by Alex Quade
Diyala Province, Iraq — Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (A-Team) 072 rolled into the village. It was dead quiet. Nothing moved. Suddenly, “squirters”—people running away from the village and cars leaving at a high rate of speed. Clearly, something of interest was in that village.
A-Team Commander Captain Jason instructed his Team Sergeant Don in one truck, and his Chief Warrant Officer Jim in the other truck, to stop those squirters and combat-advise the Iraqis to establish a cordon around the village. They did, while he maintained a battlefield overwatch position with his Iraqi commander counterpart.
Gunfire erupted from within the buildings.
“When we heard it,” said Captain Jason, “the first thing everybody was thinking was, ‘All right, you know, this is it! We get to get into a little fight here. Hell yeah, you know, this is exciting.’ This is what we train for. We’ve been in firefights before and we’ve always done well,” he added.
But the local Iraqi Security Forces with the A-team immediately started taking casualties.
“Guys were going down,” Chief Jim said.
Engineer Rob Pirelli, driving Team Sergeant Don’s truck, went in. He attempted to move his Iraqi soldiers into the area to relieve pressure off the first Iraqi trucks that were in the firefight.
DIYALA THEN: “INTO THE HEART OF DARKNESS”
“It’s the worst danger I’ve seen in three tours in Iraq,” Army Major Derek Jones warned this reporter before heading out to embed with each of his Special Forces A-teams, spread across Diyala Province in June 2007. Jones was the commander of a 10th Special Forces Group company.
“We refer to the area as ‘the heart of darkness’. It’s truly the heart of al-Qaeda controlled territory right now,” Jones stated. “There’s heavily mined roads, large amounts of al-Qaeda reinforcements within kilometers of each other.”
When his Green Berets of 10th Special Forces Group arrived in Diyala in March, it was an al-Qaeda safe haven and the most violent province in Iraq. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was fighting to maintain control of its sanctuary and headquarter areas, while Iraqi Sunnis began to turn against them.
“The surge was on in Baghdad, pushing a lot of al- Qaeda up into Diyala. Zarqawi (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq) was killed in Diyala in a targeted American F-16 bombing in 2006, so it’s always been important to al-Qaeda. That’s the situation we walked into. Inside of Baqubah was nearly a free-fire zone when you drove through there,” Major Jones briefed.
The Iranians were there, too.
“They’re doing my job but on the other side, as the Iranian Special Forces, really the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds force. They are here as advisors, providing arms, training and facilitation to these different Shi’a elements and al-Qaeda. We know they’ve armed both. So they are really playing both sides of this fence to make sure that they maintain some chaos here, so that we can’t be successful. That’s the ultimate goal, that we’re not successful, that we politically lose,” Major Jones added.
One of his A-teams, Operational Detachment Alpha-072, of 12 Special Forces soldiers would be responsible for a huge area where no American troops had been since around the start of the war. They’d just built a combat outpost.
“They started out with six Iraqi Security Force elements. It wasn’t looking real good. They own an area that is probably a quarter of all Diyala (the province is about the size of New Jersey). They were going to secure it with 12 guys and these six Iraqi Security Force guys,” Major Jones said.
“Because of the tenacity of that team, they (took their original six ‘Iraqi guys’) and built it to the largest FID [foreign internal defense] force run by a single team anywhere in Iraq,” Major Jones said. Foreign internal defense is one of the Green Berets’ core missions: providing support to a host nation government to help it fight insurgency.
“With that FID force, they have gone in and secured an area that used to be considered by al-Qaeda as a sanctuary, untouchable by conventional forces. They’ve been able to do that in four months,” Jones assessed.
“We get targeted by name by the enemy, because we’re that effective. So, staying out of the limelight keeps us and, you know, our families safe,” Major Jones began. “But, I think the capability and the effect that a small group of soldiers are capable of doing on the battlefield needs to get out. Here we are, small elements, like the battle you saw the other day, where it was less than 30 Special Forces soldiers and 1,400 indigenous soldiers, fighting it out with al-Qaeda to secure an area where there’s no other conventional forces. The American public’s not seeing that; other than you, nobody else has been out there to see that,” he stated.
I asked to witness what this A-Team was doing. The commander consented.
THIS IS SPARTA
“This is Sparta!” The crude, hand-painted sign on the freshly built wall said it all. The new Special Forces combat outpost was alone in cowboy country, Iraq. It was the proverbial “tip-of-the-spear”; a hackneyed phrase, which for this 12-man A-Team held true. Perched on the farthest edge of the Coalition’s realm at that time, ODA-072 was responsible for the outlaw area stretching east along the Iranian border and north to Kurdistan. The team was alone: no Americans, no Coalition forces, no “friendlies” had marked that territory since the initial invasion.
“It’s a real dangerous area,” Captain Jason told me upon arrival there. “Four guys on my team have Purple Hearts already. We’ve encountered more than a few IEDs, snipers on the rooftops, and there’s still the threat of al-Qaeda. There’s also Ansar Al Sunna, Islamic Army, different factions working in the area. All of them are pretty strong and they’ve got a lot of support, financially and number-wise,” he added.
Spartan it was. One “safe house” surrounded by sandbags, bunkers, T-walls (cement “Texas” protective barriers), outdoor “piss-tubes” and laundry hanging. Wood pallets of supplies – plastic water bottles and Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) had just been air-dropped in. Another spray-painted sign on a freshly-built shade area read: Salchica Fiesta. (Did these guys mean, “sausage festival?” If so, than at least they hadn’t lost their sense of humor way out here.)
“It’s in the middle of nowhere. We moved into a house in the desert surrounded by a barbed wire fence. The Iraqi security posture is not as stringent as ours,” Chief Warrant Officer Jim said. “Within a month, Rob (Staff Sergeant Robert R. Pirelli) gathered up enough materials through the locals to build a strong defensive position for us,” he added.
As the Team’s “18-Charlie,” or Special Forces engineer, it fell on Pirelli to build up this compound between their secret missions going after high value targets in Diyala Province during the surge. Each member of an A-team is a gunner first, and then a highly trained expert in a specific field. As the team’s engineer, Pirelli was not only their demolitions expert, but their construction expert, too.
“Rob basically built the entire camp,” Chief Jim said.
For Rob, it was a huge responsibility on his first deployment – with life and death repercussions should his combat outpost prove breach-able by the enemy.
“Rob went to sleep in his ACUs (fatigues) because he was literally working until he went to bed,” the A-Team’s medic Tim said. “He’d wake up, still in his ACUs, boots on, ready to work in the morning, with a smile on his face. Actually, he’d wake up in the middle of the night to play some online poker, go back to sleep and wake up,” Medic Tim laughed.
I’d met Engineer Rob briefly on an earlier operation, a company-size air assault at another location in Diyala, a forward operating base called “Normandy.” The 29-year-old with the wide grin had been a hockey goalie back home in Franklin, Massachusetts. He’d studied criminal justice at Northeastern University and wanted to become a presidential Secret Service agent after the Green Berets.
Engineer Rob was known for his thick Boston accent, pranks and fear of heights. So his Green Beret brothers teased him about joining an airborne unit, and made sure to let this reporter know: he’d vomited during every parachute jump.
“One time, Rob heaved in his helmet on the plane. Then it occurred to him that he’s got to put his helmet on and jump. Sure as hell, he begrudgingly put the helmet on and vomit was running down his face,” laughed Dan, a Green Beret from another team who went through the Special Forces Qualifications Course with Rob and Medic Tim. “I waited a few moments before jumping out, because I didn’t want to eat his puke,” Dan chuckled.
Pirelli’s notoriety cemented when his teammates couldn’t understand what he was saying on another operation.
“They’re shoot’n houses at us!” Rob said in his Boston brogue over the radio. In the middle of the mission, every team brother did a double-take.
“I think he’s saying ‘Howitzers’,” one of them translated over the radio.
“When we first established our team house, this whole area was controlled by al-Qaeda,” Captain Jason briefed me inside their new compound. “All the Iraqi security forces were scared to go into the area because they knew they would be killed, executed or run into an IED,” he stated.
We walked around the team house. There was a weapons room with a crude map of Diyala Province painted on one wall. There was a maintenance area out back with a sign saying “The Swamp.” Their prized possession was a freezer to keep their water bottles cool before heading out on scorching missions.
“We had to start from scratch; there wasn’t much intel (intelligence information),” Captain Jason continued. “We moved into Tibij village and established this permanent outpost here. It’s pissing all of al-Qaeda off; they’re having to find somewhere else to go. It’s been neutralizing their offensive operations from the time we got here,” Captain Jason said.
“They’re a very ‘austere’ team,” Major Jones warned me before I headed out to this team. “They’re out there at the fringe of the empire. Every single day, as you’ll see there, is truly a fight for survival. Being out in that location, that team is a ‘rough team’: hard-charging. They’re living the Special Forces dream,” Major Jones stated.
“The team is so remote that it took a long time for things to get un-caveman-ish,” Weapons Sergeant Scott said.
Rob never said anything about going on missions between building the combat outpost to his family; he took what he did very seriously and didn’t want them to worry.
On the morning of 15 August came an intelligence break the A-Team had been waiting for: information of “bad guys in the area” from a source it considered somewhat reliable. But locals in the area told them nobody was there. The team decided to do a long-range patrol and bring 200 of their new Iraqi FID force with them as a kind of rolling, quick reactionary force, just in case. Engineer Rob was not particularly excited about the mission change that day.
“Rob was always eager to go on missions, but he was in the middle of a lot of work at the compound and was in a hurry to get back and get it done,” Chief Jim said.
The team members divided up into their three up-armored HMMWVs. Each truck had its own contingent: a convoy of Iraqi Security Forces they were advising; a hodge-podge parade of Toyota pick-ups, taxis and bright jingle trucks souped-up with weapons, like “technical vehicles” in Somalia’s Battle of Mogadishu.
“Rob was tired, thirsty and in a frustrated mood. The FID force he was advising was getting on his nerves,” Captain Jason said.
The terrain was mountainous, a rough environment of mud huts in very small villages. The team suspected it to be where the enemy would bed down or store logistics. What they didn’t know at the time: it was home to a hardened al-Qaeda cell.
Squirters. Gunfire. The A-Team’s Iraqi FID force was going down. Engineer Rob Pirelli, driving Team Sergeant Don’s truck, went in. He attempted to move his Iraqi soldiers into the area to relieve pressure off the first Iraqi trucks that were in the firefight.
“Eagles down! Eagles down!” The cry was desperate across the radio from Weapons Sergeant Chris.
Again: “Two Eagles down!”
“It was crazy. Nobody can really get the feeling of having somebody come on the radio and say ‘Two Eagles down,’ which for us, stands for, ‘two of our… our guys are down’,” Medic Tim explained in anguish. “At that second, because I wasn’t next to them, it was a hopeless feeling; a helpless feeling.”
Weapons Sergeant Chris was now the only American Green Beret standing at that location among two of his gunned down teammates lying shot on the ground. They were taking fire. Medic Tim, driving Captain Jason’s truck, headed into the fight.
“There’s someone wearing all black, running on the rooftop with an AK-47!” Their truck’s gunner, Junior Communications Sergeant Eric, shouted. Ting-ting-ting! Bullets hit their truck.
But Medic Tim focused on reaching his downed teammates. He saw one of them, shot, leaning against the building. Tim rushed to him on foot. The armed insurgent, dressed in black, was on the rooftop above them.
“It was weird. There was definitely ‘fires’ going on. But it didn’t really click to me. I was aware that there were bullets going both ways at the time,” Medic Tim said. “It was hectic.”
It “clicked” for the Medic when two grenades came over the wall where his wounded Team Sergeant Don was leaning.
“They went off like, right there. OK, this is definitely going down,” Medic Tim said.
Captain Jason watched Tim run to his wounded Team Sergeant Don.
“It was obvious that he was in pain. The look on his face – he was in shock and was hurting,” Captain Jason said. He turned to see Weapons Sergeant Chris crawling on all fours, on the other side of the wall, toward another teammate lying on his back. It was Staff Sergeant Rob Pirelli, their engineer.
“Rob’s been hit,” Weapons Sergeant Chris yelled as he crawled toward him, and shouted about a sniper on the roof. Captain Jason followed Chris.
“Rob, you are… you are gonna be all right, man (sic). Where were you hit? Where were you hit?” Captain Jason shouted.
Rob didn’t respond.
“Chris, where was Rob hit?” Captain Jason asked his Weapons Sergeant. Rob was lying on his back, no blood anywhere.
“Man, he was hit in the head,” Weapons Sergeant Chris answered. Captain Jason looked at Rob’s helmet. There was an entry mark. A 7.62mm round from the insurgent’s AK-47 on the rooftop had pierced 19 layers of anti-ballistic Kevlar fabric of Pirelli’s helmet. It happened as he and his teammates rushed the building to “stack”: take down the insurgents inside. The enemy fighter on the rooftop put his gun over the wall, blindly spraying the stack of Green Berets below. One shot hit Rob in the head. Another hit Team Sergeant Don in the pelvic area.
Medic Tim ran from the downed team sergeant to assess Engineer Rob. He reached around the corner, grabbed the strap on Rob’s kit, pulled him back around the corner of the building, and immediately started treatment.
“The medic was within the area where they got shot,” Chief Jim said. “My truck was on the other side of the wall trying to cover fire.”
“It was crazy, ‘cause other than the fact that Rob was unconscious, he looked like nothing was wrong with him,” Medic Tim said as he assessed the hostile situation.
“There were no ‘bad guys’ directing fire at me. I could see my other team members around the corner returning fire. So I sensed they were pulling cover fire for me and the captain and the Bravo (Weapons Sergeant Chris) so we could help Rob,” Tim said.
Captain Jason watched as his medic took off his engineer’s helmet. There was a lot of blood.
“Tim, what are we gonna do (sic)?” The Captain asked while helping his medic apply gauze to the back of Rob’s head. “How’s Don? How’s my team sergeant?”
“He’s bad. We need to get these guys out of here,” Medic Tim replied. He lifted Team Sergeant Don up, and moved him to the back seat of their truck. Don was still coherent. He was speaking, but in a bad state.
Weapons Sergeant Chris grabbed Rob Pirelli’s legs, while Captain Jason grabbed his head, and they put him on top of their HMMWV hood.
“Everything’s going to be all right, Rob,” Captain Jason told the motionless Pirelli.
Medic Tim jumped into the driver’s seat, put the truck in reverse and floored it, all the way back to a location where he thought it was safe, behind a small sand berm, while the other trucks provided cover fire. They lifted Engineer Rob and Team Sergeant Don to the ground so Tim could work.
“Tim! Rob’s convulsing and struggling to breathe,” Captain Jason yelled.
“I was working on Rob,” Medic Tim said, “and dealing with Team Sergeant Don, who was bad. I didn’t realize it myself, or wouldn’t realize it, but Rob, he… you know, it was pretty obvious that he was… he was not going to make it from just seeing his… seeing the wounds he had,” Tim said.
“I needed to be on the radio directing troops and calling in the med-evac bird,” Captain Jason said. “So I got some of my other guys to come down to our location to help out with the cas-evac (casualty evacuation) and medical treatment,” he added.
Chief Warrant Officer Jim, previously a medic, came over to help Tim.
“Hey, look at him, he is… he is probably done,” Chief Jim said to Medic Tim. “Don is bleeding now. Let’s save Don because he… Don is gonna (sic) make it, and we know we gotta (sic) stop his bleeds,” he added.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Tim conceded. He’d already stopped the bleed on Rob’s head and had an intravenous drip in his arm. “He’s as stable as I can get him, due to the wounds he has,” Tim added, and turned his attention to his team sergeant, who was bleeding profusely.
“He had a gunshot wound entrance in the upper right thigh. It ran through his body and came out the upper left back thigh,” Tim assessed. There was a lot of blood. The medic and the warrant officer packed that bleed. With the hemorrhage controlled, Tim turned back to Engineer Rob Pirelli to see if he could do anything else.
“I re-assessed his wounds; tried to help him with his breathing a little bit. You know, like you see on TV, on ‘ER’, that bag. ‘Bagging’ him, trying to get those deep breaths in,” Tim said.
But he was having issues with the bag.
“It wasn’t working too well. I finally got it working all right. About that time the bird started coming in for exfil (medical evacuation)… and the dust and the noise,” the Medic said.
Tim told himself: “OK, well, I have done what I could for Rob. We stabilized the team sergeant. Now let’s get these guys on the bird, get them out of here, and finish the fight that’s still actively going on.”
CONTINUE THE MISSION
The helicopter landed. Medic Tim and Chief Jim loaded their teammates, their wounded Iraqi Security Forces on the bird.
“The helicopter crew was nervous because we were receiving fire at the time. They lifted off quickly,” Captain Jason said.
“We pushed the bird out and went back toward the building, returning fire the entire time,” Medic Tim said.
The fighting never ceased around them: even while Medic Tim had been tending their wounded, the rest of his Special Forces A-team had continued battling fiercely. When their Team Sergeant Don was shot, Communications Sergeant Kevin, their senior enlisted member at the time, immediately took charge as team sergeant.
“That’s not the exact way I wanted to become a team sergeant, you know, under fire like that,” Kevin said.
At that moment Kevin said to himself: “Just get us through this point, get us through this situation.”
The team still had a mission to complete. The assault was intense. Weapons Sergeant Chris shot six rounds from their Carl Gustav 84 mm recoilless rifle at the building they’d taken fire from.
“As soon as fire started happening, our entire FID force kind of disappeared on us,” one team member said later. “It’s a good example of: ‘We can train them all we want,’ but when it really goes down, are they going to be there for us? Maybe, maybe not.”
When I asked Major Jones about this later, he explained: “For the indigenous forces, the idea that they got SF – Special Forces – guys standing behind them, or pulling them from the front, by far keeps them from running in most cases, and keeps them in the battle. Once they’ve done it, they realize that, ‘Hey, it’s not really the Americans, it’s really us.’ For a sheik or a tribal leader, the idea that they’re working with a Special Forces team is something important. It gives them more legitimacy, more power.”
“I consolidated our Iraqis and told their commander to direct them to maneuver toward that building,” Captain Jason said. “They needed to start clearing that objective.”
“There are still people returning fire over the hill back toward the house,” Medic Tim alerted.
Captain Jason pulled back their Iraqi Security Forces and called in the 9-line med-evac request to their advanced operations base back in Baqubah.
Inside the tactical operations center, an expert in close air support (CAS) called in fast-movers. Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) Mike was trained to the unforgiving special operations standard. He’d been personally selected by Special Operations Command to align with the A-Teams of 10th Special Forces Group in Diyala. As their CAS enabler, JTAC Mike, call sign “Vampire,” called in an Air Force F-16 to do bomb runs on the building they were taking fire from.
It partially collapsed. But the team was still receiving enemy gunfire from within the half-collapsed building, despite the bomb drop. So the Green Berets “mowed it down the rest of the way” with their 50-cal. When the gunfire stopped, the team sent their Iraqi Security Force to search the rubble for anyone still alive. There was.
“One enemy wounded in action,” Medic Tim said. “He had a pretty severe gunshot wound entrance from the right chest, exiting on the left. He was pretty bad off. We dragged him out of the building and provided treatment, then called in another med-evac bird to get him out of there,” Tim added.
A number of insurgents had been killed in action, among them, the enemy fighter dressed in black on the rooftop, who’d shot Engineer Rob Pirelli and Team Sergeant Don.
“He had a gunshot wound to the head,” Captain Jason stated.
Sixteen insurgents gave up. They were put down and zip-tied. The team gathered evidence and intelligence information, and brought the detainees to a collection point.
“We did some tactical questioning to see if there is any sort of follow-on operation to find out what exactly we basically stumbled upon,” Captain Jason said.
What they’d stumbled upon was a hardened al-Qaeda cell. The fighter dressed in black, who’d shot Engineer Rob Pirelli and Team Sergeant Don, was the battalion commander for all of al-Qaeda in that area.
Battle weary, the team faced another ordeal getting back to their safe house.
“Hey man, how’s Rob? How is he?” Medic Tim’s teammates asked him on the long drive back.
Tim knew even before they arrived back that Engineer Rob Pirelli wasn’t going to make it. He knew it from his two years of intensive Green Beret medic training, even if he didn’t want it to sink in. But as his A-team’s “18-Delta,” he needed to prepare his brothers.
“It doesn’t look good for Rob,” Tim said as he drove their HMMWV back through the dry, mountainous terrain. Their Iraqi Security Force’s dilapidated convoy sped ahead of them, kicking up dust.
“Look, I’m gonna (sic) be completely honest with you,” Tim stated. “He is not gonna (sic) make it.”
“No man, no way,” a couple of the guys on the team wouldn’t believe it. “No man, you know? This happens. He’s gonna be all right, he’s gonna be all right (sic),” they refuted.
Even Captain Jason, sitting next to him in their HMMWV, refused to believe his medic.
“Don was talking when they got on the bird. They’re gonna (sic) be fine. Rob’s going to be OK; they got on the bird. We got them on that bird,” he insisted.
Medic Tim later explained Rob’s physical reactions to the gunshot wound – his “convulsing” – to me, as an indicator of a brain stem injury, and high up on the “he’s not going to make it scale.”
It was a long ride back, and about to get longer. In the middle of a mountain pass, the Iraqis with the team ran out of gas. The team was forced to stop in a spot which looked like a perfect enemy ambush point.
“The Iraqis weren’t prepared for the operation as far as having enough fuel or enough water,” Captain Jason lamented.
They called another A-Team to drive up from the nearest forward operating base a couple hours south of their position, to deliver gas cans for their Iraqis. Once tanked up, the team continued slogging through the hills to get their Iraqis back to their base. Then, the HMMWV Medic Tim was driving, quit.
“Without noticing, when we were driving up from when we heard the call (on the radio) that our guys were down, driving up to that building, the vehicle got shot… shot to shit,” Medic Tim said. “You hear bullets coming, you know, ting-ting-ting, off of everything. But didn’t notice anything was wrong.”
The truck’s lights shut off. Electric shut off. All of the HMMWV’s systems were shutting down.
“Up ‘til that point, the only thing that worked was the throttle and the brake,” Medic Tim stated. It was about to get worse.
“My FBCB2 [a communications system for commanders to track friendly and hostile forces on the battlefield] and my SATCOM [satellite communications system] and all my radios are down,” Captain Jason alerted. “I have no communication.”
“This was the Captain’s vehicle: so he’s trying to maintain control of the detachment while he has no comms in his vehicle,” Tim said. This is what’s known as a break in contact. Their Iraqi Security Force vehicle, driving in front of them, didn’t notice and didn’t stop.
“They don’t do very well looking in the rear view mirror,” smirked Medic Tim. “It was a long, long trip back to the base through the hills.”
Captain Jason told himself: “During the operation, you just have to finish the job you started, and hope that everything will work out.”
COMBAT OUTPOST PIRELLI
When ODA-072 finally arrived back at their spartan combat outpost, they learned that their “18-Charlie,” Staff Sgt. Robert R. Pirelli, did not survive the med-evac flight to the combat support hospital.
Word of Rob Pirelli’s death spread quickly throughout the special operations community in Iraq. Dan, a Green Beret from another operational detachment who’d been through the Special Forces Qualifications Course with Rob and Medic Tim (and who’d shared stories of Rob vomiting before every parachute jump), was deployed to a different combat zone in country.
“A guy came into our area and said, ‘A guy from 10th Special Forces Group was killed.’ My first thought was, ‘Rob.’ Sure as shit, it was,” Dan said in disbelief. “All I kept thinking about was: Rob always had this really wide, shit-eating grin, ear-to-ear,” he added.
“Everybody handles grief and an experience like that differently. Some of the guys on the team were deeply affected by it, but they didn’t let it show,” Captain Jason said.
“The guys were sad and pissed off. The Team is like, WTF (‘What the f***’) at that point,” Weapons Sergeant Scott said.
An official memorial service was held at the 10th Special Forces Group’s battalion command headquarters, tucked away inside Forward Operating Base Taji. Special Forces soldiers not on missions, officers and staffers, gathered. Bagpipe music from the movie Band of Brothers played over a loudspeaker. A flag flew at half-staff. There was a “Fallen Soldier Battlefield Cross” consisting of Rob Pirelli’s inverted M4 assault rifle with his dog tags hanging off it, Rob’s combat boots, and his Green Beret with 10th Special Forces Group patch. Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Dan Stolz spoke at a microphone.
“Without regard for his safety, Staff Sgt. Pirelli, through his heroic actions, allowed his Iraqi element to move back. His actions resulted in six al-Qaeda killed. Staff Sgt. Pirelli was the consummate quiet professional and Green Beret,” Stolz stated.
Chaplain Black reminded everyone about Rob’s team, ODA-072.
“Seven-Two was sent to the most remote area of our operations. Hear me now brothers: he faced his fears,” Black stated, and quoted Gen. George S. Patton. “Patton said we should not mourn soldiers who died, rather thank God such soldiers lived.”
But Rob’s team and company were not there. They were not invited since they had combat missions to continue. The public affairs officer sent them a video DVD of his service, instead.
Since the brothers of ODA-072 were not allowed to come in from the frontlines for their fallen teammate’s ceremony, they made their own tribute instead. They did it in stone; they did it with words.
The team developed a symbol: a sword, lightning bolts and fire. Junior Engineer Sergeant Kole, whom Rob had mentored, painted the symbol on a cement protective T-wall at their safe house.
“We decided on a color scheme. The green by his name represents our group (10th Special Forces). It turned out real nice,” Medic Tim said.
The Team boldly painted “Combat Outpost Pirelli” on the T-Wall as part of the symbol, renaming their location after their engineer, the first Green Beret killed in action there. Captain Jason sent the official paperwork to rename the outpost up the Army chain of command.
“When the chaplain came out after everything happened, the words, ‘The house that Rob built’ came out. This is a pretty good description, because Rob was the guy behind the scenes of making the place what it was,” Medic Tim said.
Tim, the medic who’d done everything he could for his friend Rob, later tattooed that Combat Outpost Pirelli symbol on his arm from shoulder to elbow.
“My tattoo is my way of remembering and having part of it with me,” Medic Tim said quietly.
The rest of his teammates had black bracelets in honor of Staff Sergeant Robert R. Pirelli. Inscribed with the date: August 15, 2007; the place: Diyala Province; and the phrase: “They’re shoot’n houses at us,” to remind themselves of Rob’s thick Boston accent and how much he always made them laugh.
Rob’s roommate at the Team house, Intelligence Sergeant Brady, quietly pulled me aside before another operation.
“There’s lots of times where I remember what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it, so Rob’s death wasn’t in vain,” Intelligence Sergeant Brady said stoically.
From the December 2013 issue of SOF