It had been a long day, a long mission.
Our mission had been conducted in the area of ________, just south of Baghdad. Small villages, open fields, palm plantations and small creek lines. The roads were a mix of MSR, ASR and even small dirt roads, which gave our busted-up sedan some troubles.
But now, on our way back to our compound located within the IZ, my team found itself back amongst the chaos of the city of Baghdad. Sirens, random gunfire, rundown neighborhoods and trash-filled streets. As our old model B6 armored Mercedes sedan rolled through the heavy afternoon traffic, it was hard not to notice just how destroyed and decayed this city was. Sanctions, the bombing campaign, and the daily effects of a full-blown insurgency/counter-insurgency war were sure as hell showing its effects on Iraq’s capital city.
We sat calm but alert within our armored chariot. We were dressed in our best locally purchased ‘haji shirts’ and sporting a variety of 70′s style moustaches and stylish haircuts. No shaved heads or shinny lens Oakleys on this team!
We blended in quite nicely, too. The casual glance of a local Iraqi, and even MNFI personnel, which nearly had me testing my plate carrier’s armor against friendly force 12.7mm rounds once, buts that’s another story…
On this day I had on my favorite haji shirt. Its colors were a mixture of brown, orange and deep red stripes… always stripes! It was amusing to see that nearly every type of local button-up shirt was always striped and contained the absolute worst colors possible to a western eye.
Underneath my shirt, which was sized one size up for my build, was my plate carrier. Front and back, soft and hard armor, with the sides free and clear and fastened with a flexible cummerbund strap system to hold it nice and tight. Below that was my battle belt, which held all my mission essential equipment. Two magazines for my pistol, two more magazines for my primary weapon, a small removable first-aid kit, radio, and my Glock 17. My belt also held one very special little item that would soon save the day for me and my fellow operator, who was piloting our slightly dodgy-looking vehicle.
As for pants, I was wearing plain blue denim jeans, as the Iraqis seemed to love wearing jeans. Below them I wore my trusty low-cut hiking boots. No use wearing local sandals or those terrible leather loafers the locals wore. If someone were close enough to see the type of shoes I was wearing, then they would certainly be able to tell that I was definitely not an Arab.
Laying just between my legs, and loosely covered by a cloth shemagh that I had purchased up in Jordan, was my M4 carbine. I was running a shorter-than-issue 10.5-inch barrel with a sound suppressor attached. When operating low-profile, if it comes down to you having to ‘go loud’, I’d still rather go loud as quietly as possible. The ability to remain as quiet as possible, even in contact, was a must, as my team was usually very small in numbers.
Next to my weapon underneath my legs was my small bug-out bag. These small bags are often called many other names, but it’s basically just a small type of bag or small pack that contains everything you can’t fit on your body without looking too bulky and wrecking your localish-type look. My bag was a simple side-slung pouch-type bag, nothing too big. I used to joke with some cats on the other teams about how their go bags looked more like packs that were ready for a fourteen-day reconnaissance mission!
My bug-out bag held three magazines for my primary weapon, one water bottle, two small high energy emergency chocolate bars I purchased from the PX and camp Victory, strobe lite, GPS (I also wore a small GPS on my wrist), small VS17 panel, med kit, a white heavy-smoke grenade and spare batteries. On the bags strap were curled a set of Peltor ComTacs. If we got into any type of protracted contact with our cover blown, these bad boys would certainly be around my ears. Even though we were running suppressed, an RPG rocket exploding in close proximity will fuck your hearing up, badly!
So, as we rolled deeper into the city, the streets were alive not only with vehicle traffic but also foot traffic. I can’t tell you how many times I had to try and tell these damn street peddlers that I didn’t want to buy their boxes of tissues or other strange items. I used to think “is my haji shirt really so good that these crazies think I’m an Iraqi on my way home from work and looking to fill up on tissues?” For some reason, Iraqis love tissues and have boxes of them everywhere. We even decorated our vehicle’s back window and front dashboard area with a couple of boxes. Maybe that’s why these crazy street sellers thought we wanted more. Now that I think of it, that is probably why.
But my mind wasn’t on stocking up on our local vehicle disguise items; my mind was on getting my team back into the IZ, back to the safety of our Compound.
We had just turned off a very busy road and onto a very heavily IED’d road. I was looking at all the IED holes and wondering how our ragged-ass vehicle would stand up against a hit from one of these roadside bombs, when comms from our local assets came up telling me that there were some IP up front causing some disturbance on the road.
I got up on the comms and asked our local assets if the IP looked legit or sketchy. The Iraqi Police were always sketchy, even if they were legit, but sometimes they were straight up insurgents. The call that came back from my local guys wasn’t good. “Sketchy! These guys are no good.”
I got on the comms and asked, “Bassam, what are they doing dude, why are they bad?”
This time his voice was very muffled and scared, and in his best English he said “these guys terrorist, they try make illegal checkpoint.”
Ok great, so now it seems these cats are insurgents, and they are gonna try and block the road to our front and start checking vehicles.
This was a common tactic carried out all the time within the sectarian war. We were in a hardcore Sunni area, and these cats were out for Shia scalps.
Our locals had only just made it past these cats before they had set up their IVCP, and were now parked on the side of the road, which was not a really safe option in this area. We were in the area named Dora, which was a particularly shitty area of the city. So here we are, in a very hot area and about to get jacked up by a bunch of Sunni insurgents disguised as IP. Traffic had now started to back up and we were jammed in tight, so I made the radio call to our Ops room and advised them of our location and that we were approaching a possible illegal vehicle checkpoint, and at this stage had no way of avoiding it.
Most of the cars to our front were probably local to the area, which means they were Sunni and would get the wave through once they had shown their IDs. I knew if this was, in fact, an IVCP that we would not fare so well.
As I said earlier, we were very light on the ground on this mission. Me, my partner Chris who was driving, and our locals. That was it. So, as we inched forward into this illegal checkpoint, it was time for me to think fast and get us out of this.
I asked our locals to keep eyes on and be ready to assist us if we needed it. We were now about six cars back from these guys… ”Dude, we are gonna have to try and ram through this if it gets hot,” I said to Chris. “Roger that,” came the reply from Chris, and we both got ready for a possible contact as we were now only three cars away.
Again, I gave a very quick sitrep over our main net, and it was right at this point that I heard a siren and car horn coming from our 6 o’clock. Then all of a sudden I see what is making all the noise – it was an IP gun truck loaded with guys in the back tray rolling up hard behind us and pushing cars out of the way as they went. “Dude, we got an IP gun truck coming up hard on our six,” I said to Chris. “Roger that,” was again his reply. Then all of a sudden the truck was right next to us on our left. Fuck. They had two wheels up on the center median and two wheels down on the road next to us. Their truck was now stuck because of our vehicle’s position and their driver’s over-amped driving skills.
Far out! Now we are fucked, I thought to myself. These cats in the gun truck were amped hard and going wild, screaming and yelling for us to move forward. It was at this point I said to Chris, “Dude, stay here, don’t move forward any further, we will let these two cars move forward to give us room and also block this fucking gun truck up on the curb.” Once again, a calm “Roger that” from Chris.
Now the cats up front were also getting mad at the occupants of the only car now left to our front. Everything was now happening very fast!
The guys from the gun truck had started to dismount, and guys in front had now motioned the car in front of us off the road to our right. This opened a little gap for us to possibly ram through, but still not enough for a clear path out to our front. At this point, the guys from the gun truck were dismounted and were all around our vehicle, with what seemed to be their leader now standing right in front of our car. A quick scan of these guys told me told we were about to get into some shit. All of them were wearing hoods and a mishmash of IP uniforms – Adidas track pants with AK chest rigs and a mix of weapons.
Straight away our eyes locked and these cats could see who we were. Or should I say, who we were NOT. I guess just out of reaction, and SOP, my first move was to hold up my ID at them against the window. This didn’t work… Weapons were now being cocked and we were being motioned to get out of the vehicle. I grabbed hold of our main radio and informed Ops we were surrounded. Again I held up my ID card against the window. I still wasn’t completely certain if these guys were insurgents or just the wildest bunch of IP I had ever seen!
Showing my ID usually worked when approached by IP or IA at a checkpoint, but on this occasion the ID still wasn’t working.
Now one player with a PKM stood straight in front of our vehicle and screamed loudly at us in Arabic. My Arabic skills are okay, but I had no idea what he was screaming. I can certainly tell you he wasn’t saying anything good!
By now we were pretty much surrounded on all sides by these guys, and they all seemed very exited about the fact that they had stumbled upon us and now had us trapped with what looked like no escape. More yelling in Arabic was directed towards us within the car, more weapons pointed at our windshield and at our vehicles engine. This situation was getting out of control and I looked over at Chris and said, “We gotta do something, man.”
I remember thinking what it would be like to be captured by AQ or the Madi Army and spirited off into some underground dungeon somewhere deep within an enemy stronghold. We all talked about it, we had all seen the Al Jazeera beheading footage. I even had a small dagger hidden on my person as a last line of attack if I was ever captured and had the chance to use it. Plus, the fact that as soon as these guys got us out of our vehicle and searched us and the car, they would certainly figure out that they were onto a good catch, and our fates would certainly have been sealed.
I hit the emergency button on our MTS blue force tracker system. I really had to start thinking fast, and that’s when it came to me. It was time to bring out my little friend! I reached under my shirt and into the pouch on my belt, grabbed out my M67 fragmentation grenade, and held it up against the window! As I did this I put on the best war face I could muster up, and began yelling every swear word I could come up with.
I was looking directly into the eyes of the guy with the PKM to our front, and made sure he knew exactly what was in my hand. I then pretended to open my door and make like I was going to throw the grenade outside. It was only quick but it had an effect and most of them jumped away from the car. The guy with PKM was so scared he jumped to his left and fell over, letting off a burst from his weapon that went straight over our vehicle. “Chris ram through! Ram it through on the left!” I prayed to Odin that our trusty vehicle wouldn’t let us down at this most critical time.
Chris gassed it hard and we slammed straight into the left rear of the haji’s car in front, and scraped hard down its left side. Crack, crack, crack! Our rear window was hit with a volley of rounds impacting into the armored glass. “Bang” again another round hit what sounded like my door as we emerged from around the local’s car. Again “bang” another round impacted my door and then “crack!” my whole window turned into a spider’s web of cracked armored glass from multiple hits.
At this stage I remember yelling at Chris “floor it!” (Yeah, like he’s not already trying his best to do that, haha…)
The sound of our engine revving hard, weapons firing, their rounds impacting our vehicle, and me speaking loudly into our vehicle’s main radio ‘Oscar 1 this is Victor 1 contact wait out’ is what I remember most from that short, chaotic space in time. Don’t panic; try your best to operate within the chaos. Try your best to control it.
Because of the illegal checkpoint and its effects on the traffic, the road ahead was mostly empty. We took advantage of the light traffic to our front and gassed it hard. I gave our Ops room a short contact report, letting them know we had made it through the IVCP. As we sped along, I reached into the vehicle’s glove compartment and pulled out a white smoke grenade, opened my door just enough, pulled the grenade’s pin and dropped it out onto the road. I repeated this with another smoke grenade, this time red smoke. I did this to cause a bit of chaos behind us, and maybe make those guys think I was marking the ground and calling in air assets. Hell, it was worth a shot.
Just after dumping the two smoke grenades we zoomed past our locals who were still parked up on the side of the road. I had forgotten about them in the chaos, and as we passed them I told them over the radio to get in behind us, and that we would lead all the way back into the IZ.
I knew we had a checkpoint to clear before getting onto the bridge and getting out of this hot area. I was pretty over any resemblance of a checkpoint at this stage and was ready to blast my way through. I held my weapon tight in my hand and was ready to crack my door just enough for my barrel to push out, but this was not needed.
As we approached, I noticed that the checkpoint was strangely unmanned. “Fuck it, who cares at this point,” and we zoomed through and onto the bridge. As we came across the bridge we passed through one traffic circle and then we slammed straight into total gridlock at the second and last traffic circle on our route towards the IZ. We were now just short of the small road that lead to the gate.
Cars were jammed up, horns blasting, people yelling at each other to move. Baghdad’s peak rush hour!
Chris then broke silence and came out with an “I’m fucking over this shit dude, can you get these cunts outa the way??!!” I agreed!
We had just rammed through an AQ checkpoint and escaped certain capture and possible torture. At this stage we just wanted to get secure. I said to Chris “I’m going out right to clear us a path,” and I rolled out onto the street. It was at that moment as I reached back to close my door I noticed how many times our vehicle had been hit. The entire right side of the vehicle was hit with bullet strikes. I thanked the armor, but was kinda pissed that my little grenade trick didn’t keep them down that long after all. Aw well, it did give us that split second that we needed to get out of there!
But we were not inside the concrete T walls of the IZ just yet!
I ran across the traffic circle to where the other lane of traffic was entering, stood in the middle of the road, and gave the entering cars the signal to stop and not enter any further into the traffic circle. Any attempt to pass me would be met with an angry look… and my weapon pointed straight at your face. At this stage I was over playing games, and I guess the site of a wild-eyed westerner wearing his best haji shirt standing in the middle of the road pointing his weapon at approaching vehicles worked, because no one tried entering the traffic circle.
I stood there in the middle of the road holding traffic until both our vehicles had slowly made their way past me and were actually on the road that led up to the gate. It was obviously a bit of a risky tactic to stand in the middle of the road in downtown Baghdad, but at this time I deemed it necessary.
Yes, I did expose myself and effectively blow our cover, but the gate was in sight and we wanted to get secure as fast as possible! Our SOPs were to maintain our cover at all times if possible, but sometimes you just gotta do what works on the spot. Plus, the fact that our car now looked like we had been driving up and down the main street of Ramadi all day was telling me that our cover was a little compromised anyway, haha!
I remember looking back at the bridge and waiting for that IP/Insurgent gun truck to come racing across the bridge, but it didn’t. Maybe it was still stuck on that curb? I didn’t care as I ran over to my vehicle, opened the door, and jumped inside.
As we passed the Iraqi Army on the outer perimeter of the gate, we reached the MNFI Military-manned area, our busted-up car clunking and scrapping over the tank tracks layed over the gate’s road. A wide-eyed, teenage-looking soldier came from his lonely post to get eyes on me and check my ID. As I briefed him on who I was and that the car behind mine contained my Iraqi assets, I could see his eyes darting around me, Chris and our vehicle. “Dude, you guys have been lit up!”
I saw the look in this kids eyes, and I just knew I had to say something cool before leaving him to the rest of his gate-duty shift. I remembered one of my favorite lines from the Clint Eastward movie Heart Break Ridge. So, just before I closed my door and we made entry into the relative safety of the IZ, I squinted at that kid and said, “Keep it tight.”
- Earl Ray Michaels
(Featured Image Courtesy: Times of News)