Departure and Forty-Seven Dead
The hardest part of any deployment, peacetime or otherwise, is, of course, the leaving. Wartime deployments are harder still because, in addition to dealing with the knowledge that you will not see home, friends, or family for six months or longer, there is the specter of pending combat hovering about. Of the numerous and varied emotions one experiences when preparing for such a deployment, fi rst and foremost for a Marine Corps infantryman of twenty years is excitement. Saying so in this politically correct age is, of course, verboten. The professional soldier is supposed to view combat with a cool, detached, and grim outlook. Excitement is for boyish amateurs who just don’t know any better and who make cracks about how Saving Private Ryan is their favorite comedy. But if you’ve volunteered for twenty years to be an infantryman, and if you’ve endured the rigorous, punishing training and the misery and hardships that go along with it, well then, when the roll is called and your name is heard, you’re excited. That rush is only slightly tempered by the dark side, by the threat of death or mutilation that combat represents. After all, the threat is at first a distant one and the adrenaline coursing through you easily overpowers any thoughts of your fragile body being ripped apart by steel, copper, or brass traveling at three thousand feet per second. Besides, my orders had me assigned to the safe and simple job of
training soldiers of the New Iraqi Army in Kirkush, far from the dangers of places like Baghdad.
Still, safe orders or hazardous duty, combat or boredom, it is always hard to leave, and this deployment was no different. If anything, it was worse, for not only would I be leaving my three children, ages ten, fourteen, and eighteen, I would be leaving them without their mother, for in January 2002, my wife of nineteen years, Denise, had died of a blood clot. She had been in treatment for the blood clot since December 31, 2001, and according to medical records, her doctors had spent most of January 29, 2002 debating whether they should place a filter in her chest. In the end, they decided that her condition was not life threatening and they opted not to install the filter. By six the next morning, they had been proved wrong. My wife had passed.
Further complicating the situation, I’d remarried two years later and now I would be leaving my new bride after less than two months of marriage.
Those were the things going through my mind in early February 2004 as I spent my second day in Camp Wolverine, Kuwait. Wolverine was the layover before the final leg of my journey to Iraq. Family concerns aside, I could not help but notice that, as wartime deployments went, this one had pretty nice perks. Wolverine had an all-night Burger King, a Pizza Inn, and a coffeehouse. There were phones, Internet access, and a chow hall darn near as good as the one at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. During my earlier trip to the region, in 1990, for the Gulf War, we lived in the holes we dug, there were no BK Broilers to be had, and my unit went eighty-eight days with neither a shower nor even a change of clothes. The second go-round started off much better. I slept in a tent and generally felt as if I were at Club Med.
Beyond the Wolverine, Kuwait City appeared immaculate and boomed with prosperity. When I had last seen Kuwait, the place resembled a large, stinking dump, the natural result of six months of Iraqi occupation and the war that had ousted them. Trash and the detritus of the Iraqi defeat were everywhere. Destroyed armored vehicles, spent artillery shells, and shattered cars and trucks of every type, military and civilian, covered the land as far as the eye could see.
Thirteen years ago, I had led a rifle squad in India Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. Our mission had been to charge through the Iraqi defenses along the Kuwait- Saudi Arabia border and destroy the Iraqi army dug in between us and Kuwait City. The nature of the terrain, utterly flat in all directions, provided absolutely zero cover for attacking infantry. That landscape, combined with the large, densely seeded mine fields, which were covered by excellent Russian, French, and South African– built artillery, as well as the sheer numbers of Iraqi troops we would be facing (thirteen divisions of dug-in soldiers who had had six months to prepare their defenses), made our survival seem somewhat improbable.
“You know how we mark enemy units on maps with red symbols?” my platoon sergeant had asked, holding up a well-used map of the future battlefield. “Well, you might as well just paint this whole motherfucker red,” he’d concluded with a short, bitter laugh. General Walter Boomer, the senior Marine Corps officer in the Gulf, had said the same thing, albeit with less colorful language, describing our “force ratios” as “horrible.” No matter how you phrased it, though, it had all meant the same thing— more defenders than attackers. That is never supposed to happen, of course. Armies that choose the terrain and dig in, in advance of attack, have all the advantages. Theoretically, then, the attackers should at least be numerically superior. General Norman Schwarzkopf assessed that our losses could be as high as 50 percent just getting through the breech lanes. And that came before the expected fi ghting in Kuwait City. These things all made us just a little pessimistic about the immediate future. I remember looking around me as we got ready to cross the line of departure in our drive against the Iraqi army. I studied the faces of my friends, Crowley, Douglas, McDonald, Gaudet, Davis, Doc Wright, and so many more. How many of them would be dead by this time tomorrow? I also wondered how many of them were looking around and asking themselves the same thing about me.
As our vehicles lurched forward into the attack that day thirteen years ago, one of the new marines in our platoon played a cassette of the Kansas song “Carry On, Wayward Son.” What is it about music I had asked myself that can so lift the spirit when combat is near?
Now many things were different. Chief of which concerned the fact that I did not deploy as part of a unit as I had back in 1990. In the war that would finish Saddam forever, destiny gave me no part; headquarters battalion and the rear lines called. Saddam was captured and his sons were dead. Except for the downing of U.S. Army troop helicopters, American losses in late 2003 and early 2004 had been very light, and it looked, for all intents and purposes, as if the war were over. At least that was what most people thought.
The tent in which I sat waiting for my flight into Iraq overfl owed with about eighty people, all of whom were facing three large televisions. A different movie played on each set, and added to that was the background noise of forty conversations that made it pointless to try and watch a movie, so I simply waited to hear my flight, designated CHROME 33, called up. In the timeless way of the military, we’d all been awake since 0530 for a fl ight that might not leave until the next day. “Hurry up and wait” is a phrase that certainly has been known in the Greek phalanx, the Roman cohort, and in every army since.
Our flight received the go signal at 2300. About forty of us stood and shuffled outside to form a single file. An air force tech sergeant called off forty names from a roster and scratched out the names of those who did not answer up. He then counted the names remaining, counted the bodies standing in front of him, and had us follow him to a bus. In less than ten minutes we were on the flight line and being issued earplugs. We would be flying on a C-130. The aircraft, built for hauling troops and cargo, had little in the way of creature comforts, and the volume of noise thundering out of the turboprops could not be deadened by the sound-absorbing material between the passengers and the engines; hence the earplugs. I boarded the aircraft last, and as I did so I noticed some chalk writing on a door panel that told me the plane carried fl ares and chaff.
Flares are designed to decoy incoming heat-seeking missiles, like the Russian-made SA-7, as they are hotter than the deploying aircraft’s engines. The SA-7 is a man-portable, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missile. While the design is quite dated and, consequently, poses little threat to high-performance combat jets, it is quite capable of bringing down less advanced aircraft like our pig. In fact, the enemy in Iraq had recently used them against U.S. Army he li cop ters to inflict heavy losses. In November 2003, seventy-three U.S. troops had been killed in action, making it the war’s deadliest month up to that time. Thirty-nine of these soldiers had been killed when their helicopters were shot down. Though successful against helicopters, the SA-7 had failed to bring down any fixed-wing aircraft thus far in the war, and I had no fears that mine would be the fi rst.
Chaff, used to defeat radar-guided missiles by flooding the radar with multiple reflections, is nothing more than tinfoil, released in strips that return radar signals and obscure the presence of the target aircraft. Chaff had been invented by the British during World War II and was first used with devastating effect on the night of 24–25 July 1943, when over seven hundred RAF bombers attacked the city of Hamburg. The fire raid, Operation Gomorrah, killed over 50,000 people. Largely thanks to the chaff, fewer than fi fteen British bombers were lost.
I hoped, of course, that we would need neither the chaff nor the fl ares, and I really dreaded the air combat maneuvering that would certainly accompany their release.
Chaff and flares aside, the flight to Baghdad lasted only an hour and twenty-two minutes and passed peacefully. From the air, Baghdad looked like most cities at night, and nothing suggested that any great danger waited below—until we began our decent. Because of the threat posed by surface-to- air missiles and small-arms fire, we descended from the sky in a series of tight turns accompanied by stomach-churning drops in altitude. While exhilarating, all went well, and soon we were safely on the ground and taxiing to a stop. The hatch opened and I stepped out into the cool, refreshing night air.
After breaking down the pallet that held our baggage and collecting our gear, we settled down to sleep in the crowded tent that sheltered both new arrivals and departures. There were no cots, just chairs for watching TV. I found a spot on the fl oor and quickly fell asleep. The morning came suddenly and abruptly as a soldier tripped over me trying to navigate through the sea of sleeping men. After chow, those of us assigned, as I was, to the Co alition Military Assistance Training Team (CMATT) were told that the Co alition Provisional Authority (CPA), which was colocated with CMATT, had sent a bus with an armed escort to carry us to Hussein’s Presidential Palace. None of us had ammo and many did not have the Small Arms Protective Inserts (SAPI) ballistic gear for our flak jackets. The SAPIs were an absolute Godsend and had saved many lives in Iraq. They will stop an AK-47 round at point-blank range, and they are, contrary to popular opinion, a relatively new thing. The inaccurately nicknamed “bulletproof vests” of old were effective at stopping shrapnel and handgun fire, but were absolutely no match for a rifl e. Knowing of the SAPI’s reputation, well earned on the battlefields of Af ghan i stan and Iraq, we were not happy about being without them. Of course, being without ammo produced even worse feelings, but the army ran things, and they were certain that we would need neither the SAPIs nor ammo.
When the bus finally arrived that afternoon it lacked the CPA-promised escort. When questioned about the lack of an escort, the driver of the bus merely shrugged and said one was not available and that since we were only going to the palace anyway one was not really needed. While the war was going well at that time, it seemed extremely foolish to me to send twenty- one unarmed men anywhere in Iraq. Incredibly, the lack of ammo, SAPI plates, and an escort did not bother anyone at the CPA. When Major Manning, the senior man with us raised these concerns, he was assured that the route to the palace was perfectly safe. Because nobody, including the driver sent by the CPA, knew where we were supposed to go, we caught something of a break. We only knew that we were to go to “the” Presidential Palace so the bus driver simply took us to the nearest palace. Once there, it was obvious why our driver had not been worried about the lack of an escort. The palace he took us to was located on Camp Victory, which was colocated with the airport, which meant we never left U.S.- controlled facilities on our short trip to the palace. But his was the wrong palace.
When Major Manning asked the sentry at the gate where the CPA was located, he was told, “You guys are in the wrong place. There is no CPA here, just CJTF-7.”
Major Manning then went in search of someone who might know where exactly the CPA was located. While things were sorted out, I went looking for some bullets. We got very lucky and found a small building housing both a supply section and an armory. From supply we were able to get SAPI plates, and from the armory we drew a full combat load of 210 rounds of 5.56mm ammo for the M-16s and 45 rounds of 9 mm ammo for those of us armed with M-9s. The specialists and NCOs who hooked us up did so very graciously, in spite of the fact that we were all marines and not in any way attached to their unit.
By contrast, when I had tried to get SAPI plates from Quantico, I was told they were needed in security battalion in case the enemy attempted to open a second front in Virginia. The Marine Security Force at Yorktown had plates but refused to issue them without authority from their higher. In the end, I coughed up $1,500 of my own money and bought a set from a company in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I could not help but contrast the attitude of paper-pushing marines at Quantico and Yorktown with that of the fine soldiers at Camp Victory who gave me twenty sets of SAPI plates and all the ammo I needed with nothing but my signature for authorization. As we got the ammo and the plates, Major Manning found out where we were supposed to go—a little more than five miles away sat the Presidential Palace in Baghdad. I did not know it at the time, but the road linking the airport and Camp Victory to the Presidential Palace was the most important 5.4 miles of road in Iraq, and it would change my life.
The road to the Green Zone, the secured area of Baghdad surrounding the Presidential Palace, consisted of all high-speed blacktop. While the road spoke of modernity, the rest of Baghdad did not. Much of what could be seen from the highway consisted of trash and squalor, and the place reeked of decay when compared to Kuwait. Considering the oil wealth of both nations and comparing clean and modern Kuwait with the filth, poverty, and decay of Baghdad, I had to wonder what Saddam did with his nation’s wealth. As we pulled into a large parking lot across from the gated grounds of the Presidential Palace, I noticed that things were much better in the Green Zone, the seat of coalition power in Iraq. The Green Zone was well maintained.
We quickly off-loaded and grabbed our gear from the baggage truck. Each of us carried just a ton of shit: Weapons, ammo, vests, two full seabags, a pack, and a carry-on bag completed the burden. Before we could begin to move our mountain of crap, dogs were brought in to sniff for drugs or other contraband. As I watched the dogs rut through our stuff, I was reminded of my last deployment, when the military police searching through our gear had found one penis pump. Abuse had rained down on its owner as the offending item was delicately removed by an MP.
We began the task of carrying our gear three hundred meters to the rear entrance to the palace. Marines from a Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team (FAST) were manning the gates. To get in we had to be issued new ID cards and be accompanied by an escort, one Sergeant First Class Mincie, the acting first sergeant of the CMATT, the entity within CPA to which I would be assigned. Mincie took us around for a quick check-in, after which we were shown our new home—a large but mostly empty tent. I found a rack near the door and dropped my gear. Near me were three men who would become very important to me later. They were Gunnery Sergeants Robert Josleyn and Hessen, and Corporal William Napier. Months later Gunny Josleyn would, in fact, save my life.
After dropping my gear, I walked back into the palace and reported to the C-3 operations section, also known as operations, ops, “the three, ” or simply “three,” located in the palace’s ballroom, to which I had been assigned. There I met Sergeant Major Robert Jackson, U.S. Army, the C-3 operations sergeant major. He told me that nothing further would be done that day and that we should just come back in the morning. He advised us to enjoy the down time, saying, “Walk around the palace and do some sightseeing, take some pictures, and relax. Just be here at 0800 tomorrow.”
Robert Jackson was approximately forty years old and he stood 5'6. with a medium build. He wore his brown hair like an executive, well cropped, but longer than regulation, with a wave on top. He was both friendly and professional. His demeanor and the coveted Special Forces tab he wore on his shoulder impressed me. Before I left, Jackson introduced me to other members of the section, one of whom was Chief Master Sergeant Jeff Vorgang ,
U.S. Air Force. Vorgang was friendly and eager to please. Standing 6'0' Vorgang was in his late thirties and had the build of a Jenny Craig failure. As polite as he was fat, Vorgang always wore a friendly, less than military smile. Over time, I noticed that he almost revered Master Sergeant Jackson as a younger brother reveres an older, more accomplished big brother. I pulled myself away from the talkative Vorgang and went back to my tent. I told Gunnys Josleyn and Hessen everything that Jackson said to me and then we decided that we would take Jackson’s advice and do some palace sightseeing.
The massive palace was as easy to get lost in as the Bermuda Triangle, and I quickly began to doubt that I would ever be able to find my way around the place. At a glance, it quite naturally impressed and awed, but in reality it was an amazingly tacky place, and an excellent lesson in the dangers posed by men of wealth but no taste. It was simply an abomination. If Saddam had somehow beaten the genocide rap hanging over his head, I am convinced we could have hit him with a crimes- against-humanity charge based on his palace decorating. The ceilings and floors were suitably grand and opulent, but everything between them screamed of poor taste. I found it hard to believe Hussein would spend millions of dollars on a building from which to rule his country and then start saving money by skimping on things like windows, window treatments, light fixtures, and paint. It reminded me of the home of that stereotypical, trailer-dwelling hillbilly who wins the lottery, buys a mansion, and then decorates it with the crap he had in his trailer. Around every corner, you just knew you’d be bumping into a revolving, pink, heart-shaped bed, flanked by mirrors and maybe a golden harp sitting in a corner. Tacky, yes, but amusing just the same, and it did help us while away the hours until chow.
Chow at the palace had been rumored to be a feast, and it didn’t disappoint. The large and cavernous room in which our meals were served had also been a ballroom. Who knew that Hussein so loved a good party? Josleyn and Hessen were my dining companions that evening. Robert Josleyn was an imposing man at over six feet; he had the powerful build of a man who had lived and worked outdoors for most of his life. Though he was, at thirty-nine, two years younger than I, he looked much older. His face was Marlboro Man rugged. While Josleyn looked like the “typical” marine noncommissioned offi cer (NCO), he was actually very quiet and reserved. A sniper by trade, he was also a born- again Christian. He had been assigned to the marksmanship training unit in Camp Lejeune before being assigned to CMATT.
Gunny Scott Hessen could not have been more different from Josleyn. He was about 5'8. and while strong, he was chubby. Hessen was like Josleyn in one way; both men were country boys with a corresponding love of guns, hunting, and fishing. Hessen, prematurely balding, had taken a shortcut and simply shaved his head, which further highlighted the Errol Flynn mustache he wore. He came from a very unique duty station, having worked in the Camp Lejeune brig’s carpentry shop before shipping off to Iraq. It seemed an odd place for a combat engineer like Hessen to be assigned. Most of our time together went to discussing what jobs we were assigned to by our line numbers. Gunny Hessen had a line number that assigned him as the plans noncommissioned officer in charge or, simply, NCOIC. The line numbers listed on the Joint Manning Document had nothing to do with a service member’s military occupational specialty (MOS). Rather, it designated a billet to be filled and the name of the person assigned to fill it. Often, but certainly not always, service members were assigned jobs that matched their experience and their MOS. Gunny Josleyn’s number had him assigned the duties of the force protection NCOIC. Both jobs, especially the force protection gig, seemed better than mine, which, while still somewhat undefined, appeared to be shaping up to involve the mighty pen far more than the sword.
After chow we headed back to our tent and racked out. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought about the less than exciting job to which I had been assigned, and I was determined to do everything I could to change it. I had no idea that Al Qaeda in Iraq was about to take care of that for me.
At 0800 next morning, 11 February, I reported to the C-3. My fi rst full day in Iraq and I was about to bear witness to a great deal of truly hideous violence, more than anything I had seen in the fi rst Gulf War.
As I walked in, everything in the C-3 appeared in confusion. Sergeant Major Jackson was standing behind his desk, talking to his drivers and “shooters,” and he was obviously excited. From what I could pick up, the Baghdad Recruiting Center (RC) had just been hit by a powerful car bomb and to Jackson fell the duty of attempting to get a team together to recover the Americans working there. He didn’t have enough people to send a four- vehicle convoy, which I took to be the preferred method. In actuality, he did have enough people, but that would require that he go. I heard someone propose this course of action. Jackson was quick to answer.
“I can’t leave the desk! Especially not now.”
Not one to let an opportunity pass I quickly spoke up.
“Hey, I’ll go.”
I then continued, giving my résumé, figuring that it couldn’t hurt.
“I’m a twenty-three-year infantryman, and I don’t have a job yet, so I can go.”
The office suddenly grew very quiet as all eyes were turned toward the cluster of new arrivals that included me. Jackson looked at me and asked if I had body armor. I replied that I did; Jackson gave me the green light. I ran back to my tent and quickly put on my vest and grabbed my helmet. In the meantime, Gunny Hessen had also managed to get on the run. As we prepared to launch, a very large marine lieutenant colonel approached me, smiling broadly.
“Hey, I know you. You taught a staff course with that major at Lejeune.”
The man’s name was John Thomas and, while I was surprised that he remembered me, I had no problem remembering him. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas was as easygoing and funny as he was large, and at 6'5. and over 260 pounds, that was saying a lot. With crew cut, Thomas looked like a professional football player from the late fifties. Seeing him again, almost two years after our first meeting, I was immediately impressed by something I’d not had the opportunity to observe when we had first met in Lejeune: In a time of crisis, such as we were experiencing, Colonel Thomas acted just as he did in my class. While he was professional and serious, to be sure, he was not grave or agitated. He was to play a significant role in my life during the rest of my tour in Iraq.
Jackson had one of CMATT’s intelligence analysts give us a threat brief. He warned us that on the way to the recruiting center we were to remain alert for small-arms ambushes. Once at the RC, our primary concern would be secondary vehicle-borne, improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), or, to the laymen, more car bombs.
In addition to Gunny Hessen and me, Colonel Thomas, Gunnery Sergeant Vanegas, the intelligence analyst, and two other marines would be going on the run. Venegas was the C-3’s ground transport NCOIC, which simply meant that he controlled and coordinated all of CMATT’s ground-based movement. He had less than two weeks left in Iraq when the car bomb hit the RC, yet he was going with us. I admired him for that. Looking around, I found it more than a little odd that everyone going to the RC was a U.S. Marine; in fact, every marine in CMATT’s C-3 was on the run. In a joint unit, with fewer marines than soldiers, sailors, or airmen, you would have thought that maybe a soldier, sailor, or airman would have manned up for the trip. Well, a soldier anyway. Since CMATT lacked a full-time, dedicated quick reaction force (QRF) or convoy security team (CST) the makeup of these missions was often a matter of personal decision; and judging by who was going now, I could only assume that most of CMATT’s soldiers, sailors, and airmen had better things to do. Maybe they, too, had desks that they could “not leave at a time like this.”
As we walked to the lot where our vehicles were staged, Gunny Vanegas asked Hessen if he had a rifle. Hessen had only an M-9 pistol, which is a defensive sidearm and virtually useless in combat unless you’re finishing off enemy wounded or any prisoners you may have collected, which was not what Hessen or I had in mind. As a quick fix, Venagas offered him an AK-47, a weapon Hessen had had no experience with. Because I own an AK and am far more familiar with it than Hessen was, I gave him my M-16 and happily took
Excerpted from The Majestic Twelve by Jack W. Lynch II.
Copyright © 2009 by Jack W. Lynch II.
Published in 2009 St. Martin's Press.
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