Sunday, April 4, 2010

April 9th

So their I was hugging the ground like a little bitch trying to see how much of my body I could fit into the 2 ft wide 2 foot deep trench I was sitting in. Meanwhile Iraqi artillery shells were hitting less than 5 meters away raining shrapnel, rocks and dirt down on top of my Ballistic Helmet, Personnel, Ground more commonly known as the “Kevlar”. My Special Forces A Team had been calling devastating air strikes on the Iraqi Division dug in along the Kani Domlon ridgeline in Northern Iraq for about two weeks and I guess we pissed them off. The Iraqis had taken a terrible pounding and I had observed some of them even shedding their uniforms and deserting via a tractor earlier in the day. I had also observed about thirty of them turn into little pink smears on the grass as a B2 bomber unloaded its entire payload on their bunker.
We had been operating out of some fighting positions the Iraqis had abandoned as they retreated before the Kurdish Pershmerga and US Special Forces teams that had infiltrated Northern Iraq. The Iraqi military had consolidated their defense in a loose ring around the strategically oil rich city of Kirkuk. Occupying many concrete bunkers that were spread about five hundred meters apart; the Iraqis had also replicated their tactics of the first Gulf War and set some of the oil wells on fire. Apparently this was done in an attempt to obscure their positions from our aircraft. Earlier as I peered at the enemy positions through my binoculars and worked up coordinates for the next strike, I wondered if I would be permanently affected by breathing in all this oil smoke which covered us like a thick but slightly greasy fog.
However as I was getting more intimate with the Iraqi countryside I was worried about the more permanent problem that seemed to be facing me. It was about 2300 and pitch dark. Prior to nightfall we had seen some artillery fire land about 2000 meters away but didn’t pay it much attention other than to note it for our situation report. But now as half the team was preparing to bed down and the other half was on watch, the artillery started to bracket our position. The enemy observers added and dropped in range until they let a full blown fire for effect loose on our position.
My commo guy was yelling into the satcom radio that we were experiencing contact; meanwhile I was rousting the rest of the team trying to get them under cover. “Here it comes again, boys” I said as we heard the muffled report of the Iraqi artillery that was followed not to long after by another series of earth shattering and ear ringing explosions. The Kurdish Major who was my counterpart on this patrol, grabbed my arm and was trying to yell something about the incoming in my ear. However between his broken English and the noise I could only catch the word “Peshmerga” as he shook his head in a negative fashion. Was he trying to tell me we were not the primary target of this barrage? Was he trying to indicate the primary target was the Peshmerga forces that had been probing the Iraqi positions along the ridgeline?
Primary target or not when under stress soldiers always fall back on their training, every school I had went to from Basic Combat Training to Ranger school had drilled into me that when you are on the receiving end of an artillery attack you un-ass the area as quickly as possible. So this is what we did, I instructed my team members to grab the small amount of gear we had around our position and to load up in the white Land Rover Defender four wheel drives we were traveling in. We piled into our vehicles and clipped our night vision goggles to our helmets. Meanwhile the Kurds loaded up in the one rusty suburban they had for transportation. Except for the red tracers flying down the valley toward and around our position and the artillery flashes surrounding us there was no light. We drove in blackout conditions using our night vision goggles to navigate as the Kurds followed behind in their vehicle. My plan was to try and find another location to set up shop, one that had not been compromised by the Iraqi observers. Everyone was at a high state of alertness as we drove across the Iraqi countryside paralleling the bluff that ending abruptly at the steep valley that it seems Peshmerga forces where advancing up towards the Iraqi positions.
We were approaching a linear danger area (road) when suddenly my driver who was our senior weapons sergeant yelled “Ambush!! We have men and weapons on the road!!” He immediately threw our vehicle in reverse and tried to break contact. Unfortunately he forgot we were the lead element in a line of 4 vehicles. The vehicle immediately behind us managed to stop but was hit in the front fender by my vehicle as it backed up. The third vehicle in line was the Kurdish vehicle which continued the accordion effect and slammed into the spare tire on the back of the vehicle in front of it so hard the front of their vehicle was pushed into the radiator cracking it and busting a headlight. I yelled at him “What the fuck dude, you need to fuckin think before you go hauling ass!!” Meanwhile, whoever he saw on the road had disappeared, if they where even there at all.
So there we were in the middle of no mans land with two smashed up vehicles, one which was barely drivable. I had my team members pull security as I tried to assess the damage by red lens flashlight. We were barely 1000 meters from where we had just experienced the artillery attack and I felt like the leader of the ass clown circus as I tried to explain to the Major I was sorry we had destroyed his truck. I determined our best course of action was to return to base and see if we could repair the Kurdish truck. Our patrol base was in the village of Klawkut which was about 10 kilometers east of our current position. We limped back to base with the Kurdish vehicle in tow, driving thru the countryside of Northern Iraq it took us 4 more hours to move those 10 kilometers and we arrived at out patrol base about 0400 exhausted. After waking up my Team Leader and explaining the situation I told the guys to bed down and figured we would sort things out in the morning.
The next morning we reported what had happened to our company headquarters and we were instructed in no uncertain terms to get our asses back out there and establish a new observation post. So I loaded my team back up in our vehicles, taking only 2 Kurds with us we established a new OP a little farther north of our previous position. Shortly after we arrived we received radio traffic that we were to engage no one west of a particular gridline on the map. Shortly after that we received word that the Iraqi forces had deserted the ridgeline and Peshmerga where streaming hell bent for leather towards Kirkuk. I informed my Team Leader that the Kurds where heading towards Kirkuk and agreed to link up with them at a small village that we had used as a reference point before. As we waited at the linkup for the remainder of our team we saw a regular parade of buses, cars, dump trucks, and pickups filled with Peshmerga streaming south west along the main highway to Kirkuk. What happened when they got there is another story.
I found out later that April 9th was a watershed day for the invasion of Iraq. It was the day the famous statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled. It was the day that Baghdad was taken and the Iraqi forces collapsed. Although I will never know for sure I believe the fierce direct and indirect fire we experienced on that evening was the last attempt of the Iraqi forces to cover their withdrawal as they melted before the onslaught of American air power and Kurdish foot soldiers. For me the evening of April 9th will always stick in my mind as the night I had a fender bender in the middle of a firefight.

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