LIVING THE DREAM
We are roaring along at 250 kilometres an hour, about five metres above ground level in the Iraqi desert. I am sitting on the outermost seat in the transport helicopter, feeling the heat of the motor exhaust against my left arm.
The night is black, but I have a clear view of the vast, flat landscape. It is dotted with bright spots created by the gas flares of countless oil refineries. Inside the cabin sit seven other Jaegers. The hollows of their eyes glow green through the faint light of night vision goggles. As always, they look calm and relaxed.
I check my equipment and weapon, a C8 carbine, one final time. The helicopter’s loadmaster, who directs us in and out of the cabin, sticks two fingers in the air. Two minutes from the target.
This is “Operation Viking,” a special operation involving Jaegers. Its purpose is to identify and gather information about the enemy and, if necessary, take him down. Tonight, the mission is to destroy a weapons depot.
Life has been hell during the last couple of months at Basra Air Station, which under Saddam Hussein was a civilian airport but now houses the western coalition forces: Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is also the 500-man Danish DAN-BAT battalion’s headquarters. The battalion is under the command of a 4000-soldier British brigade. The base has been under attack throughout the winter and spring of 2007. The Jaysh Al-Mahdi (JAM) militia, led by the Shia Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has been firing rockets at the base from a radius of 5-10 kilometres up to 20 times a day.
A decision has been made to tackle the problem by locating JAM’s weapon depots in the region. A few Jaeger Corps teams have been summoned.
In the last 24 hours, 16 rockets have been launched at our camp. A British soldier was killed and two others critically wounded when a Chinese-built 107 mm rocket slammed into their sleeping quarters, transforming them into a bloody carnage of bones amid stumps of twisted metal. Hence, when a reconnaissance patrol identifies a depot in the desert with a 107 mm rocket, some 20 kilometres from the camp, we are anxious to get there quickly and destroy it.
My team had just returned from a six-day operation and settled into rest and recovery mode when our platoon commander, “The Bicep,” arrived to announce the new mission. Within an hour, we had studied the area in which the rocket depot is located, planned emergency procedures and organized assistance from an unmanned surveillance aircraft which, from a height of three kilometres, can film and report any activity on the ground before, during and after the operation.
I am not the team’s demolitions expert, but due to my experience with clearing land mines and four years in demolitions, I help gather information about the rocket, prepare an explosive charge and work out a procedure for the destruction of the weapon.
We are now in the helicopter, two minutes from the coordinate given to us by the patrol that discovered the weapons depot. The area is crawling with JAM units, recognised as the most belligerent militia fighters in Iraq. We have no desire for our presence to be detected.
Our patrolling unit is still in the area and informs us over the encrypted radio that the landing zone is secure. One minute until we land. I am preparing to disembark first because I am the team’s scout. I lean forward in the seat and get ready for the loadmaster’s signal. Here it comes – “Go, Go, Go!” – I jump into the Iraqi night and move swiftly away from the cloud of sand, gravel and stones whipped up by the helicopter’s blades. My seven teammates are right behind me. We hit the ground and form a circle to secure the landing zone. It is safe.
The helicopter takes off immediately, returning to standby at the base. Being our scout, I signal to the team already on the ground with my white spot, a so-called passive light on the weapon, visible only with night vision goggles. The flicker is answered and we join forces. The surveillance craft, Shadow, reports no enemy activity in the area.
We are only three to four kilometres from a town, from which two roads lead out to the depot. If anyone saw or heard our helicopter land, JAM militia forces are likely to arrive shortly on one of those roads. This requires urgency. Our demolitions expert and I move towards the depot about 50 metres from the landing zone, while the rest of the team hide behind sand dunes and secure our position. The rocket is placed on the ground, pointing in the direction of our camp. All it needs is a home-made launching pad, or even just a few sand bags to prop it up.
We carefully place an explosive charge on the rocket, tying it on with strong elastic bands to make sure it tightly covers the firing tube, which is its most vital part since it ensures the detonation. Destroy that and the rocket is disarmed permanently.
I check everything again and report to our team leader, Kenneth, that everything is ready. He signals ‘go’ and I switch on the explosive charge, which has a two-minute delay. I count down from five, and on “fire” Rasmus ignites the charge. We start our stopwatches.
I report over the radio that the charge is on. We scurry away and take cover behind a sand embankment about 40 metres from the rocket. The others are another 100 metres away, defending our position in all directions.
I report “one minute” over the radio. “30 seconds, 10 seconds, 5 seconds.” Then I bury my head in the sand and fold my hands behind my neck to protect it.
The deep, hollow blast cuts through the night air, the force of it lifting Rasmus and I off the ground. Metal fragments whistle over our heads like projectiles. One fragment the size of a frying pan burrows into the sand right behind us. Shaken by the ferocity of the explosion but otherwise fine, we report to Kenneth that we will carry out a battle damage assessment to ensure the rocket is destroyed.
We struggle to our feet and examine the big, hot crater. The rocket is spread over several hundred metres. Then we seek out the rest of the group, which has already called the helicopter and formed a landing zone, where it will arrive in five minutes.
This is the most critical phase of the entire operation. The detonation has revealed our presence in the area. As we await the helicopter, I observe the roads, from which JAM militia units may arrive at any moment. I’m trying to stabilise my hectic breathing. The British helicopter pilot announces over the radio that he is two minutes out. Soon we hear the calming sound of blades chopping through the air.
At the same time, we receive a radio report of activity in our area and suddenly we can hear shouting from the other patrol team. It would be highly dangerous if we engaged in combat now. Our landing zone would be hot, the helicopter would avoid landing, and we would have a serious problem.
“One minute out” sounds the report from the helicopter. We all switch on our small infrared strobe lights, which are visible only with night vision goggles. That way the pilot can see the landing zone and us.
We are still confused by the report of activity in the area but without a clear identification, we decide to carry out the pick-up. The helicopter is now visible. It approaches low and fast and, as it slows down, converts the landing zone into a cloud of dust and sand. The pressure from the enormous blades forces us to lean forward to avoid falling.
Two blinks from the loadmaster’s infrared torch means we can board. I am the first in the formation and accelerate with all my strength towards the helicopter’s ramp to jump into the machine’s belly. I throw myself into the seat against the cabin wall. As soon as everyone is aboard, the helicopter takes off with screeching turbines. With a sharp turn we are on our way back to the camp.
The operation has gone to plan. The rocket has been destroyed and we were not compromised. Without endangering our own security, we have stopped part of the rocket rain, which makes life in the camp more and more stressful and necessitates staying in the bomb shelters overnight. Of course, we have not put an end to JAM and its mission to destabilise southern Iraq and assume power. But we have made it more difficult for the militia to continue its fight against us.
I look down through the cabin and see the teeth of seven sweaty, smiling, camouflaged faces. I’m smiling too. I have been involved in boosting security for our troops and I feel that “Operation Viking” has been a mission that vindicates my life in the Jaeger Corps.
This is what it is all about for me – to complete a real war operation with my Jaeger mates after years of training. This has been my goal through all those years of grueling training geared towards joining the Jaeger Corps. From the time when I was nine years old, donned camouflage gear and snuck out at night to patrol the old defence fortress near my childhood home in Copenhagen, to my time as a 14-year-old training hard before joining the Royal Guard on work experience, this has been my dream. I think back to the punishing selection process and the sense of relief when I received the burgundy beret and the “JAEGER” mark on my shoulder. I also recall my disillusion and subsequent resignation from the corps, and the reason for returning after eight years.
It was because of a mission like this one.
European readers can find Thomas’ book, Jaeger: at War with the Elite on this site.
(Featured Image: Author’s personal collection - Thomas and his Jaegar teammates in Basra, Iraq. 2007.)