- Published: Saturday, 10 February 2007 00:00
There is a hidden passion for Chuck Norris among some of the troops. His name seems to appear in every corner of Iraq—especially in outhouses. Sometimes lurid, mostly unprintable, always funny.
Chuck Norris’ tears cure cancer.
Too bad he never cries.
Chuck Norris, the workingman of action movies, remains an improbable icon. Maybe it’s those unquestionable martial arts skills, and the respect for them which he demonstrates by not padding his films with slick special effects and sarcastic slogans, but with hard kicks and punches.
Recently, while observing missions in and around Baghdad, I got to talk with Colonel Steve Townsend, the commander of 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, one of the nails pulled from Mosul and pounded into action elsewhere. His Strykers had been involved in the search for four American soldiers who had been kidnapped. When that ended sadly, his Strykers were deployed to the unfolding battle in Najaf.
In a sharp fight that most likely will never be properly told (too much war, too few writers), Colonel Townsend recalled walking on the battlefield and seeing body after enemy body—in the end there would be more than 250 of corpses—and those dead bodies were wearing full combat gear. Few people seemed to notice that battle, and so the daily twosies and threesies of dead terrorists in Mosul go largely uncounted. At least, in our media.
An Iraqi TV-man told me that terrorists in Mosul have been threatening journalists for underreporting American and Iraqi Police and Army deaths. The terrorists seem to be convinced they are killing us by the hundreds, something the rest of the world would realize if only the media would “correctly” report it. Yet it’s the ISF and Coalition who are killing terrorists and criminals by the hundreds, with largely the same complaint about inaccurate media coverage. If the terrorists weren’t so barbaric, and increasingly lethal, all this thin skin about bad press might be comical. Chuck Norris knows there is no honor among insurgents quibbling over the body count when their most frequent targets are civilians just going about their lives.
Days after a bomb killed all five occupants of a 2-7 Cav humvee, the Iraqis developed a PID (Positive ID) on the house of some men suspected to be involved. American Special Forces soldiers rate the SWAT team here in Mosul as very good, and the rationale of the Special Forces soldiers was evident as the team rehearsed a mission to kill or capture the suspects; I was allowed to witness final preparations. The Iraqi SWAT team was to run the actual breach and entry, backed up by other American elements, including the 2-7 CAV, and I was to accompany the mission.
The cold hours of the night ticked by until about 0200 (2 AM), when the humvee containing LTC Eric Welsh, the 2-7 battalion commander, rolled off base with me in the backseat. My camera was malfunctioning from the start, producing blurry images, but I carried a backup, which time-stamped each photo. Though the Iraqi SWAT team would lead the mission, various American military units crept around the target in their humvees, and through the night-vision monocular attached to my helmet, I could make out flashes as the SWAT team used explosives to enter the house. I was still inside the armored humvee and heard no explosions, when moments later I saw more flashes, presumably the “flash-bang” grenades used by the entry team to stun the occupants.
We moved in at about 0319 (3:19 AM) after the Iraqis and other American forces had secured the place, having already found weapons, a small amount of explosives, and a computer inside the well-furnished, two-story home. Four men were detained. We had been in the house all of four minutes when a radio call to LTC Welsh announced that the enemy was afoot nearby.
About fifteen to twenty enemy fighters had assembled for an attack. Their weapons included at least two mortars, a 61mm and an 82mm. The 61mm amounts to little more than a very long-range grenade launcher. It’s not particularly powerful, sort of like a super-grenade, but if it lands next to your bed while you are sleeping: game over. People have been hit in the restrooms, showers, going to check email, going to dinner, name it. Some people live in trailers and put sandbags on the roof to stop the mortars, and the fire inspectors will tell them to take those sandbags off; there apparently is a greater chance of being killed by the friendly sandbags than by the enemy mortars. Whatever the case, the 61mm will easily take off a leg, while the 82mm is several times more powerful.
While some enemy were attaching mortar tubes to base-plates, adjusting the bipods and dialing elevation and deflection, others must have been pulling the safety pins off the mortar fuses. Unfortunately for them, the 2-7 was loose in Mosul on the raid. In the air, the “Roughneck” Scout Weapons Platoon (1-17 CAV from the 82nd Airborne) was buzzing over Mosul supporting our raid, and their little OH-58D “Kiowa Warrior” helicopters were armed with rockets and machine guns. While we call the little helicopters “Warriors,” the enemy calls them “mosquitoes.”
Hovering above the mosquitoes, peering through the night into the Mosul warren, was the Air Scan reconnaissance airplane, owned and piloted by civilians contracted by the American government. The enemy might even have heard the aircraft, which captured video of them maneuvering, running, dodging for overhead cover. [posted at the end of this dispatch].
While most of our soldiers were asleep on base—or maybe watching Chuck Norris movies on computers—the enemy crews began dropping mortars into the tubes. BAM! The first mortar bomb arced over Mosul, sailing over the rooftops, slicing through the dark toward the base, tracing a parabola away from us at the raid.
On the American base, the Q36 counter-battery radar was sweeping the skies of Mosul with its invisible electromagnetic wash. The electromagnetic beam was the flashlight, the mortar bomb was the mirror against a dark sky filled only with a backdrop of stars. Blip. The Q36 caught a glint and registered the precise time and location. Blip. Blip. Blip, photons tickled electrons, while the computer registered data-points and calculated the POO (“Point of Origin”) and POI (“Point of Impact.”)
More bombs were fired into the dark sky: Blipblipblipblipblipblipblip.
They kept coming.The enemy knew the blips were registering, and so they shot only eight bombs, arcing over Mosul, over the base perimeter and past the guards. The mortar fins kept the noses pointed forward and the noses pointed ever more downward . . . down, down, down . . . BAM!!!! goes the bomb when it’s close, and when farther: KARUMMPHH!!! But back with the Iraqi SWAT team at that well-furnished house, we were too far from the base to hear the explosions:
The Q36 crew sent out the message with coordinates for the POO and POI. On base, Force Protection soldiers got a call to check the POIs and search for injured soldiers or unexploded munitions, which are sometimes found on bases with their fins sticking from the ground.
The “Roughneck” pilots flying their “mosquitoes” left us behind and vrrrrooommmmed across the Tigris River toward the POO. But the Air Scan airplane was tracking several groups of terrorists nearby and we were still inside the house when LTC Eric Welsh got the call about enemy contact, with fifteen to twenty AIF (enemy) nearby.
Approaching large groups of AIF is dangerous for the Roughnecks even in their helicopters (five helicopters have been shot down or crashed from possible mechanical failure in the past few weeks, and about fifty-seven have gone down since the beginning of the war). Some months ago in Mosul, Roughneck pilots were coming down like mosquitoes on a large group of enemy who began firing up at the helicopters. A bullet snapped into a cockpit, striking Captain Matt Mattingly in the head. The second pilot in the same helicopter landed the Kiowa just next to the Combat Support Hospital, but it was too late.
As LTC Eric Welsh rushed out of the house and the Roughnecks moved in on the POOs, the commander asked if I wanted to stay where it was “safe” or go with him. We ran to the humvees, and raced through the streets of Mosul where any moment the next IED might launch us into space, the Q36 dutifully plotting the trajectory of our gunner and our helmets as they plummeted into the Tigris River.
The Roughnecks in the helicopters called down to LTC Welsh asking for permission to fire. He radioed back that if they could confirm no friendly forces in the area, and if the pilots had PID (Positive Identification), the Roughnecks were “Cleared Hot.”
The video from the Air Scan thermal camera captured images of the first Roughneck rockets streaking pencil-straight lightning into the target. The “mosquito” comes into view, its blades spinning white, and moves off as the second Roughneck splashes more rockets into the enemy.
The pilots radioed back to LTC Welsh that they had attacked the targets, and Welsh told them to get back to the FARP (Forward Armament and Refueling Point), which is a combat helicopter version of a NASCAR pit-stop.
We raced over the bridge (more like lumbered over the bridge because the humvees lugging all that armor can’t race anywhere) while LTC Welsh was directing his units to block-down the area. He wanted to force the enemy into a gunfight.
The pilots landed at the FARP in the cold dark, engines running, blades swirling, while fuel was gushed in, and rockets reloaded. Within minutes they were back into the night sky flying low without lights, using night-vision, and soon were back over our heads. The Roughneck helicopter crews found more bad guys and were requesting permission to fire again. LTC Welsh didn’t hesitate, saying if they had PID and could confirm there were no friendly elements around the target, they were Cleared Hot. The two Kiowas rolled in and sounded like they were flying right over our heads when one fired its .50-caliber machine gun—BAPBAPBAPBAPBAPBAPBAPBAP—and then the sound of the helicopter faded into the dark sky.
The enemy apparently showed up with about the same number of people we had—although possibly a whole lot more—minus any the Roughnecks might have killed. Our advantage was two helicopters with limited ammunition. The enemy advantage was nearly everything else.
Ground contact was imminent. The enemy was somewhere close around us, and probably heavily armed. Darkness wouldn’t offer concealment much longer; if we got into a decisive fight, the sun would rise on us.
At about 0351 (3:51AM), a lone ambulance came racing up a deserted street, red lights flashing. LTC Welsh told his soldiers to “STOP THAT AMBULANCE!” The enemy uses ambulances to smuggle terrorists away from fights, or just to get them to the hospital. (A disadvantage for the terrorists is that the Iraqi Army and Police troll the hospitals for wounded enemy.)
The soldiers questioned the men via the interpreter. They claimed to be on a routine call. LTC Welsh told 2-7 soldiers to release the men and act like all was well, but to follow the ambulance. When they did, the two men inside the ambulance apparently did not notice the tail.
The ambulance headed down the road, stopping in a densely populated warren of narrow streets and alleys. The ambulance stopped, and some men flushed out toward the flashing lights, apparently also completely unaware that American troops had converged on the scene. LTC Welsh’s simple plan had worked, and either the driver truly didn’t seem to realize we had followed him, or, perhaps he was just an honest ambulance driver picking up people who happened to be injured in some non-combat fashion while most people were sleeping.
This was fantastically dangerous: about eight men piled out of that alley, two of whom were obviously wounded, and booked toward the ambulance. By now, the enemy knows we have their POOs. Name it, it could all be there waiting in ambush: suicide vests, grenades in pockets, knives up sleeves, RPGs, IEDs planted along the roads to blow us into little pieces.
I was wearing a night-vision monocular, and there were shades of black, green and white through my “night-vision eye” while the other eye was pulled to the red light of the ambulance throbbing off the wall as the soldiers checked for ambushes amid the shops and doorways that were all around us. True, the enemy could just drop grenades on us, but the Kiowas could also shoot at them if they got up on the roofs . . . but then, we were so close, the Kiowas likely would hit us, too.
Grenades aside, this was a perfect place to get shot. I was hungry and hoping not to get shot before breakfast, but the soldiers were going deeper into the dark alley, and I had signed up for this and the commanders had let me go. At times like this, someone searching for answers might ask himself, what would Chuck do?
The ambulance was still parked on the road with the two wounded men inside. A smart person would have also detained the wounded people. But the Commander decided to let them go.
As the ambulance that a smart commander would have detained drove away with the two wounded men, the detainees in the alley were questioned. One said that he had just woken up and had come outside for some reason. But A.J. noticed he was wearing socks. Most Iraqis won’t sleep wearing socks because folk wisdom dictates that wearing socks to sleep can make people go blind, or at least cause eye problems. A good interpreter translates more than just words and I’d seen LTC Welsh listening to the instincts of his interpreter on other missions, but tonight he ignored them, leaving me to wonder: Why did the commander let the wounded guys go?
The soldiers knew they needed a few more guns before clearing back there. The Kiowas vvrrrrooommmeddd overhead, but were no help now, because we were too close to the enemy. When it’s tight like this, it’s man on man. And when the other man can dive out of a doorway and stab you in the throat, he can win without firing a shot and disappear into the warren where walls often have hidden passages.
High-tech advantages vanish with every closing step. Even the night-vision monocular can be a liability this close. The monocular comes into and out of focus, people shine flashlights. But if you flip-up the monocular, that eye is useless because the green light disables native night vision.
Any second now . . . if our guys were shot or fragged. I felt for the latch to my right-side medical kit where the tourniquet was, and felt for my knife to cut off rifle slings to make extra tourniquets, ears straining.
A soldier walked silently toward me, moving forward to help clear. Because of his night-vision monocular, when he looked at me I saw a sliver of green crescent around his eye. Deadly serious, he pulled out a pistol and said, “Here, sir,” moving to hand it to me. “I can’t take that,” I said “it’s illegal and against the rules.” He must have thought I was a complete idiot, but he re-holstered the pistol and moved forward, rifle at the ready. I had no idea who the soldiers were. They were 2-7 CAV.
It’s 0514 and the sun will soon rise over Mosul. We wait for Iraqi Police to take the detainees, meanwhile C-company shoots and wounds two Iraqis who had sped too close.
The commander had allowed the two wounded men to go off in the ambulance to the al Jibouri hospital. But he radioed to the Iraqi Army and asked the IA to follow them. According to LTC Welsh, Iraqi soldiers “visited” the men in the hospital, playing dumb, and offering transportation home. Once they got there, Iraqi soldiers searched the home, finding six dead men: Death by Roughnecks. The prisoners also told the Iraqi soldiers where they could find the mortar tubes hidden down by the Tigris, and that was it:
Mission Complete, Return to Base.
[Watch the extended video footage from the Air Scan reconnaissance airplane here]