Apr 02, 2017 at 04:50 PM

Iraq Journal Page 3

By Gordon Forbes

It’s been weeks and we were busy. Helo raids and finding weapons caches were successful during August but as we enter the last month of duty on the ground, we are backing the Sunni Triangle near Zydon, patrolling, knock and talking and stopping the mortaring of Camp Fallujah.

Watching Big Daddy on the roof, minutes after three rounds hit close to the Roc, is to see an eagerness to kill this enemy and respect for his ability. They suspect he is a foreign fighter. Mortar man hits again, after we stop looking for him and this time he gets one shot off before the counter battery fire from Camp Fallujah fires back. It looks like a B-52 carpet-bombing raid complete with airbursts. We don’t know if they hit him but he hasn’t fired again since and it’s been weeks.

War is frustrating for us because we can’t see it unless it happens to us. The camera is like another set of eyes. We look left, it happens on the right. When an RPG is fired at the ROC, at first we think it’s a plane and nobody reacts, but it wasn’t. We found the shell later on patrol. We think the Haji arced it over these two warehouses, trying to let in our building but he overshot. He would have been more effective just stepping out and aiming but he would have been dead in seconds. It’s like that now around Ferristown and Almarrayah and even Zydon. No more direct encounters. Out west, the Marines are having a firefight or more every day but in our AO, they are avoiding contact.

Everybody talks about numbers, but there aren’t 20 thousand Muj shooters. Certainly there is infrastructure and such but the attacks are happening in Baghdad and other cities where the Hajis can kill indigenous people and disrupt the political process that is occurring. There is also reports that native Iraqis and the foreign groups are beginning to split because the locals are not happy to see their relatives being executed. Blood feuds here are a major influence that the media ignore but we see it a lot. Razz’s informant saw his father get killed by one of our biggest wanted guys, Scarface.

We went to his house today and will come back tonight on a night mission. The informant apparently stole some of mortar man’s munitions, Razz isn’t sure but he’s willing to explore the opportunity so we’re going back.

The moon is out but the ground is hard and uneven. We move to a house where one team holds security and Razz takes the other guys and the terp to meet the informant. We move out to meet him and they are already digging up mortar rounds. Apparently Naffi uses these fields to shoot at the MEC, which is only 3 or 4 clicks from here. We get 17 81 mm mortar rounds but no tubes. However, Razz gets more names and decides he will come back in the morning and question suspects. We will check many houses, so the locals can’t discern who tipped us off. Even though it’s after midnight, Razz and Doc go back to a woman’s house where we were earlier in the day. Her son broke his femur and without proper attention, Doc says it won’t heal right. The kid can’t walk and it is Razz is like Jacobs or Mac and Doc. They care about all the pain they see. Even though nobody really takes it personally everyone does stuff like this- trying to help the locals. It’s good for the cause, it could lead to more Intel and it’s one thing that keeps us grounded in this stealthy contest with insurgents. Since we are restricted on solo and when we can shoot at people, we might as well help them. Too bad for the kid, the mom isn’t home.

*The first patrol back in the area of operations is Garrett and Force 21. He has names and is looking for a father and two sons. After some contradictory statements, we roll them up and bring them back to the ROC. The owner of the house is an old Bathist crony of Saddam’s, complete with medals and papers he is going back to the MEC but we release Garrett’s guys after further interrogation. They aren’t cleared but the rules of engagement require very specific evidence packages before someone can be detained, so they are released even though they are suspects. That’s how it goes here, catch and release. It drives the platoon crazy but rules are rules. No one wants to bitch to me on camera….well, almost no one.

Inside the firm base life goes on but this time we all know we only have two weeks to go. Finish this OP and one more and we go home. Not having combat still rankles everyone, but going home is making us all glad to be alive.

More diary…..

I am considered to be media by the Marines. Despite, the antipathy between the military and media. Alpha takes the cameras in stride. After going outside the wire with them, where everything is equal in terms of getting hit or not, the suspicion that one of them will be misrepresented on camera subsides a bit. But the Marines, most of them anyway, seem wary or aware of our presence.

But being here with them makes a difference. First of all, it’s the only way to understand what it takes out here day in and day out. Secondly, the odds against getting hurt increase the longer you are out here and that definitely creates an understanding of their job and what it takes and that it builds trust. Other media come and go. One American network crew is here for three days and two nights and stuck most of the men as pushy and looking for something that doesn’t exist, trying to get guys to say stuff.

A NY Times reporters and his photographer apparently depart after 2 days upset they don’t get better access. All they had to do was hop on a humvee and they could get access to anywhere a platoon was going. The rumor was the reporter tried to push his weight around. That won’t go far in Alpha Co. where even the lance corporals give orders.

The only thing these guys respect is your performance and sharing the patrols. I keep getting reminded if how hard it was to get a network interested I what I was doing. One producer told me they weren’t interested in Iraq anymore, that it had become an issue not a story. After watching video of the Battle of Fallujah, it’s hard to know what they were thinking. This is one of the major stories of our time. Being here is the least I could do. Neither praising, nor condemning out of hand, this is what happened, the best I could do. If death and destruction was to be our fate, so be it. It’s a scary business but once you leave the wire, that doesn’t matter anymore. Now the only important thing is pay attention. Cause it isn’t an issue when an IED goes off…it’s your life.

Telling the story here is a tough one. I see things the camera doesn’t. The men know the camera is there too. They’re concerned that the story be accurate. But it’s a concern. For one, they, I quickly learn that trying to talk about time in Iraq with people who haven’t been there is hard to do. After 30 seconds many faces seem to glaze over because either they aren’t really interested or have other things to think about like what they are going to do next or they find it evil or boring. Like- who would want to experience that kind of life anyway? It makes it hard for the men to talk with their families because everyone thinks that we are under fire constantly. Not true. The danger is here but when you realize that one car bomb can dominate a headline while a patrol into the heart of Sunni country might result in the detention of a high value target isn’t nearly so interesting. These Marines stop telling people what’s happening here because it takes so much energy. How do you explain the heat, the danger, the relentless pursuit, attention to detail and the loyalty each Marine has for his brother out here? Besides when we go back to the world, this feeling changes for us too. That is we forget for those moments in our AC trailers, as soon as we jock up again, it all comes back. Same stuff, different day. Life in Alpha Co goes on and the mind set goes on like my flak jacket. Water, ammo, weapon, helmet, com check, food, vehicle check, hit the head and let’s roll.

When you watch the world events on television, you watch but don’t smell or feel or sense it. And as you chew your food or get distracted by other things, the clip ends or you change the channel. Out here you can’t change the channel or go home for lunch. Out here you can’t sit down every time you’re tired or hot and you can’t change the channel when the wind blows, babies cry and people lie to you. You’ve got to deal with it right then, all day, every day and every night.

And if you don’t start adapting to your situation, you’re going to fight it instead of go with it. And when you’re already fighting an enemy, fighting yourself on your situation doesn’t make sense. Alpha Company team leaders understand this as well as anybody. It doesn’t take much to learn how to survive out here, stay hydrated, trust your buddies, listen to orders and remember why you’re here. Never become predictable. Understand the enemy, keep in mind that one miscalculation can change your life.

One of the things about combat on the ground is that you only know what you see in front of you. To keep people alert, the company regularly is briefed on rules of engagement. There have been incidents and crimes alleged in every war including this one. Alpha is determines it won’t happen to them.

Information is power. It’s a lesson of 4th generation warfare. Bullets are meaningless without the right targets. The insurgents understand very well how to maximize their impact. Once suicide driver in a crowd, one IED on a company and they have headline, they have attention. I am not saying the people here love us but most of them are not against us. They want to be left out of the struggle. To find the bad guys requires patience not the traditional Marines mission. But for Alpha Co, a Recon group trained to be stealthy as well as be aggressive, knock and talks seem a natural evolution, to find out what’s going on you have to talk to people and be patient.

One of the advantages of this particular mission is we operate in the same general areas, can’t tell you the exact nature of our coverage but I can tell you we’re around Fallujah. The patrol areas have nicknames like the Lower Nut Sack and the Upper Nut Sack. The thumb and the T’ain’t? We use vehicles for mobility but knowing every road, every canal every path means we always change our route.

Loading up in the chute before a mission is always my nervous time. It’s dark and without IR you can’t see. Music is playing, all the work and good up are done and now we just want to go. The later, the darker, the better.

Waiting for something to happen is trying when nothing happens, after awhile the tendency is to relax, maybe drop your guard. That’s wrong thinking out there. Our lives depend on everyone staying alert. Doze off, space out, even briefly and it could ruin your whole day. The advantage for the insurgent is he can choose his time. The disadvantage for the Marine is it could happen anytime.

Out here, insurgents stick out more than in Baghdad. It’s harder to make an impact . After the battle of Fallujah and intense fighting along Iraq’s Western border, the insurgents have shifted their focus away from the Americans and into the large cities. But getting locals to share information is a difficult proposition.

Alpha has already been here for two months when the cameras get here. They have had a friendly fire incident and a suicide bomber attempt to drive his explosives into the HQ position. The pictures are a grim testimony to what could have happened if events had unfolded differently. Alpha’s sister company Echo lost a man to a tank mine in April. Still it’s not what the men of Alpha CO. were expecting or hoping for.

In 2nd Platoon, I’m assigned to ride with Garrett’s team called, call sign Force 21. It’s a green truck, not a HV with no roof, no up-armor and no air conditioning in back. I actually prefer it open as long as we are moving.

Because of the heat and the need for mobility, we travel in platoon convoys. The vehicles and their constant maintenance can mean the difference when and if we get hit. There is no rhyme or reason to an IED attack. Often times the triggerman is not experienced and wants to get away more than destroy a vehicle. While I’m wondering where the safest spot in a five- car convoy, I hear the answer. Everyone it seems, has an opinion.

So how does Alpha fight it’s enemy? After a couple of weeks of heat and knock and talks, things can get routine. Changing routes, sending out snipers in observatory posts, every patrol needs unpredictability. You never know whose watching, and waiting.

It’s a guessing game with maps and guns but one mortar round in the wrong place makes contact with the enemy not at all sound good to me. But I can’t worry about things I have no control over. It’s a lesson best learned quickly, especially if you’re here everyday. We’re here for three months, not three hours or three days like most cameras. By nature, cameras seek only the action, fearing that an audience will turn the channel, looking for simpler, exciting, even meaningless stories before going to bed.

Out here, walking on knocks and talks can be your whole world. And there’s no alternative. It makes for much more honest picture of how things are, at least in front of you. Can’t worry.

Camaraderie, black humor, adrenaline, and escaping the mundane of average life. Risking death is the ultimate reaffirmation of living. But it does not make me important even when I find something to commiserate. This job of camera is arrogance if it thinks it’s more important than events. The fact is that living a normal life, meeting one’s daily responsibilities like raising kids, treating yourself and your family decently, finding a professional and personal meaning in simply being productive requires more bravery than shooting a camera.

My first combat mission with Alpha Company, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion is going to be an air mission into the Sunni Triangle. 2nd Platoon will ride two aging C-46 onto the road systems in Al- Anbar province the most dangerous area of operations in Iraq including Baghdad to set up VCP’s or vehicle check Points.

VCP’s are singularly dangerous. We will land close to a road with traffic on it and Bravo Team, 2nd Platoon will fan out to check vehicles for weapons and possible IEDs and the occupants for verification. Approaching an unidentified vehicle in Iraq is not the easiest thing to do. It could have either explosives or armed men inside.

Still given my choice, I’ve chosen the VCP mission over taking a mounted patrol for 5 days into the zone. I’d rather fly any day in this heat, I get to come home every day to an air conditioned trailer, shower and mess hall food. Even though this is my first mission into the Sunni Triangle, it ain’t as they say, my first BBQ.

I’m brand new to Camp Fallujah and have never been in combat before despite working with many Special Operations groups in other peacetime training as well as Afghanistan.

It’s already 115 degrees and it is only 8:30 am. I don’t really know anyone yet and although I am attached to Sgt. Murphy’s four- man tea, everyone looks alike in helmets and dark glasses, guns, radios and flak vests. I’ve been briefed on what to do; basically follow a Marine named Schmidt. I check my camera and load for the upteenth time. I carry a level 4 flak vest with two ceramic plates covering my chest and back, a camel back water membrane on my back, various pouches for my batteries, videotapes, knife, flashlight, medical kit in case I’m hit, helmet, dark glasses and a couple of granola bars, an extra bottle of water and goggles as well as a small Sony Z Camera. Although I’d prefer a larger size rig to which I’m used to, the conditions dictate otherwise. First because its so hot that extra pounds just make things worse, especially in cramped conditions like a helo or a humvee. And secondly and more importantly a larger camera will stick out to anyone watching us. As a SEAL friend of mine instructed me :if you saw one guy out of the ordinary among a group of soldiers and you were a sniper, who would you shot?” Well, who am I to ignore advice like that?

I’ve been in Iraq less than two weeks and have been mortared twice without ever leaving the protection of the Green Zone fortress in Baghdad or the multiple defenses of Camp Fallujah. My fear of dying or blowing up has reasonably quieted down. After several events lasting ten minutes or less, I’ve discovered that everybody has the same reactions and everybody deals with it their own way.

As I stand here alone, fingering all of my gear and wondering who everybody is. I alternate between excitement and fear. Excitement at what I’m about to do and fear that I will make a mistake. Just trying to identify Murphy’s team is making me nervous and although I will soon be able to identify guys by the way they walk or the weapons they carry, right now they all look alike. Accepting the fact that there really is nothing you can do if you get the hit addressed, to whom it may concern is remarkably calming. I mean, what are you going to do?

I’m more worried about how to keep up with these Recon Marines who have seen years training for the war. I’m older then all of them including the battalion commander and standing here on the strip, waiting for our ride it’s too late to while or worry about getting wacked. In fact, all I’m worried about, besides getting in the right helo is not dropping in this heat. I’m sweating under the armor vest, like everyone else I’ll never eat lobster again now that I can imagine what it’s like to be boiled to death.

After five weeks away from Alpha Company, I’m back for their last three weeks in country. Don’t ask me why. I really can’t explain it except the need to be here for me. Although none of these guys care, particularly, a lot of guys are glad to see me. It’s as if they understand without saying anything. When SSgt. Davis tells me 2nd platoon is wondering why I haven’t stopped over to say hi, I’m embarrassed. I didn’t go over there right away because I didn’t want to be too much of a geek. The truth is I missed them and back in the States people seemed so out of touch with their lives. Here, in the Sunni Triangle, there are no mundane chores and bills to pay. Here I have it wired. One small pack and my camera equipment.

As always in combat things always change. The Company has moved from Camp Fallujah down to where they are patrolling a couple of tours on the Euphrates. The heat drops off the 2nd day I’m here down to 110 degrees less but it’s noticeable and bearable now. I still swear like a house but it cools me off.

The search for Scarface has intensified and while the camera was gone Alpha had some positive and successful operations including a huge night raid where this time coordination was perfect and several wanted high value suspects were seized with weapons and other incriminating material.

I’m encouraged between that and the cooler temperatures I’m optimistic I will film some combat before this is over. I’m still anxious but being back here with the company seems neutral. Crapping in a bag, eating noodle soup and walking patrols through town is a routine. I can understand now. In fact, it makes more sense to me then being home. When I realize I think this, I remind myself to pay attention. I’m not a Marine and my job is to document their days here. The main point here is I’m glad to be back with Alpha and although nobody comes out and says it, most of guys are glad to see us.

The search for Scarface, real name Nafi has 2nd platoon excited. With only three weeks left, the thought he’d get away. But after Camp Fallujah is mortared a few times, Alpha is ordered back to its base and it’s old AO. The company commander wants the mortar attacks stopped and so Alpha will get another crack at looking for mortar man.

Going back to Zydon, will be familiar at least but to the guys in Alpha Company it’s all in a days ride. While I was gone, 3rd Platoon took and IED. Gunny Sgt. Coronado’s vehicle took a direct hit and miraculously nobody was even scratched, just a lot of ringing in the ears. The vehicle was destroyed, looks like the armor SSgt. Scott put on works.

I’m not apologizing for me or anyone else here. They all knew what’s right and wrong and, like most people, they believe they can bring law and order to Dodge City. That’s why there are Rules of Engagement or ROEs.

When you live in a platoon, you get seen by others: pick your nose, chew with your mouth open, snore. That’s the least of it. Make a mistake, do something stupid or reckless, let a teammate down, that takes you into serious. It’s peer pressure thing and despite the Alpha Male thing and the violence always lurking at the edge of this world, We know what we are supposed to do. We do it everyday. The fact that these young men are, in fact, young men, doesn’t matter. They’re pros.

Captain Bahe hates it when I say he looks like a perfect boy scout. The fact is he isn’t but he knows the rules and all the way down the chain, so do his men.

Stevens is incredibly vulnerable for such a tough guy. Sensitive might be a better word. I believe it’s what makes him so deadly as a Marine, so effective as a team leader..

Everyone knows he could crush them if they get out of line but his tactic is a savage wit mixed with his own exemplary performance. Stevens complains but it pulls his men along. They see him suffer but never waver. He doesn’t downplay stuff. If the load is heavy, it sucks. But theree is not even a hint of quit in him. And if you were ever to think about dishonoring the mission, he will rip your heart out and puke in the hole.

This is not overly stated. Every man in 2nd platoon fears letting the others down. That, my friends, is a fate worse than death itself. That is what motivates me. I have to measure up. I do have an advantage. I am an outsider so if I can’t alwaysa break the code, most guys tolerate my less than Recon performance. They can handle that I can’t run or swim as long as I am honorable. I do what, do what they say in the field, and try to hold my end together.

There’s no maid service out here. And complaining in a bad way – blaming my fate on them – won’t fly.

As long as I put out, Alpha tolerates me. They don’t care if I agree with them or even like them as long as I hump the same trail, carry my own shit, and understand what it’s like on the ground. I can respect that.

Before every patrol into Al Anbar, mission is defined…a platoon’s route is plotted by road and carefully examined from the air for obvious signs of booby traps or unusual happen9ngs.

After being here for two months and patrolling the same areas, Alpha’s role is becoming more like a neighborhood cop on the beat than combat actions. /Each platoon has a list of High Value Individuals or HVIs.

A powerful deterrant to attack is to project aggressiveness. Almost everyone I talked with believes that the other units can get IED’d if they button up on the road and fail to move thru the neighborhood on foot.

The information is sketchy but Whitney and Rossignol send a team to check out reports of a possible weapons site in a nearby cemetery which proves accurate. And when the marines uncover remains of American weapons, tensions rise.

Outwardly Team leader Bobi maintains his poise but watching Massey detain this suspect you can feel the a quiet rage. One of these detainees or more could be the killer of American marines or soldiers. The weapon is identified as having been missing since the previous November.

As the detainments continue, the evidence grows Now a flak jacket is discovered inside the house. All detainees are ID’d, documented in reports and turned over to Iraqui courts. Most of them Alpha believes suspects who are ‘dirty’ will be released w/o further fanfare. That frustrates the marines. This time however, the evidence is solid. Eventually two of these detainezss will receive jail time.

As the patrol rolls into it’s first top, the platoon divides into four teams. Rossignol and his two teams beging a search for weapons house to house and looking for military age males. When or if they find something something out of the ordinary, they will confiscate the weapons and photograph the males.

It’s not the mission they want or trained for but nonetheless, they do it thoroughly.

One of the perceptions is easy to make. Viewers see helmeted, armed soldiers interview unarmed Iraqi civilians. But the fact is, many people people have welcomed Rossignol and his men into their homes, offering what little thay have as genuine appreciation of being protected from insurgents. It is an image time after time I was not expecting to see.

The chief entertainment on patrol is, there isn’t any. Sleep, keep weapons clean, rotate the watch and rink water, even when it’s like drinking hot coffee. The Sunni Triangle in mid summer is a broiler, with temperatures hitting over 120° in mid summer… by mid-morning, then staying that way until seven oclock at night… The heat is impossible to see in pictures but experiencing it after hours is degrading our emotional Iqs. Those white stains on my pantsare salt deposits from sweat. I’ve actually leftwet footprints on the hotter days and nights. Run around hard for twenty minutes and it’s like jumping into a swimming pool…

God News/bad news.

Captain Bahe is a boyish looking Company commander but he is well aware of his mens’ desire for combat. The beat cop thing can wear through fast. The fact is Alpha is afraid alright: afraid they won’t get into combat. Listen to their ideal mission or their pride in being warriors and you will realize these are not blood thirsty killers eager to simply slaughter.

Before they should be judged for such a sentiment, Big Daddy, Captain Bahe and their platoon commanders make sure the men understand they need to be careful for what they wish for. It’s more to take the test of one self, a test that has been present in all societies since history began. Bottom line, they’ll do this job proudly and efficiently but they’d rather hunt and find insurgents and kill them.

Watching Marines interface with the Iraqi people here is a lesson in humility. I came here, expecting combat all the time. The fact is the only constant for this mission is meeting and greeting Iraqi people.

Bahe, Big Daddy, in fact all the men know a key to their success is to establish your humanity and reinforce that. One tactic is to not appear unapproachable. When every marine looks like Robocop, the individual touch is lost. Don’t get me wrong. Appearing too friendly and you look weak but everybody likes to respected, including us. Withoput drawing attention to it, watch Rossignol take off his sunglasses and hands his rifle to someone as he talks to the uncle. He remains in charge but breaking down barriers is standard operational procedure when conducting interviews. Getting to know people is the basic tenet to knock and talks. The fact is it’s a lot easier to kill a uniform than to kill a person. Senior Chief Shaaluck, the senior corpsman and a member of 3rd platoon said it best.

Still it’s a constant effort and the Marines don’ t always get a payoff. Most Iraqis are scared of retaliation or getting caught in the middle of something that makes no difference to them. To Alpha’s credit’ they understand that plight even as the apolitical people do not step forward. Bahe and Whitney understand that to survive is not a global to the farmer and Families of Zadon. They’re trying to get by, not get over. Yet, these men are frustrated by the overall feeling of apathy and what they feel is a dishonesty of the people. It clashes with their image of being here to help the country.

I’m not defending that position or criticizing it. But I’m telling you that most guys believe down deep that their effort matters and that wearing the white hat’s is who they are.

No matter the reason, Alpha Company is getting information all the time. Security concerns prevent me from showing Iraqi faces here because, after all, bad guys watch TV too. 4th Generation warfare is about the power of information. The fact is the marines never know where or when the info is coming from but getting cooperation from the community isolates the enemy, those who choose the path of violence. That cooperation, no matter how fleeting will often prove more important than bullets. There are two methods of fighting, by law and by force.

Posted in Journals.