Friday, July 30, 2010

No Man's Land

We had established our patrol base in the Iraqi village of Klaw Kut. After dusk myself and my A team had moved out in our Land Rover Defenders accompanied by some Kurdish Peshmerga in a rusty Suburban. We had recently moved from the larger village of Taq Taq through the former Iraqi lines and into our current place of residence. Some of the ODA remained at the patrol base while we conducted a leader’s recon, attempting to pinpoint the Iraqi lines and identify a good observation post from which to call for fire and report back intelligence on the Iraqis.
The Peshmerga took the lead driving along the rutted dirt road by the light of the moon, utilizing no headlights or markers for fear of an Iraqi ambush. We drove with night vision goggles mounted to our helmets and I wondered how the Kurds could see at all without the aid of technology as the moon was half full at best and often covered with clouds. Great night for concealment, poor night for driving, we were spaced out in tactical convoy formation the Pershmerga followed by our two vehicles.
Eventually we left the road and started driving straight across the Iraqi countryside generally heading southeast through terrain littered with large rocks and short stubby grass. The terrain was gently rolling hills whose shadows hid many small villages that lay in ruins. These were the product of Saddam Hussein’s Kurdish eradication policy and had been abandoned for some time. Knowing this did not keep me from peering through and around every tumbled down wall with my night vision goggles as if they would grant me x-ray vision to see the ambush that I felt was lurking in every corner.
At the start of the war the Iraqi’s had pulled back from their original defensive line and consolidated just north of the oilfields surrounding Kirkuk. My unit the 10th Special Forces Group along with elements of 3rd Special Forces Group, A Marine Expeditionary Unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and the Kurds had filled this gap and were pressing south trying to keep the Iraqis engaged in the north of the country so they could not reinforce Baghdad and cause trouble for the main Allied thrust which was coming from the south. Our main mission was to pinpoint where the Iraqi’s had their defensive perimeter so we could reengage them.
As we crept forward at approximately 15-20 kilometers per hour we were constantly stopping to dismount and check the terrain ahead for any signs of the enemy. Our dismounts would clear the area to our front and then we would move ahead, in a modified bounding overwatch technique.  This area we were driving through belonged to no one, it had become a buffer, a no man’s land between the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq and the readjusted Iraqi lines. It was inhabited by wandering Iraqi units, Pershmerga, American Special Forces, and bandits. It was what I imagined the Wild West must have been like, no boundaries no definite good guy/bad guy; just a lot of guys with guns and everyone had an agenda.
Suddenly my vehicle came to a silent halt and my driver motioned that the Kurds up ahead had stopped their vehicle and dismounted. They were moving slowly forward in the Kurdish version of a patrol formation, what I might have called a gaggle, towards where the valley we had been following intersected with a small ridgeline. After we dismounted we could hear some faint noises ahead and see the barely present glow of what looked like tail lights about 200 meters ahead. We all trained our weapons on those glowing lights in anticipation of a night about to go badly.
Our Team Leader took a few of our guys and moved off in the darkness towards the Kurdish gaggle in an attempt to identify what lay ahead. After what seemed like forever the word was passed back “Peshmerga!! Bring the vehicles forward.” Believe it our not we had run across another vehicle full of Peshmerga that was roaming the battlefield and they had managed to run themselves axle deep into a small pond. After a security perimeter was established, as quietly as we could and using our night vision equipment we towed their vehicle out of the pond using the winch on the front of one of our Defenders.
These Pesh were so happy we had helped them out they decided to become our personal body guards and followed along behind our vehicles like baby ducks following their Mom. As we inched closer towards Kirkuk the skies overhead were being lit up by flashes of flares and chaff being dropped from U.S. fighter aircraft towards the Iraqi lines as the Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery shot red and green tracers into the sky in random patterns. We could hear the muffled thuds of explosions, and the budda-budda like sounds of the DSHK machine guns, however our immediate surroundings were so quiet you could hear a pin drop and it all seemed very surreal. The thought kept crossing my mind that I had seen the same sort of scene on the news during the first Gulf War but know here I was living it.
We continued to skirt the Iraqi positions with our little convoy stopping, watching, listening, and reconnoitering possible observation post positions. As the night wore on and turned into morning we headed back to the northeast meandering our way to our patrol base by another route. Arriving just as dawn was breaking, we enjoyed a breakfast of flat bread, chai, chicken-rice. We laid out the map and prepared our patrol order for the upcoming evening’s activities. Based on our recon we would be establishing an observation post along the edge of a fairly deep and wide ravine with a good view of the Iraqi positions. The ravine was about a mile wide and cut through the countryside like a mini Grand Canyon right up to the huge ridgeline the Iraqis had set up shop on. We conducted the patrol order, rehearsals and gear preparation, and then the majority of us took an afternoon siesta after our long night and day in no man’s land.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Extracurricular Activities #1: Emergency Medical Technician

As many of you know and many do not I spend a lot of time doing "jobs" that aren't really jobs. My wife claims I am a workaholic and can't sit still, my kids say I have OCD. Bottom line is I try to keep myself busy because honestly ever since I retired from the military I get bored just sitting at home. I have several things I do on a regular basis and I thought I would write about each one of them.

When I was on a Special Forces ODA we did cross training on medical treatment procedures. This was out of necessity since there was twelve of us and we only had two medics. We often broke down into even smaller units so not every group got there own medic. However we still needed to manage any situation that may happen in training or combat, so our medics trained us. Special Forces medics are some of the most highly trained medical personnel in the military as far as trauma management and all around general medical practices. I trusted these men with my life, I even let one of them operate on my dog. That is how much I respected their skills. So long story short I spent a lot of time in the military training on medical issues even though I was not a medic. When I retired from the military I got this wild idea that I should get qualified as an Emergency Medical Technician both because it interested me and because I had this vague idea of applying to a fire department somewhere.

The fire department idea never happened but I did get qualified as an EMT-B. The course was ten weeks long, two nights a week, four hours a night. We started out with over thirty students and about 11 of us finished our national registry. Not that the training was all that hard but it took discipline to study around work etc... and as I discovered then and since outside of the military there is a lot of lazy floating around. Many of the "students" thought the instructor was being unreasonable when he/she asked them to produce results on a weekly basis. The class I took was fast paced, we went through two chapters of the text a night, followed by an hour of practical skills and every class ended with a must pass test on the material from the class before. The national registry exam consisted of a proctored written exam and a practical where you had to assess and treat a patient in three different scenarios either medical or trauma related. Reminded me of about every school I attended in the military, but like I said many couldn't and didn't make it through the training mostly due to lack of effort.

After graduating I used my skills sparsely for a few years, life took over and my idea to be an EMT went on the back burner. I did work part time at the local Minor League Baseball park for one season as an EMT which mostly consisted of me watching the game and putting ice packs on people who got hit with foul balls. Was a pretty sweet gig but it only lasted a few months. Eventually my certification was coming up for renewal and I discovered since I wasn't employed by any medical service ie.. a ambulance service, hospital, or fire department. I would have to attend a 24 hour EMT refresher if I chose to remain certified. After attending the refresher and getting re certified, I decided I better get on the stick and use my skills or give the idea up. I searched around the internet and found an ambulance service 15 miles from the town I live in that took volunteers, I applied and they accepted me.

The service I run with covers a rural area of over 150 square miles and services a population of a little over 6000. There are about 20-25 volunteers, we have 3-4 paramedics, most of the rest of us are EMT-B and we have a few volunteers that aren't certified, here is our website The service will send you to EMT-B class if you agree to volunteer for a year. The State of Iowa rates us as a Paramedic-minimal staffing service. That means we are a Paramedic level service but if one is not available we can leave the garage with an EMT-B as crew chief. If that EMT encounters a situation where advanced level skills are needed they can call for a mutual aid from the County Sheriff Paramedic or the paid service in the large town where I actually live. This doesn't happen too often as our Paramedics are some of the most dedicated volunteers I have ever seen and they volunteer hundreds of hours a month and go on dozens of calls all for volunteer wages and while holding down their own full time jobs. I and a few other EMT-B's are training currently to become future crew chiefs to re leave some of this workload however.

Since I live out of town and we are required to respond within seven minutes of a page I have to stay at the ambulance garage when I am on call. They have a little bunk room there with TV and internet access so it isn't too bad. My wife is awesome as usual and doesn't say one word about the 7-10 nights a month I sleep away from home. She is used to me being deployed anyway after 23 years of marriage the first 17 in the military.

Over 80% of the EMS services in Iowa are covered by volunteer services most of them rural. Iowa is also heavily geriatric so we get a lot of calls for older patients.  I actually attended a class this winter on GEMs (Geriatric Emergency Medicine) just because of this demographic. That is not the only type of call we get however. Since I have been on the service I have responded to unexpected home births, car accidents, serious trauma, hypothermia, motorcycle accidents, and a multitude of medical calls. Others on our service have responded to gunshots, suicides, and heart attacks. We pretty much run the gambit. I have learned a lot and I really enjoy the opportunity to use my medical training helping people. So next time you see a ambulance go by say a prayer for those inside and thank the volunteer who is in the back and driving the rig. They save lives for no or little pay so a thank you is always appreciated.Better yet hook up with a service and volunteer yourselves. If you're ever close to Highways 30 and 1 in Northeastern Iowa stop by and say hi.

Monday, July 12, 2010

4th of July 5K

Ran in the Alliant Energy 5K again this year as I have done every year for the last 10, unless I was deployed. Ran 4 minutes faster than last year but was still beaten by an 8 year old. I think he was from Krypton or someplace.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Recon Patrol

On my second deployment to Kosovo in 2000, I was the acting Team Sergeant of an ODA out of 1st Bn 10th SFG (A) in Boeblingen, Germany. I was “acting” Team Sergeant for the ODA due to the fact that I had just been made a promotable E7 or Sergeant First Class. Promotable meant I was on the list for promotion to Master Sergeant but it wouldn’t happen until my number came up. This was all new to me, I had never been a Team Sergeant before and I was taken off the Military Freefall ODA I had been on for the last two years and put on an ODA that had just lost a very good Team Sergeant to his own promotion. There was some initial suspicion among the other team members due to the fact that I was a “new” guy and also I was perceived as somewhat of a “HALO GOD” due to my long time spent on Military Freefall detachments. There is even professional jealousy among special operators but I had never felt any of it towards others. Eventually this suspicion went away and a few years later a few of these same guys asked to be on the Military Freefall ODA I was Team Sergeant of. It’s hard to live up to a legend though and I don’t think I ever did measure up to their previous Team Sergeant in their eyes. We were different people and they had been an extremely tight unit, but the mission got accomplished and that is all that mattered.
My second tour in Kosovo was very different from the first. The first time around we were all geared towards winning hearts and minds and stabilizing the country. We were staying out in the countryside and doing presence patrols trying to meet the people and showing the American Flag. This time, a year into U.S. operations in the region, we were deployed to conduct special reconnaissance missions against selected targets. This meant instead of trying to be seen we were trying to remain undiscovered. We ran all of our patrols out of a compound on the northern end of the main U.S. base Camp Bondsteel. Our compound was a base within a base, our headquarters building, isolation /planning area, barracks, and recreation area were all surrounded by a double thick wall of HESCO barriers that separated us from the “regular” Army guys. My team was attached to a company from 2nd Bn 10th SFG(A) who were running their own very different operations across the countryside. Also conducting reconnaissance with us was a platoon of Navy Seals, our two units would trade responsibilities during these missions. Part of one unit would conduct the actual recon while the rest of that unit and the other unit would team up and act as a quick reaction force in case there was any trouble. This QRF could also extract the recon team on short notice if needed. We spent our entire tour in this manner, flip flopping responsibilities. In between missions, as most Special Forces teams do, we conducted weapons and equipment maintenance and trained and trained some more.
A typical mission happened about half way through our tour. There was suspicion that a Kosavar Albanian terrorist group was conducting planning meetings for some future bad acts at a village located in a mountain valley in north eastern Kosovo. Our ODA was tasked to conduct surveillance on this village and report back to the Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) any pertinent intelligence we may gather. Once we got the initial briefing from JSOTF we initiated the mission planning cycle in our isolation bay. Once in “isolation” for a mission SF teams do not interact with anyone but their own team mates and are totally focused on the mission and the planning for it. The 72 hour planning cycle included conducting METT-T analysis, developing courses of action, choosing the most feasible one, developing the plan of action and contingency upon contingency. Finally rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. One of the rehearsals developed by our Engineer Sergeant involved crawling through a pitch black bomb shelter with full gear and night vision goggles on. This bomb shelter was also fiendishly booby trapped as only an SF demolition man knows how. We went through it one after the other until we could move through without blowing ourselves up. Then we went through as buddy teams and finally as a entire team. As we were to infiltrate by Blackhawk helicopter we went out to the airstrip and practiced loading and unloading the aircraft until we could do it with our eyes closed and in the dark. Finally we conducted our brief back to the JSOTF commander and were given the green light for the mission.
The night we were to infiltrate we packed and inspected all our mission essential equipment and personal gear. Stripper clips, time fuze and det cord were laying every where as we loaded bullets into our magazines and primed our claymores with 10 second delays. These Claymore anti-personnel mines were to be used at the tail end of one of our immediate action drills. This particular drill involved breaking contact using the “Australian Peel.” If heavy contact was made our lead man would empty his magazine and then peel back down our “ranger” file while the next man emptied his magazine and then did the same. So on and so on until we had broken contact with the enemy. Then the claymores would be emplaced to discourage any further pursuit by hostiles. Once we were geared up and ready to go we loaded into our vehicles for the ride to the airstrip.
Upon arrival we loaded in to the helicopter and listened to the whine of the blades as they changed pitch and we lifted off. Our flight route followed a well known supply route for U.S. Forces. It was our hope that with this and several false insertions along the route our target would be tricked into thinking our helicopter was just another mail run up to the main Kosovo Force (KFOR) headquarters. We conducted several false insertions until the crew chief told me over my headset that we were one minute out from the mountain meadow we had chosen as our infiltration landing zone. The Blackhawk came to a hover a few feet off the ground and the static electricity coming off the blades swirled likes shooting stars as we piled out of the bird and set up a hasty 360 degree defensive perimeter. As soon as they were satisfied all of my team had un-assed the bird the helicopter took off suddenly leaving us in silence. As we moved into the tree line we could hear it moving off in the distance conducting one more of our planned false insertions before they made their way back to base.  Once we were in the cover of the trees we set up another perimeter and remained absolutely quiet and alert. We stayed there for almost 20 minutes satisfying ourselves we had not been compromised and adjusting our eyes and ears to the sights and sounds of the battle field. From that point on conversation, if at all, would be in very low whispers and an elaborate system of hand and arms signals. We would move in single file through the woods and darkness spaced out enough to react to an ambush. Our point man would be first, our compass man second, and as the Patrol leader I would be third in line. The rest of the patrol members would be trailing out behind us.
Combat Patrols at night are an elaborate ballet of movement, security, and navigation. Patrol members needs to remain alert for ambush while at the same time navigating through unfamiliar terrain using a map and compass in pitch darkness. All the while they need to avoid the dreaded “break in contact” where part of the team gets spread out and loses track of the rest of the team’s location. As per our standard operating procedure we had infiltrated our objective area at least one terrain feature away from our objective. And since this part of Kosovo was mountainous that terrain feature was a huge ridgeline. We picked up our rucksacks and started silently moving on azimuth towards the objective. Our movement would consist of five kilometers of up a mountain down a mountain, along with the occasional stream crossing and navigational readjustment. As dawn approached we were within 500 meters of our planned patrol base and myself and two of my other team members conducted a leaders recon to determine the best position to set up shop.
Unfortunately the best area for cover, concealment and observation was the side of another huge ridge that faced the valley in which the village was located. This location gave us great line of sight for our optics and digital cameras; it also allowed us a good satellite communication shot for our SATCOM radio. It was defensible and gave us several good escape routes. Bade news was the pitch on the slope was so steep that you could not sit or stand straight without tying yourself off to a tree. We had thought of that contingency however and we were each carrying a section of one inch tubular webbing and a snap link that we could fashion into a safety harness. We quickly moved in before the sun was up and set up our spotting scopes and communication equipment. We camouflaged our positions with some hide material (camo nets) we had packed in our rucksacks. We stayed at 50% security during the whole patrol; while half the team rested the other half conducted observation and pulled security. Every morning before dawn and just before dusk we would conduct stand to and stand down where the entire team was on 100% alert.
We conducted surveillance for three days and nights, taking dozens of digital pictures and transmitting them via SATCOM radio back to the JSOTF. We took pictures of vehicles, license plates and individuals entering and exiting houses in the village. The JSOTF would compare this information to a data base to see if any of the individuals were known terrorists. We also transmitted situation reports or SITREPS twice daily on any suspicious movement or activity. We discovered a few large gatherings conducted at a particular house and we forwarded this information on, the most suspicious thing we discovered was that whenever a KFOR helicopter flew down the valley on its way somewhere the residents of the valley would sound their vehicle horns in a crude early warning system. You could hear these horns long before the sound of the helicopter rotor blades.
After three days of sleeping tied to a tree we packed up our gear and prepared to exfiltrate. Exfiltration was essentially the reverse of the infiltration, we moved silently towards our link up point under cover of darkness. Just as dawn was breaking we linked up with our QRF at a road intersection. We exchanged bonafides and they gave us a ride back to Camp Bondsteel in the back of our Hummvees. Once we debriefed the JSOTF Commander on our findings we all headed off for a shower and some much needed sleep. I myself was looking forward to grabbing a macchiato at the cappuccino bar and seeing if the mess hall had any new flavors of ice cream. It is the little things that make life tolerable.