The Lord is my shepherd.
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul …
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
For thou art with me.
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou hast prepared a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever …
Blessed be the Lord my Rock
Who trains my hands for battle
And my fingers for war.
My strong tower, and my deliverer.
My shield, and the one in whom I trust,
Who subdues my people under me. Amen.
The prayer echoed softly through the front of the hangar bay as thirty or so kneeling Marines murmured it in unison while the rest of our platoon stood silently behind them with their heads bowed. The platoon formed a rough semicircle, and at its front I knelt, praying quietly and fervently. The sun had just winked out, the swift desert night had fallen, and all around us the city wailed as the muezzins’ calls to prayer rang out in jarring ululation. The microphone-amplified chants formed a weird background to our own quiet prayers, and for a brief second the strange juxtaposition of faiths struck me with sudden clarity.
The moment passed as quickly as it had come—I was far too nervous for reflection. Three days earlier, Golf had suffered its first casualty when, on one of our last turnover rides with the Army, one of Flowers’s men, Corporal McPherson, had had his face blown off from the upper lip down by an IED. Mac had lived, but our merry foreign adventure had ended in flame and smoke and a young man’s jaw scattered across a city block. Now we had some sense of what it meant to “take casualties,” and for the first time I wondered what I’d do if any of my men were wounded. I couldn’t rely on the Army’s help for a medevac; Golf Company had finally assumed full control of the Ramadi AO just one day earlier.
With these and other concerns weighing heavily on me, I’d given my gear an unusually thorough pre-mission inspection half an hour before the prayer started. All of us had plenty of equipment—the average Marine carried between fifty and sixty pounds on every mission—and if time allowed we inspected it before every single mission. That night, I’d started with the Interceptor flak jacket, the basic unit from which everything else hung. Each of these Kevlar vests covered us from the throats down to our waists, with a small add-on flap hanging over our groins. This triangular piece of Kevlar certainly wouldn’t stop AK bullets and probably wouldn’t stop any serious shrapnel, but just having it hanging there made me feel a bit better. Inside each Interceptor were our SAPI (small-arms protective insert) plates, rectangles made of sandwiched ceramic layers that could stop 7.62mm AK-47 rounds. Each plate added roughly four pounds to the vest itself, and the total combination came out to about seventeen pounds.
Next, I had checked the magazines strapped to the lower left side of the Interceptor to make certain that 1) all six were filled with twenty-eight rounds apiece, and 2) the springs inside were in good working order. Often, when an M-16 jams it’s due to a worn-out spring in the magazine, not a malfunction with the weapon itself. Next to the magazine pouches I had laced a grenade pouch, but in those first few weeks it was usually filled with something else, something random. We still didn’t have enough grenades to give one to each man in the mission platoons, so we carefully rationed the little we did have, with twenty or so going to select Marines in the ops platoon and the other ten or so going to the QRF (quick reaction force) platoon.
A brand-new bayonet hanging handle down and a first aid kit rounded out the gear on the bottom left half of the vest. On the bottom right half, I had stuck my map/binocular pouch containing those items plus my night vision goggles (NVGs) and many, many spare AA batteries. My canteen also hung there as a complement to my CamelBak hydration pack. To the right side of my chest, I fastened my Garmin GPS and its backup, my military-issue magnetic compass, and around my waist I’d strapped my butt pack, which carried assorted survival equipment and two sets of field rations. In the desert, electrolytes are nearly as precious as water, and copious drinking without eating is a good way to wash them all out of your body and suffer a serious case of hyponatremia, which can kill just as surely as dehydration. On my back hung the CamelBak, one that I had purchased myself because it carried 50 percent more water than the standard-issue gear. Of course, this extra water came with extra weight, and, including my M-16A4 rifle and the M-9 pistol strapped to my right leg, all of my gear added up to a little bit more than fifty pounds. I couldn’t complain, though. My SAW gunners carried close to thirty pounds of weapons and ammo alone, as did Yebra and Mahardy with the radio and its spare batteries.
Now, as I knelt in the hangar bay on that early March evening, praying quietly with all of that gear tugging heavily on my shoulders and back, I was glad that the platoon had spent countless hours adjusting to the load back in Camp Pendleton. Joker One was about to execute its first live mission in Ramadi, a night ambush, and the last thing we needed was fatigue from carrying unfamiliar equipment. That night would be my first time leading the entire platoon on a true infantry mission, and it was the first time we had prayed together as a unit. These simultaneous firsts were no coincidence. Over the past few weeks, I had thought long and hard over the decision to institute a platoon prayer before each live mission, and thirty minutes before our first time out of the Outpost’s gates, I had decided in favor of prayer for a few reasons.
First off, I believed that if we had a pre-battle ritual, something unique to first platoon that only we performed every time we left the base’s confines, then we would more quickly gain a sense of corporate over individual identity. Ideally, I wanted each of my Marines to think of himself first as a member of Joker One and only thereafter as an individual with needs and desires different from that of the team as a whole, for I believed that selfishness was the best way to destroy a unit and to get Marines killed in combat. In my mind, the best way to purge this destructive quality from my men was to replace a focus on the self—and its concomitant concern with individual happiness—with a focus on the group and an overriding concern with the service and welfare of others. A pre-battle ritual may seem a strange way to try to effect such a profound transformation, but I had already learned the hard way that sometimes the smallest things have an unexpectedly large impact. Those who felt uncomfortable praying weren’t required to say the words, but they were required to stand or kneel shoulder to shoulder with those who did. Thus, Joker One stood together before the mission, and together we steeled ourselves to walk outside the wire for the first time and do our jobs come what may.
I had a responsibility to my men to provide for all their needs, and those included their spiritual as well as their material ones. Some may say that the spiritual is the province of the chaplain or the priest and that the lieutenant should stick to tactics, to fire and maneuver. My only reply is that the chaplain doesn’t throw grenades alongside his men. It’s not the priest who holds the hand of the Marine who’s just been shot and swears to him that no matter what happens, he will make it back alive somehow, someway. Marines will only really listen to those who have suffered alongside them, and if you want any credibility as a leader, you not only have to bear the same burdens as they, but you also have to try, to your utmost ability and every single day, to transfer those burdens from their shoulders onto yours.
After Corporal Mac’s face had been blown off by the IED, many of my men had serious questions. “Why did this have to happen to Mac?” and “What if it happens to me?” I didn’t have a good answer for the first, and I didn’t want to confront the reality of the second just yet, so I prayed and asked the Marines to pray with me for a third, more selfish reason: Deep in my heart, I believed that prayer would work without fail, that if together Joker One prayed long and hard enough, God would spare all of us from Mac’s fate. What I know now, and which didn’t occur to me then, was that by praying as I prayed, and hoping what I hoped, and believing what I believed, I was effectively reducing God to a result-dispensing genie who, if just fed the proper incantations, would give the sincere petitioner (me) the exact outcome desired.
As the platoon murmured the Twenty-third Psalm before our first mission on that mid-March evening, I believed that those prayers would be enough to keep us safe, to keep Henderson’s heart beating on the patrol, Guzon from shooting Staff Sergeant in the back, and Feldmeir from falling asleep during the middle of our walk. I hoped the prayers would keep me from getting my men lost on our first mission, from forgetting everything I knew about ambushes at night, from losing communication with one of my squads and abandoning my men to the mercies of Ramadi. In short, I hoped that prayer would allay my fears and cover for my shortcomings.
The soft prayer ended, and together Joker One rose and walked from the hangar bay to the broad sandy area just inside the base’s main entrance. We assumed our patrol formation, with Noriel’s squad leading, Leza’s in the middle, and Bowen’s bringing up the rear. I stood just behind the base’s entry barrier as Yebra checked the radio one last time and the Marines behind me strung themselves out into two long, snaking lines. Suddenly the kneeling Yebra straightened, slung the radio across his back, and turned to me. Quietly he whispered, “Sir, COC [combat operations center] says we’re good to go.”
I nodded, paused for a second, then looked up at Teague, the platoon’s point man. He stood a few meters away, looking back at me. In the dim wash of the streetlights lining Michigan, our eyes met. He didn’t look nervous—just hard, with narrowed eyes in an emotionless face. I nodded to Teague, lifted my arm above my head, and dropped it in front of my face. Move out. Teague nodded back, turned about, and calmly walked around the red-and-white-striped barrier and into the city. I crossed over five meters behind Teague, and behind me I heard Yebra mutter softly into the radio: “COC, be advised, Joker One is departing friendly lines.” Our first combat mission officially began.
As soon as Teague took those first steps into Ramadi, my general fear and anxiety vanished. I was too concerned with minute-by-minute execution of the plan to worry about much more than the next half hour or so. In the scheme I had drawn up we would conduct an ambush at a cemetery at the south end of the city, a cemetery that had an excellent view of a train station where insurgents were rumored to be meeting at night. To catch them in the act, we planned to patrol down to the cemetery on foot, heading directly south from the Combat Outpost, across Michigan, and through a thick cluster of buildings lining the highway’s southern edge. Then we would cross a large open plain just to the east of the irrigation canal to keep ourselves away from the populated areas until the very last minute. With little electric light thrown off by the southern portion of Ramadi and low predicted natural ambient light, the darkness should cover our movement nicely. Bowen’s squad would peel off at the extreme southern end of the canal to keep watch over a major bridge while Noriel, Leza, and I would continue on, crossing under the bridge itself at the canal’s end and coming back into the city from the south.
First and second squads would then occupy the little cemetery about five hundred meters due south of our target train station, the one demarcating Ramadi’s extreme southern end. We had heard reports that the insurgents used graves to hide their weapons, banking on the reluctance of Americans to search sites of such great sensitivity to the locals, so once we had observed the train station for long enough, we could give the cemetery a good once-over while the rest of the city slept.
I had conceived this plan based on a prior train station visit with the Army and a detailed study of the photographic map I had managed to scrounge from one of the departing soldiers. Golf Company had obtained just a few maps of Ramadi prior to our arrival. Even with the Army supplying us their leftovers, there weren’t enough maps for each platoon commander, let alone each squad leader. As we walked out of the base’s gate, I held the worn photographic map in my left hand, and Leza, Bowen, and Noriel consulted crude hand-drawn graphics they had earlier created based on my lone map.
My carefully thought-through plan held good for all of fifteen minutes. After moving quickly through the few buildings just south of Route Michigan, Joker One hit the open plain and our first set of complications. The aerial photos had shown this area as a smooth dirt field dotted with palm trees, but to our dismay we quickly discovered that the plain was scored with lines and lines of secondary irrigation ditches—most at least ten feet deep. The loose dirt sides of each of these furrows sloped down at about forty-five degrees, making it difficult for our heavily laden SAW gunners to struggle back up the slopes once they had climbed down. After twenty minutes of patrolling, first squad had managed to cross only three of these ditches, and third and second hadn’t even hit the plain yet.
We pressed on for a little longer, but we were making horrible time. The Marines were starting to wear out climbing one crumbling ten-foot slope after another. Finally, after clambering on all fours out of our fourth or fifth irrigation ditch, I motioned Teague to move the head of the squad about two hundred meters west, right up against the main irrigation canal. It was a calculated risk—by moving so close to the canal and the lighted Farouq area just across the water, Joker One had a much greater chance of being spotted by locals sleeping on their rooftops. However, a nice, firm road ran alongside the canal, and the platoon could move much more quickly on it than in the open plain. If we crossed the area fast enough, perhaps no one would spot us.
Once on the dirt road, our pace picked up considerably, and I called Leza and Bowen over our intersquad radios, the PRRs, to let them know about the changed scheme of maneuver. I reached Leza, second in the patrol’s column, but not Bowen; the PRRs, which had reached for close to a mile in training areas of Pendleton, apparently carried for only a few blocks in the urban canyons of Ramadi. Leza relayed the message, though, and the transition to the new route went smoothly. The platoon swiftly moved south until we hit the end of the canal. There, third squad and Staff Sergeant peeled off on their mission while first and second bumped over a set of railroad tracks, followed them underneath the bridge, and looped west, homing in on the cemetery.
A few hundred meters from the bridge, we hit an open field with waist-high grass. With no other cover in sight save a few family compounds butting right up against the cemetery, I halted the patrol and had the men lie down in a rough circle. The bulk of the Marines would remain there, hidden by the grass, while Leza, Noriel, Teague, Yebra, and I headed to the ambush site for a quick look-over. The last thing that I wanted was the whole of Joker One to crowd into the cemetery and stumble noisily around trying to get into position all at once. Loading people into a night ambush is a tricky business. After about ten minutes of positioning themselves, first and second squads had assembled a rough defensive perimeter in the field. The small recce party and I headed out.
After a hundred meters of moving, I glanced back at where the two squads lay. Even using my NVGs, the Marines were completely hidden in the tall grass, and I snapped a quick mental picture of their location so that our small reconnaissance patrol could find them on our way back. Then I turned my attention to the business of locating the little cemetery in the dark. I had driven there once before with the Army, but that had been during the daytime. Everything looks different at night and on foot. Despite the cool evening air, I started sweating. I thought that I knew where we were, but things were looking a little strange. As this was our first live mission, I was extremely worried about getting lost and inclined to second-guess myself. I briefly considered pulling out my GPS, but scrapped it as a last-resort idea. To get a reading, I would have had to illuminate the instrument. A random light in the middle of a grassy field on a clear night can be seen for miles. Nervously, I led us forward in what I hoped was the right direction.
Five minutes later, Noriel and I hit the large dirt road that signaled the approach to the cemetery. But no sooner had I breathed a sigh of relief than headlights appeared around a road bend some one hundred meters away, moving rapidly toward us. With no time to spare, we flung ourselves facedown into a small depression on the side of the road. I held my breath as the vehicles rumbled by. They turned out to be Army Humvees, but the soldiers either didn’t see us or didn’t deign to acknowledge us. When the coast was clear, we hopped back onto the dirt road and moved rapidly down it.
After fifty more meters, Teague and I boosted Leza to the top of a high wall bordering the road to see if the cemetery was behind it. It wasn’t, and I cursed myself. Sweat was pouring off me in rivulets. We moved another fifty meters down the road and the entrance to the cemetery appeared: a dark break in the wall between compounds. I cursed my lack of patience. We darted inside and took cover in a small crypt. I settled down with Noriel and Leza, and together we planned out exactly how we would load the ambush, identifying squad positions, fields of fire and observation, and the various egress routes we would take if compromised. With everything sorted out, I left Yebra and Teague to watch over the cemetery while the two squad leaders and I headed back to get the squads. Teague had a PRR and could easily communicate with me over the short distance I needed to travel.
As I had no desire to risk compromise again by heading down the dirt road, our reduced patrol climbed a broken wall at the rear of the cemetery and dropped into the compound abutting it to the south. Now that we had a good idea of the lay of the land, Noriel, Leza, and I would simply skirt the walls of these compounds, hiding in the shadows and avoiding use of the dirt road altogether. It was a solid plan, and it worked for about twenty meters. Then the feral dogs that slink around all the populated areas of Ramadi caught wind of us as we crept through someone’s backyard. What sounded like fifty hounds started howling loud enough to wake the nearby dead. At the time, though, Leza, Noriel, and I weren’t all that concerned about possible compromise. Instead, we were preoccupied trying to outrun the pack of snapping dogs that had suddenly materialized ten meters behind us. Abandoning all pretense at tactical movement, we ran full bore through people’s backyards. As we ran, we tore our way bodily through the things that people in Ramadi normally left in their backyards—laundry hanging up to dry, piles of crunchy trash, small clutches of sleeping chickens, and so on. After all of our efficient, professional, and silent patrolling in, I now felt like an amateur circus clown piling clumsily out of his clown car.
With all our gear weighing us down, it didn’t take long for the dogs to close the distance, and I seriously considered shooting them. Just before I pivoted around to start killing dogs, though, Sergeant Leza performed a pivot of his own. Catching his movement out of the corner of my eye, I whipped around in time to see my blocky sergeant scoop up a rock, brandish it behind his head as if to throw it, and then charge full tilt at the baying dogs. The pack broke immediately under this feigned assault and peeled off into the darkness. I congratulated myself for having a quick-thinking, surprisingly nimble sergeant who had clearly been chased by dogs before.
The rest of the mission proceeded without incident. Noriel, Leza, and I linked up with the two squads and led them back to the ambush site, where Teague and Yebra waited to guide them into position. With the cemetery loaded full of Marines, my reduced platoon waited, watching the train station to our north for several hours. After neither our NVGs nor our thermal scopes revealed any movement at our objective, we searched the cemetery for signs of recent activity. Finding none, we moved out to hit the train station itself. That, too, quickly proved a dry hole, and at 1 AM the platoon patrolled back to the Combat Outpost through the quiet Farouq area. By 2:30, Joker One was safely inside the Combat Outpost, a lot dirtier but a little more experienced, a little more confident that we could handle ourselves in the real world. Moreover, a number of my worries had proved unfounded. Guzon had done well—Staff Sergeant was still alive and kicking—and Henderson had exceeded my expectations. In fact, Henderson had proved himself so reliable and so tough in Kuwait that we had given him one of our precious SAWs. That whole evening, he had humped the light machine gun uncomplainingly up and down drainage ditches, even stopping to help out other Marines who had trouble struggling up the steep slopes. Even Feldmeir did okay—he fell asleep a few times in the cemetery, and Teague had to smack him on the back of his helmet to keep him awake, but he stayed alert and ready through both the patrol in and the egress out. My men were everything that I had hoped for.
As I headed back to my room, helmet swinging in my left hand and weapon still slung across my gear-laden chest, I smiled a bit to myself. The first mission hadn’t exactly been a textbook ambush, but it hadn’t been a failure. The newly formed Joker One had performed well in its first time out of the gates. I had even managed to get us where we needed to go with only a few minor setbacks, so now both I and the rest of platoon knew that the lieutenant, whatever his other failings, could at least steer himself in the dark of the city. This most basic of accomplishments gave me some badly needed confidence.
Most important, though, everyone returned from this mission. At the time, that accomplishment was the ultimate definition of success in my mind.