BACK TO WAR
Toward the end of our workup, we found out that they were standing up a new unit in Baghdad to do direct action raids on suspected terrorists and resistance leaders. The unit was being run by the GROM, the Polish special operations unit. While the Poles would handle most of the heavy lifting, they needed some supplements—namely, snipers and navigators. And so, in September 2004, I was pulled from my platoon and sent to Iraq to help the GROM as a navigator. The rest of the platoon was due to come overseas the following month; I’d meet them there.
I felt bad about leaving Taya. She was still healing from the birth. But at the same time, I felt my duty as a SEAL was more important. I wanted to get back into action. I wanted to go to war.
At that point, while I loved my son, I hadn’t yet bonded with him. I was never one of those dads who liked to feel my wife’s belly when the baby was kicking. I tend to need to know someone well, even kin, before that part of me grows.
That changed over time, but at that point I still hadn’t experienced the real depth of what being a father is all about.
Generally, when SEALs go out for a deployment or come back, we do so very quietly—that’s the nature of special operations. There are usually few people around except for our immediate families; sometimes not even them. In this case, because of when I was heading out, it happened that I passed a small group of protesters demonstrating against the war. They had signs about baby killers and murderers and whatever, protesting the troops who were going over to fight.
They were protesting the wrong people. We didn’t vote in Congress; we didn’t vote to go to war.
I signed up to protect this country. I do not choose the wars. It happens that I love to fight. But I do not choose which battles I go to. Y’all send me to them.
I had to wonder why these people weren’t protesting at their congressional offices or in Washington. Protesting the people who were ordered to protect them—let’s just say it put a bad taste in my mouth.
I realize not everybody felt that way. I did see signs on some homes supporting the troops, saying “We love you” and that sort of thing. And there were plenty of tearful and respectful sendoffs and homecomings, some even on TV. But it was the ignorant protesters I remembered, years and years later.
And, for the record, it doesn’t bother me that SEALs don’t have big sendoffs or fancy homecomings. We are the silent professionals; we’re covert operators and inviting the media to the airport is not in the program.
Still, it’s nice to be thanked every so often for doing our job.
A lot had happened in Iraq since I left in the spring of 2003. The country had been liberated from Saddam Hussein and his army with the fall of Baghdad on April 9 of that year. But a variety of terrorist forces either continued or began fighting after Saddam was deposed. They fought both other Iraqis and the U.S. forces who were trying to help the country regain stability. Some were former members of Saddam’s army and members of the Ba’athist Party that Saddam had headed. There were Fedayeen, members of a paramilitary resistance group the dictator had organized before the war. There were small, poorly organized groups of Iraqi guerrillas, who were also called Fedayeen, though, technically, they weren’t connected with Saddam’s organization. Though nearly all were Muslim, nationalism rather than religion tended to be their primary motive and organizing principle.
Then there were the groups organized primarily around religious beliefs. These identified themselves as mujahedeen, which basically means “people on jihad”—or murderers in the name of God. They were dedicated to killing Americans and Muslims who didn’t believe in the brand of Islam that they believed in.
There was also al-Qaeda in Iraq, a mostly foreign group that saw the war as an opportunity to kill Americans. They were radical Sunni Muslims with an allegiance to Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader who needs no introduction—and whom SEALs hunted down and gave a fitting sendoff in 2011.
There were also Iranians and their Republican Guard, who fought—sometimes directly, though usually through proxies—to both kill Americans and to gain power in Iraqi politics.
I’m sure there were a hell of a lot of others in what came to be known to the media as “the insurgency.” They were all the enemy.
I never worried too much about who exactly it was who was pointing a gun at me or planting an IED. The fact that they wanted to kill me was all I needed to know.
Saddam was captured in December of 2003.
In 2004, the U.S. formally turned over authority to the interim government, giving control of the country back to the Iraqis, at least in theory. But the insurgency grew tremendously that same year. A number of battles in the spring were as fierce as those waged during the initial invasion.
In Baghdad, a hard-line Shiite cleric named Muqtada al-Sadr organized an army of fanatical followers and urged them to attack Americans. Sadr was especially strong in a part of Baghdad known as Sadr City, a slum named after his father, Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, a grand ayatollah and an opponent of Saddam’s regime during the 1990s. An extremely poor area even by Iraqi standards, Sadr City was packed with radical Shiites. Said to be about half the size of Manhattan in area, Sadr City was located northeast of Baghdad’s Green Zone, on the far side of Army Canal and Imam Ali Street.
A lot of the places where regular Iraqis live, even if they are considered middle-class, look like slums to an American. Decades of Saddam’s rule made what could have been a fairly rich country, due to its oil reserves, into a very poor one. Even in the better parts of the cities, a lot of the streets aren’t paved and the buildings are pretty rundown.
Sadr City is truly a slum, even for Iraq. It began as a public housing area for the poor, and by the time of the war, it had become a refuge for Shiites, who were discriminated against by Saddam’s Sunni-dominated government. After the war started, even more Shiites moved into the area. I’ve seen reports estimating that more than 2 million people lived within its roughly eight square miles.
Laid out in a grid pattern, the streets are fifty or one hundred yards long. Most areas have densely packed two- and three-story buildings. The workmanship on the buildings I saw was terrible; even on the fanciest buildings, the decorative lines didn’t match up from one side to the other. Many of the streets are open sewers, with waste everywhere.
Muqtada al-Sadr launched an offensive against American forces in the spring of 2004. His force managed to kill a number of American troops and a far greater number of Iraqis before the fanatical cleric declared a cease-fire in June. In military terms, his offensive failed, but the insurgents remained strong in Sadr City.
Meanwhile, mostly Sunni insurgents took hold of al-Anbar province, a large sector of the country to the west of Baghdad. They were particularly strong in the cities there, including Ramadi and Fallujah.
That spring was the period when Americans were shocked by the images of four contractors, their bodies desecrated, hanging from a bridge in Fallujah. It was a sign of worse to come. The Marines moved into the city soon afterward, but their operations there were called off after heavy fighting. It’s been estimated that at that point they controlled some 25 percent of the city.
As part of the pullout, an Iraqi force came into the city to take control. In theory, they were supposed to keep insurgents out. The reality was very different. By that fall, pretty much the only people who lived in Fallujah were insurgents. It was even more dangerous for Americans than it had been in the spring.
When I left for Iraq in September of 2004, my unit had begun training to join a new operation to secure Fallujah, once and for all. But I went to work with the Poles in Baghdad instead.
WITH THE GROM
“Kyle, you will come.”
The Polish NCO doing the briefing stroked his bushy beard as he pointed at me. I didn’t understand much Polish, and he didn’t speak very good English, but what he was saying seemed pretty clear—they wanted me to go in the house with them during the operation.
“Fuck yeah,” I said.
He smiled. Some expressions are universal.
After a week on the job, I had been promoted from navigator to a member of the assault team. I couldn’t be happier.
I still had to navigate. My job was to figure out a safe route to and from the target house. While the insurgents were active in the Baghdad area, the fighting had slowed down and there wasn’t yet the huge threat of IEDs and ambushes that you saw elsewhere. Still, that could change in an instant, and I was careful plotting my routes.
We got into our Hummers and set out. I had the front seat, next to the driver. I’d learned enough Polish to give directions—Prawo kolei: “right turn”—and guide him through the streets. The computer was on my lap; to my right was a swing arm for a machine gun. We’d taken the Hummer’s doors off to make it easier to get in and out and fire. Besides the mounts on my side and in the back, we had a .50 in a turret at the back.
We reached the target and hauled ass out of the truck. I was psyched to finally get back into battle.
The Poles put me about sixth or seventh in the line to go in. That was a bit disappointing—that far back in the train you’re unlikely to get any action. But I wasn’t about to bitch.
The GROM hit houses essentially the way SEALs do. There are little variations here and there: the way they come around corners, for example, and the way they cover buddies during an operation. But for the most part, it’s all violence of action. Surprise the target, hit them hard and fast, take control.
One difference I particularly like is their version of flash-crash grenades. American stun grenades explode with flash of light and an enormous bang. The Polish grenades, on the other hand, give a series of explosions. We called them seven-bangers. They sound like very loud gunfire. I tried to take as many of those from them as I could when it was time to move on.
We moved the instant the grenade started going off. I came in through the door, and caught sight of the NCO directing the team. He motioned me forward silently, and I ran to clear and secure my room.
The room was empty.
I went back downstairs. Some of the others had found the guy we’d come for and were already loading him into one of the Hummers. The rest of the Iraqis who’d been in the house stood around, looking scared to death.
Back outside, I hopped into the Hummer and started directing the team back to base. The mission was uneventful, but as far as the GROM were concerned, my cherry had been burst—from that point on, I was a full-fledged member of the team.
We went on DAs for another two and a half weeks, but there was only one where we had anything like real trouble. A guy wanted to fight as we were going in. Unfortunately for him, all he had were his bare fists. Here he’s facing a squad of soldiers, each heavily armed and protected by body armor. He was either stupid or courageous, or maybe both.
The GROM took care of him quickly. One less asshole on the wanted list.
We picked up a pretty wide variety of suspects—financiers for al-Qaeda, bomb-makers, insurgents, foreign insurgents—one time we picked up a truckload of them.
The GROM were a lot like SEALs: extremely professional at work, and very hard-core partiers after hours. They all had Polish vodka, and they especially loved this one brand named Zubrówka.
Zubrówka has been around for hundreds of years, though I’ve never seen it in America. There’s a blade of buffalo grass in each bottle; each blade comes from the same field in Poland. Buffalo grass is supposed to have medicinal properties, but the story related to me from my GROM friends was a lot more colorful—or maybe off-color. According to them, European bison known as wisent roam on this field and piss on the grass. The distillers put the blades in for an extra kick. (Actually, during the process, certain ingredients of the buffalo grass are safely neutralized, so just the flavor remains. But my friends didn’t tell me that—maybe it was too hard to translate.)
I was a little dubious, but the vodka proved to be as smooth as it was potent. It definitely supported their argument that the Russians don’t know anything about vodka and that Poles make it better.
Being an American, officially I wasn’t supposed to be drinking. (And officially, I didn’t.)
That asinine rule only applied to U.S. servicemen. We couldn’t even buy a beer. Every other member of the coalition, be they Polish or whatever, could.
Fortunately, the GROM liked to share. They would also go to the duty-free shop at Baghdad airport and buy beer or whiskey or whatever the Americans working with them wanted.
I formed a friendship with one of their snipers named Matthew (they all took fake names, as part of their general security). We spent a lot of time talking about different rifles and scenarios. We compared notes on how they did things, the weapons they would use. Later on, I arranged to run some drills with them and gave them a bit of background on how SEALs operate. I taught them how we build our hides inside homes and showed them a few different drills to use to take home and train. We worked a lot with “snaps”—targets that pop up—and “movers”—targets that move left to right and vice versa.
What always seemed interesting to me was how well we communicated without using words, even on an op. They’d turn around and wave me up or back, whatever. If you’re a professional, you don’t need to be told what to do. You read off of each other and react.
People are always asking me what sort of gear I carried in Iraq. The answer is: it depended. I adjusted my gear slightly from deployment to deployment. Here’s how I usually went out:
The standard SEAL-issued pistol was a SIG Sauer P226, chambered for 9-mm ammo. While that is an excellent weapon, I felt I needed more knockdown power than nine millimeters could provide, and later started carrying my own personal weapon in place of the P226. Let’s face it—if you’re using a pistol in combat, the shit has already hit the fan. You may not have the time for perfect shot placement. The bigger rounds may not kill your enemy, but they’re more likely to put him down when you hit him.
In 2004, I brought over a Springfield TRP Operator, which used a .45-caliber round. It had a 1911 body style, with custom grips and a rail system that let me add a light and laser combo. Black, it had a bull barrel and was an excellent gun—until it took a frag for me in Fallujah.
I was actually able to get it repaired—those Springfields are tough. Still, not wanting to press my luck, I replaced it with a SIG P220. The P220 looked pretty much exactly like the P226, but was chambered for .45 caliber.
Carrying My Pistol
On my first two deployments, I had a drop-leg holster. (A drop-leg sits against the upper thigh, within easy reach of the pistol hand.) The problem with that type of holster is that it tends to move around. During combat, or even if you’re simply bouncing around, the rig slides over on your leg. So after the first two deployments, I went to a hip holster. That way, my gun was always where I expected it to be.
Everyone always carried their own “blowout kit,” a small set of medical supplies. You always carried the bare necessities to treat a gunshot wound—bandages for different wounds, IV, clotting medicine. It had to be readily accessible—you didn’t want the person helping you have to search for it. I put mine in my right-hand cargo pocket on my leg, under the holster. If I’d ever been shot, my buddies could have cut out the bottom of the cargo pocket and pulled out the kit. Most guys did it that way.
When you treat somebody in the field before the corpsman or a medic gets there, you always use the wounded man’s kit. If you use your kit, who’s to say you’ll have it for the next guy—or yourself—if you need it?
Body Armor and Rig
During the first deployment, my SEAL body armor had the MOLLE system attached to it. (MOLLE stands for Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment, a fancy acronym for a web system where different pouches and gear can be attached, allowing you to customize your webbing. The word MOLLE itself is a trademark for the system developed and manufactured by Natick Labs. However, a lot of people use the word to describe any similar system.)
On the deployments that followed, I had separate body armor with a separate Rhodesian rig. (Rhodesian describes a vest that allows you to set up a MOLLE or MOLLE-like rig. Again, the overall principle is that you can customize the way you carry your stuff.)
Having a separate vest allowed me to take my gear off and lay it down, while still wearing my body armor. This made it more comfortable to lie down and still be able to grab everything I needed. When I was going to be on the sniper rifle, lying behind it and peering through the scope, I would unclip the strap and lay out the vest. This made my ammo, which I had in the pouches, easier to access. Meanwhile, the vest was still attached to my shoulders; it would come with me and fall into place when I got up.
(One note about the body armor—Navy-issued body armor has been known to fall apart. In light of that fact, my wife’s parents very generously bought me some Dragon Skin armor after my third deployment. It’s super-heavy, but it’s extremely good armor, the best you can get.)
I wore a GPS on my wrist, with a backup in my vest and even a backup old-fashioned compass. I went through a couple of pairs of goggles per deployment; they had miniature fans inside to keep air circulating so they wouldn’t fog up. And, of course, I had a pocketknife—I got a Microtech after graduating BUD/S—and Emerson and Benchmade fixed blades, depending on the deployment.
Among other equipment we’d carry would be a square of a VS-17 panel, used to alert pilots to a friendly position so they wouldn’t fire on us. In theory, at least.
Initially, I tried to keep everything off my waist, even going so far as to carry my extra pistol mags in another drop-leg on my other side. (I cinched it up high so I could still access the pocket on my left leg.)
I never wore ear protection in Iraq. The ear protection we had contained noise-canceling circuitry. While it was possible to hear gunshots fired by the enemy, the microphone that picked up those sounds was omnidirectional. That meant you couldn’t tell what direction the shots were coming from.
And contrary to what my wife thinks, I wore my helmet from time to time. Admittedly, it was not often. It was a standard, U.S. military–issue helmet, uncomfortable and of minimal value against all but the weakest shots or shrapnel. To keep it from jostling on my head, I tightened it up using Pro-Tec pads, but it was still annoying to wear for long stretches. It added a lot of weight to my head while I was on the gun, making it harder to stay focused as the watch went on.
I’d seen that bullets, even from pistols, could easily go through a helmet, so I didn’t have much incentive to deal with the discomfort. The general exception to this was at night. I’d wear the helmet so I had a place to attach my night vision to.
Otherwise, I usually wore a ball cap: a platoon cap with a Cadillac symbol adapted as our unit logo. (While officially we were Charlie Platoon, we usually took on alternate names with the same letter or sound at the beginning: Charlie becomes Cadillac, etc.)
Why a ball cap?
Ninety percent of being cool is looking cool. And you look so much cooler wearing a ball cap.
Besides my Cadillac cap, I had another favorite—a cap from a New York fire company that had lost some of its men during 9/11. My dad had gotten it for me during a visit, after the attacks, to the “Lions Den,” a historic city firehouse. There he met members of Engine 23; when the firemen heard that his son was going to war, they insisted he take the hat.
“Just tell him to get some payback,” they said.
If they’re reading this, I hope they know that I did.
On my wrist, I’d wear a G-Shock watch. The black watch and its rubber wristband have replaced Rolex Submariners as standard SEAL equipment. (A friend of mine, who thought it was a shame the tradition died, recently got me one. I still feel a little strange wearing a Rolex, but it is a throwback to the frogmen who came before me.)
In cool weather, I brought a personal jacket to wear—a North Face—because, believe it or not, I had trouble convincing the supply mafia to issue me cold-weather gear. But that’s a rant for a different day.
I would stick my M-4 and ten mags (three hundred rounds) in the front compartments of my web gear. I would also have my radio, some lights, and my strobe in those pockets. (The strobe can be used at night for rendezvousing with other units or aircraft, ships, boats, whatever. It also can be used to identify friendly troops.)
If I had one of my sniper rifles with me, I would have some two hundred rounds in my backpack. When I carried the Mk-11 instead of the Win Mag or .338, then I wouldn’t bother carrying the M-4. In that case, the sniper rounds would be in my web gear, closer at hand. Rounding out my ammo were three mags for my pistol.
I wore Merrill high-top hiking boots. They were comfortable and held up to the deployment.
GET UP, KYLE
About a month into my tour with the GROM, I was woken by a shake on my shoulder.
I jumped upright in bed, ready to deck whoever had snuck into my quarters.
“Hey, hey, it’s cool,” said the lieutenant commander who’d woken me. He was a SEAL, and my boss. “I need you to get dressed and come to my office.”
“Yes, sir,” I mumbled. I pulled on a pair of shorts and my flip-flops and went down the hall.
I thought I was in trouble, though I wasn’t sure what for. I’d been on good behavior working with the Poles, no fights to speak of. I searched my mind as I walked toward his office, trying to prepare a defense. My mind was still fairly blank when I got there.
“Kyle, I’m going to need you to get your sniper rifle and pack up all your gear,” the lieutenant commander told me. “You’re going to Fallujah.”
He started telling me about some of the arrangements and threw in some operational details. The Marines were planning a big push, and they needed snipers to help out.
Man, this is going to be good, I thought. We are going to kill massive amounts of bad guys. And I’m going to be in the middle of it.
AN ARMED CAMP
From a historical point of view, there were two battles for Fallujah. The first took place in the spring, as I’ve mentioned before. Political considerations, mostly driven by wildly distorted media reports and a lot of Arab propaganda, caused the Marines to back off their offensive soon after it was begun, and well before it achieved its aim of kicking the insurgents out of the city. In place of the Marines, Iraqis loyal to the interim government were supposed to take control and run the city.
That didn’t work. Pretty much the moment the Marines pulled back, the insurgents completely took over Fallujah. Civilians who were not connected with the insurgency were killed, or fled the city. Anyone who wanted peace—anyone with any sense—left as soon as they could, or ended up dead.
Al-Anabar Province, the area that contained the city, was studded with insurgents of various forms. A lot were Iraqi mujahedeen, but there were also plenty of foreign nationals who were members of “al-Qaeda in Iraq” or other radical groups. The head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Sheikh Abdullah al-Janabi—had his headquarters in the city. A Jordanian who had fought with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, he was committed to killing Americans. (Despite numerous reports to the contrary, as far as is known, Sheikh Abdullah al-Janabi escaped from Fallujah and is still at large.)
The insurgents were one-part terrorists, another-part criminal gangs. They would plant IEDs, kidnap officials and their families, attack American convoys, kill Iraqis who didn’t share their faith or politics—anything and everything they could think of. Fallujah had become their safe haven, an anti-capital of Iraq dedicated to overthrowing the interim government and preventing free elections.
Al-Anabar Province and, more specifically, the general area around Fallujah became known through the media as the Sunni Triangle. That’s a very, very rough approximation both of the area—contained between Baghdad, Ramadi, and Baqubah—and the ethnic composition.
(Some background on Islam in Iraq: There were two main groups of Muslims in Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites. Before the war, Shiites lived mostly in the south and east, say from Baghdad to the borders, and Sunnis dominated around Baghdad and to the northwest. The two groups coexisted but generally hated each other. While Shiites were the majority, during Saddam’s time they were discriminated against and not allowed to hold important offices. Farther north, the areas are dominated by Kurds, who, though mostly Sunni, have separate traditions and often don’t think of themselves as being part of Iraq. Saddam considered them to be an inferior people; during one political suppression, he ordered chemical weapons used and waged a despicable ethnic-cleansing campaign.)
While using Fallujah as a base to attack the surrounding area and Baghdad, the insurgents spent considerable time fortifying the city so they could withstand another attack. They stockpiled ammo and weapons, prepared IEDs, and fortified houses. Mines were planted, and roads closed off so they could be used for ambushes. “Rat holes” were created in compound walls, allowing insurgents to move from one house to another, avoiding streets. Many if not all of the two hundred mosques in the city became fortified bunkers, since the insurgents knew that Americans respected houses of worship as sacred and therefore were reluctant to attack there. A hospital was turned into an insurgent headquarters and used as a base of operations for the insurgents’ propaganda machine. In sum, the city was a terrorist fortress by the summer of 2004.
In fact, the insurgents were confident enough to regularly launch rocket attacks against U.S. bases in the area and ambush convoys moving on the main roads. Finally, the American command decided that enough was enough—Fallujah had to be retaken.
The plan they drew up was called Phantom Fury. The city would be cut off so that enemy supplies and reinforcements could no longer get in. The insurgents in Fallujah would be rooted out and destroyed.
While Marines from the First Marine Division made up the backbone of the attack force, all of the other services added key pieces. SEAL snipers were integrated with small Marine assault groups, providing overwatch and performing traditional sniper missions.
The Marines spent several weeks getting ready for the assault, launching a variety of operations to throw the insurgents off-balance. The bad guys knew something was coming; they just didn’t know where and when. The eastern side of the city was heavily fortified, and the enemy probably thought that’s where the attack would be launched.
Instead, the attack would come from the northwest and roll down into the heart of the city. That’s where I was headed.
Dismissed by the lieutenant commander, I immediately gathered my gear, then headed outside to a pickup truck that was waiting to take me out to the helo. A 60—a Blackhawk H-60—was waiting for me and another guy who’d been working with the GROM, a coms specialist named Adam. We looked at each other and smiled. We were thrilled to be getting into a real battle.
SEALs from all over Iraq were making a similar trip, heading toward the large Marine base south of the city at Camp Fallujah. They’d already established their own small base inside the camp by the time I arrived. I treaded my way through the narrow halls of the building, which had been dubbed the Alamo, trying not to knock into anything. The walls were lined with equipment and gear, gun boxes and metal suitcases, cartons and the odd box of soda. We could have been a traveling rock band, staging a stadium road show.
Except that our road show had very serious pyrotechnics.
Besides snipers from Team 3, men had been pulled from Team 5 and Team 8 to join the assault. I already knew most of the West Coast guys; the others I’d come to respect over the next few weeks.
The energy level was intense. Everyone was eager to get into the fight and help the Marines.
THE HOME FRONT
As the battle drew near, my thoughts wandered to my wife and son. My little baby boy was growing. Taya had started sending me photos and even videos showing his progress. She’d also sent images through e-mail for me to look at.
I can see some of those videos now in my mind—he’d be lying on his back, and shake his hands and feet, going as if he was running, a big ol’ smile on his face.
He was a super-active kid. Just like his daddy.
Thanksgiving, Christmas—in Iraq, those dates didn’t mean all that much to me. But missing my son’s experience of them was a little different. The more I was gone, and the more I saw him grow, the more I wanted to help him grow—do the things a father does with and for a son.
I called Taya while I was waiting for the assault to begin.
It was a brief conversation.
“Look, babe, I can’t tell you where I’m going, but I’m going to be gone for a while,” I said. “Watch the news and you’ll figure it out. I don’t know when I’m going to be able to talk to you again.”
That was going to have to do for a while.
On the evening of November 7, I squeezed into a Marine amtrac with a dozen Marines and a few SEALs, all keyed up for battle. The big armored vehicle rumbled to life, and slowly moved toward the head of a massive procession of armor heading out of camp and north of the city, into the open desert.
We sat knee to knee on benches facing each other in the bare-bones interior. A third row had been squeezed into the middle of the compartment. The AAV-7A1 wasn’t exactly a stretch limo; you might try not to crowd out the guys on either side of you, but there was only so much you could do. Tight wasn’t the word. Thankfully, just about everyone inside with me had showered recently.
At first, it was cold—this was November, and to a Texas boy it felt like deep winter—but within a few minutes the heater was choking us and we had to ask them to crank it down. I put my ruck down on the floor. With my Mk-11 propped between my legs and my helmet on the butt, I had a makeshift pillow. I tried to nap as we moved. Close your eyes, and time moves faster.
I didn’t get all that much sleep. Every so often I glanced toward the slit windows in the rear door, but I couldn’t see past the guys sitting there. That wasn’t much of a loss—all they could see was the rest of the procession, a haze of dust, and a few patches of empty desert. We’d been practicing with the Marines for about a week, going over everything from getting in and out of their vehicles to figuring out exactly what sort of charges we would use to blow sniper holes through buildings. In between we’d worked on radio coms and general strategy, exchanged ideas about how to provide the best cover for the squads we’d be accompanying, and made a dozen tentative tactical decisions, such as deciding whether it would be generally better to shoot from the top floor or the one right below.
Now we were ready, but as often happens in the military, we were in hurry-up-and-wait mode. The tracked vehicles drove us up north of Fallujah, then stopped.
We sat there for what seemed like hours. Every muscle in my body cramped. Finally someone decided we could drop the ramp and stretch a bit. I unfolded myself from the bench and went out to shoot the shit with some of the other SEALs nearby.
Finally, just before daybreak, we loaded back up and began trundling toward the edge of the city. There was maximum adrenaline inside that tin can on treads. We were ready to get it on.
Our destination was an apartment complex overlooking the northwestern corner of the city. Roughly eight hundred yards from the start of the city proper, the buildings had a perfect view of the area where our Marines were going to launch their assault—an excellent location for snipers. All we had to do was take it.
“Five minutes!” yelled one of the NCOs.
I hooked one arm through my ruck and got a good grip on my gun.
The amtrac jerked to a halt. The rear ramp slammed down and I leapt out with the others, running toward a small grove with some trees and rocks for cover. I moved quickly—I wasn’t afraid of getting shot as much as I was of being run over by one of the armada that had ferried us here. The mammoth amtracs didn’t look like they’d stop for anybody.
I hit the dirt, got the ruck next to me, and began scanning the building, watching for anything suspicious. I worked my eyes around the windows and the surrounding area, expecting all the while to be shot at. The Marines, meanwhile, poured out their vehicles. Besides the tracked personnel carriers there were Hummers and tanks and dozens of support vehicles. The Marines just kept coming, swarming over the complex.
They started kicking in doors. I couldn’t hear much, just the loud echoes of the shotguns they used to blow out the locks. The Marines detained a few women who had been outside, but otherwise the yard around the building was vacant.
My eyes never stopped moving. I scanned constantly, trying to find something.
Our radio guy came over and set up nearby. He was monitoring the Marine progress as they worked up through the apartment building, securing it. The few inhabitants they found inside had to be taken out and moved to safety. There was no resistance inside—if there were insurgents, they’d either gotten out when they saw us coming, or they pretended now that they were loyal Iraqis and friends of the U.S.
The Marines ended up moving about 250 civilians from the complex, a fraction of what they had been told to expect. Each one was questioned first. Assuming they hadn’t fired a weapon recently (the Marines did gunpowder checks), weren’t on a wanted list, or were not otherwise suspicious, the head of each family was given $300 and told they had to leave. According to one of the Marine officers, they were allowed to go back to their apartments, take what they needed, and leave.
(A few known insurgents were captured and detained in the operation.)
While we were on the berm watching the city, we were also watching warily for an Iraqi sniper known as Mustafa. From the reports we heard, Mustafa was an Olympics marksman who was using his skills against Americans and Iraqi police and soldiers. Several videos had been made and posted, boasting of his ability.
I never saw him, but other snipers later killed an Iraqi sniper we think was him.
TO THE APARTMENTS
“All right,” said our radio guy finally. “They want us inside.”
I ran from the trees to the apartment complex, where a SEAL lieutenant was organizing the overwatches. He had a map of the city and showed us where the assault was going to take place the next day.
“We need to cover this area here, here, and here,” he said. “Y’all go find a room to do it.”
He gave us a building and off we went. I’d been paired with a sniper I’d met during BUD/S, Ray. (I’ve used the name to protect his identity.)
Ray is a big-time gun nut. Loves guns, and knows ’em real well. I’m not sure how good a shot he is, but he’s probably forgotten more than I know about rifles.
We hadn’t seen each other for years, but from what I remembered from BUD/S I figured we’d get along all right. You want to feel confident the guy you’re working with is someone you can rely on—after all, you are literally trusting him with your life.
A Ranger we called Ranger Molloy had been shepherding our rifles and some gear with us in a Hummer. He came up and gave me my .300 Win Mag. The rifle’s extra distance over the Mk-11 would be handy once I found a good hide to shoot from.
Running up the stairs, I sorted the situation out in my head. I knew what side of the building I wanted to be on, and roughly where I wanted to be. When I reached the top—I’d decided I wanted to shoot from a room rather than the roof—I started walking through the hall, scanning for an apartment that had the right view. Going inside, I looked for one with furniture I could use to set up.
To me, the home I was in was just another part of the battlefield. The apartments and everything in them were just things to be used to accomplish our goal—clearing the city.
Snipers need to either lie down or sit for a long period of time, so I needed to find furniture that would let me do that as comfortably as possible. You also need something to rest your rifle on. In this case, I was going to be shooting out of the windows, so I needed to be elevated. As I searched through the apartment, I found a room that had a baby crib in it. It was a rare find, and one I could put to good use.
Ray and I took it and flipped it over. That gave us a base. Then we pulled the door of the room off its hinges and put it on top. We now had a stable platform to work on.
Most Iraqis don’t sleep on beds; they use bedrolls, thick mats, or blankets that are put directly on the floor. We found a few of them and laid them out on the door. That made a semi-comfortable, elevated bed to lie on while working the gun. A rolled mat gave us a place to rest the end of our guns on.
We opened the window and were ready to shoot.
We decided we’d work three hours on, three hours off, rotating back and forth. Ray took the first watch.
I started rummaging through the complex to see if I could find any cool shit—money, guns, explosives. The only thing I found worth acquisitioning was a handheld Tiger Woods golf game.
Not that I was authorized to take it, or even did take it, officially. If I had taken it, I would have played it the rest of the deployment. If I’d done that, it might explain why I am actually pretty good at the game now.
If I had taken it.
I got on the .300 Win Mag in late afternoon. The city I was looking out at was brownish-yellow and gray, almost as if everything was shaded the light sepia of an old photograph. Many, though not all, of the buildings were made of bricks or covered with stucco in this same color. The stones and roadways were gray. A fine mist of desert dust seemed to hover over the houses. There were trees and other vegetation, but the overall landscape looked like a collection of dully painted boxes in the desert.
Most of the buildings were squat houses, two stories high, occasionally three or four. Minarets or prayer towers poked out of the grayness at irregular intervals. There were mosque domes scattered around—here a green egg flanked by a dozen smaller eggs, there a white turnip glinting white in the sinking sun.
The buildings were packed in tight, the streets almost geometrical in their grid pattern. There were walls everywhere. The city had already been at war for some time, and there was plenty of rubble not only around the edges but in the main thoroughfares. Dead ahead of me but out of view was the infamous bridge where the insurgents had desecrated the bodies of the Blackwater contractors half a year earlier. The bridge spanned the Euphrates, which flowed in an inverted V just south of my position.
My immediate concern was a set of railroad tracks about eight hundred yards from the building. There was a berm and a train trestle over the highway south of me. To the east, on my left as I looked out the window, the train line ran to a switching yard and station outside the main part of the city.
The Marine assault would sweep across the tracks, driving down and into an area from the Euphrates to a highway at the eastern end of the city, marked by a cloverleaf. This was an area roughly three and one-third miles wide; the plan was to move about a mile and a half deep to Iraqi Route 10 by November 10, a little less than three days. That might not seem like a lot—most Marines can probably walk that far in a half hour—but the path lay through a rat’s nest of booby-trapped streets and past heavily armed houses. Not only did the Marines expect to be fighting literally house to house and block to block, but they also realized that things would probably get worse as they went. You push the rats from one hole and they congregate in the next. Sooner or later, they run out of places to run.
Looking out the window, I was anxious for the battle to start. I wanted a target. I wanted to shoot someone.
I didn’t have to wait all that long.
From the building, I had a prime view across to the railroad tracks and the berm, and then beyond that into the city.
I started getting kills soon after I got on the gun. Most were back in the area near the city. Insurgents would move into that area, trying to get into position to attack or maybe spy on the Marines. They were about eight hundred meters away, across the railroad tracks and below the berm, so probably, in their mind, they couldn’t be seen and were safe.
They were badly mistaken.
I’ve already described what it felt like to take my first sniper shot; there may have been some hesitation in the back of my mind, an almost unconscious question: Can I kill this person?
But the rules of engagement were clear, and there was no doubt the man in my scope was an enemy. It wasn’t just the fact he was armed and maneuvering toward the Marines’ positions, though those were the important points for the ROEs. Civilians had been warned not to stay in the city, and while obviously not everyone had been able to escape, only small handfuls of innocents remained. The males of fighting age and sound minds within the city limits were almost all bad guys. They thought they were going to kick us out, just as they supposedly had kicked out the Marines in April.
After the first kill, the others come easy. I don’t have to psych myself up, or do anything special mentally—I look through the scope, get my target in the crosshairs, and kill my enemy before he kills one of my people.
I got three that day; Ray got two.
I would keep both eyes open while I was on the scope. With right eye looking through the scope, my left eye could still see the rest of the city. It gave me better situational awareness.
As the Marines moved into the city, they soon reached a position where we could no longer cover them from the apartment towers. We came down, ready for the next phase—working in the city itself.
I was assigned to Kilo Company, helping the Marine units on the western side of the city. They were the first wave of the assault, sweeping down block by block. Another company would come in behind them, securing the area and making sure that none of the insurgents snuck back in behind them. The idea was to clear Fallujah out, block by block.
The properties in this part of the city, as in many Iraqi cities, were walled off from their neighbors by thick brick and stucco walls. There were always nooks and crannies for insurgents to hide in. The backyards, usually flat with hard dirt or even cement, were rectangular mazes. It was a dry, dusty place, even with the river nearby. Most of the houses didn’t have running water; the water supply would be on the roof.
I worked with Marine snipers for several days during the first week or so of that phase of the assault. For much of the time I was paired with two Marine snipers and a JTAC, a SEAL who could call in air strikes. There would also be a few support guys, Marines who would provide security and occasionally help out with different tasks. These were Marines who wanted to be snipers; after their deployment, they were hoping to ship out to the Marine sniper school.
Every morning would start with about twenty minutes of what we called “fires”—mortars, artillery, bombs, missiles, rockets—it amounted to a hell of a lot of ordnance being dumped on key enemy positions. The fire would take out ammo caches or dumps, or soften up spots where we thought we’d have a lot of resistance. Black funnels of smoke would rise in the distance, caches hit by the bombings; the ground and air would rumble with secondary explosions.
At first, we were behind the Marine advance. But it didn’t take long before I realized we could do a better job by getting ahead of the squad on the ground. It gave us a better position, allowing us to surprise any insurgents who tried rallying to the ground unit.
It also gave us a hell of a lot more action. So we started taking houses to use as hides.
Once the bottom of the house was cleared, I’d run up the stairs from the top floor to the roof, emerging in the small shack that typically sheltered the entrance to the roof. Sure the roof was clear, I’d move over to the wall at the edge, get my bearings, and set up a position. Usually there would be something on the roof I could use—a chair or rugs—to make things more comfortable; if not, there was always something downstairs. I’d switched back to the Mk-11, realizing that most of my shots would be relatively close, because of the way the city was laid out. The weapon was more convenient than the Win Mag, and at these ranges just as deadly.
Meanwhile, the Marines on the ground would work down the street, usually side to side, clearing the houses. Once they reached a point where we could no longer cover them well, we’d move up and take a new spot, and the process would start over again.
Generally, we shot from roofs. They gave the best view and were often already equipped with chairs and the like. Most in the city were ringed by low-rise walls that provided protection when the enemy shot back. Plus, using the roofs allowed us to move quickly; the assault wouldn’t wait for us to take our time getting in position.
If the roof was no good, we would shoot from the upper story, usually out of a window. Once in a while, we would have to blow a sniper hole in the side of a wall to set up a firing position. That was rare, though; we didn’t want to draw more attention to our position by setting off an explosion, even if it was relatively small. (The holes were patched after we left.)
One day we set up inside a small office building that had been vacated some time before. We pulled the desks back from the windows and sat deep in the room; the natural shadows that played on the wall outside helped hide the position.
THE BAD GUYS
The enemies we were fighting were savage and well-armed. In just one house, the Marines found roughly two dozen guns, including machine guns and sniper rifles, along with homemade rocket stands and a mortar base.
That was just one house on a long block. It was a nice house, in fact—it had air conditioning, elaborate chandeliers, and fancy Western furniture. It made a good place to rest while we took a break one afternoon.
The houses were all searched carefully, but the weapons were usually pretty easy to find. The Marines would go inside and see a grenade launcher propped against a china cabinet—with rockets stacked next to the teacups below. At one house, Marines found dive tanks—apparently the insurgent who had been staying at the house used them to sneak across the river and make an attack.
Russian equipment was also common. Most of it was very old—in one house there were rifle grenades that could have been made during World War II. We found binoculars with old Communist hammer-and-sickle emblems. And IEDs, including some cemented into walls, were everywhere.
A lot of people who have written about the battles in Fallujah mention how fanatical the insurgents were. They were fanatical, but it wasn’t just religion that was driving them. A good many were pretty doped up.
Later on in the campaign, we took a hospital they’d been using at the outskirts of the city. There we found cooked spoons, drug works, and other evidence of how they prepared themselves. I’m not an expert, but it looked to me that they would cook up heroin and inject it before a battle. Other things I’ve heard said they would use prescription drugs and basically anything they could get to help get their courage up.
You could see that sometimes when you shot them. Some could take several bullets without seeming to feel it. They were driven by more than just religion and adrenaline, even more than blood lust. They were already halfway to Paradise, in their minds at least.
UNDER THE RUBBLE
One day I came down from a roof to take a break and headed out into the backyard of the house with another SEAL sniper. I pulled open the bipod on my rifle and set it down.
All of a sudden there was an explosion right across from us, maybe ten feet away. I ducked, then turned and saw the cement block wall crumbling. Just beyond it were two insurgents, AKs slung over their shoulders. They looked as stunned as we must have; they, too, had been taking a break when a stray rocket hit or maybe some sort of IED went off.
It felt like an old western duel—whoever got to their pistol the quickest was going to live.
I grabbed mine and started shooting. My buddy did the same.
We hit them, but the slugs didn’t drop them. They turned the corner and ran through the house where they’d been, then cut out into the street.
As soon as they cleared the house, the Marines pulling security on the road shot them down.
At one point early in the battle an RPG hit the building I was working from.
It was an afternoon when I’d set up back from a window on the top floor. The Marines on the ground had started to take fire on the street ahead. I began covering them, taking down targets one by one. The Iraqis started firing back at me, fortunately not too accurately, which was usually the way they shot.
Then an RPG hit the side of the house. The wall took the brunt of the explosion, which was good news and bad news. On the plus side, it saved me from getting blasted. But the explosion also took down a good chunk of the wall. It crashed onto my legs, slamming my knees into the concrete and temporarily pinning me there.
It hurt like hell. I kicked some of the rubble off and kept firing at the bastards down the block.
“Everybody okay?” yelled one of the other boys I was with.
“I’m good, I’m good,” I yelled back. But my legs were screaming the opposite. They hurt like a son of a bitch.
The insurgents pulled back, then things stoked up again. That was the way it would go—a lull, followed by an intense exchange, then another lull.
When the firefight finally stopped, I got up and climbed out of the room. Downstairs, one of the boys pointed at my legs.
“You’re limping,” he said.
“Fuckin’ wall came down on me.”
He glanced upward. There was a good-sized hole in the house where the wall had been. Until that point, no one had realized that I’d been in the room where the RPG had hit.
I limped for a while after that. A long while—I eventually had to have surgery on both knees, though I kept putting it off for a couple of years.
I didn’t go to a doctor. You go to a doctor and you get pulled out. I knew I could get by.
FRY ME NOT
You cannot be afraid to take your shot. When you see someone with an IED or a rifle maneuvering toward your men, you have clear reason to fire. (The fact that an Iraqi had a gun would not necessarily mean he could be shot.) The ROEs were specific, and in most cases the danger was obvious.
But there were times when it wasn’t exactly clear, when a person almost surely was an insurgent, probably was doing evil, but there was still some doubt because of the circumstances or the surroundings—the way he moved, for example, wasn’t toward an area where troops were. A lot of times a guy seemed to be acting macho for friends, completely unaware that I was watching him, or that there were American troops nearby.
Those shots I didn’t take.
You couldn’t—you had to worry about your own ass. Make an unjustified shot and you could be charged with murder.
I often would sit there and think, “I know this motherfucker is bad; I saw him doing such and such down the street the other day, but here he’s not doing anything, and if I shoot him, I won’t be able to justify it for the lawyers. I’ll fry.” Like I said, there is paperwork for everything. Every confirmed kill had documentation, supporting evidence, and a witness.
So I wouldn’t shoot.
There weren’t a lot of those, especially in Fallujah, but I was always extremely aware of the fact that every killing might have to be justified to the lawyers.
My attitude was: if my justification is I thought my target would do something bad, then I wasn’t justified. He had to be doing something bad.
Even with that standard, there were plenty of targets. I was averaging two and three a day, occasionally less, sometimes much more, with no end in sight.
A squat water tower rose above the rooftops a few blocks from one of the roofs where we were perched. It looked like a wide yellow tomato.
We’d already moved a few blocks past the tower when a Marine decided to climb up and retrieve the Iraqi flag flying from the grid work. As he climbed, the insurgents who had lain low during the earlier attack began firing on him. Within seconds, he was shot up and trapped.
We backtracked over, moving along the streets and across the rooftops until we found the men shooting at him. When we had the area cleared, we sent up one of our guys to retrieve the flag. After we got it down, we sent it to the Marine in the hospital.
RUNAWAY SHOWS HIS COLORS
Not long afterward, a guy I’ll call Runaway and I were on the street when we had contact with Iraqi insurgents. We ducked into a shallow setback in the wall next to the street, waiting for the hail of bullets to die down.
“We’ll work our way back,” I told Runaway. “You go first. I’ll cover you.”
I leaned out and laid down cover fire, forcing the Iraqis back. I waited a few seconds, giving Runaway time to get into position so he could cover me. When I thought enough time had passed, I jumped out and started running.
Bullets began flying all around, but not from Runaway. They were all coming from the Iraqis, who were trying to write their names in my back with bullets.
I threw myself against the wall, sliding next to the gate. For a moment I was disoriented: where was Runaway?
He should have been nearby, waiting under cover for me so we could leapfrog back. But he was nowhere to be seen. Had I passed him on the street?
No. Motherfucker was busy earning his nickname.
I was trapped, hung up by the insurgents and without my mysteriously disappearing friend.
The Iraqi gunfire got so intense that I ended up having to call for backup. The Marines sent a pair of Hummers, and with their firepower backing up everything I could lay down, I was finally able to get out.
By then I’d figured out what had happened. When I met with Runaway a short time later, I practically strangled him—I probably would have, if it hadn’t been for the officer there.
“Why the hell did you run away?” I demanded. “You ran all the way down the block without covering me.”
“I thought you were following me.”
It was the second time that week Runaway had taken off on me under fire. The first time I’d cut him slack, giving him the benefit of the doubt. But it was now clear he was a coward. Once he was under fire, he just pussied out.
Command separated us. It was a wise thing to do.
“WE’RE JUST GONNA SHOOT”
A little after Runaway’s Exciting Adventure, I came down from my position on one of the roofs when I heard a shit-ton of rounds go off nearby. I ran outside but couldn’t see the firefight. Then I heard a radio call that there were men down.
A fellow I’ll call Eagle and I ran up the block until we came across a group of Marines who’d retreated after taking fire about a block away. They told us that a group of insurgents had pinned down some other Marines not too far away, and we decided we’d try and help them.
We tried getting an angle from a nearby house, but it wasn’t tall enough. Eagle and I moved closer, trying another house. Here we found four Marines on the roof, two of whom had been wounded. Their stories were confusing, and we couldn’t get shots from there, either. We decided to take them out so the wounded could be helped; the kid I carried down had been gut-shot.
Down on the street, we got better directions from the two Marines who hadn’t been shot, finally realizing that we had been targeting the wrong house. We started down an alley in the direction of the insurgents, but after a short distance we came to obstructions we couldn’t get around, and we reversed course. Just as I came around the corner back out onto the main street, there was an explosion behind me—an insurgent had seen us coming and tossed a grenade.
One of the Marines following me went down. Eagle was a corpsman as well as a sniper, and after we pulled the injured kid away from the alley he went to work on him. Meanwhile, I took the rest of the Marines and continued down the road in the direction of the insurgents’ stronghold.
We found a second group of Marines huddled at a nearby corner, pinned down by fire from the house. They’d set out to rescue the first group but stalled. I got everyone together and I told them that a small group of us would rush up the street while the others laid down fire. The trapped Marines were about fifty yards away, about one full block.
“It doesn’t matter if you can see them or not,” I told them. “We’re all just gonna shoot.”
I got up to start. A terrorist jumped out into the middle of the road and began unleashing hell on us, spitting bullets from a belt-fed weapon. Returning fire as best we could, we ducked back for cover. Everybody checked themselves for holes; miraculously, no one had been shot.
By now, somewhere between fifteen and twenty Marines were there with me.
“All right,” I told them. “We’re going to try this again. Let’s do it this time.”
I jumped out from around the corner, firing my weapon as I ran. The Iraqi machine gunner had been hit and killed by our earlier barrage, but there were still plenty of bad guys farther up the street.
I’d taken only a few steps when I realized that none of the Marines had followed me.
Shit. I kept running.
The insurgents began focusing their fire on me. I tucked my Mk-11 under my arm and fired back as I ran. The semiautomatic is a great, versatile weapon, but in this particular situation its twenty-round magazine seemed awful small. I blew through one mag, popped the release, slammed in a second, and kept firing.
I found four men huddled near a wall not far from the house. It turned out that two of them were reporters who’d been embedded with the Marines; they were getting a hell of a better view of the battle than they had bargained for.
“I’ll cover you,” I shouted. “Get the hell out of here.”
I jumped up and laid down fire as they ran. The final Marine tapped me on the shoulder as he passed, signaling that he was the last man out. Ready to follow, I glanced to my right, checking my flank.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a body sprawled on the ground. He had Marine camis.
Where he came from, whether he’d been there when I arrived or crawled there from somewhere else, I have no idea. I ran over to him, saw that he’d been shot in both legs. I slapped a new mag into my gun, then grabbed the back of his body armor and pulled him with me as I retreated.
At some point as I ran, one of the insurgents threw a frag. The grenade exploded somewhere nearby. Pieces of wall peppered my side, from my butt cheek down to my knee. By some lucky chance, my pistol took the biggest fragment. It was pure luck—it might have put a nice hole in my leg.
My butt was sore for a while, but it still seems to work well enough.
We made it back to the rest of the Marines without either of us getting hit again.
I never found out who that wounded guy was. I’ve been told he was a second lieutenant, but I never had a chance to track him down.
The other Marines said I saved his life. But it wasn’t just me. Getting all those guys to safety was a joint effort; we all worked together.
The Corps was grateful that I had helped rescue their people, and one of the officers put me in for a Silver Star.
According to the story I heard, the generals sitting at their desks decided that, since no Marines had gotten Silver Stars during the assault, they weren’t going to award one to a SEAL. I got a Bronze Star with a V (for valor in combat) instead.
Makes me smirk just to think about it.
Medals are all right, but they have a lot to do with politics, and I am not a fan of politics.
All told, I would end my career as a SEAL with two Silver Stars and five Bronze Medals, all for valor. I’m proud of my service, but I sure as hell didn’t do it for any medal. They don’t make me any better or less than any other guy who served. Medals never tell the whole story. And like I said, in the end they’ve become more political than accurate. I’ve seen men who deserved a lot more and men who deserved a lot less rewarded by higher-ups negotiating for whatever public cause they were working on at the time. For all these reasons, they are not on display at my house or in my office.
My wife is always encouraging me to organize or frame the paperwork on them and display the medals. Political or not, she still thinks they are part of the story of my service.
Maybe I’ll get around to it someday.
More likely, I won’t.
My uniform was covered with so much blood from the assault that the Marines got one of their own for me. From that point on, I looked like a Marine in digi cami.
It was a little weird to be wearing someone else’s uniform. But it was also an honor to be considered a member of the team to the point where they’d outfit me. Even better, they gave me a fleece jacket and a fleece beanie—it was cold out there.
After one deployment, we were driving in the car and Chris said, just out of the blue, “Did you know there is a certain kind of smell when someone dies in a particular way?”
And I said, “No. I didn’t know that.”
And gradually I got the story.
It was suitably gruesome.
Stories would just come out. A lot of times, he said things to see what I could handle. I told him I really, truly did not care what he did in wartime. He had my unconditional support. Still, he needed to go slow, to test the waters. I think he needed to know I wouldn’t look at him differently, and perhaps more than that, he knew he would deploy again and he didn’t want to scare me.
As far as I can see it, anyone who has a problem with what guys do over there is incapable of empathy. People want America to have a certain image when we fight. Yet I would guess if someone were shooting at them and they had to hold their family members while they bled out against an enemy who hid behind their children, played dead only to throw a grenade as they got closer, and who had no qualms about sending their toddler to die from a grenade from which they personally pulled the pin—they would be less concerned with playing nicely.
Chris followed the ROEs because he had to. Some of the more broad-spectrum ROEs are fine. The problem with the ROEs covering minutiae is that terrorists really don’t give a shit about the Geneva Convention. So picking apart a soldier’s every move against a dark, twisted, rule-free enemy is more than ridiculous; it’s despicable.
I care about my husband and other Americans coming home alive. So other than being concerned for his safety, I truly wasn’t afraid to hear anything he wanted to share. Even before I heard the stories, I don’t think I was ever under illusions that war is pretty or nice.
When he told me the story about killing someone up close, all I thought was, Thank God he’s okay.
Then I thought, You’re kind of a bad-ass. Wow.
Mostly, we didn’t talk about killing, or the war. But then it would intrude.
Not always in a bad way: one day, Chris was getting his oil changed at a local shop. Some men were in the lobby with him. The guy behind the counter called Chris’s name. Chris paid his bill and sat back down.
One of the guys waiting for his own vehicle looked at him and said, “Are you Chris Kyle?”
And Chris said, “Yeah.”
“Were you in Fallujah?”
“Holy shit, you’re the guy who saved our ass.”
The guy’s father was there and he came over to thank Chris and shake his hand. They were all saying, “You were great. You got more kills than anyone.”
Chris got embarrassed and very humbly said, “Y’all saved my ass, too.”
And that was it.