We were supposed to take over the position at Delta and Gold at 0600, but it was closer to 0830 when we arrived. Our route clearance escort hit an IED on the way, and we were delayed while they cleared the area and got their damaged vehicle ready to be towed.
1 Vic and 2 Vic, the platoon leader’s vehicle with first squad and my vehicle with my squad, took the first three-hour shift at the intersection of Routes Delta and Gold.
We took up a position facing northeast, looking up Route Delta and down Route Gold toward where Captain Veath’s Stryker had burned a couple days earlier. I could see the end of the infamous concrete wall several blocks away; there hadn’t been any progress made on that since we were there.
LT Schardt’s truck was facing northwest, also watching up Route Delta and the opposite direction on Route Gold. The soldiers in our rear hatches were covering our asses down Route Delta, the way we had come. We also had troops in a guard tower at Thawra II, an Iraqi Army outpost, ready to call in Apache gunships, fighters, or indirect fire as needed.
When we arrived, we set out some concertina wire around the front of our truck to provide a little standoff. It would keep any potential suicide bombers, and possibly even car bombs from being able to get too close to us. It was an inconvenience for the locals going on about their daily business, but that was the least of my concern.
Like most of the buildings in this city, these too showed the signs of earlier violence. Windows were broken, and walls were pockmarked with bullet damage and shrapnel wounds. Many of the doors that remained had bullet holes in them. It was easy to see where bursts of automatic small arms fire had struck around windows and doors. Power lines dangled on the streets, and decorative fences along the median had been demolished by tanks and IED explosions.
Surprisingly, there was a lot of traffic that morning. While there was some vehicle traffic, it was mostly people moving about on foot or driving horse or donkey-drawn wagons filled with grocery items one might expect to find in a convenience store.
Like when we had first arrived in the city, many people walked with their hands raised over their heads, or holding white rags in the air to show that they didn’t want any trouble. We knew from those days; however, that fighters stashed their weapons and used these same non-combatant signals to move to and from areas where the fighting was taking place.
I spent most of the morning sitting on the top of the truck with my feet dangling down into my hatch. I got my video camera out and recorded a little, and we had some music playing on the iPod that was spliced into our vehicle’s communication system. It was a pretty boring spot to sit for hours on end.
At 11:30, SFC AB’s truck, 4-Vic, relieved us, and Leo’s truck, 3-Vic, took over for LT Schardt and 1st squad. Once they’d gotten into position, we rolled back down Route Delta and into the entrance of Thawra II. There were a few Iraqi tanks several Iraqi soldiers hanging out around the break in the concrete barriers that surrounded their outpost. Once inside, we parked along one of the walls, and 1SG Angulo parked nearby with his MRAP crew.
I was tired, so I napped some. We were inside the protected perimeter of a compound, so we didn’t have to provide our own security. It seemed that every time I managed to drift off to sleep, some other unit’s radio chatter came over our net. I was starting to get agitated; I just wanted a little nap. I had no desire whatsoever to listen to their patrol communications, especially since they were at the limit of our range; much of what they were saying came across all broken up, or simply as static.
As we sat, General Hammond and LTC Barnett pulled in. Thankfully, I didn’t have to get out of the truck. I figured I’d have to go and talk to the general, but I didn’t.
We were supposed to take over the positions at the intersection again at 1430, but we were held up a little by General Hammond and his entourage. We weren’t dealing with them, but they were around, so we were told to just hold our positions until they left.
It was only a few minutes after 1430 when they left the outpost, and we rolled out almost immediately behind them to relieve the other half of our platoon at the intersection. We hadn’t even gotten out of the gate and onto Route Delta when we heard an explosion. I saw dust and smoke fly up over the tall cement walls from the direction of the intersection. Taaga’s eyes were big, and he looked at me. “Dat’s tree!” he said through the vehicle’s communication system in his Samoan accent.
He was right.
The radio came to life, frantic calls between Leo, SFC AB, and the vehicle commanders Capelli and Williams. We sped through the serpentine barriers at the entrance to the compound and rushed to back up the other vehicles.
We heard a call that everyone in 3-Vic was okay.
As we approached the intersection, I saw SFC AB and Doc Bosley, with his aid bag, running from 4-Vic to 3-Vic. The intersection was still shrouded in smoke and dust.
In contrast to the early morning, the streets were deserted. There were no vehicles, no foot traffic, nothing. Even the birds were gone. It was as if everyone knew what was coming.
Another call, “It’s Sgt. Daggett; he’s hit bad!”
Before AB and Doc could get to 3rd squad’s truck, they backed up, turned around, and started moving away from the intersection.
“We’re heading to JSS Sadr City. We can’t wait!”
AB and Doc turned around, sprinting back toward their own truck, trying to figure out what 3rd squad was doing.
AB comes over the radio, “CASEVAC to COP Callahan, not JSS Sadr City. Go to COP Callahan!”
“Take the lead, I’m not sure how to get there!”
“Maggot 3, this is Maggot 7. Go to grid EF12345678.”
Someone else came on and said, “SGT Daggett is done!”
“There’s no pulse. We’ve got no pulse!”
“Stuard is hit too!”
“Get to Callahan!”
“Wait, we’ve got a pulse! Somebody take the lead’ we’ll follow!”
4-Vic pulled in front, and they sped away.
We moved forward to our original position, and LT Schardt’s vehicle moved into theirs. We weren’t sure what the explosion was; an RPG? A mortar round? Where did it hit? How did it happen?
LT Schardt’s gunner opened up first, .50 caliber machine gun fire strafed the windows and rooftops of the buildings that overlooked their side of the intersection. Everyone else followed suit, machine guns firing into the buildings. More broken windows, more bullet holes, more smoke and dust in the air.
General Hammond’s convoy hadn’t gotten far when they heard the explosion, and he was listening to the situation develop over the radio. He came onto our channel and told us we had clearance for whatever firepower we needed.
Both of our trucks continued to fire machine guns, rifles, and 40mm grenades into the surrounding buildings. Our forward observers in the guard tower directed the air weapons team (AWT) to engage with hellfire missiles. They buzzed our heads in their AH 64 Apache Attack Helicopters, firing their missiles into the buildings, impacting so close that the explosions shook our trucks. Next, our company quick reaction force arrived. The MGS Stryker dumped 105mm Howitzer rounds into the buildings along Route Gold. While helicopters still buzzed overhead and machine guns were still rattling back and forth, one of 1st squad’s soldiers stepped out of his vehicle and fired an AT4 rocket into the city.
I was standing out of the top of the truck, trying to keep track of where and what my guys were shooting at, when I noticed a van turn onto Route Delta and start driving toward us. There wasn’t any other traffic moving anywhere that we could see, but here came this van driving straight toward the gunfire. It was between 300 and 400 yards away when I raised my rifle and fired three rounds.
The van rolled to a stop and sat for a minute. Since the explosion on top of 3-Vic, everything seemed to be moving in slow motion, so I have no idea how long the van actually stopped. Eventually, it backed up and turned left off of Route Delta. I didn’t see it again.
The next thing we hear on the radio is that there are two fighter jets on station, and they’re armed with JDAMS (guided bombs). Our forward observers (FOs) called in coordinates for the air strike, and they dropped low yield bombs on the buildings. We cheered, flipping our middle fingers toward the city.
After they dropped those bombs, we were directed to move back to the entrance of Thawra II. Our FOs guided the fighters to drop their remaining bombs on targets on Route Gold on both sides of the intersection. It was one hell of a sight. Each time the fighters screamed by, their jet engines making our chests vibrate, they released their bombs, destroying buildings one at a time. Huge explosions, debris flying through the air, buildings collapsing, in flames and black smoke so thick that it swallowed up whatever was left.
After some time, we heard Maggot 7 on the radio again. They had returned to JSS Sadr City and were waiting on 3-Vic to get cleaned out and checked over by the mechanics.
Soon, we were relieved by another platoon, and we rolled back to our school building patrol base. The other men in our company were clearly down when we arrived. They didn’t want to make eye contact with us, and it seemed almost like they felt sorry for us.
None of us knew what had become of SGT Daggett or Stuard.
LT Schardt sat down in a chair and stared at nothing. He was a great leader, and I knew he was replaying the whole scenario in his mind, trying to figure out where things went wrong, what we could have done differently. I’d bet he also considered the fact that we were late getting there that morning, that our rotations were off-schedule, and General Hammond’s visit had also delayed our switch-out. If we’d been on schedule, LT Schardt’s truck would have been parked where 3-Vic was. Which soldiers might have been standing in his rear hatches if we’d been there on time?
Good leaders take ownership when their subordinates fail. Good leaders also give their subordinates the credit when they’re successful. In war, it’s easy to forget that the enemy also gets a vote. I could tell LT Schardt was taking it hard, and I worried that he was trying to shoulder the blame.
SFC AB came and told the platoon that SGT Daggett had suffered severe trauma, and his condition was critical. First reports on Stuard suggested that he had some broken bones and several shrapnel wounds.
3-Vic was in pretty rough shape. It looked like a bomb had detonated on top of it, which was basically what had happened. There was shrapnel damage to the top deck of the truck and inside where the hatches had been open. The camo-netting that hid is from snipers was mostly torn away. The M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) that was mounted on the back of the truck had holes in the receiver and pieces missing. There was a cut on the inside of Leo’s hatch, which, like all of our hatches, was in the upright position, so we could see out. It looked like a fin from the tail of an RPG had probably cut across the inside of his hatch as it passed just inches over his head before hitting the back of the truck and detonating.
Some of the other soldiers from 3-Vic suffered from hearing loss and potentially TBI from the concussion produced by the blast. Those soldiers were held back to be sent to Balad to get checked out. It sounded like Daggett was medevacked quickly, and would be headed to Germany as quickly as possible.
Captain Veath informed us that we’d be returning to Camp Taji for 24 hours. They wanted us to rest, decompress, and get our minds straight.
Before we could even leave, there were rumors of our entire battalion taking over a sector somewhere around Sadr City, and our company possibly being sent back north, since we’d had some casualties.
I don’t really know what sort of damage we inflicted on the insurgents, but I know that the guys in my truck alone took out a handful of fighters near that intersection.