“I’M HERE TO GET THOSE MORTARS”
You would think an army planning a major offensive would have a way to get its warriors right to the battle area.
You would think wrong.
Because of the medical situation with the cyst and then my daughter’s birth, I ended up leaving the States about a week behind the rest of my platoon. By the time I landed in Baghdad in April 2006, my platoon had been sent west to the area of Ramadi. No one in Baghdad seemed to know how to get me out there. It was up to me to get over to my boys.
A direct flight to Ramadi was impossible—things were too hot there. So I had to cobble together my own solution. I came across an Army Ranger who was also heading for Ramadi. We hooked up, pooling our creative resources as we looked for a ride at Baghdad International Airport.
At some point, I overheard an officer talking about problems the Army was having with some insurgent mortarmen at a base to the west. By coincidence, we heard about a flight heading to that same base; the Ranger and I headed over to try to get onto the helicopter.
A colonel stopped as we were about to board.
“Helicopter’s full,” he barked at the Ranger. “Why do you need to be on it?”
“Well, sir, we’re the snipers coming to take care of your mortar problem,” I told him, holding up my gun case.
“Oh yes!” the colonel yelled to the crew. “These boys need to be on the very next flight. Get them right on.”
We hopped aboard, bumping two of his guys in the process.
By the time we got to the base, the mortars had been taken care of. We still had a problem, though—there were no flights heading for Ramadi, and the prospects of a convoy were slimmer than the chance of seeing snow in Dallas in July.
But I had an idea. I led the Ranger to the base hospital, and found a corpsman. I’ve worked with a number as a SEAL, and in my experience, the Navy medics always know their way around problems.
I took a SEAL challenge coin out of my pocket and slipped it into my hand, exchanging it when we shook. (Challenge coins are special tokens that are created to honor members of a unit for bravery or other special achievements. A SEAL challenge coin is especially valued, both for its rarity and symbolism. Slipping it to someone in the Navy is like giving him a secret handshake.)
“Listen,” I told the corpsman. “I need a serious favor. I’m a SEAL, a sniper. My unit is in Ramadi. I got to get there, and he’s coming with me.” I gestured to the Ranger.
“Okay,” said the corpsman, his voice almost a whisper. “Come into my office.”
We went into his office. He took out a rubber stamp, inked our hands, then wrote something next to the mark.
It was a triage code.
The corpsman medevac’d us into Ramadi. We were the first, and probably only, people to be medevac’d into a battle rather than out of it.
And I thought only SEALs could be that creative.
I have no idea why that worked, but it did. No one on the chopper we were hustled into questioned the direction of our flight, let alone the nature of our “wounds.”
Ramadi was in al-Anbar, the same province as Fallujah, about thirty miles farther west. Many of the insurgents who’d been run out of Fallujah were said to have holed up there. There was plenty of evidence: attacks had ratcheted up ever since Fallujah had been pacified. By 2006, Ramadi was considered the most dangerous city in Iraq—a hell of a distinction.
My platoon had been sent to Camp Ramadi, a U.S. base along the Euphrates River outside the city. Our compound, named Shark Base, had been set up by an earlier task unit and was just outside the wire of Camp Ramadi.
When I finally arrived, my boys had been sent to work east of Ramadi. Arranging transportation through the city was impossible. I was pissed—I thought I’d gotten there too late to join in the action.
Looking for something to do until I could figure out how to get with the rest of the platoon, I asked my command if I could sit out on the guard towers. Insurgents had been testing the perimeters, sneaking as close as they dared and spraying the base with their AKs.
“Sure, go ahead,” they told me.
I went out and took my sniper rifle. Almost as soon as I got into position, I saw two guys skirting around in the distance, looking for a spot to shoot from.
I waited until they popped up behind cover.
I got the first one. His friend turned around and started to run.
Got him, too.
I was still waiting for a chance to join the rest of my platoon when the Marine unit at the northern end of the city put in a request for snipers to help with an overwatch from a seven-story building near their outpost.
The head shed asked me to come up with a team. There were only two other snipers at the base. One was recovering from wounds and looped out on morphine; the other was a chief who appeared reluctant to go.
I asked for the guy who was on morphine; I got the chief.
We found two 60 gunners, including Ryan Job, to provide a little muscle, and with an officer headed out to help the Marines.
Seven Story was a tall, battered building about two hundred yards outside the Marine outpost. Made of tan-colored cement and located near what had been a major road before the war, it looked almost like a modern office building, or would have if it weren’t for the missing windows and huge holes where it had been hit by rockets and shells. It was the tallest thing around and had a perfect vantage into the city.
We went out in early evening with several Marines and local jundis for security. The jundis were loyal Iraqi militia or soldiers who were being trained; there were a number of different groups, each with its own level of expertise and efficiency—or, most often, the opposite of both.
While there was still light, we got a few shots here and there, all on isolated insurgents. The area around the building was pretty rundown, a whitewashed wall with a fancy iron gate separating one sand-strewn empty lot from another.
Night fell, and suddenly we were in the middle of a flood of bad guys. They were on their way to assault the Marine outpost and we just happened to be along the route. There were a ton of them.
At first, they didn’t realize we were there, and it was open season. Then, I saw three guys with RPGs taking aim at us from about a block away. I shot each of them in succession, saving us the hassle of ducking from their grenades.
The firefight quickly shifted our way. The Marines called us over the radio and told us to collapse back to them.
Their outpost was a few hundred treacherous yards away. While one of the 60 gunners, my officer, and I provided cover fire, the rest of our group went downstairs and moved over to the Marine base. Things got hot so fast that by the time they were clear we were surrounded. We stayed where we were.
Ryan realized our predicament as soon as he arrived at the Marine outpost. He and the chief got into an argument over whether to provide cover for us. The chief claimed that their job was to stay with the Iraqi jundis, who were already hunkered down inside the Marine camp. The chief ordered him to stay; Ryan told him what he could do with that order.
Ryan ran upstairs on the roof of the Marine building, where he joined the Marines trying to lay down support fire for us as we fought off the insurgents.
The Marines sent a patrol over to pull us out. As I watched them coming from the post, I spotted an insurgent moving in behind them.
I fired once. The Marine patrol hit the dirt. So did the Iraqi, though he didn’t get up.
“There’s [an insurgent] sniper out there and he’s good,” their radio man called. “He nearly got us.”
I got on my radio.
“That’s me, dumbass. Look behind you.”
They turned around and saw a savage with a rocket launcher lying dead on the ground.
“God, thank you,” answered the Marine.
“Don’t mention it.”
The Iraqis did have snipers working that night. I got two of them—one who was up on the minaret of a mosque, and another on a nearby building. This was a fairly well-coordinated fight, one of the better-organized ones we would encounter in the area. It was unusual, because it took place at night; the bad guys generally didn’t try and press their luck in the dark.
Finally, the sun came up and the gunfire slacked down. The Marines pulled out a bunch of armored vehicles to cover for us, and we ran back to their camp.
I went up to see their commander and brief him on what had happened. I had barely gotten a sentence out of my mouth when a burly Marine officer burst into the office.
“Who the hell was the sniper up there on Seven Story?” he barked.
I turned around and told him it was me, bracing myself to be chewed out for some unknown offense.
“I want to shake your hand, son,” he said, pulling off his glove. “You saved my life.”
He was the guy I’d called a dumbass on the radio earlier. I’ve never seen a more grateful Marine.
My boys returned from their adventures out east soon afterward. They greeted me with their usual warmth.
“Oh, we know the Legend’s here,” they said as soon as they saw me. “All of a sudden we hear there’s two kills at Camp Ramadi. People are dying up north. We knew the Legend was here. You’re the only motherfucker who’s ever killed anyone out there.”
The nickname “the Legend” had started back in Fallujah, around the time of the beach ball incident, or maybe when I got that really long shot. Before that, my nickname had been Tex.
Of course, it wasn’t just “Legend.” There was more than a little mocking that went with it—THE LEGEND. One of my guys—Dauber, I think it was, even turned it all around and called me THE MYTH, cutting me down to size.
It was all good-natured, in a way more of an honor than a full-uniform medal ceremony.
I really liked Dauber. Even though he was a new guy, he was a sniper, and a pretty good one. He could hold his own in a firefight—and trading insults. I had a real soft spot for him, and when it came time to haze him, I didn’t hit him . . . much.
Even if the guys joked about it, Legend was one of the better nicknames you could get. Take Dauber. That’s not his real name (at the moment, he’s doing what we’ll call “government work”). The nickname came from a character in the television series Coach. There, Dauber was the typical dumb-jock type. In real life, he’s actually an intelligent guy, but that fact was of no consideration in his getting named.
But one of the best nicknames was Ryan Job’s: Biggles.
It was a big, goofy name for a big, goofy guy. Dauber takes credit for it—the word, he claims, was a combination of “big” and “giggles” that had been invented for one of his relatives.
He mentioned it one day, applying it to Ryan. Someone else on the team used it, and within seconds, it had stuck.
Ryan hated it, naturally, which certainly helped it stick.
Along the way, someone later found a little purple hippo. Of course, it had to go to the guy who had the hippo face. And Ryan became Biggles the Desert Hippo.
Ryan being Ryan, he turned it all around. It wasn’t a joke on him; it was his joke. Biggles the Desert Hippo, best 60 gunner on the planet.
He carried that hippo everywhere, even into battle. You just had to love the guy.
Our platoon had its own nickname, one that went beyond Cadillac.
We called ourselves the Punishers.
For those of you who are not familiar with the character, the Punisher debuted in a Marvel comic book series in the 1970s. He’s a real bad-ass who rights wrongs, delivering vigilante justice. A movie by the same name had just come out; the Punisher wore a shirt with a stylized white skull.
Our comms guy suggested it before the deployment. We all thought what the Punisher did was cool: He righted wrongs. He killed bad guys. He made wrongdoers fear him.
That’s what we were all about. So we adapted his symbol—a skull—and made it our own, with some modifications. We spray-painted it on our Hummers and body armor, and our helmets and all our guns. And we spray-painted it on every building or wall we could. We wanted people to know, We’re here and we want to fuck with you.
It was our version of psyops.
You see us? We’re the people kicking your ass. Fear us. Because we will kill you, motherfucker.
You are bad. We are badder. We are bad-ass.
Our sister platoon wanted to use the template we used to mark our gear, but we wouldn’t let them. We told them we were the Punishers. They had to get their own symbol.
We went a bit light with our Hummers. They were named, mostly, for G.I. Joe characters, like Duke and Snake Eyes. Just because war is hell doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun.
We had a good team that deployment, starting at the top. Decent officers, and a really excellent chief named Tony.
Tony had trained as a sniper. He was not only a bad-ass, he was an old bad-ass, at least for a SEAL—rumor has it he was forty that deployment.
SEALs usually do not make it to forty and stay out in the field. We’re too beat-up. But Tony somehow managed it. He was a hard-core son of a bitch, and we would have followed him to hell and back.
I was the point man—snipers usually are—when we went on patrols. Tony was almost always right behind me. Generally, the chief will be toward the rear of the formation, covering everybody else’s ass, but in this case our LT reasoned that having two snipers at the head of the platoon was more effective.
One night soon after the entire platoon had gotten back together, we traveled about seventeen kilometers east of Ramadi. The area was green and fertile—so much so that it looked to us like the Vietnamese jungle, compared to the desert we’d been operating in. We called it Viet Ram.
One night not long after the unit reunited, we were deposited at a patrol area and began walking toward a suspected insurgent stronghold on foot. Eventually, we came to a huge ditch with a bridge going across it. Most of the time, these bridges were booby-trapped, and in this case we had intel indicating this one definitely was. So I went up and stood there, shining my laser to look for a trip wire.
I played the light across the top of the bridge but saw nothing. I ducked a little lower and tried again. Still nothing. I looked everywhere I could think of, but found no contact wires, no IEDs, no booby-traps, nothing.
But since I’d been told the bridge was booby-trapped, I was sure there had to be something there.
I looked again. My EOD—the bomb disposal expert—was waiting behind me. All I had to do was find a trip wire or the bomb itself, and he’d have it disarmed in seconds.
But I couldn’t find shit. Finally, I told Tony, “Let’s go across.”
Don’t get the wrong image: I wasn’t charging across that bridge. I had my rifle in one hand and the other parked protectively over my family jewels.
That wouldn’t have saved my life if an IED exploded, but at least I’d be intact for the funeral.
The bridge was all of ten feet long, but it must have taken me an hour to get across that thing. When I finally reached the other side, I was soaking wet from sweat. I turned around to give the other guys the thumbs-up. But there was no one there. They’d all ducked behind some rocks and brush, waiting for me to blow up.
Even Tony, who, as point man, should have been right behind me.
“Motherfucker!” I yelled. “Where the hell did you go?”
“There’s no reason for more than one of us to get blown up,” he told me matter-of-factly as he came across.
Fallujah had been taken in an all-out assault, moving through the city in a very organized fashion. While it had been successful, the attack had also caused a lot of damage, which had supposedly hurt support for the new Iraqi government.
You can argue whether that’s true or not—I sure would—but the top American command didn’t want the same thing to happen in Ramadi. So, while the Army worked on a plan for taking Ramadi with minimal destruction, we went to war in the area nearby.
We started with DAs. We had four interpreters—terps, as we called them—who helped us deal with the locals. At least one and usually two would go out with us.
One terp we all really liked was Moose. He was a bad-ass. He’d been working since the invasion in 2003. He was Jordanian, and he was the only one of the terps we gave a gun. We knew he would fight—he wanted to be an American so bad he would have died for it. Every time we got contacted, he would be out there shooting.
He wasn’t a great shot, but he could keep the enemy’s heads down. Most importantly, he knew when he could and couldn’t shoot—not as easy a call as it might seem.
There was this little village outside Shark Base we called Gay Tway. It was infested with insurgents. We would open the gates, walk out, and hit our target. There was one house we went to three or four times. After the first time, they didn’t even bother putting the door back.
Why they kept going back to that house, I don’t know. But we kept going back, too; we got to know the place pretty well.
It didn’t take too long before we started getting a lot of contact in Gay Tway and the village of Viet Ram. An Army National Guard unit covered that area, and we started working with them.
Among our first jobs was to help the Army reclaim the area around a hospital along the river in Viet Ram. The four-story concrete building had been started and then abandoned a few years before. The Army wanted to finish it for the Iraqis; decent medical care was a big need out there. But they couldn’t get close to it to do any work, because as soon as they did, they came under fire. So we went to work.
Our platoon, sixteen guys, teamed up with about twenty soldiers to clear the nearby village of insurgents. Entering town early one morning, we split up and started taking houses.
I was at point, carrying my Mk-12, the first guy in each building. Once the house was secure, I’d go up to the roof, cover the guys on the ground, and look for insurgents, who we expected to attack once they knew we were there. The group leapfrogged forward, clearing the area as we went.
Unlike in the city, these houses weren’t right next to each other, so the process took longer and was more spread-out. But soon enough, the terrorists realized where we were and what we were up to, and they put together a little attack from a mosque. Holed up behind its walls, they started raining AK fire at a squad of soldiers on the ground.
I was up on one of the roofs when the fight started. Within moments, we started firing everything we had at the bad guys: M-4s, M-60s, sniper rifles, 40-mm grenades, LAW rockets—everything we had. We lit that mosque up.
The momentum of the battle quickly shifted in our favor. The soldiers on the ground began maneuvering to assault the mosque, hoping to catch the insurgents before they could slide back into whatever sewer they’d emerged from. We shifted our fire higher, moving our aim above their heads to allow them to get in.
Somewhere in the middle of the fight, a piece of hot brass from another gun—probably an M-60 machine gun next to me—shot against my leg and landed in my boots next to my ankle. It burned like hell, but I couldn’t do anything about it—there were too many bad guys popping up from behind the walls, trying to get my people.
I was wearing simple hiking boots rather than combat boots. That was my normal style—they were lighter and more comfortable, and ordinarily more than enough to protect my feet. Unfortunately, I hadn’t bothered to lace them up very well before the battle, and there was a space between my pants and the boot where the brass happened to fall after it ejected.
What had the instructors told me in BUD/S about not being able to call “time out” in battle?
When things quieted down, I stood up and pulled out the casing. A good wedge of skin came out with it.
We secured the mosque, worked through the rest of the village, then called it a day.
DIFFERENT WAYS OF KILLING
We went on patrols with the Army unit several more times, trying to reduce resistance in the area. The idea was simple, if potentially risky: we’d make ourselves visible, trying to draw fire from the insurgents. Once they showed themselves, we could fire back and kill them. And usually we did.
Pushed from the village and the mosque, the insurgents retreated to the hospital. They loved hospital buildings, not only because they were big and usually well-made (and therefore protective), but because they knew we were reluctant to attack hospitals, even after they were taken over by terrorists.
It took a while, but the Army command finally decided to attack the building.
Good, we all told them when we heard the plan. Let’s go do it.
We set up an overwatch in a house some two or three hundred yards from the hospital building, across a clear field. As soon as the insurgents saw us, they started letting us have it.
One of my guys shot off a Carl Gustav rocket at the top of the building where they were shooting from. The Gustav put a big ol' hole there. Bodies flew everywhere.
The rocket helped take some of the fight out of them, and as resistance weakened, the Army punched in and took the building. By the time they reached the grounds, there was almost no resistance. The few people we hadn’t killed had run away.
It was always hard to tell how many insurgents were opposing us in a battle like that. A small handful could put up a pretty good fight. A dozen men fighting behind cover could hold up a unit advance for quite a while, depending on the circumstances. Once the insurgents were met with a lot of force, however, you could count on about half squirting out the back or wherever to get away.
We’d had the Carl Gustav with us earlier, but as far as I know, this was the first time we’d actually killed anyone with it, and it may have been the first time any SEAL unit did so. It was certainly the first time we used it against a building. Once word spread, of course, everyone wanted to use them.
Technically, the Carl Gustav was developed to combat armor, but as we found out, it was pretty potent against buildings. In fact, it was perfect in Ramadi—it just blew right through reinforced concrete and took out whoever was inside. The overpressure from the explosion wiped out the interior.
We had different rounds for the gun. (Remember, it’s actually considered a recoilless rifle rather than a rocket launcher.) A lot of times, the insurgents would hide behind embankments and other barriers, well protected. In that case, you could set an air-burst round to explode over them. The air burst was a lot worse than anything that detonated on the ground.
The Gustav is relatively easy to use. You have to wear double ear-protection and be careful where you stood when it’s fired, but the results are awesome. Everyone in the platoon wanted to use it after a while—I swear there were fights over who was going to launch it.
When you’re in a profession where your job is to kill people, you start getting creative about doing it.
You think about getting the most firepower you possibly can into the battle. And you start trying to think of new and inventive ways to eliminate your enemy.
We had so many targets out in Viet Ram we started asking ourselves, what weapons have we not used to kill them?
No pistol kill yet? You have to get at least one.
We’d use different weapons for the experience, to learn the weapon’s capabilities in combat. But at times it was a game—when you’re in a firefight every day, you start looking for a little variety. No matter what, there were plenty of insurgents, and plenty of firefights.
The Gustav turned out to be one of our most effective weapons when we came up against insurgents shooting from buildings. We had LAW rockets, which were lighter and easier to carry. But too many of them turned out to be duds. And once you fired a LAW, you were done; it wasn’t a reloadable weapon. The Carl Gustav was always a big hit—pun intended.
Another weapon we used quite a bit was the 40-mm grenade launcher. The launcher comes in two varieties, one that attaches under your rifle and another that is a stand-alone weapon. We had both.
Our standard grenade was a “frag”—a grenade that exploded and sprayed an area with shrapnel or fragments. This is a traditional antipersonnel weapon, tried and true.
While we were on this deployment, we received a new type of projectile using a thermobaric explosive. Those had a lot more “boom”—a single grenade launched at an enemy sniper in a small structure could bring the whole building down because of the over-pressure created by the explosion. Most times, of course, we were firing at a larger building, but the destructive power was still intense. You’d have a violent explosion, a fire, and then no more enemy. Gotta love it.
You shoot grenades with what we call Kentucky windage—estimating the distance, adjusting the elevation of the launcher, and firing. We liked the M-79—the standalone version that was first used during the Vietnam War—because it had sights, making it a bit easier to aim and hit what you wanted. But one way or another, you quickly got the hang of things, because you were using the weapon so much.
We had contact every time we went out.
We loved it.
I had a hard time with the kids after Chris deployed. My mom came and helped me, but it was just a difficult time.
I guess I wasn’t ready to have another baby. I was mad at Chris, scared for him, and nervous about raising a baby and a toddler all by myself. My son was only a year and a half old; he was getting into everything, and the newborn happened to be really clingy.
I remember just sitting on the couch and crying in my bathrobe for days. I would be nursing her and trying to feed him. I’d sit there and cry.
The C-section didn’t heal well. I had women tell me, “After my C-section, I was scrubbing the floors a week later and I was all good.” Well, six weeks after mine I was still in pain, still hurting and not healing really well at all. I hated that I wasn’t healing like those women. (I found out later it’s usually the second C-section that women bounce back from. No one told me that part.)
I felt weak. I was mad at myself that I wasn’t tougher. It just sucked.
The distances east of Ramadi made the .300 Win Mag my rifle of choice, and I started taking it regularly on patrols. After the Army took the hospital, they continued taking fire and getting attacked. It didn’t take too long before they started getting mortar fire as well. So we bumped out, fighting the insurgents who were shooting at them, and looking for the mortar crews.
One day, we set up in a two-story building a short distance from the hospital. The Army tried using special gear to figure out where the mortars were being fired from, and we chose the house because it was near the area they identified. But, for some reason, that day the insurgents decided to lie low.
Maybe they were getting tired of dying.
I decided to see if we could flush them out. I always carried an American flag inside my body armor. I took it out and strung some 550 cord (general-purpose nylon rope sometimes called parachute cord) through the grommets. I tied the line to the lip on the roof, then threw it over the side so it draped down the side of the building.
Within minutes, half a dozen insurgents stepped out with automatic machine guns and started shooting at my flag.
We returned fire. Half of the enemy fell; the other half turned and ran.
I still have the flag. They shot out two stars. Fair trade for their lives, by my accounting.
As we bumped out, the insurgents would move farther away and try and put more cover between us and them. Occasionally, we’d have to call in air support to get them from behind walls or berms in the distance.
Because of the fear of collateral damage, command and the pilots were reluctant to use bombs. Instead, the jets would make strafing runs. We’d also get attack helicopters, Marine Cobras and Hueys, which would use machine guns and rockets.
One day, while we were on an overwatch, my chief and I spotted a man putting a mortar in the trunk of a car about eight hundred yards from us. I shot him; another man came out of the building where he’d been and my chief shot him. We called in an airstrike; an F/A-18 put a missile on the car. There were massive secondaries—they’d loaded the car with explosives before we saw them.
AMONG THE SLEEPERS
A night or two later, I found myself walking in the dark through a nearby village, stepping over bodies—not of dead people, but sleeping Iraqis. In the warm desert, Iraqi families would often sleep outside.
I was on my way to take up a position so we could overwatch a raid on the marketplace where one of the insurgents had a shop. Our intelligence indicated this was where the weapons in the car we’d blown up had come from.
Four other guys and I had been dropped off about six kilometers away by the rest of the team, which was planning to mount a raid in the morning. Our assignment was to get into place ahead of them, scout and watch the area, then protect them as they arrived.
It wasn’t as dangerous as you might think to walk through insurgent-held areas at night. They were almost always asleep. The Iraqis would see our convoys arrive during the day, and then leave before it got dark. So the bad guys would figure we were all back at the base. There’d be no guards posted, no lookouts, no pickets watching the area.
Of course, you had to watch where you stepped—one of my platoon members nearly stepped on a sleeping Iraqi as we walked to our target area in the dark. Fortunately, he caught himself at the last second, and we were able to walk on without waking anyone. The tooth fairy had nothing on us.
We found the marketplace and set up to watch it. It was a small row of tiny, one-story shacks used as stores. There were no windows—you open a door and sell your wares right out of the hut.
Not too long after we got to our hide, we received a radio call telling us that another unit was out somewhere in the area.
A few minutes later, I spotted a suspicious group of people.
“Hey,” I said over the radio. “I see four guys carrying AKs and web gear, all mujed out. Are these our boys?”
Web gear is webbing or vest and strap gears used to hold combat equipment. The men I saw looked like mujahedeen—by “all mujed out” I meant they were dressed the way insurgents often did in the countryside, wearing the long man-jammies and scarves. (In the city, they often wore Western-style clothes—tracksuits and warm-ups were big.)
The four men were coming from the river, which would be where I expected the guys to be coming from.
“Hold on, we’ll find out,” said the com guy on the other end of the radio.
I watched them. I wasn’t going to shoot them—no way I was going to take a chance and kill an American.
The unit took its time responding to our TOC, which, in turn, had to get a hold of my platoon guys. I watched as the men walked on.
“Not ours,” came the call back finally. “They cancelled.”
“Great. Well I just let four guys go in your direction.”
(I’m sure if they had been out there, I never would have seen them. Ninjas.)
Everybody was pissed. My guys back at the Hummers sat ready, scanning the desert, waiting for the muj to appear. I went back to my own scan, watching the area they were supposed to hit.
A few minutes later, what did I see but the four insurgents who’d passed me earlier.
I got one; one of the other snipers got another before they could take cover.
Then another six or seven insurgents appeared behind them.
Now we were in the middle of a firefight. We started launching grenades. The rest of the platoon heard the gunfire and came hard. But fighters who’d stumbled past us melted away.
The element of surprise lost, the platoon went ahead with the raid on the marketplace in the dark. They found some ammo and AKs, but nothing important in terms of a real weapons cache.
We never found out what the insurgents who slipped past were up to. It was just another mystery of war.
THE ELITE ELITE
I think all SEALs highly respect our brothers in the elite anti-terror unit you’ve read so much about at home. They are an elite group within an elite group.
We didn’t interact with them in Iraq much. The only other time I had much to do with them came a few weeks later, after we got into Ramadi proper. They had heard we were out there slaying a huge number of savages, and so they sent one of their snipers over to see what we were doing. I guess they wanted to find out what we were doing that worked.
Looking back, I regret not having tried to join. At the time, they weren’t using snipers as heavily as the other teams were. The assaulters were doing the majority of the work, and I didn’t want to be an assaulter. I was loving what I was doing. I wanted to be a sniper. I was getting to use my rifle, and killing enemies. Why give it up, move to the East Coast, and become a new guy all over again? And that’s not even considering the BUD/S-like school you have to get through to prove you belong.
I would have had to spend a number of years as an assaulter before working my way up to be a sniper again. Why do that when I was already sniping, and loving it?
But now that I’ve heard about their ops and what they accomplished, I think I should have gone for it.
The guys have a reputation for being arrogant and more than a little full of themselves. That’s plain wrong. I had the opportunity to meet a few after the war when they came out to a training facility I run. They were extremely down-to-earth, very humble about their achievements. I absolutely wished I was going back out with them.
CIVILIANS AND SAVAGES
The offensive in Ramadi had yet to start, officially, but we were getting plenty of action.
One day, intel came in concerning insurgents planting IEDs along a certain highway. We went out there and put it under surveillance. We’d also hit the houses and watch for ambushes on convoys and American bases.
It’s true that it can be difficult to sort out civilians from insurgents in certain situations, but here the bad guys made it easy for us. UAVs would watch a road, for example, and when they saw someone planting a bomb, they could not only pinpoint the booby-trap but follow the insurgent back to his house. That gave us excellent intel on where the bad guys were.
Terrorists going to attack Americans would give themselves away by moving tactically against approaching convoys or when coming close to a base. They’d sneak around with their AKs ready—it was very easy to spot them.
They also learned to spot us. If we took over a house in a small hamlet, we would keep the family inside for safety. The people who lived nearby would know that if the family wasn’t outside by nine o’clock in the morning, there were Americans inside. That was an open invitation for any insurgent in the area to come and try to kill us.
It became so predictable, it seemed to happen according to a time schedule. Around about nine in the morning you’d have a firefight; things would slack off around midday. Then, around three or four in the afternoon, you’d have another. If the stakes weren’t life and death, it would have been funny.
And at the time, it was funny, in a perverse kind of way.
You didn’t know which direction they’d attack from, but the tactics were almost always the same. The insurgents would start out with automatic fire, pop off a bit here, pop off there. Then you’d get the RPGs, a flurry of fire; finally, they’d scatter and try to get away.
One day, we took out a group of insurgents a short distance from the hospital. We didn’t realize it at the time, but Army intel passed the word later on that the insurgent command had made a cell phone call to someone, asking for more mortarmen, because the team that had been hitting the hospital had just been killed.
Their replacements never showed up.
Shame. We would have killed them, too.
Everyone knows by now about Predators, the UAVs that supplied a lot of intelligence to American forces during the war. But what many don’t know is that we had our own backpack UAVs—small, man-launched aircraft about the size of an RC aircraft kids of all ages play with in the States.
They fit in a backpack. I never got to operate one, but they did seem kind of cool. The trickiest part—at least from what I could see—was the launch. You had to throw it pretty hard to get it airborne. The operator would rev the engine, then fling it into the air; it took a certain amount of skill.
Because they flew low and had relatively loud little engines, the backpack UAVs could be heard on the ground. They had a distinctive whine, and the Iraqis soon learned that the noise meant we were watching. They became cautious as soon as they heard it—which defeated the purpose.
Things got so heavy at some points that we had to take up two different radio bands, one to communicate with our TOC and one to use among the platoon. There was so much radio traffic back and forth that comms from the TOC would overrun us during contact.
When we first started going out, our CO told our top watch to wake him every time we got into a TIC—a military acronym that stands for “troops in contact,” or combat. Then we were getting in so much combat that he revised the order—we were only to notify him if we’d been in a TIC for an hour.
Then it was, only notify me if someone gets injured.
Shark Base was a haven during this time, a little oasis of rest and recreation. Not that it was very fancy. It had a stone floor, and the windows were blocked by sandbags. At first, our cots were practically touching, and the only homey touch was the banged-up footlockers. But we didn’t need much. We’d go out for three days, come back for a day. I’d sleep, then maybe play video games for the rest of the day, talk on the phone to back home, use the computer. Then it was time to gear up and go back out.
You had to be careful when you were talking on the phone. Operational security—OpSec, to use yet another military term—was critical. You couldn’t say anything to anyone that might give away what we were doing, or what we planned to do, or even specifically what we had done.
All of our conversations from the base were recorded. There was software that listened for key words; if enough came up, they’d pull the conversation, and you could very well get in trouble. At one point, somebody ran their mouth about an operation, and we all got cut off for a week. He was pretty humiliated, and of course we reamed him out. He felt appropriately remorseful.
Sometimes, the bad guys made it easy for us.
One day we went out and set up in a village near the main road. It was a good spot; we were able to get a few insurgents as they tried passing through the area on their way to attack the hospital.
All of a sudden, a bongo truck—a small work vehicle with a cab and a bed in the back where a business might carry equipment—careened from the road toward our house. Rather than equipment, the truck was carrying four gunmen in the back, who started shooting at us as the truck drove across the fortunately wide yard.
I shot the driver. The vehicle drifted to a halt. The passenger in the front hopped out and ran to the driver’s side. One of my buddies shot him before they could get going. We lit up the rest of the insurgents, killing them all.
A short while later, I spotted a dump truck heading down the main road. I didn’t think all that much about it, until it turned into the driveway of the house and started coming straight at us.
We’d already interviewed the owners of the house, and knew no one there drove a dump truck. And it was pretty obvious from his speed that he wasn’t there to pick up some dirt.
Tony shot the driver in the head. The vehicle veered off and crashed into another building nearby. A helo came in a short while later and blew up the truck. A Hellfire missile whooshed in, and the dump truck erupted: it had been filled with explosives.
FINALLY, A PLAN
By early June, the Army had come up with a plan to take Ramadi back from the insurgents. In Fallujah, the Marines had worked systematically through the city, chasing and then pushing the insurgents out. Here, the insurgents were going to come to us.
The city itself was wedged between waterways and swampland. There was limited access by road. The Euphrates and the Habbaniyah canal bounded the city on the north and west; there was one bridge on either side near the northwestern tip. To the south and east, a lake, swamps, and a seasonal drainage canal helped form a natural barrier to the countryside.
The U.S. forces would come in from the perimeters of the city, the Marines from up north, and the Army on the other three sides. We would establish strongholds in various parts of the city, demonstrating that we were in control—and essentially daring the enemy to attack. When they did attack, we would fight back with everything we had. We’d set up more and more footholds, gradually extending control over the entire city.
The place was a mess. There was no functioning government, and it was beyond lawless. Foreigners entering the city were instant targets for killing or kidnapping, even if they were in armored convoys. But the place was a worse hell for ordinary Iraqis. Reports have estimated that there were more than twenty insurgent attacks against Iraqis every day. The easiest way to be killed in the city was to join the police force. Meanwhile, corruption was rife.
The Army analyzed the terrorist groups in the city and decided there were three different categories: hard-core Islamist fanatics, associated with al-Qaeda and similar groups; locals who were a little less fanatic though they still wanted to kill Americans; and opportunistic criminal gangs who were basically trying to make a living off the chaos.
The first group had to be eliminated because they would never give up; they would be our main focus in the coming campaign. The other two groups, though, might be persuaded to either leave, quit killing people, or work with the local tribal leadership. So, part of the Army plan would be to work with the tribal leadership to bring peace to the area. By all accounts, they had grown tired of the insurgents and the chaos they had brought, and wanted them gone.
The situation and plan were a lot more complicated than I can sum up. But to us on the ground, all of this was irrelevant. We didn’t give a damn about the nuances. What we saw, what we knew, was that many people wanted to kill us. And we fought back.
There was one way the overall plan did affect us, and not for the better.
The Ramadi offensive wasn’t supposed to be just about American troops. On the contrary, the new Iraqi army was supposed to be front and center in the effort to retake the city and make it safe.
The Iraqis were there. Front, no. Center—as a matter of fact, yes. But not quite in the way you’re thinking.
Before the assault began, we were ordered to help put an “Iraqi face on the war”—the term command and the media used for pretending that the Iraqis were actually taking the lead in making their country safe. We trained Iraqi units, and when feasible (though not necessarily desirable) took them with us on operations. We worked with three different groups; we called them all jundis, Arabic for soldiers, although, technically, some were police. No matter which force they were with, they were pathetic.
We had used a small group of scouts during our operations east of the city. When we went into Ramadi, we used SMPs—they were a type of special police. And then we had a third group of Iraqi soldiers that we used in villages outside of the city. During most operations, we would put them in the middle of our columns—Americans at the front, the Iraqis in the center, Americans at the rear. If we were inside a house, they would sit on the first floor, doing security and talking with the family, if there was one there.
As fighters went, they sucked. The brightest Iraqis, it seemed, were usually insurgents, fighting against us. I guess most of our jundis had their hearts in the right place. But as far as proficient military fighting went . . .
Let’s just say they were incompetent, if not outright dangerous.
One time a fellow SEAL named Brad and I were fixing to go into a house. We were standing outside the front door, with one of our jundis directly behind us. Somehow the jundi’s gun got jammed. Idiotically, he flicked off the safety and hit the trigger, causing a burst of rounds to blow right next to me.
I thought they’d come from the house. So did Brad. We started returning fire, dumping bullets through the door.
Then I heard all this shouting behind me. Someone was dragging an Iraqi whose gun had gone off—yes, the gunfire had come from us, not anyone inside the house. I’m sure the jundi was apologizing, but I wasn’t in the mood to listen, then or later.
Brad stopped firing and the SEAL who’d come up to get the door leaned back. I was still sorting out what the hell had happened when the door to the house popped open.
An elderly man appeared, hands trembling.
“Come in, come in,” he said. “There’s nothing here, nothing here.”
I doubt he realized how close it came to that being true.
Besides being particularly inept, a lot of jundis were just lazy. You’d tell them to do something and they’d reply, “Inshallah.”
Some people translate that as “God willing.” What it really means is “ain’t gonna happen.”
Most of the jundis wanted to be in the army to get a steady paycheck, but they didn’t want to fight, let alone die, for their country. For their tribe, maybe. The tribe, their extended family—that was where their true loyalty lay. And for most of them, what was going on in Ramadi had nothing to do with that.
I realize that a lot of the problem has to do with the screwed-up culture in Iraq. These people had been under a dictatorship for all their lives. Iraq as a country meant nothing to them, or at least nothing good. Most were happy to be rid of Saddam Hussein, very happy to be free people, but they didn’t understand what that really meant—the other things that come with being free.
The government wasn’t going to be running their lives anymore, but it also wasn’t going to be giving them food or anything else. It was a shock. And they were so backward in terms of education and technology that for Americans it often felt like being in the Stone Age.
You can feel sorry for them, but at the same time you don’t want these guys trying to run your war for you.
And giving them the tools they needed to progress is not what my job was all about. My job was killing, not teaching.
We went to great lengths to make them look good.
At one point during the campaign, a local official’s son was kidnapped. We got intel that he was being held at a house next to a local college. We went in at night, crashing through the gates and taking down a large building to use for the overwatch. While I watched from the roof of the building, some of my boys took down the house, freeing the hostage without any resistance.
Well, this was a big deal locally. So when it was photo op time, we called in our jundis. They got credit for the rescue, and we drifted into the background.
That sort of thing happened all across the theater. I’m sure there were plenty of stories back in the States about how much good the Iraqis were doing, and how we were training them. Those stories will probably fill the history books.
They’re bullshit. The reality was quite a bit different.
I think the whole idea of putting an Iraqi face on the war was garbage. If you want to win a war, you go in and win it. Then you can train people. Doing it in the middle of a battle is stupid. It was a miracle it didn’t fuck things up any worse than it did.
The thin dust from the dirt roads mixed with the stench of the river and city as we came up into the village. It was pitch-black, somewhere between night and morning. Our target was a two-story building in the center of a small village at the south side of Ramadi, separated from the main part of the city by a set of railroad tracks.
We moved into the house quickly. The people who lived there were shocked, obviously, and clearly wary. Yet they didn’t seem overly antagonistic, despite the hour. While our terps and jundis dealt with them, I went up to the roof and set up.
It was June 17, the start of the action in Ramadi. We had just taken the core of what would become COP Iron, the first stepping stone of our move into Ramadi. (COP stands for Command Observation Post.)
I eyed the village carefully. We’d been briefed to expect a hell of a fight, and everything we’d been through over the past few weeks in the east reinforced that. I knew Ramadi was going to be a hell of a lot worse than the countryside. I was tense, but ready.
With the house and nearby area secured, we called the Army in. Hearing the tanks coming in the distance, I scanned even more carefully through the scope. The bad guys could hear it, too. They’d be here any second.
The Army arrived with what looked like a million tanks. They took over the nearby houses, and then began building walls to form a compound around them.
No insurgents came. Taking the house, taking the village—it was a nonevent.
Looking around, I realized the area we had taken was both literally and figuratively on the other side of the tracks from the main city. Our area was where the poorer people lived, quite a statement for Iraq, which wasn’t exactly the Gold Coast. The owners and inhabitants of the hovels around us barely scratched out a living. They couldn’t care less about the insurgency. They couldn’t care even less about us.
Once the Army got settled, we bumped out about two hundred yards to protect the crews as they worked. We were still expecting a hell of a fight. But there wasn’t much action at all. The only interesting moment came in the morning, when a mentally handicapped kid was caught wandering around writing in a notebook. He looked like a spy, but we quickly realized he wasn’t right in the head and let him and his gibberish notes go.
We were all surprised by the calm. By noon, we were sitting there twiddling our thumbs. I won’t say we were disappointed but . . . it felt like a letdown after what we had been told.
This was the most dangerous city in Iraq?