Factual · Powerful · Original · Iconoclastic
I sure learned the hard way about the veracity of the Chinese expression that begins: "Be careful what you wish for . . ." We were told we might encounter the bad guys because you always "might," but by noon yesterday I would be a seasoned combat photojournalist.
We joined up at 7 am with Alpha Company, with whom we'd been laughing and joking the night before so we'd already gotten to know many of them and they'd gotten to know us. It's nice to go outside the wire with people you've already bonded with bit, not that I would not trust anybody in the 506th to be there for me if I needed them. We three reporters loaded into an M113 armored troop carrier that carries a .50 cal machine gun and can much better withstand both an IED and an RPG round, especially because it has a sort of grill (commonly called a "cheese grater") that will make an RPG round explode a foot away from the armor.
After perhaps a 5-minute ride we were dropped off in a different section of the city from the day before, near a former hotel that was so bombed out it looked like a good hard breath would knock it over. I think it was about 60% Iraqi and 40% us. The Iraqis were supposed to do the main patrolling while we entered the taller houses in the area and went up to the roof to cover them with light machine guns and M203 grenade launchers. Those are tubes that attach to the bottom of M-16s.
We did always knock or even ring the doorbell first -- honest -- but if there was no quick response the gates got kicked in. One just wouldn't budge but a large soldier gave it an almighty kick and while the lock and chain held, the side pulled right out of the concrete to which it was attached. Thirty seconds later a guy from next door shows up and offers us the keys . . .
Inside they kicked a few doors and were trying to knock in a really beautiful one when -- lo! -- a woman pops out of nowhere with the key. We don't like messing up people's places but we also don't like Mooj popping out from nowhere and spraying us. So once you enter a house each room must be checked.
It was at the next house where we started hearing gunfire. I asked somebody how long it had been since we dismounted. Forty-two minutes! These bad guys can't shoot for a darn, but they certainly are punctual.
We took up positions on the roof but the walls were very high, which is good protection from snipers but not good for observation. I think we took rounds directly on our position, but it's a funny thing; you often can't tell. But we weren't in position to fire back. So we'd listen to the shooting, joke around a bit, listen to the shooting, and joke around some more. One soldier was teased because his smoke grenade had gone off while hooked to his load-bearing equipment on his vest. Somehow this had managed to burn his uniform just below his crotch. The other soldiers made him open his fly to check his skin for burns, saying his resistance was because he was afraid he'd find his genitals baked. Tension relief under fire is muy importante.
Finally we "exfilled" (exfiltrated) to another house when it seemed the shooting had ended. This would be a feature of the firefight to come. Just when things got peaceful and you thought it was all over, suddenly the Mooj would start firing again and with more weapons than the round before. We occupied the top of another building, which had a roof on the left side and an excellent observation position on the right with little more than glass windows to hide any part of your body behind. I hid a bit of myself behind a pillar but most of me had to remain exposed. Here we heard bursts of fire every few minutes but most of it was from the M240 light machine gun manned by Pfc. Robert Killion from the roof position on the left side of the building. Out of four confirmed enemy KIA that day, Killion would get two.
So I gave up on our machine gunner and went over to Killian's position, also manned by Sgt. Jonathan Falk. I'd been shooting most video and still needed some good combat stills and I jokingly ordered the two men to just pick out some inanimate target and fire at it while I snapped away. It didn't prove necessary. Soon enough they were banging away and I got my first good shot with Killion's spent brass casings bouncing of the chest plate of my body armor. I also got good footage of an enemy round missing Killion's head by a matter of inches. He wasn't too happy about that.
It became like a bizarre joke; enemy firing would stop for awhile and we'd be ordered to head downstairs but just as soon as the men pulled back from the wall the firing would start up again and it was back to the wall to fire back. Meanwhile, the machine gunner where I had been standing on the other side of the building was letting loose. So I went back over there and watched a soldier lay a couple of grenade rounds on the enemy. One struck home, making it three dead Mooj killed from the house we occupied.
But the Mooj had been firing back. About where my head had been there was a large pock mark in the opposite wall. It might have drilled me had I remained there; I can't say. But the window I'd been standing next to had a nice clean bullet hole that clearly would have gone right through my side where I have absolutely no protection and continued until it reached my heart. It put me in a pensive mood, but I didn't have long to contemplate it before we were told it was time to exfil and start trekking back to the pickup point. The shooting had stopped and once again it seemed like the fighting was over. Actually it was about to get a whole lot worse.
As soon as everybody was out of the houses the bad guys hit us big time. Machine gun and rifle fire seemed to come from every direction. In part, perhaps, this was because of sound reverberations off the walls and possibly it was because it was coming from every direction. Americans tossed several smoke canisters to conceal us as we crossed the first wide street, but since the Mooj tend to fire wildly anyway I'm not sure how much it helped. All they do is point their weapons in our general direction and squeeze off as many rounds as they can. But a haphazardly-fired bullet when it hits you has the same impact as an expertly aimed one.
We could have pulled back into the houses and simply shot it out with the Mooj but we would have ended up there all day, and given the Mooj a chance to call in more and more of their buddies. We also would have endangered the civilians inside. So we took option number two: run like crazy. It was just like the scene towards the end of "Blackhawk Down," when they ran the so-called "Mogadishu Mile" to the stadium. I don't think they ran a mile and I know we didn't, but it seemed like several at the time.
The tactic: One machine gunner darts across the street or alley to provide cover from that side. He's wearing a ton of body armor, pounds of ammo, and a weapon considerably heavier than an M-16 rifle. But if somebody had clocked him he would have qualified for the Olympics. Then a second machine gunner guards the street or alley from the first side. Both machine-gunners lay down suppressive fire to keep the Mooj heads down. Now the rest of us would fly across the intersection. It doesn't matter how much gear you're carrying, or whether you wrenched a knee or ankle. It doesn't matter how much junk is lying in your path. You will fly. I saw a few guys fire their rifles sideways as the crossed particularly wide areas.
At one point I was crossing the street at a non-intersection to join up with the main body of men when a machine gun began spraying from behind me in what sounded like exactly my direction. Maybe it was; maybe it wasn't. But the shielding walls on the sides of the street looked a million miles away from me at that moment and all I could think of was dropping flat like a pancake onto the middle of the road, then rolling to the other side. I kept my camera up at all times (the footage makes you dizzy), but probably two dozen GIs saw me go down and were sure I was hit.
One brave soul, who turned out to be Sgt. Falk, risked his hide by jumping from his relatively safe position along the wall to pull me in. I yelled: "I'm okay! Go back!" But darned if he wasn't determined to rescue me! My lack of injury doesn't make him any less a hero in my book. As soon as I got to the wall I stood up all the way so everybody could see I was alright, but then another fellow apparently slipped and all eyes turned to him. But he was okay, too. He just needed water so I gave him my Camelbak water bladder to drink from, assuring him I didn't have cooties. The non-injured helping the non-injured!
Speaking for myself and probably every man there, I was far too busy trying to stay alive to be scared. At one point on my tape you can hear me singing "We've got to get out of this place . . . " from the Rolling Stones song. I don't even like the Stones; but it seemed appropriate at the time. And so we went from protective wall to protective wall, across alleys, streets, and open spaces that looked like they were forever long. As we sat under one wall, machine gun bullets tattooed it above us dropping plaster on some guys' heads.
As we approached our pickup area and relative safety, I came across an Iraqi soldier with blood streaming from his face onto his body armor and yelled for a medic. To the first American soldiers who looked at him it appeared it was just a bad nick. But -- and if you think I'm making this up I have pictures to prove otherwise -- he'd apparently taken a ricochet round sideways through the nose! Unreal. For all intents and purposes he now had four nostrils.
Finally we approached the protected position whence we had begun, with concrete on top and one side. Safe at home, right? Not in this firefight. "Incoming!" somebody yelled, and we dived that few extra feet for cover. There was an explosion in the distance and we saw a plume of smoke, but it turns out to have been a Mooj firing an RPG at a tank coming to support us. The rocket pretty much just bounced off.
The tank was too late, but we did have support from some M113's. Nothing came from the air until we reached the safe point, when a jet swooped over and flew off. The rules of engagement are very tough for Ramadi for two reasons. First, it's heavily populated and it's all too easy to accidentally kill civilians. Second, with more and more joint American-Iraqi patrols it's also all too easy to kill friendly soldiers. Even 500 lb. bombs can't be dropped in the city. But the Iraqi soldiers don't necessarily understand this. Knowing I was a reporter, they pointed to the fellow with four nostrils and then to the jet and told me "Ameriki (Americans) no good!"
Well excuse me! The Iraqis did perform admirably by Iraqi standards. They held their positions and suppressed enemy fire. But without our guns, they'd have taken terrible casualties. As is, other than the nose shot only one of them was injured, in the calf, and he was removed from the battle zone immediately and presumably under heavy fire. No Americans were injured, but two video cameras caught me hitting the dirt so you could say I wasn't a casualty but I played one on TV.
In the M113 on the way back you might have expected a sort of stunned silence, yet it was anything but. The sounds were of excited chatter and outright laughter. Even later, as we reporters looked at each other's video footage we laughed all over again. It's hard to explain. The original laughter was surely part in relief. And keep in mind that we knew nobody had even been badly hurt on our side. But it was also like the best amusement park ride you've ever been on. Whatever else it may have been, it was thrilling. All three of us reporters immediately inquired as to whether there would be another patrol that afternoon or the next day, but found patrols had been halted because of some upcoming activities that will remain unmentioned here.
And yes, it was thrilling for the soldiers as well. "I don't think we've been under heavy fire like that before," Pfc. Tony Wickline of A Company told me. "I mean, we've been shot at a lot but today . . . " Then he just started shaking his head and muttering: "Uh, uh, uh, uh, uh."