Lone survivor: the eyewitness account of Operation Redwing and the lost heroes of SEAL team 10 (4 page)

And when we reached our objective, we’d either go in with sledgehammers and a hooley — that’s a kind of a crowbar that will rip a door right off its hinges — or we’d wrap the demo around the lock and blast that sucker straight in. We always made certain the blast was aimed inward, just in case someone was waiting behind the door with an AK-47. It’s hard to survive when a door comes straight at you at one hundred miles an hour from point-blank range.

Occasionally, if we had an element of doubt about the strength of the opposition behind that door, we would throw in a few flash-crashes, which do not explode and knock down walls or anything but do unleash a series of very loud, almost deafening bangs accompanied by searing white flashes. Very disorienting for our enemy.

Right then our lead man would head the charge inside the building, which was always a shock for the residents. Even if we had not used the flash-crashes, they’d wake up real quick to face a group of big masked men, their machine guns leveled, shouting, daring anyone to make a move. Although these city houses were mostly two-story, Iraqis tend to sleep downstairs, all of them crowded together in the living room.

There might be someone upstairs trying to fire down on us, which could be a massive pain in the ass. We usually solved that with a well-aimed hand grenade. That may sound callous, but your teammates are absolutely relying on the colleague with the grenade, because the guy upstairs might also have one, and that danger must be taken out. For your teammates. In the SEALs, it’s
your teammates. No exceptions.

However, in the room downstairs, where the Iraqis were by now in surrender mode, we’d look for the ringleader, the guy who knew where the explosives were stored, the guy who had access to the bomb-making kit or the weapons that would be aimed straight at American soldiers. He was usually not that difficult to find. We’d get some light in there and march him directly to the window so the guys outside with the intel could compare his face with photographs.

Often the photographs had been taken by the team I worked in, and identification was swift. And while this process happened, the SEAL team secured the property, which means, broadly, making darned sure the Iraqis under this sudden house arrest had no access to any form of weaponry whatsoever.

Right then what the SEALs call A-guys usually showed up, very professional, very steely, steadfast in their requirements and the necessary outcome of the interrogation. They cared, above all, about the quality of the informant’s information, the priceless data which might save dozens of American lives. Outside we usually had three or four SEALs patrolling wide, to keep the inevitable gathering crowd at bay. When this was under control, with the A-guidance, we would question the ringleader, demanding he inform us where his terrorist cell was operating.

Sometimes we would get an address. Sometimes names of other ringleaders. Other times a man might inform us about arms dumps, but this usually required money. If the guy we’d arrested was especially stubborn, we’d cuff him and send him back to base for a more professional interrogation.

But usually he came up with something. That’s the way we gathered the intelligence we needed in order to locate and take out those who would still fight for Saddam Hussein, even if his government had fallen, even if his troops had surrendered and the country was temporarily under American and British control. These were dangerous days at the conclusion of the formal conflict.

Fired on from the rooftops, watching for car bombs, we learned to fight like terrorists, night after night, moving like wild animals through the streets and villages. There is no other way to beat a terrorist. You must fight like him, or he will surely kill you. That’s why we went in so hard, taking houses and buildings by storm, blowing the doors in, charging forward, operating strictly by the SEAL teams’ tried-and-trusted methods, ingrained in us by years of training.

Because in the end, your enemy must ultimately fear you, understand your supremacy. That’s what we were taught, out there in the absolute front line of U.S. military might. And that’s probably why we never lost one Navy SEAL in all my long months in Iraq. Because we played it by the book. No mistakes.

At least nothing major. Although I admit in my first week in Iraq we were subject to...well...a minor lapse in judgment after we found an Iraqi insurgent ammunition dump during a patrol along a river as sporadic shots were fired at us from the other side. There are those military officers who might have considered merely capturing the dump and confiscating the explosive.

SEALs react somewhat differently and generally look for a faster solution. It’s not quite,
Hey, hey, hey...this lot’s gotta go.
But that will do for broad guidelines. We planted our own explosives in the building and then deferred to our EOD guy (explosive ordnance disposal). He positioned us a ways back, but a couple of us did wonder if it was quite far enough.

“No problem. Stay right where you are.” He was confident.

Well, that pile of bombs, grenades, and other explosives went up like a nuclear bomb. At first there was just dust and small bits of concrete flying around. But the blasts grew bigger and the lumps of concrete from the building started to rain down on us.

Guys were diving everywhere, into trucks, under trucks, anywhere to get out of the way. One of our guys jumped into the Tigris! We could hear these rocks and lumps of hard mud walls raining down on us, hitting the trucks. It was amazing no one was killed or hurt out there.

Eventually it all went quiet, and I crawled out, unscathed. The EOD maestro was standing right next to me. “Beautiful,” I said. “That went really well, didn’t it?” I wished Mike Murphy had been there. He’d have come up with something better.

We worked for almost three months with SEAL Team 5 out in the Baghdad suburbs. That was really where we were blooded for battle, combing those urban streets, flushing out insurgents wherever they hid. We needed all our skill, moving up to the corner blocks, opening fire out there in the night as we rounded these strange, dark, foreign street junctions.

The trouble was, the places often looked normal. But up close you realized there were holes straight through the buildings. Some of them just had their front façade, the entire rear area having been blown out by U.S. bombs as the troops fought to run down the murderous Saddam Hussein.

Thus we often found ourselves in what looked like respectable streets but which were in fact piles of rubble, perfect hiding places for insurgents or even Sunni Muslim terrorists still fighting for their erstwhile leader.

On one such night I was almost killed. I had moved out onto the sidewalk, my rifle raised, as I fired to provide cover for my teammates. I remember it vividly. I was standing astride a bomb, directly over it, and I never even saw it.

One of the guys yelled,
“Marcus! Move it!”
and he came straight toward me, hit me with the full force of his body, and the pair of us rolled into the middle of the street. He was first up, literally dragging me away. Moments later, our EOD guys blew it up. Thankfully we were both now out of range, since it was only a small improvised explosive made in someone’s kitchen. Nevertheless, it would have killed me, or at the very least inflicted serious damage on my wedding tackle.

It was just another example of how amazingly sharp you need to be in order to wear the SEAL Trident. Over and over during training, we were told never to be complacent, reminded constantly of the sheer cunning and unpredictability of our terrorist enemy, of the necessity for total vigilance at all times, of the endless need to watch out for our teammates. Every night before our mission, one of the senior petty officers would say, “C’mon now, guys. Get your game faces on. This is for real. Stay on your toes. Concentrate. That way you’ll live.”

I learned a lot about myself out there with Team 5, moving through the dark, zigzagging across the ground, never doing anything the same way twice. That’s what the army does, everything the same way. We operate differently, because we are a much smaller force. Even with a major city operation we never travel in groups of more than twenty, and the recon units consist of only four men.

It all causes your senses to go up tenfold, as you move quietly, stealthily through the shadows, using the dead space, the areas into which your enemy cannot see. Someone described us as the shadow warriors. He was right. That’s what we are. And we always have a very clear objective, usually just one guy, one person who is responsible for making the problem: the terrorist leader or strategist.

And there’s a whole code of conduct to remember when you finally catch up with him. First of all, make him drop his gun and get his ass on the ground. He’ll usually do that without much protest. Should he decide against this, we help him get on the ground, quickly. But we never, never, turn around, even for a split second. We never give these guys one inch of latitude. Because he’ll pick that rifle up and shoot you at point-blank range, straight in the back. He might even cut your throat if he had a chance. No one can hate quite like a terrorist. Until you’ve encountered one of these guys, you don’t understand the meaning of the word

We found half-trained terrorists all over the world, mostly unfit to handle a lethal weapon of any kind, especially those Russian-made Kalashnikovs they use. First of all, the damn thing is inaccurate, and in the hands of an hysteric, which most of them are, the guns spray bullets all over the place. When these guys go after an American, they usually fire blindly around a corner, aiming at nothing in particular, and end up killing three passing Iraqi civilians. Only by pure chance do they hit the American soldier they wanted.

On May 1, 2003, President Bush announced the military phase of the war was over. Four days later it was revealed Saddam and his son had heisted $1 billion in cash from the Central Bank. Around that time, with the search for weapons of mass destruction still under way, we were detailed to the gigantic Lake Buhayrat ath Tharthar, where supposedly a large cache had been hidden by Saddam.

This was a major stretch of water, nearly fifty miles long and in some places thirty miles wide, set on a flat, verdant plain between the Euphrates and the Tigris, south of Tikrit. There’s a huge dam at one end, and we were stationed just to the south at a place named Hit. Seemed fitting. So we jocked up and combed the deep, clear waters of that lake for about a week, every inch of it. We were operating out of Zodiacs and found nothing except for a bicycle tire and an old ladder.

As the weeks went by the weather grew hotter, sometimes hitting 115°F. We kept going, working away through the nights. There were times when it all seemed to grow calmer, and then on July 4, a taped voice, which al-Jazeera television said was Saddam, urged everyone to join the resistance and fight the U.S. occupation to the death.

We thought that was kind of stupid, because we weren’t trying to occupy anything. We were just trying to stop these crazy pricks from blowing up and wiping out the civilian population of the country we had just liberated from one of the biggest bastards in history.

Didn’t much matter what we thought. The very next day a serious bomb went off at a graduation ceremony for the new Iraqi police class, trained by the United States. Seven new cops were killed and seventy more were wounded. God alone understood those to whom that made sense.

We continued our operations, looking for the key insurgents, forcing or bribing the information out of them. But it already seemed their recruiting numbers were limitless. No matter how many we ran to ground, there were always more. It was around this time we first heard of the rise of this sinister group who called themselves al Qaeda in Iraq. It was an undisguised terrorist operation, dedicated to mayhem and murder, especially of us.

However, the whole movement received a severe blow to its morale on July 22, when Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, who were at least as evil as their dad, were finally nailed at a house in Mosul. I’m not allowed to speak of this highly classified operation, save to mention the pair of them were killed when U.S. Special Forces flattened the entire building. Their deaths were entirely due to the fact that a couple of their devoted, loyal comrades, full of pride in their fight for freedom, betrayed them. For money. Just as they would later betray Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Despite all our efforts, the suicide bombers just continued, young Iraqis convinced by the teachings of the extremist ayatollahs that the murder of their perceived enemies would open the gateway to paradise for them — that the three trumpets would sound and they would cross the bridge into the arms of Allah and everlasting happiness.

So they just went right back at it. A bomb killed a U.S. soldier on August 26, which meant there had now been more U.S. lives lost since the conflict ended than during the battle. On August 29, a massive car bomb exploded outside a Shiite mosque in Najaf and killed eighty people, including the revered and greatly loved Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakin.

In our opinion, this was rapidly getting out of hand. It seemed no matter what we did, no matter how many of these nuts we rounded up, how much explosive, bombs, or weapons we located, there was always more. And always more young men quite happy to take that shortcut to the trumpets, get right over that bridge and plug into some quality happiness.

By now, late August, the question of the missing WMDs was growing more urgent. Hans Blix, the United Nations’ chief weapons inspector, had retired from public life, and the U.S. Armed Forces were now keeping a careful watch. In our view, the question of whether Saddam Hussein had biological and chemical weapons was answered. Of course he did. He used them in Halabja, right?

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