'Stability operation' turned into a 15-month street fight
Saddam Hussein’s statue was long since pulled down. President Bush said major combat was over.
As the 1st Armored Division arrived in Baghdad in May 2003, its soldiers half-expected a warm greeting. The soldiers before them, after all, had been greeted by waving flags and high-fives.
“We thought we’d be going into a welcoming environment,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, the division’s deputy commander, “and go directly into a ‘stability and security operation.’”
It didn’t work out that way. The soldiers of the 1st AD still had a war to fight. But instead of rolling across plains firing at enemy armor, “Old Ironsides” was fighting in the streets of Baghdad.
“It felt like a whole new era,” said Spc. Ben McGee of Boulder, Colo., a 20-year-old tank driver from 1st Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment. “I don’t think the American Army has seen guerrilla tactics like this.
“We had to adjust and reform our methods on how we were going to deal with this.”
After 15 months of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the soldiers of 1st AD have come home to Germany. They’re finally enjoying cold drinks and hot steaks and feeling the love.
Other 1st AD soldiers went home early in flag-draped coffins.
Embassies have reopened in Baghdad. Schools were rebuilt and children vaccinated. Every Iraqi instead of a select few can now own a cell phone. The police and fire departments are struggling to take hold but are trying.
The survivors, Hertling said, should know that their fellow 1st AD soldiers died fighting for the people of Iraq who might not yet understand the opportunity they are being given, and they died while defending America against something that could have occurred in the future.
“But for the most part, they sacrificed for their buddies,” Hertling said. “Really, what they did at the time was for the guys around them.”
A new mission
The 1st Armored Division that just returned from Iraq was christened 60 years ago in North Africa while fighting the German army of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel during World War II.
“Old Ironsides” was steeled in February 1991 when it blasted Saddam Hussein’s army into submission during the Persian Gulf War.
But Operation Iraqi Freedom would be different: Instead of firing at large herds of enemy armor 2,000 to 3,000 yards away, America’s Tank Division was to be used for urban combat and taking apart insurgents’ cells.
“We quickly had to adjust our capabilities and do other things,” Hertling said. “Tankers, artillerymen, intelligence officers and logisticians adapted to a fight that quite frankly they hadn’t trained for.”
The “insurgency on steroids” as Hertling called it included a former regime trying to regain power, extremist groups railing against the new government, and thousands of criminals who were released from prison after Saddam’s fall.
To learn about their enemy, soldiers schmoozed on street corners, gave away meals, went undercover and intercepted telephone and radio messages.
Near the entrance of the eight base camps that 1st AD soldiers built in Baghdad, there was a hut where Iraqis could file complaints or provide tips.
“We had informants who came to the brigade because they were as tired of (the insurgents) as we were,” said Sgt. La’Manza Davis of Phoenix, an intelligence analyst with 1st Brigade.
“They’d come to us with (information) about people who had weapons in their house, people who knew how to make (improvised explosive devices), about people trying to buy parts for weapons, about large movements of money.”
After assessing the information, soldiers went to root out the enemy.
The sight of U.S. soldiers combing through crowded Baghdad neighborhoods in search of bad guys usually drew a crowd, according to Master Sgt. Emmanuel McKinnon of Aurora, Colo., and Headquarters Company, 1st Brigade.
“You don’t know these people, and they don’t know you,” McKinnon said. “You’re constantly watching their actions, and they are constantly watching yours.
“And they have more eyes on you than you have on them.
“In this environment, we’re all infantrymen,” he said. “I’m a communications chief, but we all have to be able to shoot to kill.”
Looking for help
Some soldiers were worried that their family might not survive the war. They wondered if being in a military marriage was right for them, or if they would still be needed and wanted when they came back from Iraq.
They wondered if their spouse was being faithful, and if they would even be recognized by their children.
So soldiers sometimes turned for help to people such as Chaplain (Capt.) Alan Leonard of the 501st Forward Support Brigade.
“My most important role is to be someone who can listen noncritically, then give them an example of God’s unconditional love for them,” Leonard said. “A (noncommissioned officer) might have one opinion of you. An officer may have an opinion. But God still loves and cares for you and who you are.”
Some soldiers wanted to learn more about Islam, the religion of so many people they would meet.
Others wondered if killing someone even during war would lead them to an afterlife in hell.
“Where killing is something that grieves God’s heart,” Leonard said, “God realizes we get into these situations.
“It’s something you have to deal with between you and God, but it’s not something that (automatically) puts you in moral peril. It’s something you have to deal with in your job.
“If you enjoy killing people, though, that’s another issue,” Leonard said.
Tanks still valuable
During street battles in Baghdad, the 1st AD’s tankers found their M1A1 tanks were useful even within the close confines of the city.
There’s something about a 120 mm cannon that can clear the way, either by force or intimidation, for soldiers on the ground.
The M1A1 tanks made inviting targets for the enemy’s bombs, bullets and rockets. But McGee, the tank driver, said it was better that tanks, rather than Humvees and other less-protected targets, drew enemy fire.
“We weren’t fighting other tanks,” he said, “but we really needed the armor.”
Tanks, however, lacked the agility to hunt down enemies who were taking hit-and-run potshots, and tankers couldn’t see well from inside their 70-ton machines. Foot soldiers, on the other hand, couldn’t carry a 120 mm gun.
In this new era of war fighting, infantrymen worked in tandem with rolling armor, said Pfc. Hugh Lowes, 25, of Villarica, Ga., a tank crewman with 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment.
“When you’re in a city with alleys 20 meters apart, you need those people with their feet on the ground to look down those alleys,” Lowes said. “And the people on the ground wouldn’t really get very far without the cover of armor.”
As the war flared up around the sprawling city, thousands of 1st AD soldiers inside the bases and on the fringe of the fight were gutting out their deployments and feeling both fulfillment and fear.
“I was scared when I first got here,” said Staff Sgt. Hope Myrick of Alexandria, Va., and 1st AD’s Headquarters Company. “It was my first time in an environment like this.”
Myrick worked on the staff of 1st AD commander Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey at Baghdad International Airport, doing her part to help coordinate the war.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “You hear things over the news like everybody else at home, but once you get out here, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.
“There was an esprit de corps that we actually developed. There are a lot of folks here who developed great friendships and kind of became family.”
“When I first got here, things weren’t too good,” said Spc. Matthew Miles of Marion, N.Y., a helicopter fueler from 2nd Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment. “Now (Iraqi) people are actually saying, ‘thank you,’ shaking our hands and being nice. Before, they didn’t even want to talk to us. They now understand were not here to hurt them and try to take stuff from them.
“That was our main purpose, and I think we’re doing a good job of it,” Miles said. “When we convoy and see those little kids waving to us … that’s what motivated me the most.”
Soldiers sometimes juggled their combat operations with civic-minded duties. They occasionally would go on raids at 3 a.m., then turn around and open a grade school at 7 a.m. in the same part of town.
Sometimes the soldiers had nothing to do.
“And I’d feel we had no purpose in being here,” said Spc. Steven Hiott of Venice, Fla., a helicopter fueler with 2nd Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment. “Then you’d have other times we’d be working 90 to 150 hours a week, when these (helicopter pilots) were flying around all the time, and when they came in they immediately needed to get fuel.
“One time, we were mortared at our (forward area refueling point), and immediately after being mortared, we had pilots bringing their helicopters in needing fuel so they could go out and shoot the people who had just mortared us.”
Soldiers still dying
For the first three months of 2004, the soldiers of the 1st AD were being attacked less frequently, the imams at the city’s mosques had toned down their kill-American preaching, and more Iraqis were providing tips, said Hertling, the 1st AD deputy commander.
But soldiers were still dying.
On March 14, Spc. Christopher Patriani of Springfield, Ohio, and of 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, was returning in a convoy with about 25 other vehicles from a firing range outside Baghdad.
“We were in the back of our Bradley and heard something,” Patriani said. “We thought we had a negligent discharge, like someone fired the 25 (mm gun). It was just enough to unsettle the dust in the back and shake the Bradley.
“The gunner opened up the turret door, and we thought he was asking if we were all right. We gave him the (thumbs up). But he was pointing up to Sergeant Fox.”
Sgt. 1st Class Bradley C. Fox was sort of suspended in his commander’s area. The Bradley commander rides up top and is normally exposed, but Fox was a short man and did not present an easy target.
Still, the IED shot up from the median at a 45-degree angle, and shrapnel from it hit Fox in the back of the head.
The convoy stopped and soldiers jumped out to pull security.
“I was kind of numb, angry,” Patriani said. “We could see local-nationals standing around, and I wanted nothing more than to see the trigger man and put a nice bullet between his eyes.”
Instead, Patriani held a bag of intravenous solution as medics performed first aid on Sgt. Fox. Soon they were speeding to the nearest base.
“It was probably no more than 15 minutes from moment it hit until we were back to Camp Muleskinner, which we had just passed,” Patriani said. “I know we hurried as fast as we could, did everything we could and did it to the best of our abilities, and we did it well, and it still felt like it took hours.”
Fox died three weeks later at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, having never regained consciousness.
A small percentage of the people of Baghdad, a city of 5 million, were actively opposing coalition forces, Hertling said, while a larger number was pro-coalition. The vast majority of Baghdad residents, though, were like a great windsock with its allegiance shifting in the wind. As spring came, the United States wasn’t losing the military war, but it was losing the propaganda war.
“It appeared this whole country was exploding, but I don’t think that was actually the case,” Hertling said. “(That view) was generating momentum through the Arab and U.S. media.”
As an example, Hertling cited an American news provider, which from across the Tigris River kept its camera for 45 minutes on smoke billowing from the Green Zone. The “breaking news,” however, turned out to be just a soldier burning trash.
“It’s the difference between knowing the realities versus hearing the news,” Hertling said. “No matter how hard we tried in our information campaigns, there were a great many articles and newscasts that talked about how Baghdad was unsecured, how things were going to hell in a hand basket.
“What we saw was quite the opposite … at least until April.”
There was a power void left by Saddam’s departure and people trying to fill it.
As expected, Saddam’s loyalists would put up the first wave of opposition to the U.S.-led coalition. Next came the extremists from inside and outside Iraq.
“It worked exactly the way we thought it was going to work,” Hertling said, “with the exception of the uprising of the Sadr militia.”
Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite whose father was a well-known cleric killed by Saddam, had assembled a small army to take on coalition forces in Karbala and Najaf, cities about 100 miles south of Baghdad.
The April uprising in the south, where Spanish forces were pulling out, coincided with a Sunni uprising to the west in the city of Fallujah. More insurgents in Baghdad were also taking up the fight, especially in the Sadr City section, and more car bombs were exploding in the capital.
The increased warfare came when soldiers from the 1st AD were getting ready to come home after a one-year tour.
So they were “extended.”
“We had been here a year and were very good at what we do,” Hertling said, explaining why 1st AD’s tour was extended. “And we were a very agile organization.
“But also, partly, just because we were here — they needed additional forces they did not have. We were getting ready to leave, but we were needed.”
Sending 1st AD soldiers to fight al-Sadr’s militia in the south was probably the smartest thing the Army could have done, said McGee, the tank driver. Soldiers were upset by the extension but now didn’t have time to dwell on it.
They were about to encounter their fiercest fight.
If the warfare in Baghdad featured isolated, hit-and-run potshots, the 1st AD soldiers found the fighting in Karbala directly in front of them. Al-Sadr’s militia had set up gauntlets of IEDs and ambush points, and his soldiers lay in wait with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
“They were pretty much prepared for us to run straight through them, and that’s what we did,” McGee said. “We ran straight through their ambushes and expected contact, and we got a fight every day.
“It was a thunder run to the enemy, right through the city and out the other side, movement to contact. You’re trying to pick a fight.”
After a few weeks in May, al-Sadr’s militia was silenced for the time being.
It was time for 1st AD to go home.
When asked what their colleagues had died for, many of the soldiers who fought the battles struggled to come up with an answer.
McGee offered one theory.
“This country was nothing,” he said. “It was a pile of dust on planet earth before we got here. And now we are trying to build hope, which is probably the most difficult thing.
“It’s a very hard job. We’re trying to establish hope in a country for people who have never seen it.”
According to Patriani, who tended to his dying platoon sergeant after an IED attack, “Sergeant Fox would say that he died for his wife and kids. He worshipped them.”
Hertling said his soldiers were warned that they’d be asked three questions many times after they returned from Iraq. They would be asked by family, friends and maybe even by reporters from hometown newspapers.
What was it like?
How are you different?
What did you learn?
“I hope they leave (Iraq) with a much stronger sense of values,” Hertling said. “They will know what loyalty is, they’ll know about leadership both good and bad, about integrity, personal courage and selfless service.
“And they will have stories to tell about each.”