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Air Force Pilot Experiences Ground Combat

Every once in awhile, I'll post a Saturday morning, "grab a cup of coffee and read this post", post.

Here is a report from an Air Force pilot who was assigned to several operations in Iraq as the Forward Air Controller - the USAF guy responsible for calling in Air Strikes and communicating with the aircraft above a ground combat mission.

It's long, but it's good. It shows the Zoomies are doing their part on the ground, as well as in the air...even if they don't know certain *ahem* unofficial Marine nomenclatures.

Well, we've almost made it. Our Tactical Operations have ceased and we are out of the country soon. I can finally give you a wrap up of the past 5 months. It has been a whirlwind of activities and experiences. The most amazing of which have been the operations I've conducted as the Forward Air Controller for our Deep Reconnaissance Platoon. Some of the most highly trained and professional individuals I have ever had the luxury of working with. It has also been awesome being a part of Operation Phantom Fury and Operation Citadel II which was the operation facilitating the Iraqi Elections. My job consisted of being the Air Officer for the largest Area of Operations (AO) in Iraq. We owned over 33,000 square miles of land with over 500 miles of border along Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. My job specifically consisted of supporting the battalions that worked for us which ranged in number from 3 to 5 throughout the period we were here and consisted of anywhere between 3,000 and 5,500 Marines. The movement of pax and gear was a large and obviously unexciting portion of the job. A little more tactical was the provision of Tactical Air Support to everyone for different missions that were conducted. Along with the Assistant Air Officer I wrote multiple Operations that synchronized actions throughout our AO and fused our operational goals AO wide. That is all the boring yet productive stuff we did on a day in and day out basis, but now on to the good stuff.

We had a few operations that were "dry holes" with nothing significant to report "NSTR"; however we had many others that will replay through my head forever. I'll do my best to describe to you some of the interesting events that took place.

One evening we were conducting a raid on a couple of High Value Targets "HVTs" and suspected weapons caches in Haditha. We arrived at the first target house and made entry in a matter of moments, captured the HVT and were quickly in route to the suspected weapons cache. The hit was so fast that we didn't have time to ratchet down the HVT in the back of the high back Humvee that I ride in, also known affectionately as the "UPS". Being a pilot and all I didn't want to ask the team what that stood for and lose face by not knowing the nomenclature for all the equipment I was riding in and using. I should have asked. A few weeks later I found out what it stood for, but I'll get to that story later.

This particular night I was riding in the back with an "up-gunner" (the guy that mans the vehicle mounted machine gun in the back of the trucks or in the middle of the Humvees) that was new to the UPS. The team has 3 teams within itself and rotates through the drivers, gunners, and shooters (the ones that enter the house). This was the first night this particular gunner had the pleasure of the 60mph winds in the back of the truck with 30 degree temperatures driving blacked out in zero illumination nights on horrible roads. Great deal. Anyway, after detaining the HVT we were off so quickly to the cache that I didn't have time to show the gunner how to ratchet down the detainee, so we just left him blindfolded and zip-tied on the floor as we moved a couple blocks over to the cache site. Upon arrival at the site half of our Marines dismounted with EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) and the bomb dog and began searching the Palm Groves along the Euphrates that the cache was supposedly hidden in. Once stopped the HET (human exploitation team) Marine and Yusef (our interpreter, a whole entire other story on this guy, he was great) came over to the UPS and got in to begin "field interrogations" of the detainee while I was showing the gunner how to strap the detainee down. About that time all hell broke loose as AK fire started cracking over my head and ricocheting off the UPS and other vehicles. Immediately I spun around (as my back was to the fight while trying to latch down the detainee) and started to return fire. The 50 cal to my immediate left, the 240G about 1 foot above my head and the 50 cal to my right began to open up to the north where the fire was coming from and where we could see muzzle flashes. I immediately called in one of the F-18s that was overhead for a "gun run" on the individuals they had just reported to me that were firing on us. While all this is going on our Marines that were sweeping the Palm and Date Groves for the cache were about 50-100 meters away on the banks of the Euphrates checking out a shed and some boats. In true Marine fashion they came sprinting toward the fight. So much so that we had to cease fire while they charged forward. Of course, I would have no part of being left out of this and jumped out of the UPS and ran forward with them using the excuse that I would need to know where the forward line of troops was to call in air. The 2 50cals to our left and right put down suppressive fire while we moved forward through the groves. Keep in mind this all took place in probably half the time it's taking you to read this. After moving forward through the groves and establishing a somewhat protected position the firing ceased. All was quiet and air continued to fill us in on the proceedings. A couple of the individuals had run into near by houses, low crawling their way there and hiding behind a wall in the immediate area protected from our fire, the others had been taken care of. We gathered ourselves, got accountability and then decided to go pay them a visit. We mounted up in our trucks and then proceeded north along river road to the location that air saw them run to. This is where the litening pod and the 2 seat F-18D made its money and proved INVALUABLE to us. As we drove north they were able to tell us; turn left, turn right, go straight, stop, 1 went in the 3rd door on the right and the other is in the back courtyard. With a mechanical breach and a flash bang we quickly had the one in the courtyard and then moved to get the one that went inside the house. With the same technique, we made entry and secured the house in under 60 seconds. Our prize was one individual covered in mud (same as us) with a loaded, hot, freshly fired AK-47. He was quickly introduced to the dog for some questioning, taken into custody and loaded into my truck for the long ride home for us, but longer ride home for him. This was the beginning of our night. Having an aggressive, War-Fighting Commanding Officer, we grabbed some coffee and more ammo and went back to find and clear the cache. By the time we got back it was almost day break. We searched for about an hour and were about ready to give up when the dog sat and started wagging his tail furiously. Of course he had just found a relatively large stash of mortars, rockets, mortar tubes, gunpowder, rocket propellant etc. Nothing makes our EOD guy happier. 2 satchel charges and some detonation cord later and there was a beautiful explosion to mask the sun rising over the Euphrates. There was also one less building/shed/house in the grove. That was the good news, the bad news was that now it was broad daylight and we were in the heart of the town and had to drive down river road which contains the market with people everywhere, all kinds of rooftop sniper positions and we had already highlighted ourselves by the gunfight and now by blowing all these items up. The crowds were gathering and as always, there's no way to tell friendly from foe. Luckily for us we had a mixed section of Cobras and Hueys flying 30' over our head right down Main Street, guns trained on the crowds and escorting us home. 34 hours later that was the end of our day. That was Thanksgiving.

Our next big adventure found us in the same decrepit city of Haditha. This was another late night mission in which we paired up with an Army Special Forces team in order to take down more houses and grab more HVTs. This night was special, this night I found out some acronyms I didn't know before. We made our way into the area as normal and moved through our first three houses relatively quickly. We were on our last house with our targeted individuals and were wrapping things up while the Army SF guys were running around chasing guys and operating foolishly to say the least. They obviously hadn't broken the code on letting "squirters" run and then having air talk you on to their position or point out their house for you, break down the door, grab the guy and then be on your way. No, they were running all over the place cluttering the picture for us on where friendlies were and possible locations of insurgents. These guys were new in town and from a team in Germany. They basically sucked. The guys before them were awesome and broke us in upon our arrival. They were true cowboys, but were extremely effective and I for one definitely appreciated the way they operated. These things I can not put in writing, but will fill you in on later. Back to the story at hand. While in the back of the UPS (of course) we saw some movement to our west in an alley way leading up to our vehicle. Due to the Army SF guys being all over the place, the gunner that saw them first (due to them being in his sector of fire) asked me if SF was down that way. I quickly told him no they were off to our east and asked why while quickly turning my attention in that direction; at which point I saw some movement; at that moment the gunny that runs the outside (directing all the vehicles, maintaining all comms and informing higher) shined his flashlight down the alley way illuminating 3 insurgents with AKs and RPGs. In about 1/3 of a second we engaged and had a wall of lead going down range, in about 2/3 of a second my vehicle had been hit by an RPG and was on fire. More insurgents were reinforcing from around the corner and we were fighting them through a ball of fire about a foot in front of my face. Luckily we shot the guy with the RPG before he shot us and I think that caused him to hit low on our vehicle. We had a gas can (not my choice) on the outside of the Humvee to refuel for our trips through the desert. It was one big flame at this time. The good news was that it was diesel so it didn't explode. The bad news was that it was about 1/3 of an inch of steel away from our AT-4 and 2 satchel charges, multiple rounds, flares, and all of our breaching explosives. We didn't even think of getting out, we just continued to fight as we were still being engaged with our Humvee burning to the ground around us. Finally the severity of the firefight diminished and the Lcpl driver got out and started yelling at us to get out of the Humvee, which, once said by someone, sounded like a pretty good idea. We bailed out over the top of the add on armor without even opening the gate and took temporary cover in an alley way hiding more from our own rounds and explosives in our Humvee that was now engulfed completely in flames than from enemy fire. We got together and made entry into a house and established a fighting and observation position on the roof. From there the fun started. We had a section of F-18s on station and an AC-130. Continuously while being engaged, leaving the vehicle and moving onto the roof, I was clearing them hot to engage the insurgents running away with 25mm, 40mm, and 105mm rounds. Insurgents running towards us from other alleys met with our small arms and machine gun fire. After a few minutes all was quiet except our Humvee singeing and crackling, with a random round or flare cooking off. At that point some surprisingly aggressive insurgents thought they would crawl towards us down the alley way we were previously responsible for, exploiting a gap in our coverage, and attempt to get another one of our vehicles. They overestimated their capabilities. The alley way was left unguarded because our vehicle and weapon covering the avenue of approach was burning to the ground (along with my new digital camera everyone got me for my birthday and various other personal belongings). A motivated Cpl and I took a position on the corner of the roof where we could keep an eye on the alley way and all friendlies while calling in air. This evening, unlike others, they had not cut all the power in the city, so between the street lights and the burning vehicle we had to remove our night vision goggles. Just as we did this we were able to see the insurgents low crawling down the alley way towards us, they had previously been washed out by the bright light of the burning vehicle. They didn't make it very far. A few more rounds down range and their miserable existence was over and we were ready to clear the area. After some help from air we were able to talk our one isolated Humvee through the narrow, channeling, often blocked city streets back to the rest of us, vacate the house with our detainees and make our way clear of the city. That night I learned that UPS stood for "Unprotected Piece of Shit". It did, however, save my life.

A final highlight took place in another blissful city, Hit. We had focused much of our effort in the northern towns of Haditha and Haqlaniya and decided it was time to pay a visit to the insurgents that thought they were getting off easy down south in Hit. We had a good package of targets and were prepared to make our way through the city rounding them up. We had our usual package of air up and they alerted us to a gathering of individuals near the target houses we were planning on taking down. We decided to box around the block and come up behind the individuals. This turned out to be a good call. The enemy had set up a 3-sided ambush for us and we surprised them by driving into the backside vice front side of it. Unfortunately we weren't aware of some of the individuals in the palm groves, but we wore them out just the same. 6 gun trucks with 27 guys with 240s and 50 cals does awesome things to trees, houses and SUVs. The 4 door suburban they were using to block the street was basically cut in half along with the 4 insurgents inside and pushed into a wall by our lead Humvee. The guys in the tree line to our east were cut to shreds along with the trees and the guys to our west trapped by the neighborhood houses and walls were picked apart. It was complete madness for a few minutes. AK and RPK rounds were zinging by our heads and coming from what seemed to be every direction. We blew threw in accordance with our ambush immediate action drills and went to an observation point to re-group and evaluate the situation. Air observed a 4 door sedan come to the site and pick up one or two survivors and move towards our position. I cleared the AC-130 hot and he put multiple 40mm and 105mm rounds into the car full of individuals. When a motorcycle with a side car came to "reinforce" and pick up a survivor it too was quickly done away with. I was calling in air from an elevated position on train tracks with oversight of the city. We called in Cobras and Hornets to drop infrared illume rounds so we could get eyes on any enemy moving towards us. We were still taking small arms and indirect fire from the city. A few more rounds from us and the 130 and that ceased. We mounted back up and went back to the target site and ripped a few targeted individuals out of their houses. While searching a house on the corner of an intersection with a great vantage point up and down the main highway into and out of town we found night vision goggles, cell phones, binoculars, weapons, IED making material etc. In order to "deny the enemy use of key terrain," we placed two satchel charges in the house, ran det cord along a couple of walls and "reduced" the house to ashes. While making our egress the 130 discovered a fighting position on the rooftop of another house on the other corner. I cleared them hot and that was then end of that fighting position and observation post. Another successful, exciting night.

Not all nights were as exciting as the ones described above. Most nights the biggest excitement of the evening was driving our Humvee through some targets front door and storming in and ripping them out of their home in the middle of the night. You know, just good clean fun like that. An awesome statistic throughout all these firefights, ambushes, patrols, raids, etc, is that we achieved over a 25 to 1 Kill/Capture to casualty ratio. We sustained only 4 casualties throughout our operations, of which, 3 returned to duty within a few days. None were from gunfire. We had one Marine injured when his Humvee rolled while ingressing around a traffic circle for a hit and 3 injured when their Humvee struck a triple stacked mine, launching the Cpl that was on the roof with me in Haditha twenty feet through the air. He had to be medivaced to Germany and is now in the states, but he's doing fine with only a couple of broken bones and no loss of life or limb or anything serious. Of particular interest is the fact that throughout all these events, we had rounds bouncing off our vehicles, rounds flying over our heads, RPGs impacting our vehicles, etc. We were involved in scenarios, situations, events, etc that movies couldn't match and we made it out un-scathed, everyone, our entire team. There is no doubt in my mind that Intervention took place.

This was one of the greatest experiences of my life, working with some of the most amazing people in the world. This group of Marines is nothing short of miraculous. Their knowledge, behavior, performance, etc is beyond a shadow of a doubt second to none. I'm sure you will all get tired of hearing some of the stories, but other things I'm writing here because I'm sure I won't feel like talking about too much. This was a true team in every sense of the word. Each night before we went out we would huddle around the Chaplain as he told us a short Bible story of great Warriors, then led us in prayer. In my book, it worked. After that, our Master Sergeant would say the same thing every time in a way that only he could say it and those words will echo in my head forever: "Cover them danger areas, engage threat targets, and protect your fellow shooters." That's what we did and that's why at the beginning of every mission one sentence was reported, and the end of every mission another: 27 and a dog out...27 and a dog in.

Those missions and their execution were the easy things to do. The hard things to live with were the unmentionable thoughts and incidents that occurred on a near daily basis. The things no one really talked about or even thought about much for that matter, but that 1% of time when you had a free moment, those thoughts crossed your mind that you wish didn't. Stupid things like I wonder if going to the port-a-john today will be a life or death decision based on which one I choose and at what time I go based on when and where the mortars or rockets impact. Thoughts like I wonder if the piano wire attempting to decapitate us will be strung between the trees or telephone poles along our route tonight. Things like I wonder if I'd rather lose both legs like the guy the other day or be killed. The subconscious looking away from the broken down vehicle that you drive by because it may explode by your vehicle. The tightening of muscles and quick shot of adrenaline as the driver veers 6 inches off the road and you wonder if you're going to hit a triple stacked mine. The nervousness that every vehicle you pass could at anytime come slamming into your vehicle as a suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED). The curiosity as to whether or not the dead body on the corner with the dog eating it is just another dead body or an IED. The momentary thoughts while eating that someone in the chow hall could be wearing a suicide vest and try blowing the place up like in Mosul. The weight on your shoulders of dealing with dead Marines on one hand from previous SVBIEDs and dead 5 year old Iraqi kids on the other hand because according to the driver he was reaching down on the floorboard to pick up his kids toy and did not see the Marines motioning for him to stop, firing flares and then warning shots and then finally taking the final step and putting rounds into the vehicle to get it to stop; scared for their own lives and following the prescribed escalation of force to a T. The fact that rockets and mortars are landing around you and going off and at any moment one could come crashing down next to you and there's nothing you can do about it. Like the time we were under attack and rockets were landing in such close proximity to our position that you could hear the whistling before impact. In that attack one 120mm high explosive rocket landed 7' behind where I work. It did not detonate. The numerous nights of little to no sleep because even though you were extremely tired endless thoughts of work, combat situations and things that could be done to defeat the enemy and protect our Marines wouldn't stop running through your mind. These are the things that wear on you. Not the firefights or the no kidding missions. These are the things that I'm glad are over. It's not like you spend hours contemplating all these events, just a moment here and there, but it's enough to wear you out sometimes. It's funny though, writing about them seems to release some of the internal tension over them.

There's no way I can end this with a somber tone, so I'll close with some stories of successes and funny events; the things that made all this tolerable. The sporadic but celebratory incidents of the Iraqi Police, Iraqi National Guard, Special Border Force or Iraqi Army actually defending themselves and fighting in defense of their country. The children thanking you in the streets and waving every chance they got. The brave locals that would approach our Marines and point out mines or IEDs that insurgents had emplaced. The tips that would get called in alerting us of weapons caches or high level insurgents moving into our AO, running from Fallujah. And of course the unbelievably successful turnout and safe execution of the elections.

As far as our own exploits, it was just the simple enjoyment of times of sitting around playing cards and telling stories while waiting for a mission. The 80s metal and big hair music playing in our makeshift planning spaces and rest areas while waiting to leave on a mission. The 19 year old Lcpl entering the room and excitedly stating that he "loves these oldies" at which time he gets stacked by all the older guys for calling the songs "oldies". The stories about exploits and conquests in foreign countries all over the world. The recaps of missions like when one of our young guys was trying to make entry into a room, but the door appeared to be locked, dead-bolted and wedged shut, so he used the shotgun to breach it, at which point the door creaked open ever so slowly towards him when he had been trying to push the entire time instead of pull. The laughing about the time we drove through the worst part of town and all hell broke loose above us, or so we thought for a moment, but in fact our antennae had hit a power line and every transformer for 2 blocks exploded. We thought we were in a huge ambush and done for. Not funny at the time, but hilarious later with everyone's reaction, to include the aircraft overhead. Or the time we rolled through town with the Tactical Psychological Operations Team blasting Metallica's Seek and Destroy over it's speakers, taking mortars and small arms fire with air screaming overhead and the Light Armored Vehicle's 25mm Bushmaster laying waste to buildings and groves where the fire was coming from. The naming of our mobile assault patrols "Cinderella, Dokken, Whitesnake, etc." Just the little things that made us all laugh and broke the unspoken tension. These were all in all good times experienced with Great Men.

I can't wait to be home and tell some other stories, but overall I'm just ready to move on and get back to life as normal. I do look forward to telling you about some of the individuals I served with, their names, personalities, etc. I have chosen not to write any names here because these could be anyone's stories and describe the events that many people over here go through. It doesn't compare to wars past in a lot of ways, but it presents new challenges and issues that force individuals to make unbelievably timely, informed, and accurate decisions at a moments notice at every level with political pressures, strict rules of engagement and the media watching over their every move. It is a new type of war and one that I feel we will be fighting for a long time to come here and in other locations throughout the world. Luckily we're adapting and perfecting it and we will be ready.