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.
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.
Operation Marne Huskey consists of dozens of such missions, all driven by intelligence and all aiming to both capture and kill the enemy and build new information sources and allies in areas that have not seen a great deal of coalition presence in recent years. Both of these objectives are vital to Coalition progress and success in Iraq, and both are being accomplished, one mission at a time, by the troops both in the air and on the ground.
Jeff Emanuel, a special operations veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is a columnist and a director of RedState.com. He is currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq, and his reports--which are supported by reader donations--can be found at JeffEmanuel.com.