(Click here to read Part I)
Al Qa’im, Al Anbar Province, Iraq
8 May 2005
The desert night was chill against my face and neck as I threaded my way from the barracks down to the company staging area in pitch darkness. Surrounded by razor wire, guard towers, and a wide expanse of open desert on all sides, the Al Qa’im railroad station was home to more than 1,500 Marines, sailors and civilian contractors. The Forward Operating Base was tidy, safe and what seemed like a thousand miles away (it was actually less than 7) from the towns and villages that supported a raging insurgency along the banks of the Euphrates River. In practical terms, our FOB was out of the fight.
To get back into the mix and cut off the daily supply of insurgents flowing from Syria through Al Qa’im to the battlefields of central Iraq, Regimental planners proposed Operation MATADOR, a 15-mile clearing operation along the north bank of the River. Disrupting the flow of insurgents would take hundreds of men; getting those men to the fight across miles of broken desert and crumbling roads would take dozens of armored Humvees and Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAVs).
Some of those vehicles huddled darkly against the pale dirt soccer field as I approached the staging area at 0245. Fighting off the loneliness reserved for solitary leaders in the dark, I paused in the dust at the edge of the field to enjoy a final moment of freedom from responsibility.
In front of me cigarette cherries described upward arcs, glowed hotly, and fell earthward again, where they jounced at waist level amid clusters of invisible Marines. Muted laughter echoed briefly and then was swallowed up by the immensity of the night. Spread over the entire field was the acrid odor of exhaust.
To me the scene felt uncomfortable because it was anonymous. As a leader of Marines I was expected to create order out of chaos, certainty from the uncertain. But in my heart I craved direction and the comfort of being told what to do. It was my secret shame and one that I was forever afraid would be found out by the men in my charge.
As it happened, stronger than my inclination to inaction was my sense of duty. The Marine Corps does two things well above all else: it fights and wins the nation’s wars and it makes more Marines. To do the first, it must excel at the second. I had been made a Marine infantry officer through four years of Naval ROTC, six weeks at Officer Candidate School, six months at The Basic School and eleven weeks at the Infantry Officer Course. Throughout the years of training, two mantras rose ascendant: Failure to make a decision is in itself a decision; and, in the absence of orders a leader should accomplish the mission based on Commander’s Intent.
Duty compelled me to action. An officer is not allowed the luxury of anonymity before a major operation. Decisions had to be made; reports had to be communicated; timelines had to be met. Mentally steeling myself for the demands of the next few days, I hitched my assault pack close against my body armor and made my way towards a group of Marines.
“Where’s Second Platoon?”
Marines – perhaps all military men – have an uncanny ability to recognize authority in the dark. Their response signals either respect or disdain, since the reply can always be excused by Oh, sorry sir – didn’t recognize you. In this instance the Marines promptly directed me to three AAVs assigned to my platoon.
Approaching from the rear of the vehicles I noted the ramps were down and cluttered with supine bodies, crates of MREs, weapons and gear. Waiting.
I was not in the mood to engage in needless conversation at such an early hour. One of the more useful benefits of living in close proximity to 40 men for months at a time is the ability to recognize a man in the dark by the set of his shoulders or the peculiar slouch of his hat. Scanning the silhouettes of several Marines, I found a Corporal and asked him which vehicle was Sergeant Orona’s. The Marine motioned to the next trac. I headed for the TC hatch.
The troop commander’s (TC) hatch is next to the vehicle commander/gunner and just in front of and above the dozen or so Marines in the enclosed troop compartment. Amphibious Assault Vehicles are lightly armored boxes on treads, designed for ship to shore movement of men and cargo. They are neither fast, safe, nor comfortable. But in the waterless deserts of Mesopotamia they answered the Marine Corps’ need for troop carriers. Eventually – after several catastrophic incidents where entire squads were killed inside AAVs – the Marine Corps replaced all tracs in Iraq with heavily armored, Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles, whose V-shaped hulls shrugged off mine strikes and IED blasts. But in 2005, AAVs were the best we had.
It took considerable effort to hoist my 190 pound frame, wearing 70 pounds of armor and gear, up a short series of iron handles on the front-left exterior of the trac in order to clamber into the TC hatch. Once there, I planted my boots on the green fabric seat (which was always locked at its lowest setting for this very purpose), staged my M4 carbine and Kevlar helmet next to the hatch cover, and lashed my assault pack to a cargo rail. After exchanging a brief greeting with Sergeant Orona, the vehicle commander from Virginia Beach, I withdrew a crumpled soft cover from the top of my assault pack and slipped it on. Even in the dead of night a Marine is expected to be in proper uniform.
Leaning back against the TC hatch and letting out a sigh, I settled in for the inevitable, interminable wait. Sergeant Orona was plugged into the vehicle communications: he would receive section accountability reports and updates on my behalf until the company was ready to move to the departure point. In the meantime I would mull over the what ifs and worst-case scenarios that go through a commander’s mind prior to an operation. And I would think of home.
Stars glittered brilliantly in the western sky over Syria and beyond it, the Mediterranean. Time passed in luminescent revolutions on my wrist.
“Sir, we’re moving in five.” Sergeant Orona’s quiet update shook me from a blissful half-slumber. I was instantly alert and reached for my assault pack to stow my cover. It was just past 0400. Muttered curses and the scraping of weapons and equipment against the inside of the trac signaled awareness of our impending movement from the squad of Marines below me.
Buckling on the TC helmet with its soft foam padding and built-in headset, I could hear the other platoon commanders rogering up for accountability to the company commander. “Fury 6” was a brilliant, demanding man with an Italian surname, short stature, and ferociously out of regulation mustache, which he wore to impress the locals. I disliked him intensely.
Genius is sometimes guarded by quirks and plagued by impatience. In May 2005 I was a young, strong-headed Second Lieutenant who reacted with contempt against Fury 6’s personal peccadilloes. Only later, after experiencing the disaster of incompetent leadership during my second combat tour, would I look back with profound respect to this brilliant Captain. The Bronze Star he would win for Operation MATADOR was well-deserved.
Once accountability was confirmed, six AAVs and more than a dozen armored Humvees carrying 200 Marines and sailors simultaneously fired up their engines and lurched into place within a blacked-out column, which snaked its way to the point of departure on the
northeast side of base. Without a Night Vision Goggle mount for my TC helmet I was effectively blind in the predawn darkness. The limitation was not of great concern to me, however. The AAV crewmen were excellent and I trusted them implicitly to get us where we needed to go. My only task was to listen to radio traffic and communicate orders to Sergeant Orona as needed. It was not a difficult role.
Another long delay awaited us at the exit control point. Even as a platoon commander I was often left in the dark as to the reason for such delays. For enlisted Marines, the constant “hurry up and wait” was accepted as a matter of course and chalked up to the stupidity or maliciousness of officers and “POGs” – Persons Other than Grunts – whose collective mission in life was apparently to interfere with the general happiness and comfort of infantry Marines. In most cases I couldn’t argue with that line of thought.
We waited at the wire for perhaps 45 minutes before the order came to “Go Condition 1.” Troop hatches lowered, armored doors creaked open, and tired men stumbled into the dust and dark to face the desert and rack live rounds into the chambers of their weapons. Standing tall in the TC hatch, I snatched back the charging handle of my carbine and tapped the forward assist to ensure a green-tipped, 5.56 mm bullet was seated securely against the face of the bolt. My thumb automatically checked the safety before I cradled the weapon against my chest. I performed the same procedure with my M9 Beretta.
Learn correct weapons handling – perform it properly in training – and it will become an ingrained habit that your body performs without thought or conscious effort. The difference between a well-trained, disciplined unit and a sloppy, dangerous one is often found in seemingly small customs and habits.
Marines remounted vehicles with a sense of purpose. Staff Sergeant Hanson and Sergeant OD – my platoon sergeant and platoon guide, respectively – reported their trac’s readiness to me immediately after I received a similar report from the squad leader in my trac. Platoon commanders again confirmed to Fury 6 the condition of their vehicles and men.
It was 0500.
“We’re Oscar Mike!” radioed the lead vehicle. On the move. A tense excitement gripped me as we lurched through the last wire defenses and gathered speed, rushing into the night.
Next Post: Operation MATADOR: Part III