The story that I tell tonight may be the most important that I ever post here at Educated Soldier concerning my experiences in war. It is also the most somber. Certain ambiguities in the recounting of this tale may also prove volatile. It is not my intention to raise controversy but it would be offensive in the telling of this event to not include all details- including some rather shady conclusions that were drawn in developing the lessons learned. The disastrous event that is retold below occurred just south of Baghdad on
April 7th, 2003…
At this point in the war, I am not sure if I was yet “battle tested.” I have no physical journal to assist in recounting my memories nor to help keep them in some semblance of order. In any case, this event occurred during the same short time period as the Long Range Reconnaissance / Surveillance team mission that I posted about here; both taking place during the Third Infantry Division’s drive toward Baghdad. If I hadn’t been made aware of the horrors of war by this point, the events of this particular morning would surely change me in that regard. In fact, the events of April 7th were the only ones that had a lasting impact on my mental being for time after returning home (an issue that will be addressed in the epilogue).
My team’s mission on April 7th was the same one that we had been partaking for the previous week or longer. Our humvee was assigned to provide security for our Brigade’s Tactical Operations Center (T.O.C.). To this point, this simply meant that we had to maintain a local placement in relation to the T.O.C.’s vehicles during the extended convoy through southern Iraq. The convoy was extended in both time and physical length. This is to say that our invasion technique up to that point was to line nearly all the vehicles of our brigade in a row and roll directly through the country. This may not have been the most strategically advanced tactic, but it was presumed to have thorough psychological effects on any enemy we might meet. This line of vehicles literally stretched over a mile long. Of course, my description is estimated but not exaggerated. In a mechanized brigade, there numbers hundreds of vehicles ranging from wheeled-humvees to tracked M113’s and their larger counterparts, M577’s, all the way to the massive Bradley and Abrams armored juggernauts.
Pauses in this journey required this line of equipment to break into smaller groups. Each group would form their own security perimeter; their vehicles forming the areas’ outside radiuses. These rest formations would develop wherever convenient which usually meant that they would form wherever we happened to stop. There isn’t much in the way of discernible terrain and land features in southern Iraq which caused most any area to be just as worthy of a rest location as any other. After digging foxholes that would presumably provide us some protection should we receive incoming artillery or mortar fire, we would utilize these hold areas to relax, eat, rest or, again – in my team’s case – play Pictionary.
Actually, it is worth pointing out because this is not an unimportant detail, that I had somehow come into ownership of a hand-held electronic “Yahtzee” game. Had I owned this simple electronic game in America, I would have definitely discarded it. Only in the most austere of conditions would it satisfactorily cure boredom. However, my current environment being, in fact, as austere as any, I played this game repeatedly. I must have logged over a thousand individual played games. While the numbers may again sound hyperbolized, I promise that I am limiting all exaggeration.
However, on the day immediately prior to April 7th, we had started to enter the very southern suburbs of Baghdad. This was significant in many ways but, in the case of this story, the most important aspect that was provided by such urban terrain was the possibility of our unit finding actual hard-covered facilities to utilize as temporarily rest areas / headquarters. In fact, we found exactly such a structure. This building sat on the east side of the main highway that we had been following towards Baghdad. It was off the thoroughfare a bit and in between its location and the road was ample area for a large, makeshift parking lot. In this area, we placed all the vehicles associated with the Tactical Operations Center. By the 7th, this had grown to well over fifty vehicles of various sorts.
Between the lot and the building itself was a brick wall about ten feet tall. Opposite that wall sat the building that would house the Second Brigade T.O.C. for the unforeseen future. This structure was rather long and fairly tall for a one story facility. It resembled an empty warehouse of some sort. At the far end of the building, an Army Special Forces Detachment had taken residence. They were the cool guys with their baseball caps and Toyota pick-up trucks. They held my fascination and respect then and continue to do so today.
From that far-end, the building stretched back towards me. The warehouse-type facility ended at a courtyard and, across this small opening, was actually a second, smaller building. If the warehouse was a prison, so to say, this second building would represent, basically, an oversized residence for the guards. To maintain focus and recap, this entire two-building facility was behind the aforementioned brick wall that surrounded and separated the entire location from the working parking lot.
Before progressing to the heart of this story, there are two more details that I must ensure that all readers understand: the makeup of a Brigade Tactical Operations Center, and where each of the parties in this makeup was located on April 7th. The T.O.C. is the absolute center-mass, “brain” of the Brigade. Typically, the Brigade Commander and all his assorted high-ranking officer companions reside here. There are usually three or four Brigades that compose a Division. To give some gravity of the importance of the actors in such a location, there is no other level of authority between the Brigade and Division Headquarters. The Brigade Commander answers to the Division’s Two-Star General commander and the Brigade Commander subsequently orders the commanders of the assorted maneuver battalions within his auspices. One more detail to add credence: much has been said of the success of the 3rd Infantry Division’s so-called “Thunder Runs” into Baghdad. These Thunder Runs were, more or less, the brainchild of 2nd Brigade Commander, Colonel David Perkins, who also physically directed them. The people who reside in the T.O.C. are of the utmost importance and because of the depth of information and commands that are generated by them, the T.O.C., itself, is one of the most vital locations within the Brigade. For thorough understanding of the importance of the T.O.C., I suggest reading this report from Michael Yon. He describes a currently functioning T.O.C. in Baqubah, Iraq in detail.
On the fateful day of April 7th, most of the high-ranking officials were operating out of the above-described secondary, smaller building. Outside of the officers, most of the strategy-developing units of the T.O.C. were staged in the courtyard. This included my friends in the Fire Support Cell who were working out of their armored 577’s. Also located in this courtyard were numerous upward-stretching antennae and other various communication devices. If I recall correctly, we may have even posted a 2nd Brigade Guide-on (flag) here. In the warehouse facility itself were numerous resting soldiers as this was the makeshift quarters for all participating men and women. While my living arrangements were inside that building, on the morning of April 7th, my team and I were located in or near our humvee which sat just opposite the courtyard, separated by the brick wall. The far end of the building, home to the Special Forces Operational Detachment, was unoccupied as they were, presumably, out on mission.
As a side note, my team had very deep understanding of the complexities of this compound because the night before we had completed a self-motivated “reconnaissance” mission throughout the grounds. The result of this pseudo-mission was the locating of a kitchen and several ducks, a few of which my team leader slaughtered in a futile attempt to compose a “home-cooked” meal of sorts.
The event that occurred at the T.O.C. on April 7th is forever engrained into my soul and will be carried onward for all of my living time
On that morning, my teammates and I were sitting in our humvee with as little apprehension as any could have given the environment. We were not in our protective armor. All of this equipment, including our flak-vests and helmets, was stored in our living area of the warehouse. We were relaxing. As such, we donned little more than pants and brown tee-shirts. I was just outside of the driver’s seat of the truck, attending to another game of Yahtzee.
Around eleven in the morning, I heard the distant sound of an incoming plane. This is a sound that I am quite familiar with having served as a Forward Observer. It had often been my job in the past to lead low flying aircraft toward ground targets during training missions. Initially, I was hardly startled by this rather routine sound. It may be a phenomenon of memory or a result of adrenaline that was suddenly developing, but I recall the sound of this airplane building ever slowly; like the pace of time, itself, had been reduced to a crawl. It just kept inching closer and closer.
At some point, the loud growl of the aircraft had become so intense and so close that I took the time to fully voice my frustration in such a wanton pilot. The sound just kept growing in its apparent proximity.
Apparently, my identification of the airplane was completely misguided. Instead, the approaching sound ended in the huge eruption of violent explosion from just behind me. In one quick motion, I dropped my game and launched my entire body into my truck, sprawling over my seat, across the middle of the vehicle, and into the passenger seat occupied by my team leader. For a brief second memory blurs, and then I recall my teammates expressing immediate concern for my well-being. Momentarily, a large object fell from the sky and impacted on the back of our humvee, causing the entire frame to dip on its shocks and then rebound upwards. Behind me, I would soon see all too clearly that the warehouse was destroyed; its remaining bits left to smolder. An object had dropped from the sky and blasted violently and directly on the courtyard only a total distance of, maybe, fifty feet behind me.
Everything was destroyed.
Nearly every vehicle that had been in the courtyard had, in one instant, vanquished from existence. All of the communication equipment was gone. At least half of the large warehouse had collapsed and the remaining elements were quickly burning down. Chaos of a scale I had never before been witness ensued. I immediately identified with the pictures of Ground Zero in New York City, the only event in which I could compare such singular destruction.
There were, first, a few moments constituted of shock, horror, disbelief, bewilderment, and all emotions in between and beyond. However, leaders did their duty and began to lead efficiently. I was directed to move my humvee as it was dangerously close to sources of ignition. After doing so, I followed the others in a mass of humanity that attempted to quell flames with rather feeble attempts. We filled buckets of water and splashed their contents on flames that seemed to only grow larger and more efficient. My two teammates, however, acted much more heroically.
Their minds raced and they made the quick realization that our equipment was still in the smoldering building. While it was likely that these pieces of equipment were destroyed, they had to attempt to retrieve them. In logic that only a soldier would understand, they thoroughly believed that risking their lives attempting to retrieve the equipment that we were negligently without was less bothersome than dealing with the reprimands that we would later receive for not having kept them in our constant possession. They raced around the building to the area of the night prior’s attempted bout of cooking. From that location, they entered the now completely unstable structure. Once inside, they located our equipment. More importantly, they located a very badly injured soldier.
In an act of bravery not often surpassed, they carried the body of their fellow brother-in-arms through raging flames and out the very hole that had been created during the source events of this destruction. Their actions extended the life of the soldier within their grasps. They rushed him to the closest source of medical aid. The soldier had a renewed opportunity to fight for life. Unfortunately, he would make the ultimate sacrifice in coming days because of the wounds sustained. However, this does not devalue the valor of my teammates’ in their attempt. They would be subsequently awarded for their heroics. While I am not going to express the name of the deceased soldier as I am not certain if his family has ever been made fully aware of the proceedings of that day, I am not going to be as guarded with the names of these heroes: Sergeant Michael Dalton and Sergeant Phillip Wilkens are both fully deserving of any little recognition that I can muster on their behalf.
Meanwhile, ranking enlisted members attempted to regroup and account for their soldiers. While this was occurring, it was becoming immediately clear that our close buddies in the Fire Support Cell were located in their armored 577 at exactly the point of impact during the exact time of impact. And now they were missing. Quickly, our thoughts turned to these men and we assumed the worst. Nearly every vehicle that had been in that courtyard had disintegrated. While everything was still awash in fog of memory and physical smoke, this was certain: the chances of survival in that courtyard were slim.
However, despite all this, I would become witness of another of the day’s seemingly unbelievable occurrences. From the wreckage of decimated vehicles and buildings that was the current courtyard scene, emerged our friends in their 577. Somehow, this lightly armored vehicle had sustained the attack and managed to recover strongly enough to drive out of the mess on its own accord. We had taken the unfortunate fates of these individuals as granted. But they defied our most dire predictions and death itself and left the scene of destruction shaken up but with hardly a bodily injury among them.
Eventually every soldier on the ground that remained capable would compose their spirits and efforts and join in an amazing display of timely teamwork. The T.O.C. was quickly rebuilt, albeit in lesser grandeur, at a different location in the parking lot. While all this was occurring, our friends within the Brigade’s maneuver battalions were entering Baghdad proper. It was essential that the T.O.C. regroup as quickly as possible to provide the needed tactical support for these forward elements. And all soldiers worked eagerly to regain this combat readiness despite the devastation that they had just witnessed. No later than twenty minutes after the time of impact, the T.O.C. was up and running again. We had lost men and equipment to the destruction but not our soldierly bearing.
Ultimately, I am left with many questions concerning April 7th, 2003. I had initially identified the incoming object as an aircraft. While I was declared wrong, I am not ready to totally admit to such a misidentification. I feel wrong in continuing any sort of instigation. However, another event during that day, besides my own recognition of the airplane, has led me to be, at least, a bit unsure of the actual composition of what was in the air.
The entire time that the events of this day were unfolding, the radio in my truck was wrought with action; after such activity, nearly everyone is attempting to transmit information. I did hear a message immediately after the object made its impact: Our counter-battery radar crew (the technicians with the equipment to pinpoint the source of launch for such an attack) made it very clear that their computers had located who or what had initiated the assault. However, time followed that transmission before a more comprehensive one was aired. When the technicians came back over the radio, after this atypical pause, they refuted their previous statement and insisted that, instead, some error had caused the source of the round to be unclear. The only investigation that I am aware that proved the composition of the round was a quick one conducted by a Warrant Officer in my unit who was practiced in just this duty. After a quick assessment, he concluded that we had been the victims of an Iraqi missile attack.
Ironically, this was the first missile attack that I was aware of since I had been in Iraq. While I have been on the ground during many a mortar attack, never again would I face a missile of this magnitude (or, in fact, any missile at all) approaching my location. In fact, the only other attack that had any similarity to this one that I am aware were the sporadic and few SCUD missiles that Saddam Hussein launched at our positions while we were staging for attack in northern Kuwait, before the first actual American aggressions.
I love the military and I am proud of my service in Iraq. I have a desire to return to Iraq and I may do so with the military. For these reasons, I am going to leave any further conclusions to be drawn by the readers. I have my own. I will say this, however; it seems highly unlikely that the Iraqi military, at that point on its last throes as we had units pushed into Baghdad, would have been capable of directing such a well-guided projectile. Moreover, if they had such capable weaponry, I question why the Iraqi military only fired a single volley of this very effective, quite lethal round…
As I promised above, I wanted to use this section to tell of the scars that remained personally from April 7th, 2003. I must make it clear that I do not feel that I am the victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and I remain completely sympathetic to those that are. However, for a period of nearly a year after returning home, the sound of airplanes remained a source of great tension.
I can recount flying into an airport during a recess of leave. I was in the airport and walking around. Near the commercial airport were military runways. I want to say that this was in Chicago but if the description seems wrong than I could very well be mistaken. However, one of these military jets landed as I was walking around the terminal. I can’t describe the feeling that momentarily overcame me. I didn’t “flashback” to the events of April 7th; I simply felt a chill go up my spine and then developed fear throughout my body. This was a normal occurrence that even ordinary overhead plane flight would provoke. This happened notably again the first time I visited my Mom in Florida as she lived relatively close to the Tampa airport. The fear was never long-lasting; just momentary internal apprehension.
Slowly, these occurrences faded. The exited my life altogether, ironically enough, when I returned to Iraq. I guess the best cure for the ills of war is war itself.
However my memories are still strong. Again, I want to bring special mention to the heroics of these soldiers of Echo Troop, 9th Cavalry (detached from 1/9 Field Artillery): Sergeant Mike Dalton and Sergeant Phil Wilkens. Although their original intentions were a bit misguided in retrospect, their ultimate willingness to sacrifice for a soldier whom they had never met before should be worthy of the respect of all.
Finally, the pictures that I included in the retelling of this tale are not mine. I found them while browsing the internet in search of news sources telling of the events of April 7th. What’s more interesting is that the humvee in one of the above pictures (the uppermost image) is my own. I had no idea or association with it being posted online. The pictures were originally located on these sites:
I would recommend these articles for further reading on the devastation incurred by the 2nd Brigade’s Tactical Operations Center:
If you own any of these sources or pictures and feel that this material has been misused or cited wrongly, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for immediate removal.