Author’s Note: The main premise of this book ties to service and not combat deployment. However, the time we spent in Iraq in 2004-2005 in support of the second phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom is inextricably linked to our time in the military and it will come up numerous times throughout the following chapters. In order to enable maximum understandability of the stories, it is necessary to provide a foundational understanding of both the area of operations we would inherit, as well as the overall environment when we arrived in country. Please use the following pages as a reference throughout the book.
Explanation of Terms
AO – Area of Operations. Usually just referred to as “A-Oh,” it represented the geography that a unit was responsible for conducting combat and non-combat operations.
ASR – Alternate Supply Route. A road used as an alternate supply route if the main supply route was compromised.
CACO – Casualty Assistance Calls Officer. The individual who is responsible for delivering the notifications of the death of an active-duty servicemember to the primary and secondary next-of-kin family members.
CP – Checkpoint. A designator used to ensure common understanding of the locations of certain key parts of geography that helped tactical planning and execution of operations.
CP – Command Post. The center of control for any operation, whether permanent or temporary.
FOB – Forward Operating Base. Often a smaller outpost that battalion, company, and sometimes platoon-sized units would operate permanently from.
FOB ROW – The Forward Operating Base that Golf Company would establish and operate from in Lutifiyah.
FOB St. Michael – The Forward Operating Base that 2/24 used as the battalion headquarters, located in Mahmudiyah.
HESCO Barrier – A large sand-filled protective barrier, used to harden structures against blast and direct fire threats. Made of flexible wire mesh and fabric liner, their dimensions were about 5 feet tall x 4 feet wide.
HMMWV – pronounced “Hum-vee.” A small 2 or 4-door utility vehicle used to transport troops. Could be employed in a variety of missions.
IAs- Iraqi Army Soldiers.
IED – Improvised Explosive Device. A simple bomb made of military explosives and a detonating device. They were used extensively by the insurgency during most of the Iraq conflict.
INGs – Iraqi National Guardsmen.
IPs – Iraqi Policemen.
NCO – Non-Commissioned Officer. Enlisted service members who earned their title through promotion and served as leaders to junior Marines and mentors to officers. In Golf Company, they were the backbone of the unit.
NVGs – Night Vision Goggles. Optics that collect and use all available light, including infrared light, to help see in the dark.
Jersey Barrier – a modular concrete barrier used most often in traffic control. Employed extensively in and around vehicle checkpoints and to control traffic flow and maintain security around key locations.
MSR – Main Supply Route. A road/highway used to transport large amounts of supplies into Iraq to ensure the appropriate logistical pipeline.
OCS – Officer Candidate School. The training school that prospective Marine officers attend prior to being commissioned.
OIF – Operation Iraqi Freedom, the conflict in Iraq that started in 2003 and lasted 7 ½ years.
QRF – Quick Reaction Force. A force that is used to respond to situations when help is needed in a very short period of time.
SOI – School of Infantry. The training program that infantry Marines attend after graduating from boot camp and before joining their permanent unit.
TBS – The Basic School. The training program that all Marine officers attend to learn leadership and tactics before attending their specialty school.
TTPs – Tactics, Techniques, & Procedures. The repetitive actions and behaviors a military force uses to accomplish missions.
VCP – Vehicle Check Point, a standard tool used to protect locations as well control insurgent threats that were amplified by their ability to move unhindered in civilian vehicles.
2/24 – Second Battalion, Twenty-Fourth Marine Regiment. The reserve infantry battalion headquartered in Waukegan, IL, and parent unit to Golf Company.
The Iraq that Golf Company would experience was a very different country than it had been just over a year prior. A few months after President George W. Bush declared the military phase of the battle in Iraq a victory on May 1, 2003, a suicide bomber drove a cement mixer full of explosives into the side of the United Nations compound in Baghdad and detonated it, killing 17 and wounding at least 100. Even though another major success was experienced in December that year when the former leader of Iraq Saddam Hussein was captured, certain events in the beginning of 2004 would serve as a major pivot for the type of volatile setting American forces would endure going forward.
One of these events occurred on March 31, 2004, when Iraqi insurgents ambushed a convoy near Fallujah, located in the Al Anbar province west of Baghdad. Four private security personnel from the US firm Blackwater were killed in the attack. The bodies of the American contractors were paraded through the city, burned, and at least one of them was hanged on a bridge that crossed the Euphrates River on the outskirts of the city. Video of the American bodies being desecrated was shared with the media and aired nonstop throughout the world on the 24×7 news cycle. The ambush and treatment of the Blackwater employees led to a swift American response that led to the first Battle of Fallujah. The nearly one month-long battle was a clear tactical success for the Americans, but for the first time the insurgency inside Iraq proved itself a possible opposition force to the US-led coalition of forces from across the globe.
Just a month after this clash, an American public relations nightmare developed at the Abu Ghraib prison, located in between Fallujah and Baghdad. This location served as one of the major detainee sites for suspected and confirmed insurgents. Several photographs were revealed showing American soldiers smiling and laughing as they routinely forced naked detainees into abusive and humiliating positions. While President Bush issued a deep apology for what happened and did his very best to describe it as an isolated incident, the budding insurgency latched onto the heavily covered story and projected the incident to spark the worst fears of Iraqis and others in the Middle East region. They then used these fears as a powerful recruiting vehicle and were able to add many new fighters to their ranks. General Stanley McChrystal, who had served in several roles in Iraq before taking over all military forces in Afghanistan, offered his opinion of the significant impact of the scandal: “In my experience, we found that nearly every first-time jihadist claimed Abu Ghraib had first jolted him into action.”1
The volatility of the changing situation on the ground led to a major planning headache for the advanced planners who were diligently trying to determine the type of conflict we would face. At one point early in the planning cycle, we expected to deploy almost exclusively for stability operations, where the primary focus would be helping the Iraqis build up their country. In that scenario, infrastructure building, training of the Iraqi Army, National Guard and police, and helping them develop functional governing bodies would be the priority of our unit’s time and effort. Instead, when we deployed, we did so having been given a full-on mission of establishing a secure zone in the geography we would inhabit. The goal was to create the conditions that would allow for follow on stability operations by irrevocably establishing relentless security. These operations would be very different from stability actions and would require us to be good in everything from vehicle checkpoints and force protection all the way to full direct action against an organized enemy element. Said differently, the operations we would find ourselves in would be much more dangerous given the burgeoning insurgency. As time ticked on, there were numerous bits and pieces of information about potential missions, as well as rampant rumors. However, until we were given an official mission just prior to our Annual Training session in spring of 2004, we had to scenario plan for a wide variety of potential tasks.
When we did learn of our official mission and location in country for the deployment, we balanced conflicting feelings of excitement and trepidation. We received what we had asked for – a very challenging area of operations (AO) and a harsh environment. We would be operating out of a location in proximity to both Baghdad and Fallujah that was beginning to heat up with a higher level of insurgent activity. Early reports from the unit we would be replacing painted a picture of very slow progress as they tried to change the mission need from that of security to stability. At best, progress was a slow slog, and on some days, it was almost moving in the opposite direction. Subsequent to the Battle of Fallujah, this part of the province was becoming one of the most active areas for violence and insurgent activity in the entire country. Given the apparent reality we would be inheriting, it was clear to us there could be very little focus on rebuilding the country – which would be our preference – until the cross-religion violence and insurgent attacks were significantly reduced. All our last-minute preparations were focused on being razor sharp in security operations.
One of the demographic realities of the area we would be deploying to related to the mix of Sunni & Shia in our area of operations. Sunni & Shia Arabs comprised approximately 80% of the Iraqi population, with the Sunni Kurds, who inhabited the far north of the country, making up about 15%. The Sunnis were the majority in and around Baghdad and north, up to where the Kurds were concentrated. The Shia were the dominant religious group south of Baghdad. The differences between Kurds and Arabs were mainly ethnic and cultural; for Sunni and Shia the variances were religious. The Kurdish people originated from parts of what today is Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria, while Arabs mainly came from Western Asia and North Africa originally. The split in the Muslim religion that led to Shia and Sunni sects occurred because of a dispute on how a leader should be chosen after the Prophet Muhammad died.
A “seam” (see Figure 1) separating Sunni and Shia-dominated territory existed just miles south of the southern edge of our area of operations and accounted for much of the extra insurgent activity we would see. It was well-known that an extreme lack of trust existed between Sunni and Shia for centuries, and unfortunately this consistently led to terrible acts of extreme violence committed against each other. And though Shia outnumbered Sunni in Iraq by a ratio of about 3 to 1, Hussein had created an autocratic government predicated on Sunni rule, and was able to make that stick for several years.
Now that the oppressive regime was no longer in place, there was a general concern by Sunnis that the Shia would use their numbers and the intended democratic structure to dominate the forming government. And then once the Shia had a stranglehold on the government and security apparatus, there was a real fear they would use their power to exact revenge in oppressive and violent ways. The extreme mistrust existing between the two largest religious groups was a major factor in every element of the conflict, including how American forces were viewed.
In terms of the geography we would call ‘home’ for the next seven months (See figure 2), the center of the battalion’s AO was located about 20 miles south of Baghdad in Mahmudiyah. Just north of the main part of the city of 130,000, there was a former chicken factory that had been fortified and turned into Forward Operating Base (FOB) St. Michael. This FOB had been established as the battalion headquarters for the previous unit and it was where 2/24 expected to base. The AO also encompassed the townships of Yusifiyah (113,000) and Lutifiyah (90,000), and a 14-mile stretch of MSR Tampa, which was the main overland logistical road/route connecting Kuwait to Baghdad.
The area we would be in was developing a rapid reputation for being home to many in the budding insurgency. Intelligence highlighted that many of the militants who had participated in the all-out combat during the Battle of Fallujah were using areas outside of Baghdad to stay under the radar while they planned for the next round of attacks against coalition forces. Lutifiyah, Mahmudiyah, and Yusifiyah were specifically named in intel reports we had access to prior to our arrival and would be the areas in which we would expect the most activity to occur.
Beyond the insurgent activity, cross-religion hatred in our area added to the chaos. One of the practical realities of the area being located near the Sunni-Shia seam was the amount of violence that was generated in our soon to be AO. Before we deployed, we had access to intelligence briefings that reported small groups from Hillah, a predominantly Shia city located some 35 miles south, were driving into the area and setting up hasty vehicle checkpoints in the middle of main roads. Armed, they would check IDs of travelers and anyone they could ascertain were Sunni they would pull out of their vehicles and execute them on the side of the road. Since they would only do this for 15-20 minutes at a time, it was nearly impossible for coalition forces to stop this from happening considering the expansive area they covered. With horrific events like this happening somewhat regularly, it was impossible for the Iraqi citizens to have any kind of day-to-day normalcy.
Earlier that year, as part of the overarching campaign to disrupt and harass coalition efforts, the insurgency had cratered several stretches along Tampa. Their goal was to do whatever they could to make the road impassable and keep the resupply convoys from being able to happen regularly. However, their efforts were not successful long term as the damaged areas were rebuilt, the highway was closed off to non-coalition force vehicles, and various units in country were given the ongoing mission to maintain the viability and safety of MSR Tampa. Each would be given a stretch they were responsible for, with the overall impact being that the entire highway was covered by friendly forces all the way to the southern edge of Baghdad.
The AO our battalion would fall into contained the most northern/western edge of the Tampa mission. We would be challenged by having free-flowing traffic very close to Checkpoint 28A, which was the first security checkpoint on Tampa, just south of Baghdad. The western edge of the overall AO was the Euphrates River. To the south was a long stretch of road that ran from an old munition’s depot to the east and crossed Alternate Supply Route (ASR) Jackson south of Lutifiyah and then over to the east and intersected with MSR Tampa. Tampa itself served as the realistic eastern edge of the AO, though units assigned to that specific mission would naturally find themselves east of that boundary in order to do the mission correctly.
Crossing east to west almost directly in the middle of the AO and effectively cutting it in half was a large canal. This canal had very few bridges that traversed it. ASR Jackson was one that did, making that location a very strategic position in order to keep overland travel open and somewhat normal. The bridge that spanned the canal along Jackson had been named “IED Bridge” because the insurgents made several attempts each month to emplace IEDs in the bridge and catch coalition forces when they were traveling from Mahmudiyah south to Lutifiyah. This bridge would be the site of many operations and counter operations throughout the time we were in country.
The unit that occupied our AO prior to us getting there was also a Marine unit. The 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment (2/2) was an active duty battalion permanently based in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and had been in country for close to seven months. The way they chose to execute the overall set of missions given to them was to rotate their three rifle companies in the following way: one company would patrol the cities of Mahmudiyah, Lutifiyah (see figure 3), or Yusifiyah depending on the intel and where they wanted to flood a certain part of the AO to keep the insurgents in zone off-balance. A second company was assigned to the Tampa mission, manning three distinct checkpoints along Tampa and patrolling the approximately 15-mile stretch from checkpoint 28A to checkpoint 20A. And the third company had guard duty on the FOB in Mahmudiyah and would also serve as a reserve force to be used in any number of contingencies, if needed. Our company did not know we would end up with a permanent security mission In Lutifiyah, but before arriving there we had heard a lot about the Karch Oil Facility that was located there. Intelligence had indicated possible ties between the leader at the facility and the insurgency. It would be a huge landmark in our AO and a site we would end up inside of many times.
In August of 2004, a small contingent of us from across our battalion flew into Iraq and travelled to our soon to be AO. As part of the “advanced party” our opportunity was to spend a couple of weeks in front of the rest of our unit joining us to observe 2/2 and get a first-person point of view of the critical relationships and dynamics we needed to understand within our territory. I traveled with Sergeant Duane Paquin, our Company Supply Sergeant, from California to Kuwait to Al Assad in Iraq, and finally to FOB St. Michael in Mahmudiyah. We were eager to get our eyes on the environment that would become ours in the very near future.
A few days after arriving there, Sergeant Paquin and I attached ourselves to our sister company from 2/2, headed to Lutifiyah to do a large joint cordon and search with some members of the Iraqi National Guard (INGs) and an overwhelming number from the Iraqi police force (IPs). The cordon and search operation was a staple of the Iraqi conflict. Given the enemy could often hide in plain site as they wore no uniforms or other markings to tip off coalition forces, finding the insurgents most often came down to consistent investigatory work. Cordon and searches were a great way of going through wide swaths of the city and link intelligence received with the people we would question. They were a tedious, but very effective, component of fulfilling the mission.
The operation would start with a cordon being set around the target area, often several square blocks in size. Once the perimeter was established, then the search element could process the entire area and take their time working their way through any structures that people could be in, knowing that no one would be able to escape the cordon. When the area had been fully searched and all military-aged males (MAMs) needing to be questioned were done so, the unit would then transport any individuals who matched certain intelligence requirements to higher headquarters for further questioning.
The goal for the cordon and search that specific day, besides identifying and detaining as many potential insurgents as possible, was to put the Iraq National Guard and Iraqi Police in the visible position of leading the operation, while the Marines from 2/2 would maintain the cordon in a much more under-the-radar role. As the INGs and IPs increased their numbers, as well as the level of training received and competency attained, it was important for them to show themselves as credible forces. So, on this day they were to lead, and the Marines would be in support. At least, that was the plan.
As we rolled down ASR Jackson toward Lutifiyah, I remember experiencing the adrenaline of my first real mission. Though I was there in an observation capacity, everything in and around us was real, including one of the trucks having an IED detonated close to it as it crossed over IED bridge. There were no casualties and the incident provided only a very small delay in getting the operation moving. But given it was my first time experiencing this and my senses were on overdrive, it was significant to me.
Once we got just south of IED bridge, the trucks halted and the Marines from Golf company 2/2 piled out and established blocking positions around the cordon area, per the plan. After this, the events of the operation deviated wildly from what had been agreed. The IPs and ING, about 100-125 strong, were supposed to then start going home to home to conduct the searches. Many of the ING piled out of the truck and readied themselves; however, the IPs had apparently decided not to participate in the operation in the way in which it had been planned. Many of the Iraqi police went so far as to refuse to even get out of their brand-new police cruisers. They lined them up on the east side of ASR Jackson and sat in them with lights flashing and air conditioning pumping in the 1200 temperature (Yes, that number is correct!). Given the IPs made up about 80-85% of the Iraqi force with us, their change of heart drastically altered how we would need to go about the mission. Instead of the Iraqis being the lead in the operation with the Marines in support, it would be the opposite. As the word was spread throughout the unit, there was very little surprise, and more than a few curse words were aimed at the IPs.
On the west side of the cordon area, about halfway down the area on the north-south axis, the company commander for Golf 2/2 established his command post (see figure 4). That is where I took up my place to shadow him and learn the nuances the operation in action. I spent the next few hours watching how the Marines of 2/2 worked through the tactics and techniques we had rehearsed ad nauseam in our training but had not seen yet in real life. I could tell that the months of time in real operations had honed their skills. They worked quickly, efficiently, and systematically through the various residential blocks. Hours into the operation, I had a small notebook filled with various thoughts, reminders, and learnings to use for the future.
Sometime around noon, I took a quick break and went into one of the houses being used as a detainee holding spot as well as a location for the Marines and corpsmen conducting the operation in oven-like temperatures to take an opportunity to get out of the direct sunlight for a few minutes. I must admit, I will never forget the heat on that particular day. After coming from Wisconsin and then to Southern California for pre-deployment training, the temperature of a mid-August day in Iraq while wearing all the gear we did was a severe shock to the body.
Shortly after returning to the CP location, my own personal baptism into the realities of the Iraqi conflict occurred. A massive explosion detonated around 30-40 meters away from our CP location. I heard a Marine from 2/2 yell “incoming” to signal that we were under indirect fire attack. As we all hit the ground around the HMMWV we had set up the operations map and graphics on, I remember thinking, “How could the insurgents be that accurate on mortar fire?” as everything we had been led to believe was the opposite. The first time you are within proximity of an explosion like that, you find out how hard it is to get basic bearings. When I regained mine, it became clear that an indirect fire attack had not occurred.
I jumped up, facing towards ASR Jackson, and was confronted with a scene that unfolded in front of me in what felt like extreme slow motion. Several of the IP cars that were parked on the side of Jackson were ablaze. The vehicles around those on fire emptied with dizzying quickness as the Iraqis scrambled to safety. For the ones on fire, it was immediately clear some had been engulfed with flames so quickly and ferociously that it seemed impossible anyone would be able to exit the vehicles before burning to death. A few IPs did get out of their cars while they themselves were on fire. My eyes locked on one of them as he ran towards us screaming in Arabic. His clothes were almost incinerated, and you could see the extent of the burns he had suffered in just several seconds. It was evident he was not going to make it. He got to about 10-15 feet away from us before he collapsed on the ground, dead.
Though the events that occurred seemed to last an eternity, in reality they unfolded in somewhere between 45-60 seconds. The company commander I was shadowing was already barking commands at his unit, ensuring that security was immediately established, and then we quickly compared notes on what had really happened. As it turned out, the extreme laziness of the IPs that day most likely saved our lives. Because they had parked their cars bumper to bumper for about 50 yards on the side of ASR Jackson in proximity to our ad-hoc CP, they blocked the Vehicle Borne IED (pronounced ‘V-Bid’) that had been racing down Jackson. The vehicle got to within 75 yards of our location and then veered sharply towards us. When it hit the wall of police vehicles, it detonated, causing the ensuing deaths and damage.
Thankfully, there were no US casualties that day. After the incident had been reported and security was reset on Jackson, the operation continued. By the end of the day, I had witnessed and survived my first complete cordon and search. Upon returning to FOB St. Michael that evening, I got to a satellite phone as quickly as possible and called back to California where our company was finalizing pre-deployment training. I was able to relay what happened to several of the leaders of the company, with the strong intent of impressing upon them that the reality of what was happening on the ground matched the level of intensity we had read about in the intelligence reports.
Prior to us getting to Iraq, we had heard that we were going into a part of the country known as “The Triangle of Death.” We read about the number and types of attacks that were occurring there. We knew that our area had been a prime recruiting and training ground for many of the insurgents who fought in the Battle of Fallujah. We gained an understanding of the Shia-Sunni mix and how explosive the unique demographics in our AO were. We learned about the death squads and the violence perpetrated on Iraqis by both Sunnis and Shias alike. So what happened on this day was not a surprise given what we already knew about where we were going. But it sure did have instant impact, giving me an unforgettable demonstration of what would happen if we ever let complacency set in, even momentarily. What was really amazing was that eight months later, the events I witnessed during that cordon and search would not stand out as uncharacteristic compared to our normal day-to-day operations.
As I wrote in the Preface, it is important to me to highlight the incredible people who, for seven months, accomplished amazing things together in this foreign land. Now that you have a grounding of the area and environment that many of the stories in the coming chapters revolve around, let’s cross the line of departure and meet the Marines and Sailors of Golf Company!
1McChrystal, Stanley A. (2013). My share of the task: A memoir. Penguin. ISBN 978-1-59184-475-4.