'Speed was our security'
Staff Sgt. Jarion Halbisengibbs, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Lindsay and Capt. Matthew Chaney
By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 14, 2010
One cliché of war is to describe a battle as a movie.
If this particular battle were a scene in some action flick, the audience would probably roll their eyes.
Picture this: Three soldiers, substantially outmanned with the rest of their team held up, run into a small farmhouse to take on a notorious terrorist and his cronies.
As they storm the door where they know an ambush awaits, all three are shot.
They keep attacking.
Grenades are exchanged. Some of the bad guys die. The soldiers, wounded, fight on.
Spilling blood from his neck and stomach and too weak to use his rifle, one soldier grabs his pistol and keeps shooting.
Another shakes off the blast, rolls over and keeps firing, using a dead insurgent’s body as a shield.
And then in the final frames, the third soldier, with one of his thumbs held on only by his glove, gets shot in the gut but, as he’s falling backward, kills his assailant.
But the only filming that night on the outskirts of Samarra, Iraq, was by a U.S. military drone overhead.
For their efforts, then-Staff Sgt. Jarion Halbisengibbs received the Distinguished Service Cross, and Capt. Matthew Chaney and Sgt. 1st Class Michael Lindsay received Silver Stars.
Within 10 minutes, the assault team eliminated an al-Qaida leader, killed 11 of his crew, detained four and freed a hostage.
“Pretty much he three of them single-handedly secured that objective,” their commander Maj. Will Beaurpere said.
It’s 2007, the year of the surge.
“Al-Qaida was getting pushed out of Baghdad, so they moved into the suburbs, setting up in more rural areas,” Chaney said.
One arm of al-Qaida, the Islamic State of Iraq, made the outlying areas of Samarra its playground. There they had “safe havens to regroup, train, store weapons and detain kidnap victims,” according to an Army document.
The area was largely unpatrolled by coalition forces at the time, and the ISI operated with impunity — often living in their own homes, keeping up with the farm during the day and drawing no attention for their illicit extracurriculars.
Abu Obaeideah was the area’s kingpin and had been wanted for a year. His specialty was intimidating the Iraqis who might join the police force by killing not just those who joined but their families, too. He supported these activities by kidnapping others for ransom.
Operational Detachment-Alpha 083 of the 10th Special Forces Group out of Fort Carson, Colo., had been planning an assault on Obaeideah for more than a month but could not pin down his whereabouts.
On Sept. 6, a tip came in from a local source.
“If we didn’t act quickly, we risked ending up hitting a dry hole,” Beaurpere said.
The most likely scenario was that the insurgents would try to flee when the soldiers showed up.
The most dangerous scenario? They’d stay and fight.
At 2 a.m. on Sept. 7, two 10-man teams made up of Iraqi police and American soldiers each loaded into helicopters and headed out.
From the beginning, their plans started to unravel, whittling down the assault force. The landing zone had standing water, so the helicopters had to try elsewhere. The first landed much closer to the rural farm complex than desirable, dropping Chaney and his team within 30 meters of the first of three buildings. The second landed much farther away.
The first team was alone.
A tiny sliver of moon offered little light, and the dust kicked up by the helicopter muddled any vision they might otherwise have as they stepped onto the ground.
Coordinating the assault would not be easy.
The Americans had night-vision goggles and could at least see the first structure. The Iraqis were without and disoriented.
After the team cleared the first building, Lindsay took out a concealed insurgent before he could fire.
Before they could clear the second building, insurgents in the third building, where intelligence placed Obaeideah, started shooting. A progressive assault wasn’t going to work anymore.
“In that situation, speed was our security,” Chaney said.
He was concerned that if they slowed to regroup, the enemy would attack the two helicopters with rocket-propelled grenades or detonate a suicide bomb.
“In my mind, as the commander on the ground, I saw no other option but to move quickly towards the enemy and destroy them,” Chaney said.
The Iraqi police were scared and unable to see. They dove for cover and refused to move.
The goal was for the Iraqis to lead, entering and clearing buildings on their own, but the force wasn’t mature enough for that. Chaney said the Iraqis were still following the leadership of the Americans during missions. On this night, they froze.
Both the medal citations and declassified Army documents about the mission refer to the Iraqi police’s “dangerous pause in forward momentum,” saying they “demonstrated a severe lack of discipline.”
With the second assault team delayed and their Iraqi partners cowering, Chaney, Lindsay and Halbisengibbs were on their own.
The insurgents had an entrenched position in the third building.
Several of Obaeideah’s bodyguards stepped into the open courtyard, pumping the triggers on their machine guns. The soldiers took them down.
About that time the second helicopter landed, stirring up another brown out. With a field to cross, it would be a long, lonely minute before the second assault team arrived.
Halbisengibbs, Chaney and Lindsay stacked up outside the door of the L-shaped building, and what had been a battle at close range now was point blank.
Nine heavily armed insurgents waited on the other side.
As point man, Halbisengibbs tossed in a grenade, taking out three fighters.
With dust swirling inside the dirt-floor building, Chaney squeezed his arm and the three moved inside.
Some of the first enemy rounds took out Halbisengibbs’ night-vision goggles, but he killed one of the gunners. Stumbling over a dead fighter, he took a bullet in the hand.
Chaney crossed through the doorway and was almost immediately hit in the hip. Lindsay was hit in the throat.
They kept shooting and Lindsay “squeezed off the round of automatic fire” that took out their primary target, Obaeideah, Chaney said.
Within seconds of that exchange, a wounded enemy let drop a grenade he had been preparing. Chaney and Lindsay were thrown from the building.
“I didn’t hear the explosion,” Chaney said. “It doesn’t work that way when you’re three feet from where the grenade went off. For about half a second, I felt I was flying through air and didn’t know what caused that.”
Halbisengibbs, still inside, was knocked to the ground. Then, “alone, he relentlessly continued to engage the concealed enemy and in a moment of intense close quarters battle killed one additional terrorist inside the now chaotic structure,” according to his medal citation.
Chaney and Lindsay were in the courtyard lumped on top of each other, shaking off the blast.
Chaney tried to get up, but his legs refused to move.
The bullet had entered through his left side, bounced off his pelvis, fracturing it, and exited his right buttock.
They were exposed in the courtyard and started taking fire. Chaney adjusted his night-vision goggles and disentangled himself from Lindsay.
Lying by the door he’d just been blown out of, he faced another open doorway on the bottom part of the L-shaped building. Through the doorway, an insurgent was taking pot shots at him.
He needed cover.
The body of a dead enemy was all he could find.
“I’m laying on the ground getting as low as I can with my M-4 over top of him,” Chaney said.
He took out the guy shooting at him, and kept his eyes and his rifle trained on that door for more.
He risked only one quick glance at Lindsay.
“Mike, are you all right?”
Lindsay was bleeding badly, hyperventilating and vomiting. Shrapnel from the grenade had torn a hole in his lower abdomen. He didn’t have the strength to lift his rifle so he pulled out his pistol.
“When I was a kid and I played war, I was always that kid that cheated and never died when somebody else shot me,” he told The Associated Press last spring. “Dying is something I’ve accepted a long time ago, but dying helpless on the ground is something I’m not willing to accept.”
The courtyard was loud with helicopters overhead and it was hard to see through the dust. At this time, the second assault team was starting to approach, and Chaney yelled and gestured for them to clear the building his team had skipped. He yelled most of his instructions into his radio, but his men couldn’t hear him: a bullet to his chest had destroyed the device.
Halbisengibbs stepped back into the courtyard and soon was shot in the stomach, just beneath his armor.
“He took the bullet and continued to remain on target and shoot that guy,” Chaney said.
Back at command, Beaurpere was watching this unfold from drone footage and deciding what he needed to set in motion to help his guys out.
“I constantly remind myself I’m geographically removed and not directly involved in the firefight,” he said. “I have to exercise a little tactical patience, which is not always easy to do when you see your guys in contact with the enemy.”
It was basically radio silence. He could tell his men were taking hits, but besides intermittent communication with the aircraft, all he had was the grainy drone feed.
He knew things had stabilized when the drone moved off the soldiers to start searching the perimeter.
Three insurgents were trying to flee, but Master Sgt. Terry Singer, hovering in a helicopter, killed them as they ran.
The courtyard was still under some fire when medic Sgt. 1st Class Sean Howie got to Chaney, Halbisengibbs and Lindsay. He bounced between the three of them, both on the ground and on the helicopter that took them out of there.
“At the end of the day a major threat was eliminated, the Iraqi security force came out unscathed, and their actions resulted in destroying a pretty important al-Qaida cell in the region,” Beaurpere said.
The assault was a boon for the fledging Iraqi National Police in Samarra. A long-sought terror leader was killed and, when the shooting stopped, the hostage was found, bound but alive, in the first building. Recovering the hostage, Beaurpere said, brought significant support from the local population.
“Because the Iraqis were present on the objective, we were able to give them some of the credit for it,” he added.
Describing the heroism of Chaney, Lindsay and Halbisengibbs, who has since been promoted to sergeant first class, Beaurpere said they put the importance of the mission above their own safety and, despite being significantly outnumbered, “still went straight toward the target.”
All three were evacuated to Germany and then the States and eventually deployed again as members of the Special Forces.
Chaney was the only one available to reflect on that night.
“Our grenade and shots inside the building killed nine guys. Their grenade and shots somehow only wounds three of us,” Chaney said, marveling at the chances of that.
Photos of the gear he wore that night show that a grenade fragment shattered his headset less than an inch from his skull. The shot to his hip just missed nicking a major artery and tunneled only millimeters from his spine.
“The first thing [the doctor] said to me was: ‘Do you believe in God? You better,’ ” Chaney said.
When the night assault on a farming compound in Samarra, Iraq, went off script in 2007, Capt. Matthew Chaney and two of his men were forced to take on a notorious terrorist and 15 of his crew largely by themselves.
COURTESY OF MATTHEW CHANEY