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One Mission at a Time

Operation Marne Huskey is taking the fight to al Qaeda in the Tigris River Valley.

12:00 AM, Sep 5, 2007 • By JEFF EMANUEL
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Salman Pak, Iraq

THE STEADY BEAT OF the helicopters' dual rotors could be heard long before the CH-47 "Chinooks" came into view, flying low over the concrete barriers surrounding Combat Outpost (COP) Cleary, southeast of Baghdad. The choppers, resembling a pair of flying buses, glowed ghostly green in the soldiers' night vision goggles (NVGs) as they touched down on the COP's landing zone (LZ) and lowered their ramps to accept passengers. Three platoons of soldiers (about 150 men) from the 3rd Infantry Division's Alpha Company 1-15 (call sign: "Hard Rock") quickly made their way to the rear of the two aircraft, ignoring the bits of gravel and glass that were kicked into the air and blown forcefully outward by the helicopters' massive rotor blades.

Following the repeatedly rehearsed plan, the soldiers quickly filed in order into the back of the "birds," sitting on the vinyl-bottomed benches that lined the sides of the helicopters. As the last man boarded each Chinook, the tailgunners strapped themselves in on their helicopters' respective rear ramps, and the two-ship flight lifted quickly into the air and sped away into the night.

For Alpha Company 1-15, Operation Marne Huskey had begun.

OPERATION MARNE HUSKEY is a division-sized offensive operation focused on both hammering insurgents in the area and stepping up the interdiction of weapons and fighters bound for Baghdad. Named in part after the 3rd ID (nicknamed the "Marne" Division), Operation Marne Huskey is an integral part of Operation Phantom Strike, a massive coalition effort to hunt down and torment insurgents in the weeks before General Petraeus's September testimony to Congress. Phantom Strike not only seeks to minimize any insurgent attempts at headline-grabbing attacks during this sensitive period, but also takes the fight to the known and suspected terrorists' turf, pounding them with aviation- and artillery-borne firepower and increasing ground troops' activities in the Diyala and Baghdad areas.

With Operation Marne Huskey, 3rd ID is relying on human intelligence to determine target selection and prioritization. Painstakingly cultivated trust and relationships are paying off in the form of numerous tips from citizens in the region, which the military aviation assets act on. Between attack helicopters and sustained "air assault" missions, the aviation-led operation involves a great deal of coordination. But the operation also allows for much greater range and flexibility in much less time, and utilizes a variety of effective firepower.

This "combination of aviation and ground forces [allows] Task Force Marne to target areas that the enemy deems as safe," said Lt. Col. Robert Wilson, executive officer of 3rd ID's 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade. "We're leveraging the ability of the helicopters with the infantry Soldiers to take the fight to the enemy and promote security for the people of Iraq."

THE PAIR OF BLACKED-OUT Chinook helicopters sped through the night, their pilots and gunners surveying the terrain ahead and behind through NVGs. The assault force's destination, southeast of Salman Pak, was an area bordered on the south, west, and east by a large bend in the Tigris River, giving it a bowl-shaped appearance on a map. The location, primarily sparsely populated farmland, was thought to be a base for al Qaeda In Iraq (AQI) activity, including, reportedly, VBIED ("Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device," or car bomb) factories. After landing at the designated LZ, Alpha Co.'s mission, the first of a series throughout the month-long Marne Huskey, was to move on foot to a series of a dozen farmhouses to search for insurgents and evidence of VBIED factories. Even more important, though, was the blow that such a mission could cause to the morale of the Salman Pak AQI who, due to the terrain and the lack of coalition forces prior to this year's surge, had been largely untouched for quite some time.

The Chinooks took a circuitous route, passing over the Tigris once to the east, and then coming back across from the south. Close to midnight local time, as the flight passed over the Tigris the second time, the rear tailgunners called out "One minute!," a message that was passed along from man to man until it reached the front of the bird. Sixty seconds later, the helicopters landed on the LZ and dropped their ramps, and Alpha Co. rushed off the back of their transports into the heart of al Qaeda country.

The platoons split up, each heading for their own pre-designated target houses. The soldiers made their way across the LZ field with great caution, as furrows changed the elevation by three feet up or down about every foot, making the terrain extremely rough--not to mention occasionally dangerous, as irrigation ditches seemed to appear without warning, causing several soldiers to emerge with soaking wet legs and feet.