Military history


August 20 found Joker One outside the Outpost with three Iraqi special forces members, called “Shawanies,” in tow. The day prior there had been twelve of them, but a drive-by shooting on a patrol with us had killed their squad leader and disabled eight others. On the twentieth, 2/4 was out on yet another neighborhood cordon-and-search, this time deep in the southern Farouq district, and by 6 AM all platoons had their hands full with their respective sectors. Our Shawanies had helped us out a bit by occasionally talking with and calming down particularly fearful families, but, for the most part, the middle-aged Iraqi soldiers preferred riding in one of our accompanying Humvees and smoking.

After four hours of wandering through houses and coming up dry, Staff Sergeant and third squad found a massive arms cache buried in the front yard of an empty housing compound. Initially, I was ecstatic. The large plastic-lined cave that they discovered contained dozens of mortar and artillery shells, several Dragunov sniper rifles, thousands of rounds of machine gun ammunition, and, the pièces de résistance, two complete 82mm mortar systems. An hour later, around noon, I was more tired and less enamored with our success. We had indeed found several hundred pounds of explosives, but in a country awash in hundreds of millions of tons of unsecured ordnance, our find didn’t even qualify as a drop in the bucket.

Still, Golf Company had completed searching its assigned area, and, as best I could tell, the battalion’s mission was nearly finished as well. We had been walking now for almost seven hours, and I was eagerly awaiting the command to mount the nearby vehicles and head back to the Outpost. Instead, a different set of orders came down.

“Joker One-Actual. This is Joker Six. Are those Shawanies still with you? Over.”

I glanced back at our Humvees. Sure enough, inside one of them sat the Shawanies with their helmets off, talking and smoking.

“Six, One. Yes, sir, I’ve got them. They’re in a vehicle next to me. Over.”

“One, battalion wants you to head a few blocks north and cordon off the Farouq mosque. Break. Then, they want you to use the Shawanies to search the mosque. We’ve been getting reports of weapons being stored inside. The Shawanies might be able to confirm that for us. Use them to search the Farouq mosque. Over.”

My heart sank, and the same feeling of inescapable dread that had hit me on the morning of Bolding’s death crashed down yet again. We had just been ordered to search the most anti-American mosque in the most anti-American part of town in the very middle of the day. Cordoning the mosque meant cordoning the entire block it sat on, which meant standing outside on the sidewalk running the length of the block, which meant putting on a show for the locals. Plenty of touchy residents were certain to be watching the foreign presence violating their sacred site, and the sidewalk offered little cover from a hostile response. I wished battalion had thought of the mission at 4 AM, when we had been raiding a house not fifty meters south of the Farouq mosque. We could have searched it quickly and quietly with no one the wiser.

I pushed my dread aside and asked for some flank cover—without it, we’d be completely exposed on all sides as we sat in our cordon around the mosque. Golf would see what it could do, came the reply. Sighing, I put down the radio handset and explained the mission to the squad leaders. They’d all have their usual cordon sectors, I said. Suddenly, my brand-new second-squad leader, Sergeant Nez, came on the PRR and asked me tentatively what his usual sector was. I sighed. Nez wasn’t bad, but he was no Leza, and he didn’t have the time to become one. At that moment, it hit me hard that our platoon was missing one of its mainstays. All those months of training, of missions together, of implicit coordination built through mutual dependence—gone in one random mortar strike. Skill and teamwork meant something out here, but not enough, I thought.

Bowen’s voice broke the short reverie. “One-Actual, do I understand right? They want us to search the mosque in the middle of the day? The hajjis are gonna see us and get real pissed, sir.”

“Yeah, I know, One-Three. But we’ve got our orders, and we’re gonna search that mosque, end of story. So, be prepared to get hit. Now, everyone let me know when you’re ready to move.”

Three “Rogers” came back. As I waited for the squads to collect themselves, I sidled over to the Shawany Humvee and explained the mission to Snake, the Iraqi translator who had replaced George. Snake, in turn, explained it to the Shawanies. The unintelligible Arabic conversation quickly became animated, and, once it ended, Snake turned to me. “Sir, this is bad mission, they say. It is great disrespect to search a mosque.” I nodded and walked off. Apparently the Shawanies shared our lack of enthusiasm.

Five minutes later, the platoon headed north. Once our point element spotted the mosque, I pumped my fist twice in the air, and Joker One broke into a quick jog. The three squads streamed into position to set the cordon quickly—the longer we took, the more time suspected hideaways had to flee. In less than a minute, a strung-out line of Marines stood posted in a large rectangle around the mosque. Where sudden jags in the walls or small mounds of dirt and trash offered bits of cover, we took it, but for the most part we stood on the sidewalk, completely exposed. At the north, south, and east corners of the rectangle, two-man teams made their way to the tops of the tallest houses in their sectors to give us overhead observation. In rapid succession, my three squad leaders called me.

“One-One is set.”

“One-Two is set.”

“One-Three is set.”

I turned to the Humvee carrying Snake and motioned him and the Shawanies out. Reluctantly, they dismounted, and the three of them, Snake, Mahardy, and I headed over to the entrance to the mosque compound. The kelidar, the mosque’s caretaker, met us at the gate. He and the Shawanies exchanged a few terse sentences. Then all fell silent and Snake turned to me.

“Sir, they say they cannot search the mosque. It is bad. It is disrespect. They will not do it.”

Damn it. “Snake, tell them they have to. Tell them we’re not leaving here until they search this thing. Tell them we’ll sit here outside the entrance to the mosque all day if we have to.” Snake looked reluctant, but he translated the instructions nonetheless. The Shawanies replied. “Sir, they still say they not search the mosque. Disrespect too great. Everyone here”—Snake gestured at the surrounding houses—”get angry at us.”

Well, at least nothing would change if that happened. Still, the Shawanies had called my bluff. I looked at their new leader. He shook his head at me and then stared pointedly at the ground.

I was at a loss. For a moment, I considered putting the Iraqis at gunpoint and forcing them into the mosque, but that seemed a last resort. Stories like that spread quickly through the populace, and the last thing I wanted was a provincewide rumor about a rogue American officer who threatened to kill our Iraqi partners if they didn’t violate a holy site. I didn’t know how badly battalion wanted the Farouq mosque searched or how solid the intelligence really was. Perhaps if they heard of the Shawany refusal to enter, they would reconsider the mission. I decided to defer my decision and instead called the CO, who deferred his decision and instead called Battalion, which was tied up with something else at the time.

So we waited in front of the mosque for further instructions. After a minute or so with no response from higher up, I called the squad leaders on the PRR and explained the situation to them. Then Mahardy and I knelt down behind a chest-high mound of dirt piled next to the mosque’s courtyard entrance. The Shawanies and Snake remained standing, exchanging occasional tense Arabic sentences with the kelidar. Ten more minutes passed without any communication from the CO. Meanwhile, my anxiety level skyrocketed. Hanging out on the sidewalk, motionless and completely exposed, was a tactical mess during a normal mission, let alone one that involved openly surrounding a highly sensitive holy site in the most anti-American part of town. I called the CO, but battalion still hadn’t gotten back to him. He’d let me know as soon as he heard anything, he promised.

Putting down the radio, I shook my head and started thinking about other ways to handle the Shawanies if battalion didn’t get back to me quickly. Another five minutes passed; then it finally dawned on me that I needed to reassess the safety of my men—the initial cordon positions had been based on a ten-to fifteen-minute-long mission, not a twenty-to thirty-minute one. We needed to find better cover even if it meant a less robust cordon. Quickly, I hit the PRR and gave my squad leaders orders to move their men inside the nearest housing compounds.

Sergeant Nez radioed back immediately. “Uh … sir, this is One-Two. We all already started doing that. I’ve got about half my squad in one compound now, sir. I’m moving the rest of my squad into the one just to its south. We’ll all be covered soon, sir.”

I looked up the street, to the northwest. One by one, Marines were peeling out from their cordon positions and running into an open compound door guarded by Niles and Ott. I looked southeast—third squad was doing the same thing. Silently, I breathed a prayer of relief that my team was picking up my slack. I looked back up the street—second squad was nearly entirely inside their compounds—and then turned my attention to the Shawanies.

No sooner had I taken my eyes off my squad than a long string of gunfire erupted to the north. Immediately, I looked back up the street, trying to get a bead on the attacker but instead I saw Niles hopping across the sidewalk on one leg, fifty meters away. He reached the entrance to the compound he had been guarding. Then he collapsed limply onto the sidewalk, still exposed to the fire coming from the north.

I pulled up my M-16 and returned fire at the very edge of a wall, at the very end of the block, some two hundred meters away. Behind me, Mahardy did the same, shooting over my shoulder. I couldn’t see our attacker, but I could see his tracers, and I hoped that maybe my bullets would punch through the concrete and hit him.

Then, without making any conscious decision to move, I suddenly found myself running toward Niles, shouting, for the first time, the words I hated so much to hear.

“Doc up! Doc up! Doc up!”

Before I got to Niles, Doc Smith darted out of the compound and, heedless of his exposure to the enemy, began cutting off the downed Marine’s pant leg. By the time I reached the scene, the wound had been clearly exposed, and it was nasty. One of the machine gun bullets had ripped right through Niles’s lower left leg, taking out a good chunk of his tibia and fibula along the way. Blood seeped through the white gauze bandage Doc pressed against the leg with both hands. Niles lay silent and pale, shaking slightly. I turned behind me and nearly knocked over Mahardy. Silently, he handed me the radio handset, and I called in the medevac.

Lance Corporal Niles. Gunshot wound to left leg. Bleeding badly, no arteries cut. Priority medevac. Over.

That one got battalion’s attention. Within two minutes, an entire headquarters convoy arrived on the scene and somehow crammed itself into a small two-hundred-meter front just outside the mosque’s entrance. Within another two minutes, an Army convoy sporting two Bradley fighting vehicles and two armored ambulances rolled up to our position. The street became a wall-to-wall parking lot.

I was disgusted by the lack of dispersion, but I had better things to do than supervise the tactical array of units over which I had no control. Four stretcher bearers from the Army ambulances came running toward us, and, together with Doc, I helped them load Niles onto the ubiquitous green canvas. As they moved carefully with their burden back to the ambulance, I moved with them. Niles had held his hand up to me as they lifted the stretcher, and I had taken it. Now we moved, hand in hand, to the ambulance’s yawning entrance.

Throughout the short trip, Niles didn’t say anything. He just looked at me. He was still shaking, and he was growing continually paler from the blood loss. I knew that I should say something, but I didn’t know what. We continued to move. He continued to stare. Finally, I spoke.

“Niles, you’re gonna be fine. I promise. We’ll get you out of here. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. I’m here. Don’t worry. I’ll make them take good care of you. I promise. Don’t worry.”

Niles never said anything back, but his hand stayed firmly clenched in mine until the stretcher bearers carried him up the ramp to the ambulance. I held on for as high as my arm could reach, but eventually I had to let go. I had a different destination. For a brief second, though, I wanted to leave it all, to go with them, to hold Niles’s hand the whole way to Junction City, to tell him that he’d be okay until the doctors could get to him, to tell him that I was there for him and that he didn’t need to worry anymore. I wanted to leave that dirty street, the scene of yet another of my failures, and the whole mixed-up situation behind, but I couldn’t.

So I watched Niles until the slowly rising back hatch of the ambulance shut him off from me for good. Then I forced myself to forget him altogether, and I turned my attention back to my primary responsibility—sorting out the tactical situation at hand.

It was even messier than when I had detached from it. Vehicle after vehicle had piled into the street directly in front of the mosque, until that short segment of pavement became an unending sea of steel. It gave the enemy a nice, fat target to hit. Behind me, second platoon had stormed their way past the Shawanies, through the mosque courtyard, and into the building itself. Part of the squad fanned out to search the building while the rest headed up to the roof. Now I could see Marines running along the mosque’s roof to covered fighting positions, watching over the close-packed vehicles below them and getting ready to get hit again.

It didn’t take long for the new battle to materialize. This time, two RPGs slammed into the brand-new vehicle depot in front of the mosque. The enemy probably didn’t even aim—they didn’t have to—but the explosion killed two Army soldiers immediately and wounded another three. A short but intense firefight broke out. In the midst of all the gunshots, I glanced to my south and saw one of the younger Shawanies standing on the sidewalk with his machine gun held at his hip, its barrel pointing into the air at a sixty-degree angle. Wide-eyed, the man frantically swiveled his head back and forth and then decided to get into the action by ripping off burst after burst of completely unaimed machine gun fire.

The enemy quickly melted away into the surrounding neighborhoods, and as soon as the fight died down, second platoon moved out of the mosque itself and searched the buildings immediately adjacent, buildings that the locals considered to be part of the mosque complex. There they found two huge weapons caches including, among other things, antipersonnel mines and suicide vests. The search lasted for thirty minutes. The vehicle cluster in front of the mosque thinned out a bit as the drivers finally grasped the meaning of dispersion, but it didn’t matter. The enemy hit us again, this time from the south. Running across a street to warn third squad of the potential attack, Teague was blown off his feet by an RPG. Both of his eardrums ruptured, and the blast drove small bits of dirt and shrapnel into his forearms. He got back up and continued running.

Shortly thereafter, battalion decided to move out, and two hours later, Golf Company and the three Shawanies were back at the Outpost. We never worked with them again. Our search had netted two huge weapons caches, both of which would likely be replenished within the next several weeks out of the billions of tons of high explosive still unaccounted for in Iraq. Joker One had lost one of our best Marines. If we were to stay another six months, and if we got lucky with our combat replacements, perhaps we could train up a new platoon member to Niles’s level.

As night fell, I realized that Ott was the only member left from his fire team. I disbanded the team and gave Ott to Teague.

What a miserable day.

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