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August 10, 2005
The first person to use a shield might have been a hairy man who, days earlier, barely survived a barrage from the stone-throwing man in the cave next door. As the use of weaponized sticks and stones spread, improved shields probably were not far behind. Throughout recorded history, bigger and better shields always play catch-up to their bigger and better ballistic brethren. Common wisdom posits that defense systems are preventative measures, but in fact, they are reactive. Every castle wall can be defeated. Somewhere along the line people realized, “the best defense is a good offense.” Adherence to this maxim provided at least one of the philosophical rubicons to our landing in Iraq.
The best modern armors, which can include everything from sandbags to special alloys and “reactive armors,” are simple to use and can work well for short periods. Sandbags are good and cheap, but are cumbersome and blow apart easily. As for the reactive armors, modern explosives are more powerful than modern alloys and their associated engineering can withstand. Pound for pound–and volume for volume–explosives are miles ahead of metallurgy and engineering. No matter how sophisticated the science behind the shield, someone can make a bomb to beat it.
During the first phase of this war, many of our troops were riding in unarmored Humvees and other vehicles. Soon they were being torn to pieces. Once the vehicles were up-armored, the enemy was unable to defeat much of that defense. For a time. But today–although armored Humvees are great and can defeat many threats–the latest generations of IEDs can effortlessly swat them away, spreading their parts over city blocks. The enemy has destroyed our most powerful armored tanks with underground bombs that leave craters in the roads large enough to make swimming pools.
Troops in Mosul face a spectrum of explosive threats. At the low end are IEDs like the “double-bangers,” fashioned from a couple of artillery rounds. Double-bangers easily kill soldiers on foot, or even in Humvees, and sometimes even kill exposed persons in Stryker vehicles. Five-bangers start the next stage of lethality, and can obliterate Humvees if the timing is right.
Timing is critical, and the enemy is getting better at it.
Giant charges are next; car bombs in Mosul usually contain 20-25 artillery rounds, weighting the car so that it practically drags on the ground and is hard to steer. More recently, the enemy has learned to make special shaped charges specifically designed to defeat alloy armors.
The attack last week that killed 15 people, including 14 Marines, catapulted this topic to the front pages. A massive explosion completely destroyed their 28-ton armored personnel carrier. Traveling almost as fast as that news was speculation that our armor is insufficient. But the news that never flashed is that no amount of armor can completely protect us. Armor is extremely important, but given time, the enemy will defeat it.
Every day, the Deuce Four launches dozens of combat missions in Mosul. Recently, a patrol was heading downtown, and its tasks included meeting with Iraqi police. I asked to go along. The Battalion Commander led the patrol, which also included two Strykers led by LT Sean Keneally from Charlie Company.
As the ramp on our Stryker began to close, I inserted earplugs, pulled a fire-retardant hood over my head, put on my helmet and buckled the chin strap, then pulled the ballistic goggles over my eyes.
Flash burns from bombs are deadly. I’ve seen it many times: anything exposed is fried in an instant. Skin and flesh just peel off. The super-hot flashes also melt contact lenses to eyeballs before people can blink. Years ago, when I was a jumpmaster, I remember sticking my face outside the aircraft to check surroundings, and my eyelids slapped and flopped in the torrent. That was only about hurricane force winds. The blast in an explosion opens the eyelids, fusing the melted contacts to the eyeballs. Smart soldiers don’t wear contacts in combat, but others often do.
I’m wearing fire-retardant pants and a long-sleeved shirt, over which I wear a fire-retardant jumpsuit. I take a long drink of cold water, and pull the hood back up over my mouth and nose, then pull the black, fire-retardant gloves over my hands. The outside temperature is roughly 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sitting to my left is Major David Brown, MD, the Battalion surgeon. I hope Major Brown doesn’t get severely injured or killed; we’ll definitely need him again. Plus, I like him; he’s probably the only soldier who hasn’t laughed at all the fire-gear I wear. We both know that the law of averages catches people at the worst times, and survival favors the protected.
A couple minutes later, we leave the base and begin the drive downtown, passing spots where so many car bombs and IEDs have exploded. Within a few blocks, we are 15 seconds from rolling over a large bomb buried under the road.
At least two terrorists are watching our approach, pretending to talk to a taxi driver. One holds a Motorola radio transmitter in his pants pocket.
14 Seconds…13 Seconds…
The bombs are buried under the road ahead of us, on a route to the police station.
12 Seconds…11 Seconds…
We are in a big Stryker. Usually the IEDs just make the ears ring–I wear earplugs–or maybe knock an air-guard or two unconscious, filling the cabin with so much fine dust that it looks like smoke. I’ve often wondered if this fine dust sometimes ignites when the armor ruptures, adding to the flashover that burns so many soldiers inside.
10 Seconds…9 Seconds…
Sometimes IEDs blow through the Stryker, launching it into the air, and critically or fatally injuring the people inside. Odd body parts will often be left unscathed, such as a severed hand in a black glove on the road. About 43 Americans have died here during the past ten days.
8 Seconds…7 Seconds…The men are cautiously watching us, still talking among themselves. The transmitter is armed. A push of the button might make the final dispatch.
A terrorist is preparing to push the button, but the timing’s got to be just right . . . not yet . . . not yet . . . we are almost there. . . .
One of the terrorists does a double take at the lead Stryker, blowing his cover. The call instantly goes out to “Block left! Lock ‘em down! Two pax!”
Deuce Four Strykers: movement to contact
When we turn toward them, one man spooks and bolts. I’m watching on the screen [RWS] inside, as SSG Munch, our machine gunner, tracks this man who runs like an antelope. I follow along on the RWS, and think, Why is he running? How is he running that fast?
He’s running so fast that it’s freaky to watch. The only other person I’ve seen run that fast was a track star during practice at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Now, watching the machine gun track him was like a video game. Except this video had real men, real bullets, and when your team hits a bomb, you really die. If Munch fires his real .50 caliber machine gun, the guy who is running like the Bionic Man will atomize into a bloody mist, and the wall behind him will be knocked down. Munch doesn’t shoot.
The Bionic Terrorist runs into a neighborhood. We take a couple of sharp turns chasing him, driving over a few curbs. Of course, I am thinking, this guy is leading us into a massive ambush.
LT Keneally and his two Strykers are just behind us. The Commander radios Keneally to grab the stripe-shirted guy that was left standing in the traffic circle when the Bionic Terrorist bolted. I looked behind me and said over my shoulder to Dr. Brown: “I bet this is an ambush.”
As we follow him into the neighborhood, he turns around mid-stride to see our Stryker with weapons pointing at him, and he caves to the ground. The ramp drops and we all run out. The man is just a cowering heap on the sidewalk. Chris Espindola flex-cuffs him. Meanwhile, I’m wondering what this is really all about, and waiting for the ambush to start. SSG Contrares is scanning rooftops, ready for action.
The Bionic Terrorist seems mentally disturbed. He’s poxied with panic, his face contorted by abject terror. Clearly, he is deranged, possibly explaining his prodigious running ability. The enemy is known to use and discard mentally-challenged persons. The poor guy probably doesn’t even know what language we speak.
LT Keneally’s voice calls over the radio that when they caught the stripe-shirted man they found an IED radio transmitter in his pocket. Before the message is completed, we’ve started running, leaving our Stryker behind with a few soldiers to watch over the not-so-bionic terrorist. We cover the few hundred yards to the Yarmuk traffic circle, reaching the spot where the two men were standing when the commotion started.
One of the Charlie Company soldiers looks at me and asks, “Isn’t all that shit hot?”
“Not really,” I say. They all laugh at me for dressing like a fireman. But each layer squeezes ten more seconds between searing heat and my skin.
Running to Yarmuk Traffic Circle
The Yarmuk traffic circle is fantastically dangerous. On the first mission I ran in Mosul, we lost two soldiers and an interpreter, all killed by a car bomb. Others were horribly burned, scarred for life. Many of our wounded and killed soldiers got it right here, or in the immediate vicinity. The ISF takes serious losses in this part of town. But it’s not entirely one-sided–the Deuce Four has killed well over 150 terrorists in this neighborhood in the past 10 months. But almost none of those made the news, and those that did had a few key details missing.
Like the time when some ISF were driving and got blasted by an IED, causing numerous casualties and preventing them from recovering the vehicle. The terrorists came out and did their rifle-pumping-in-the-air thing, shooting AKs, dancing around like monkeys. Videos went ’round the world, making it appear the terrorists were running Mosul, which was pretty much what was being reported at the time.
But that wasn’t the whole story. In the Yarmuk neighborhood, only terrorists openly carry AK-47s. The lawyers call this Hostile Intent. The soldiers call this Dead Man Walking.
Deuce Four is an overwhelmingly aggressive and effective unit, and they believe the best defense is a dead enemy. They are constantly thinking up innovative, unique, and effective ways to kill or capture the enemy; proactive not reactive. They planned an operation with snipers, making it appear that an ISF vehicle had been attacked, complete with explosives and flash-bang grenades to simulate the IED. The simulated casualty evacuation of sand dummies completed the ruse.
The Deuce Four soldiers left quickly with the “casualties,” “abandoning” the burning truck in the traffic circle. The enemy took the bait. Terrorists came out and started with the AK-rifle-monkey-pump, shooting into the truck, their own video crews capturing the moment of glory. That’s when the American snipers opened fire and killed everybody with a weapon. Until now, only insiders knew about the AK-monkey-pumpers smack-down.
And there we were, in the Yarmuk traffic circle, where so many people die so violently. LT Keneally and SSG Eric Richardson had cuffed the guy with the striped shirt and the transmitter. LTC Kurilla started interrogating the terrorist, asking where the bombs are, stopping only for the interpreter.
Meanwhile, Strykers took up blocking positions, and began scanning the area for enemy. Everyone knew that other terrorists were out there, somewhere, watching us. After all, we were standing in what might be the most dangerous traffic circle in the universe.
I was thinking, of course: IEDs. Snipers. RPGs. Car bombs. Mortars. And then, after scanning the area and reflecting, I rethought and came up with: IEDs. Snipers. RPGs. Car bombs. Mortars. But we hadn’t been shot at by snipers in days, and Kurilla managed to make the terrorist point to where the IEDs were buried. That’s when automatic weapons started firing at us.
Bullets flying by, and enemy weapons firing: PaPaPaPaPaPaPaPaPaPow . . . zinnggg . . . GawGawGawGawPaPaGawGaw. . . . different types of weapons were shooting.
One of our big machine guns started boomboomboom . . . boomboomboom . . . boomboom boom, and then our guys with those little rifles they carry, poppop . . . poppoppoppop. . . . to my left . . . poppoppoppoppoppoppopp to my right, and then, boomboomboom PaPaPaPaPaPpoppoppoppopp GawGawGaw BOOM PaPaPpoppopGawGaw GawGawGawPaPaPpop popboom boom boom.
This was an appropriate time to run for cover. Enemy bullets snapping by. I saw at least two soldiers smiling–authors are not allowed to carry weapons PaPaPGawGaw
BOOM PaPaPpop zinnggg–dust clouding the air–sure would be nice to have a gun instead of a camera right now boompop Gawsnapsnap boom boompoppboomGawGawGaw.
I looked back to where we had been because the prisoner [the American soldiers always remind me that I should call prisoners “detainees”] was still there, handcuffed, and on his knees, with the radio transmitter lying beside him on the ground.
We had left the prisoner in the open. Bullets are snapping, and I’m crouched on a knee behind a Stryker. When I look back again, I see Kurilla standing out there, alone, next to the terrorist on the sidewalk. Bullets are kicking up dirt and Kurilla gives us a look: What the hell! You left the prisoner!
For a moment, I nearly ran back out to drag the terrorist behind the Stryker, but then I thought, Nope, he’s a terrorist! If Kurilla gets shot, I’m definitely going to get him. But the terrorist can get shot to pieces and I don’t care.
Instead of doing something useful–and I feel marginally guilty about this, but not too much–I start snapping photos as the Commander drags the guy by the collar to get him to the cover of the Stryker. I can’t believe Kurilla is still alive after nearly a year of doing this.
BoomboomboomPaPaPaPaPaP pop pop
Soon we cleared the area south of the circle where we were taking fire. It was over within about 20 minutes; the enemy broke contact for a short time. Maybe we killed some. Before it could start up again, more American platoons arrived, as well as our Warmonger air support. Soldiers love those helicopter pilots. With back-up on site, we made security positions, and waited for the Army Explosives Ordinance Disposal [EOD] team to arrive.
All the while we were parked at the traffic circle, I expected mortars or car bombs at any moment. The longer we sat there, still and waiting, the greater the risk. We had recently uncovered a giant cache of IEDs, and some were pre-fabbed into concrete to look like road curbs. Sections of the road underneath us might very well be bombs. One EOD soldier didn’t seem happy to be there. “Nice Fun Meter!” I said and snapped a photo.
The EOD soldiers loaded their little Talon robot with a claw-full of C-4 plastic explosives. The robot rolled down the road and put the explosives where we thought the IEDs were. The robot scampered back a short distance:
Fire in the hole, fire in the hole, fire in the hole!
Nothing. Just the C-4 exploded.
One soldier said, “You’re not going to write about this are you? That wasn’t anything. Don’t make it sound like a big deal, okay? My mom reads your stuff, and every time you write about something dangerous she freaks out.”
“No problem,” I said, “I’ll water it down from here out.” There was some minor shooting going on around us, and an EOD lieutenant came up and said, “I loved that dispatch called the Devil’s Foyer.”
“Thank you,” I replied, then asked, “What was that green sub-munition I photographed for that dispatch? A thousand people wrote me asking about it.”
The Lieutenant answered, “Could have been different things. Like chemical, but probably was just high explosives. When those sub-munitions deploy, they spin and arm. Probably that one was not armed,” he answered.
The sounds of shooting between Deuce Four platoons and terrorists kept wafting in, but it wasn’t very close. I still expected mortars, a car bomb, maybe a sniper.
The robot scampered out and laid down another claw-full of plastic explosives. BOOM!
The robot scampered back.
“Isn’t all that shit pretty hot?” asked an EOD soldier.
“Not really,” I said.
Should be some mortars landing on us any moment now.
The EOD guys stuck more explosives in the robot’s claw. It was like a dog trained to fetch, but the only treat this robot needs is a charged battery-pack. It scampered back out. BOOM!
That’s three strikes. Time for the EOD guys to pull out and leave. This irritates and angers the soldiers immensely, but I’ve run with EOD guys before, and their work is exceptionally dangerous. The enemy specifically tries to kill them, making it important that EOD be used only when absolutely needed. This EOD team said that if we find the bomb, please call. They drove home.
And so we sat there, with the two damn terrorists. Couldn’t get the bombs to explode. There might be other bombs close by, and there might be other terrorists with other radio transmitters. Just because we had the one transmitter and the two bad guys did not mean we could just walk around the center ring of the bull’s eye and poke around looking for trouble. Trouble would definitely find us in Yarmuk circle. Time was working against us.
LTC Kurilla didn’t want to leave the bombs buried in the road, so he pulled the Strykers further back, and tried to use the terrorist’s radio control to detonate them. He dropped down inside the hatch and asked the terrorist how to use the transmitter. In the most shocking admission of guilt imaginable, the terrorist walked the Commander through the steps: 1) Re-install the AA batteries in the back, 2) Connect the 9-volt battery on the side. 3) Flip the black switch on the side. 4) Press #1 on the weird keypad. 5) Press #7.
When you press 7, the bomb explodes.
Despite trying all kinds of permutations, even standing up in the hatch for better transmission, nothing happened. Kurilla came back down and asked for more instructions, but the thing would not work. The receiver might have been damaged by the three EOD blasts.
After ordering that the street be made “black,” meaning closed to traffic, Kurilla then asked the terrorist where he lived. Without hesitation, he told us. Some soldiers stayed to watch the IED area while we drove to and raided the man’s house.
He lived with his mother. She was the only one home when we arrived. It was as if she knew we were coming. Many people saw us capture him; someone must have called on a cell phone to warn her that trouble was brewing. We searched everywhere.
She smiled the whole time, as if to say, That’s my boy! The translator heard her say to her son, “Don’t worry. You will be released soon.” She smiled at me.
The most serious terrorists do not fear prison here. Captain Jeff VanAntwerp, who commands Alpha Company, recently told me that Iraqis joke among themselves that they would pay 5,000 dinar per night to stay at Abu Ghraib prison. It’s air-conditioned, the showers are good, the food is good, and the water is good. The mother seemed to know this and it curled in contempt behind her smile.
Our guys back at the Yarmuk traffic circle called saying they were in a little firefight and were taking mortar fire. But on the block where the terrorist lived, with his proud smiling mother, soldiers knocked on the neighbors’ doors. The children clearly recognized the man, but everyone disavowed knowledge of him, despite that his mother encouraged him in front of us.
When the soldiers talked with other neighbors, they showed the transmitter and the terrorist. But clearly this was not diminishing his stature: We were making a local hero. And his neighbors were coalescing to shield him. This wasn’t getting us anywhere useful, so we changed course and headed for our meeting with the police.
We finally arrived at the police station where they had prepared lunch for us, though we were running late due to the inconveniences. The smell quickened my growing hunger; Iraqi Police food in Mosul is much better than the American Army chow on base. But before we could eat, the soldiers walked the blindfolded prisoner in to see if police could identify him.
The Chief wanted the prisoner. “Please leave him with me.”
During lunch, the Chief persisted in his entreaties to LTC Kurilla, saying his police would find all the bombs, break the cell, and give the prisoner back tomorrow at the latest. And they could. The Iraqi Police could break the cell because they can break the man.
Terrorists often target Iraqi police–especially this station–so the Chief was becoming frustrated, and he continued to angle for the opportunity to interrogate the prisoner, suggesting creative ways to circumvent the inconvenient rules, like, “Let him go and we will catch him again.” But LTC Kurilla kept reiterating, “You know I can’t give him to you. I might not agree with all the rules, but I must enforce them.”
“Give him to me, just for the night,” the Chief said. “You can have him back tomorrow.”
“That I cannot do,” Kurilla replied firmly. “If your police had been with us when we captured him, you could have him. But these are the rules.”
Driving back to base with both prisoners, we knew that the unexploded bomb (or bombs) were still under a main road. But later that night the 73rd Engineers found two bombs buried in the exact spot described by the terrorist. Even with these devices eliminated, we thought more bombs were hidden there. Something was not right. But a hunch, even one so collective, can’t justify digging up a main road in Mosul.
And the missions can’t be put on hold. Timing is everything. An enemy fighting a guerilla war has limited resources; whoever controls the pace owns the day.
Next day, we drove back to the same police station using a different route, and met with the Chief to discuss security for the upcoming elections. Minutes after we left the meeting, a terrorist sniper shot and killed PFC Nils Thompson.
There was no time to stop and grieve. The missions continued. They had to. Hitting the enemy. More than I can ever write. Too much happens here too fast. Despite the brisk pace, as the distance of days unfurled, conversations went back to that IED. Then, finally, I woke up early one morning, waiting by my cell phone for a scheduled radio interview, when a gigantic explosion rocked the morning darkness. That was more than a five-banger.
I walked to the TOC and asked what exploded. Blasts that large can defeat Strkyer armor, but no patrols called in to say they had been hit. I asked “Q,” who was manning the counter-battery radar, if he saw anything; maybe flying parts were tracked by radar, but Q showed me the blank screen. No radar acquisitions. Just another giant explosion in the night without explanation; there have been many.
I walked back through the dark and did the radio interview by cell phone. During such interviews, I get the impression that people at home are losing faith in the effort, though we are winning. But at home they cannot see it, and when I said goodbye that time, I sat in the dark.
The birds began singing and twilight broke to sunrise; another day was born. I watched Strykers coming in, and Strykers going out: the missions rolled on and I wanted to go. But I was falling behind on the writing.
It happens that the explosion was an accidental detonation of the large bomb we suspected had been left under the road by Yarmuk Traffic Circle. Apparently the terrorists had gone back to hook it up, but it had detonated, scattering some car parts, but no human parts were found. Our hunch left a crater eight feet in diameter, and took out an entire lane. Three artillery rounds also had been blown from the hole and lay unexploded nearby. Had Kurilla not spotted that nervous double-take seconds before the stripe-shirted terrorist could hit the #7 key, that bomb might have hit us.
Now Kurilla was rolling out again, planning to check election security, and the area by the hole that might have been our grave. Soldiers were suiting up and as they passed me, several asked if I was going. I kept saying, “I want to, but I promised to finish a dispatch.” They rolled without me. Again, a powerful IED lay in their path, several miles from the previous bomb. BOOM! A soldier was lightly wounded in the face, the Stryker was damaged, but the timing was a tad off, so everyone survived.
That night, there was an important memorial for Nils Thompson, the soldier who had been killed by a sniper. Soldiers had labored for days, and into the nights, to make a fitting ceremony for young Nils Thompson. Top officers, a General among them, came to the ceremony. Though he’d just turned 19, Thompson already had earned respect from officers and men in the unit. Many quiet tears marked the true pain of the loss. A few soldiers wondered, Do people at home even care?
After the memorial, I finally came back, ready to finish a dispatch that was now days late. But when I walked into the TOC, the Shadow unmanned “spy plane” was beaming down live feed of a target house. Captain VanAntwerp, Alpha Company Commander, was there, talking with LTC Kurilla and others. They were hastily planning a mission after hot intelligence arrived about two car bombs that were being assembled. Captain V was loaded for battle.
Captain V is one of the most respected officers here. When things go wrong, soldiers love to hear his voice on the other end of the radio. They know that things are getting better fast when Captian V is on the way. A couple months ago, I rolled out with his section, and soon we were sleeking on foot down the darkened streets and warrens of Mosul, far away from the Strykers. We got into contact and there was some minor shooting drama, and I ended up separated with only two soldiers. We were alone in Mosul. Guns were hot. There was a sergeant and a young soldier, and the sergeant’s radio could not reach out. “Let’s stay here and Captain V will find us,” I suggested. But the sergeant was having none of that sit-tight stuff. He wanted to keep moving, and so we did.
Before long, a Stryker came creeping down a dark road and stopped in front of our latest position in a dark alcove. The ramp dropped and Captain V walked out. “Hey, guys,” he said. “How’s it going?” Much better, I thought. We re-grouped and continued the mission.
And now tonight, the enemy was up to something, but our guys were on to them.
“Is this a real raid,” I asked a soldier quietly, “or are they just going out to roll up some little cell leader?”
“Sounds like they’re going in hard,” answered a soldier.
“Can I go?” I asked LTC Kurilla. The answer has never been “No.”
“Get your gear. They’re leaving.”
“I’m on it.” The dispatch would have to wait.
After midnight, the ramps dropped and we slipped silently into the dark spaces of Mosul. Creeping through stinking alleys, we took cover in darkness, sometimes illuminating briefly under shop lights, then disappearing back into the shadows.
No sound, no sight, just soldiers prowling through the murk of war, bringing worry to men who should be worried. The soldiers found the right house, and silently slipped inside.
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