It was 1AM. Sleep this night had been elusive at best, coming in short segments between bumps and swerves that jostled us around in the cramped troop compartment of our twenty-ton tin can as we made our way toward the drop off point for our mission. Boys in camouflage body armor, packed like sardines leaned against one another. They moved and shifted, desperately searching for some small semblance of comfort while trying to keep their legs and asses from going to sleep. A rifle magazine jammed into the inside of a thigh here, a hand grenade pinched a hip there. In the dim glow of my squad leader commo screen, their heavy eyelids slowly closed behind the lenses of their ballistic glasses. Heads bobbed up and down like pistons as the young warriors drifted off to sleep and awakened, startled, before their eyes drooped again. Gravity was especially cruel, pulling hard on the nearly 5 pounds of each advanced combat helmet adorned with tactical lights, d-rings, para-cord, camo bands, photos of wives and babies, and night vision goggles, commonly referred to as nods.
Each of us fought a stiff neck, a sore ass, and tingling legs and feet when my gunner, Sergeant Taaga, opened the ramp. It was early February, and cold night air surrounded us as we stumbled out, rifles at the ready and adrenaline just starting to pump through our veins. We would have to worry about being tired and having aches and pains later, much later, when we are old and in our thirties. We had a mission to do.
The cold, winter night concealed our movement through a frosty grove of date palms. Our armored Stryker vehicle had deposited us along Iraq’s Highway 1, at a spot some 30 miles north of Baghdad, leaving the last few klicks between us and our objective to be covered quietly on foot. The spikey trunks of date palms stood in uniform rows that disappeared into the glowing green darkness ahead. Dead and dying fronds hung low and out of place, making strange silhouettes in our night vision. Others reached up at us from their final resting places on the ground, their dry and hardened points like finely sharpened claws grabbing at our pant legs, at times puncturing fabric and flesh. Some found our faces, slicing and stinging our cold red cheeks. Decaying palm leaves, underbrush, and knee-deep ditches paralleling each row threatened at every step to give us away as we crept toward our target.
First squad was on point, walking in wide fire team wedges, with Lloyd, their squad leader, directing from the middle. The infrared strobe light in his right shoulder pocket flashed every couple of seconds, invisible to the naked eye, but clear as day in my night vision. It lit up the palms around him, and left eerie snapshot profiles of the soldiers walking between us. I hoped they were on their game, as Lloyd’s squad would be my overwatch when we reached our objective.
My alpha team walked between me and Lloyd’s soldiers. Sergeant Fraleigh, who we often called Frolo, was at the front of his fire team wedge. Fraleigh was the best kind of guy to have as a team leader. He was a young sergeant, but he was big, loud, aggressive, and fearless. I watched him win our division’s boxing championship long before he became one of my team leaders. He was the type of NCO who struck fear into the hearts of privates and Iraqis alike. No one wanted to be on his bad side.
As we walked, I spun around to check the spacing of my bravo fire team. My other team leader, Sergeant Jimmy Bridges was walking at the apex of his team’s wedge. They were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing. I was proud of my boys tonight. Their spacing was perfect, and despite all of the obstacles, we were moving silently through the palms toward our objective. It all looked like a scene from a war movie, or even a trailer for some new video game. Heavily armed soldiers moving through the darkness like silent ghosts. To the naked eye, the only evidence of their existence was the dim green glow that the night vision goggles left on their faces. All that was missing was a soundtrack by CCR and the thumping of helicopter rotor blades.
I turned back around and smiled at no one in the darkness. This was my favorite kind of mission. “Bravo Company, 1st Platoon, the “Maggots” conducts a raid against target house, vicinity Iraqi Army checkpoint, in order to kill or capture enemy sniper.” My boys, second squad, would be the assaulting element, while first and third squads were to provide support and security.
I couldn’t remember a time when we had walked more quietly in the dark, and I was anxious to hit this house. Just days earlier our platoon had been returning to Camp Taji after a twelve-hour patrol, when we were directed by our battalion headquarters to support our sister company, Charlie, as they searched this very home. We had hoped to make it back in time for a midnight meal at one of the Camp Taji chow halls. Instead, we set up hasty blocking positions to prevent anyone from fleeing as soldiers from Charlie Company entered and searched the house. No one had tried to run away. We sat in an empty field watching lights come on in the windows of the house, and listening to the radio communication as the mission progressed. The occupants were cooperative, and there were no weapons or contraband found.
After several hours of waiting in the cold, we received instructions to hold our positions until daybreak, so that Charlie Company soldiers could search again during daylight hours. The temperatures had dropped below the freezing mark, and we sat there shivering, while frost formed around us. Finally, just before dawn, we were given permission to return to base. Charlie Company had found nothing in the home.
Now it was our turn to search this place. As we continued moving, I could make out the outline of a building through the palm trees. Lloyd, the first squad leader, whispered over the radio that he had the target house in sight. It was a pretty typical Iraqi home for this area. It was two stories with metal doors, a flat roof, and a sort of stucco exterior. There was a garage, a couple small outbuildings made of mud bricks, and a small fenced area with goats and sheep. It was quiet and dark as we approached.
We halted, and waited for Lloyd to set up his over watch position. As he set his men in place, I whispered radio checks with Sergeant Taaga; Sergeant First Class Arambula, our platoon sergeant, who had the medic; and Leo, the third squad leader. I had clear comms with everyone but Leo.
Where the hell was our reserve squad?
I walked over and knelt next to my Lieutenant. “Hey sir, I can’t get Maggot 3 on the radio. Where the hell are they? I don’t even see his strobe flashing behind us.”
While Lieutenant Schardt, our platoon leader, tried to raise third squad on the radio, I heard brush breaking to our right. I turned around to see what or who might be moving, and the noise grew louder.
Then Leo called out, “Hey, first platoon, where the fuck are you?”
So much for noise discipline, I thought.
“My fucking radio isn’t working,” he continued, almost shouting.
By this point, we had practically announced our arrival. His squad continued tromping toward us, seemingly stepping on and breaking every stick and branch in the palm grove.
I quickly walked over and whispered through clenched teeth, “Hey, shut the fuck up. What the hell is wrong with you guys?”
Leo approached and started complaining that he had been trying to get us on the radio, and that we had just left his squad alone out on the highway. He went on and on about how he had somehow ended up on the east side of the road, opposite our objective, where he ran into another platoon’s blocking position while trying to figure out our location.
Finally, we got ourselves organized, and Lloyd and Leo finished getting their squads settled into over watch and security positions. Amazingly enough, there was no sign that we had disturbed the occupants of our target house. It appeared that we still had the element of surprise working in our favor, but this whole cluster set the tone for how the assault phase of this mission would go.
I signaled for my alpha team to move forward to the house. They spread out, crouching low as they ran quietly across the clearing to the front door of the house. I followed closely behind, and as we reached the corner of the front wall the men automatically lined up in a stack. Most infantry fire teams have a breach man. In this team, it made sense for Frolo to be the door kicker. We had never encountered a door that he couldn’t get through.
Sergeant Fraleigh stood in front of the door and looked at me through his night vision. I gave him a quick nod, and he took a step back with his left foot, and then slammed the heel of his boot into the door next to the latch. It gave way, but the door didn’t fly open like they usually did. He kicked again. Then a third time, and the plastic mount on his night vision goggles broke. They were hanging from the para cord attached to the camo band on his helmet.
Frolo turned to me and said, “Sergeant T., my nods are down!”
“No shit! What the fuck to do you want me to do about it? Take care of it once we get inside.”
He reached up and held onto the nods while he kicked the door again. It sounded as if someone were hitting the door with a sledge hammer. It was bending in the middle, and each strike left a new dent, but it simply would not open more than a couple of inches. A light came on inside. Through a window at the top of the door, we could see a large wooden cabinet that was preventing it from opening. An outside light came on, and we no longer needed our night vision. We had also lost the benefit of surprise.
I paused for a second to figure out my next move, and a woman pulled back a window curtain and waved at us frantically. With our rifles pointed at her she motioned to the side of the house. About that time, a small boy, maybe ten or eleven years old, came walking out from around a corner and gestured for us to follow him. A man in his early forties met us at the side door and invited us in. In the main room, where Fraleigh had been kicking the door, we found a China cabinet that stood seven or eight feet high, and ran the length of the room. It was full of all sorts of stuff; silver platters, little trinkets, and lots of newly broken dishes.
I called for Sergeant Bridges to bring up his team and help secure the first floor of the home. There was an elderly man, a younger woman, and four children ranging in age from toddler to about ten or eleven. They were cooperative but not very happy with us. The old man kept shouting at us. Our interpreter said that he wanted us to know that he was not a terrorist. He wanted to know why we were searching his home again.
We secured the first floor, and separated the men from the women and children. With the help of an interpreter, I asked about any weapons in the home. The younger of the two men explained that there were two AK 47 rifles in the house, and pointed to where I could find them. He said that they worked with the Sons of Iraq, and that they were allowed to have the rifles and the ammo pouches. I checked their ID cards, and they were indeed on our payroll as checkpoint security guards in that area.
That figures, I thought.
“Tell them that we are still going to search their house for weapons and contraband.”
Our interpreter relayed the message, and told me that they understood.
“Maggot Six, this is Maggot Two. Over.”
“Go ahead, Maggot Two.”
“Six, first floor is secure. Moving to second floor now. Over.”
Lieutenant Schardt entered the house with one of Leo’s fire teams, and asked which rooms the occupants were in. I pointed to the room where the men were being held, and started up the stairs with Sergeant Fraleigh and his fire team.
At the top of the stairs, there was a landing and four doors. The door to our right was metal and had a window much like the door downstairs. It was access to the roof of the home. One open door revealed a room that was mostly empty expect for a few large bags of dates, presumably from the palm groves that we had just walked through. The second room was used for storage. It was piled full of all sorts of junk. I could see burlap sacks, car parts, pots and pans, broken chairs, and all kinds of other things. The door to the third room was closed.
Sergeant Fraleigh gently checked the door handle and signaled that it was locked. I nodded to him, and he kicked it. Unlike the plain metal door downstairs this door was very ornately carved wood with a brass door handle. The handle and latch mechanism fell to the floor as wood splintered around it. The door was destroyed, and the latching side of the door frame came out of the wall as well. We thought we were ready for anything as we entered and cleared rooms, but we were not prepared for what happened next.
We rushed into the room, and a man rolled out of a large bed onto the floor in front of us. A woman rolled out of the other side of the bed, taking the sheets along with her. She was screaming as she pulled the sheets up to her neck in an effort to cover herself. The man, probably in his mid-thirties, was startled and confused. He got up from the floor quickly, his eyes wide with fear and surprise. He had one hand over his head, and was attempting to pull his pants up with the other. When he realized that our weapons all pointed at him, he dropped his pants and raised his other hand. He still stood there awkwardly bent at the waist, as if he really wanted to pull his pants up, but he wasn’t sure he could do it without getting shot.
A quick glance around the room confirmed what we had busted in on. His pants were around his ankles. His naked wife was curled up in a corner of the room holding a sheet up to her neck. There was a red light bulb glowing in a wall fixture above the bed’s headboard, and there was a box of peach scented douche sitting on one of the nightstands. I looked at her and then back at him, and I started laughing.
Sergeant Fraleigh laughed too and said, “That sucks dude! We had no idea you were gettin’ some ass in here.”
The man gave an uneasy smile. He didn’t understand English, but he knew we were laughing at him.
I looked at the interpreter. “Tell him to pull his fuckin’ pants up. I don’t want to see that shit. Tell her to get dressed too.”
Once the woman was dressed, she was escorted downstairs to the room with the other woman and the children. I kept lover boy in the room so that I could ask him some questions.
“Ask him if there are any weapons in the house.”
“He says that there are two AKs downstairs, and that those are the only weapons they have.”
“Has he heard any gunshots in this area recently?”
“He says no.”
“Ask him if he knows anything about a sniper firing on the Iraqi Army checkpoint out on the highway? I’m sure he can see the checkpoint from the roof of his house.”
“He says he doesn’t know anything about it.”
“He’s a fucking liar.”
I took him downstairs and handed him off to some of the 3rd squad soldiers who were now in the house. I walked over to where Lieutenant Schardt was standing and gave him a sit rep. “The house is secure. We have two women and four children in that room. Three military-age males in this room. I’m going to start searching the place upstairs first.”
“Sounds good Sergeant T. Let me know what you find.”
I walked back upstairs where Jimmy and Frolo already had their teams starting to search the rooms. I looked around as well, watching what the soldiers were doing, and rifling through drawers and closets that hadn’t been checked yet. I knew that this house had just been searched, and I wasn’t very confident that we would find anything. I didn’t see any reason at that point to totally trash the place.
Then I found something. In the back of the top drawer of one of the nightstands, I found a little glass dish that held about ten bullets for a 9mm handgun. Iraqis were allowed to have an AK-47 with one 30-round magazine for home protection, but there were no handguns allowed. I grabbed the dish and walked downstairs to ask lover boy about them.
Speaking to the interpreter, I asked, “Where is your handgun?”
As our interpreter spoke, he looked at me, and shook his head no.
“He says he doesn’t have a handgun, only AKs.”
“Why do you have ammo for a handgun if you don’t have a handgun?”
“He says he doesn’t have any handgun ammo either.”
I showed him the dish and said, “What the fuck is this then?”
He backpedaled a bit, but still insisted that there were no other weapons in the home.
“Tell him that we will leave if he just gives up the handgun.”
“He still says that he doesn’t have one.”
I left my lieutenant to continue asking questions, while I went back to searching. We looked in all of the usual places and found nothing out of the ordinary. By this point, we were hours into the mission, and I was tired and pissed off. Captain Veath, my company commander and our first sergeant, 1SG Angulo were now in the house poking around and asking why we hadn’t come up with anything yet. I pointed out the bullets in the dish.
Captain Veath said, “Where is the gun?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It has to be here somewhere, but they won’t give it up. Without flipping this whole place upside down, I’m not sure where else to look.”
“Flip this place, and find it then.”
“Roger that, sir.”
Back upstairs, I called all of the soldiers out of the rooms onto the landing at the top of the stairs. “We have a handful of 9mm rounds that were in a nightstand drawer in that room,” I said, pointing toward the busted wooden door. “You will check every nook and cranny in this mother fucker. Flip the beds. Take the drawers out of each piece of furniture. Check the bottoms of them. Check inside to make sure that there is nothing taped above or below the drawers. Turn the furniture over, and check the back and bottom of each piece. Toss everything.” We broke to continue searching.
I walked into the bedroom with Pvt. Shane Steward. He went to the night stand where I had found the 9mm bullets, and pulled out the top drawer and dumped it. He dropped the drawer on the bed, and looked into the bottom drawer. Then he got up and started to walk over to the closet. I told him that he needed to remove the bottom drawer, and check under and behind the nightstand too. He turned back, pulled the bottom drawer out of the nightstand, and dumped it.
“Umm, Sergeant Taylor? I think I found something.”
I glanced over and saw the excited look on his face as he pulled the bag from the nightstand. He placed it on the bed and opened it. He shook his head as he reached in and pulled out a handful of 7.9mm rifle rounds.
“Nice job Steward! Take that out on the landing and dump it.”
When he dumped the bag, hundreds of 7.9mm rifle rounds on stripper clips, and loose 7.62mm AK 47 rounds fell out onto the floor along with several loaded AK47 magazines.
I called for my lieutenant to come up, and some of my privates started organizing our find so that we could get an accurate count. When Lieutenant Schardt came up, he smiled at me, and asked if we had anything else. I told him that we still had a couple of rooms to check, and that we had found yet another caliber of ammunition. I started thinking we would find more weapons.
Next was the junk room. Jimmy and I started searching this room. After finding so much ammo, we were feeling a second wind. We started pulling stuff out of the room. There were burlap sacks full of sheep’s wool. It was now daylight outside, so I carried the bags out onto the rooftop. I pulled out my knife and slit the side of each bag and dumped the contents onto the cement roof.
As we moved further into the room, I found a green cylinder with white military markings on it. The cylinder was empty, but it was a shipping container for a warhead for a Brazilian surface-to-air missile. I set that aside, and continued digging. Next I found a navy blue child’s backpack with UNICEF embroidered on it. Inside the pack I found a cowboy style leather belt with bullet loops all around it. There were a few AK 47 magazines, three strands of Christmas lights with no bulbs, which are commonly used to make IEDs, and finally wrapped in a piece of cloth was a rifle scope. After moving all of these things out of the room, we reached several large rolls of canvas on the floor. They appeared to be large tents or something of that nature, but when I tried to lift one of the rolls, it was much heavier than plain canvas. I unrolled the first one, and inside I found a bolt-action rifle. I held it up for Jimmy to see. He unrolled the second roll and found a sniper rifle that went with the scope we had found. In another larger roll there was another green cylinder, this one filled with rifle cartridges for the sniper rifle. Two more rolls revealed two more rifles and two more shipping containers filled with ammo.
Jimmy and I carried the rifles and ammunition out onto the rooftop, and I called for Lieutenant Schardt, the commander, and the first sergeant. When they came through the door to the rooftop, I held up the sniper rifle and the scope.
“We didn’t find a handgun, but here is your sniper rifle, sir.”
“Damn Sergeant Taylor, we’ll have to call Charlie Company and tell them that you found what they were looking for.”
“No shit, sir.”
I went down to speak to the three men who had claimed that they only had two AK 47s in the house. I asked again where their handgun was. They continued to deny that anyone in the house had a handgun.
Talking to the interpreter, I said, “Okay, I believe that you don’t have a handgun in the house. I have searched upstairs, and we didn’t find a handgun. Are there any other weapons in the house?”
They all told the interpreter that there were no other guns in the home, and they looked relieved that I hadn’t mentioned finding any weapons.
I turned to the other soldiers in the room, and instructed them to put flex-cuffs on all three of the men. Once they were cuffed, I told the soldiers to bring them upstairs to the rooftop. The looks on their faces were priceless when they came through the door and saw all of the weapons and ammunition laid out across their rooftop.
In all, we discovered more than three thousand 7.62mm and 7.9mm rifle rounds, almost thirty AK-47 magazines, and seven rifles. We also had materials that were commonly used in making IEDs, and evidence that these men had gotten their hands on some sort of missiles or warheads that could have potentially been used against American soldiers in a number of different ways. It was a fruitful raid. We found what we were looking for. We accomplished our mission, to conduct a raid on the target house in order to kill or capture enemy sniper. There was not a single shot fired, and there were no casualties, aside from some dishes and a couple of doors.
All of our success aside, I felt guilty about that raid. It was approaching lunch time by the time we had processed all of our evidence, and prepared to move our three detainees. As my soldiers escorted the three handcuffed men to our vehicles and placed blindfolds over their heads to protect the secret materials in our Stryker vehicles, the oldest boy came out of the front of the house. He watched armed American soldiers blindfold his father, uncle, and grandfather. His face was emotionless as the armored ramp closed, concealing the men in his family inside. My company commander walked over to him and patted him on the head. The boy’s stare changed to anger and hatred when Captain Veath handed him a soccer ball.
I saw it right then; we took his dad, and his uncle, and his grandpa, and gave him a shiny new soccer ball in return. What a fucked up war.
We took weapons away from insurgents that day, and we interfered with insurgent sniper activity in that area. What else did we do that day? Did we help reinforce negative feelings toward Americans in another generation of Iraqi people? Did we create another insurgent or another terrorist that day?