The Blog

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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Communicating by radio and seeing via NVGs, the squads of Alpha Co.'s three platoons moved from house to house, across more fields and through cow pastures and seemingly impenetrable orchards. Though they found no weapons at the first few houses, the soldiers discovered a pocket of Shia families, living and farming in what was thought to have been an exclusively Sunni area. None looked very happy to see American soldiers walking into their houses well after midnight, but the inconvenience was the least of the people's worries. As Shia, they were threatened with death from al Qaeda in the area--one man said neither he nor his family had left their farmhouse for months out of fear. If word got around that they had been visited by the Americans--let alone helped them--then their lives would be in even greater danger. For this reason, the soldiers searched the houses as quickly as possible, distributed "tip cards" (with the request that the people call with any information on insurgents in the area), and moved on before their presence inside any individual house became too noticeable.

Out of the first eleven houses--all Shia--only one detainee was questioned further, because he had two different identification cards, each of which listed a different name and birthplace. The soldiers found no evidence of collaboration with any militant group.

The twelfth and final house--which was abandoned and appeared to represent the limit of that small Shia area--contained a decent-sized terrorist weapons cache. Two platoons had checked the house and grounds and moved on toward the designated helicopter pickup zone (PZ) by the time the "White" Platoon arrived around 3:45 AM local time. However, despite being less than half an hour from their exfiltration time, the platoon stopped to look around. Just outside the woodline in the house's yard were what appeared to be freshly filled holes. Using their metal detectors and digging with collapsible shovels, the platoon made quite a find: several large tank and artillery rounds were buried one on top of the other. Further, they also discovered what looked to be supplies for manufacturing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), as well as a great deal of already-fired machine gun ammunition.

The Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) personnel with the unit gathered the weapons, photographed them, and rigged them with charges. As the rest of the platoon moved out, EOD lit the fuse on the explosives laid around the weapons, then moved out themselves, joining the rest of Alpha Co. in moving toward the PZ. After wading across a waist-deep canal and more muddy, striated terrain, the company awaited the return of the Chinook helicopters on the south side of a field.

As they waited, a message rippled down the ranks: "Controlled det (detonation) in two minutes!" Sure enough, two minutes later a huge explosion rocked the area, and a fireball rose above the treeline off to the soldiers' right. The tank and artillery rounds rigged with plastic explosive provided quite a show.

As the smoke from the weapons detonation dissipated, the familiar sound of helicopter rotors became audible, first faint in the distance, then growing louder, as the two giant transports appeared over the treeline and made their landing on the PZ. Cold water and mud were kicked up onto the soldiers as they made their way to the rear of their respective helicopters. They quickly boarded, and the two Chinooks lifted off the ground and sped away into the night, back to COP Cleary. With that, 1-15 Infantry's first mission of Operation Marne Huskey was over, and not a shot had been fired.

"IT WAS IMPORTANT to find that pocket of Shia," Lt. Colonel Jack Marr, 1-15's commander, told me the next day as we discussed the mission. "I think that we can get some good information from those people in the future." The abandoned house with the weapons cache was an important find as well, he said, undeterred by the lack of al Qaeda personnel encountered on the mission. "We'll pound that house with artillery tonight," he said, "and then, when we have more information, we'll go back down there again."

Though Alpha Co. found no VBIED factory, and the majority of people found were Shia rather than the expected Sunni, the company acquired information that can be used to the Coalition's advantage. The Coalition gained a better understanding of this previously foreign area, as well as potential sources of human intelligence. The people in this small enclave, who fear for their lives from al Qaeda, now know that the Coalition can and will visit their area--something which has to serve as a source of some hope as they review their options and decide how best to proceed in the future.