go due to weather, but the mission would continue as a ground assault.
I rode in an up-armored Humvee with some civil affairs (CA) guys in a convoy that included both Army Humvees and ICDC in Nissan trucks. Prior to leaving, the CA guys gave me a quick tour of the vehicle, which, like most pre-mission briefs, basically constituted a description of what to do if things go wrong. Accordingly, they gave me instructions regarding how to hail a medevac, showed me where the spare ammo and the medical kits were, and, if all went wrong and we were overrun, they gave me instructions to use the phosphorus grenade in the vehicle to melt the sensitive equipment.
The drive to the village was conducted lights out on a night that was forecasted to have zero illumination. The soldiers all wore night vision goggles, while I stared out at the passing blackness. (Before leaving, I had a chance to check out the night vision, and how it works together with the laser sights on the M-16s. When you are wearing the night vision, you can see the path of the laser, as well as a detailed, enhanced target. Very cool.). While the night vision goggles (or NODs) are effective, even the soldiers had trouble seeing this night given the lack of illumination. The paths (not even exactly dirt roads) we were taking were in ill-repair, and seemed to disappear into farmers’ fields. The vehicle I was riding in was part of the convoy assigned to create an outer cordon, and to block a road that might have served as an escape path from the village. In the pre-dawn darkness, it was nearly impossible from our vantage to make out what was happening in the village, so we listened on the radio as the raid progressed. Overhead, Apaches circled providing air support, and stirred up clouds of dust on the ground. As first light peaked above the horizon, it became possible to see some of the other air power that we had been hearing for hours—F-16s performing recon and an unmanned drone making repeated passes.
After a couple of hours of quiet, shots rang out from the village, prompting the soldiers in the vehicles around me to prepare in case these were the opening volley by the anti-Iraqi forces in response to our presence. But then word came over the radio that the shots were fired at a charging dog. Soon thereafter, it became apparent from the chatter over the radio that the village was all but deserted. The civil affairs unit was called in to assess the water system and other needs of the town, and I went with them. As we walked through the streets and past the mud huts, there was an eerie silence. There were more chickens roaming the streets than people. When we reached the center of the village, we found the muqtar chatting with Lt. Col. Miller. We were able to discern that the anti-Iraqi forces had fled the village sometime following the bandits’ funeral. Now that the military objective was achieved, the civil affairs crew could begin their task of assessing the water and power needs of the village. The contrast between these Army functions is stark, and is illustrative of complexity of the military mission in Iraq: in one minute, the village is surrounded by ground forces and is being flown over by F-16s and Apaches. In the next, the soldiers are meeting with the muqtar to make sure that there are enough wells, electricity, and school supplies in the village.
The fact that the raid did not yield any bad guys is also worth noting. This area had been prone to flare-ups of anti-Coalition activity, but after a series of raids, has begun to quiet down. Contrary to the perception of many people back in the states, violence is not constant or ubiquitous in Iraq. The danger lies in the terrorist nature of the attacks. At any time, on almost any road, you could encounter an IED or enemy fire. You are not likely to be attacked, but you must be prepared.