In a Memorial Day speech in 2011, Lt Col Kurt Schlichter admonished veterans that we have a new responsibility: we have a duty to tell our stories. It has long been a tradition of soldiers to not talk about what they did; either out of self-preservation for fear of reliving those moments or out of respect for the men who we served with who did far more and greater things than we ourselves did. Unfortunately, this leaves history only to those who are either willing to share what they experienced or, worse yet, those who write history from conjecture and popular mythology. That being said…
In 27 months of deployments with the 82nd Airborne Infantry, split between Afghanistan and Iraq, I was only involved in one shooting. I don’t remember the day (it was spring time, or maybe fall….I just remember it wasn’t oppressively hot.). I don’t remember the name of the town. I don’t remember the name of the operation. (I have guys that I served with that could rattle off those details with ease. Just something I never committed to memory.) But I do remember the details.
Our mission was to clear a small town outside of Baqubah, Iraq. It wasn’t very large, 18 buildings or so, out in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. Our Blackhawks landed in a field just to the south of the town around 0230. From there we established a foothold in the two houses on the west and east sides of the main street (the only street, ok dirt road, really) and held those positions until the second lift arrived with the remainder of our unit. I was the weapons squad leader and as such it was my squad’s job (Actually, only one team. My other team was on the second lift) to provide over watch of the Landing Zone (LZ) and rear security while the two line squads secured the foothold.
While my gun team kept watch over the LZ, I stayed behind them watching their six and keeping an eye out on the “road” we were on that ran east/west and bordered the south side of the town. And it was dark. Granted, we had night vision, but without ambient light, it doesn’t do you a whole lot of good. There was no moon, no stars, very little light anywhere for the NODs to pick up on. That’s why it took me a couple of seconds to really make sure I was seeing what I was seeing: one man walking straight towards me carrying an AK-47.
I keep trying to put myself in that man’s head: 0230 in the morning, helicopters just landed in my field, and I, by myself, am going to grab my AK and go check it out. He had to know we were there. He had to hear us. I just don’t get it. But, then again, there’s a lot about the culture over there that I don’t get.
As soon as I was sure of what I was seeing, a single man walking straight at me from the east, carrying an AK by the magazine, I raised my M-4, let him get a little closer (I could barely see him with NODs on, I’m positive, between the darkness and his demeanor, he did not see us) flipped off the IR cover on my tac light, shined it in his face, and shouted for him to drop the weapon. He didn’t. He reached for it.
As soon as I turned on the light and began shouting, his left hand reached across his body as his right hand brought the weapon up. I fired three rounds. I can concede the argument that I didn’t hit him. But at a range of 15 feet and all the trigger time I had put in behind that weapon, I don’t think it’s likely. The reason I am willing to concede the point is he jumped over the wall to his right that wrapped around the building on the east side of the street. One of the buildings we were occupying.
I immediately called up on the radio, “This is White Four. Shots fired. One local national with an AK. He jumped the wall and is on the south side of building four”. While I was making this call I was keeping an eye on the top of the wall. My fear was he was going to just stick his AK over the top of the wall and start spraying. I wasn’t worried about me; I could easily avoid it if that happened. I was worried about my joes keeping over watch on the LZ. They were completely exposed.
Over the radio, somebody from the west side of the street called up that they saw a person moving on the south side of building four. I turned towards them, gave them an IR flash from my NODs and made sure they were seeing me and not a bad guy. Identities were confirmed and gunfire rang out again.
What was happening while I was watching the wall and ensuring that I didn’t become a victim of a friendly fire incident, one of the Team Leaders in building four heard my radio call, looked at his automatic rifleman and said, “building four? We’re in building four!” So they looked out the window they were standing in front of and saw the guy crawling into a bale of concertina wire.
If you don’t know, concertina wire (also mistakenly called razor wire) is shipped in what’s called a “bale”. It’s just rolls and rolls of the stuff stacked next to each other essentially making a large tube of dense metal and sharp, sharp edges. This is what this guy was crawling into attempting to seek shelter. You’ve heard about people doing crazy things when they’re scared enough? This was one of them.
The Team Leader and his SAW gunner opened fire on the bale, apparently to no avail. The wire was packed so densely their bullets were having no effect. So they changed to armor piercing rounds. I won’t go into the gory details, but suffice it to say, that worked.
Our second lift eventually arrived and the mission proceeded accordingly.
I’ve never lost one second of sleep over the incident. As I said before, I cannot imagine what was going through his head walking around like that after hearing the helicopters land. I’m sure there are those that will lambast me and mine for taking away the man’s life: we had no right to be there in the first place, etcetera. That’s fine. You can Monday morning quarterback this thing as long as you’d like. What I do know is we completed our mission and my joes and my buddies made it home with all of their fingers and toes. And at the end of the day, that’s what matters.