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Friday, February 13, 2004

A MARINE'S JOURNAL, PART 4


A MARINE'S JOURNAL
Liberation Day
Part 4 of a frontline account of Iraq's liberation.
(Back To PART 1)

BY BRIAN TAYLOR
Friday, February 13, 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 fourth of five parts; click to read Part 1, Part 2 or Part 3.)

9 Apr 03 0354Z

Spent the night on the roof of some house in the Al Mathana neighborhood of Baghdad. We stopped our foot patrol around 1300Z yesterday afternoon and began looking for a building to stay in. My team was on the third floor of a shell of a structure when the fight began. I stood up and looked out the window across an intersection and a dirt field to the northwest.

I monitored radio traffic on the individual squad radio between Sgt. Ewert, First squad's leader, and Cpl. Houschouer, one of his team leaders. The sergeant was irate because it wasn't immediately obvious to Houschouer how to control a large five-way intersection with only four Marines. I thought to myself that it wasn't at all obvious to me either.

I saw a man step out from behind the southwest corner of an Iraqi security compound. He was 180 meters away and looked like an unarmed civilian, although the sun made him just a silhouette. Then he fired a RPG, which streaked into the Marines standing near the intersection. Cpl. Scott Lee and Lance Cpl. Roger Anderson, members of my own squad, were hit and sustained minor head and arm wounds, a miracle since it hit right by them.

I began firing 5.56mm rifle rounds and 203 grenades at the man. The machine guns began. He did the strangest arms-flying-in-air jig when he realized he was being shot at. He ducked behind the wall and machine guns followed. I lobbed 203s over the wall, and they landed with great clapping noise.

Iraqi fighters began firing from within the compound itself. Capt. Schoenfeld had forbidden us from entering and clearing that place just a few minutes earlier.

The highway between the Iraqis and us was the "limit of advance," so we could go no farther. Staff Sgt. Ivers had presented Capt. Schoenfeld with some alternatives to establishing an entry control point (ECP). First we could clear the small compound, a dicey maneuver given the open avenue between it and us. Second, we could pull back a block and choose better defensive positions for the night. Both were rejected in favor of doing nothing to make our present tactical situation better.

Marines were ordered to set up another ECP at the intersection and begin controlling traffic. I believe this was the result of operational habit after doing ECP ops for days on end. Standing in the road and controlling traffic is a very bad idea if you don't control the immediate terrain, particularly in an urban environment.

Cpl. Vidaña, our company radio operator, took a round through the head. It passed through, we are told, but somehow he is living.

I later learned details of Cpl. Jesus Vidaña's injury. A bullet pierced his Kevlar helmet. He was initially presumed dead, but then showed life signs. He was evacuated to a battalion aid station. The gravity of his injury was obvious, but there was no neurosurgeon nearby to treat him. Additionally, air transport to a suitable facility was unavailable. CNN's medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon, was covering medical operations at the same facility to which Cpl. Vidaña had been taken. After stating that Cpl. Vidaña would not survive the night without surgery, he requested and received permission to perform the operation himself.

I've since seen Dr. Gupta on CNN. He states that he performed five operations during his time as a journalist in Iraq. A CNN reporter saved Cpl. Vidaña's life. Amazing.

First Squad displaced from their positions on the northeast corner of the intersection facing the near compound so mortars could shell it. They hit an apartment building 400 meters beyond. It burned and the mortars were ordered to quit.

Then two cars zoomed into the intersection and were destroyed by machine-gun fire. The machine-gun section began shooting every car that came within 300 meters. One car smashed through a sandbag bunker left by Iraqis on the southeast corner of the intersection sending Marines diving clear. Machine guns peppered the car. It was a taxi with a family in it. Soon there were six or so shot-up hulks with dead and wounded. Marines on the streets organized a rescue effort to save those we now recognized as innocents. A group of eight or so Marines ran across about 150 meters of open ground and began herding people back when they all came under AK fire from the compound. We (those of us in upper windows, or forward positions on the street) successfully returned and suppressed that fire. Then as the rescue party returned with howling wounded civilians, we shouted "Tabeeb!" (doctor) out the window and pointed to the corpsmen's position.

More RPGs came whizzing in and across our position from the much larger intelligence complex on the southwest corner of the intersection. By now battalion snipers were on the roof of the building I was in, and a machine-gun team had found my floor and was up and running. It was beginning to get dark.

We began to take fire from the mosque behind us and to the south, and from side streets. I left the building with my fire team and we consolidated in a side street with Second Squad and a few Marines from Third Platoon. We sheltered there and watched rooflines and windows like hawks. A couple of bursts of AK-47 fire flew by, but that was all.

For all the shooting I had done, and all the spectacle I had witnessed from the windows on the third story, I was suddenly aware of the comparative calamity of life on the street compared to life on the third story of my building. Where I felt I had seen more enemy activity and had a freer time returning fire, Marines who spent the first two hours on the street were certainly exposed to very much more hazard. In the weeks that followed this produced an irrational guilt in me.

My journal also omits the aerial bombardment of the larger compound on the southwest corner of the intersection. The compound actually sat 150 meters or so west of the road and behind an open dirt field. The fighting had nearly died as it became dark and we got the word that an air strike was incoming. Lance Cpl. Garrard, Cpl. Siggard, Cpl. Christensen and I were standing with our backs against the steel rolling overhead door of someone's small shop. We heard the terrific, screeching, decelerating noise of an unseen F-18 followed by two enormous concussive blasts in the heart of the compound 400 to 500 meters away. The shockwave of the 1,000-pound bombs moved through the buildings and our bodies. It pushed the air out of my lungs and caused the door to buck outward pushing us away from the building.

Iraqis fighters in those Republican Guard compounds had already been silenced before the arrival of the planes. The Marines were dealing with threats from the neighborhood all around them. But the blasts, or nightfall, seemed to discourage very much more fighting.

Later we learned that air support had been requested early that afternoon, but the only planes on station were equipped with 2,000-pound bombs. They returned to base, rearmed with 1,000-pound bombs, and delivered their ordnance several hours late. I reflected that getting air support four hours late is a lot like getting no air support at all.

During the fighting I remember four RPG impacts from three directions. Other Marines said the could recall six or more, but I always suspected they were compounding the number by duplicating each other's accounts.

By now it was dark. We kicked in some doors and found some flat rooftops for the whole company. We stood a fifty percent watch staring down the streets with NVGs (night vision goggles) and SAWs (squad automatic weapons). We decided that vehicles that got too close would get two or three tracer warning shots from an M16 and then a burst of SAW fire to stop them, but none came after dark. It is generally considered that Iraqi fighters don't operate at night, or at least elect not to operate against us at night.

When the morning came an artillery barrage began to reduce the compound. Then tanks began pounding it. I don't know if there was any return firing anymore. Golf Company swept through and cleared the buildings with apparent ease.

10 Apr 0250Z

We spent the night in the captured/shattered intelligence compound. The building I am in is a barracks of sorts. I swept the glass out of the demolished kitchen and slept like a log on the floor.

Yesterday we patrolled on foot some 800 meters down a main street into the city to set up another ECP at a main intersection. We began taking fire from a security tower to the southeast. Second Squad began to maneuver against it, but the RCT's (regimental combat team's) Sgt. Maj. Leal said 7th Marines were somewhere over there and we should leave it to them. Fine. We left.

I was surprised to see the sergeant major in our area. He was just watching Marines on the sidewalk. After we started taking sporadic fire, potshots really, we took cover and Sgt. McMullen began organizing our movement. We were preparing to move when the sergeant major strolled up and waved us off. He wasn't taking cover. He was just slowly ambling down the sidewalk saying hello to Marines.

When we entered the compound where we slept last night, I found a supply room and liberated a bag of Iraqi Army socks. We sorted through the mountains of weapons left behind. These people could have fired RPGs at us all night if we had not scrambled so hard to suppress them. There were RPK machine guns (a 7.62mm Soviet light machine gun), hundreds of AK-47s, stacks of RPG rounds and launchers, and all manner of supplies and equipment.

We cleaned ourselves and sat in the shade sharing stories and details of the previous day's fight. The battle had a completely different face to those who were on the street corner, or in the buildings like me, or on a side street.

We marveled that our conflict had made the BBC and MSNBC, and had been reported as the largest ground conflict in the battle for Baghdad. Yesterday the news also reported that Baghdad has been secured. We hope it is true and that April 9 will be remembered as Iraqi Liberation Day.

After my homecoming one of the most frequent questions I initially received was, "Did you see Saddam's statue get pulled down?" That did occur on April 9, but I didn't see or hear about it until I got home. Another common question was, "Did you see Saddam's palaces?" I tell people that the statues and palaces were in the swanky quarter of town, which the Army assigned to itself.

I did not time our engagement two days ago, but the company says it lasted four hours. Second Platoon was the only element engaged that long. Third fought for about 90 minutes. First showed up later.

I don't know how I felt confident enough about the actions of other platoons to time their involvement. I only knew when I first saw members of those groups, not when they first joined the fighting. First Platoon had a running battle for several blocks in which Cpl. Vidaña was injured. Third Platoon rapidly reinforced Second (my platoon), but I didn't see them where I was until later. That doesn't mean they weren't on the street level fighting earlier, which in fact they were. Second Platoon became critically low of ammunition. Without Third's help, Second Platoon would have run been hard pressed to mount a sufficiently strong counterattack.

By the time the battle on April 8 ended, 12 Fox Marines had been wounded. Vidaña received the worst injuries. Several received concussions from being shot in the head. Their helmets absorbed the rounds and kept the Marines alive. A larger number were wounded by rocket blasts or RPG fragments. And a few had taken nasty falls while running through buildings.

It is now known that the Iraqis forced those civilians into their vehicles under threat of death and ordered them to speed into our positions. One of them was a dentist who speaks English. He explained it all. Some of the cars were driven by Iraqis in uniform but filled with civilians, Palestinians civilians reportedly. One such vehicle was a four-door Nissan truck, tan, that shot past our forward line into our depth at about 50 miles an hour. I shot about 10 rounds into the cab with about eight other Marines. The vehicle slammed into a power pole without having braked, the driver already dead. He was the only occupant in that vehicle.

In fact, the civilian vehicles shot that day could be grouped into three categories. The first were vehicles driven by Iraqi fighters at Marine targets, with or without civilian hostages onboard. Second, there were vehicles driven by civilians who were compelled by threats against their hostage families to do the same. One survivor indicated this. And third, there were civilians who innocently drove themselves into the crossfire.

"Caught in the crossfire" is the euphemism I have most frequently applied to that third category of victims, but it is misleading. It suggests we were shooting at something else. Those vehicles were targeted because they were believed to be threats. At the height of the suicide attacks there was no way to positively discriminate between attackers in cars and innocents in cars. The rules of engagement obliged us to positively identify targets. The only caveat was that nothing in the rules could be construed to curtail our ability to defend ourselves, which we did. My worst recollections of the war are connected to the people in those cars.

This is the unconventional war Saddam promised--losing tactics designed to raise the PR costs of U.S. efforts.

11 Apr 03 1052Z--United Nations Compound

This morning we left the intelligence compound where we spent two nights and a day. We moved about two kilometers to the U.N. compound to provide security to the battalion, which is now headquartered here. On the backside of the complex is the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism, some looted buildings that allow us to observe our sectors north and west. We found here foam mattresses, plastic furniture and U.N. rations. We have a hose outside from which we can supply water for the washing of bodies and clothing. We are living large.

I think the facility we stayed in behind the U.N. Headquarters building was a U.N. hosting facility. Calling it the Ministry of Tourism was a joke that only I missed.

Fox relieved Echo at this security detail, and they told us that the compound takes occasional sniper fire from the north, but we haven't received any today. We are currently manning a couple of machine-gun posts on the roof but otherwise sleeping and eating French humanitarian rations. Menu No. 2 includes a thick bar of chocolate. The label proclaims in contains a minimum of 43% cocoa. The French are manic about chocolate, its bureaucratic definition and regulation. I recall they once tangled with the Hershey people in an effort to disallow the Hershey bar from being called chocolate.

On Tuesday the 8th, the day of our engagement here, we patrolled on foot for a few kilometers through town. We walked through residential and commercial streets. Crowds of people came out to see us. They were curious and happy. The areas were closely packed with two-story buildings on narrow streets.

I talked to several men who spoke a little English. I asked them where the men with weapons were hiding and if they could point out the houses of Saddam's men. One man named Moustafe was typical. He said that his neighborhood was clean but that we should be concerned about bad men who shoot at us from passing cars. Indeed the first RPG shots at our vehicles--one ripped the canvas off one of our 7-ton trucks, and another destroyed a CAAT (combined anti-armor team) vehicle--came from a passing yellow Volkswagen Passat. I later stopped and searched a yellow Passat at gunpoint before realizing that they were all over and belonged to the local cab company. Moustafe said he and his fellows (he had about 12 men with him) were all my friends. I asked him what he thought about Saddam Hussein. The men agreed that they were glad to be rid of him. I indicated that Saddam had most likely been blown to bits. They disagreed and said he had fled to Syria. It is one thing to be grateful for U.S. intervention, but perhaps another to accept that the U.S. had rubbed out his own sovereign leader. Fled to Syria is fine.

Of course, Moustafe and I were both wrong about Saddam the despot. He was neither in Syria nor blown to bits, as we had hoped. But I think the reaction in the Middle East to Saddam's eventual ignominious capture supports my speculation about Moustafe's thinking.

About searching the Passat: I severely scared three male occupants in that vehicle. As it rounded a nearby corner into view I charged at it with my rifle up and ordered everyone out. Then I made a turning key gesture and had the driver open the trunk--empty. I scanned the cabin, which was also empty. About the time I was finishing I saw another one and realized my mistake. All I can say is that urban operations are very difficult.

We moved on. While stopped in front of someone's house, I noticed a family looking at me and commenting on something. They had a scared but curious four-year-old boy. I moved across to them and gestured to his parents for permission to give the boy a Tootsie Roll. The father said "OK" and smiled. I took my ID case out and showed them the pictures of Jane and Keith with their shining blond hair. The father beamed and seized my hand. He kissed the pictures and gestured to heaven. Mother came out and took the pictures inside to show the other women and children who all gathered inside the house. I had just given, or had taken from me, my wallet with my military ID, $80 in U.S. currency and the pictures of my family to strangers, who took it inside. When I looked apprehensive the man laughed at me. The wallet came back complete. Smiles all around.

In another neighborhood we halted to listen to the sounds of First Platoon engaged two blocks away. Unknown to us they were taking heavy RPG fire. I assumed the explosions were our rockets being fired, not inbound RPGs. A gate opened and a girl Jane's age and a boy Keith's age came out. She herded her brother about, in the same way Jane would do Keith, while they delivered rose blossoms to Marines kneeling or prone. HM2 (Hospital Corpsman Second Class) Tony Parks got three for some reason. The children's parents stood in their courtyard smiling and waving.

We moved on again and within an hour were committed to battle.

12 Apr 03 38SMB 50568847 (U.N. Compound)

Yesterday I stood watch on the roof of this place for two hours between 1400 and 1600Z. I stared north at the highway and watched for trouble. I watched a squad from Echo Company on a westbound foot patrol. I was staring right at them when a blast occurred right in the middle of their tactical column. The Marine closest fell, rose again, hopped a few steps away and then went down. There was no sign of a nearby enemy and there had been no familiar screech of RPGs. It didn't look like a mortar blast. It was a landmine.

I radioed it in with a direction and a distance from my post. I used my GPS to project the grid of the incident and radioed that in too. Two civilians nearby threw up white flags and were detained but released. A few minutes went by while we watched from our roof and tried to get info about who, how bad, etc. A CAAT Humvee appeared with a .50-caliber rifle and provided security for the Humvee ambulance and the seven-ton that appeared. They carted off the wounded man and the foot patrol continued. The patrol moved northwest away from the road.

Last night we learned that the injured Marine had picked up the mine and handled it. It detonated when he tossed it down. Stupid. The extent of his injuries is still unknown to us.

I stood watch again from 2230 to 0015Z. A quiet watch. Afterward I went into the U.N. building and used the phones to call home. I talked to Shari, who cried a little. She told me about the kids. According to Keith, he is no longer my "Little Guy," John is. John is now "Little Guy." Keith is the "Big Guy," as I used to be, and Keith says to John, "You're the Little Guy, I'm the Big Guy, but there is this other Big Guy, but he's huge!" So I'm the Huge Guy. I miss that boy.

Jane cried a little too. She is very tender. I received a letter from Shari yesterday and she reports that Jane said, "My heart misses Daddy so much my tummy hurts." I know a little about how she feels.

I tried to call home two days ago but I couldn't raise Shari. I did connect with Dad though. I told him the story about nabbing that general at my checkpoint. This morning I took a shower for the first time since leaving Camp Coyote. There are showers in this building, but no running water. I filled a steel bucket of cold water from a basin outside and took it into a questionable shower stall. I used a plastic pitcher, a bar of Lava soap (the official soap of Nascar) and a sponge to clean away nearly a month of impacted grime. The occasional wet-wipe has not been sufficient, but the cold shower was a delight. I put on clean underwear, shook the dust off my uniform, and I feel great.

The current rumor has it that we will be leaving this compound around noon today for the barracks we left two days ago. Then in two days we will begin moving back to Kuwait. Units will "leapfrog" or "bound" back, securing the route for each other as they go. But rumors are what they are, and word continually changes.
http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/btaylor/?id=110004677

(Feb. 23: Part 5--Mission Accomplished)
Go To: A Marine's Journal, Part 5 (parts 1-5)

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