8/28/2005

Michael Yon : Online Magazine: Gates of Fire

A conservative soldier recommended this post as super good. I decided to see what the fuss was all about. Nice inside view of soldier comraderie and a military operation going well -- law

LTC Kurilla got Mrs. Lama on the Iridium satellite phone. I heard the commander telling this soldier's mother that her son was fine. Daniel just had some soft tissue damage, nothing major. Kurilla told her that he and some other soldiers were at the hospital now with Daniel, who was still too groggy to talk. "Really, Daniel's okay, and don't worry about it when the Army calls you."


Mosul, Iraq


Combat comes unexpectedly, even in war.

On Monday, while conducting operations in west Mosul, a voice came over the radio saying troops from our brother unit, the 3-21, were fighting with the enemy in east Mosul on the opposite side of the Tigris River. Moments later, SSG Will Shockley relayed word to us that an American soldier was dead. We began searching for the shooters near one of the bridges on our side of the Tigris, but they got away. Jose L. Ruiz was killed in action.

Although the situation in Mosul is better, our troops still fight here every day. This may not be the war some folks had in mind a few years ago. But once the shooting starts, a plan is just a guess in a party dress.

The only mission I've seen unfold close to what was planned was a B Company raid a few months back. It actually went so close to perfect that we could hardly believe it. The sole glitch occurred when a Stryker hit an IED, but since nobody was hurt, we just continued the mission. In retrospect, it's hard to imagine why I didn't write about it. But times are busy, and, apart from it going nearly perfectly according to plan, it just seemed like any other old raid.

I had been talking with Captain Matt McGrew about the "The Battle for Mosul IV" dispatch, intending to spend the night with him and some Iraqi troops at one of their combat outposts, to glean additional insight, but the on-going battles in Mosul kept getting in the way. On the night before the planned ride-along, the obstacle was a big and sudden push of operations and tasks bundled in a "surge operation." Operation Lancer Fury was launched without notice even to the unit commanders here.

When I'd sat in on the "warning order" (notice of impending operations) for Lancer Fury last week, the plan was so cleverly contrived that the leadership at Deuce Four had to grudgingly acknowledge its excellence, even though the idea had originated from higher-up. In every military unit I have seen, there is a prevailing perception that good ideas trickle down from the top about as often as water flows uphill, so Lancer Fury apparently was a wunder-plan.

As a "surge" operation, Lancer Fury is sort of a crocodile hunt, where our people do things to make the crocodiles come out, trying to flush them into predictable directions, or make them take certain actions. And when they do, we nail them. The combat portion of the Surge amounted to a sophisticated "area ambush" that would unfold over the period of about one week.

This Surge is a complicated piece of work, with multidimensional variables and multifarious moving parts. Those parts range literally from boots on our feet to satellites zipping overhead. So, of course, glitches and snags started occurring the first day. Among other things, key gear failed; but overall, the Surge was going well. A few terrorists had already been caught in the first 24 hours.

Thursday night, a revised plan had me following some Deuce Four soldiers on a midnight raid. They had night vision gear, so they moved quickly. I had only moonlight, so I nearly broke my leg keeping up. Sleeking around Mosul under moonlight, we prowled through the pale glow until we came upon a pond near a farmhouse. Recon platoon had already raided one house and snagged some suspects, then crept away in the darkness to another target close by.

Five soldiers from Recon—Holt, Ferguson, Yates, Welch and Ross—were moving through moon-cast shadows when an Iraqi man came out from a farmhouse, his AK-47 rifle hanging by his side. Suddenly encircled by the rifles, lights and lasers of four soldiers, the man was quickly disarmed. A fifth soldier radioed for the interpreter and together they sorted out that he was a farmer who thought the soldiers were thieves skulking around his property. Recon returned the man his rifle, and started making their way back, umbral and silent across the ploughed fields.

During a halt in some trees at the edge of the field, I overheard the voice of LTC Kurilla, the commander of the Deuce Four battalion, quietly praising one of the soldiers for showing discipline in not shooting the farmer. After loading the other suspects onto Strykers, we returned to base, where I fell, exhausted, at about 3AM Friday morning.

The Surge continued while I slept.

Alpha Company had deployed during the early hours and was conducting operations around Yarmook Traffic Circle. SGT Daniel Lama, who is as much respected as he is liked, was pulling security in an air guard position of his Stryker, when a bullet flew straight at his neck, striking him. As he collapsed into the Stryker, his body clenched in seizure, fingers frozen, arms and legs rigid.

I seldom get letters in Iraq, but waiting for me in the mailroom while I slept was a card. The return address sticker, an American flag on it, was from Jefferson, Pennsylvania. The postage stamp had an American flag waving. The card inside had a picture of an American flag for its cover. The sweet and heartfelt message inside ended with--

Please tell our soldiers we care so much for them. --Dan and Connie Lama.

I was still asleep when medics brought their son Daniel to the Combat Support Hospital, or "Cash." It's a familiar place for Deuce Four soldiers, who've seen some of the most sustained and intense urban combat of this war, receiving over 150 Purple Hearts in the process.

Bap bap bap! on my door. I jumped up and there was CSM Robert Prosser, the top enlisted soldier at Deuce Four. Prosser is always professional, always direct: "Sergeant Lama's been shot. We're rolling in ten minutes," he said.

"I'll be there in ten," I answered, instantly awake.

Within minutes, I was running out my room, still pulling zips and fastening buttons, when I came sweating into the TOC. LTC Kurilla was there asking a soldier for the latest report on Sergeant Lama, now in surgery.

When a soldier is killed or wounded, the Department of Army calls the loved ones, and despite their attempts to be sympathetic, the nature of the calls has a way of shocking the families. There is just no easy way to say, "Your son got shot today." And so, according to men here, the calls sound something like this: "We are sorry to inform you that your son has been shot in Mosul. He's stable, but that's all we know at this time."

LTC Kurilla likes to call before the Army gets a chance, to tell parents and loved ones the true circumstances. Kurilla is direct, but at least people know they are getting an accurate account.

We loaded the Strykers and drove down to the Cash, and there was Chaplain Wilson, who might be the most popular man on base. Everybody loves him. Often when Chaplain Wilson sees me, he will say, "Good morning Michael. How are you today?" But sometimes he asks me, "Are you okay?" and I think, Do I look stressed?

"Of course I feel okay Chaplain Wilson! Don't I look okay?"

He just laughs, "Yes, Michael, you look fine. Just checking." But secretly, every time he asks, I feel a notch better.

Chaplain Wilson came out from the hospital smiling and explained that Daniel (Sergeant Lama) was fine. The seizure was just a natural reaction to getting shot in the neck. It was just a flesh wound. As if offering proof, Chaplain Wilson said: "When they rolled Daniel over, the doctor stuck his finger in Daniel's butt to check his prostate, and Daniel said, 'Hey! What are you doing?!'" Everybody laughed.

I changed the subject by snapping a photo of CSM Prosser while LTC Kurilla got Mrs. Lama on the Iridium satellite phone. I heard the commander telling this soldier's mother that her son was fine. Daniel just had some soft tissue damage, nothing major. Kurilla told her that he and some other soldiers were at the hospital now with Daniel, who was still too groggy to talk. "Really, Daniel's okay, and don't worry about it when the Army calls you."

Michael Yon : Online Magazine: Gates of Fire

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