DUNE BUGGIES AND MUD DON’T MIX
Geared up and strapped in, I sat vibrating in the gunner’s chair of the DPV shortly after nightfall March 20, 2003, as an Air Force MH-53 lifted off the runway in Kuwait. The vehicle had been loaded into the rear of the PAVE-Low aircraft, and we were en route toward the mission we’d spent the past several weeks rehearsing. The waiting was about to come to an end; Operation Iraqi Freedom was underway.
My war was finally here.
I was sweating, and not just with excitement. Not knowing exactly what Saddam might have in store, we’d been ordered to wear full MOPP gear (“Mission Oriented Protective Posture,” or spacesuits to some). The suits protect against chemical attacks, but they’re about as comfortable as rubber pajamas, and the gas mask that comes with them is twice as bad.
“Feet wet!” said someone over the radio.
I checked my guns. They were ready, including the 50. All I had to do was pull back the charging handle and load.
We were pointed straight toward the back of the helicopter. The rear ramp was not all the way up, so I could see out into the night. Suddenly, the black strip I was watching above the ramp speckled with red—the Iraqis had kicked on anti-aircraft radars and weapons that intel had claimed didn’t exist, and the chopper pilots began shooting off decoy flares and chaff to confuse them.
Then came the tracers, streams of bullets arcing across the narrow rectangle of black.
Damn, I thought. We’re going to get shot down before I even get a chance to smoke someone.
Somehow, the Iraqis managed to miss us. The helicopter kept moving, swooping toward land.
“Feet dry!” said someone over the radio. We were now over land.
All hell was breaking loose. We were part of a team tasked to hit Iraqi oil resources before the Iraqis could blow them up or set them on fire as they had during Desert Storm in 1991. SEALs and GROM were hitting gas and oil platforms (GOPLATs) in the Gulf, as well as on-shore oil refinery and port areas.
Twelve of us were tasked to hit farther inland, at the al-Faw oil refinery area. The few extra minutes it took translated into a hell of a lot of gunfire, and by the time the helicopter touched down, we were in the shit.
The ramp dropped and our driver hit the gas. I locked and loaded, ready to fire as we sped down the ramp. The DPV careened onto the soft dirt . . . and promptly got stuck.
Son of a bitch!
The driver started revving the engine and slapping the transmission back and forth, trying to budge us free. At least we were out of the helicopter—one of the other DPVs got stuck half on and half off the ramp. His 53 jerked up and down, trying desperately to free him—pilots hate like hell to get fired at, and they wanted out.
By this time I could hear the different DPV units checking in over the radio. Just about everybody was stuck in the oil-soaked mud. The intel specialist advising us had claimed that the ground would be hard-packed where we were going to land. Of course, she and her colleagues had also claimed that the Iraqis didn’t have anti-aircraft weapons. Like they say, military intelligence is an oxymoron.
“We’re stuck!” said our chief.
“Yeah, we’re stuck too,” said the lieutenant.
“We’re stuck,” said somebody else.
“Fuck, we got to get out of here.”
“All right, everybody get out of your vehicles and go to your positions,” said the chief.
I undid the five-point harness, grabbed the 60 off the back, and humped in the direction of the fence that blocked off the oil facility. Our job was to secure the gate, and just because we didn’t have wheels to do it with didn’t mean it wasn’t getting done.
I found a pile of rubble in sight of the gate and set up the 60. A guy came up next to me with a Carl Gustav. Technically a recoilless rifle, the weapon fires a bad-ass rocket that can take out a tank or poke a hole in a building. Nothing was getting through that gate without our say-so.
The Iraqis had set up a defensive perimeter outside the refinery. Their only problem was that we had landed inside. We were now between them and the refinery—in other words, behind their positions.
They didn’t like that all that much. They turned around and started firing at us.
As soon as I realized that we weren’t getting gassed, I threw off my gas mask. Returning fire with the 60, I had plenty of targets—too many, in fact. We were heavily outnumbered. But that was not a real problem. We began calling in air support. Within minutes, all sorts of aircraft were overhead: F/A-18s, F-16s, A-10As, even an AC-130 gunship.
The Air Force A-10s, better known as Warthogs, were awesome. They’re slow-moving jets, but that’s intentional—they’re designed to fly low and slow so they can put a maximum amount of gunfire on ground targets. Besides bombs and missiles, they’re equipped with a 30-mm Gatling cannon. Those Gatlings chewed the hell out of the enemy that night. The Iraqis rolled armor out of the city to get us, but they never got close. It got to the point where the Iraqis realized they were fucked and tried to flee.
Big mistake. That just made them easier to see. The planes kept coming, nailing them. They had them zeroed in, and zeroed them out. You’d hear the rounds coming past you in the air—errrrrrrrrr—then you’d hear the echo—erhrhrrhrh, followed closely by secondary explosions and whatever other havoc the bullets caused.
Fuck, I thought to myself, this is great. I fucking love this. It’s nerve-wracking and exciting and I fucking love it.
A British unit flew in in the morning. By then, the battle was over. Of course, we couldn’t resist needling them about it.
“Come on in. The fight’s over,” we said. “It’s safe for you.”
I don’t think they thought it was funny, but it was hard to tell. They speak English funny. Exhausted, we moved back inside the gate to a house that had been almost completely destroyed during the firefight. We went into the ruins, dropped down between the rubble, and fell asleep.
A few hours later, I got up. Most of the other guys in my company were stirring as well. We went outside and started checking the perimeter of the oil fields. While we were out, we spotted some of the air defenses the Iraqis didn’t have. But the intel reports didn’t have to be updated—those defenses were now in no shape to bother anyone.
There were dead bodies everywhere. We saw one guy who’d literally had his ass blown off. He’d bled to death, but not before he tried to drag himself away from the planes. You could see the blood trail in the dirt.
While we were sorting things out, I spotted a Toyota pickup in the distance. It drove up on the road and stopped a little more than a mile away.
White civilian pickup trucks were used by the Iraqis as military vehicles throughout the war. Usually they were some version of the Toyota Hilux, the compact pickup built in a variety of styles. (In the States, the Hilux was often called the SR5; the model was eventually discontinued here, though it continued to be sold overseas.) Not sure what was going on, we stared at the truck for a few moments until we heard a whup.
Something went splat a few yards from us. The Iraqis had fired a mortar round from the rear bed. It sank harmlessly into the oily mud.
“Thank God that thing didn’t blow up,” somebody said. “We’d be dead.”
White smoke started pouring out of the hole where the projectile had landed.
“Gas!” yelled someone.
We started running as fast as we could back to the gate. But just before we reached it, the British guards slammed it shut and refused to open up.
“You can’t come in!” one of them yelled. “You’ve just been gassed.”
While Marine Cobras flew in overhead to take care of the mortar trucks, we tried to figure out if we were going to die.
When we were still breathing a few minutes later, we realized the smoke had been just that—smoke. Maybe it was steam from the mud. Whatever. It was all sizzle, no boom, no gas.
Which was a relief.
With al-Faw secured, we rigged up two of our DPVs and hit the road, driving north to Shatt al-Arab, the river that separates Iran and Iraq as it flows out to the Gulf. Our job was to look for suicide boats and mine layers that might be coming down the river to the Gulf. We found an old border station abandoned by the Iraqis and set up an observation post.
Our ROEs when the war kicked off were pretty simple: If you see anyone from about sixteen to sixty-five and they’re male, shoot ’em. Kill every male you see.
That wasn’t the official language, but that was the idea. Now that we were watching Iran, however, we were under strict orders not to fire, at least not at Iran.
Every night someone on the other side of the river would stand up and take a shot at us. We would dutifully call it in and ask for permission to return fire. The answer was always a very distinct, “NO!” Very loud and clear.
Looking back, this made a lot of sense. Our heaviest weapons were a Carl Gustav and two 60s. The Iranians had plenty of artillery, and they had the position dialed in. It wouldn’t have taken anything for them to hit us. And, in fact, what they were probably trying to do was suck us into a fight so they could kill us.
It did piss us off, though. Somebody shoots at you, you want to shoot back.
After the high of the start of the war, our spirits sagged. We were just sitting around doing nothing. One of the guys had a video camera and we made a video poking fun at it. There wasn’t much else to do. We found a few Iraqi weapons and gathered them in a pile to be blown up. But that was it. The Iraqis weren’t sending boats our way, and the Iranians would only fire a single shot then duck and wait for us to react. About the most entertaining thing we could do was wade into the water and piss in their direction.
For a week we took turns on watch—two guys on, four guys off—monitored the radio and watched the water. Finally, we were relieved by another set of SEALs and headed back to Kuwait.
THE RACE TO BAGHDAD
By now, the so-called Race to Baghdad had begun. American and allied units were streaming across the border, making large advances every day.
We spent a few days hanging around our camp back in Kuwait, waiting for an assignment. As frustrating as our stay at the border station was, this was worse. We wanted to be in action. There were any number of missions we could have accomplished—eliminating some of those “nonexistent” air defenses farther into Iraq, for example—but the command didn’t seem to want to use us.
Our deployment had been extended so that we could take part in the beginning of the war. But now the rumor was that we would be rotated back to the States and replaced by Team 5. No one wanted to leave Iraq now that the action was getting hot. Morale hit rock bottom. We were all pissed off.
To top things off, the Iraqis had sent some Scuds over just before the war started. Most had been taken care of by Patriot missiles, but one got through. Wouldn’t you know it took out the Starbucks where we’d hung out during our prewar training?
That’s low, hitting a coffee place. It could have been worse, I guess. It could have been a Dunkin’ Donuts.
The joke was that President Bush only declared war when the Starbucks was hit. You can mess with the U.N. all you want, but when you start interfering with the right to get caffeinated, someone has to pay.
We stayed for three or four days, grousing and depressed the whole time. Then, finally, we joined the Marine push in the area of Nasiriya. We were back in the war.
Nasiriya is a city on the Euphrates River in southern Iraq, about 125 miles northwest of Kuwait. The city itself was taken by the Marines on March 31, but action in the area continued for quite some time, as small groups of Iraqi soldiers and Fedayeen continued to resist and attack Americans. It was near Nasiriya that Jessica Lynch was captured and held during the first few days of the war.
Some historians believe that the fighting in the area was the fiercest the Marines encountered during the war, comparing it with the most ferocious firefights in Vietnam and later in Fallujah. Besides the city itself, the Marines took Jalibah Airfield, several bridges over the Euphrates, and highways and towns that secured the passage to Baghdad during the early stages of the war. Along the way, they began encountering the sort of fanatical insurgency that would characterize the war after Baghdad fell.
We had an extremely small part in the conflict there. We got into some very intense battles, but the bulk of the action was by Marines. Obviously, I can’t write about most of that; what I saw of the overall battle was like looking at an enormous landscape painting through a tiny straw.
When you’re working with Army and Marine Corps units, you immediately notice a difference. The Army is pretty tough, but their performance can depend on the individual unit. Some are excellent, filled with hoorah and first-class warriors. A few are absolutely horrible; most are somewhere in between.
In my experience, Marines are gung ho no matter what. They will all fight to the death. Every one of them just wants to get out there and kill. They are bad-ass, hard-charging mothers.
We inserted into the desert in the middle of the night, with two three-seat DPVs, driving off the back of a 53. The ground was firm enough that no one got stuck.
We were behind the tip of the U.S. advance, and there were no enemy units in the area. We drove up through the desert until we came to an Army base camp. We rested a few hours with them, then took off to scout for the Marines ahead of their advance.
The desert wasn’t entirely empty. While there were long stretches of wilderness, there were also towns and very small settlements strung out in the distance. We mostly skirted the towns, observing them from the distance. Our job was to get an idea of where the enemy strongpoints were, radioing them back so the Marines could decide whether to attack or bypass them. Every so often we’d reach high ground, stop for a while, and take a scan.
We had only one significant contact that day. We were skirting by a city. We obviously got too close, because they started engaging us. I fired the .50-cal, then swung around to the 60 as we hauled ass out of there.
We must have traveled hundreds of miles that day. We lay up for a while in late afternoon, got some rest, then took off again after nightfall. When we started attracting fire that night, our orders were changed. The head shed called us back and arranged for the helicopters to come back and pick us up.
You might think that our job was to attract fire, since that revealed where the enemy was. You might think that the fact that we were close enough to get the enemy to fire meant we had discovered a significant force that was previously unknown. You might think that meant we were doing well.
You might be right. But to our CO, it was all wrong. He wanted us not to get contacted. He didn’t want to risk any casualties, even if that meant we couldn’t do our mission properly. (And I should add that, despite the gunfire and the earlier contact, we had not taken any casualties.)
We were pissed. We went out expecting to be scouting for a week. We had plenty of fuel, water, and food, and had already figured out how to get resupplied if we needed to. Hell, we could have gone all the way to Baghdad, which at the moment was still in Iraqi hands.
We reported back to base, dejected.
That wasn’t the end of the war for us, but it was a bad sign of what lay ahead.
You have to understand: no SEAL wants to die. The purpose of war, as Patton put it, is to make the other dumb bastard die. But we also want to fight.
Part of it is personal. It’s the same way for athletes: an athlete wants to be in a big game, wants to compete on the field or in the ring. But another part, a bigger part I think, is patriotism.
It’s the sort of thing that if it has to be explained, you’re not going to understand. But maybe this will help:
One night a little later on, we were in an exhausting firefight. Ten of us spent roughly forty-eight hours in the second story of an old, abandoned brick building, fighting in hundred-degree-plus heat wearing full armor. Bullets flew in, demolishing the walls around us practically nonstop. The only break we took was to reload.
Finally, as the sun came up in the morning, the sound of gunfire and bullets hitting brick stopped. The fight was over. It became eerily quiet.
When the Marines came in to relieve us, they found every man in the room either slumped against a wall or collapsed on the floor, dressing wounds or just soaking in the situation.
One of the Marines outside took an American flag and hoisted it over the position. Someone else played the National Anthem—I have no idea where the music came from, but the symbolism and the way it spoke to the soul was overwhelming; it remains one of my most powerful memories.
Every battle-weary man rose, went to the window, and saluted. The words of the music echoed in each of us as we watched the Stars and Stripes wave literally in dawn’s early light. The reminder of what we were fighting for caused tears as well as blood and sweat to run freely from all of us.
I’ve lived the literal meaning of the “land of the free” and “home of the brave.” It’s not corny for me. I feel it in my heart. I feel it in my chest. Even at a ball game, when someone talks during the anthem or doesn’t take off his hat, it pisses me off. I’m not one to be quiet about it, either.
For myself and the SEALs I was with, patriotism and getting into the heat of the battle were deeply connected. But how much a unit like ours can fight depends a lot on leadership. Much of it is up to the head shed, the officers who lead us. SEAL officers are a real mix. Some are good, some are bad. And some are just pussies.
Oh, they may be tough individuals, but it takes more than personal toughness to be good leaders. The methods and goals have to contribute to the toughness.
Our top command wanted us to achieve 100 percent success, and to do it with 0 casualties. That may sound admirable—who doesn’t want to succeed, and who wants anyone to get hurt? But in war those are incompatible and unrealistic. If 100 percent success, 0 casualties are your goal, you’re going to conduct very few operations. You will never take any risks, realistic or otherwise.
Ideally, we could have done sniper overwatches and undertaken scouting missions for the Marines all around Nasiriya. We could have been a much bigger part of the Marines’ drive. We might have saved some of their lives.
We wanted to go out at night and hit the next big city or town the Marine Corps was going to pass through. We’d soften the target for them, killing off as many bad guys as we could. We did do a few missions like that, but it was certainly a lot less than we could have done.
I had never known that much about Islam. Raised as a Christian, obviously I knew there had been religious conflicts for centuries. I knew about the Crusades, and I knew that there had been fighting and atrocities forever.
But I also knew that Christianity had evolved from the Middle Ages. We don’t kill people because they’re a different religion.
The people we were fighting in Iraq, after Saddam’s army fled or was defeated, were fanatics. They hated us because we weren’t Muslim. They wanted to kill us, even though we’d just booted out their dictator, because we practiced a different religion than they did.
Isn’t religion supposed to teach tolerance?
People say you have to distance yourself from your enemy to kill him. If that’s true, in Iraq, the insurgents made it really easy.
The fanatics we fought valued nothing but their twisted interpretation of religion. And half the time they just claimed they valued their religion—most didn’t even pray. Quite a number were drugged up so they could fight us.
Many of the insurgents were cowards. They routinely used drugs to stoke their courage. Without them, alone, they were nothing. I have a tape somewhere showing a father and a girl in a house that was being searched. They were downstairs; for some reason, a flash-bang went off upstairs.
On the video, the father hides behind the girl, afraid that he’s going to be killed and ready to sacrifice his daughter.
They may have been cowards, but they could certainly kill people. The insurgents didn’t worry about ROEs or court-martials. If they had the advantage, they would kill any Westerner they could find, whether they were soldiers or not.
One day we were sent to a house where we had heard there might be U.S. prisoners. We didn’t find anyone in the building. But in the basement, there were obvious signs that the dirt had been disturbed. So we set up lights and started digging.
It wasn’t long before I saw a pants leg, then a body, freshly buried.
An American soldier. Army.
Next to him was another. Then another man, this one wearing Marine camis.
My brother had joined the Marines a little before 9/11. I hadn’t heard from him, and I thought that he had deployed to Iraq.
For some reason, as I helped pull the dead body up, I was sure it was my brother.
It wasn’t. I said a silent prayer and we kept digging.
Another body, another Marine. I bent over and forced myself to look.
But now, with each man we pulled out of that grave—and there were a bunch—I was more and more convinced I was going to see my brother. My stomach tightened. I kept digging. I wanted to puke.
Finally, we were done. He wasn’t there.
I felt a moment of relief, even elation—none of them were my brother. Then I felt tremendous sadness for the murdered young men whose bodies we had pulled out.
When I finally heard from my brother, I found out that even though he was in Iraq, he hadn’t been anywhere near where I’d seen those bodies. He’d had his own scares and hard times, I’m sure, but hearing his voice just made me feel a lot better.
I was still big brother, hoping to protect him. Hell, he didn’t need me to watch over him; he was a Marine, and a tough one. But somehow those old instincts never go away.
At another location, we found barrels of chemical material that was intended for use as biochemical weapons. Everyone talks about there being no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but they seem to be referring to completed nuclear bombs, not the many deadly chemical weapons or precursors that Saddam had stockpiled.
Maybe the reason is that the writing on the barrels showed that the chemicals came from France and Germany, our supposed Western allies.
The thing I always wonder about is how much Saddam was able to hide before we actually invaded. We’d given so much warning before we came in, that he surely had time to move and bury tons of material. Where it went, where it will turn up, what it will poison—I think those are pretty good questions that have never been answered.
One day we saw some things in the desert and thought they were buried IEDs. We called the bomb-disposal people and they came out. Lo and behold, what they found wasn’t a bomb—it was an airplane.
Saddam had buried a bunch of his fighters in the desert. He had them covered with plastic and then tried to hide them. Probably he figured we’d come through like we did in Desert Storm, hit quick and then leave.
He was wrong about that.
“WE’RE GOING TO DIE”
We continued working with the Marines as they marched north. Our missions would typically take us out ahead of their advance, scouting for knots of defenders. Although we had intel that there were some enemy soldiers in the area, there weren’t supposed to be any large units.
By this time, we were working with the entire platoon; all sixteen of us. We came up to a small building compound at the edge of a town. Once we were there, we began taking fire.
The firefight quickly ratcheted up, and within a few minutes we realized we were surrounded, our escape cut off by a force of several hundred Iraqis.
I started killing a lot of Iraqis—we all were—but for everyone we shot, four or five seemed to materialize to take their place. This went on for hours, with the fighting stoking up, then dying down.
Most firefights in Iraq were sporadic. They might be very intense for a few minutes, perhaps even an hour or more, but eventually the Iraqis would withdraw. Or we would.
That didn’t happen here. The fight continued in waves all through the night. The Iraqis knew they had us outnumbered and surrounded and they weren’t quitting. Little by little, they started getting closer and closer, until it became obvious that they were going to overrun us.
We were done. We were going to die. Or worse, we’d be captured and made prisoners. I thought about my family and how horrible that would all be. I determined I was dying first.
I fired off more of my rounds, but now the fight was getting closer. I was starting to think about what I would do if they charged us. I’d use my pistol, my knife, my hands—anything.
And then I would die. I thought of Taya, and how much I loved her. I tried not to get distracted by anything, tried concentrating on the fight.
The Iraqis kept coming. We estimated we had five minutes to live. I started counting it off in my head.
I hadn’t gotten very far when our company radio squeaked with a transmission: “We’re coming up on your six.”
Friendlies were approaching our position.
The Marines, actually. We weren’t going to die. Not in five minutes, anyway.
OUT OF THE FIGHT
That action turned out to be our last significant encounter during that deployment. The CO pulled us back to base.
It was a waste. The Marines were going into Nasiriya every night, trying to clear the place out as the insurgency stoked up. They could have given us our own section that we could patrol. We could have rolled in and taken out the bad guys—but the CO vetoed it.
We heard it at the forward bases and camps where we were sitting around waiting for something real to do. The GROM—the Polish special forces—were going out and doing jobs. They told us we were lions led by dogs.
The Marines were blunter. They’d come back every night and bust on us:
“How many did y’all get tonight? Oh, that’s right—y’all didn’t go out.”
Ballbusters. But I couldn’t blame them. I thought our head shed was a bunch of pussies.
We had started training to take down Mukarayin Dam northeast of Baghdad. The dam was important not only because it provided hydroelectric power, but because if it were allowed to flood it could have slowed military forces attacking Iraqis in the area. But the mission was continually postponed, and finally given to SEAL Team 5 when they rotated into the Gulf toward the end of our stay. (The mission, which followed our basic plan, was a success.)
There were many things we could have done. How much of an impact on the war they would have had, I have no idea. We certainly could have saved a few lives here and there, maybe shortened some conflicts by a day or more. Instead, we were told to get ready to go home. Our deployment was over.
I sat back at base for a couple of weeks with nothing to do. I felt like a little fucking coward, playing video games and waiting to ship out.
I was pretty pissed. In fact, I was so mad I wanted to leave the Navy, and give up being a SEAL.