I just received this article from a good friend, LTC Rich Morales, who is commanding a battalion in Iraq. Rich and his troops are the ones who are featured in this harrowing story. Rich precedes the story with his own commentary, provided below...
Just want to share three things: 1) pictures which I hope tell a story that I don’t always make time to do – we are making a difference, 2) a link to today’s Wall Street Journal (see front page online under World), and 3) thoughts on the media, your support, and some sense of what this place is like. We put together a Newsletter every Friday, without fail, see the link under my name should you ever want to see what we are up to. Edition 23 is one of my favorites as it is dedicated to YOU, our support back home. Our unit is on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. I am standing on a rubbled house with my Commanding General. Interesting story, but it’s a tough article to read on several levels--- better lucky than good is in the title somewhere. Feels like a time release black eye, though in fairness to the reporter he was good and captured that bad day well. See the attached slide show to his piece with pictures and the quote on the last slide from one of my infantry platoon leaders who felt terrible as they cleared the building for us to occupy. It wasn’t anything anyone could have found. Not our day to die. It was a rough summer. Glad to be “home” to our part of Iraq.
Just want to share three things:
1) pictures which I hope tell a story that I don’t always make time to do – we are making a difference,
2) a link to today’s Wall Street Journal (see front page online under World), and
3) thoughts on the media, your support, and some sense of what this place is like.
We put together a Newsletter every Friday, without fail, see the link under my name should you ever want to see what we are up to. Edition 23 is one of my favorites as it is dedicated to YOU, our support back home.
Our unit is on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. I am standing on a rubbled house with my Commanding General. Interesting story, but it’s a tough article to read on several levels--- better lucky than good is in the title somewhere. Feels like a time release black eye, though in fairness to the reporter he was good and captured that bad day well. See the attached slide show to his piece with pictures and the quote on the last slide from one of my infantry platoon leaders who felt terrible as they cleared the building for us to occupy. It wasn’t anything anyone could have found. Not our day to die.
It was a rough summer. Glad to be “home” to our part of Iraq.
TAHWILLA, Iraq -- It was just after 10 p.m. when a sergeant started yelling in the darkness. "There's a bomb in the building!"
The dozens of soldiers bivouacked in an abandoned house here grumbled as they threw on their dusty flak vests. They'd been awake for more than 30 hours. Several called the warning a prank. Ten minutes later, the soldiers learned the house had been wired with explosives from top to bottom. If the bombs had gone off, the explosions would likely have killed everyone inside.
"It's better to be lucky than good," Capt. Russell Wagner muttered under his breath.
Unlike much of Iraq, this area remains hostile territory. A Sunni-dominated region about 40 miles north of Baghdad, Diyala Province is one of the deadliest areas for U.S. forces and the last major stronghold of al Qaeda in Iraq, a largely homegrown terrorist organization that came into existence after U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003.
One reason is a tactic that has become the province's calling card: a house bomb, or, in the antiseptic jargon of the U.S. military, a "house-borne improvised explosive device." Created to kill U.S. troops when they are most vulnerable, house bombs undermine a central tenet of the American counterinsurgency strategy -- the reliance on hundreds of vacant houses as small combat outposts. In Diyala, insurgents turn those houses into bombs, which have killed more than a dozen American troops since the summer of 2007.
The incident in Tahwilla was a reminder that U.S. personnel in Iraq continue to face danger, often unseen, even as the country stabilizes. Late last week, Iraqi soldiers acting on a tip defused a house rigged with explosives in Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad. An American soldier was killed in a roadside bombing in the same province last month, and numerous U.S. and Iraqi personnel have been wounded since the offensive in Diyala began over the summer. Insurgents continue to find new ways of killing and maiming U.S. personnel. In addition to roadside bombs and booby-trapped houses, militants regularly hide explosives beneath dead animals and string them from trees.
For soldiers at the front, war is made up of a series of close calls. For Bravo Company of the 1st Armored Division's 1-6 Infantry Battalion, the close call happened in late July. Bravo was part of an operation called Iron Pursuit, which called for U.S. and Iraqi troops to push deep into Diyala Province. Capt. Wagner's soldiers were meant to move into Tahwilla and two nearby towns and search every house for insurgents, bombs and weapons. The troops would then build small combat outposts where they could live and work for several weeks. That was a switch from the three prior operations since 2007. In those cases, U.S. troops left after the initial sweep, allowing militants to return.
Shortly after midnight on Thursday, July 24, a swarm of Chinook helicopters landed in barren farmland outside Tahwilla. Capt. Wagner and about 30 soldiers rushed out and lay in firing position, guns pointed into darkness. Through night-vision goggles, the canals and irrigation ditches took on a pale green glow.
The soldiers sweated profusely; despite the dark, it was close to 100 degrees. The departing helicopters kicked up dust that engulfed the prone soldiers and blotted out the stars.
When the troops moved into Tahwilla, it was quickly apparent that the insurgents had deserted the town. Soldiers found only women and young children.
Shortly after 3 a.m., Specialist Charles Ruckdeshell, severely dehydrated, stumbled into a nearby empty house and passed out. Sgt. Brian Smith, one of the platoon's team leaders, rooted around in his backpack and pulled out a long needle and a bag of intravenous solution. "Come on, Ruck, stay with me," he said. "I know you're still in there." He recovered after a few hours on the IV.
The house was devoid of furniture, and many windows were cracked or missing. But it was large, laid out in a C-shape, with three wings surrounding a courtyard strewn with bricks and chunks of concrete. It had a broad roof -- a cool place for soldiers to sleep on steamy nights -- and a walled backyard perfect for housing vehicles and equipment. Situated off the main road, it had clear views over the surrounding farmland.
"This is an excellent spot," said 2nd Lt. Brian McDonald, his voice carrying across the empty roof. "We got pretty lucky on this one." He and his men carefully searched every room in the house and found nothing untoward.
By the next morning, soldiers had installed a satellite array on the roof, running wires down to a communications vehicle in front of the house. The soldiers also began mapping out locations for latrines and showers.
Lt. Col. Rich Morales, the overall commander of the operation, took a large side room as his headquarters. Col. Morales found another unexpected bonus. Every room had pre-cut holes in the walls, perfect spots to shoot from. "It's like the bad guys left us a fort," he marveled.
That afternoon, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, the top American commander in the region, flew in to see the nascent base. With him were several senior Iraqi officers. Standing in the courtyard, he opened a pocket and pulled out photos of soldiers who had died in a Jan. 9 house bomb.
"This has been a dangerous place, but we're not going to let up until we've chased [insurgents] from every hiding place they have," Gen. Hertling said.
Around 9 that night, Sgt. First Class Kris Dohl was on his way to pick up water from a helicopter landing area when he recalls seeing two shiny copper wires glimmering in the freshly-tilled farmland. He felt a flash of panic: Insurgents often use copper wiring in roadside bombs. Heading back to alert his commanders, Sgt. Dohl spotted more wiring, this time leading straight into the house.
At first, military explosives-disposal experts thought insurgents had planned to detonate a bomb from the building. After an hour, they realized the opposite was true. The house itself was wired with explosives that could be triggered from outside. A sergeant raced upstairs to wake the sleeping soldiers.
"The house isn't full of IEDs -- the whole house is an IED!" yelled First Sgt. Ramiro Hernandez.
Sergeants directed the soldiers to an empty dirt field. The field reeked of cow dung, but the tired troops collapsed onto it anyway and fell asleep in their armor.
The disposal experts later found artillery shells and barrels of homemade explosives carefully buried under the tiled floors of every room in the house. One makeshift bomb was in the room set aside as the medical center, and one was in a room planned for a brigade headquarters. The bombs were connected to copper wiring carefully concealed inside fake plaster moldings.
The experts found another bomb buried outside the house, in the courtyard a few feet from where Gen. Hertling had been standing.
Some believe insurgents designed the house, down to the holes in the walls, as bait. "They set a trap and we walked right into it," Col. Morales said later. Had the bombs gone off it "would have been an al-Qaeda grand slam."
The soldiers don't know why the bombs never went off. The field containing the detonator had been turned into a helicopter landing zone, so perhaps insurgents were unable to make their way there. Others believe that it was simply luck.
Lt. McDonald, whose platoon had searched the house, took the discovery especially hard. "It feels like a kick in the jaw," he said to one of his men the next day.
On Saturday, July 26, the soldiers found a new house for a base. It belonged to a farmer who told U.S. commanders that his mother, brother and sister had been killed by al Qaeda in Iraq.
The American troops were moving guns onto the roof and vehicles into the front yard when a soldier found more copper wiring in the dirt. This time, it was a false alarm: The wiring wasn't connected to anything.
Lieutenant Colonel Rich Morales
Commander, Task Force 1-35 AR
Combat Outpost Cashe, Iraq
APO AE 09308
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And here are some photos that Rich also sent of him and his Soldiers in Iraq...