FORWARD OPERATION BASE ENDURANCE – We are an hour south of Mosul in a dust-blown stretch of desert that looks like it goes to the end of time.
This was once one of Saddam Hussein’s airports. It has two air strips longer than 11,000 feet and a lot of crumbling buildings. The U.S. military is using the runways and has installed quarters and facilities that now handle something like 4,000 troops. There is a vast state of the art recreactional facility, row after row of housing units, buildings for operations centers, a detention facility for prisoners and a mess hall that could hold a couple of roller skating rinks. There’s probably a lot more here.
It is all behind endless rolls of concertina wire and concrete blast walls. Being on high ground, it offers more pleasing desert panoramas than FOB Marez near Mosul. The dust and noise are the same. The ground is covered with about six inches of gravel that is a pain to walk on, just like at Marez.
We came to watch a regional gathering of about 400 shieks, police chiefs and mayors. When they started these meetings a few months ago, nine attended.
They met in the rec hall. The session began with some of the top Iraqis meeting in the library. It was quite a fashion statement. Major Gen. David Rodriguez, the top U.S. military man in these parts, was American No. 1. He wore a desert camoflage uniform. He was flanked by a bevy of officers and interpreters. The Iraqi attracting the most attention was Gen. Amed Mohamed Khalaf, chief of police in Mosul. Long-robed sheiks and muktars – local mayors – made their way to him, shaking hands and kissing cheeks. A short heavyset fellow, he wore a business suit. The police officers sported a variety of insignias and uniforms of blue and green. Muktar attire was hybrid of desert robes, headgear and business suits.
This is emblematic of the challenge of nation building here. Generally, villages have political leaders, religious leaders and tribal leaders. Mix those together and it can be hard to tell who is in charge. Real authority has a lot to do with the force of personalities involved. Dominant personalities tend to dominate local government. The tribal card can be especially tough to play as folks here tend to carry grudges from one generation to the next.
They chatted for a while before making their way into the expansive theater, where the seats offered a welcome contrast to the cramped and noisy seats of the Humvee.
The general spoke, pausing for the interpreter. An Iraqi general spoke, pausing for his interpreter. Chief Gen. Khalaf spoke, but his interpreter had bad timing and they mostly spoke at the same time. There was no way to tell what he said.
The generals talked of new friendship and the need for unity in the fight against terrorists. A couple of the local leaders stood up after the speeches and fulminated about the need for jobs. Unemployment helps insurgents to recruit, they said.
Capt. Sean Begley, who in civilian life is wrestling coach and assistant principal of Lake Central High School, gave us a quick tour of his detention center. As combat engineers, his unit might be expected to build a prison one day and provide supporting fire for a ground assault the next. The holding facility is made of concrete. Even the officers had to surrender their weapons upon entering. The alleged bad guys were held in large rooms with bunks or pallets on the floor. They were sullen, scruffy.
I ate with the Command Sgt. Major Larry Smith. The chicken soup was passable, but nothing to compare with what Kim Kinninger turns out at the Pink Flamingo. Jim Tyler and the girls at the Evergreen wouldn’t think about serving cheeseburgers like the ones at here. But all in all, the chow was fine, especially the chocolate ice cream. Veteran sergeants have an elite fraternity, and several came by to chat. A young soldier with a recently-shaved head was sitting nearby. He looked like he is about 14 years old. He graduated from high school a year ago and jumped into the Army. Smith knows him from high school Reserve Officers Training Corps, so they talked for a while. Said Smith: “That’s a good man.”
After supper I hung out in a chew, as Containerized Housing Units are called, with a handful of enlisted men. They lamented the lack of alcohol in Iraq and joked about what their wives were doing in their absence. They told outrageous drinking stories and smoked a lot of cigarettes. There was a knock on the door. A pure-business sergeant ordered two of them to come with him immediately.
“I don’t like the sound of this,” said one of the remaining soldiers. A radio crackled, wanting to know where Sgt. Maj. Smith and the reporter were. When I hooked up with Smith, in the chew we shared, he was on the radio. “I’ve got him right here,” he was saying. “Roger. We’ll be right there.” He reached for his uniform. We headed for the Tactical Operations Center. “I don’t like the sound of this,” he said.
Lt. Col. Shatto and Begley were poring over satellite maps of a little village called Umm Hijarah, planning Operation Banana. The meeting of the muktars, sheiks and cops had yielded some “good intel.” The 113th and the Iraqi army were about to seal off and search Umm Hijarah.
Their brisk conversation was loaded with military acronyms. “You can put (Sgt. Keith) Miller (of Claypool) here.” “He can put the 249 (light machine gun known as the squad automatic weapon) on the 996 (a lightly armored Humvee.” They both marked on the maps and a sketch of the village. Begley, sitting across the table from the colonel wrote upside down for Shatto’s benefit. A fishing tackle box containing a variety of colored pens was on the table. They pretty much stayed with the red ones.
The village was composed entirely of 48 mud huts, each numbered on the satellite image. Hut No. 12 reportedly contained an important terrorist. They decided to surround the village, send a team straight for No. 12 to nab the bad guy, then search the rest of the homes. Humvees with machine gun turrets would be placed where they could prevent anyone from escaping the village. An interpreter with a loudspeaker would tell all men of military age to assemble in a holding area before the search. When the search was over, an informant would get a look at all the men. Anyone fingered would be handcuffed and taken away to trial.
“I’m concerned about the IA (Iraq Army),” said Begley. “It’s going to be hard to keep command and control.” He was also worried about friendly fire. “That will give you a medic in this vehicle. You’ve got combat lifesavers (soldiers with some emergency knowledge) in this vehicle, this vehicle and this vehicle.” “That way he’s got eyes on that ravine there.” “These elements will seal the containment area.” “We’ll come screaming in here.”
And so it went. They made up rosters of who was to be in which vehicle, where the medic (Spec. Dawn Swanko, Hobart High School Class of 2001, the only woman on the mission) would be, where the guns would be placed, who would drive, where the Iraqis would be. Begley is nicknamed “Big Sky.” He is huge, 6’ 6” or more and athletic, built like the wrestlers he coaches back home. He could easily weigh twice as much as Shatto, who has the physique of a long-distance runner, and might make 150 pounds.
They decided to assemble the troops at 2:30 a.m. “Not 2:31,” the colonel said. I managed to get about an hour of sleep. Many of the soldiers didn’t bother. Sgt. Keith Miller and Spec. Steve Brumfield slept on top of the Humvees. It was Miller’s 36th birthday.
The officers reviewed their plan, then paused. “Okay, Bill,” Begley said. “You have any questions?”
Here is a guy headed for what could be his last battle. He had the lives of something like 100 men on the line. He was hunting ruthless perverts who cut the heads off of people and blow up children. He barely knew me from Adam. Yet he took the time to help me with my story. Either he is one heck of a nice guy or the U.S. Army has put out the word to accommodate reporters. Either way, I appreciated it.
I asked how they could be sure the informant wasn’t grinding some ancient tribal ax, or setting up a rival. The answer was that they use multiple established sources, including those in the local military, and are very careful about who gets sent to trial in Baghdad. “I have no doubt that there are going to be bad guys in this town. The only question is how they’re going to come, if they are going to fight,” said the captain.
“We fight a lot of people who are thugs,” Begley said. “Just thugs.”
What would be the worst thing that could happen? “One of our guys getting killed,” said the captain, “or one of the IA guys.”
Outside the temperature was exquisite, perhaps 70 degrees with a sweet puffing breeze. The moon, just past full, was effervescent.
Begley had a rough sketch of the plan displayed on an easel for his troops when they assembled. “Through the security council meeting this morning, some intel came through,” he said. “Some people said there are some bad people here in this town ... the colonel has been nice enough to volunteer his services.”
Several men answered with “hoo-ahs!” That’s combat engineer talk for a variety of things including but, not limited to “all right,” “damn straight,” to “udda man!” and/or “let’s go rip the lungs out of some insurgents.”
Begley outlined the mission, stressed “op sec,” or operational security. He didn’t tell them where they were going, only what they would do when they got there.
Shatto said, “One thing I want to point out is that these guys are not criminals. They are not criminals until they have been identified. Don’t scream or yell at them. Treat them with respect.”
The captain stressed safety. “There’s a real concern I have with fratricide,” he said. “The important thing here is for you to have positive identification ... the 50 caliber is a big round and it will go as far as you can see. It might change direction after it goes through a mud hut, so be sure. Make sure you make a good decision.”
Shatto repeated his caution to “treat them with respect” before the gathering ended with more hoo-ahs. Troops departed to prepare for the 4:40 a.m. pullout, the officers went back to the planning room for more brainstorming.
It was still balmy when we pulled out. Three minutes after I pulled out I was sweating like a race horse, thanks to the 35 or so pounds of body armor. The Humvee, carrying the colonel, Capt. Begley and driver Jason Carrera, made so much noise I couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other.
We stopped near the edge of the sprawling base. Shatto got out and went to one of the Humvees ahead of us. It had mechanical trouble. When he returned, he asked Carrera if he had any extra power steering fluid. No. They left the disabled Humvee and put some of its crew in others. Our vehicle left gunner Rumsfield and got Sgt. Steve Potter. Shortly after we started again, a roll of barbed wire shook loose from the hood of the Humvee. It was dumped at the side of the road. The convoy pressed on.
At 5:40 a.m. we were still barreling along at about 45 miles an hour, slamming across the rough road, swerving, parbroiling, chugging water. Shatto pecked away at his battle computer and talked into his helmet microphone. Begley reviewed satellite photos. Driver Carrera, who in another life is a student at Indiana University, had not slept in part because he was playing chess. He was fighting to stay awake. We turned off the main road and maintained speed. The convoy kept to the middle of the road. Oncoming cars pulled out of the way.
Suddenly, Shatto barked: “All right, let’s spread out.” Two little white pickups were stopped. Soldiers were pointing guns at them. “That guy was running out of town,” Shatto said. “That guy had an AK-47 and was booking.” It turned out that another unit was raiding a nearby town at the same time we were to search Umm Hijarah.
We continued on for a few kilometers, then turned right on to a dirt track, which the American soldiers call a rat trail. The dust was voluminous. Abruptly we reversed course. “Murphy is always out there,” said the colonel. I figured we were lost. He turned to to me and said, “They changed mission twice on us. They said come to this other town, then said no, come back to this other one. They had bad guys on the move and they wanted us to reinforce. Then they said to go back to the original objective.”
We pulled up to Umm Hijarah about an hour later than planned. Iraqi soldiers spread out along one side of the village. Our Humvees took up positions on each side. Our interpreter used an ambulance loudspeaker to tell all men of military age to assemble outside the village. Men, some in long flowing robes and headdresses, made their way to a concertina wire pen outside the village. One of them was quite old and used a cane.
“This becomes the most dangerous part of the mission because if there are any bad guys in there that don’t want to come out, they will fight,” Shatto said. The interpreter and a U.S. soldier quizzed a man from Mosul, who was there to introduce his sisters to his fiancee. When they were satisfied, he joined the others, about 80 of them sitting behind the wire. I expected them to be upset. If they were, they didn’t show it. They were docile. Soldiers gave them water. I saw none of them complain.
“They don’t like the terrorists,” said Shatto. “They can’t do anything about them. They know why we are here.”
I stuck with Begley, Shatto, Sgt. John Livingstone of Indianapolis and Pvt. Aaron Webb of Crawfordsville as they worked one side of the village with a dozen or so Iraqi soldiers. The Iraqis seemed far more interested in having me take their picture than searching any of the huts. Another team of soldiers searched the other half of the village. The Americans would put the barrel of their guns through a door and follow it in. Usually they moved on but sometimes they opened a cabinet or looked under a bench. There was little furniture in the rooms, few places to hide. Hut No. 12 yielded nothing. We moved on.
Every building in the village was made of mud bricks dried in the sun. It smelled awful. The sewage system was little trenches that ran from the base of one wall in any direction. The floors were mud. Chickens, geese and turkeys roamed at will, leaving plentiful calling cards. Several of the homes had pens crowded with sheep. It was dusty. Most of the women avoided the soldiers. But one, nursing a child with a toddler clinging to her side, flashed a terrific smile. An older woman with tattoos on her face declined to have her photo taken but continued sorting laundry during the search. The only modern building was the empty school. I saw one car. Giggling, beautiful kids kept their distance.
By 8:30 a.m. the heat was beginning to take its toll. I declined a woman’s offer of water and grabbed some from the Humvee.
The closest thing to action was a fierce, shaggy, ugly, reeking dog that made a move at the colonel. Shatto spun like a shortstop making a double play, leveling his M4 carbine. The young mother called it off. Said Begley: “They hate it when you shoot their dogs.”
The village was clear. No bad guys. The sweep of the other village involved in the raid netted six suspects. Sheik Col. Raad gave the patient men in the pen a little pep talk. (See story on Page 1.) The Americans gave them another bottle of water and boxes of non-pork MREs (Meals Ready to Eat).
We drove back to Forward Operation Base Endurance, ate, showered and got an hour of sleep. We were back in our body armor at 4:25 p.m. I was completely drenched in sweat by 4:27 p.m. We began the hour-long trip to Mosul at 4:29 p.m. The air conditioner in the back of the Humvee roared, but the temperature wouldn’t budge from 96 degrees inside.
Editor’s note: W.S. Wilson is embedded with the Indiana National Guard’s 113th Combat Engineering Battalion, based out of northern Indiana and now deployed near Mosul, Iraq. Most of the 113th’s soldiers are from northern Indiana.