Operation Iraqi Freedom Journal - Part 3

If you haven't done so yet, please go back and read or listen to Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

March 1st: Rested. 

After a busy couple of weeks of orienting to the new team (MET Alpha) and training in preparation for our mission, the next couple weeks were a slow period where, quite frankly, I think I spent more time eating, sleeping, reading and most importantly learning to play hacky-sack than we did on mission prep.  I think our motivation to learn the latter was increased due to a cute Air Force girl from a nearby tent who shared a mutual interest in the “sport”.  Given an atmosphere predominantly starved of female presence, this was a pretty big deal.

 CPL Gonzales and SGT Burdick passing time playing cards (a popular pastime)

CPL Gonzales and SGT Burdick passing time playing cards (a popular pastime)

Chief Gonzales was quick to remind us to take advantage of these times as life would get busy soon enough.  So we settled into a routine: wake-up, clean-up, chow hall (breakfast), back to the tent (rest, games, laundry, etc.), chow hall (lunch), more resting/playing, chow hall (dinner), back to the tent then sleep.  Rinse and repeat.

March 2nd: Went to church.  Chow hall burned down. 

Our Task Force Chaplain (I believe his name was Chaplain Jones) held services for a small group of soldiers every Sunday in a small, sandy tent.  Services were simple: singing to a CD (he used a Petra worship CD…kinda dated) and a message and prayer.  Outside of this, my faith was expressed in very simple ways: I regularly read my Bible, prayed and had several conversations with other soldiers that were probably more meaningful than the usual fluff in “civilian” church.  Outside of this, I tried to work hard, be a good friend to others and stay positive (struggled with this a few times).

 What was left of the chow hall after the fire.

What was left of the chow hall after the fire.

With re: to the chow hall burning down, the word was that a Kuwaiti worker got upset (poor work conditions?) and took a cigarette to the side of the tent.  It didn’t take long for it to go.  I remember walking out of the tent for chapel to see the plume of smoke.  While at first this development was at least cause for some excitement, it didn’t tale too long before we longed for the good ol’ days.  The MKT (Mobile Kitchen Trailers) were busted out and breakfast and dinner for the next couple of weeks were comprised of boiled hot dogs and rice.

 Long lines at the MKT - Like Disneyland, except with luke-warm hot dogs and rice at the end.

Long lines at the MKT - Like Disneyland, except with luke-warm hot dogs and rice at the end.

March 3rd-4th: No entries.

March 5th-6th: Sand storms! 

The first of a few sand storms that we would experience in Kuwait and then later in Iraq.  In the early days of the war a sand storm rolled in that significantly slowed the advance.  At first it was a novelty and kind of a fun event.  After that, we could do without them (more on this later).

March 7th-8th: No entries.

March 9th: XTF formation; Doha. 

At the Task Force formation, the only thing I can recall is Col. Macfee telling us that, “The only way home is North.”   He liked giving speeches, though from my perspective as one who has made a living, in part, from public speaking, he wasn’t very good at it.  After this, we took a XTF pic (can’t find it unfortunately) and then took a day trip to Doha.  Click on this link to read a little about Camp Doha.  It included a large PX with several fast food restaurants.  Unfortunately the lines were insanely long so that was about all I remember doing along with a little window shopping. 

March 10th-12th: No entries. 

As a side note, there is a fair amount of humorous things that transpire in the military.  And while those who have not served might have a hard time understanding it, this is especially true when deployed oversees.  I might dedicate a future entry to nothing but some of my favorite humorous moments, but for now I will just mention one that most likely transpired around this time. 

Hooah Bar.png

There are these “chocolate” bars that come in MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat).  We called them “Hooah bars”.  Let’s just say that their ultimate purpose probably has something more to do with “plugging you up” than their intrinsic tastiness.  However, they are also an excellent source of practical jokes.  When taken in your hand and rolled they take on an uncanny resemblance to something that happens when you are NOT plugged up.  One night someone on our team (who was it anyways?) decided to place one of these gifts on the pillow of a guy in our tent who worked a grave-yard shift (communications if I recall correctly).  When he got back later that night, all we heard was a string of expletives followed by the rest of us laughing as he actually thought for a moment that one of us had taken a dump on his pillow.

March 13th: Rode in Chinook to Iraq border. 

I think we did this so some of us could get a feel for the Chinook.  Outside of this we got a bird’s eye view of the groud troops stacking up along the border in preparation for the land assault.

 Hard to see in the pic, but you could see artillery and tank units in their positions, ready to launch the invasion.

Hard to see in the pic, but you could see artillery and tank units in their positions, ready to launch the invasion.

March 14th: No entries. 

March 15th: 3rd phone call, G-ma passed away. 

Before the war started, the ability to communicate back home was mediocre at best.  At Camp Udairi, there was a small tent with a few phones set up. If you had time to kill and didn't mind waiting in line for an hour, and the stars perfectly aligned (i.e. the phones actually worked), you could get a few minutes to talk with family or friends back home.  On this day I was fortunate to get through though unfortunate to hear of the passing of my grandma (Dad’s mom).  I loved her very much and recalled how disappointed I was that I would not be able to attend her memorial service..

 Hanging out with grandma.  She was as good as they get.

Hanging out with grandma.  She was as good as they get.

March 16th: Interesting briefing on history of Shiite, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians in Iraq; Saddam’s history; description of Iraq’s 7 Intel Agencies. 

Having been a student of Biblical history, I perhaps knew more about the history of the region than many around me.  However, this was still enlightening though also sadly an eerie foreshadowing of the conflict to come in the years ahead. 

March 17: President’s deadline. 

This was the official deadline for Iraq to “comply” or face military consequences, though the thought that we would all turn around and go home if there was a political breakthrough at any point prior to this date was quite laughable.  While much controversy still surrounds the question of when exactly a final decision was made to got to war with Iraq, one thing can be safely said.  It was before March 17th, 2003.

March 18th: All quiet. 

While I can’t recall if it was this exact date, I remember that right around this time SFC Veach (NCOIC of MET Alpha) pulled us aside to describe in very broad terms what was going to happen in the near future as far as military strategy.  It wasn’t complicated.  The Army's 3rd ID (Infantry Division) and 1st MEF (Marine Expeditionary Force) were going to basically punch it right up the gut (with 1st ID going left and 1st MEF going right up through An Najaf).  It was almost described like a race towards Baghdad.  82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions would be heavily in the mix as well.  Most of 101’s air support was based at Camp Udari, which accounted for the massive amount of choppers on the airfield.  All those Apache’s would head north and take out an entire Iraqi Division.  It was also around this time that they handed out revised ROE (Rules Of Engagement; see below).  The quiet will not last for much longer.

roe.png

March 19th: CIA calls fire on convoy (possibly Saddam) late in the evening. 

This would effectively “kick off” the war.

March 20th: SCUD alerts ALL day; reports of 3 launches, 2 landing and 1 shot down via Patriot.  Iraq starts to set southern oil fields on fire (we can see the glow at night); US launches ATACMS and late in the evening 3ID and 1st MEF invade after initial artillery bombardment (we can hear the howitzers and paladins booming away in the distance). 

It was interesting to see others and even myself in retrospect respond for the first time to being potentially attacked in the case of SCUD warnings (if you don’t know what a SCUD is click here).  The first time definitely got my blood pumping.  Our Chief, who prior to becoming a Fire Direction Officer was a Ranger who had seen time in Somalia, and SFC Veach, our NCOIC who parachuted into Iraq in the first Gulf War, were decidedly more calm when we heard an “Incoming” missile.  In contrast was one occasion when all of a sudden we heard a couple of female soldiers screaming, “Incoming! Incoming!”  As we looked out the door of our tent we could see them sprinting to their tent, so frantic that half their gear looked like it was about to fall off.  We all got a good laugh out of that. 

Later on, Bourassa and I were outside when another alert happened and we donned our gas masks and crammed into a SCUD bunker with a bunch of other soldiers to include some Brits.  As we waited for the “all clear” I looked over at the Brits and noticed that they were taking pics with their disposable cameras.  I figured if they weren’t so concerned, why should I?

 Bourassa, Peneche and I chilling in a SCUD bunker

Bourassa, Peneche and I chilling in a SCUD bunker

If I recall correctly, later that night Chief pulled the team aside and talked to us a bit.  He mentioned that what we were about to experience together would bond us together for the rest of our lives.  Hearing the artillery was memorable to.  Not that I hadn’t heard the sound before!  I was an artilleryman myself and back at Fort Sill we were accustomed to hearing the ‘King of Battle’ at work.  But these shells and missiles weren’t landing on an empty shooting range anymore.  They were taking out people.  Lives were ending.  Even if they are the “enemy”, that’s a sobering thing.  The glow and smoke from the burning oil fields would last for weeks.

March 21st:  We are supposed to “jump” into Iraq on the 24th, but we will probably have a mission sooner.  More SCUD alerts.  Forces progressing quickly.  Only 1-2 casualties so far.  Word that a whole Iraqi Division surrenders, possibly a second. 

Chief or SFC Veach would give us brief reports almost once a day, things they would hear when they went to the daily briefings.  As far as the timing of us going into Iraq, that ended up being way off.

March 22nd: Troops are having to slow down because supply can’t keep up.  Things are going well. 

By the end of the third day there was almost this sense that this was going to be a cake walk.  That changed the next day.

March 23: Early in the morning there are two close-interval explosions (LOUD!).  We don gas masks. Probably 30 minutes later given the “All clear!”.  We hear of a translator tossing 2 grenades in an officer tent at Camp Pennsylvania, but that is too far away for explosions that loud.  At morning formation we are told that 2 SCUD’s were shot down and that there was an incident at Camp Penn.  One officer shot, three frag grenades tossed in tents (15 wounded, 6 critical, 1 eventually died by the end of the day).  Later in the evening find out that one of the loud explosions last night was a Brit plane (Tornado) being accidentally shot down.  It’s believed that its beacon identifying it as friendly was not working and that our Patriot battery mis-identified it as a SCUD.  I don’t know what to say to the Brits in our tent.  Around 9:30pm we hear of a support maintainance convoy ambush behind 3ID’s advance.  Company is decimated.  Quite a few Black Hawks leave from Camp Udairi as part of MASSCAS (Mass Casualty) medivac.  15 are captured or MIA and 6-7 are executed live on Al Jazeera.  We are still waiting for our 1st site.  I want to go north and join the fight.  Today was a bad day.  At minimum 8 US soldiers dead, 2 Brits. 

The convoy ambush that I am referring to was the one that involved Jessica Lynch, with her whole rescue story now a source of debate.  The report of live executions ended up being false; actual figures of those killed was worse (11 KIA) but those captured were less (5) and were all eventually rescued.  I remember having a hard time going to sleep that night.  I was experiencing anger like never before.  I remember thinking in my mind that I had 210 rounds on me and that there would be 210 dead Iraqi’s if they would just let us go North.  Of course our mission was not directly combat related so the likelihood of us engaging in that kind of combat was slim, let alone the fact that I'm not that great of a shot.  But I’m just being honest with how I felt at the time.  I’m not a violent man but I obviously had to be willing to kill if absolutely necessary...I joined the Army after all!  There was a quote from The Lord of the Rings that was meaningful to me at the time:

War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory.  I love only that which they defend. 

But now I was not only a willing to kill in defense of others, but I had in that moment a desire to take human life.  I’m not proud of that moment.

As far as the SCUD missiles, that first actual attack is something I will never forget.  Those explosions were so loud!  In basic you are trained to be able to put your gas ask on in less than 8 or 9 seconds.  I promise you I got that thing on much quicker than that. 

 SOmetimes we'd hear a SCUD warning, don our gas masks and just get on with whatever we were up to until the "All clear!".

SOmetimes we'd hear a SCUD warning, don our gas masks and just get on with whatever we were up to until the "All clear!".

Then I, like many others I suppose, just laid back down on my cot and prayed that the wreckage not land on our tent.  Later that day when we heard that one of the explosions was a friendly fire, I just remember how despondent the Brits in our tent were.  I don’t recall anyone talking about it with them; maybe we all just felt it was better to give them space.  Earlier that morning at formation I am pretty sure we cheered the report that those explosions were SCUDs that we shot down.  Now I think we were all replaying that moment in our mind, knowing that one of those explosions was the ending of two Brit pilot’s lives as they came back from a combat mission over Iraq.  The incident at Camp Penn was the second time soldiers had died this side of the Iraqi border, the first being the Black Hawk accident I described in an earlier entry. 

March 24th: Early in the AM we hear another explosion.  Patriot intercepts another missile (not  SCUD this time).  We hear a second report of Iraqi’s pretending to surrender and then opening fire.  No fatalities yet today.  Marines running into a pretty descent fight now (50 reportedly injured).  Same with 3ID.  A little before 2pm, 2 loud explosions.  Believed to be 2 missiles intercepted over Camp Udairi.  Later we are told that our ADA (Air Defense Battery) has intercepted 10 SCUDs/missiles, the most of any ADA battery in theater.  Report that downed Apache crew recovered, Apache wreck destroyed by ATACM (fired from an MLRS unit). 

This would be the last time we’d hear a SCUD or missile shot down and for the most part warnings slowed to a trickle.  Only once did we see the actual wreckage of a SCUD.  It had landed maybe 50 yards from the Chow Hall.  I think we were more concerned where the wreckage landed than the projectile itself.  Some might recall from the first Gulf War when 28 members of a Pennsylvania National Guard unit were killed when the debris of a SCUD landed on their barracks in Saudi Arabia.  The battle I make reference to re: the Marines took place at Nasiriyah (click on this link to learn more).

March 25th: 3ID about 80km out of Bagdad.  Marines slightly behind.  Possibility we might go on 1st mission tomorrow.  Not a lot of news.  SCUD alert at Chow Hall.

March 26th: Hear late last night that two US tanks and a Bradley were destroyed in fighting outside Baghdad (about 50 miles out).  We retaliated and killed an estimated 500 Iraqis.  We also hear reports that they are using hospitals, mosques and ambulances to hide and screen their movements (especially of high-ranking officers).  Essentially its guerrilla warfare.  That’s OK as Chief says it’s, “Game on!”  We should go to our first site tomorrow.

It was hard still being in Kuwait and I think this entry reflects the mood of that moment.  Still in retrospect I find it sobering that I glossed over a figure as profound as 500 dead “enemies”.  A great irony of my life is that I would years later spend time working for an organization that, among other services, provides assistance to Iraqi refugees arriving in Sacramento.   Perhaps some of them lost a friend of family member among those 500.  War is always tragic, a reality I did not comprehend until I went through this experience.  Prior to that I had been used to a steady diet of FOX News, and that side of war didn't fit into their narrative.

March 27th: Large Iraqi convoy headed south (vehicles # in the 100’s) is destroyed. Believed to be a part of counter attack on 3rd ID.  Elsewhere, 70+ convoy destroyed by Brits.  101st prepping to invade Baghdad.

From a purely military standpoint, the Iraqi military never stood a chance (as in the first Gulf War).  These counter attacks were pure suicide on the part of the commanders who ordered them.  Thankfully, these were the exception to the norm as large-scale surrendering was more common.

March 28th: Pretty quiet.  Col. MacFee finds 2 lost soldiers.

In his “moment of glory”, our Task Force Commander found 2 US soldiers who had gotten lost from their unit.  Other than a few bumbling speeches and what I perceived to be his inadequate leadership of an eventually floundering mission, this is all I can recall of him.

March 29th: 1 Marine accidentally gets separated from his unit and is killed and dragged through the streets. 4 Army soldiers are killed at CP in suicide explosion.

Here we are starting to get a foreshadowing of the style of warfare that would characterize this war for years to come.  Note: For those who don’t know, CP stands for “Check Point”.

As you can tell, we are still in Kuwait. As frustrating as this was, it was good that someone could find the humor in it.  Leave that to a member of MET Bravo, Cpl. Siefkes, who came up with an alternative version of the lyrics from Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny from the Block”: “Don’t be fooled by the war in Iraq. I’m still, I’m still sitting on my cot.”  In general he was an endless supply of laughs and a good guy who I’ve reconnected with years later via Facebook.

March 30th: A Kuwaiti worker in a pickup truck runs over a group of soldiers in line at the PX (here at Camp Udairi).  3 soldiers attached to 75th in the line.  One of our guys (who was on our team) runs after the driver and shoots him twice–he is captured.  13 soldiers are wounded, but none critically.  Original report had 2-3 nationals opening fire in or by our PX (from a white van).  Met-Alpha and soldiers from other units help create a perimeter.  A white van is stopped within our sight and 3 nationals surrender and are questioned.  They turned out to be fine.  Must have had the piss scared out of them!  Elsewhere, 4 nationals (workers) are found locked in a conex.  Security tightens.

As is obvious from this and previous entries, just because we weren’t in Iraq didn’t mean there wasn’t any real danger.   Those guys who were taken from the van must have been scared shitless.  There must have been about a hundred weapons (including my own) zeroed in on them.

March 31st: No entries.

In Part 4, we will review April journal entries which finally covers our movement into Iraq.

click here to go to part 4