Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Soldier's Hero

Recently, the publications from Educated Soldier have found their way to various sites throughout the internet. The result of the republishing of the tales originally found here has been the generation of a great many debates concerning the dynamics of the current circumstances in Iraq. Such results have been greatly personally satisfying.

In my current state, as a student in America, I often feel that there is little left for me to offer in a struggle that I fully believe in. My academic pursuits, should they be completed, would situate me in such a position to return to the Middle East in some role to truly make a difference. This is my ultimate goal and it is one that I am committed to unconditionally. However, it is this current period of time; suspended between extended tours in Iraq and an eventual return, that often causes me unrest. So it has been a boon of great fortune that I have been able to hold this venue. I have found Educated Soldier to be my current niche of contribution.

Discussion about the Iraq War is vitally important. This is a principle that I fully buy into. On many other forums, I have made it very clear that I have sources of apprehension that cause me greater fear than a determined enemy in the Middle East. Two of these fears are domestic in nature. First, I fear that the American populace will eventually grow less tolerant toward an on-going conflict in the Middle East because of the perceived monetary burden that is being developed by the conflict and parlayed on the country or because of some moral disagreement with prolonged fighting. Worse yet is the possibility of a future apathetic United States; this scares me more thoroughly than all else. As long as interested parties are continuing to debate the merits and failures of the war, I stand firm in my optimism that eventual goals can be presented and achieved. However, when the public interest wanes and government officials have fewer critics to scrutinize their decisions, the war in Iraq is going to become a lost cause. I fervently believe that success can still be had and that slow achievements are, in fact, leading to that ultimate success. For this reason, an apathetic America is a frightening thing.

Is such an uninterested America an implausible occurrence? I think not. Consider: This is a country mesmerized by the follies of the Paris Hiltons and Lindsay Lohans of Hollywood. David Beckham is more often front-page news than is the occurrence of American deaths in the Middle East. Our sports heroes (see Vick, Michael, et al) are failing us and we continually divert our attention from news of utter importance to interesting, but relatively innocent, hi-jinks of an out-of-control celebrity community. Because American interest manifest itself in such ways, I don’t think that I am totally lost in suggesting that, one day, all major interest in Iraq may fade; our collective short attention span caught by any of a list of other sources of “entertainment.” So when I can direct my experiences in Iraq in such a way to stimulate continued discourse on the subject, I well with absolute pride.

With that being said, I want to thank everyone who has read my accounts, commented here and elsewhere and has, in general, cared. I think a continued effort by all parties- those that have been in-county, those who have not, those who support the war, and those who oppose – can ultimately result in a situation and game-plan that we can all agree upon and work through. This, ultimately, is my grand goal. And it is also what motivates me to continue to write…

Baptism by Fire

My most recent posts have been fairly thought-invoking affairs. Tonight, in the celebratory mood caused by Iraq’s successful futbol run in the Asian Games, I want to delve into something different and sentimental in a positive sense. I have a story in my head that has been developing for some time. It involves my initiation to war. It is also a story that generated a deep bond between a fellow soldier and me. This friendship is one that I still consider among my strongest despite the recent lack of communication between the associated parties. However, the story is a bit blurry – many details escape me. Some of the details are removed not because of the blur of time, but because I was not privy to them as the events unfolded. As time passed, I learned more about the particulars. However, there is still much that needs to be filled in. If you have the ability to flesh out this story, please contact me and do so; this is worthy made-for-Hollywood stuff. And, to all of those that look up to every individual that dons a uniform, understand this is a story of the types of individuals that we, the ground ponders, direct all admiration. This is, indeed, a story of…

My Heroes

My unit rolled into Iraq with the very lead elements of the entire invading force. Stepping back, however, one looks in retrospect and chokes on the use of the word “invading.” I rode in a humvee occupied by three men. As the most junior soldier, I was primarily the driver. Seated to my right was my team chief and, manning the gun, was another soldier. We had a solid team. None of the three of us were apart in age by more than a few years. We had the same interests; in fact, we were primarily interested in what most boys our age liked: girls, booze, music, and girls and booze. I genuinely believe that our team almost always enjoyed the company amongst each other. As progressing time grinded on other teams and led to nearly inevitable in-fighting, we prided ourselves in our ability to ignore such burdens. Looking back, I think that we were too naive to waste energy in such a fruitless occupation as argument. Besides we were too busy playing “Pictionary” and constantly debating what we would do with a million dollars and… often, we would play this peculiar game that spontaneously occurred amongst bored-stricken soldiers and it worked like this:

One player would suggest a terrible situation. Say, for example, the named hypothetical activity might be something akin to undergoing physical pain of some sort while being forced to observe pornographic actions enacted between grotesque beings. The other participants in the game would then bid with fictitious money until one player named the lowest terms that they would be willing to accept in remittance for participating in the supposed situation. In turn, the remaining players could forever then suggest that Steve, for example, “would undergo physical pain, while watching grotesque porno for only $1,000!” Such were the fun times of the “invading” soldiers.

A notable memory is when my humvee “invaded” the Fertile Crescent. One should remember that, for the past six months, my unit had been living in Kuwait in an area that was surrounded by the endless sands of the desert environment. Traveling through southern Iraq, the topography was no different; flat, sandy, desolate. We traveled through such conditions for a couple of days with nary an actionable event of note to register. Then, without warning, we crested a hill and, in the distance, the sand gave way to lush green grass and sporadic groves of trees. While not parched or striving for vegetation for the same reasons, I can imagine the excitement that overtook nomadic desert-travelers of the past when stumbling upon this location. Typically, one doesn’t take into account how thoroughly they associate livelihood with vegetation often. Even when it's gone, one hardly misses it. However, after being without the presence of environments composed of the color green for a long period and then suddenly having such an atmosphere sprung is nearly an indescribable phenomenon…

It was, perhaps, prior to our peaceful “invasion” of the Fertile Crescent or just upon arriving at its very edges that my baptism by fire occurred.

While I was a member of a “reconnaissance” unit, it was not very often that we conducted reconnaissance on much of anything. This was generally because we were one of the few units in the Third Infantry Division that had absolutely no armored support. We were equipped with humvees only. Moreover, the use of humvees was a bit new to us as well because, in training back at Fort Stewart, we typically inserted via helicopter and proceeded to “hump” our equipment in traveling to our objectives. So, in lieu of such reconnaissance, we often provided security for more vulnerable trailing elements; for example, certain higher headquarters vehicles. In turn, the leading elements through southern Iraq were often Armored Battalions or the well-equipped Cavalry Squadron.

However, one night, something upset this order of battle and we found ourselves pushed pretty far ahead. The element just forward of us had reported pretty significant contact. It was nighttime and this was, without a doubt, the closest I had come to enemy fire. In fact, at the time, I was convinced that the war would be over before I knew it. I was also falsely convinced that modern war was only fought amongst Special Operations ground units and Air Forces. I would learn differently a few miles up the road.

The lead unit was in enough contact to warrant supplementation. This is where my own unit came in. We drove directly into a firefight and it was a phenomenon that, oddly, I will neither ever forget nor ever be able to remember clearly. This dynamic remains because of the adrenaline rush that occurred that caused me to undergo a physical experience that I can only relate to athletes who have ever been in the “zone.” One understands the environment surrounding them but is; ultimately, separate from that environment and a concentrated mental focusing develops.

The ultimate result of the night’s battle was an eventual withdrawal by, not only us, but by the unit that we were supporting. In our place stormed a battalion of tanks. I do remember clearly maneuvering my vehicle out of the area of skirmish and being bypassed by Abrams tanks whose occupants were physically out of their armored tanks, loudly growling in anticipation of slaughter. In an Airborne Division, excitement is generated by the parachute-drop of troops. In Mechanized Divisions, such as the Third Infantry, pride is taken in our mechanical superiority. These tankers were vicious combatants and absolutely loved to take the fight to the enemy.

After the tanks cleared out and little was left of the enemy, I became witness to my first combat air attack. As a team of forward observers, it was often our job to call in artillery or close-air-support (airplanes). Airplanes were going to be used to finish off any remaining enemy on this night but we would not be the ones directing the action. At this point, this particular scuffle had battled on for some time and a heavy congregation of military officials had assembled. Such an occurrence was a perfect opportunity for an established officer to conduct such an air attack from the ground. While we wanted to do our job, I think that my team ultimately understood. Besides, the first taste of war had left us a bit weary and we were satisfied to simply watch the artful display put on by an Air Force that I am forever grateful.

However, the participants in this battle failed to impress me in comparison to the grittiest bunch of individuals that I would come to meet the following day.

After the battle had subsided, we assembled our vehicles in a coherent, secure cluster and attempted to achieve some remnants of rest. Upon waking the next morning, our unit was given a follow-on mission. We were to return to the battlegrounds of last night in order to retrieve some remaining American combatants

Consider this statement: there were remaining, living American combatants on the battlefield.

During our mission that day, we would have additional occupants in each of our humvees. These were the teammates of the men that we were journeying in an endeavor to retrieve. Little of the mission was making sense at this point. However, we dutifully traveled towards the area of the previous night’s battle.

Upon arriving there, a real genuine mess was to be seen. Not only were the sporadic concrete buildings that once stood throughout the area decimated, but enemy pick-up trucks continued to smolder. This was my first evidence of an authentic battleground. Moreover, at some point it had rained. Being on the edge of the Fertile Crescent, the soil here was composed of dirt instead of sand. Currently the ground was neither but, instead, mud. And, if I remember correctly, I recall seeing one of the few armored vehicles we lost in the battle absolutely buried in heavy, brown muck.

Still, we had a curious mission to conduct. At some point, the guest in our vehicle commanded us to stop. When we did, and after he exited the vehicle, the most amazing event that I have ever been witness to occurred. He and members of his unit who had ridden in accompanying humvees scoured the battlefield, and as they did, they recovered fellow soldiers. And these soldiers were most definitely alive and mostly uninjured.

Let me express the gravity of this situation: these were men that, apparently, had been on the ground throughout the night. They maintained safety despite being present during a firefight conducted between American humvees and enemy gun-trucks. Afterwards, they remained on the ground and survived a prolonged onslaught conducted by massive American tanks. To add further devastation, they remained on the battlefield as airplanes dropped substantial bombs and an extended amount of ordinance throughout their area of operation.

And, apparently, this is exactly what these toughest of men had planned to do. Moreover, they instigated the entire fight and their efforts led to the eradication of a large number of enemy combatants. These soldier/heroes may not have physically destroyed their opposition themselves, but their presence was a force-multiplier on an unheard of scale. With only their feet, rifles and radios to depend on, they caused havoc unlike any that I have since been presence to. This is why, to this day, I refer to my unit as “reconnaissance” in quotations; how dare I devalue the term when others are embodying it in such ways?

Upon retrieving these men, they eagerly recuperated. I remember seeing many of them relying on oxygen machines to help promote their recovery from pure exhaustion. I have forever engrained in my memory an image of a group of these men, sitting on a small dirt crest, ragged looking. They were weary-eyed and dogged. I guarantee, however, that after a brief refreshing pause to boost their reserves, these men continued to participate in the action in methods much more productive than any of my own.

Friendship Forged of Fire

Years later I would find myself in South Korea. I was in the 1/503rd Infantry Battalion and I was the new guy. For some reason, on this particular night, the entire unit was outside of their barracks, spread throughout the garrison area, in uniform, but hardly under any discernible sort of control. Street lights had little effect and I vividly recall all faces being concealed in shadow.

A unit member caught sight of the combat patch that I, at that time, wore on my right shoulder. This was a time before combat was a given for all soldiers and I was sort of a pariah because of my own experiences. Upon seeing that I had served in Iraq, everyone seemed to have questions. Upon receiving one of these queries that night, I began to recall my tales as a “Recon” soldier when I was interrupted by the loudest reverberation of footsteps I can ever remember hearing.

Rumbling towards me was this fireball of a human being. This guy had shoulders as broad as a linebacker’s and hips inhumanly narrower in proportion. This being was physically constructed to cause massive damage on anything that he found needing such treatment. Upon looking at this man, I would have assessed him as being six foot three and well over 240 pounds; I doubt any of that was fat.

And, to my greatest chagrin, this guy was bee-lining directly for me:

“What the f*ck do you know about recon?!”

This wasn’t a question that was meant to be answered. As the growling individual appeared closer, I recognized that, despite his size, he wasn’t much older than me.

“What the f*ck do you know about being in Iraq two weeks before the war stated?!”

I swear to this day that this man had caused me more fear in two questions that I had developed in a year in Iraq. This guy was an animal. Despite this, I managed a meager reply…

“Well… uh… Sergeant. I was in the Second Brigade Reconnaissance Team…”

My auditory stumbling wasn’t working and my mind raced to find an escape from this confrontation. For some reason, an event that hadn’t been recalled in many moons began to falter from my clenched throat…

“I mean, we rescued these dudes… You wouldn’t believe it, Sergeant- they came out of the ground. They buried themselves, survived some of the worst-“

I was cut off while beginning to recount the events described above.

Sergeant “Joe’s” mood and demeanor quickly changed. As oppressive as he had seemed just a prior second, he had now morphed into a gigantic appreciative Viking-looking individual. He hesitated in surprise and then, with genuine appreciation, continued.

“Objective “Lions?” You were there? That was you?”

Somehow my limited participation in the battle described above was enough to pass muster with this most amazing human being. Sergeant Joe had been in the unit that we had recovered that long past morning in Iraq. While he wasn’t one of the soldiers who had participated in that particular mission, he was one of the soldiers from that same unit. From his recounting, they had worked for Joint Special Operations Command and, in my assessment, completed some of the most wild, hair-raising missions of the early part of the war.

Sergeant Joe and I would go on to become great friends. He never questioned my past war experience again. He should have; my contributions were absolutely limited in comparison to his own. However, for some reason, he took a liking to me. I always looked up to Joe and eventually stood beside him during countless battles in Ar Ramadi. Joe, and people like Joe, is this soldier’s hero…


I believe that the unit of focus above was the 18th Airborne Corps’s Long Range Reconnaissance and Surveillance (LRRS) unit. This unit, I believe, is badged F. Company, 51st Infantry. I also believe that they fall under the auspices of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion. If anyone has further information concerning this mission or these men, please come forward. Enough time has passed to adequately suggest that parading these feats for their extreme heroics will not compromise anyone’s security.

While tonight’s tale may not raise any important questions and may also fail in helping readers understand the current dynamic, I would hope that it goes a long way in promoting the realization of the great sacrifices that have been made and are continuing to be made. Sergeant Joe would do it all again. So would I. I would genuinely hope that the soldiers are given the opportunity to decide when they have grown weary of fighting and not have an American population do so on their behalf.


a said...

Awesome post. Thank you and God Bless.

Marzouq the Redneck Muslim said...

You are my hero because of what you have done. You are a soldier, as Kipling said, with a heart that is pure.

Read your post on Belmont Club about the calm in Baghdad before the insurgency. When I read your comment in the comment section I had to respond on your blog.

I wish I had the wisdom you have when I was your age. I am over twice your age and a veteran of the Vietnam era. I too have been inspired by the wisdom and knowledge on the Belmont Club blog to further my education.

Salaam eleikum!

C-C-G said...

Excellent post, my friend.

Completely off topic, I've decided to tag you for this game that's going around the blogs. I played, now it's your turn.

Diana said...

Wow, what a wonderful read.
I thought "part one" was good but this one is so powerful that my emotions were stirred.
What a great writer, please as I have stated before, submit this to a publisher.
"nothing ventured, nothing gained"

I hope you have many readers to this blog and maybe one will see what I see in your writing that holds a readers attention and makes the reader beg for more.

Looking forward to your next post.