As a remembrance for Veteran’s Day and being a soldier, I thought I would write something that is dear to my heart. Something that was an experience I will never forget. What follows is a brief synopsis of the events leading up to the main occurrence.
In April 2003, the men and women of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment (3rd ACR) deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Though these men and women, who will be referred to from now on as Soldiers, were trained in their respective jobs and equipped to the standards of the United States Army at that time, none of them knew what to expect. Some, a small minority, had seen combat before, either in Bosnia or Desert Storm. There were even a few Vietnam vets that had gotten out of the military and signed back up at a later date. But in reality, none of these Soldiers knew what was to come in the next year of their lives.
The Soldiers hit the ground in Kuwait in April, spent two grueling weeks training and getting vehicles prepped for the long trip north. They spent days hauling ammunition from one point to another. Spent every single day in the sun, and most nights under the stars. They slept on vehicles, on cots, or in the absence of these two, on the sand. They went without showers for their entire stay in Kuwait since there was a water shortage at that time. They often spent over 48 hours without sleep, working non-stop to get a vehicle fixed, or upload ammunition into hundreds of vehicles. When the order finally came to march north, all stunk, most were over-tired, and most were totally on edge.
The push north took them through cities that; at that time were still hotly contested areas. The initial invasion force had done a blitzkrieg through these outlying areas; its main focus was reaching Baghdad as quickly as possible. So as they moved they often came under fire from enemy, mostly unseen and hidden in the broken down buildings that litter Iraq’s smaller cities. They fought off enemy whenever they were attacked, usually unaided, since many elements made the trip in small convoys of only 10 vehicles with minimal crews.
They reached their first destination by mid-June and began setting up a base camp in an old Iraqi air base, Al Asad. This was to be the headquarters for the 3rd ACR until they redeployed in March 2004. There were few buildings suitable for living quarters, and those that did exist went first to the command, and second to the pilots who are the stars of the 3rd ACR. The far end of the air base was a network of broken down, blown out, and a few complete bunkers. The Soldiers of Howitzer (King) Battery, 1st (Tiger) Squadron, 3rd ACR took over one of these bunkers and made it both their headquarters and their living area.
The bunker was large enough to hold a Russian MiG fighter easily. It worked just as easily for 120 Soldiers. The fact that it was wide open with no doors enabled airflow that helped to quell the 120 plus heat. From this bunker every mission was planned and executed. And coincidentally, it was here that a small wooden shower was finally set up and after not being able to bathe for over a month, the Soldiers were able to finally take showers. Needless to say that first night, the line was long.
They moved around a lot, and ended up collapsing this headquarters and moving to a small train station call Jenna. It was roughly two miles down the road from a massive Iraqi ammunition supply point (ASP). This ASP was over six kilometers long and 4 kilometers wide, but the Iraqis had dug makeshift bunkers outside the wire in the months before we crossed the border, and hidden quite a lot of the ammunition in this area as well. So the overall size of the ASP was over 8k by 6k. The Soldiers of King Battery set up Observation Points (OPs), and Check Points (CPs) in and around the ASP in order to catch looters. These measures were often fruitless since the max speed of a tracked vehicle is around 40 miles an hour and the max speed of an Iraqi pickup truck is closer to 80. But every once in a while they succeeded in capturing looters. These Soldiers spent the better part of three months at this ASP before they were sent west to the Syria-Iraq border. Once at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Tiger, the Soldiers of King Battery were united with the rest of Tiger Squadron, and it was from here on out that the war for these Soldiers would take place.
They began conducting raids on the massive stretch of towns the run from the Syrian border east along the Euphrates River. Towns in the Al Qa’im district, towns like Rawa, Old Ubaydi, and New Ubaydi. But at the hub of traffic was the border town of Husaybah. Every bit of illegal, terrorist activity passed through this town first. And so it was not long before actions were taken to put Soldiers directly into the town of Husaybah.
During this time, Tiger Squadron lost its first Soldier in actual combat. His name will be left out, but he was a Staff Sergeant (SSG). (I don’t know whether he had a wife or children, but I assume so, since most Staff Sergeants are older and have been in the military for a while). SSG D was with his section and another section on a Traffic Control Point (TCP) when a car approached at a high rate of speed. Each car that enters a TCP must be checked for any contraband, weapons, or explosives and the driver and occupants must be searched. When the car finally slowed down, it was much closer then the normal distance of 50 meters. SSG D and members of his section moved to the vehicle, and asked the driver to exit the car. When the man inside didn’t respond, SSG D shined his flashlight at the man (it was at night). The man said something and motioned SSG D closer, and as SSG D moved closer and lowered his head to look closer at the man, the man pulled a pistol from his clothing and shot SSG D directly in the face.
As SSG D bled and died on Iraqi soil, his men did the right thing, pulling his murderer from the vehicle and arresting him. The medic that was attached to them tried vigorously to somehow save SSG D’s life, but was unable to staunch the bleeding or do anything that could help SSG D. And so died the first Hero of Tiger Squadron.
Shortly after this King Battery was tasked to take over the Husaybah police station and the Ba’ath party headquarters which was directly across the street. The Soldiers of King battery did this as if it was just another day at the beach. And in the first few hours of darkness, on October 18th 2003, three King Soldier’s were injured during an attack that consisted of mortar fire, rocket propelled grenade (RPG) fire, and small arms fire. In the following 8 days, 3 more Soldiers would be injured during more attacks of the same kind. One such attack lasted the better part of 8 hours, and was composed of a full 360 assault of indirect mortar and RPG fire. The Soldiers of King Battery each day would take their guard posts, set canteens and water bottles nearby, pockets full of snacks, and begin their duty to watch and fight off the enemy. There were relatively few breaks to this. And when a break did come, it was to simply collapse in a vehicle or building and get a few hours of, hopefully, uninterrupted sleep. After 8 days King Battery was withdrawn and retasked to perform other duties. The Soldiers of Tiger Squadron and the 3rd ACR performed many such duties during their year in Iraq.
Upon redeployment from Iraq in March 2004, it was decided that a memorial for the fallen Soldiers of the Regiment would be erected outside the 3rd ACR headquarters in Fort Carson, Colorado. This memorial is made of Black granite, stands perhaps nine feet tall, has a map of Iraq on one side that is overlaid with the names of the fallen Soldiers, and on the other side has a picture of an Civil War era Cav Trooper on his mount overlaid with the poem, “Fiddler’s Green”.
I was a Specialist at the time, serving with King Battery. One of my duties was as the Battery Guidon bearer. A Guidon is the unit’s standard. A flag of sorts, on a staff. That is carried in formations, parades, and ceremonies.
When the memorial was dedicated I was standing at the front of the formation for Tiger Squadron, the Soldiers standing in rank and file behind me, to my immediate front-right was my Commander. The ceremony began with a prayer from the chaplain. Then the 70th Regimental Commander spoke. Cameras snapped photos; news crews video taped, and across from me stood seven Soldiers with M-16’s and one Soldier with a bugle. It came time for roll call, and each Squadron Commander stepped up and called off the names of those in his Squadron that had died, not once, not twice, but three times. Each time this happened the Commander’s voice would be shaky and full of emotion and tears by the third time he called out.
After this all of the Guidon bearers and every Soldier was called to attention, then ordered to present arms (salute), and Taps began to sound from the bugle. The Regimental Commander began reading every Fallen Soldier’s name. The seven Soldiers began to fire volleys for the 21-gun salute. And over our head, five helicopters flew toward us. As they neared one peeled off into the distance, signifying the missing man formation, for even some of our star pilots had been killed.
I stood rock still, and those around me stood the same. And for the first several moments of Taps, every one was quiet. And then from in front of me, to my front-right, came the sound of crying. My own Commander, a hardened six-year veteran of the Marine Corps enlisted man, who had gotten out and joined the Army as an officer, was crying. Taps has always given me goose bumps, and made me feel like I was going to cry, but this single act of such a hard man was what set me over my limit. Standing there in the cool Colorado breeze, the Guidon flapping in the wind, the Stars and Stripes at half-mast; I began to shake and to cry softly at first, then louder. My mind thinking of those left behind, who would never walk the green grass of the field I stood in. Thinking how my own blood stained Iraqi soil, and those few drops of myself I would never have back. Thinking of wives whose arms were empty when other wives held Soldiers of their own. Thinking of children whose cheeks and foreheads would never feel the kiss of a father or mother. Thinking of gunfire and explosions. Of anger and misery. Of hurt and joy. Of every feeling that comes with battle and with loss. I cried loudly as those in front and behind echoed me, all of us battle hardened veterans, sobbing with tear stained cheeks. And no one made a sound to shush us. No one cared, for our weeping was a song, a lament, one last goodbye, but more it was one last salute or remembrance to those who stepped forward, and gave all so that some would not have to give any. And later as I walked away from this site, I decided to continue to strive to give what I could, so that other’s wouldn’t have to give all of themselves like those Fallen Soldiers had.