Monday, October 22, 2012

Engaged and Destroyed: One Enemy Cow

Some posts in this blog will deal with the history of recent conflicts, and often from my own perspective as a participant. This story takes place early in my Iraq deployment. I have tried to keep the language used by the soldiers as true to reality as possible, so please forgive the rather large amount of swearing. I am not known as one who swears much now, and certainly not in professional environments, but the Army and wartime causes one to act a bit differently than one might in civilized society. I have kept the names of soldiers involved anonymous (merely out of politeness due to not having asked their permission to use their names), other than my own and Chris Kimmet's, who also contributed to this story (if you were there and read this, and want your name added in, just message me).
In January 2007 the war in Iraq was at its height. Sectarian violence was tearing the country apart, one village, one tribe, one family at a time. That month the President of the United States had announced the new ‘Troop Surge’ strategy, one that would flood the country with American and allied soldiers, destined to bring the country to a fever pitch of bloodshed before ultimately leading to the ‘Sunni Awakening’ that would curb the violence and restabilize the country. But we did not know that then.
I was second-in-command of a 250-soldier cavalry headquarters troop that had been strengthened with additional infantry platoons in order to conduct ‘kill or capture’ operations, targeting key figures from al-Qaida in Iraq. We had just been inserted near a village that was a suspected safe-haven for insurgents, tasked to hunt down several key figures, or failing that, to stir-up the hornet’s nest and see what came out looking for a fight. Most conventional units in Iraq were out trying to win hearts and minds by conducting ‘stabilization operations’ while still fighting insurgents. We didn’t have the former obligation. We were sent out for enemy body-counts.
A twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook helicopter had inserted near our target house. Intell had told us that the enemy had occupied the area in large numbers, and that we could expect resistance at any turn, even on the landing-zone. As the Chinook evaporated into the darkness and the dust we started doing what we were trained to do. I had inserted with the infantry platoon led by my best-friend in the unit, Lieutenant Chris Kimmet. I was to move with them, while our troop commander moved with a different platoon for the first phases of the operation. That way, if either the commander or I was ‘schwacked’, the other would be far enough away from the fighting to still command the troop.
I had never been in combat before. Nor had Chris. Though we had been in Iraq since November and conducted several combat patrols, we had not yet been involved in any firefights. Most of Chris’s men were veterans, having spent time in Iraq, but mostly Afghanistan. They knew their business, but as young lieutenants, Chris and I still had to prove to the men and to ourselves that we knew ours.

Me talking on the radio sometime during early
2007 in Iraq, around the time of this story.

Like every uninitiated lieutenant, I wondered how I’d react when I was finally fired upon. Would I freeze-up? Cower with fear? Or lead the men like I was trained? One never knew until the time came. Chris and his Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant First-Class H, had ascertained with maps and GPS that we were at the right place. I checked my maps too, just for the sake of making myself feel better. Though I was the troop Executive Officer and technically senior to Chris, and his next level up in the chain-of-command, it was his platoon to lead. I and my radio operator were just extra-baggage for them, or at least that is how I felt. Until we could link up with the troop commander, when I would establish and run a ‘TOC’ (Tactical Operations Center) for the troop, I had little role other than to stay alive until any event in which the commander failed to do so. The best I could offer as the representative of the commander on-site was to relay radio reports up to him from what I observed, saving Chris the trouble so he could lead his men. So I did.

‘Havoc 6 this is Havoc 5’
‘Havoc 5 this is Havoc 6 Romeo.’ The word ‘romeo’ following a call-sign meant that a radio operator was speaking for the officer he was assigned to, rather than the officer himself speaking. ‘Well, I’ll do mine myself for now,’ I thought.
‘Havoc 6 Romeo this is Havoc 5, be advised that Havoc 2 and TOC 2 are assembled on HLZ (Helicopter Landing Zone) Budweiser and beginning movement to Objective Coors.’
‘Havoc 5, Havoc 6 Romeo, good copy. Out.’ ‘Outed’ by a mere radio operator, ‘Great,’ I thought. If Havoc 6 himself were on the line, he could ‘out’ me and end the conversation whenever he wanted, but not so much for his ‘romeo’. ‘I’ll have a word with that private when we link-up’, I thought.
‘F**k!’ a soldier near me whispered, as he pulled the charging-handle on his M4 carbine to cock it. He should have done that when we were still on the chopper, one minute out from landing. Had we not been trying to be so quiet, his sergeant would have given him a thrashing for that one.
We fell into a ‘wedge’ formation and began movement towards the target house. Night vision on, one viewed the world through a green hole the size of a beer bottle cap, which only covered the soldier’s non-shooting eye. Forget what you see in Hollywood movies, night vision is much less clear than is usually portrayed, and the flat image it creates causes you to lose depth perception. Top that off with having to walk through roughly-ploughed, hard-earth fields, with a forty-pound ballistic vest loaded down with ammunition and equipment, and a pack on your back with another fifty pounds of food, water, and radio batteries; I was lucky not to fall flat on my face every few steps. Of course, fifteen months of combat operations later I became an old hand at moving under such conditions. Though it was never ideal, and occasionally threw one off balance still, it became much easier to deal with.
The limited visibility certainly did little to help you with the nerves associated with awaiting your ‘baptism by fire’, whenever that might come. You at least knew that the enemy had it worse, having no night vision to speak of, but an advantage in familiarity with his home soil.
Even the ‘old’ veterans could still be affected by the drawbacks of heavy equipment and night-vision. Not far into our movement, Sergeant First Class H managed to fall over an unseen obstacle, severely spraining his ankle. There was no way he could patrol on that injury, so we called in a MEDEVAC chopper to come and take him out. He would only be a liability if we had to carry him everywhere for the next three days. We were not far from our original landing-zone, so we carried him back, put him on the incoming bird, and continued on our mission.
This was not a lucky start.
Having a truly professional and experienced senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) like Sergeant H with us was a comfort to younger, less experienced, yet higher-ranking officers like Chris and I. The next most senior NCO was Staff Sergeant L, who took over as platoon sergeant for the rest of the mission. L had a few tours under his belt, and we trusted him to step up to the plate.
As we approached the house, Chris signaled the platoon to form into a ‘file’ formation in order to move more quickly through the palm trees ahead, and to cross a small foot-bridge over an irrigation ditch that we had identified pre-mission through satellite imagery. I fell to the back of his platoon with my radio operator, to stay out of their way as we crossed. Crossing even a small obstacle like this caused trouble; if you met the enemy with half your men on one side and half one the other you could not immediately bring your full force to bear. At best it would slow your ability to react, at worse it gave the enemy the chance to defeat you piecemeal.
Staff-Sergeant C’s squad was at the front. C had been in combat before and had performed well, a comforting thought. He signaled his two point men to cross first, and clear the opposite side. Satisfied that it was safe to cross, he began moving the rest of his squad. At the rear, I could see none of this, but I knew what was happening.
Suddenly I heard shouting up front. Had the point-men identified enemy trying to escape? Were there civilians in our path, or a possible threat?
CRACK-CRACK-CRACK-CRACK! The unmistakable sound of M4 carbines firing! Everyone immediately dropped to the ground. This was it! My baptism by fire, the moment of truth. Would my training stick with me? What would I do?
My nerves held through, and my training kicked-in. I did what Chris would normally do as platoon leader had I not been present; I sent the ‘contact report’ to the commander.
‘Havoc6thisisHavoc5! Contact! East! Out!’ There, the first step in making enemy contact: send the contact report to your commander letting him know you were engaged in hostilities and the general direction of the enemy. Brevity was key in this report; as you needed to take control of the situation, you were to allowed to ‘out’ your commander immediately so you could get back to the fight. This was the only time you were allowed that indulgence.
‘Havoc 5 this is Havoc 6 (no ‘romeo’ here, now we had the real commander’s attention, and he was not even abiding by my judiciously-applied ‘out’), develop the situation and report when possible, out.’ Of course we knew to ‘develop the situation’, that was step two of the ‘actions on contact’ procedure. Though one did not actually think through the steps, training had drilled them into instinct.
The shooting had stopped, and no orders were being given to the rear squad to act. Normally they would be ordered forward to return fire and manoeuvre on the enemy. Something must be wrong. Perhaps the enemy had already run, perhaps they were already dead. Perhaps we had casualties, maybe even Chris and Sergeant L, in which case leadership was needed up front! I grabbed my radio operator and rushed ahead of the rest of the platoon to see what was awry. I weaved around the now kneeling soldiers, and crossed the foot bridge.
“Who’s the f**k’s that?’, a voice directed towards me.
‘F**kin’ XO’, I replied with some indignation.
‘Oh, sorry sir.’ It was Sergeant L. I was about to ask what was happening, when I spied the cause of our excitement. On the ground lay Private First Class S, one of Staff Sergeant C’s soldiers, grunting in pain while the medic examined his arm. ‘Damn, casualties,’ I thought to myself. Why weren’t Chris and Sergeant L moving the rest of the troops forward to fight whoever did this? Then I noticed a large mound next to Private S… a mound which I ascertained, not without a small amount of bewilderment, was a dead cow.
‘What the f**k’? I asked.
‘F**kin’ cow attacked S, so the guys shot it.’ Sergeant L replied in his country accent, clearly annoyed and yet somewhat amused with the situation.
‘Oh for f**k’s sake’, I exclaimed (That Britishism had always been a favorite of mine). 'Why did it attack him?'
'Don't know sir, he must have spooked it. He didn't do anything to try and piss it off.'
‘How the f**k am I going to call this one up?’
‘Hell if I know, have fun with that sir,’ L smirked, ‘Doc says his arm may be broken, I got to get this MEDEVAC prepared.’
Right. Well, might as well get it over with. I signaled my radio-operator over and grabbed the handset.
‘Havoc 6 this is Havoc 5.’
‘Havoc 5 this Havoc 6, send it. Over’
‘Havoc 6, Havoc 5. Havoc 2 has engaged and destroyed one cow. Over.’
A longer than normal pause.
‘Havoc 5, Havoc 6, say again. Over.’ I knew he wasn’t going to buy this one the first time around.
‘Havoc 6, Havoc 5, I say again: Havoc 2 has engaged and destroyed one cow, break… The cow attacked one soldier, and was then shot by elements of Havoc 2, break... Currently have one casualty with a potential broken-arm. Over.’
Another pause. The CO wasn’t going to have as much fun calling this up to the Squadron Commander as I was calling him. Our Squadron Commander was what most soldiers in the Army call ‘a hard man’.
‘Havoc 5, what the f**k?’ Well, might as well throw radio protocol out of the window on this one. ‘Assess the situation, and get Havoc 2-4 to send the MEDEVAC report. Over’.
‘Havoc 6, Havoc 5, roger. He’s already working on it. Over.’
‘5 this is 6. Good. Out.’
Due to having just MEDEVACed Sergeant First Class H, and the projected threat of enemy anti-aircraft capabilities, Command made the decision not to MEDEVAC Private S, as he was still able to walk. So Doc (the nickname for every combat medic in the Army) pumped him full of pain killers and we continued the mission with one rather-high rifleman in tow. The mission continued as planned from this point on, we raided several suspected safe-houses, detained several insurgents, and managed not to have to fire any more shots. We heard over the squadron radio network the next day that an angry Iraqi farmer had approached the commander of our Alpha Company, wanting to know why his cow had been shot by the Americans. He explained the situation, and compensated the farmer with a couple hundred US Dollars (all officers were issued a sizable amount of cash prior to missions to cover minor collateral damage), much more than the cow was actually worth, and more than enough to cover the trouble of having to buy a new one.

Chris Kimmet and I about three years later in Afghanistan.
Despinte our hijnks, we both managed promotion to Captain.

We all had a good laugh over it and at ourselves in the days that followed, even adding ‘one enemy cow’ to the EKIA (Enemy Killed in Action) column of Havoc Troop’s Battle Damage Assessment report that I submitted to the squadron headquarters following the mission. In the after-action debriefing the troop commander jokingly briefed that 'the cow had displayed hostile intent towards Private First Class S, and was therefore declared enemy and fired upon in accordance with the Rules of Engagement.’  It would be a couple more months before I would find myself under actual fire, and as things heated up in both a figurative and literal sense that following summer, I too became one of those guys who instinctively ducks when he hears a car backfire. But, what I had learned during my initial ignorance of this event was that I was able to do my job during the immediate moments after shots were fired, and was not afraid to move towards the sound of the guns. Too many times I’d have to use that skill over again in the next year.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I remember the night Chris called me about the cow incident. I was out to dinner with friends and it was a crazy, crazy story!