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Desolate Roads Part 2 of 2

Some of the old nails had lost their strength or were beyond straightening, and he’d set those aside. When it came time came to build something, he’d go to his lumber piles, pull what he needed, then he’d count out the rusty nails one by one, and go to work. He never said, “This wall needed a hundred nails, but today the wind was calm, and so long as the wind behaves, these fifty nails will hold strong.”

The wind hasn’t blown hard in Mosul since 2005, but there are still a lot of holes in the lumber that frames its slow but undeniable reconstruction. Only about a single battalion of American soldiers is left here. There has been indisputable progress in building ISF in Mosul. I have seen it demonstrated on missions that I have not written about. But the decision to precipitously draw down American forces in Mosul was not chiefly predicated to sync with those ISF successes. In truth, we simply do not have enough nails in Iraq—we never did—and so nails have been pulled from Mosul to pound into Baghdad and Anbar.

Mosul is poised. Mosul is poised to become an example of progress and success. Yet with each passing day here, it becomes clear that Mosul is at least as equally poised to fall again into the wretched chaos of crime, violence and anarchy that define certain other areas of Iraq.

This sign is likely familiar to thousands of American soldiers who patrolled West Mosul, and if they see this sign, there is a good chance they remember it in context of serious fighting near Yarmook Traffic Circle. During my first mission in Mosul in April, 2005, a suicide car-bomber filled with artillery shells and a flame accelerant rammed into a stryker killing two Americans and one interpreter.

The small contingent of American combat forces remaining in Mosul is commanded by a lieutenant colonel of limited renown. With about 700 soldiers in his battalion, he commands roughly one soldier for every 3,000 citizens. Most of the outcome of the American effort in Iraq comes down to a small number of anonymous battalions which shoulder the bulk of the combat load in places like Ramadi, Baqubah, Basra (UK), Baghdad and here in Mosul.

If Americans really wanted to know their Army, American kids would be swapping trading cards of the battalion commanders and command sergeant majors, company commanders and 1st sergeants, and those legions of unknown squad-leaders who earn three Purple Hearts and decorations for valor before they are old enough to rent cars back home.

Battalion commanders normally are lieutenant colonels (LTC), and the rank of LTC can be a “sweet-spot,” where commanders are still boots-on-the-ground, in combat seven days a week, yet their rank and position makes for a maximum depth of field.

To use a football analogy, the battalion commander is like the quarterback. He’s not the coach (more analogous to the brigade commander), or the owner (the division commander), but near-about the highest ranking ground-pounder who’s still very likely to get personally involved in firefights on a regular basis. The commander might have graduated from West Point or ROTC, might have a Ph.D. or prefer fishing to reading. Over here, he might physically score a touchdown, or get shot, but whatever the case, he spends near-about every play of every game on the field. Generally speaking, the battalion commander is the highest ranking decision-maker whose job still includes regular combat.

LTC Eric Welsh runs missions seven days a week. Seen here over-watching his soldiers on an Iraqi road.

Lieutenant Colonel Eric Welsh commands the 2-7 Cavalry battalion in Mosul. He goes into combat every day. Orphaned at the age of nine, Welsh grew up in a foster home and became an Army infantry officer. During a tour at the Pentagon, a clue fell into his lap that led him to an uncle he never knew existed. Eric Welsh was already a lieutenant colonel when he managed to locate his previously-unknown uncle, a retired Vietnam fighter pilot who had grown leery of the press. Unsavory journalists had used all means, including ruses, to contact the uncle about his own father.

When LTC Welsh contacted his Uncle Greg, his uncle didn’t know he had a nephew named LTC Eric Welsh, and so Uncle Greg greeted Eric Welsh with suspicion. Uncle Greg, it happens, is the son of Pappy Boyington, Medal of Honor recipient, former POW, so renowned for his ferocity and courage that a famous television show was built around his fighting-life, and the accomplishments of the Black Sheep Squadron he led during World War II. And so, in a bizarre twist, a huge part of what could be the end-game in the Battle for Mosul rests largely on the shoulders Pappy Boyington’s grandson, Eric Welsh.

History shapes the future. In 2005, I spent five months in Mosul, chronicling a little of both. As “The Surge” begins down in Anbar and Baghdad, Mosul’s back alleys likely will tremble with at-first-imperceptible aftershocks, because historically, this crossroads city has served as a reliable bell weather. Sensing that this 2-7 battalion is suddenly about to become an important pivot in the war, I changed course. Instead of heading back down to Baghdad or Anbar, on 14 January, I requested to extend my time with the lone infantry battalion in Mosul. The commanders-that-be, whoever they are, permitted my stay.

Next morning, the Iraqi Army 2nd Division was to officially take over its battle space in Nineveh, meaning there are now two Iraqi Divisions operating in Nineveh, leaving 2-7 CAV in a largely supporting role. Yet there is more to standing up an army than giving people guns and training them to fight, and the Iraqi Army depends on the Coalition for much of its logistics. On 31 December 2006, free fuel was mostly cut off to the IA in a further attempt to show the Iraqi government that the Coalition means business. There is finite time to stand up; the Coalition wants to go home sooner than later, and if we leave the nipple wet, the baby will never grow up. Free fuel was cut.

The terrorists’ worst scenario: the Iraqi Security Forces are strengthening their grip on Mosul.

As predicted by our military leadership, this caused lurches in the system. In Mosul the IA scaled back patrols. This is where national policy meets the road. Literally. At the battalion level. The route where the giant bomb was hidden had not been swept by IA in four days.

The Howling Wind

There were five occupants in the humvee: 2LT Mark Daily born in Irvine, California; SSG John Cooper born in Cleveland, Ohio; SGT Ian Anderson born in Prairie Village, Kansas; Specialist Matthew Grimm from Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. Matt Grimm had recently been awarded a Purple Heart for injuries he suffered while on patrol in a humvee that came under attack. It was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade that killed Sergeant Brent Dunkleberger. Matt had been driving the day Brent was killed, and he was driving again on the morning of 15 January. The fifth occupant was “Jacob,” a Christian Assyrian-Iraqi, born in Mosul in 1967, now performing arguably the most dangerous job in Iraq: interpreter for American combat forces.

There were a couple of occupied two-story houses just next to the road, and an unfinished house, from which at least one terrorist had run a wire to the explosive.

Specialist Matt Grimm was in the driver’s seat. The gunner was wearing extra protection. The enemy saw them coming and at the precise moment when the humvee was nearly perfectly over the bomb, it detonated. Heavy pieces of the humvee, some weighing hundreds of pounds, flew as far as 200 yards away, some crashing atop the second stories of Iraqi homes, while others splashed into a nearby swampy area. Our soldiers and Jacob the interpreter died within a fraction of a second, almost certainly having no idea they even drove over a bomb.

SFC Brian Sipp and I were sitting in an office waiting to attend a ceremony for turning over authority to the Iraqi 2nd Army Division, when the sound rumbled over this base at 8:32 AM, probably just as the dense cloud billowed away from the scene and revealed the massive crater in the road. Minutes later, Major Rod Cunningham told us that at least four soldiers had been killed. Apparently he was unaware Jacob had been in the truck.

James Pippen, the CSM of 2-7 Cavalry, immediately prepared to roll out with a section. I rolled with CSM Pippen to the seat of the blast, a site which was not yet fully secured. This being war, there was the chance of second, third or fourth bombs, or that an enemy who knew how we would respond was waiting for us with a car bomb, mortars, snipers, name it.

CSM Pippen took charge of the scene—officers and enlisted men alike—and set the tone for the recovery, working first on security and finding his lost soldiers. Although the task was disturbing, CSM Pippen wanted every piece of man and machine out of there, and in deeds as much as with direct orders he initiated a respectful battlefield recovery and identification of remains.

The smell of fuel and wreckage had a chokehold on the debris field. The damage was jaggedly inconsistent: while rigid items had shattered into bits, those items with “give” distorted but remained amazingly intact. A case of water bottles had blown apart and the bottles were scattered all around, but I didn’t see any that were split open. They were in perfect condition. Radios were shattered, but paper items merely scattered about. Night-vision devices blown to pieces, but MREs (packaged meals) tossed around but otherwise completely unharmed, unburned, and not even scorched.

The two families who lived in the two houses closest to the bomb were canvassed but the occupants claimed ignorance. A man from the first house seemed upset about the debris that landed on his roof. The soldiers were amazingly focused and professional, even to the man who seemed mostly to mind the mess. After some such attacks, families get paid by the Americans for the damages.

It seemed nearly inconceivable that the enemy could remove perhaps 1,500 pounds of soil and replace it with 1,500 pounds of explosives (according to experts), and nobody in those two houses would have noticed. I looked at that man on the roof of his house and dark thoughts fell upon me. But CSM Pippen set the tone, and the professionalism of all his men kept the situation in check.

About three and half hours after the blast, the hardest part of the task finally completed, some of the soldiers carefully loaded the remains onto trucks and drove to the morgue on FOB Marez, while others stayed behind to repair the road. During the road repair, a “Bobcat” earthmover—a small but heavy vehicle—ran over and crushed the legs of a soldier, crippling him. Hours later, elsewhere in Mosul, a sniper shot a soldier in the head and paralyzed him.

Car-bombs often look like the orange and white taxi in the background, while snipers often use BMWs modified to fire from a hole in a door or trunk. The BMWs make for easier getaways. But during final editing of this dispatch, a black BMW car-bomb plowed into an Iraqi patrol, killing about four during the attack.

The missions keep rolling.

While on patrol the day after the giant bomb, a couple of bombs were discovered freshly planted on nearby roads and destroyed. A description was called in for one man wearing a black leather jacket riding a red scooter. Troops noticed the man in the photograph above, wearing a leather jacket, who was near a small beet processing shop that also happened to have a red scooter parked inside. But the motor was cool, so he was released without delay.

There was no evidence that the people at the beet plant were terrorists, so we loaded up and began to drive away.

A bomb had just exploded in the distance when this fellow wearing a black leather jacket rode by on his red scooter. LTC Welsh ordered his soldiers to stop the man.

Sometimes in Iraq, bad guys wear explosive vests, or wait until soldiers are close and whip out a gun and start shooting, or suddenly pull the pin on the hand grenade they had in their pocket. Accordingly, I leave open fields of fire between soldiers and any suspects, and also stay out from behind the suspects because bullets fly though people.

“A.J.,” the courageous Kurdish interpreter, sensed something suspicious about this man who matched the description. LTC Welsh ordered his soldiers to perform an explosives “vapor trace.”

Conducting a vapor trace.

Soldiers swab exposed areas of skin and spray the strips, then compare the colors as if it were an explosives litmus test.

The man came up with a positive reading.

He was flex-cuffed and taken away. (Embedded journalists are not permitted to photograph the faces of persons after they have been detained.)

Not exactly a getaway ride that “blends.”

The commander was not certain the man was a terrorist. The vapor trace sometimes gives false positives, so the commander did not want a potentially innocent man to have his scooter stolen.

Temporary guardians of the red scooter.

And so he asked a close-by shopkeeper to hold the man’s scooter keys and take care of the bike. That was it. There is fighting each day and night in Mosul, but probably 90% of the incidents end without drama.

As the sun sank beyond Mosul on that Tuesday, there were sporadic reports of shooting in the city and there was information that bad guys might be heading our way, so the commander set up a sort of “area ambush” around Yarmook, but lucky for the terrorists they missed it.

The Painful Costs of Policy

Out here, where policy meets the road, consequences are immediate and permanent. This is war.

The Garry Owen soldiers of the 2-7 Cavalry conducting an awards ceremony for their comrades killed by the massive road bomb.

The Commander honoring his men.

And their buddies lining up to say goodbye.

We’ll do or die in our country’s cause. And battle for the right. (A line from the regimental song of the 7th Cav.)

Later that night and just before sunrise on Wednesday, the soldiers gathered out on the airfield to bid their comrades farewell on the “Angel Flight” home. Before long, many would be leaving on missions having hardly slept that night. The commander escorted the body of Jacob the Iraqi interpreter back to the Christian village he called home, where his widow and three young children were waiting to begin the end of their lives as they had known them.

Wednesday blurred into Thursday, as still the missions kept rolling out. But on Thursday night, it was standing room only, even after extra chairs were brought into the auditorium, when Iraqi Police commanders and Iraqi and American Army generals came to base to pay respects.

A memorial to the fallen.

Iraqi Army General Nordeen arrived with other senior Iraqi commanders. I wrote about General Nordeen’s ferocity and aggressive reputation back in 2005, and my recent ride along with his soldiers on several missions in the past few weeks has only strengthened my belief that if Iraq is to be released from the bloody grips of terrorists, it will be by the hands of commanders like General Nordeen, and the disciplined soldiers who serve under him, who say to the terrorists, “Here I am.”

Friday morning before sunrise Nordeen proved it once again. I accompanied LTC Eric Welsh when his soldiers linked up with General Nordeen and his forces to conduct an operation. General Nordeen led the way from the point, down some of the most dangerous roads imaginable, where four Iraqi soldiers had been severely wounded just hours before. The operation kicked off minutes before sunrise, and was so well executed by Nordeen’s forces that no shots were fired and yet the objective was attained. LTC Welsh’s forces merely observed, and since there was no drama, the Americans started handing out toys to the kids who were waking up to an icy sunrise. Two women actually invited soldiers in for tea while Nordeen hauled away the approximately twenty men he was searching for.

The Iraq Security Forces in Mosul have made demonstrable progress in the past year.

A couple of weeks ago when I first met Colonel Twitty, the Brigade Commander for Nineveh Province (Coach to LTC Welsh’s Quarterback) said one of the smartest things I can almost remember verbatim. But like all wise statements, it was simple and lends itself to paraphrase. First he encouraged me to get out with as many of his soldiers as I could, and to talk with as many Iraqis as I could, and he urged me to take my time in forming opinions. Then he cautioned me to remember, as I was forming opinions about Mosul, Nineveh and Iraq, that if a person were to judge another country by American standards, this would not give Americans credit for their accomplishments. By any standard, General Nordeen would be judged a strong leader of men.

Kurdish interpreters enjoy uncommon status in Iraq. These interpreters tell me that when they return to the Kurdish north, they are treated like rock stars because they work with American forces. Children ask them for autographs. But the Kurdish interpreters pay for that recognition, and today Raad Khalif Taboor of the Al Nasir tribe lost both legs when the humvee he rode in was hit by another bomb. It was about 2:28 in the afternoon, and Taboor was the combat interpreter with soldiers from the 2-7. The same bomb killed SFC Russell Borea. Sergeant Enrique Castillo lost a leg below the knee. Private Nikolas Addis was wounded in the face and arm but later returned to duty. The missions kept running.

Before Russell Borea was loaded on the Angel Flight back to America, the men of the 2-7 Cav gathered again for his awards ceremony.

As the Brigade commander, Colonel Twitty is responsible for all US operations in Nineveh including the men of the 2-7. A respected combat veteran, the Colonel’s love of country, compassion for his soldiers, and raw intelligence are all obvious seconds into a conversation. Like all true leaders, Colonel Twitty is both proud and protective of his soldiers and he rolls out onto the battlefield in a humvee sharing the risks with them. So when he spoke with his young soldiers in front of SFC Borea’s flag-draped casket, he imparted a well-tempered strength that only an old veteran can give.

Just hours ago, after soldiers of the 2-7 Cavalry bid farewell to their latest fallen, some returned immediately to combat on the streets of Mosul, where they fight on desolate roads tonight, while I stayed back in safety to write these words.

Read Desolate Roads Part One now

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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