In the next three posts, I’ll outline the top things that I learned during combat in 2003. I was part of 1st Marines headed north through Iraq. My unit crossed the border into Iraq the first day of the war and headed north right down the center of the country to draw all of Saddam’s troops into a fight. I was in Golf 2/23 as an infantry mortar man. I fired my rifle a lot more than we fired our mortar systems. My unit was assigned the job of taking Baghdad and nothing else mattered. We were transported in the back of open trucks that we fortified by roping sand bags to the bottom and outsides. We had no armor or artillery attached to us. We were simply a light infantry company whose specialty was urban combat. Here’s what I learned the hard way:
I never remember being out of breath
Despite running and moving a lot, I never remember being out of breath from physical exertion. During training, I remember pushing myself to the level of not being able to breath and thinking I’m going to pass out. During combat I remember running in and out of buildings and getting in and out of the truck. One time stands out more than any other. I remember running from the trucks into position, thinking we were going to be fired upon at any moment. Our Sister Company had taken fire all night and we moved at first light to reinforce them. We got out of our trucks a ways from their position. I remember my entire company moving out at a full run and couldn’t understand it, but security in numbers at that point and me and my mortars section followed at full run. We moved into position and set up in a flurry and then just sat in a courtyard filled with junk waiting to be shot at again. We sat there for over an hour and the Cobra Gun Ships were the only ones that worked. Apparently the enemy saw us coming and ran in a bunch into the open. It didn’t take the helos long to finish them.
We sat there for almost an hour and then moved again. This time only at a trot, but I was carrying close to 160 pounds of gear and weapons and responsible for our security since we were moving through Baghdad with about 20 Marines. Most of them were carrying pieces of the mortar systems and/or mortar rounds. I remember running through a Red Crescent convoy that had been destroyed. A dozen or so vehicles stopped by the side of the road, burned and destroyed and bodies lying beside the vehicles. I didn’t have time to investigate, but it looked like they had been dragged from the vehicles and executed the night before. I remember some Iraqi soldiers in civilian clothing stopping at a gate and watching us, one laughed as I pointed my rifle at him and told him to go away. The movement/run continued for blocks and stretched on for over a mile. More than one of my Marines wasn’t making it and I ended up with two ammo cans of mortar rounds, one in each hand, each contained eight rounds. Each can weighs about 28 pounds the way we had them set up. We continued to run and found friendly forces to link up with. Later I would find out the distance was well over a mile. I have no idea how long it took us but I was carrying over 200 pounds of gear when I crossed the finish line. At the end, I just remember being hungry and needing to set up the guns again. I never remember being winded or physically tired from the run. I do remember thinking I was going to get court martialed for taking food in front of my Captain, even after he had told another Marine to put it back. At the time we were out of food and had been eating one meal a day for the last week and we had just run out of water. I didn’t care what the Captain was going to do to me, my Marines were going to eat. Where I got the food from is another story, but I didn’t steal it from the locals.
Marines that had been with the unit for a while could do anything, new people couldn’t do anything.
It was weird once the war started. All the Marines that had been with the unit couldn’t seem to fail at anything they did. They moved mountains and finished impossible tasks (like the run above). But the new guys (that’s the Marines that weren’t making it) couldn’t seem to get anything done. I remember threatening one of the new guys that I would shoot him again if he fired between the Marines in our vehicle again. He had already turned around several times and put his muzzle between the heads of two Marines to fire on the enemy almost making them deaf.
Every small or big task the new guys seemed to have problems with or fail all together. The Marines that had been with the unit could accomplish anything. I found that unit cohesion was everything. One of the new guys was so afraid he couldn’t function and didn’t work with us. We also wouldn’t let him do anything on his own because of his multiple fails. The other guys could have killed Saddam by themselves if they had been given the right information and/or turned loose. I had to keep them reined in most of the time.
Number 9: Combat is Boring
Doing small unit patrols (I went on patrols as small as 5 Marines) in Tikrit and Baghdad would start out very exciting. I remember one I went on as the navigator with 5 other Marines to look for weapons caches. During the pre-dawn brief and checks, there was an excitement in the air and an optimism that we might actually find Saddam (it was 2003 and hadn’t been found yet). As we stepped off at first light and passed the last Marine check point, I was like a kid on Christmas, trying to stay quiet as I bounded down stairs to the gifts. Looking at my battle buddy, he was the same way and so were the other members of the patrol. The patrol leader was the most excited of us all.
We went down the street and up into the near by neighborhoods. We found a stronghold neighborhood that was surrounded by 10-foot walls, crushed glass, and steel gates. We decided it would be too much noise to get in and with only 6 of us, we weren’t prepared for a big fight, so we decided to let the gates stand. We could see the power lines and communication lines running into the compound. We cut 3-foot sections out of the wires and took the sections with us so they couldn’t just splice the wires back together. After about an hour we were all bored and looking for something to do. The patrol ended after about 4 hours. By the time we got back, I was so bored I wanted a nap. Nothing else happened and we talked to all of one local the entire time we were out. We didn’t say more than 10 words to each other the entire time. Four hours of complete boredom with nothing to show for it. Most patrols and days were just like that. It felt like the movie Ground Hog Day, but I couldn’t change the outcome. It was always the same.