Part I of IV
A Special Dispatch
for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
In Iraq, I was allowed to accompany a British Army unit called “The Queen’s Royal Lancers,” whose motto is “Death or Glory.” It seems appropriate to tribute this dispatch to Her Majesty. And so I will take special care in the writing, on the chance that Her Majesty might read about her soldiers at war, as viewed through the eyes of an American.
British soldiers truly are fighting in Iraq. On three consecutive missions with three different British units, their soldiers killed roughly 40 enemy in combat action that also saw two British soldiers killed in action, and three wounded. The enemy apparently is attempting to paint a perception that the long-planned draw down of British soldiers in southern Iraq is actually the result of a successful “rout,” and they are stepping up the tempo of attacks.
My days with the Queen’s Royal Lancers began on 18 April after a pass-and-review parade marking the handover of Maysan Province to Provincial Iraqi Control (PIC). Our enemies were about to make good on their promise to mark the occasion with some form of spectacular attack. Large Merlin helicopters and ground transport siphoned away the dozens of journalists who had come to cover the PIC ceremonies, although few major newspapers in the US or UK published anything about the handover.
After the PIC ceremonies, I waited on the landing zone at FOB Sparrowhawk with LTC Richard Nixon-Eckersall, the Battle Group Commander of the Queen’s Royal Lancers, who was returning to his soldiers living in the desert.
The Queen’s Royal Lancers have been living out in the desert for about six months, like nomads moving from place to place, sleeping under the stars, getting much of their resupply of food and water by nighttime parachute drop as they patrol the Iran/Iraq border. They were living out there, as some officers had told me, in true Lawrence of Arabia style, wearing shamals, sometimes taking camel rides when Bedouins would wonder through their camps with great herds of camels. Some soldiers would go for weeks without bathing, while others would wash-down with a bottle or two of water. Water is strictly rationed.
LTC Nixon-Eckersall would say that their job was to melt away into the desert, providing the eyes and ears that monitor the border. They’d apparently done their job well. I had been on many patrols with American forces along the Iranian border, but had no idea that Brits were out on desert safari. Although there had been some fighting, the Queen’s Royal Lancers had not lost a single soldier to combat during this tour.
I have learned to pay very close attention to the opinions of American battalion commanders. LTC Erik Kurilla’s battlefield instincts were so uncanny that they seemed bizarre; his own soldiers called it the “Deuce-Sixth-Sense.” Kurilla could practically smell a bullet from a hundred yards away before it was fired.
And this is why I pester battalion commanders with so many questions. Nobody seems to have a sense for the ground situation here like the good battalion commanders, and now here was British LTC Nixon-Eckersall, who after nearly half a year in Iraq had not lost a single soldier to combat, making plainly clear to me that his gut instinct was that something might happen very soon. He expected combat. In about 18 hours, the commander’s instincts would prove accurate.
The Lynx dropped us off, and shortly after the Lynx dusted away, the desert quieted. Suddenly, a group of soldiers ran out and tackled another soldier, then tied him up on the ground. I asked what that was all about, and was told they were just [messing] with him. The soldiers untied their “mate” who brushed himself off and they walked off together, laughing, slapping backs, then disappeared under a camouflage net, still laughing.
Yes, I was back with real combat soldiers. One never knows what they will do next, and the British combat soldiers, in particular, play rough games. It’s amazing that just an hour before I was surrounded by dozens of journalists, but out here with combat soldiers is a world seldom documented.
During dinner the British soldiers said that they cherish the American MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat). Some even talked about how they got cases of MREs from American soldiers for Christmas! I told them that most American soldiers would never believe me if I told them British soldiers like MREs, because the Americans love to say they hate MREs.
The soldiers don’t stay in these desert camps long. They do get mortared and rocketed sometimes, but we didn’t get hit that night. We slept on cots under mosquito nets and I slept better that night than I had in months.
The subordinate commanders come for Prayers when important information gets disseminated, and where other officers share intelligence, weather reports, and any information that might affect battle readiness, and then the commander issues orders. In this case, the subordinate officers were squadron leaders (company commanders in American-speak), the Recce Troop commander and others.
LTC Richard Nixon-Eckersall described the plan to move about 40 miles to another base camp, farther out in the sand dunes, from which to patrol the Iranian border. The commander made clear that something had changed and he thought the likelihood of trouble was high.
British combat forces work a lot like our own. An American infantry soldier would fit in well here. After getting adjusted to the accents and picking up a few new words, most would understand what is happening within the first day. I could understand nearly everyone, actually.
After Prayers, each subordinate commander goes back and disseminates the information for this mission. In this case, Major Edward Mack disseminated with fidelity what the battle group commander had just issued. Everyone took notes as Major Mack made it clear to expect combat, although there was consensus caution about one area in particular where the potential for ambush seemed higher.
The plan included using one reconnaissance element, traveling ahead of the main convoy in unarmored Land Rovers. Far behind the recon element—miles behind—would be the convoy of about 30 vehicles.
There were Nepali Gurkas among the soldiers, and they wanted to buy a sheep from a Bedouin. The Gurkas wanted to take the sheep out deeper into the desert for a feast, but one of the commanders nixed the proposal.
Instructions had been disseminated and digested, and everyone had been told to be extra cautious today. And that’s when Major Edward Mack asked me if I wanted to go with the recon element, the guys who’d be going first in the unarmored Land Rovers.
“Sure,” I answered. But what else was I supposed to say? I knew that Moqtada al Sadr, the crazy man, had been calling for violence, and M-JAM (militant JAM) had promised a spectacular attack. I knew the Iranians had exported their EFP technology to insurgents. They would certainly qualify as part of a spectacular attack, given that EFP bombs are devastatingly powerful, punching through one side of a tank and still blasting out the other side after ripping through the crew. I knew what all this meant, but being the only American there, I couldn’t exactly chicken out, could I? And so, I crawled into the back of the Land Rover and sat next to the tailgate.
There is furious debate about armored vehicles in Iraq. There was a time when our own forces were needlessly exposed and being killed by even small attacks. And so we armored up like turtles which greatly helped. But at a cost. Our vehicles break down more, and our humvees have gone from being super-agile to tortoise-like contraptions that get stuck every chance. In this environment, truly out in the boonies, agility, firepower and other qualities often far outweigh the heavy metal. Fact is, there is still a place for unarmored agility.
I had been with the Queen’s Royal Lancers for only about 15 hours, but could already sense that this was an excellent unit. As with the 2 Rifles and the Duke of Lancaster regiment, one of the giveaways was that the leaders didn’t have to tell people what to do; the soldiers were already doing it. With good soldiers, the trick is to get them to the right place at the right time with the right resources, and some general guidance about the desired outcome, and then get out of their way.
Large trucks were in the convoy, and there were forbidding water crossings and rough terrain. There was no way to cross the desert straight to our objective; part of the trip had to be by road. In the event of a serious attack, the recon element probably would get it, because (presumably) the enemy would not know it was just a recon element. The possibility of catastrophic attack or capture were real. Some people say they would never be captured alive here, but this fanciful idea factors out the reality that combat leaves many people unconscious from things like concussions and blood loss. Ambushes are dramatic surprises by design.
When the enemy detonates IEDs, there are often more IEDs waiting for rescuers, and often sharp firefights ensue.
Just some days ago (I was in Baghdad and Anbar while writing this dispatch), while visiting a hospital with CSM Jeff Mellinger, I met a wounded American soldier who told us how he tried to pull his buddy from a burning Bradley after it had been hit by a car bomb. While trying to rescue his buddy, they came under heavy direct attack. The young soldier thought the enemy had used chlorine in the bomb. He was still not able breathe well, but he kept telling CSM Mellinger that they used all the fire extinguishers trying to put their buddy out, but he was caught in the wreckage and they couldn’t pull him out fast enough. [This is something I have personally witnessed: all the fire extinguishers are used up, but someone is still trapped.] The soldier asked several times what happened to his buddy—who burned to death—and then he kept saying to CSM Mellinger that “They didn’t win nothin’. They didn’t win nothin’.” His breathing was labored, “We got fire superiority on ’em. We got fire superiority on ’em.”
We stopped at an intersection so the soldiers could dismount from their vehicles to check for bombs or other signs of an ambush. This way, even if the bombs explode or some other type of ambush is initiated, only one or two soldiers might get killed immediately, and the other soldiers still have the vehicles and larger weapons.
We loaded up and continued on the recon, and were making a “U” back toward the ambush site but we were actually on a different road. The convoy behind us was heading straight toward the 46 EFPs and two “ball-bearing bombs.”
We had taken off nearly three hours earlier at 0830. At about 1120, the convoy entered the ambush. Eight of the 46 bombs detonated. EFPs tore through metal, ball bearings puncturing the vehicles, peppering them with holes. Major Edward Mack, who was at least six vehicles behind detonation in the convoy, heard two distinct explosions. He was approximately 40 meters from the nearest blast, and he reckons there was about 8 to 10 meters between the two.
WO2 (SSM) Steve McMenamy was about seventh vehicle back, 50 meters or so from the initial explosion. He felt the detonations and saw a massive black cloud. McMenamy cocked his weapon, jumped off the vehicle and took a knee, trying to assess what was happening. As the dust cloud cleared, McMenamy saw an injured soldier sitting down, shuffling himself away from the vehicle. McMenamy ran forward to check for casualties, but realized he was also running into contact, so he veered to the right and ran into culvert. He found Sergeant Jenkin kneeling and still alive.
“Are you all right?” asked McMenamy.
Jenkin grinned and answered, “No.”
McMenamy said, “Jimmy, look at me: I need to know if you are all right because I need to move forward.”
“I’m okay,” Jenkins said.
Trooper Callum McDonald helped Trooper Thompson into a drainage ditch where he was laying and moaning. Other soldiers rushed to help the wounded or to set up security. McMenamy moved forward to the stricken Scimitar, shouting to the crew, asking if anyone could hear him. He climbed onto the vehicle and saw that Turton, the driver, was dead. Climbing onto the turret, he searched for Corporal Leaning, the commander. As McMenamy crossed into the top of turret and looked into gunner’s side, he saw that Corporal Leaning was also dead.
Meanwhile, the doctor, Major Taylor, assessed that Thompson’s injuries were T1 [needed immediate evacuation]. He radioed a sitrep back to the commander and American medevac crews were alerted in Al Kut and were quickly on their way.
A British soldier named Ash had been watching out for me, but now was intently pulling security. When he first saw the helicopters, he couldn’t believe how fast they got there.
“What kind of helicopters are those?” asked Ash.
“Brother, those are American Blackhawk helicopters with the best medical crews on the planet. Your buddies will have the best medical care in the world in less than a half-hour.” My humbleness on seeing the American medevacs must have been apparent.
I had seen those medevac crews working so many times, and I’d been to the combat support hospitals often enough to know that if the wounded British soldiers had any chance to survive, their best hope was in those hands. Those crews would risk getting shot down to get the wounded men out.
Follow-on attack could be imminent. Often the enemy will have these ambush zones pre-registered for mortar and rocket attacks. A car bomb might be on the way. Maybe two. Maybe three.
Major Taylor, the British doctor, later asked if I could find that aircrew so he could personally thank them. I contacted CSM Jeffrey Mellinger (whose own crew had just been hit by another IED) and he found them. Our medevac crews never seem to get proper credit for the risks they take—they’ll land in downtown anywhere to get our guys. The crews included Captain Richard Rogers, from C-company 1-111th Air Ambulance (from Florida and Arkansas), who piloted the first Blackhawk. His crew that day were PC CW3 Derek Horton, PI CPT Richard H. Rogers, CE SPC Cory Hornaday, MO SPC John Evans, MO SPC Jose Cruz. Crew members for the second Blackhawk included PC CW3 David Specht, CW3 David B. Russell, CE SPC Shawn Padgett, and MO John Fulbright.
Some American jets showed up, or at least that’s what someone told me. I could hear them. After some time, a British fighter jet roared down at what must have been 100 feet traveling what must have been about 400MPH. He roared over and popped some flares to let the enemy know we had a big brother on station. We truly were out in the boonies, and our forces can get outnumbered, so it’s good to know that means British and American pilots up there.
There were only two routes out. We were surrounded by drainage culverts and water ditches. We were canalized, but the soldiers kept changing their positions to make things harder for anyone who might be closing. They kept this vigilance up as hours passed by. Sitting out in the desert sun. Luckily the day was not hot. Ash started checking out his machine gun and then sent me to fetch more lubricant
No mortars or rockets came in, and no small-arms or “sniper” fire came in, but they were ready.
As the hours passed, hunger and thirst crept in and we ate all the garbage we’d bought from that little store. Ash gave me a candy bar from the British rations, then said, “Wait, stop. You can’t eat that. Read the package and give it back to me.” The red circle with the slash had a woman holding a purse, and the package said, “IT’S NOT FOR CIVVIES!”
“It’s not for Civvies,” said Ash, “You’ll have to give it back.” Then he laughed and said, “I’m just jokin’.” He was jokin’ all the time, keeping the mood up. But he also paid close attention to that machine gun.
The soldiers had lost two friends and others were wounded, but they continued to treat the local Iraqis with respect. I have seen Americans do the same thing, and every time I do it amazes me.
The wounded went out on the American helicopters, and the bodies of the fallen were later removed and British helicopters took them away. Two damaged vehicles were put in tow. But by then, the sun had set and darkness had fallen. We were still on point and I was expecting massive attack.
One of the British helicopters had brought in bomb experts, who suddenly found themselves on a mission they had not anticipated. That happened to several people who were needed for one reason or another, and got deposited with the Queen’s Royal Lancers, only to find themselves suddenly on a magic carpet ride, about to go camping in the desert.
We finally made it over the bridge, and now were on a four-lane highway, driving through miles and miles of darkness in those unarmored Land Rovers. We took a detour, passing by a semi that was ablaze, I held my breath as we drove through the hot smoke.
Finally, after some far distance, we departed the highway and headed out into the desert. It must have been around midnight when a desert road collapsed under the weight of one of the larger vehicles. Our convoy was cut in two. We pushed on a little farther, but soon found the route impassable.
And so we slept for a few hours.
[Part II of IV coming soon.]