Wednesday, July 29, 2009


*Retold with permission.

Last time I was here in Iraq, we were temporarily attached to a unit in Baquba, kicking off what alternated between the most dangerous and most ridiculous missions we’ve ever done. From the very beginning, we had problems, starting with the unit that we relieved.

We arrived on the patrol base about midday, and we quickly discovered that we were going to need a resupply of food and water. There was a little, but nowhere near enough. In fact, we’d probably run out of water that day. Sure, they said. The small unit we’d relieved promised they’d take care of it when they got to the main base nearby.

Before they left, though, they announced that they’d show us around the area. We dutifully put on our gear and headed for the trucks.

“What are you doing?” one of their guys said.

“We’re going on a patrol, right?”

“We patrol on foot here. We have too many barriers throughout the town to make humvee patrols practical. Most of the patrols here are walking.”

That was a warning sign. We’d grown so accustomed to using humvees that we’d never even considered that we might have to do foot patrols. The fact that it was about 120 degrees didn’t make it terribly appealing, either. Begrudgingly, we headed out with them on foot, and later that day, the unit left, promising a hasty resupply.

Well, the resupply never arrived that day, despite the fact we desperately needed it, and the main base wasn’t very far from us. My guess is that they simply didn’t care anymore. Whatever. It wasn’t their patrol base now. So before the first day was even over, we already despised the unit we replaced. Their unit callsign was “Bonecrusher,” but we called them “Bonehead” – even on the radios, and just to irritate them. Even though they had left, they’d still provide our fire support [mortars and artillery] from their main base, so we had plenty of opportunities to tick them off. They deserved it.

Later that first day, sweating to death and almost out of water, I manned a checkpoint looking down a road. Off in the distance, maybe 500 meters, was a crater large enough to swallow a car. As I watched my avenue of approach, children wandered up and started to play in the hole, which was a problem.

Their presence wasn’t necessarily as innocuous as it might have seemed. In the past, children have been used to place IEDs, so it was possible that they were doing the same thing here, too. Yet none of us had any desire whatsoever to shoot them, so my team leader instructed me to fire some warning shots nearby to scare them off. I carefully aimed in, let off a burst, and they ran away.

My rounds had impacted more closely than I had anticipated, so I was momentarily concerned that I’d hit one of them. After all, he was limping. But thankfully, I had not. He had some other injury – none from me. I still felt really badly about scaring them, though. They were only kids.

Shortly after, our relief unit patrolled out to us and we went back to the base, still hot, and still thirsty. The water resupply had yet to arrive, and since nothing much else was going on, we tried to catch a little sleep. We’d be in and out for the remainder of the afternoon, evening and night.

No sooner had we started to unwind when we heard an enormous explosion not too far from our patrol base, and moments later, we heard over the radio that some of our guys, out there patrolling in humvees, had been hit. Everybody was okay, but the truck was going up in flames.

Wait, I asked. Isn’t that the truck with the AT4 in it? [Anti-tank rocked commonly used by US forces in Iraq] No sooner were the words out of my mouth, and we heard another huge explosion. There went the AT-4, and now my squad leader was running around in a panic. He wanted to get out there and help.

“ You, you, and you. Come with me. We’re going to go help them out.” He grabbed me and a couple of other soldiers, and we sprinted out of the patrol base and into town. It was faster to go on foot, since if we’d taken trucks, we’d have to go well out of our way to circumvent the concrete barriers.

Going on foot, though, wasn’t much easier. It was still over a kilometer to the blast site, and we couldn’t just run directly to them. So, in 120 degree weather, with all our gear on, and now completely out of water, we ran house-to-house, clearing the buildings, streets and courtyards all the way out to the burning humvee.

There was nothing left of it, either. Just a heap of smoldering metal, burned gear, and a few half-filled water bottles that had somehow survived the IED and the ensuing fire. Thirsty as hell and exhausted from our run, we jogged over and started sifting through the ashes to grab them. My buddy grabbed one and took a swig, but immediately spit it out. None of us has considered that it was boiling hot. We still had no water.

Somebody started hollering out that they saw movement in a nearby building. We found the triggermen, they yelled. We all opened up into the building with machine guns, rifles, and .203s, and in moments a Bradley lumbered up to reinforce us. My squad leader yelled me to take cover while they fired, but I ignored him. Their .25 [25mm main gun on a Bradley fighting vehicle] couldn’t be that loud, right? Wrong. When they started firing, it felt like somebody was crushing my skull.

Eventually things calmed down and we started doing our (slower) foot patrol back to base. I was feeling nauseous and half delirious with thirst, and I wasn’t sweating anymore.

“Hey High Speed, are you okay?” my squad leader asked.

“I’m fine, sergeant. I’ll be okay. We’re almost back.”

He could tell I wasn’t okay at all, though, and as he watched me, I collapsed. I don’t remember much from that point on, but they threw me into a passing humvee and took me back to the patrol base. My friend later told me that when I got back inside, I started shedding gear like a child. I peeled off my LBV [load-bearing vest] and tossed it down, then my flak, my helmet, and my rifle, leaving a trail of gear all the way from the door, across the room and to my cot. After our medic gave me an IV, I improved significantly.

Late that same night (still the first day on that patrol base), we went back out in town again on a night operation. As we patrolled, one of our guys spotted suspicious movement some distance off behind some houses. It was too dark to see clearly, and our night vision didn’t provide clear enough images, so I called back to Bonehead (on the nearby main base) and requested that they fire an illumination round .

Very carefully, I read off the grid, gave the azimuth and estimated distance, and relayed it to Bonehead on the radio. “Shot, over. Shot, out.”

Off in the distance, more than a kilometer from the target, we saw the round light up the entirely wrong area. I assumed I’d called in the wrong numbers, so I quickly confirmed that I was, in fact, completely correct. Bonehead was the one messing up. But, I called in the adjustment and tried again. “Shot, over. Shot, out,” they called. Nothing. We didn’t see anything. I radioed back to them. We’d seen no splash [impact].

“Um, we haven’t fired yet,” they explained, which made no sense.

You don’t say, “Shot, over. Shot out” until you’ve actually fired. I relayed their excuse to my squad leader, who was furious. He came down from where he was observing and radioed back to them himself. They changed their story this time.

“Uh, we’ve been having problems with our lum rounds, and sometimes they’re not working very well. If you’d like, we can fire an HE [high explosive] for you.”

Unbelievable. They couldn’t get within a kilometer of the target we called in, yet they were willing to lob high explosive rounds out there – hitting God knows who. Livid, my squad leader said forget it. Bonehead was too incompetent to even fire an illumination round. There’s no way in hell we wanted them firing HE out here. They’d probably hit us by accident. We ended the fire mission and just kept on patrolling. Without proper indirect fire support, there was no way we could pursue anybody on the ground.

All this was just the first day out there in Baquba.

Another time, they did manage to nearly wipe us out with artillery fire. We were positioned on top of a house and preparing to start a “terrain denial” mission [an artillery mission where rounds are fired in known insurgent hot spots to discourage them from using that location again]. The target was a shallow section of the river that Al Qaeda was using to smuggle arms across to other insurgent networks. We were about 400 meters away, so I gave them our position and told them to set up a 300 meter no fire area around us. No problem. They’d fire their first shot, and we’d adjust them if necessary. But it shouldn’t be needed, since it was an “on-call” target [a target already programmed into computers on the gun line, and usually hit accurately without any adjustments].

But their first shot landed right next to us in an orchard, sending shrapnel spraying against the side of our building, and humming over our heads. It sounded like a muscle car flying directly above me. Once again, I checked the map, determined that they were messed up, not us, and then called back the adjustments.

That impact, while closer to the actual target, still sent shrapnel into our building and over our heads. It was getting ridiculous. These guys were awful. I called in a second adjustment and told them to fire for effect. It was close enough. We hugged the floor and prayed that nothing would hit us. In the future, we were reluctant to call in any fire missions at all. They seemed more likely to hit us than hit the target.

The whole time we were there in Baquba, Bonehead never improved, and to this day you can inquire what any of us here think of them and they’ll quickly announce that they hate them. We’d been pulled away from our own AO [area of operations] just to help them, yet they didn’t even take care of us. Between the total lack of support, absurd assignments and frequent firefights, we all have stories about Baquba. Very few of them are good. Nor do any of us want to go back there, either – or deal with Bonehead.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

Uncle Caesar said...

The most disheartening thing is they are probably the best battery in the division.

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