Men of Valor: Part VII of VIII

4 Rifles launched a “trigger op” later that night, a simple operation designed to interdict smugglers. The vast area is so heavily mined that going just a few feet off the road can be fatal. Much of the smuggling is apparently happening on the nearby Shat al Arab River, the seizure of which had been one of Saddam’s prime excuses for launching one of the largest and longest-running conventional wars in a century.

[Major Webb having dinner before mission.]

The Welsh Warriors, under Major Steve Webb, set off to recon hiding places for tonight’s VCPs, or vehicle control points. The idea was merely to surprise passersby and politely search their vehicles coming from the direction of Iran—the border was maybe three miles away—for things like surface-to-air missiles and EFPs. No weapons coming across the Iranian border have ever been captured by Coalition forces. Practically nobody lives near the crossing, and the border crossing closes at 1600, so any traffic after that would be suspicious.

The Welsh Warriors headed out, but little happened that night. Eventually some lights flashed across the desert, coming toward us. After some minutes, three mopeds carrying a total of nine young male riders came toward the vehicles parked in the dark. The men seemed drunk or high and were laughing and enthusiastic about the surprise encounter. The British soldiers released them to drive off into the night. An hour or two later, two wild dogs approached nearby, and through my night vision I could see the dogs stop about 20 meters from us in the dark, and then keep going. And that was it. We returned at about 3AM without incident.

Scenes from the Desert

[4 Rifles’ doctor shared in all the camp duties and was proud to be out there. I said her photos would cause more people to read the story and she just laughed, politely ignored me and kept working.]
[Everyone, including the officers share in the duties. Here, some of the younger soldiers cleverly watch the officers and senior NCOs build camp.]
[Tattered camouflage. The soldiers keep sewing it until some of the nets look like Frankenstein’s monster.]

There are two sides to the nets: in very hot weather or cold weather, it’s important to turn the proper side up (or down). One side reflects radiation more than the other, and so the net is like a heat valve. Turn the wrong side out and not only does the darker side (now facing the sun) absorb more heat, but lighter more reflective side (now facing the earth) traps it longer even at night as the ground “tries” to radiate back into black space. One day we accidentally put the net up backwards and suddenly we were cooking like potatoes.
On clear desert nights, space practically sucks the heat out of the desert and it can get cold, fast. Though the days were invariably very hot, most nights we needed sleeping bags to ward off the chill.

[4 Rifles battalion planning in the desert. You can see out of the nets but not so well into them.]
[There was information that people were trying to track and rocket us.]
[Dusty when dry, these deserts are veritable mud bogs when wet. It’s easier to move when dry, but the dust trails can be spotted from miles away.]
[I stayed most of the time with CPT Bertie Basset’s Recce platoon. One night in Basra, they had been on a sniper job waiting for an IED emplacer cell, when a British base was attacked nearby. Bertie’s platoon was far outnumbered and completely surrounded in what had been an abandoned building. Enemy were in the floors above and below them, and he could count about 60 enemy firing positions, yet the enemy did not know that Recce platoon was even there. The soldiers were ready with hand grenades and the whole lot, thinking “this could be it,” but miraculously the enemy never realized the British soldiers were in the same building.]
[Recce getting ready to move out.]
[Time to roll.]
[30mm cannon.]
[“Squadies” carrying supplies back to their platoon. The barbed wire behind them is from the 1980-88 war. The “mountain” farther away is actually one of thousands of tank positions from which the Iraqis could pull up high and shoot far across the desert. Enormous numbers of mines were spread across the land. It is said that the Iranians used human waves of boys to clear the mines. British soldiers found human bones during one of my first days with them.]
[Stay in the tracks.]
[This was the best toilet I had seen. Most platoons used just a hole, or perhaps a couple of cardboard boxes (one inside the other as reinforcement) with a hole cut through as a toilet. Those had no privacy, but this toilet was first-class all the way.]
[Land of death: Practically nothing lives out here. With few plants or insects, birds have nothing.]
[Stay in the tracks.]
[British helicopter swoops in.]
[Shuttle.]
[Resupply.]
[We moved from camp to camp.]
[Watching for an enemy.]
[More barbed wire and tank positions: After three months of intense urban combat, 4 Rifles was quickly adapting for the entirely different beast of desert warfare, but all was quiet.]
[Our tracks were easy but dangerous to follow. The soldiers were ready and waiting.]
[Sunsets were orange affairs.]
[Squaddies coming for service with Father.]

Day after day, British combat veterans express their admiration for American soldiers who serve 15-month tours. The British serve 6-month tours in Iraq, and that’s plenty long enough in urban combat. The British soldiers want to know everything about those Americans up north who are spending so long at one stretch and coming back for a second, third or even fourth tour. (I spent 4 November in Baghdad with an American captain, Jim Keirsey, who was on his 5th combat tour. CPT Keirsey had created an excellent command climate in his infantry company. I spent a good amount of time with Keirsey’s soldiers, and they hugely respected him: 5th combat tour and still going strong! I wish I could write faster and tell more stories about such people.)

[Staying in the tracks.]

We slept a few hours in the desert, and before sunrise 4 Rifles began breaking camp to head for the Iraq-Iran border crossing at al-Shalamcha. Every drive we make through the war-ripped landscape is haunting: Iraqi helmets baking in the sun. Miles of rusting barbed wire lay in patches around defensive positions. Stories of human waves, including young boys sent from Iran pushing forward to clear minefields with their bodies. Iraq had attacked Iran, but it didn’t end there.

 

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