Iraq-The Year Grinds On 2

When I first arrived at Rustamiyah, I was assigned to the 3rd BN Team, but the Team Leader, at the time, a major, made it clear to me upon arrival and during our first several missions that because I was a reservist (Guardsman) he really didn’t have any faith in me. He constantly criticized me, and he did so in front of the other troops on our team, many of whom were junior in rank to me. I think this set a very bad tone for me when later, I became the NCOIC of this team. Additionally, I really was made to feel like an outsider, and if that major had any regard for me what so ever, he certainly didn’t show it. I understood this was my first combat assignment but…That major retired before we lost LTC James, MSG Tuliau and SFC Howe. When he went left, I never heard from him again. 

The Executive Officer (XO) on that team was an infantry captain named Osvaldo Baez. I believe he was a reservist that had been called to active duty sometime before this unit deployed to Iraq. Turns out the XO had been living in Derry NH at the time he was called up. We talked a bit as we got to know each other. He said he couldn’t wait for the time when he could go to the Back Room, a great restaurant in Manchester that we both frequented, and enjoy one of their Mudslides. This was a place that we both knew back home and had in common. We agreed to meet there sometime after we returned home, and fortunately, we both survived and kept that commitment.  

After the major from the 3rd battalion team left, Major Benjamin Cureton became the new team chief. I would develop the utmost respect for both Major Cureton and Captain Baez, as soldiers, officers and men as the year went on. First and foremost, they both led by example, never asking us to do anything that they didn’t do each and every day. Captain Baez, in particular turned out to be one tough son of a gun. 

After we got hit and I was assigned as NCOIC for Major Cureton’s team, dealing with Major Cureton on a day by day basis was a pretty good experience. The combat or operational tempo continued at a high level. Each mission would begin with a meeting between myself, the XO and Major Cureton. The major would pass on to us the new warning order for the next mission. During those meetings we would review the order, and I paid especially close attention to the maneuver and support paragraphs. I would share my thoughts with the TL and XO and I gave Major Cureton my opinions and advice. By this time I had been with the team for a couple of months, so I had compiled some significant combat experience as we all learned many hard lessons. It would not be overly dramatic to say here that many of those lessons were learned through the loss of blood and lives.

To the credit of Major Cureton, he always listened to and considered any concerns or advice I always offered. Sometimes he followed my recommendations, sometimes he didn’t. When he did not agree, he usually explained his reasoning to me. Other times the final operations order didn’t allow us to deviate from the initial warning order. One thing the major often said was that the enemy may get us in the end, but in order to do that he will have to guess correctly about our scheme of maneuver (our route and other precautions) in order to get us. We tried to mix it up and be as unpredictable as possible, ultimately making it tough for the enemy to set up a deadly ambush for us.     

As XO and NCOIC, Baez and I shared similar lanes and responsibilities. Often during the planning process (Known as the Troop Leading Procedures which the leaders put in place once a unit receives a Warning order for a specific mission) our lanes and responsibilities often crossed. Eventually, most logistical and personnel issues which included the who, if anyone, was left behind on a given mission and the manning of our three gun trucks, fell to me. 

The XO and I often disagreed about personnel decisions I made (I always felt I had sensible reasons for those decisions) but there were just certain things that the XO and I didn’t agree on philosophically. I felt that the Army was paying me to make those decisions so that the Major could do his job. 

The differences never came between the XO and I, but there were times when the XO and I just couldn’t agree, so those differences would be brought to Major Cureton for a final decision. It was rare that we brought these problems to the TL. One reason for that was that I always believed that problems and disagreements should be solved at the lowest command level possible. After bringing one of these matters to the TL, he would think about it, and I found that at times the major deferred to me, much to the dismay, I imagine, of the XO. Usually I found that the TL would back me up if the area of disagreement fell within the well defined areas of my responsibilities. Major Cureton did not micromanage. I do not believe the XO ever held those things against me. After receiving final guidance from the TL, we both just continued to march like the good soldiers that we were to plan and execute the mission. 

As time went on and the area we operated within became more deadly, and US and Iraqi losses climbed. One of my biggest daily decisions was regarding who went out on each mission and who stayed back. This was a responsibility that weighed heavily with me. On my team we had a rotation whereby we often left one man back on the FOB to take care of whatever paperwork or logistical concerns there were. In reality, that day would be mostly a day off and it would be one day where that person probably wouldn’t get killed. 

During the first weeks and months of the teams deployment, we did not have an assigned medic. Eventually, Doc Gordy was sent and assigned to us. When he rotated home, Doc Spradley replaced him and stayed with us for the rest of the way. I wanted to give my medic a regular day off within the established rotation. I received a lot of pushback on that from both the XO and several members of the team. They felt we should have our medic with us at all times when we left the wire. What good is having a medic if on any day we take casualties and he’s back on the FOB?

They were not wrong, of course. And certainly, when we went out of raids and other offensive operations when we were looking to make contact with the enemy, those missions would be all hands on deck operations. Nobody stayed back. However, there were several practical ( I think) reasons why I disagreed. The biggest one was I did not want our medic to get burned out day after day while other members of the team occasionally got to stay back on the FOB. Secondly, as I patiently tried to explain one day to our medic, I felt I owed it to his family to get him a day off once in a while, a day where his chance of getting killed was lessened. 

Nevertheless,  the people I got the most push back from on this issue were the two medics themselves. I dug in my heels on the issue, but each of them, when it came time to take a day off refused to do so if the team was going out. When I ordered  Gordy or Spradley to stay back (they were both E-4s at the time) they angrily told me that they were responsible for my team’s wellbeing, and “their people” were not going outside the wire without them. 

So, there were days when, much to the chagrin of some of the team members, I ordered the medic to stay back. An argument bordering on insubordination with the affected medic always followed. Some days I didn’t feel like having the same argument and I gave in. Other days, I made them stay back. But in any case, I admired Doc Gordy and Doc Spradley for their commitment. Both functioned as riflemen during each mission. This wasn’t false bravado. It took courage for everyone to go outside the wire day in and day out, literally not knowing if that day was going to be your last. So, I tried to look out for them, even when they didn’t want me to. I felt it was wrong to penalize them because they were the team’s medic. 

Throughout the year, I would try to convince Major Cureton to take a day and stay back on the FOB, but he would have none of it. Another one. I figured I owed it to him, and his family, for that matter that he get an occasional day to stand down. I always told him that the XO and I could handle any mission we got, but the major just flat out refused to take a day off. If his team was going out, he was going with it. That was it. He never did take a day off that I can recall during the time he led our team. 

My other problem with the XO early on was that he had a kind of “hands on” type of leadership style which I though led to some micromanagement on his part. Early on, I don’t think he trusted me, and often checked up on me to make sure I had completed my assigned tasks. I tried to explain to the XO that I was taking care of business and he should not worry about me and turn his attention to assisting the team leader (TL) in the day to day operation of the team. 

Please don’t misunderstand me, the XO and I got along well enough, but it took a while before he got comfortable enough with me to just let me take care of business. We both knew what needed to get done each and every day. After a time, the XO and I learned to work closely together, trusted each other and started to talk and confide personal concerns and information between us. It didn’t take long, and despite the fact that he was a captain and I was a Master Sergeant, he began to treat me as an equal. I don’t think I am overstating by saying that we developed a great command relationship based entirely on respect and trust for each other.

As time went on, and more American troops were getting killed and maimed by IEDs and EFPs, I drove my vehicle more and more often, eventually almost exclusively because I didn’t trust anyone else to drive. I know this type of attitude contradicts common philosophy regarding military leadership, but that’s the way I felt. I also thought that the soldiers that rode with me were safer when I drove. Maybe I was wrong about that, but that’s how I felt. 

The XO, he became the gunner on my truck by choice. He got to choose. However, the truck was mine, I was the TC (Truck Commander) but every so often the XO would tell people he was the TC. I never corrected him, but the reality was, even though he out ranked me, it was my truck and I was the TC. I was also responsible for the other two trucks that belonged to my team. 

Normally, the TC sits in the front passenger seat, operates the comms etc. But there was very little that was normal or conventional about the mission we were on. Baez sat up high in that turret often needlessly, I believed, exposing himself to enemy fire. I often tried to coax him to lower himself down into the turret, especially in area where there were snipers, but as time went on, I discovered that this was the way Captain Baez led and fought. Up front and center. I went on to believe that this was not only characteristic of Baez’ idea of leadership, but it was also a way to cope with the fears we all had day to day, sometimes minute to minute. I think it was a way for Baez to overcompensate and to make sure he was able to appear fearless at all times. 

There were times when I offered to man the gun and let the XO drive, but he always declined by telling me that he thought as driver, I had the most dangerous position because during ambushes the enemy always tried to kill the driver in order to disable the vehicle. There was a bit of truth to that, however, the XO took up the most dangerous and exposed position during most combat patrols. I think he just said that to make me feel good. 

In the end, after we got home, the XO and I did meet for a Mudslide at the Backroom in Manchester, and I invited my two sons along. Captain Baez told my sons, in my presence, that their father was a courageous and outstanding soldier. I was a bit embarrassed, and he certainly overstated my performance and courage for sure, but at the same time I was as proud as could be when the captain sang my praises to both of my sons, who are pretty courageous guys themselves. My son, a parole officer has been stabbed on the job and battles along with  the local police to retain control of the streets in this community and maintain control over convicted violent felons. My other son, a firefighter, has earned the Medal of Valor from the State of NH. This is the states highest award for bravery. Not to mention my daughter, who was an international Roller Derby star for many years. No shrinking violets among my kids! It was really nice of the XO to say those nice things about me. Honestly, I thought he was talking about someone else. Deep down inside, I know I had many flaws as a leader, and my team deserved someone better than me. But, due to a series of unfortunate incidents, they ended up with me as their NCOIC.  

Some time after we got home, my brother and I made a trip to Ft. Bragg, where we were able to locate Major Cureton. The major was then a Lieutenant Colonel and the XO of a Cavalry Regiment in the 82nd Airborne. He was getting ready to go back to Iraq. The Major told me that he appreciated all I had done for him, and that I did my job in a way that allowed him to do his job as Team Leader. He told me I was dependable and he was lucky to have me as team NCOIC. I considered that high praise indeed. I feel good about that to this day. It helps assuage my anxieties when I think back, which I do all too often, and come to the conclusion I was a very flawed leader. 

When I first arrived at Rustamiyah, one of the first missions I was assigned was to locate three Landing Zones within our Brigade’s combat space. We scouted out the area and did as ordered. The purpose for this exercise was that in the case that we suffered casualties, Medivac helicopters could use these LZs to land and evacuate casualties to the closest appropriate life saving facility. We went out, selected what we thought were good defendable LZs where we could land either Blackhawks or Chinooks. I recorded the eight digit grid coordinates, marked them on our maps and forwarded the information to the appropriate commands. 

Despite that preparation, there was never a combat mission that we undertook in which we received helicopter medical support. The Major would read the final operations order to the entire team immediately before setting out on a mission. The standard operations order contained a paragraph addressing support for that particular operation. Every OPORDER always said we were not to be supported by air medical resources. Any casualties we suffered were to be evacuated by ground to the closest aid station. 

When we lost LTC James, and Sergeants Tuliau and Howe, there was no Air Evacuation available for them. When a unit from the 3/7 Cavalry arrived at the scene, LTC James, after being treated by our medic at the scene, was loaded into the back of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and brought to our Battalion Aid Station, which did not have either an MD or a surgeon. 

The Colonel was given some basic life saving type treatment there, and then eventually a Medivac arrived at Rustamiyah. Colonel James was then flown to the nearest Combat Army Surgical Hospital. We all know that the Colonel made it to the States but died of his wounds shortly after arrival. I was later told that the Colonel had gone into some type of distress during the flight itself. 

He was still alive when he arrived at the CASH. However, I cannot discount the possibility that had he been picked up by a Medivac helicopter with flight medics and flown directly to the CASH from the site of the ambush, he may have stood a better chance of survival. I know this is a serious claim for me to make, but I cannot discount that possibility. Certainly the medic who treated him at the scene saved his life and bought him a chance to survive. That medic Doc  Martinez, would be awarded a Bronze Star for Valor for his actions that day. But the delay with the ground evac and stop at the Battalion Aid Station may have sealed Colonel James fate. Sadly, LTC James died shortly after arriving at Walter Reed in Washington DC. 

Back to the days, weeks and months following the loss of James, Tuliau and Howe. The combat missions continued daily, some as short as four hours some as long as five days. We were TACON or OPCON (Under tactical or operational control) to 3rd of the 7th Cavalry (Garry Owen!) 3rd Infantry Division during that time. They were able to task us with combat missions daily, but refused to support us either logistically, medically or personnel wise. They said because we were TACON or OPCON they were not required to support us. I had taught at various Army leadership schools, but that concept was one that I had never heard of before arriving in Iraq.

Later in the tour, when the 4th (IVY, their official nick name, a play on words since the number four in Roman Numerals was IV) Infantry Division arrived in Iraq replacing the 3rd ID, they were tasked to give us air support. I always thought that was kind of strange because at that time we were TACON to the 506 RCT of the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division. 

However, once again, the 4th ID refused to medically support us with Medivacs. This was contrary to everything I had been told and learned during my army career. We were always told that if wounded, Medivac helicopters and their courageous crews would brave any fire or hostility to pick up and save even the lowest ranking soldier. Certainly the Medivac crews in the US Army were brave enough to do so. But, at least for us, it wasn’t to be.  

Sometime after returning home, the Master Sergeant who replaced me in Iraq sent me a memo and information he found regarding Medivacs. His team was hit shortly after they replaced us, and once again, no air medical evacuation was available for his casualties. 

The information he sent me was regarding an order that came down from the Division HQ of the 4th Infantry Division. The order simply stated that no air medical rescue helicopter would land anywhere other than a fully secure base. The order stated that the Army will not risk losing a Blackhawk and its crew in order to rescue wounded and dead personnel in a hostile location. This was certainly an eye opener for me and had contradicted everything I’d been taught during my time in the Army.  

The mission continued. On the day of our first memorial service on the FOB, which was for Tulsa Tuliau and Casey Howe, a high ranking general came to the FOB and decided to have lunch with us. There was a separate room at the dining facility and the general sat with us and ate. I noted that his Personal Security Detail was made up of people who I believe were civilians. What I remember about them was that they refused to acknowledge any of us, and they stood guard over us to protect the general, apparently, not only from the enemy, but from us! I don’t know what their background was, but it appeared to me that not only did they not trust us, but I got the impression they felt as though they were too good to mix or even talk with common soldiers and dog faces like us. That was my impression.

We sat around the table while the general made some small talk. I appreciated the fact that the general took the time to eat with us. We were certainly at a low point morale-wise, maybe the lowest point during the entire deployment. We were still grieving the loss of our own. At one point the general asked us straight out if we felt we were winning or losing the war. He said he wanted to get a feel for it from troops who were actually fighting the war everyday, like us. 

The straight forward question surprised me. It probably caught everyone else at the table off guard as well. An uncomfortable silence descended upon us. As I looked around, I could see most people at the table looked down onto their plates and didn’t respond. I can understand this. Being Senior NCOs and Company and Field Grade Officers, the wrong answer to a question such as this to a high ranking officer could become a career retarder or even career ender. 

The US Army is many things, but it is not an open democracy in which you could always express your personal and political opinions freely, certainly not when in uniform. The concept of Group Think was very well established in the Army, certainly during my time in Iraq and the years that followed. This dynamic can have a chilling effect on the Army’s own leadership philosophy that leaders think outside of the proverbial box, and provide candid feedback to their superiors.   

For whatever it’s worth, I do believe the general was earnest in his question, and he did want to know how we felt about the subject. Finally, one of the Regular Army E-7s that was on my team spoke up. He told the general point blank that we were losing the war out here, and gave a few reasons why he felt that way.

Now I must say that although there was much I disagreed about how we were fighting the war where I was, I never got the feeling we were losing. And, I feel that way to this day. But, apparently not everyone I was with felt the same way. What was notable to me, was not only that the sergeant answered the question in a candid way, but the reaction it caused. 

Present at the lunch, I believe, was our new brigade commander, LTC Kucksdorf, who replaced LTC James, and the next higher commander, who was, at the time the commander of our Iraqi POB Division US advisors. In other words, he was Colonel James and now Colonel Kucksdorf’s immediate superior. He went on to become a general officer at one point after his time in Iraq. I won’t name him here because I had a strong dislike for him and his leadership style and I do not want to embarrass him, so I’ll leave it at that.   

This colonel (not Kucksdorf) immediately interrupted the sergeant, dismissing the points that the sergeant started to list when answering the general’s question. The Colonel started to list all the reasons why he felt that we, especially he, was winning the war. I could understand his reply if I felt there was a speck of accuracy in what the colonel’s evaluation was, but alas, I felt the statement was totally self-serving on the part of the colonel and meant to curry favor on himself from the general. 

After the colonel shut down the sergeant and that conversation, he had the gall to point to my brother and I, and tell the general that Frank and I were brothers and we were serving here together. He presented it in such a way that I thought he was bragging about it as though he was proud of it and he had something to do with it. The thing that bothered me about his bringing it up was that the entire time I was in Iraq, the man never spoke to or acknowledged either one of us. I always thought it was because we were reservists. I thought it was self serving and his motivations for talking about us were opportunistic at best. In any case, at no time did that colonel ever express to me or anyone else any indication that he gave a damn about either of us. We were only a step on his stairway to attain his general’s star. That’s how I felt. 

One other notable event occurred during that lunch. Some of us had ice cream for dessert. My brother, who was a E-7 at the time, a senior NCO was one of those soldiers. After leaving the dining facility, we encountered a Master Sergeant (E-8 in the Army) standing in the door way with our Command Sergeant Major (CSM). These NCOs were from our next level higher up chain of command. I believe the Master Sergeant was a medic. The Master Sergeant was smoking. As we walked out, the Master Sergeant says to my brother (who was not overweight, not that it really mattered in an administrative sense in Iraq) that he noticed him eating ice cream for dessert, and chastised him for doing so because it wasn’t a healthy choice and yada, yada.yada. We had people getting vaporized around us on a daily basis and we were going to worry about treating ourselves to a dish of ice cream. He did this while in the presence of the CSM. Frank and I both recognized the intent of this comment, and it was meant to embarrass Frank in front of the CSM and make himself look good. 

Now my brother was a guy who was able to think on his feet. This ability allowed him to survive for many years as an undercover operative who infiltrated many organized crime, vice and narcotics operations over the years and survive. 

Frank (today a CSM himself) immediately confronted this Master Sergeant who outranked him, and told him that he had a lot of nerve questioning him about his ice cream while he himself was sucking on a cigarette. Talk about healthy choices. He also warned the Master Sergeant to never, ever try to embarrass him in front of another solder again. The Master Sergeant had no response. He knew Frank was correct, and Frank had called him out for it in front of the CSM, who said nothing.

Amid that kind of chickenshit chicanery, after the tragic loss of our soldiers, the mission, for those of us left, and those who would join us as the year went on, continued. We didn’t know it at the time, but in many ways things were going to get worse.   

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