LAST TUESDAY NIGHT, Charlie Company 2-505 (82nd Airborne Division) left "the wire" and departed Patrol Base Olson to perform a cordon-and-search operation in a neighborhood where a notorious al Qaeda terrorist used to live. "We think we killed him," said Company commander Captain Buddy Ferris, "so we're going to ask [the people here] if he's dead."
Charlie Co.'s Green (4th) Platoon left the base at 2230 and met the National Police just outside. The group slowly made its way to the targeted neighborhood. Upon reaching the first house, the soldiers quickly dismounted and the Humvees scattered to provide security. The soldiers knocked on doors, spoke with and photographed military-aged males, and searched houses and roofs. In the third house, we heard the loud, unmistakable crack! of bullets directly overhead. The National Police at Patrol Base Uvanni, in south-central Samarra, were firing at the Chem Lite glowstick the troops had placed on the house's roof.
"It's nothing new," said one soldier. "Every time we go out at night, Uvanni shoots at us, even when we tell them where we're going to be well ahead of time." One of our Iraqi Police companions radioed the NPs at Uvanni and ordered them to stop shooting.
We searched the rest of the houses without incident. In the last few houses, families were already gathered in the living room--with military-aged males separated from the other residents. They must have been informed of the mission by friends in earlier houses, or they simply knew the drill.
The platoon was divided into two groups: the breaching group, which went into the house first to search and secure it, and the follow-up group, which questioned the residents and conducted other "sensitive-site exploitation," or SSE. With only one interpreter ("Terp") for the entire platoon, the breaching group was often left sitting in the living room with a family that had questions, unable to communicate, since the Terp was stuck at a previous house helping the Platoon Leader conduct SSE. The families often offered us water, but we rarely accepted: We had our own water, and Iraqis serve tap water in a community glass, refilling it and passing it around until all have been served.
The night ended without incident. We searched ten houses, put many military-aged males in the database, and distributed "Tip Cards" with a phone number that residents could call to report "bad people" or terrorist activity. We also found conclusive proof that the terrorist was dead. We were back to the base by 0130 on Wednesday. The next mission wasn't until 1600, so we had plenty of time to rest or grab a workout at the PB Olson gym.
WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON'S MISSION was intended to be very quick. We would depart the Patrol Base at 1600, and two platoons--Charlie Co.'s 2nd ("White") Platoon, and a tank platoon from Forward Operating Base Brasfield-Mora, headquarters of 2nd Battalion 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment ("II Panther")--would travel southeast to "recon" a target for a future raid. The tank platoon ("Dragoon") would screen White Platoon from enemy fire. Dragoon Platoon met up with a squad of Iraqi Police and made its way east along "Route Lakers," a major road. I was with White Platoon, which moved south-southeast along side roads and alleyways toward the southernmost point in central Samarra. There, we were forced to turn west on another major road, "Route Heat," a four-lane divided highway with so much enemy activity that Charlie Co. rarely drives it anymore.
As the Humvee column turned onto Route Heat, the lead truck, commanded by Staff Sgt. Kane Ogren, noticed that every civilian car was in the southernmost (eastbound) lane. He led the convoy across the median and into that lane--a decision that may well have saved lives moments later.
I was in the third Humvee in the column, along with Capt. Ferris, his RTO (radiotelephone operator) specialist Alexi Scalco, a driver, and a gunner. Spc. Scalco lent me his intervehicular communications system headset so that I could chat with the truck's crew and hear radio traffic. Scalco was the only man in the column with his ears exposed. As we crossed the median and turned onto Route Heat, Capt. Ferris--jokingly called "The Prophet" for knowing when and where things will happen before they actually do--said to Spc. Scalco, "You may want to plug your ears."
The thundering popping sound was accompanied by a ball of dust that engulfed the entire Humvee column. The IED had gone off in between our truck and the one in front of us, across the median and along the northern side of the westbound lane of Route Heat. Had we been in that lane, at least one truck would have taken the full force of the blast.
As the dust cleared, we assessed the situation. There were no injuries, nor was there any damage to the Humvees. Based on the residue on the road, the IED either killed a person--or was planted on a body. This is a common tactic because the terrorists know that coalition soldiers investigate every dead body reported in the city and take them back to the Forward Operating Base to be kept until it can be identified and picked up, or otherwise turned over to the Iraqi government for a proper burial. The enemy uses the unparalleled humaneness of American forces against them, and will continue to do so given the opportunity.
Three minutes after the blast, the Humvees began moving again. There was a mission to be accomplished, and an IED wasn't going to stop the troops from completing the task.
"All right, let's get our heads back in the game," Captain Shea Goltry, White Platoon commander, said calmly over the radio. The California native already has a Silver Star. "We still have a job to do."
The Humvees continued to the pre-planned dismount point. We traveled on foot past the objective, and Capt. Goltry snapped photos to use in preparation for future raids. We then re-mounted the Humvees and provided a moving screen for the tank platoon, which conducted some searches and questionings along the way. As we moved through the southeastern portion of Samarra--a mud-brick slum marked by trash piles and crumbling houses--Capt. Ferris explained that this was a bad part of town. "They've even conducted executions in this small square here," he said, pointing out of the two-inch-thick glass of the Humvee windows. "Of women."
Moving back across the city, the soldiers noticed that the entire Samarri population was behaving strangely. The streets were empty except for brief moments when they were filled with fast-moving vehicles. Large chunks of the city seemed completely deserted. Pedestrians almost immediately ran at the sight of our trucks--a sure sign that they were either up to no good, or knew something was about to happen.
"Keep paying attention," Capt. Goltry reminded his men over the platoon's radio net. "We've been out here an hour and a half, and haven't made contact with [anything] yet. You know it's coming."
These were smart words from a leader in a unit that has been in Samarra for over a year now and has made contact with the enemy almost every single day in that time.
As we neared PB Olson, we heard over the radio that seven new possible IEDs had been identified in the city, some of which were en route to the base. This explained a good deal of the strange activity.
The two platoons adjusted their routes accordingly, avoiding the possible IEDs, and arrived at PB Olson safe and sound. The men hopped out of the vehicles, cleared their weapons, and headed into the building looking for dinner. An IED had almost taken out one, if not two, of the vehicles--but you wouldn't know it from looking at this group.
For them, it was just another day in Samarra. Nobody hurt or killed, and the mission accomplished--a successful day by any standard.
Jeff Emanuel, a special operations military veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is a columnist and a director of conservative weblog RedState.com. He is currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. His reports, which are funded by reader donations, can be seen at www.JeffEmanuel.com.