This letter is from Lieutenant Colonel Steven D. Russell, the Battalion Commander of the 1st Battalion of the 22nd Infantry, 4th Infantry Division and is barely a week old. It vividly refutes the “gloom and doom” reported in the American and indeed the world media about the activities of our troops in Iraq. Read it and understand that these men are doing what American soldiers have always done – sweat, work under brutal conditions and bleed to bring freedom to others. Fortunately, they have their victories also.
BTW the unit's web page is at this URL: http://www.eatel.net/~22inf/
Dear Friends and Family,
I wanted to send you another update on our continued operations in Iraq. I will try to give you a commanders perspective of what it is like here, even though you may have seen much of our activity in the news lately.
Hot! That’s what it is. The heat sears our hands as we hold our weapons, pick up tools and handle parts. When we travel in vehicles, the wind instead of cooling us fans us with a heat comparable to a blow dryer and thus actually increases the effect of the temperature. Even our fingernails get hot.
Even so, we endure. The Iraqis are suspect of this. They cannot imagine that we can operate in our battle gear and armored vehicles in the August sun and therefore another explanation must be given other than our toughness and willpower. Since we are Americans, we must have made some technology that allows us this freedom of movement. Iraqis ask us about our air-conditioned helmets and how they are powered. They talk on the street of our cooling vests and air-conditioned underwear. Despite all our efforts we cannot find these for purchase.
The markets in Tikrit do offer some items for relief from the heat however. We have traded greenbacks for underpowered, Chinese made air conditioners and fans with small benefit. Like most things in Iraq, they put up an initial impressive facade. Given the appearance of functionality, they soon give out or work with marginal effectiveness. We still welcome them and the fact that we have the means to attempt to use them is far better than what the average Infantryman expected when we arrived here.
Since my last note of July 26th, we have been extremely busy. The time seems to fly but time also seems surreal to many of us at this point in the mission. Each day becomes just another one. Days of the week blur and were it not for our watches and the incremental changes in the moon, we would have scant idea of time at all. We count the days because they promise initial relief from the heat and subsequent hope of seeing our loved ones once more.
The soldiers of the battalion, while unable to see their loved ones, have had improvements in contacting their families. We tried to get a phone or two for the companies and this has greatly improved communication. Yet, the ATT satellite phones do not always track properly and the Iridium phones have had their keypads short circuit due to the heat. An ATT phone tent now serves as another possibility, even though the expense is a little much about 5 times the normal rate for phone cards. But the calls we have made have been wonderful.
We finally won the battle to get email. It took a lot of effort but now the soldiers can at least drop a note every few days with better turn-around on news to their families. We set up 3 terminals for the soldiers to use in the battalion headquarters and the companies rotate on a schedule. I hope these efforts have given all of you a better line of communication to our soldiers. We will keep improving the communication as we can.
Beginning the 27th of July, CSM Martinez and I made the rounds to the companies to award the Combat Infantry Streamer to each Infantry Company guidon. It is a great honor to the units and one of which they are very proud. Also during these visits, we took the opportunity to talk to the soldiers about their concerns. These ranged from the need for certain items of mission essential equipment, to small comfort items to help them relax when they are not on patrols, to how to better communicate with their families. We have been able to improve in all of these areas. We fought to get the newer body armored vests for all of our soldiers and won though not without exertion. Now all our soldiers are better protected.
After coming back on the 27th from Bayji (north of Tikrit) where B Company is, we had activity that quickly reminded us that we have much work to do even while feeling proud of our accomplishments. Someone placed a bomb in front of a house in central Tikrit. The blast blew open the gate and damaged the wall of the courtyard. The Iraqi family there asked our soldiers to help them move to relatives that night as it was after curfew. My operations officer, MAJ Brian Luke, obliged and as the family was escorted a few blocks to the east, one of our soldiers noticed a shovel leaning against a wall. SPC Garcia began to look at the dirt and the shovel. Within minutes, 44 anti-tank mines, 20lbs. of C-4 explosives and 200 lbs. of propellant were unearthed. More digging. Nine grenades, four mine initiators, an AK-47 and thirty 60mm mortar rounds soon followed. This same building had been cleared not a few days before.
As this developed, a burst of gunfire erupted to the south in an arc across the main highway toward the governors building. A Company soldiers soon enveloped an area of two warehouses. The soldiers entered the first and spotted five men, one armed with an SKS rifle. The Iraqi men immediately dropped it when they saw the Americans and our men quickly deduced that these men were just food guards. They continued on to the next warehouse. A man stood in the shadows as the soldiers approached. SPC Morgan entered with his fire team and shouted at the man to come forward in English and Arabic. The man darted into the shed instead and appeared a second time with an AK-47. SPC Morgan aimed his rifle at the man and killed what turned out to be the assailant that had attacked the governors building. An enemy and lots of deadly mines and explosives were now in our hands.
We continued to thin the ranks of those attacking our men the last week of July and we also received detailed information as to the location of an important bodyguard of Saddam Hussein. This particular man was often seen in photos with Saddam and his family. The locals also knew him as a vicious murderer. In a lightning raid, the Recon Platoon and A Company secured 3 houses in residential Tikrit. We were looking specifically for three men; two were bodyguards and one an organizer for the former regime. Within 45 minutes, we had all three men. The raid made national news and the men were extremely valuable to our efforts. The main target Saddam’s personal bodyguard didn’t give up without a fight. Our scouts found him upstairs, emboldened with liquor, attempting to grab a Sterling Submachine Gun. Butt strokes and quick action prevented his death. He swung at the men but soon found himself being drug down the stairs, his head hitting each step. Subdued and in his courtyard, with slight bleeding to the forehead, bulbs flashed from the several media present. The news quickly spread in Tikrit to the elation of all, who now saw this former cutthroat of Saddam brought into our custody.
News of our success spread across the media as well. Soon, several news services embedded with us and covered our operations. Most were convinced that we were on the heels of Saddam. We just continued with our mission, our focus unchanged. The 30th and 31st became eerily quiet. This was perhaps the first time in weeks that nothing happened - no gunfire, no attacks, nothing.
Our raids continued with success. On the 1st of August, we bagged three more men with ties to Saddam. While I cannot specify the ties, I can say they were involved with the personal family duties and staff. Now each raid seemed to feed upon the other, with encouraging results.
Discouraging news shortly followed. We learned from a frantic local sheik that same evening that the bodies of Uday and Qusay Hussein were to be delivered to his village the next day and then buried in the local cemetery. Not pleased at the news as this village also has our men in it we worked all evening to confirm this. We were told to do nothing. The corpses were to be turned over to the Red Crescent after being flown to our city. We were instructed to provide no escort or involvement. We watched at a distance as three corpses (the third being Mustafa Qusay’s 14 year old son killed while firing an AK-47 under a bed) were laid into the dirt. Arrogant men, some veiled, surrounded the graves in pathetic prayerful worship over these murdering lifeless forms. They piled dirt mounds above their sunken corpses and then secured an Iraqi flag to each mound with dirt clods along the edges. The funeral passed uneventfully. But a candy box in the middle of the main highway in town would shatter the quiet of the previous two days.
The enemy launched an attack in the early evening using improvised explosives. The first was nearly identical to the second except in result. Each bomb appeared to be a box (one candy, the other Kleenex) packed with C-4 explosives and nuts and bolts serving as projectiles. How they were detonated remains unknown.
Our Recon platoon traveled up the main highway through the city center. Congestion by the telephone exchange offices narrowed the lanes to one. A median, elevated with planters, served as a directional backstop for the candy box concealed among so much other trash in this unsanitary country. The first scout passed by but the second seemed to disappear in a concussive mass of flame and smoke. Glass flew everywhere from the telephone exchange building. Policemen inside were knocked off their feet. Windows from a taxi full of kids blew into the youth as the pavement took on an appearance of an unfinished mosaic of glass.
Our soldiers in the third humvee quickly dismounted to see if they could assist but the truck was not there. Its driver, his eye bleeding and his arm filled with fragmentation, threw the vehicle into low gear and nursed the hummer with four flat tires out of the blast zone. The soldier in the back seat took searing heat and fragmentation to the neck and left arm. His left eardrum would register no sound. Men yelled to each other as the staff sergeant unscathed in the front right seat assessed his men in the vehicle. The gunner up top could be seen bleeding from the face and neck. But all were moving and so was the vehicle. The scouts continued their wobbly ride toward our compound. The perforated vehicle went through the gate. The men cleared their weapons with bloody hands and then made their way with assistance to the aid station. Two have returned to duty and the third will need more time for his ear to heal but will recover. We remain Regulars, by God.
The second bomb detonated approximately 20 minutes later and about two miles north along the same road. Military Police vehicles, similar in appearance to our scout vehicles, became the unintended target. No major damage occurred in the mistimed blast except a few headlamps and cosmetic damage to the fiberglass hood of a single vehicle.
After talking to my wounded scouts and seeing that they were going to be OK, we continued on with our combat patrols. That night I headed south along the highway to the burial village and located the new graves of Saddams sons. Flushed with the emotion of having three more of my men wounded I took comfort in knowing I was standing over the graves of Uday and Qusay Hussein.
We spent the day of the 3rd of August planning for a simultaneous raid on each side of the river. We were looking for two individuals that have been organizing attacks on our soldiers. Our intelligence was good and we found the locations of the farms and a house in the northern suburb. The targeted men were not there, although their families were. We found important photos, information and documents. The raid proved successful however as the next morning one of the two men sought came to the civil-military relations office to complain about the raid on his undamaged house. We took him to our complaint department where he has remained ever since.
Our combat patrols continued in the city with ambushes laid out for an elusive enemy. Assailants with RPGs fired on a C Company patrol near the Women’s College but hit nothing. A Brown & Root worker driving north of Tikrit did hit a mine however and lost his life in the ensuing blast. It was a terrible tragedy that illustrates the dangers in the use of contractors on the battlefield.
On the night of the 5th, our men saw a small group walk across the main street in town with an RPG launcher and AK-47s. Seeing no clear shot, they waited. Soon a man appeared around a corner with an RPG at the ready. Our men fired first, wounding the man in the leg. He shrieked in pain and then a calm settled over the alleyways.
The next night, the 6th, we captured the head of a Fedayeen cell in a hotel raid covered by a full compliment of media. We detained 39 individuals (we released 38) but among them was our man. Two of his new recruits fled the following day but we caught them motoring south toward Baghdad based on a tip from the locals. Later, a merchant brought us their RPG launcher with 3 rockets. He said he saw them hide it earlier and brought it to us once he learned we had captured them. We continue to see the Iraqi support increase along with each success.
But the arms still flow into the city. Locals had told us so and the merchants from the market complained to the governor and police about it. They said that the weapons were being used to attack them and the Americans. We decided to set daylight ambushes on the Friday market to curb the flow. At 7:30 a.m. on Friday the 8th, we finally confirmed that the complaints were true. Our snipers noticed two men in a red car pull into the field surrounded by the market shops along the streets. The field is also used as a flea market where anyone can vend his wares or produce. These two men decided to vend weapons. They laid out wheat sacks filled with AK-47 magazines and grenade launcher attachments. Next, they set up various other small arms items on the now empty sacks. Finally, they pulled an AK-47 out of the trunk. The men reported it but wanted to be sure these were weapons dealers. After small devices and electronic switches for bomb making and then more AK-47s appeared, the men engaged.
The sharp crack of a sniper rifle drew little attention at first. A vendor selling crackers not ten feet from the arms traders took little notice, thinking the men were testing the weapons. But then he noticed that one man holding a weapon jerked and suddenly dropped it, his arm bleeding profusely. The driver of the red car, unaware of what was happening watched as one of two other men present handled weapons. The man turned around with an AK-47 seeking the direction of the fire. A round ripped through him. He ran forward, weapon in hand. Another round found its target. Then he slumped to the ground. The driver ran frantically to the car attempting to flee. Our sniper squad leader gauged the approximate location of the driver through the hood the car was facing away from him and fired. The round perforated the hood and then hit the man in the head. He stumbled out of the car and died. The last armed man stood little chance. A round through his leg cut him down and he dropped the weapon. The engagement was now over.
The Recon platoon then rushed to the site. A sea of confusion billowed among the locals. A clear path parted around the arms dealers as the crowd receded from the site. A bystander had already stolen one of the AK 47s but everything else was still there when the scouts arrived. Soon soldiers from A Company cordoned the market. We secured the scene. The two wounded were transported to the Tikrit hospital. Iraqi police appeared and assisted in crowd control and body recovery. The press arrived and we gave a full account of our ambush.
Not waiting for the details, the French AFP media went to the hospital and found two boys from a village about 30 kilometers across the river that had been injured by an unexploded shell of some kind in an unrelated incident. Assuming that the boys were somehow connected to our actions against the enemy, they flashed pictures around the world stating that we had wounded the boys with grenades at the market. Fortunately, the rest of the media not only have higher standards, but also reported the facts. Some (not many) in the media asked me why we did not give the arms dealers any warning. I stated that they became combatants as soon as they produced weapons and that no such warning had ever been afforded my men. Our actions sent shock waves through the town and effectively curtailed illegal arms trade in the city. The governor thanked us for our actions as well as the mayor. The police chief stated that the two men we killed from the red car were known thugs that smuggled weapons from a major military complex on the outskirts of Baghdad. They would show samples, fill orders and arrange deliveries. What is certain is that we see no more weapons traded openly in Tikrit.
The enemy, not able to take us on directly, began to focus more on explosive devices and land mines in his attempts to strike at us. Over the next week we discovered some of these before they could be used and each week we discover some new attempt before it strikes. We are thankful for the prayers that make this possible. West of Tikrit, an unfortunate driver in a truck lost his leg when he and a fellow soldier supporting the engineer battalion ran over an anti-tank mine laid along the edge of a road. And to the south of us, an artilleryman lost his life in a similar episode. Our snipers and patrols continue to shoot at suspected devices as before while locals have helped on us in intercepting several others. We remain vigilant. It is in our best interest.
On the 11th of August we successfully raided three more objectives and netted two former Republican Guards officers one a division commander and the other a corps level chief of staff. The third objective netted us a leader of Fedayeen militia. By the 13th we had seen small enemy attempts to harass or strike back at us. On a secondary market street, CPT Boyd’s convoy narrowly escaped harm as assailants rolled a volley of RPGs down the street like some game of ten pins. The rockets whooshed, skipped and scraped along the pavement, but made no contact for them to explode. The enemy attackers had fired from several hundred meters away in the middle of a street and then fled.
Our actions continued to have momentum. By mid-month two men wanted by our forces - one who worked for Saddam’s wife turned themselves in to us and on the same day we received weapons from helpful Tikriti merchants with keen eyes. Even so, the young and the stupid continue to step forward. In a suburb to our south, attackers launched a volley of RPGs at A Company soldiers in yet another classic miss and run attack. Our Gators responded so quickly that the enemy was forced to flee for his life and abandoned his rocket launchers in the street. The attackers melded into the local population before they could be caught. Hence, we continue to work with the locals, the sheiks and plan more raids.
One benefit of our dialogue with the sheiks has been the recruitment of reliable militia that we are now training. Tapping into some previous experience I had on a much grander scale when I served in Afghanistan forming the plans for the Afghan National Army, we moved out with a modest training program that is producing a good-quality small element to assist the local government and our forces. Through the great work of 1LT Deel and SGM Castro, and with the assistance of a couple of former drill sergeants in each company, we move forward to train Iraqis in martial and civil arts that will help them stabilize their own town.
As to the continued raid
planning, our efforts to find a bomb maker paid off when we raided a
house on the
The enemy continues to adapt his tactics to counter ours. His only cowardly refuge has been to hide among the population and among legitimate emergency services. On the night of the 18th our soldiers at a temporary checkpoint searched an ambulance that was bringing back an older man from the hospital. Seeing this, a white car placed an explosive on a side street and ignited the fuse. A Company soldiers reacted to the blast to the west. The ambulance drove north to get out of danger and as it did, the white car pulled along side the Red Crescent vehicle and sent a burst of gunfire toward another unit’s outpost. The outpost responded, seeing the fire come from what appeared to be the ambulance.
Also seeing the fire exchanged between the outpost and the ambulance, our snipers engaged the ambulance as it sped north, the victim of a cruel crossfire. The white car, fully masked in its movements, then dashed down a dark alley and made good his escape. The ambulance shuddered to a stop. The driver, fearing for his life, got out of the front seat to escape the bullet exchange. He nearly made it but for one round that hit his ankle. Another aid man was cut by glass from the windshield. The older man in transport took a round to the shoulder and the thigh. The police and our forces quickly arrived along the dark street. The police took the seriously wounded victim to the hospital where he was stabilized.
The ambulance then began its journey northward toward a police checkpoint, met by both police and our scouts. After much confusion, we determined what had happened and treated the man with the ankle wound. We took him to better care to remove the bullet. We also handed over the ambulance back to the emergency workers. The Iraqis helped us piece together the confusing puzzle and, while frightened and initially angered, became more angered at the fact that the attackers would once again use innocent people as shields. They are by all estimations cowards.
Some of the cowardly activity is planned on local farms. Some of the people talk. Some of the farms get found and raided. Such was the case with one farm that we had raided before the one that we found the $8 million and Sajita Husseins jewelry. Seems they continue to plan and fund there.
We acted quickly on the intelligence that a planning meeting was occurring at the farm. Confirmed sightings of two particular individuals on our hit list caused us to go in quick and bristling. We surrounded the farm with reconnaissance troops to set the cordon and then A Company rolled up to the capricious compound gate and flattened it with the momentum of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The Bradley continued forward as occupants of the two large farm complexes scrambled. Soldiers poured through the gap and more soldiers spilled out the back of the Bradley. Fingers of light danced around each corner and flashed around each window and room. Back alleys were cleared, aqueducts jumped, orchards searched. Men and women are questioned. The targeted individuals had left 3 hours before. But they leave knowing they are hunted men that must live like the rats they are. And they know that no rat hole is safe.
The next day, the 20th, we got an emergency request for help from another unit working in our area. While coordinating information on a market street, armed attackers masked within the population open up a deadly burst of gunfire. The soldiers translator falls dead with a torso wound. A soldier collapses with a serious thigh wound and another is also hit in his extremities severely wounded. The soldiers return fire. The enemy’s damage done, he flees, unable to be pursued by this small wounded band.
Men from our C Company rush to the scene. Shocked and bloody men are lifted into vehicles, accompanied by their angry and equally shocked peers. Our soldiers cordon the area, conduct a wide search and gather little from the locals who have either closed their shops in typical fear or claimed they saw nothing. The men’s lives are saved by a medical evacuation. A translator, an American citizen, will speak no more. Vigilance, vigilance, vigilance. My burden is that every soldier of mine goes home and with a pair of legs. God has spared us from much in the midst of our battles. Psalm 68:19-21.
One such sparing occurred on the 22nd of August. A tip from a distraught local warned us of a plan to attack the Tigris Bridge. He stated that the attack would occur within an hour and would be with RPGs, small arms and mortars using a water-services truck as a mask. Our response was immediate. A section of M1 Abrams tanks changed the scenery of the bridge and our checkpoint there. The enemy did materialize at a distance and launched a single pathetic 82mm mortar round, impacting just across the near bank of the river at dusk. The scenery of his own attack also changed, he missed and now ran.
An hour later, our Recon platoon headed south along the main highway. They approached a decorative gate incongruently guarding a wadi that funnels the waste byproduct of Tikrit into the Tigris River. Our men affectionately know this depression as the Stink Wadi. That night it exuded more than just odor. A volley of RPGs raced across in a flash from the south bank of the wadi. Small arms accompanied the volley.
The scout’s weapons erupted in a converging arc that raked and then secondarily exploded on the bank. Unable to get to the scene quickly by the nature of the wadi, distance and terrain, the men could not determine the damage they inflicted. But they blew up something. When searched later, the area was vacant, revealing little information.
The revelation of information took on a different form in Tikrit the following morning. Our C Company posted security along the main street of the city near the telephone exchange offices. Bradley fighting vehicles and tough soldiers mixed with the squat, dilapidated structures of the city. A small crowd gathered at a new café in town, an Internet café. Words are exchanged, cameras roll and snap, a pair of scissors is lifted off a pillow as the owner and I cut a ribbon at the entrance.
While thrilled, it all seems so foreign to me given the context of the previous days. For a brief moment these small trappings of normal life of normal pursuits and daily living awaken me. As I leave the café an old woman is nearly struck by a car and a bicycle as she attempts to cross the busy street. Our soldiers step into the four lanes of traffic and she is escorted across the thoroughfare. As we pull out in our vehicles, we cradle our weapons, begin to watch rooftops, examine every trash pile, and check each alley. A sea of people is scanned quickly - what is in their arms, what are their facial expressions, do they make unusual movement. We pull away and reenter our world.
I had intended to write
sooner. It just becomes impossible at times. So I continue to make
notes and write a little each day hence this longer letter. We
appreciate the prayers and support from everyone. We could not go in
confidence and safety without it. 2 John 12.