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Hunting Al Qaeda Part III of III

How to Get Killed

(Above: The Silver Van)

First, a recap of the end of yesterday’s mission which is important to today’s mission:

Two men had been killed on the 15 July mission. Our guys shot them. Warning shots were fired, the driver sped up and our guys rained bullets. Slugs kicked up dust, some bullets striking the van, but it kept going. A fusillade commenced, and about 20 seconds after the first shot was fired the van was getting away. It had nearly escaped. A Bradley gunner was tracking the van in his crosshairs. He squeezed the trigger on his 25mm cannon.


Concussion from the shots slapped the ground and popped up moon dust around the Bradley. It sounded like a giant jackhammer. Each bullet weighs about four times more than a golf ball, and traveling thousands of feet per second, 25mm shots are devastating to human bodies. A single shot can pop a man into barely recognizable chunks and bits. The four bullets traveled at nearly one-mile-per-second toward the van in front of us. Each bullet contained explosives. The first 25mm penetrated above the right rear taillight leaving a bowling ball-sized hole, exploding inside with a brief fireball caught by my video. A benefit of explosive rounds is that after they explode, they don’t travel a mile or two and possibly whack someone who was not involved.

All four rounds hit the van, and instead of the bullets shoving through and knocking a wall down, they exploded in the van. The driver died instantly and crashed off the road into a ditch. His body was blasted partially outside the van, his foot caught by the steering wheel leaving him hanging upside down, oozing and dripping blood and bodily fluids into Iraq. One shot somehow managed to strike the roof behind the driver. The Bradley gun must have been higher than the van. (Bradleys are taller, and the roads seemed flat.)

Fragmentation results from 25 mm HE

Driver killed

An Army medic treated the wounded. This man had a sucking chest wound. They call it a sucking chest wound because it sucks. Air goes through the hole directly into the lungs. In this case, it was like having an extra nostril on his back. His lung is now filling with blood and he is drowning, and it’s important to plug the hole in his back. They tried. He died.


Net result: two wounded, two killed, several detained and released. These were 1920 Revolution Brigade fighters, and in an honest case of mistaken identity and miscommunication, they were killed. Most interesting is that we were supposed to join up with the same group tomorrow morning—16 July—to hunt for al Qaeda.


Tomorrow Morning

Tomorrow became today, and American Soldiers met by the Bradleys on FOB Warhorse in Baqubah for the pre-mission briefing.

 The mission was to link up with the Iraqi Army and then together link up with 1920s fighters.

Some Americans did not want to go on the mission. They don’t trust the 1920s guys, the sky was overcast to the point where there would be no medevac helicopters for us, and since these men are all veterans, nobody needed to underline the point.

But they keep pushing into harm’s way, and they were hunting al Qaeda without good medevac.

IEDs are easy to emplace. The bombs can be emplaced in just a minute, and the enemy knows that if they can predict which way we are going, and get in front of us, they can get us. That tire on the front right could contain enough explosives to obliterate us. One of those shops could be stacked to the ceiling with explosives, or enemy fighters who could do a quick and hard ambush.

And we walked. Ice production. Ice is used in the making of some of the explosives.
Powerful bombs can be hidden in the bike frames and then the bike can be quickly leaned on a wall in front of us.
We passed the ice into high sniper threat area. If rockets or mortars come down, luck and God are your only shields.
Hand grenades are often thrown over walls. Walls are sometimes packed with explosives from the other side.

We walked over what Soldiers later thought was a deep-buried IED. Right here. I just happened to shoot a photo. If there was a bomb, they didn’t find it. There is water to the right. If fire comes from the left and you dive for cover and fall into water too deep, the heavy gear can drown you before you get it off. Threats are everywhere.

Small holes sometimes are punched through walls where an AK barrel can suddenly stick through. The enemy could make dozens of holes in the walls, keeping camouflaged, and then suddenly dozens of AKs can be firing from the walls and you can’t hit them easily because they are behind the walls. Urban combat is among the most stressful environments in the world.

Soldier with grenade launcher carrying belt of 40mm grenades

Cover during a halt

We linked up with the Iraqi Army.

The 1920s guys were late, and wanted us to come to them.

The American lieutenants in charge of our patrol said “No,” they come to us. They did not want to walk into a 1920s ambush. The 1920s are good fighters and yesterday we had killed two of their guys just minutes away from this spot. We stayed at an intersection for what seemed like an hour, but probably was only 30 minutes. A family was in a nearby home wailing and crying hard for the men killed yesterday. They treated us well, but our own Soldiers were callous about it. Maybe they have seen too much death.

The 1920s guys sent a kid on a bicycle with a message that we should go to them, but again the two lieutenants wisely refused, and finally said to hell with it. We would do the mission with the IAs alone and not take the 1920s. We began moving.

We passed house after house. Many were empty.

We passed house after house. Many were empty.

Empty houses that are well-kept are a bad sign, and these homes were well-kept. People definitely were living in them. And al Qaeda was almost certainly out there trying to predict which way we would walk. I knew it. Could feel it. Instead of breaking the gates open, an Iraqi Soldier would dangerously crawl over the walls and open the gates. They did not ransack any of the houses and were respectful to the property.

It’s important to stay away from the Soldiers carrying rockets. During combat, he might whip around quickly and fire, and if you are on the backside of the launcher, the blast and burns can be lethal.

We were told there might be snipers waiting.
One of our platoons took the left flank. We were walking along a raised road, and the walking was dangerous, so the platoon headed out to cover the flank.
Fruits and vegetables galore. The day grew hotter and hotter.
Where are they? Sometimes you are the hunter, sometimes the hunted. The people needed to see that these areas would be patrolled despite the danger. In this type of warfare, the object is to protect the people, not the Soldiers. If the people begin feeling safer, they will help the security forces and turn the tide.

Constant communication and situation awareness is key.

The place is a breadbasket.
It was so hot it felt like our eyes were sweating. Hours melted and dripped away.
American Soldier going over the wall. Takes a lot of guts.
Showed up without gloves. Very important to wear gloves in this kind of combat, also he’s the machine gunner. The gun gets extremely hot during firefights. Someone saw that he didn’t have gloves and gave him one. During the upcoming firefight, he burned his hand on the machine gun.
The house was abandoned. American Soldiers cleared it. (Four Soldiers from the Brigade were killed in August when a building exploded.) This yard is maintained, but where are the people? We were probably going to get attacked. The heat was building up.
More Farmland 
The road is just outside the gate, and we kept pushing down. The heat was eating into people.

Snipers were to be expected. While we were moving down the road—POW!—a shot was fired. Where it came from I do not know, but it seemed to come from the palm groves to our left, where the other American platoon was covering our left flank. An American Soldier opened fire into the palm grove where the other platoon was. I’d never seen anything like it. It was hard to imagine he did not know where our other guys were. Other members of the platoon descended upon him like hawks. He laughed. He was sent back to the Bradleys. The Iraqi Soldiers in the video looked shocked as if they’d seen aliens landing.

We kept going.
Soldiers trotting to the front in the scorching weather.
Trying to shoot videos and still, photography at the same time leads to a photographic mess.
These two obliged my requests for reshoots.
Iraqis never seem to mind taking a second to pose for a camera. They understand the importance of publicity and media better than some of our own Soldiers.
Vast amounts of infrastructure can be seen in the photos from around Iraq. Even the unpaved roads do not tend to be canyon-like obstacles. The 1920s guys finally decide to join us. They keep intervals like good Soldiers. They are not just a bunch of yahoos. You can tell by the way they move together that many were Soldiers.

Wearing red.

Unlike many of the Iraqi Soldiers I met in Baqubah in 2005, who practically had to be drowned in a river to make them keep their fingers off the triggers of their weapons, I saw that every 1920s guy had control of the muzzle of his weapon, and their fingers were not on the triggers. The Iraqi Army fighting here today was dramatically better.
Their weapons were all clean. This ammunition belt was clean.
The ambush was set. Some of the 1920s guys stayed with us, but the others pushed through.

The man with the wounded hand from the day before recognized me, and came up and showed me his hand. His thumb had stitches and his face showed pain. When American Soldiers saw he was in pain the day before, they had cut off his flex cuffs and treated him well, and now he was looking to me. I pointed him toward the medic.

Some of the 1920s were about 300 meters down the road by now and walking into the ambush that had apparently been set for us. BOOOOOMMMM! The detonation looked like it must have killed five or ten of them. What comes next is often shooting and more bombs, so I dove for cover while turning on the video camera, and since I have been practicing shooting both cameras at the same time, got some still shots.

The firing went on and on. I wasn’t sure if it was just our guys (meaning Americans, IAs, and 1920s) firing, or if we were in a real firefight.

Watch video footage of the firefight

I was told later we were in a real firefight. Hard to tell sometimes because the IAs and 1920s were firing the same kinds of weapons al Qaeda, JAM, and all the rest fire. In any case, the one certain thing is that thousands of shots were fired and it was loud. Hot, too.

This Soldier was cool under fire. Sweating a lot, but he obviously had been in a few shootouts.

Some American Soldiers had rushed forward to help the 1920s, but I stayed back with an American platoon. If the lieutenant suddenly realizes he’s lost a reporter on the battlefield, he’s not going to be happy when we get back, so it’s very important that the man who brought you always knows where to find you. Our guys were firing 40mm grenades into the palm groves. The 25mm was booming away.

As the 1920s came streaming back, some had clothes tattered from the blast. They were dazed and agitated. The 1920s man with the clean ammunition belt was dragging it down the road and I walked up and pointed to it and he draped the belt back on his shoulder where it should be. The shooting continued.

I kept making eye contact and the Iraqis seemed reasonably okay. Amazingly, none were killed. The explosion was big enough that had they been walking in a cluster instead of keeping their intervals, there would be 1920s body parts scattered all over the road.

As we broke contact, the heat was tearing into people. Three American Soldiers crumpled, and two of them were in serious condition because their veins had collapsed. I saw Iraqi Soldiers and 1920s guys staggering from the heat. They live here and are accustomed to it, but none of them was carrying as much weight as our guys. Other 1920s and IA dove for shade and stopped moving. We kept moving past the walls where the enemy might throw grenades.

M-1 tank behind 1920s fighters heading back to their neighborhood.

Soldiers loaded up our three heat casualties and we raced to Warhorse because being a serious heat casualty is just as serious as being shot. They can die. We got back to Warhorse and the ramps dropped in the heat and dust, and medics and doctors were waiting. They started their business. At least today there was no American blood.

I got out in the heat and started to haul back to my tent, and one of the Soldiers said, “Hey, where you goin’?” Like I was abandoning them.
“Walking back,” I said.
“Get in the Bradley and we’ll take you there.”

The Bradley. Those guys think the Bradley is the best thing since flying saucers. Don’t even think of complimenting a Stryker in front of a Bradley Soldier. Soldiers will tell you what they think of gear. They don’t have a lot of filters when talking about their gear after they’ve been in serious combat for months or years. It’s hard to believe that we now have Soldiers and Marines who have been fighting for years. And so, the Bradley, the big bad Bradley, they love that thing.

I’d take a Stryker any day, but I’m no military expert. That Bradley yesterday did score four hits with its 25mm on a speeding van. But a Stryker could do the same with a .50 and it’s got air conditioning and legroom. The Bradley is crunched tight like a model rocket you shoot mice into space with.

Just before we dropped the ramp again, I asked the Soldier sitting in front of me, “Why did that guy shoot into the palm grove?” Anger flashed over his face as he stared at the Soldier sitting to my left. “He’s sitting right beside you, why don’t you ask him?” I hadn’t realized he was sitting next to me. “Why did you shoot?!” I asked accusingly, as upset as the Soldiers were, but he just treated the event like it was a joke. He was laughing about it, talking about how he could get sent home.

But he was the only one laughing.

When the ramp dropped, Soldiers from other Bradleys piled out and started yelling at him. They were still yelling at him as I started walking away in the scorching dust.

It must have seemed strange like the heat had finally gotten to me. But after two days and two missions where mistakes were made, where some men died and others dropped from heat so intense that it wavered and blurred the already fine line between friends and enemies, where new alliances between Soldiers and former enemies were tested under the fire of combat, these Soldiers were not so tired or so worn from the heat to let their standards flag: they were all over that Soldier who did.

Walking away from them towards my tent, I was thinking of that stupid whistling song, where the refrain goes: “Always look on the bright side of life. . . . ”

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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