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The Mortar Team: Our Slow, Easy Day in Iraq Turned Suddenly Deadly

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by Cliff Wade

Iraq, 2007

Much more often than not, our missions in Iraq were meticulously planned out well ahead of time. However, there were occasions when opportunities were presented that did not allow enough time for applying the proper troop-leading procedures, and we just winged it. 

One such instance came while we were visiting a fortified Iraqi Army checkpoint on the highway near our outpost. We were supposed to just help search vehicles and assess the IA’s capabilities. I mentally prepared myself for a long, easy day of bullshitting with the IA. We would smoke and joke as all soldiers from every army do, and work our way through conversations in broken Arabic and English and a lot of pantomiming. I hoped they would have some chow for us. I had an affinity for the local bread, and they knew how to cook a succulent chicken. 

READ MORE from Cliff Wade about American soldiers in Iraq.

We arrived mid-morning with one Bradley Fighting Vehicle and one Humvee. The IA soldiers almost immediately told us how they would take mortar fire on an almost daily basis at around the same time, like clockwork. The hour of incoming was fast approaching, and my platoon sergeant decided to take five of us, to include a lieutenant, towards a village some four kilometers away, in the direction the indirect fire came from, to set up a hasty ambush. 

I thought it was a terrible idea. It was the middle of the day, and we would have to trek across open farmland with only the berms surrounding the plots of crops to use as cover. I was used to moving like this only at night, and was convinced we were setting ourselves up for being caught out in the open and cut to pieces by a machine gun. And what about the chicken? We’d miss out. 

An example of an Iraqi Checkpoint

As we trudged through some farmer’s field, the owner of the land stood beside his solitary home staring at us, his mouth agape. He looked around for the vehicles that surely must be accompanying us. He was undoubtedly used to seeing American soldiers operating only with the support of their vehicles nearby. He was probably even more surprised that there were only five of us. I wondered if he noticed that we weren’t even carrying a machine gun. I silently cursed my platoon sergeant for dragging us along on this harebrained effort. 

We settled at the base of a tall berm almost exactly between the checkpoint and the village, each roughly two kilometers distant. About 70 meters away, on the opposite side of the berm, was an intersection with a dirt road leading directly to the village. 

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Shortly after arriving, we watched a bearded man wearing a red and white checkered kaffiyeh walking in our direction from a palm grove that lined one side of the road about 500 meters between us and the village. He pulled out what appeared to be a cell phone and began thumbing the device in his hand. 

My platoon sergeant took two others with him and moved down the berm at a crouch, leaving myself and another soldier to cover them. When they reached a point just opposite the man, they quickly popped up with their weapons leveled on him, and dragged him back over the berm. They brought him back to our location, and it turned out to be a GPS in his hand. 

The GPS had a waypoint programmed into it titled “TANK” that had a 10-digit grid to the IA checkpoint. It was set on the compass screen displaying the distance and direction to the checkpoint. He was also packing a 9mm pistol, which was strictly verboten by Iraqi law. Iraqis could own an AK47 and two magazines for home defense, but if caught with a pistol, they were facing some jail time. 

While reporting this development back to our command post, two other men came walking down the road. Our platoon sergeant took the other two soldiers back down the berm, leaving the first man with my buddy and me. We used his headdress to blindfold him, then zip cuffed his wrists and told him to shut up and stay low. 

I could see through my magnified gunsight that one of the men was wearing a bandoleer, and the other had the barrel of an AK47 sticking out from the bottom of his jacket. 

When they got to the intersection it was obvious that they were looking for their buddy. The enemy who did not appear to be armed spotted my buddy and me peeking over the berm with our M4s aimed at them. He grabbed the shoulder of his armed friend and informed him of their precarious situation. 

Photo courtesy of the author

The armed insurgent turned, squaring his shoulders with our position. This was all the hostile intent we needed to reasonably conclude that he was a legitimate military target. We all opened fire. 

The armed man tumbled to the ground as his friend took cover behind his body. 

From the direction of the palm grove, but seemingly springing from out of nowhere, a four door Daewoo sedan came barreling down the road in our direction. We all began unloading on the car, and it screeched to a halt about 150 meters away. Out leaped the tallest Arab I’d ever seen. He attempted to sprint back towards the palm grove, his gray disdasha flapping in the wind behind his feverishly pumping legs. 

My buddy next to me, who only had an M68 red dot sight with no magnification capabilities, fired one incredibly well-placed shot, and the big Arab’s body went stiff mid-stride, and he immediately dropped like a plank of wood face first onto the road. 

Our platoon sergeant and the other two soldiers climbed over the berm and began securing the area while we continued to cover them. 

I spotted about a dozen other men break from the cover of the palm grove and begin running towards another isolated palm grove a few hundred meters away. I figured they were either maneuvering on our position, trying to move around our flank on the berm, or breaking contact.

I immediately got on the radio and requested an air weapons team be pushed to our location as well as the Bradley and Humvee we left at the checkpoint. I also requested our quick reaction force consisting of two Brads be spun up and sent from our outpost. We then dragged the GPS wielding insurgent with us and linked up with the others at the intersection.  

The armed man was unconscious with bullet wounds to his leg and shoulder and a deep graze across his neck. It almost looked as if someone had sliced his throat with a knife. I briefly wondered if my platoon sergeant did just that. I would not have put it past him. But, remembering that the man had multiple shooters engaging him, and the fact that there was an officer with us, I quickly discounted the idea. The other insurgent was unharmed, having used his pal as cover before slithering into the ditch next to the road. 

My buddy and I moved down the road to the sedan, and found the driver lying face down with a bullet wound to the back of his skull. He was breathing heavily into a pool of bloody mud that formed under his face. I gave my buddy a high five, congratulating him on his fine marksmanship. 

Photo courtesy of the author

I tried to roll the wounded insurgent over to search him, but he was a big bastard and his body was rigid. Meanwhile my buddy just stood there staring at him, lost in thought at the sight of what he’d accomplished. 

“You, uh… gonna give me a hand here?” I asked my buddy. 

“Huh?” he managed, still staring at his handiwork. I had known him for two years at that point. We were battle buddies in basic training, and happened to be assigned to the same platoon upon arriving to our first duty station. I’d never seen him like this before. He usually had a quick-witted, abrasive quip on standby, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. Instead, he took a big gulp and continued gazing at the dying man. 

“Forget it,” I muttered. 

Every time the big man exhaled it created an awful gurgling sound in the blood-soaked dirt. I crouched over the man, grabbed a handful of hair, and lifted his head off the ground. I saw that the round had exited out of an eye socket. With every labored breath, a bloody froth bubbled through the hole where his eye once existed, as well as his nose and mouth. His one good eye was rolling around in his head, as if it were searching for the life that was quickly ebbing away. I doubt he heard me when I said, “Inshallah, motherfucker.” 

My buddy eventually snapped out of it, and we were able to get the man rolled over. The lieutenant with us decided to call in a nine-line medical evacuation request for the two wounded insurgents. This seemed ridiculous to the rest of us as it was obvious neither were going to survive. 

Our medic arrived with our Bradley and Humvee, and patched up the armed insurgent, if for no other reason than to get some practice in. He didn’t even bother touching the driver. 

The insurgents’ vehicle contained this stash.

By the time the MEDEVAC bird arrived, the big man was dead. The other one was barely hanging on. The flight medic got out and took one look at the two men before casting a disapproving look at us while shaking her head. She was clearly of the opinion that putting their bird at risk for these two enemies, at a time when Blackhawks were being shot down in theater with increasing regularity, wasn’t worth the effort. 

We searched the vehicle. Upon opening the trunk, I let out a long whistle at what we found inside. There was an 82mm mortar system, several mortar rounds, a few ‘Christmas tree lights’ that were used as pressure devices for improvised explosive devices, several AK47 bayonets, a dozen face masks, a couple AK47s with loaded magazines, a rocket propelled grenade warhead, and a bundle of Al-Qaeda propaganda cassette tapes.

We also discovered several sandbags buried at the intersection that they had obviously been using as a stabilizing base to launch their mortars from. There were numerous mortar pins littering the ground.

“These cats were some real players,” my platoon sergeant pointed out, surveying all the gear laid out on the road. 

Were, being the key word there,” I said, nodding in agreement, while positioning the two survivors near their gear so we could take pictures for evidence. 

Palm grove in Iraq (not the author’s unit)

It is difficult to adequately describe the emotional high I felt after ambushing the enemy that day. So often, the shoe was on the other foot as they got to be the ones to initiate contact, engaging our patrols with small arms after detonating their IEDs. We were often the prey, and they the predators, at least in the opening moments of an engagement before we, usually, were able to turn the table on them. That was just the nature of the insurgency. We flipped the script on the enemy that day and got the drop on them. 

To this day, even in the wake of monumental, joyous, life changing milestones such as the birth of my first child, there have been few occasions approaching the satisfaction I felt after we removed those enemies from the battlefield. Less than a month prior, a close friend of mine had been killed not that far from that intersection when he drove his Bradley over a couple of anti-tank mines stacked in the road. As such, the gratification I felt before squeezing the trigger on the armed insurgent, and the look of shock and disbelief on his face just prior to seeing his body crumple to the ground; and standing over the driver watching his life dwindle away, evoked feelings as near to euphoria as I’ll ever likely experience. 

This stash was found in the palm groves.

We dropped an incendiary grenade on the engine block of the Daewoo, and mounted up with our prisoners and booty.

We stopped at the IA checkpoint on our way back to the outpost and told them what happened. We were their heroes that day, and I got some chicken. 

The next day another platoon conducted a search of the palm groves between the intersection and the village. They uncovered 13 artillery shells stuffed with plastic explosives and rigged with pressure wires.

I resolved to never doubt my platoon sergeant’s instincts again.

Cliff Wade writes frequently for Soldier of Fortune.

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