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Samarra: Clearing, Recon, and Hit by an IED

Tuesday night, Charlie Company 2-505, from the 82nd Airborne Division, left ‘the wire’ to perform a cordon-and-search operation involving ten houses in a neighborhood that a notorious al Qaeda terrorist used to live. “We think we killed him,” said Captain Buddy Ferris, the Company's commander, very straightforwardly, “so we’re going to ask [the people here] if he’s dead.”

Charlie Company’s Green (4th) Platoon left Patrol Base Olson at 2230, meeting up with their National Police companions at a battle position just outside the base and then slowly making their way to the neighborhood almost in the center of town. The soldiers quickly dismounted upon reaching the first house, and the Humvees moved off to provide security for the ground force. Doors were knocked on, military-aged males (MAMs) were spoken with and then photographed, and houses and roofs were searched. As we were in the third house, the loud and unmistakable Crack! of bullets directly overhead was heard. It was the National Police at Patrol Base Uvanni in south-central Samarra – they had seen the Chem Lite (snap-and-shake glowstick) placed on the roof by the troops there and were firing at it.

“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.” Captain Ferris had one of the Iraqi Police with us get on the radio with the NPs at Uvanni and order them to stop shooting – which they did.

The rest of the houses were searched without incident; whether it was because they knew ahead of time (via cell-phone call from the occupants of one of the first couple searched houses) or because they simply knew the drill that well, at the last few houses we went to the head of household already had his family gathered in the living room, MAMs on one side and everybody else on the other, and was ready to comply with whatever was asked of him. Due to only having one interpreter (or “Terp”) for the entire platoon – which was broken up into a pair of elements (one for breaching – or for going in the door of the house first to search and secure it – and one for following up and conducting questioning and other ‘sensitive site exploitation,’ or SSE) – there were several times when the breaching element (the one that I was with) was left sitting for quite a while in the living room with a family which simply wanted to ask some questions, or to get a simple explanation, but who could not be understood due to the fact that the Terp was stuck at a previous house helping the Platoon Leader conduct SSE. We were often offered water or other supplications while we waited with the families, but rarely accepted, due to the facts that we had already brought our own with us (in the form of full Camelbaks), and that Iraqis serve water (from the tap – like in Mexico, already a bad idea for Americans to drink) in a community glass, refilling it and passing it to the next person, and then to the next, until everybody has been served.

The night ended without incident. While conclusive proof of the terrorist’s death was not found, ten houses had been searched, more MAMs had been put into the database (due to this being a prime age for terrorist activity, that was an important task), families had been spoken with, and ‘Tip Cards’ had been left behind, with a number that people could call if they were scared or knew of ‘bad people’ or of terrorist activity in the area. We were back by 0130 on Wednesday, and the next mission wasn’t until 1600 – plenty of time to catch up on sleep, and to grab a workout at the little gym that the soldiers have constructed on PB Olson.

Wednesday afternoon’s mission was intended to be a very quick one. The Patrol Base would be departed at 1600 and two Platoons – one, Charlie Co.’s 2nd (or ‘White’) Platoon and the other a tank platoon from Forward Operating Base Brasfield-Mora, where 2nd Battalion 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (or ‘II Panther’) headquarters is located – would make their way southeast, to ‘recon’ a target for a future raid. The tank platoon (known as ‘Dragoon’), whose primary mission was to screen White from any enemy fire, met up with a squad of Iraqi Police and then made their way east along a major east-west running road known as ‘Route Lakers.’ White Plt (who I was with) moved south-southeast along side roads and alleyways until reaching the southernmost point in central Samarra, where – to get where they wanted to go – they were forced to turn west on the southernmost east-west running road (known as ‘Route Heat’), a four-lane divided highway which has seen so much enemy activity in the past that Charlie Co. hardly ever drives it any more.

As the Humvee column turned onto Rte. Heat, the men in the lead truck, commanded by Staff Sergeant Kane Ogren, noticed that every single civilian car on the road – regardless of the direction they were traveling – was in the southernmost (eastbound) lane. As a result, he led the convoy across the median and into that lane, as well – a decision that may well have saved lives from what would happen moments later.

I was in the third Humvee in the column, along with Capt. Ferris, his RTO (radiotelephone operator) Specialist Alexi Scalco, and a driver and gunner. Spc. Scalco had been kind enough to lend me his intervehicular communications system headset, so that I could hear radio traffic and could chat with the truck’s crew – and the Captain – via the intercom; therefore, he was the only man in the truck with his ears exposed. As we crossed the median and made the left-hand turn onto Rte. Heat, Captain Ferris – who has been half-jokingly called “The Prophet” by some of his men for his knack for knowing when and where things are going to happen, before they actually do – said to Spc. Scalco, “You may want to plug your ears.” Less than two seconds later, it happened.


A sound like a cork being pulled out of a bottle – magnified a hundred times – was accompanied by a ball of dust which engulfed the entire Humvee column. The IED had gone off between our truck and the one in front of us, across the median and alongside the northern side of the westbound lane of Rte. Heat. Had the lead vehicle pulled into that lane instead of into the southernmost one, then at least one truck would have taken the full force of the blast.

As the dust cleared, the situation was assessed. There were no injuries, nor was there any damage to the Humvees. The drivers of the second and third vehicles in the column had had their heads rattled a bit, but that was the extent of the damage to our element. Based on residue in the road, the IED had either killed a person or been planted on a body (perhaps one of the ones killed yesterday) – a common tactic, as the terrorists know that if a dead body is reported in the city, the coalition soldiers there have to come out investigate it, and then take it back for identification and proper, respectful burial. Yet again, the enemy is using the unparalleled humaneness and respect of the American force against them, and they will continue to do so as long as the opportunity is there.

Less than three minutes after the blast, the Humvees began moving again, still toward the objective: there was a mission to be accomplished, and no little thing like an IED almost killing members of the Platoon was going to stop them from going out and completing it.

“All right, let’s get our heads back in the game,” Captain Shea Goltry, White Platoon commander, said very calmly over the radio. The California native wasn’t a Silver Star recipient (for heroism in combat) for nothing. “We still have a job to do.”

The Humvees continued to the preplanned dismount point, and we got out into the scorching afternoon heat and humidity and made our way on foot past the objective, with Capt. Goltry snapping pictures of it, which would be used to prepare for a future raid. After accomplishing that, we re-mounted the Humvees and provided a moving screen for the tank platoon, who dismounted a few men along with their Iraqi Police partners and conducted some searches and questionings. As we moved through the southeastern portion of Samarra – an area which looked like a mud-brick slum, with houses falling apart and trash piles everywhere – Capt. Ferris explained that this was a very, very bad part of town indeed. “They’ve even conducted executions in this small square here,” he said, pointing out of the 10x10-inch piece of two-inch-thick glass that passes for a window in these armored Humvees. “Of women.”

As we moved back across the city, the soldiers noticed the same thing that they had on the way out – the entire Samarri population appeared to be behaving very strangely on this day. The streets were devoid of traffic except for brief moments when they were filled with very fast-moving vehicles, and large chunks of the city seemed completely deserted. When pedestrians were spotted, they almost immediately ran at the sight of our trucks – a sure sign that either they were up to no good, or knew of something 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.”

Smart words from a leader in a unit that has been in Samarra for over a year now – and which has made contact with the enemy almost every single day in that time.

As we neared PB Olson, we were told over the radio that seven new possible IEDs had been identified in the city, including around trash piles and on main streets. This explained a good deal of the strange activity; however, if the terrorists thought that they would be able to catch us by surprise with them, they were wrong, at least on this day.

The two platoons adjusted their routes accordingly, diverting around the possible IEDs, and pulled back into 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 their vehicles, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at these kids, who in their spare time double as hard, tough combat veterans.

For them, it was just another day in Samarra. Nobody hurt or killed, and mission accomplished – a successful day by any standard.

Click here for all of Jeff's dispatches, updates, and articles from the front lines in Iraq.

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At 11:28 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

If there's no damage done, it at least makes for a good story. Good to hear that that was the case.
I hope the rest of Samarra can end that well.


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