A former Marine returns to Iraq to get a grunt's-eye view of the fighting.
7800, 8 Nov 2006:
Camp Hurricane Point
It's sunset and I'm inside a SWA hut at Camp Hurricane Point in Ramadi. which was once a city of 300,000, although an unknown number have fled from the ongoing violence. Spoken as "Swah"-the acronym stands for South West Asia, although no one knows why-the plywood, Seabee-constructed edifices are protected by enormous wire baskets of sand called HESCO barriers.1 Green sandbags are stacked on the roof.
This particular SWA hut, the command post for Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, is sectioned off with more plywood into a front room, armory, gear locker, and sleeping quarters. The front room functions as a parlor, dining room, and operations center. Radios bleep and squawk. Pictures of women wearing bikinis and come-hither smiles are pinned on the walls, Hooters girls beckoning the Marines to visit them when they get home.
The seven men in the room are tired, hut positive energy hums. They have just returned from a joint U.S.-Iraqi Army operation to clean out what one of the Marines calls a "nasty neighborhood." The fight had lasted the entire night and into the morning.
"You should have been there," they tell me. "It was awesome." I arrived three hours ago, at 1500. Major Megan McClung, a vivacious redhead, Ironman triathlete, and Marine public affairs officer, had helped arrange the visit to 1/6. She's a refreshing blend of friendliness, brashness, charisma, and common sense. My brief stay in the city would serve as a whistle-stop tour of eastern Ramadi.
The men had returned from the mission at 1130. Although most had been awake for more than 36 hours, the elixir of coffee, tobacco, and Rip It, a Mountain Dew-like energy drink popular in Iraq, keeps them from showing the strain. For food, they devour bologna sandwiches and Iraqi potato chips, which taste the same as the American variety.
The phone rings. A Marine answers, listens briefly, hangs up.
"S-vee-bid on Miehigan," he reports.
Those three syllables stand for SVBIED, or "suicide vehicle-borne IED." Michigan is the road. "Nobody hurt. They just need somebody to clean up the mess."
This evening, cleanup duty-for both the vehicle wreckage and, presumably, the driver who killed himself-goes to Mobile Assault Platoon (MAP) 2. These platoons are the new wave in infantry battalions. Marines schooled as machine gunners and mortar men are retrained as vehicle-borne urban warriors. The MAP platoons in armored humvees are said to be better suited for urban combat than regular weapons company units.
"This is a pretty safe area," says MAP 2's commander, Dalen Bunch, an athletic-looking second lieutenant in his mid-20s from Paris, Texas. "I doubt we'll get any action." Bunch walks, drawls, and grins like he is from Paris, Texas.
Twenty minutes later, the platoon loads into their armored vehicles, which they call Victors, and links up with the military low truck assigned to pull the twisted metal carcass of what had been an automobile out of the street. Bunch calls the platoon sergeant, squad leaders, vehicle commanders, and corpsmen forward for a quick, no-nonsense order. "Everything else per SOP," he says.
The men nod, trot back to their Victors, and wearily go through the motions of performing final checks on their weapons and radios. I lake the empty seat in Bunch's Victor. His nonchalance intrigues me. After all, we are going to recover the remains of an automobile destroyed by a suicide bomber. If this is a sale area, I wonder how you recognize the dangerous places.
With all Marines loaded, we start to leave the compound, then hall at the front gate. Marines jump out of their Victors, quickly chamber rounds into rules and pistols, then climb back into the armored wagons. We drive off into the night.
From the nickering, green-tinted images produced by the night-vision goggles I'm wearing, the buildings in this part of eastern Ramadi look empty and abandoned, but not necessarily safe. Iraqi flags dangle from streetlamps. We drive past several homes where only generators keep the lights on. The occasional passer-by sees us and darts into the shadows.
"Usually the media paint this city as an insane urban light," a lance corporal later tells me. saying how important it is to filter out "the Stalingrad mentality" when examining Ramadi. "And it can be. But usually when we get into contact, we have control over the situation."
Lieutenant Bunch keys the handset. The radio pulses with electronic noise before he speaks. "All Vics, we're almost there." Bunch says. "Get ready to set security." Lance Corporal Mitch Caluri, who is driving our Victor, pulls into the oncoming lane.
We pass by a twisted lender lying by itself as we approach the wreckage of the luckless vehicle. Sniffing for the aroma of burning flesh, we detect only gasoline. This probably was not a suicide car bomb, we conclude, but a "vee-bid"-a pre-rigged bomb stashed in a parked car that was supposed to detonate when (he target drove by. Instead, it exploded prematurely.
We stop. Lance Corporal Paul Spinelli rotates his turret gun to the left, pointing his weapon down an empty alley that intersects Michigan. The other armored humvees and the tow truck are behind us. I look out the passenger window and scope out the street through thick ballistic glass.
As we guard against approachnig traffic, the Marines manning the tow truck move up with EOD escorts and evaluate the situation. The engine and its components are four feet from the shell of the vehicle. The wheel wells that protrude from the charred remains are the only evidence that this melange of jagged steel and broken glass had once been an automobile.
I chat with Bunch as we wait. He graduated from Infantry Officer's Course only a few months ago hut has already been given command of a platoon in Weapons Company. Most infantry lieutenants do not advance from a line company until they receive their first promotion. For Bunch, receiving this platoon as his first command is both an impressive vote of confidence in his abilities and a clue perhaps that the supply of new second lieutenants is dwindling.
We talk about Mojave Viper, the final training exercise that Marine infantry battalions endure prior to an Iraq deployment. "It's the most realistic training ever." Bunch says. It's held at Twentynine Palms, the huge Marine training base in the California desert. For realism, the Corps hires Arab-speaking linguists to role-play as Iraqis during the exercise. Hollywood special-effects teams create IED blasts and RPG shots.
Bunch stops talking and keys the handset. He listens, then says to me: "We can't pull it on the flatbed. We're gonna have to drag it." He means the destroyed vehicle.
Spinelli, the turret gunner, interrupts. "Sir, we've got a crowd to our left." I look and see a dozen Iraqi men 30 meters away. They are standing near our humvees and staring, but they don't seem hostile.
"Keep an eye on them." Bunch orders Spinelli. I flip on my night-vision goggles and join the lance corporal in observation. If you don't count staring, the Iraqis are minding their business.
"Roger," Bunch says into the handset. "Pick up the rest of the pieces." Behind us. Marines run to retrieve fenders, doors, and hood fragments. The wreckage is hooked to the trailer.
"Let's go," says the lieutenant. We roll hack to Hurricane Point, leaving the curious Iraqis standing where our humvee had been parked.
A Clear Picture?
The level of anarchy and factionalism in Mesopotamia today makes Mogadishu in 1993 seem docile by comparison. All at once, Americans are attempting to tame sheikhs and tribal leaders, pacify regional warlords, rebuild political infrastructure, prevent sectarian violence, bring utilities to villages, pay the Iraqi army, protect the Iraqi police, secure the porous borders of a war-torn country, and fight a transnational terrorist group. With the publication of the Iraq Study Group report. Americans seem to be asking if this war has an endgame. But for Marines stationed in Kamadi and other places in the river valleys and deserts of the Al Anbar Province, the word "endgame," along with its cousin, "exit strategy," sounds as foreign as baseball and mom's apple pie.
A late November Washington Post article said that the picture in Al Anbar grows "clearer and bleaker" each day.2 The report, based on portions of a 1st Marine Expeditionary Force intelligence assessment, is incomplete. In terms of political and economic stability. Al Anbar might warrant a dire forecast. But the overall picture is anything but clear.
In fact, the outlook appeared different in each locale I visited. In the Al Qaim district of 100,000 near the Iraq-Syria border. Marines had followed up Operation Steel Curtain-a November 2005 regional sweep through what was then an insurgent haven-with the application of the "ink-blot strategy" of counterinsurgency. Platoons and companies dispersed into dozens of small-unit battle positions, partnered with Iraqi soldiers and police, and began the difficult task of gaining the trust of the locals.
With the exception of a random mortar attack, IED, or suicide bomb. Al Qaim was quiet and seemingly free of insurgents when I was in the area. Marine leaders said that would change. "Sooner or later, they're going to come back," said Lieutenant Colonel Scott Schuster, who commands the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines, an infantry unit stationed in Al Qaim. Referring to the amusement park game, Schuster called this the "whack-a-mole" reality of counterinsurgency in Al Anbar: with limited troops available, as soon as one city in Al Anbar quiets down, violence pops up in another.
Unlike the stasis of Al Qaim, violence was constant in Ramadi. However, when Marines were attacked in Al Qaim. they were often unable to determine which insurgent group (Saddam loyalists, foreign fighters, or enterprising jihadists) had targeted them, or the exact motive behind the attack.
But in Ramadi, the violence seems to make sense. The Marines and soldiers said that their primary enemy was neither Sunni nor Shiite militias. In Ramadi, they were fighting the so-called "imijahideen" of al Qaeda. And whether they fight them in Ramadi or elsewhere, the Marines said they will not be defeated.
0945, 9 Nov 2006:
Alpha Company Battle Position
"You got here at just the right time," a Marine from Alpha Company/1/6 says with a hint of irony in his voice. "We've been getting mortared between 1000 and 1100 every day for the past week."
I arrived an hour ago at Alpha Company headquarters, a multi-story building in central Ramadi. I was scheduled to spend three hours with Alpha, and then go on another patrol with Mobile Assault Platoon 2, something called "strong-pointing." After that, I planned to link up with Major Megan McClung and depart the city.
I talked with the Marines about the Iraqi army and police. The main difference between the two institutions, they explain, was that Iraqi soldiers (jundi) could be stationed anywhere in Iraq, but Iraqi policemen (sherta) were sent back to their hometowns after they were trained. Because the Iraqi Army is largely a Shiite institution, it often garnered little respect in predominantly Sunni Al Anbar Province
I'm surprised to learn that the Marines of Alpha Company have favorable views of both groups. Gunnery Sergeant John Zaczyk served with 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, in Fallujah from February to September 2005. "The Iraqi Army there sucked," says the fair-skinned Marine. "I dreaded working with them. They were worthless."
Thus far, his tour in Ramadi has been different. "These [Iraqis] are awesome," says Gunny Zaczyk. "Before every mission, they're attentive. They ask us questions. They're pumped up to lake Ramadi back [from al Qaeda]." Zaczyk says that he had no qualms about sending his Marines out on joint patrols.
An aid to police legitimacy in Kamadi might be the presence of "neighborhood watchdogs." Led by underground councils of sheikhs and tribal leaders. Sunni militias have spawned throughout the province. According to Marine officers, they see al Qaeda as their greater enemy. American commanders say that they have not directly sponsored these informal coalitions, but they certainly approve of them.
"A group of fighters are attempting to secure Anbar on their own," said Captain Travis Patriquin, an officer fluent in Arabic, Spanish, and Portuguese. The Army linguist has worked for several months in Ramadi and is familiar with the local activities. "Some of them are off duly Iraqi policemen. During the month of September, they were I killing more of the enemy than we were." Indeed, on Ramadi's street corners, it wasn't uncommon to see uniformed Iraqi policemen standing alongside Kalashnikov-wielding civilians.
"We're gonna win," Gunnery Sergeant Zaczyk told me as he walked away. He wasn't making a prediction. It was an affirmation, a declaration of confidence, like a football player might make to a teammate as they race onto the field for the second half.
Two hours pass with no explosions. Has my presence warded off the daily mortar curse? My ride is leaving in a few minutes, and I walk upstairs to say goodbye to Gunny Zaczyk.
I find him on the second deck, in an open room that doubles as a chow hall and lounge. Boxes filled with Pop-Tarts and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins line the walls. Thirty Marines, including Zaczyk, have grabbed some junk food for noon meal and are sitting on picnic benches and crowded around a flat screen television watching a DVD. I catch Zaczyk's eye and take a seat next to him. He is uncharacteristically quiet.
The Replacements, a Gene Hackman movie about has-been football players returning to the gridiron as scabs during a strike, is a comedy. But it's more than that, and something about the film has an impact on these Marines. Gene Hackman's team is down at halftime, and his locker room pep talk touches their collective soul.
"You have a very powerful weapon," Coach Hackman tells his players. The Marines listen as though he is Chesty Puller, "There is no tomorrow for you. And that makes you all very dangerous people."
As the team cheers onscreen. I notice Zaczyk wipe his eye. And he isn't the only one. I sense that this is not the first time these Marines have watched this movie as a pump-up before going out on a combat patrol. I feel embarrassed and privileged to share this moment with the Marines of Alpha Company.
I nod to Zaczyk and the others, shake hands, and leave. Three hours later. Alpha Company comes under mortar attack.
1400, 9 Nov 2006:
Observation Point Firecracker
I am sitting in the right rear seat of a MAP 2 armored humvee. Someone has just tired a rocket-propelled grenade at us. It is the fourth one I've counted in 20 minutes.
Our vehicle is parked in the middle of Observation Point Firecracker, a traffic circle that ties together five streets. We are in a firelight. Stationary. Sitting ducks. Parked in the middle of the traffic circle. All is going according to plan.
The patrol left Camp Hurricane Point an hour ago. We have two missions: pass out candy in a friendly neighborhood and "strongpoint" OP Firecracker. The distance between the two locales is literally three blocks. Former Marine Commandant General Charles Krulak, who predicted in 1999 what came to be called "the three-block war" in which Marines would be involved in different missions simultaneously, has proven to be a sound prognosticator.
If western Ramadi-the area near Hurricane Point-was a "safe area," OP Firecracker was right in the heart of mujahideen cowboy country. I realized what Lieutenant Bunch meant by "safe" when he referred to western Ramadi. The area near Camp Hurricane Point is Iraqi-controlled, and thus is seen as more secure. That did not mean that we were safe from suicide attacks or IEDs. Those could occur anywhere in Ramadi. But at OP Firecracker, an ambush by al Qaeda militants was a near-guarantee.
Strongpointing, at least with this unit in Ramadi, means placing your Victor in a vulnerable position in a deliberate effort to draw enemy fire. As the William Wallace character in Braveheart might have said, we are goin' to pick a fight. And we are goin' on our own. The Iraqi Army lacks the equipment, manpower, or requisite level of insanity necessary to handle these kinds of missions.
The RPG may or may not have been fired at our vehicle. I can't tell. I do know it didn't hit us. My only clear field of vision is from the passenger window, which faces the traffic circle and a brick wall.
The vehicle commander, Corporal Ronnic Davis, is in front of me holding a pair of binos. Three other Marines peer down a street where mujahideen have been firing at us from multi-story buildings scarred by gunfire and explosions. While we exchange fire with the muj, other observation assets available to 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, are mapping enemy positions for future operations.
"That's the same two guys. They've crossed back and forth four times," Corporal Davis announces, referring to a pair of unarmed Iraqis who have run for cover. Because these men are unarmed, the Americans, under the Rules of Engagement, are not allowed to shoot at them-even though gunfire is coming at us from that direction.
"You see that kid? Keep an eye on his ass," Davis says. Right now, nobody is shooting. The gunfire and explosions come sporadically, in random hursts every few minutes. Both sides are conserving ammunition and exercising fire discipline. The firefight feels like a high-adrenaline stakeout.
"Turkey-pecker on the left side!" announces a Marine, using infantry jargon for an enemy who has poked his head around a corner. "I can see his f-kin head!" The Marine fires just as the turkey-pecker pulls his head back.
Five minutes later, a call comes over the radio. "All Vics, we're going hack." Bunch says. The vehicles of MAP 2 rev their engines and drive around the circle in a disciplined retrograde. For today, their time on bait patrol had ended.
Another RPG misses us and AK-47 rounds crack nearby. The muj are not finished. The Marines return fire and wait, but the jihadists fall silent. One enemy fighter has been killed. We've taken no casualties.
We speed up and roar back to the SWA huts. I say my goodbyes to Weapons Company. Two hours later, I link up as planned with my new friend, Megan McClung, the Marine PAO. It turns out she was a firstie at the Naval Academy when I was a plebe.
Twenty-seven days later, Major McClung was dead. So was Captain Patriquin, the Army linguist who helped me in Ramadi. They were killed when an IED detonated near the humvee they were riding in. Major McClung was the first female U.S. Naval Academy graduate to die in combat. Army Specialist Vincent J. Pomante III also perished in the blast. They were in Ramadi escorting retired Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of FOX News at the time of the attack.
1 Named after the company that manufactures them-Hercules Engineering Systems Consortium, based in Dubai-HESCO burners are sand-filled wire caskets that are filled with sand, earth, and/or concrete to protect against mortar attacks.
2 "Anbar Picture Grows Clearer, and Bleaker," by Dafna Linzer and Thomas E. Ricks, 28 November 2006, Washington Post.
Mr. Danelo, a 1998 U.S. Naval Academy graduate and Marine combat veteran of Iraq, is the author of Blood Stripes: The Grunt's View of the War in Iraq (Stackpole Books, 2006) and editor of U.S. Cavalry ON Point (www.uscavonpoint.com). He was Proceedings' co-author of the year in 2006.