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Monday, February 09, 2004

A MARINE'S JOURNAL, PART 3


A MARINE'S JOURNAL
The March to Baghdad
A MARINE'S JOURNAL. PART 3
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Back To PART 1, Here!

Part 3 of a frontline account of Iraq's liberation.
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
Monday, February 9, 2004 12:01 a.m.

(Editor's note: Mr. Taylor joined the Marine Corps Reserves in 1996 and was called up for service in February 2002. His enlistment expired in November 2003. He kept this journal while deployed with Fox Company, Second Battalion, 23rd Marines in Kuwait and Iraq. Comments in italics were added after his return to clarify and expand his account and to define military terminology for the benefit of civilian readers. Four-digit numbers followed by "Z" are time codes in Greenwich Mean Time; codes of the format "38RQU 29141756" are 8-digit MGRS grid coordinates indicating his location at the time. This is the second of five parts; click to read Part 1 or Part 2.)

30 Mar 03, 0470Z, 38RNA 90442992

Yesterday afternoon the whole battalion moved into town. Echo Company secured the bridge so Fox could push through and secure a block of sixteen houses. There were four rows of homes and Second Platoon secured rows one and three. We kicked in doors and scared some people pretty badly. But local intelligence sources had indicated that this neighborhood housed most of this town's Baath officials. I found and escorted out a guy who turned out to be the third-highest-ranking party official found in southern Iraq. At least that's what they told me.

These things aren't hard distinctions to make. You pick the guy who looks at you with hate not fear, and you have your man. Baath Party officials also live better, are better fed, better educated, better dressed. And it all shows. Still, it gave me no joy to see women and children pried out of their homes so we could conduct our search. One black-robed woman was so old that I wondered she could move down the alley at all. Another fellow stood about 6-foot-4, thin and bearded, in a white robe and a gray sport coat. He was a worn-out old fellow. He communicated by gesture and shout that he had no ties with Saddam, and said in English, "I love you, and you!" I was alone in the room with him. I had my rifle at the ready and told him "In baht ih!" (lie down), which he did. From the floor he pointed up at me and said, "You No. 1!" With my free hand I gestured back at him with my index finger, "I love you too. You're No. 1 in my book." I was smiling by then. He came back with another "You No. 1!" I said the same thing back to him, and it went back and forth for a moment.

We escorted all the women and children out of that house, then my new fan. We did some damage to door frames kicking in locked doors. Garrard shot a lock off. But when the searching was done, all but those few who were taken away were free to filter through us back to their homes. It was strange passing among them after such an invasion, but they seemed happy and grateful. A couple of men approached me and somehow indicated their gratitude, or pretended to. I believe by their gestures they were happy to be rid of Baath Party overlords and hopeful to be shut of Saddam.

We rolled through town and dug in on the other side.

1 Apr 03

We've moved back to the east side of town. We're approximately where we were on 28 Mar. The other day members of the Army's 65th Engineers came around with a backhoe and dug Garrard and me a deluxe position not 1,200 meters from here, so we knew a move was coming. We get whipsawed about every time we move. They put us down and tell us to "dig here." Then some busy beaver decides we should move again and start digging all over again 20 meters away. Stupid.

The usual rationale for this was that one of our officers liked the look of the ground better "over there." But it was all the same flat, muddy bog.

And Capt. Schoenfeld is making himself look positively ridiculous. He rages about garbage on the roadside (there is a lot of MRE trash strewn about, to be sure). He demands to know whose it is. Convoy vehicles come and go all day and throw their garbage out their windows. It could be anyone's. He has us form up on line and police call. Then he howls that we're all bunched up, "Spread out, you're still in combat, you know." I have to wonder which is the case, do we line up and pick up trash, or are we in combat?

The complaining tone of the April 1 entries reflects the frustration we felt at being stopped for days at a time in the same place. The concept of the invasion as explained to us was a "race to Baghdad," a race we felt we could lose only by standing still. Also, as we had outrun our supply lines, we were living on one meal a day and feeling the effects. I reserved these complaints for my journal.

We were to secure this road junction for a month. The Army requested a 30-day "operational pause" so it could catch up its lagging "log trains." But the Marine Corps balked at the idea of giving away the initiative by standing still for a month, and told the Army that there will be no monthlong pauses. Five to seven days until the log trains are caught up, then the RCTs (Regimental Combat Teams) will be maneuvering toward Baghdad and wherever else the Republican Guard is to be found.

2 April 03

Today we had a memorial service for Staff Sgt. Cawley. A flag was erected on the roadside near where he died and a rifle upended on the point of its bayonet in the ground with his helmet on its butt. Cpls. Giles, Christensen, Carpenter and Lee sang "Abide With Me Tis Eventide." The chaplain spoke. We sang "Rock of Ages." Staff Sgt. Ivers said a few words about his best friend. There was a 21-gun salute. Taps.

Two days ago the Mormon contingent gathered for a worship service. We sang the songs of the faith:

Why should we mourn, or think our lot is hard?
Tis not so, all is right.
Why should we think to earn a great reward,
If we now shun the fight?
Gird up your loins, fresh courage take,
Our God will never us forsake.
And soon we'll have this tale to tell,
All is well, all is well.

I said to Garrard last night, "Garrard, I am a happy person, even here." And we agreed that cold nights, long watches, occasional combat operations don't make fundamentally happy people unhappy. In fact, adversity underscores true happiness.

About James E. Cawley's memorial service: It was a brief, dusty, manly affair, a ceremony for a fallen warrior. It was the kind of service that men who die of old age or sickness wish they could have.

We're still defending the same junction on Route 7. We move our position once or twice a day to keep the enemy from getting us zeroed in with artillery. I don't believe they have that capability here or are that organized. But we move and dig, move and dig.

5 Apr 03, 38SNB 44260785

We are a couple miles east of An Numiniyah. Two days ago we left our position on Route 7 and sped most of the way to Al Kut. Reportedly, this was a ruse de guerre designed to draw a Republican Guard division out of Kut to engage our "soft" unarmored battalion. And reportedly it worked. When we closed within 10 kilometers of Al Kut our convoy turned around and sped back the way it came. Any Iraqi forces that moved out of Kut to engage us were destroyed from the air. Maneuver warfare.

We cut over to Highway 8 and surged up to Numiniyah to seize a bridge there. When we arrived the bridge had already been taken and secured. A few smoldering T-62s, trucks, and antiair pieces were all that remained of the "light resistance" we had been promised.

We moved into a schoolyard in the city and occupied the abandoned schoolhouse for the night. But before an hour passed someone realized we might be vulnerable to attack there, so we left.

Now we are blocking the road between Kut and Baghdad to prevent Iraqi reinforcements from getting to the capital. Last night my team manned the wire-and-sandbag gate on the road. We stopped and searched every person who came through. One lone Iraqi man, short and plump, tried to drive around our Arabic stop sign and our sandbags. We yelled "Qif! Qif!" (Stop! Stop!) and waved our arms, but he kept coming. Three Marines were killed yesterday at a similar gate (not Marines in our group, but elsewhere). I ordered Garrard to fire. He let four rounds burp out of his SAW (squad automatic weapon). All the rusty radiator fluid immediately fell out of the man's truck and a very startled Iraqi popped out. I surged forward over the barricade with my rifle ready. I seized the man by the shirt and yelled at him, "Do you have any [expletive deleted] idea how close you came to getting yourself killed?" I said other things too, but the immediate attitude was one of intense relief that we had not killed another motorist. The company staff seemed delighted too, but all the thanks go to Garrard who knew he could disable a truck with one burst.

When I gave the order for John to shoot, I intended that he kill that man before he could get any closer. The reasoning was that anyone who ignored our signs, our roadblock and our verbal warnings was probably an attacker. We could not afford to let people just drive up on us. But John said, "I'm going for the tires." He instantly changed his mind about the tires and put four rounds into the radiator in a group the size of an orange. Our training urges us to shoot to kill, but John used some judgment instead and saved a man's life.

This man's only crime, it turned out, was stupidity, which shouldn't be a capital offense. The commanding officer came running up, listened to the story, and was pleased that we had stopped the vehicle without killing an innocent. No one was happier about it than I was, though. We searched the truck and found nothing but empty chicken crates. In spite of his protests about the engine, we convinced the man to drive his truck out of the way. He made it 200 meters beyond our area and then the engine seized. I watched him walk away.

RCT 1 is scheduled to move through here today en route to Baghdad. When they pass, we expect to follow to Baghdad.

6 Apr 03 0234Z 38SNB 89344663

We bivouacked by the road last night in some town 60 kilometers from Baghdad. There were several spectacular explosions five or six kilometers north of here during the night, slow billowing fiery explosions that spewed fire and sparks into the dark. And, of course, we heard the sound of artillery bombardment.

U.S. Forces can be detected by GPS satellite tracking rolling around freely in Baghdad. Although we have no reports of hard fighting in the city, Saddam has promised to make Baghdad our graveyard. The main effect of that rhetoric is to impel a stream of refugees out of the city along this road.

At our check post near Numiniyah yesterday, hundreds of people streamed through, many of them young men no doubt fleeing their posts. I captured an Iraqi general on his way north when he tried to pass through our checkpoint in civilian clothes. I found an FN Hi-Power 9mm pistol under his seat bearing the stamp of the Iraqi Army. It was inscribed with the words, "A gift of our grateful leader, Saddam" in Arabic of course. A translator from the HET team (Human Exploitation Team) gave us the translation.

When I first spotted the pistol under the driver's seat I called out, "I've got a gun!" Lance Cpl. Jeremy Walker, Second Platoon's resident martial-arts pro, put the general on the deck with an expertly applied arm-bar takedown. Walker then proceeded to immobilize him by manipulating his arms and wrists into uncomfortable knots behind his back. The man cried out loud as Walker escorted him with a standing wrist manipulation all the way back to the command post. The S2 found papers on him compelling Baath forces in the north to continue the fight.

The general told Capt. Robertson, the S2 or battalion intelligence chief, that he was not in the military, that he was, in fact, a farmer. Capt. Roberston, a reservist, is himself a farmer. He has coarse, powerful farmer's hands. He seized the already shaken Iraqi by the wrist and raised the man's hand to his face yelling, "These are not farmer's hands!" And then showing his own bear paws, "These are farmer's hands!" Capt. Robertson reported to me that the man broke down and wept again.

Garrard pushed his white Nissan truck off the road into the mud. He had aimed for the small pond beyond the mud flat beside the road, but it bogged down. Later in the afternoon, feeling large, I gave the truck to a couple of southbound teenage pedestrians, the key still being in the switch. But they couldn't get it out of the mud without the aid of 10 other passersby. Twelve young Iraqis pushed it out of the mud. They all cheered and piled in the back as it sped off, each one suddenly feeling he had a 1/12th interest in the general's truck.

I gave the truck away because it was a nuisance and potential hazard. Every pedestrian who walked by stopped and petitioned for it. I said no to the first few hundred, but I eventually wanted it gone.

At the gate on the north side of our position Broberg seized an Iraqi major. The man had his uniform with him and was foolish enough to attempt to conceal an AK-47 as well.

We only spent two days screening refugees and searching vehicles at that position. It was a busy time. It was the time when we had the most direct contact with Iraqis. For the most part they were cooperative and friendly. We had fun talking to people and practicing our meager Arabic. Fox Company generated some important intelligence from the seizures we made. We were relieved there by a company from a recon battalion. It was galling to them to be relieving a company of infantry reservists at an ECP operation (entry control point; the roadblock/checkpoint operations we regularly conducted during the invasion). They said, "We're Recon. This is not what we do." First Sgt. Lopez pointed out that we had had some intelligence successes, and that intelligence was the point of recon. For some reason this didn't soothe their feelings.

0902Z 38SMBB 62597705

We are stopped 21 kilometers south of Baghdad. We are shuffling the convoy and linking up with Fifth Marines for the move north.

Col. Dowdy, the regimental commander of RCT 1, was reportedly relieved yesterday. This journal recalls my frustration with our pace through southern Iraq. Evidently I wasn't alone. He was relieved for going too slow.

Yesterday the temperature was 102 degrees, way too hot to be wearing a MOPP suit. It's equally hot today, so on my own authority I shed my coat. I dug my hygiene kit out of my pack and had a roadside shave. I bathed my head with a sponge to dissolve the film of dirt I earn by riding the tailgate everyday. Marines can wash or not wash, but I see it as an excuse to rub water on my head and cool off.

MOPP stands for Mission Oriented Protective Posture, a particularly tortured-sounding military acronym describing the nuclear, biological and chemical threat level. MOPP suits are charcoal-lined chemical-protective overgarments. They are about as comfortable as a layer of thick denim. The upshot is that a MOPP suit can save your life if you are exposed to chemical or biological weapons in gas, powder or liquid form. They can even protect a body from some nuclear contaminants.

RCT 1 is assigned to secure Saddam City, a sector of Baghdad on the north side of town. It is said to be a slum. Let us get there and do it before we dehydrate.

7 Apr 03 0433Z 38SMB 65638514

We occupied some rich Iraqi's house last night. We're guarding a massive enemy ammo dump, and the house offers the best observation on several avenues of approach. The owner complained and left asking that we not pillage the place, a reasonable request. But while clearing the house, Cpl. Hall (First Platoon) was menaced by one of the canine inhabitants. Hall shot the dog at a two-meter range and sprayed blood all over. Hall was pretty upset by this. When the owner heard about it an hour later he was upset too.

Second Platoon dug in around the structure while machine guns set up on top.

When we woke this morning the word was passed to go to MOPP level zero--take off the stifling chemical suit and don cammies again. We feel great. I shifted to clean underwear as well and burned the old. I washed my body as well as I could with wet-wipes and a degree of civilization was restored.

Marines are gossiping about what the change to MOPP zero could mean. Has there been a surrender? Or is a cease-fire imminent? Have all commanders with authority to release chemical weapons been neutralized? To be sure, the U.S. has not ceased firing on Baghdad. The thunder of bombardment continues. Artillery units must be the busiest killers on the ground. All day and night the bang of the cannons and the clapping boom of their distant impacts can be heard.

This ammo dump we guard is reportedly filled with 10,000 armor-piercing artillery shells sold to Iraq by France. The damnable French and their haughty Old World contempt for American leadership in this war. Their objection was not one of conscience, but of complicity.

I don't know how anyone really knew those munitions were French. Maybe they had French markings, but I didn't see them myself. It was just rumor.

EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) is supposed to blow this whole place to hell later today. Many more dogs will die.

0809Z--ECP ops today. We are denying access to the city to all traffic: vehicles and pedestrians. The refugees approach us and we search them and send them south, east or west. These people are poor and thin. They almost uniformly carry a pack of cigarettes, a lighter and a wad of cash--probably their net worth. Sometimes when searching vehicles we'll find bags of cash best measured by the gallon, as in, "I found a four-gallon bag of cash on this one!" Response: "No weapons? Then let him go." We guess their currency is of little value. Most of the Iraqis I search are surprised when I inspect their money and then return it all. I believe they are used to being shaken down.
http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/btaylor/?id=110004644

(Friday: Part 4--Liberation Day.)
To PART 4, HERE!!!!!

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