Military history


The next morning found me back at the Outpost, disappointed and frustrated with myself. Thrice now we had been attacked, and thrice now we had failed to shoot back. For several hours, I intermittently second-guessed my decisions of the previous day, wondering what would have happened if I had just listened to Teague and set off south across the cemetery immediately instead of waiting for nonforthcoming information from a nonsensical major. Instead of four badly wounded Marines and an enemy who escaped scot-free, we might have had four badly wounded Marines and a dozen dead insurgent attackers. I spent the early part of that morning moping, until it was time to saddle up and relieve the evening guardians at the Government Center. As usual, we had begun squad-sized security patrols immediately upon arrival, and when noon rolled around I had just returned from a walk through the teeming marketplace with Bowen and his men. As we stood inside the QRF room at the Government Center, on the roof above us stood Noriel and first squad, and second squad and Leza were strapping on their gear in preparation for the next patrol. As I watched the men ready themselves, I unstrapped my gear, dropped the body armor and helmet to the floor, and rubbed my hands up and down my thoroughly sweat-soaked blouse (the official Marine Corps term for our camouflage shirt) and trousers. I glanced around at third squad; everyone else looked as if they had just taken a shower with their clothes on. It was definitely starting to heat up. That’s when I heard the two explosions, in rapid succession.

Today the enemy had chosen to attack us directly at the Center. An RPG slammed into the wall next to the gates leading into our building, gouging a dinner-plate-sized chunk out of it. Another rocket immediately followed. As the warheads detonated, I was standing in the large, open Quick Reaction Force room on the first floor of the Government Center. Outside the compound, I could hear AKs chattering on full automatic and the rapid pop-pop-pop of my Marines on the roof returning fire in three-shot bursts. A tense Noriel called me over the PRR as I struggled hastily back into my armor:

“Sir, we’ve been hit from the east. I think there’s at least five or ten of them on two different roofs. Tig’s got eyes-on and he and Feldmeir is returning fire. No further info, sir.”

“Roger that,” I shouted into the PRR as I ran out of the building toward the compound gates. “Let the COC know.” Then I pushed headquarters out of my mind entirely and focused on the situation at hand. Ahead of me, Staff Sergeant was already at the compound entrance, leaning on the sheet steel gates as he braced his rifle up against one of the doors and fired at a building just across the little alleyway to our east. As I ran up to him, Staff Sergeant stopped shooting and turned to me.

“Sir, there are at least three of them on that roof right there, sir,” he said, pointing out of the slit in the gates. “I’ve returned fire, but I’m not sure whether I got any of them.” He leaned back in over his weapon.

Irritated, I briefly wondered what good all of that Rifle Team shooting had been if Staff Sergeant couldn’t even hit a man-sized target less than one hundred meters away, but I pushed it aside, edged my way around him, and stuck my head out of the gates. Immediately, something heavier than an AK opened up to our north. It had been set up so that it fired perfectly down the length of the street that we now had to cross, and the rounds were cracking nearby again. Damn it.

I recoiled back through the gates and glanced behind me. Leza had second squad stacked up against the compound wall, ready to go. I met his eyes. He nodded coolly back—he and his men were ready. Bowen’s squad was behind them, waiting for the order to proceed. I hesitated. I knew we had to attack, but we had to get across a fire-swept, two-lane street first. I radioed up to Noriel to see if he had any idea where the suspected machine gun position was so that he could lay down suppressing fire while we dashed across. “Negative” came the reply.

As Leza’s squad stacked up behind me, I froze at the metal compound gates for a few seconds. Then, somehow, I found myself outside the open doors, running for my life across the street while waving frantically at second squad to follow. The machine gun kicked up again, and the rounds started snapping by.

My clever plan had been to dash across the street and then leap over the double-stranded concertina wire that lined its eastern sidewalk, but I clearly wasn’t thinking straight—my vertical leap is in the single digits on a good day, and weighed down by my gear and tired out from the patrols, what little athletic ability remained wasn’t nearly enough to get me over the obstacle. Running up to the barbs, I jumped anyway. Predictably, both legs landed squarely in the middle of the tangled coils of wire. Flailing frantically, I managed to free my left one immediately, but my right was caught firmly by the little razors. The machine gunner had aimed in on me now, and a detached part of my mind noticed that the concrete sidewalk in front of me was erupting in little puffs of dirt. That same part of my mind absently recorded Sergeant Leza screaming behind me, “Someone get in front of the lieutenant, goddamn it. Someone get up there.”

I have no idea how long I was trapped in the wire. It was probably only a few seconds, but that was one of those moments when the flow of time froze solid and the whole world was reduced to a single moment, to a life-and-death struggle between me and the inanimate razors. Intently, I focused in on my own private battle until a sudden movement to my left caught my eye. It was Raymond. I turned my head, and it seemed like I watched in slow motion as somehow he catapulted himself over both strands of concertina wire, putting his body between me and the machine gun. Then the world opened up, and I watched as the rest of his team followed his lead, vaulting the solid concertina wire one after the other. A solid wall of four of my Marines interposed themselves between their lieutenant and his attackers, and my Marines stared firing back.

All of a sudden, time started up again and I ripped my leg out of the razors, shredding both my trouser legs and my lower right thigh in the process. Raymond and his men had silenced the gun, and Teague’s insistent voice in my right ear finally registered through the confusion around me. Hearing it, I responded.

“Send it, Teague,” I yelled over the PRR as I hustled to the cover of a building’s entrance.

“Sir, I missed a guy on a roof as he ran away, but I know what building they’re attacking from. Can you see the building with the orange soap sign on it?”

I looked at all the buildings within my line of sight. “No, Teague, I can’t.”

“Well, just keep moving east and I’ll guide you on.”

“Roger that. Moving.”

I motioned to Raymond to move his team off the sidewalk and into the cluster of buildings next to us, and I glanced back at Leza to see if he had followed the conversation. He had, and he gave me another silent thumbs-up. Second and third squads moved deeper into the buildings, hunting for the one with the orange soap sign.

Within about five minutes, we found it, and I ordered Bowen to cordon off the building’s rear while Leza and I hit it with his squad. Swiftly, second squad ran to the building’s entrance as third snaked around its rear, and, arriving at the building’s sheet steel door, Raymond battered it with his body until the locking mechanism broke. We poured inside, only to discover that the orange soap sign building was a student dormitory. After a thorough search, we had found nothing other than frightened male college students hiding behind locked doors. Frustrated, I made my way out to the building’s balcony to call across the city to the Golf Company COC. That morning, I had been given a smaller version of our long-range radios, a version that we had never seen before, and I just happened to be carrying it on my vest as we hit the building. Time to test it out, I thought.

“Joker COC, this is Joker One-Actual. Be advised, we have the situation at the center well in hand. Break …”

“One-Actual, this is Six-Actual,” came Captain Bronzi’s near-shouted reply. “If you ever put that moron on the radio again, I will fucking kill you. I repeat, I will fucking kill you. I have no idea what’s going on over there. I’ve had to listen to a driveling idiot for the past ten minutes. I have no idea how many enemy you are facing, how many casualties you have, or what the hell is going on in general. You had better start talking right fucking now and fucking fast, Joker One!”

“That moron” referred to Feldmeir. Unbeknownst to me, during our entire brief firefight he had been manning the radio, for in an earlier moment of lunacy I had agreed to Noriel’s request to let our narcoleptic take the platoon’s sole 119. It was a last-ditch effort to find some continuous activity that would keep our somnolent Marine awake, but I clearly hadn’t thought through the implications of making Private First Class Feldmeir the critical lifeline to our higher headquarters. Nearly the entire time we had been under fire, the PFC had been screaming frantically into the radio: “They’re attacking us, they’re attacking us! The fire’s all around! Everywhere!! Aaaah-hhhh!!” The CO had been frustrated, and rightfully so. He hadn’t hesitated to let me know.

Once the tirade ended, I responded with a detailed situation report. It calmed the CO down a bit to hear that no one had been hurt and that the enemy had been chased off, but he was understandably less than pleased with my choice of radio operators. He reiterated his threat to physically kill me if I ever let Feldmeir on the radio again. After the day’s performance, I couldn’t dispute the judgment, and I signed off, somewhat chastened.

Heading back down from the balcony, I rejoined my platoon. Somewhat pleased with ourselves for finally firing back, we returned to the Government Center, and second and third squads settled back into their rooms while I trudged up to the roof to try to sort out what had actually happened during the fighting. On the way up, I ran into Highway, the leader of the Triple Canopy group. It was the second time in as many days that Joker One had responded to an attack on the compound, and the former Force Recon Marine pulled me aside.

“Hey, lieutenant, your guys are really solid. You move quick and you’re not afraid to attack, which is more than I can say for some of the other folks who have been here. You fight well. I’m glad the Corps is here.”

I took Highway’s kind words as high praise, and was again proud of my men. Then I moved up to the roof, hunted down Noriel, and, sighing, told him that never again was Feldmeir to touch the radio. If he did, I might die.

My first squad leader agreed readily, and together with Teague we began to reconstruct the afternoon’s attack. After comparing notes, we determined that the insurgents had struck from the roofs of three different buildings just across the street, and that they had covered this head-on assault with supporting fire from a machine gun position somewhere to our north. Before the main force fled, Teague had gotten four shots off at one of the rooftop attackers, but his bullets had gone wild. We had just learned the hard way that our three newly issued short-range scopes (called “ACOGs”) did not retain their accuracy when we took them off our weapons, even though we had been told that they were supposed to. Never mind that, Teague told me. He now knew the adjustment he had to make—he’d be good shooting from here on out.

After spending some more time on the roof with each Marine, I tromped back down to our makeshift headquarters rooms. We were scheduled to spend the night at the Government Center, pulling security and posting a squad-sized observation position to our east to prevent IEDs from being planted along the highway. I drew up the specific rotations for the evening’s mission and then spent the rest of the afternoon shuttling between the roof and the squad rooms. Near 5 PM, the CO and fourth platoon dropped off George the translator on their way over to a meeting at Hurricane Point. After that, though, the early evening passed uneventfully. George smoked and talked with the Iraqi police.

When twilight finally came around, I moved myself to the roof for the rest of the mission. It was the best place for me to command and control my various forces, and, now that the sun had gone down, I could endure the heat for more than two straight hours. The temperatures hovered just above one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, and after the day’s events, our cammies were soaked, our boots squelched with sweat, and our heads ached from dehydration and exposure.

Once the darkness had enveloped the city completely, Noriel and first squad left the Government Center and headed to their Route Michigan observation site: an abandoned multistory parking garage four blocks to our east. There the squad planned to remain until we picked them up on the next morning’s route sweep home. For an hour after their departure, the night proceeded uneventfully. The streets cleared of the evening shopping rush, the tea tables across from us slowly emptied, and, one by one, the lights in the storefronts to our north winked off. With the cessation of civilian activity in front of us, I had just relaxed a bit when I heard one AK shot followed immediately by three quick shots from an M-16. I braced for more fire, but none came. A few seconds later, Noriel called me on his Motorola. Teague had shot an Iraqi, he said, but other than that the situation report was somewhat cryptic and guarded. He requested my presence on the scene immediately, so I ran down from the roof as quickly as my tired legs and the unevenly spaced steps would allow.

Five minutes later, second squad, George, and I met a subdued Noriel on the street with his men in tow. I walked over, and my first-squad leader silently handed me a black plastic grocery bag. I took it. It was heavy.

“Noriel, what is this?” I asked.

“Look inside him, sir. Just look inside.”

I opened up the bag, and found, winking back at me, four sticks of PE-4 (a powerful military-grade explosive), two blocks of dynamite, and at least fifteen different blasting caps. Everything needed to make several IEDs, or to level a small house.

I looked back up, stunned. “Where did you find this, Noriel?”

“Sir, he was in the car of the guy Tig killed.”

“How did you know what car was his?”

“The locals pointed it out, sir.”

“Okay, where is the dead guy?”

“Don’t know, sir. Before we could get to him, some peoples loaded him into a taxi, and he took off. But we need to search that house across the street, sir—the guy Tig killed was running out of it when Tig shot him. Maybe more bombs in there, sir.”

Puzzled, I turned to look at the building directly across the street from us, and, after a moment’s consideration, I ordered second squad to enter and search it. The structure in question turned out to be a gym, and it was filled with nothing more menacing than pictures of Saddam on the walls and used hypodermic needles on the floors. When we finally finished turning the place upside down, I rejoined Noriel’s squad and demanded a full explanation of what had just happened. They quickly explained in hushed tones.

Ten minutes earlier, shortly before the shooting, Corporal Brown, Noriel’s second-team leader, had noticed a soft scuffling sound at the stairwell leading up to the squad’s position on the garage’s third floor. As he leaned in for a closer look, the scuffling picked up, and Brown began to suspect that someone was trying to creep up the stairs to fling a grenade or a homemade bomb into the scattered squad. Using his PRR, the team leader softly called Noriel over to the gaping stairwell entrance. Quietly, the first-squad leader picked up his gear and crept across the floor.

As soon as he had made his way to Brown’s position, Noriel, who was carrying the heavy long-range radio as he crawled, located the nearest Marine to hand it off to. Unfortunately, that nearest Marine happened to be Feldmeir, and even in the dark Noriel noticed his head bobbing. As quietly as he could, the sergeant smacked Feldmeir on the back of the helmet to wake him up.

“Feldmeir,” he hissed. “Take this radio. I have to check on something. No matter what happens, Feldmeir, don’t fucking say anything on the radio. I will fucking kill you if you do.” Wide-eyed, Feldmeir nodded his mute agreement.

Not fully satisfied but with time for a decision ticking away, Noriel reluctantly handed off the radio and crept the few feet over to where Brown knelt. On arrival, the squad leader heard the same scuffling sounds, and he quickly pulled out his single grenade, removed the thumb clip, and pulled the pin. Now the only thing keeping the device from detonating was Noriel’s thumb pressed firmly up against the grenade’s spoon, the long rectangular flange that extends downward off the top of a grenade, curving over the device’s circular body. Holding the grenade away from his body, Noriel leaned out over the gaping hole and peered into the darkness with his NVGs. He didn’t see anything, but the scuffling only continued, and at the first sign of an attacker Noriel determined that he’d simply drop the grenade down the stairs and then take cover.

As Noriel and Brown knelt tensely over the entrance to their floor, waiting for the split second in which an attack would materialize, Teague noticed a commotion in the building immediately opposite him. Perking up, he focused his attention on the building’s entrance just in time to see an Iraqi run out of the building followed by a giant wielding an AK-47. The huge Arab seemed irate, and without warning he suddenly raised his rifle and fired a shot into the back of the fleeing man. The Iraqi fell and began twitching spasmodically on the ground. His assailant strode over and raised the rifle to his shoulder, clearly intending to apply a brutal coup de grâce and finish what he had started.

Teague was shocked, and he called Noriel over the PRR. “Ser’ent. Ser’ent! A hajji just shot another hajji in the back. He’s gonna shoot him again, Ser’ent.”

(“Hajji,” by the way, was our generic term for the Iraqis. Its formal use is as an honorific bestowed on someone who has completed the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. I’m afraid our use was more in the grand tradition of soldiers faced with a populace with whom we couldn’t communicate and who often seemed difficult to understand, to say the least. In most instances the term wasn’t meant to denigrate the Iraqis—we simply used the two-syllable “hajji” because it was easier than the three-syllable “Iraqi.”)

His concentration broken, Noriel was briefly nonplussed by the sudden commotion. The live grenade still hung out over the stairwell entrance. After about a second’s consideration, Joker One’s first-squad leader radioed Teague back.

“Well! Fuck! What are you waiting for? Shoot back, Tig!”

Teague took action. Correcting for his errant ACOG sights, he aimed at a point three feet above and to the right of the Iraqi’s head and loosed a three-round burst. All three caught the man in the throat, and he fell to the ground like a marionette whose strings had been severed. There he lay, boneless and unmoving.

Through it all, Noriel knelt by the stairs, still waiting with his grenade at the ready. As the gunfire faded, he realized that the scuffling had ceased, and, as Noriel’s attention diffused, he noticed something horrifying: Feldmeir was talking on the radio, again babbling uncontrollably to the COC a vague account of Iraqis shooting Iraqis and us shooting Iraqis and something about a grenade. Furious, Noriel rose and whirled to confront Feldmeir, the live grenade in his right hand completely forgotten. Brown, however, hadn’t taken his eyes off the explosive, and his face went white as his squad leader stormed over to Feldmeir with his arms swinging furiously. Before Noriel could snatch the radio away from the self-appointed radio operator, though, he was intercepted by a slightly wide-eyed, slightly agitated Teague.

“Ser’ent, Ser’ent. I shot that guy, Ser’ent. I think I killed him. He was laying on the ground, Ser’ent, just laying there, dead I think. He’s dead. What should we do, Ser’ent?”

At that exact instant, Noriel had Golf Company’s first dead Iraqi lying in the middle of Ramadi’s main thoroughfare, a young man who had just killed his first human being asking for advice and guidance, a live grenade clutched tightly in his own right hand, and Corporal Brown tugging at his cammies, holding the grenade’s pin and trying urgently to get the squad leader’s attention so that they could reinsert the pin and defuse the bomb.

“But, sir,” Noriel later told me, “you know what the only thing I could think about at the time was? How much trouble I was going to get into cuz Feldmeir was talking on that damn radio again.”

A few minutes later, the grenade’s pin reinserted, first squad had collected themselves and their gear and moved out of the observation position and down to the street to get some more information and collect the body. It was gone—a few passersby had loaded both Iraqis into a taxi just minutes after the shootings—but others had approached the squad and told them that the man they had just killed was very, very bad. “Saddam, Saddam,” they repeated, shaking their heads and pointing at the man’s car.

As I sat outside the gym and listened to the story, it seemed fitting to me, somehow, that our first kill had come not in our own defense but in defense of a citizen of Ramadi. It was too bad we hadn’t been able to recover the body, but at first glance, it looked like we had not only saved an innocent life but also killed an actual insurgent in the process: after speaking more extensively with the locals, George confirmed that the car’s owner was indeed the now-dead giant. He then nonchalantly informed me that my platoon’s first kill had been Iraq’s champion bodybuilder, aka “Mr. Iraq,” which left me with one dead celebrity insurgent and a plastic grocery bag filled with explosives. Maybe the situation wasn’t quite as black-and-white as I had initially assumed, but I was still happy.

Finding nothing else, I ordered first squad to hunt down another building and continue the observation mission. I returned with second squad back to the Government Center, where I called the CO and explained everything to him. He was as puzzled as I was, but very pleased that Golf Company had killed its first apparent terrorist. When I finished the transmission, I took my little special grocery bag down to the Triple Canopy guys. They were all ex–special forces, so they should know a bit more than I about what we were dealing with. I found Pigpen and proudly showed him our catch. His eyes widened.

“Nice work, lieutenant. Those are some nasty explosives. Let’s see here, yep, PE-4, some TNT, oh, what are these? Blasting caps, I see.” He paused, then swallowed hard. “Well, lieutenant, I only have one recommendation. You might want to put the detonators and the explosives in two different bags. The explosives are stable, but those blasting caps are not, and they’ll probably go off if you drop or shake them. If that happens next to one of those blocks of explosive, well, it would probably be bad.”

Oh. Important safety tip. I should have known about the caps—we’d all had a decent amount of explosives training—but the night’s events had moved the little detonators down to a much lower priority in my mind.

“Yeah, right. Thanks, Pigpen. You got another bag?”

“Sure, I’ll get it for you. By the way, some of those blasting caps are electronic squibs, which means you can set them off remotely. These are some nasty things with some nasty uses. I’m glad they’re not floating around anymore.”

“Yeah, and I’m glad I haven’t exploded yet.” Pigpen handed me a bag. “I’ll see you later.”

“Yeah, good night.”

We made it back to the Outpost early the next morning after the usual harrowing route sweep. However, what I didn’t know at the time—but found out a few days later from our Information Operations officer—was that Mr. Iraq had been considered a hugely pro-American personage by U.S. forces, and he had played some role in their current public relations efforts. In their eyes, my men had just killed an important Iraqi spokesperson. Even the CO started doubting despite the fact that, when we killed him, Mr. Iraq had been about to pump several rounds into the head of an unarmed man, and his car had contained a few kilos of military-grade explosive and detonators. The CO repeatedly pointed out to me that since the Iraqis were known to use explosives for fishing, maybe all of the so-called “IED material” that we had found was simply fishing gear. My response was simple: It was highly unlikely that an urban gym owner played at rural fisher man in his spare time, and if Mr. Iraq was such a pro-coalition figure, then why was he transporting enough explosives and remote detonators to destroy several of our partially armored Humvees?

Questions surrounding the IED material aside, the laws of war and general morality compelled us to intervene to prevent atrocities, atrocities like an armed man shooting a wounded, unarmed man in the head. All of this and more I explained to Teague when a few days later he asked me whether I thought that he had done the right thing by killing Mr. Iraq. He had, I told him, and I was very proud of his quick thinking, his straight shooting, and the life he had saved. I should have told Teague all of this sooner, though, because watching a man fall to the ground as he spurts blood out of his carotid arteries because you just put three pieces of metal through them is no small thing for a twenty-one-year-old to handle. Though the killing is easy and emotionless in the moment, it can sometimes comes back, especially if the man you killed wasn’t shooting at you when you shot him.

And, though I kept it solely between Teague and myself, my final response to all of our doubters, from the CO to the Army, was simple: Welcome to the world of deception and shifting allegiances that is Iraq, Golf Company. Only a fool would take a person at his word and at face value in this place.

Aside from the mystery terrorist’s celebrity status, there was one more relevant fact that I didn’t know on March 30, and it was that our platoon’s aggressive actions on that day were too little, too late. To date, nearly every unit in the battalion had been involved in at least one, if not several, enemy attacks, and 2/4 had responded with our own fire on fewer than five occasions. Our hesitance to engage our enemies spoke volumes about both their willingness to sacrifice civilians in pursuit of their aims and our willingness to sacrifice ourselves in pursuit of ours, but this powerful message had somehow been lost in translation. At the company and platoon level—the units actually on the street day in and day out—we had done almost no work with our Iraqi counterparts, the police and the national guard. Aside from George, there was no one to help us explain our seeming passivity in the face of repeated attacks to a population largely on the fence. Therefore, our kindness quickly became perceived as weakness by the insurgents and by most of Ramadi’s citizens, and by late March, 2/4 had earned itself the nickname awat, an Iraqi Arabic term for a soft, sugary cake that crumbles easily to the touch.

We didn’t know it then, but the insurgents had decided to touch us, to crumble us just like the soft cake that had become our namesake. The battalion had extended the velvet glove, and it was about to get its hands severely bitten.

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