Iraq-The Year Grinds On 1
We lost Colonel James and Sergeants Tuliau and Howe. The loss of those great men was a huge hit for us, as you may well imagine. It also left a large void in both our chain of command as well as our day to day leadership. Our four teams were allowed to stand down for about a week, while the teams themselves were reorganized. We also established a new training regimen for any days we didn’t have a mission outside the wire. I was thankful for that period of time to reorganize and deal with these losses. It wasn’t easy. However, life and the mission continued.
I was sent back to the 3rd Battalion Team after filling in for Master Sergeant Tuliau as 3rd Brigade NCOIC, but when I went back to that team, I went back in a leadership position as the Senior Non Commissioned Officer in Charge. This team was mostly comprised from a Regular Army Unit out of Ft. Drum, NY. I was from the Massachusetts National Guard and that had created a problem for me from the first day I arrived in Iraq. Now, I was supervising a team consisting of Regulars. They were not happy. They did not like working for a reservist.
I went to my Team Leader Major Cureton. Cureton was also a regular army officer, but unlike the rest of the team, he was a Cavalry Officer from the 82nd Airborne Division that somehow ended up with the rest of us. My team had several E-7s (one grade lower than I) and I told the major that if he wanted to assign one of the Regular Army guys as NCOIC, I would understand. Major Cureton told me that as far as he was concerned the Army had promoted me to Master Sergeant (E-8) and until I proved I was otherwise incompetent, I would be his NCOIC. I don’t have to say that this vote of confidence at this crucial moment was very important to me.
Later in the week during which we lost our people, we had to mount a mission to Adnon Palace which was located near downtown Baghdad. It was a patrol consisting of three vehicles, and the personnel had been selected from our among our four teams. Needless to say I was involved with some folks from my team in my vehicle. My brother was also part of this mission. I think we were all kinda messed up at that point. I know that I had it in my mind that we were going to get hit this day and I may not survive.
We were a pretty salty group of rebels up to this time, although the shock of losing James, Tuliau and Howe set us back on our heels quite a bit. Apparently we looked like a collection of outlaws or soldiers of fortune. At that point, I didn’t really care to enforce some of the fine points of Army Regulation 670-1. We were in contact with the enemy every day, unlike most US Soldiers, and we were pretty much on our own when we were going outside the wire daily. So, I ignored certain, what I thought were trivial violations of that regulation by my NCOs and Officers. This drove some of the Sergeants Major on our FOB out of their minds, but that’s a story for another day.
The purpose of this mission was to pick up two soldiers that were newly assigned to us. One was a staff sergeant from Georgia, I believe from the USAR, and the other was a captain from Guam. Both were inbound to Iraq, but after we were hit, they got plucked out of wherever they were in Kuwait, put on a plane, and sent to us. Luck of the draw, but bad luck for them. They were not supposed to be going to Iraq as advisors, they were not originally headed to a combat assignment. It was so sudden that neither of them had been issued a weapon. I learned during the operations order prior to leaving the wire, I would pick up the new Captain and he would ride in my HUMMVEE.
So, dutifully, this mishmash of a combat patrol sucked it up and left the FOB going into harm’s way without complaint as we did everyday. I think most of us truly believed we would die this day. Of course, we didn’t actually say that to each other…
We eventually arrived at the Palace. When we pulled up, we all got out of our vehicles and congratulated each other for making this perilous trip in one piece. I personally felt like a huge weight had been temporarily lifted from my back. It was my first mission where I was the new NCOIC for my team. First combat mission in a leadership position, and we made it safely. At least the first leg.
So, most of us were out, backslapping each other and cameras came out and people started to snap pictures. I can’t really explain the euphoria that apparently hit us, other than to say that, at least in my case, we were alive and it felt really good at that moment in time. And, that’s where trouble started for us.
My gunner that day, an E-7, was sitting in the turret of my HUMVEE. He had removed his helmet, revealing a sweaty, dirty bandana on his head, looking like some kind of deranged gang member. He was also smoking a cigarette. Now you have to understand that it is a serious violation of Army regulations to smoke in or close to any army vehicle. He didn’t care that day, and neither did I. His appearance was pretty shitty, but we all looked pretty bad. Tired, dirty, mentally beat, and we certainly didn’t look as though we had come from a Regimental Ball. We were front line combat troops that were worn out and we looked it.
I was standing on one side of my truck, and none of us noted the One Star General on the steps surveying the scene. We learned that he was also the Deputy Commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, to whom we were assigned. We’d already had some not so good history with the 3rd ID. At one point, the commander of the FOB where we worked from and lived actually threw us off the FOB. I’m not really sure why, but maybe in another story I’ll give my guess. He was told that he could not “EVICT” an American Army Unit off of an American Base within a theater of war. We never got thrown out, but the Command Sergeant Major of that unit gave me no end of grief regarding my teams appearance. He constantly singled me out because I was now the Senior NCO standing in any of our four teams.
This CSM was a guy who often met my team and others as we re-entered the FOB after a grueling combat mission. Instead of greeting his retuning troops with ice cold koolaid and a warm welcome, he gave us a bad time if, God forbid, one of us unsnapped our chin strap or removed our helmet in the 130 degree heat. But, that was his leadership style. Back during WWII they used to call this stuff chickenshit. And, chickenshit it was, as far as I was concerned. The man never once asked me what my troops needed or how I or they were doing. It was always “why are your people (insert trivial issue) and why don’t you do anything about it? “
So, back to Adnon Palace. Suddenly the General yelled out “Why are you smoking in that vehicle?” It was an exclamation more than a question. The gunner yelled back (to the General) “Because I’m too Fuckin tired to climb down!” The General, who by now was pretty irate followed up with a comment about the dirty rag on his head. I walked away. I know, it was a cowardly act on my part. I admit it. I thought at the time it was best not to get into a pissing match with a general.
The general’s aid, a captain came down the steps. He told the gunner he wanted his name and unit info. What I didn’t realize was during that time, my brother, also an E-7 was snapping a photo of the gunner. The captain then approached Frank and asked for his information. The captain apologized and seemed like a reasonable sort, but Frank asked him why the general wanted his name. The captain replied that Frank was taking pictures of the gunner wearing his doo rag and smoking, instead of correcting this. Frank didn’t bother to tell the general’s aid that he did not out rank the gunner, nor was he his supervisor. Truth is, we all kind of lost our military bearing at that moment, and this episode would not endear us any further to the 3rd ID Command staff.
This encounter returned us to reality and the mission at hand. I met the Captain that was going to be riding with me. After introducing myself to him, I explained where we were going. I sat him in the back of my truck, behind the driver, but we did not have a headset to give him to communicate with the rest of us. This was due to the fact that we had decided to never fill the HUMVEE to capacity unless it was a mission requirement. Our rationale was that if we took a hit, we’d lose one or two less soldiers. We normally ran with a driver, Truck Commander and Gunner. Often an interpreter was along, or our medic, but that still freed up one seat, one less soldier to die if we were hit with an EFP.
I explained to the captain that we were going through or near Sadr City, and his only job was to watch the roof lines along the route for snipers. I told him if he saw anyone who could have been a sniper to kick the drivers seat as hard as he could. I told him if we did get hit and have to react, he was to stick with me and do what I told him to do.
I wasn’t used to giving curt orders to an officer, but this was serious business and my thought process was until he got some combat seasoning (which he soon did) at least on this mission, he was taking orders from me. I still called him Sir, and was respectful to him, but my instructions were not suggestions and I expected him, for our safety, to follow them to the T. To his credit, the captain didn’t argue or take exception with my instructions.
In fact, the captain’s only response to me, as he gazed at me with the widest eyes I had ever seen, was “SNIPERS?” More of an expression of horror than a question. That’s when it hit me. At that moment I immediately realized two things:
- I was a combat veteran now. I had not looked at myself in that light until that very second. And,
- Because of that fact the new guys, including the Captain were looking to me for guidance and assurance.
I then put my arm on the captains shoulder, patted him a few times (something I would never have done to a commissioned officer before that time) I told him “Don’t worry Sir. We’ll be alright. If something happens, just stick with me”. I could see it helped him. Months later this captain told me that he appreciated the way I treated him that day. He was candid and told us that he was scared shitless that day. He also told us then when he saw us pull up, we looked so bad that he thought we were some kind of secret black ops unit. He muttered to himself “who the fuck are these guys?“ He was mortified when he found out we were there for him, and worse, he was going with us!
The captain became a fine combat officer and leader and it didn’t take long for him to earn the respect of the veterans in the unit. When he talked about meeting us, me in particular, we laughed about that, but the truth was I learned that there was no time to feel sorry for myself. Others now considered me a combat veteran and looking to me for leadership.
We finally made it back to Rustamiyah safely with our two new troops. The euphoria we felt earlier was gone as we immediately received a warning order for the next days missions. Yes, we had survived, but the reality was we had survived that day only, and tomorrow we would do it again. And the day after that and the day after that…
That night I met with Major Cureton and gave him a heads up about the confrontation we had with the Deputy Division Commander. The Major seemed to take it in stride and told me not to worry about it. I was told at a later date the general did try to make trouble for us, wanted to punish our gunner, my brother and the leadership, which would have included me. I was told that he was advised by someone senior to him, (I’m assuming the Division Commander) to let it go because we’d just lost a bunch of people and were going through a tough time with a tough mission. I never heard another thing about that breach of discipline.
A short time later, our teams received some more fillers. Troops new in country assigned to our teams. One morning I was with a team getting ready to head out. The patrol leader this day was Major Cruz, team chief of our 1st Battalion team. We were combining teams because we were still short of personnel and at that point had lost two of our twelve trucks during combat operations.
Another patrol from our FOB had left a short time earlier on a different mission. As my patrol was getting ready, there was a huge BOOM outside the FOB. I immediately knew it was bad . It was. My stomach tightened up and I got that sick feeling inside that had become so common for me by this time. Some small arms fire also erupted outside the FOB. Major Cruz got on one of the radios and relayed reports to us. “Several US wounded…one vehicle lost…one US KIA…more US KIA…and his report went on.
We had a new medic, and one or two others that were going on their first combat patrol. As they listened to this and prepared to head out into the fray, I literally saw the blood drain from their faces. Being the Senior NCO present, I instinctively felt their eyes on me. It may have been Major Cruz’s patrol, but they were looking to me, the senior sergeant. For what? Something.
I went to each, despite my own misgivings and fears, told them they were going to be alright and said just do what I do or what I tell you. I really think it helped each one of them. I was no longer in the leadership lab of OCS or an NCO school. No time to discuss theory here. I was expected to provide real and crucial leadership in this deadly environment. I was quickly learning how to survive, I was learning what it meant to be a leader in combat. The lessons were stark, often paid for with blood, and they came quickly, one after another. I had no time to feel sorry for myself. I was now responsible for the lives and well being of several soldiers, both enlisted and officers. I could only hope that I would be up to the challenge.