Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Crossing the River

Lately, I've been drawn to a few good WWI poems about emotions before battle, such as Sassoon's "Before the Battle", Greenfield's "Into Battle", and Gurney's "To the Poet Before Battle". I thought I might do a short post on how I experienced the moments before one particular battle in Iraq, in the summer of 2007. At the time of this story I was platoon leader of 1st Platoon, Alpha Troop, 1-73 Cavalry of the 82nd Airborne Division. 1-73 Cavalry had been reorganized into a special task force, tasked solely with targeting terrorist-network related insurgent elements (Many insurgents groups were independent, but the most dangerous ones were supported by a particular international terror network).

I started this post months ago, but never finished it until now, finding it difficult to take myself back to this particular moment, for a reason that I think will become apparent. 

(Note: As before, I've left most soldiers' names out, only because I haven't talked to most of them before publishing this. If anyone recognises himself and wants his name added in properly then just let me know.)

I have no need to pray 
That fear may pass away; 
I scorn the growl and rumble of the fight 
That summons me from cool
Silence of marsh and pool 
And yellow lilies is landed in light 
O river of stars and shadows, lead me through the night. 

         -Siegfried Sassoon,"Before the Battle", 25 June 1916

The soothing notes of Pachabel's Canon in D flowed in and saturated my thoughts, as I cleared out all but the violins, soon joined by the violas, underscored by the basso continuo, building its famous crescendo. I was filled with an impression of calm and peace.
Rather unflattering candid picture of me on an earlier mission.

Peace having been simulated, I reached over and gave my assault rifle one last check. Bolt fee of debris, oiled, sliding smooth, ready for action. Close the dust cover. Grab my body armor, put it on. Kneepads on, map in left leg cargo pocket, intell papers and target lists in the right. Sling my rifle over my right shoulder, hanging in front of my body with the muzzle to the lower left, ready for reflexive firing. Helmet on. Night vision mounted and functioning. Rock and roll.

I looked down the "bay" of my tent. Corporal M. was "kitting up" too. Good soldier, Corporal M. His section leader, Staff Sergeant P., across the aisle from me doing the same. Contrary to doctrine, Staff Sergeant P. always put Corporal M. in the front of 'the stack' when we cleared rooms. As a corporal he should have been third man in, supervising two privates in front of him who would go in first. I once asked P. why he did this and he replied: "Because M's got balls, sir." Fair enough.

Pachabel did it for me, but now with my headphones removed, I could hear what others used. Mostly rap. The stuff with the driving beat. "That's good", I thought, "whatever gets you ready". We all had our rituals. As a platoon leader, I used baroque to clear my mind. I had to focus and make decisions, Canon in D calmed me down from any pre-mission trepidation. Fear of death or wounding, especially loss of a limb or more had to be forced down as much as possible, calming music did that for me. The men needed something to fire them up, before they set out to their perilous role of charging rifle first into the doors of enemy-held compounds. Some rap or heavy metal did that for them, usually accompanied by a Monster energy drink. The archetype of an officer, I preferred coffee most times, but I went for the Monster as well before missions.

Tonight we were infiltrating the most dangerous place in Iraq, the DRV. This was the Diyala River Valley, but the area held enough notoriety to earn its own abbreviation. For our task force, seeing DRV in the orders for an upcoming operation meant that you could expect at least one soldier to not return home alive, and others would certainly be wounded. Fed by the river, the valley had been a prime agricultural area since antiquity, shaped by its inhabitants into a labyrinth of thick palm and date groves, with canals that literally "canalized" troop movements - forcing us to use narrow roads perfect for enemy IEDs - and clustered villages that had become a safe haven for insurgents. 

I grabbed my assault pack which was bursting with a day's supply of water (eight liters minimum in the Iraqi heat), MREs, smoke and incendiary grenades, flares, batteries, and my primary weapon as a platoon leader: a SINCGARS radio. My scout platoon was too small for me to afford to assign a trooper to act as my radio operator. I stepped outside to have one last check-in with the Troop Commander (the "troop" is the US Cavalry equivalent of the infantry company, also commanded by a captain, but smaller due to its primary reconnaissance role). I took my helmet off and put it under my arm, too tall with the night vision attached to get through the door without ducking, and besides, I'd be wearing it for the better part of the next three days, might as well keep it off while I could.

Walking towards the Troop command tent, I found Captain Foster outside instead. He was in full-kit and had just returned from the Task Force command tent. 'Reppy-Rep!' he said while returning my salute. I hated the nickname 'Reppy-Rep', but 18 months earlier a previous commander who had a love for all things '80s had given it to me, and it stuck. I knew Captain Foster meant well when he used it: never in my Army career did I find another commander who was more proud of his junior officers, and all of his soldiers. 

"Hey sir. Just about to head to the HLZ [Helicopter Landing Zone]," I said.

Captain Foster, right, receiving a salute from his
 First Sergeant. The two were also close friends.

"Alright Reppy-Rep. Weather is a Go. I know you know what to do. I'll see you out there," he said as he placed his hand on my shoulder and gave me slight, but reassuring, smile. My platoon along with another were tasked to infiltrate far away from Troop HQ and the bulk of the rest of our troop. Our position would initially be outside of mutual support from any other elements in the entire task force. We would then begin "clearing" towards the rest of the troop, more exposed but also more independent. 

A slight smile in return, and a acknowledging nod. "Hooah sir. Thanks." I took my leave. That was the last conversation we ever had. Captain Erick Foster was killed by enemy rifle fire a few hours later.

By now my sergeants had pushed the men out onto the assembly area and arraigned them in their "chalks" for loading the helicopters. I saw my platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class H. "Hey Sergeant, weather is a go, looks like this is happening."

"Alright sir. Everyone is here, might as well get this shit over with." Sergeant H. was never one too get excited about a mission. He had as much time in "the sandbox" as most of us had spent in high-school, and had a slightly fatalistic streak about him. 

The birds that would carry the Task Force into the enemy's backyard materialized from the night and set down on the landing zone, throwing up a choking cloud of Iraqi desert dust. We loaded up and the choppers took off. The rhythmic thundering rumble of the blades prevented talking inside, so the soldiers were left to their thoughts. Some leaders like myself had a headset to talk to the helicopter crew as we flew; these pilots seemed skittish about landing in the DRV given its reputation. This only increased my frustration with what us combat arms types called "leaf eaters" - they would only spend a few tense moments on the ground as we exited, and then fly away. Still, hearing the pilots talk kept my mind clear from everything but the mission and kept my thoughts from straying into un-productive "what-if" scenarios involving personal harm. Instead, I tried to rehearse in my mind what my plan was, and what I would do in worst-case tactical situations, such as an ambush on the landing zone. 

My platoon rode in two UH-60 Blackhawks with the doors open and most of us sitting on the edge of the floor, with our legs hanging outside. It was a comfort over being in the larger CH-47 Chinooks, as you had a better view of your surroundings as you came in. And more importantly to the average 18-25 year old soldier, it looked cool

About 40 minutes later, the pilots informed me that we were approaching the LZ (landing zone): "Lieutenant, we're ten minutes out." I yelled out "TEN MINUTES!" to the men. Then five. Then three. Then "THIRTY SECONDS!" I could see the Diyala forward and below.

With night vision devices projecting green circles onto the eyes of the troopers, everything now appeared as shades of the same color. The choppers carried us across the river and set us down in the valley. We exited, and the birds left to bring more. The same experience as usual on landing in the Iraqi countryside: roughly plowed fields making it difficult to walk, the fresh smell of the vegetation mixing with that unmistakable bittersweet smell of nearby villages, and the silence amplified due to the extreme contrast with the previous beating your eardrums had taken from the choppers. For the first few seconds you worked to get your bearings, identifying terrain that before you had only imagined after looking at a relief map and satellite imagery.

Something was wrong. We seemed to be on the south side of the Diyala, but should have been
Part of my platoon returning from a patrol in a later mission.
The vegetation was much thicker than this in the DRV.
dropped on the north. The pilots rarely approached straight into our objective from our point of take off, so I thought perhaps their maneuvering had disoriented me, but with a quick map and GPS check, I could see I was right. Damn pilots had messed up because they were so nervous. The other platoon had landed in the same field as mine, so I consulted with the other platoon leader and our platoon sergeants. Our troop XO (Executive Officer, second in command of the troop after Captain Foster, a position that I had inversely served in before being a platoon leader) was with the other platoon and also concurred. The river was wide and fast, and there was no way across for miles. The rest of our task force was on the north side of the river. The XO contacted Captain Foster - known as "Apache 6" on the radio - and requested the birds return and move us to the correct side of the river. Apache 6 called Squadron HQ, who called higher. Soon, to our dismay, only a solitary CH-47 returned to move us. It was a miracle that we were able to cram two platoons with attachments into that bird and get across, but we did. 

Landing on the correct side of the river, we could hear a firefight already in progress to our west, the first of many in that mission. My platoon would experience one the next morning in our sector. The current fight was too far away for us to move to assist. Once I got back on my radio I knew that was the case: Troop HQ along with two other platoons - several kilometers away - was in a serious fight. And soon a MEDEVAC was being called in for Captain Foster. 

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