23 January 2007, Baghdad, Iraq, east of the Tigris River.
Six years ago, January 23rd, 2007, was one of the darkest days in the history of diplomatic security. On that day, five men working as security contractors for the U.S State department were killed in Baghdad, Iraq.
The morning had started like any other for the State Department’s security teams. Various Protective Security Detail (PSD) teams leaving what was then known as the Green Zone (now called the International Zone, or IZ,) and escorting their principles to various meetings outside the zone into the city.
The PSD teams in Baghdad had been involved in many contacts with the enemy before. But nothing of the size and scope of what was to erupt that winter morning. A routine meeting east of the Tigris River took a turn for the worse when PSD Team #1 got word of contact from the roof.
A Designated Defensive Marksman (DDM) providing overwatch on the roof reported taking small arms fire from nearby buildings, and began engaging targets. PSD Team #1 radioed their escort, a Boeing MH-6 “little bird” helicopter for assistance. During the site surveillance that followed, one of the gunners for the helicopter was hit by small arms fire, and the aircraft immediately departed for the nearest coalition forces hospital.
A second pair of little birds was quickly launched from the IZ, reaching the contact area in about three minutes of flight. They were immediately engaged with heavy volume of fire from all directions. One was hit, and went in hard. The second little bird also received fire, and was forced to land.
Arthur Laguna, my brother, was my wing man at that point and as we took evasive maneuvers I heard him they were taking rounds. By the time I got turned around to see him he was gone.
As I continued to look for his helicopter we were also shot down. I was able to land the helicopter in a small courtyard. I shut down the helicopter to assess the damage and to make sure my crew was ok. My crew was fine and the helicopter was shot up pretty bad but was able to fly the three to five minutes back to the Green zone.
I needed to get my crew out of that area because it would have been only a few minutes before the insurgents would have gotten to us. After I got back to our area I had the mechanics put on three more rotor blades and went back out to find my brother and his crew. It only took them about ten to fifteen minutes to get me airborne again. I was back up looking for my brother and was able to get the military to help with search.
Quick Reaction Force (QRF) Team #1, another U.S. security team, was in the area, and, realizing that the team in contact needed backup, proceeded to the meeting location.
En route, QRF #1 was passed by several Iraqi armored humvees. These humvees then set up a blocking point ahead of the team, directing them towards an intersection where it was observed there was an ominous lack of pedestrian and vehicle traffic, unusual for the busy city center of Baghdad.
Once QRF#1 passed north of this intersection, all hell broke loose. They began receiving heavy amounts of small arms and heavy machine gun fire from both sides of the street. As they continued to advance up the road, the Americans engaged targets with their own belt-fed machine guns and rifles.
Finally fighting their way through the contact, QRF#1 realized that their vehicles had sustained heavy damage, including flat tires. Still not having reached their destination of the building where the meeting was taking place, they veered off to find a secure area so they could change the flat tires.
Tire changes complete, QRF#1 recieved word that the second set of little birds had gone down somewhere in the area. They left the secure area and proceeded to the location where it was believed the helicopter might have gone down.
Again, QRF#1 arrived at an area completely clear of pedestrians and traffic. Once in the area, they were immediately engaged by heavy machine gun fire from both side of the road. This area included enemy positions in multiple high rise buildings, making it difficult to engage.
Attempting to break contact, QRF#1 departed off the main road, and linked up with other backup fire teams, QRF#2 and #3. As they continued their search, they were bombarded once again by a furious volume of heavy machine gun fire, small arms, and grenades.
The teams successfully broke contact, and linked up with a U.S. Army Stryker team that was also in search for the downed little bird. With yet another flat tire, QRF#1 was unable to negotiate the road, which at this point was littered with obstacles. Forced to dismount and create a secure area, the team observed individuals barricading the road in one direction, so proceeded, after the tire change, to go the opposite direction. At this point, the downed aircraft had still not been located.
Continuing the search, while under constant contact, QRF#1 encountered another army Stryker team. The Stryker team leader informed QRF#1 that they had located the downed aircraft and were in the process of securing the area.
Dan Laguna remembered helping with the identification:
It took about twenty minutes to locate the helicopter. It had been shot down in a small ally which made it very difficult to locate. By the time we found the helicopter two of the bodies were dragged out and into the street. The Army and our PSD team got there just in time before they could do anything with them.
I landed at that location so I could make sure they were my guys. When I unzipped the second body bag that the Army had already put them in, I found my brother.
I was told by the ground guys that they would get them all back to the Green zone. I walked back to my running helicopter, jumped in and flew back to the Green Zone. I then realized I had to make a very difficult call to my brother’s wife. I did everything I could to let her know he did not suffer and how very sorry that I was. Later that night I was asked to go to the hospital to ID my guys. Later at the hospital the US Ambassador showed up to talk with me.
Establishing a perimeter, QRFs #1, 2, and 3 dispatched men to recover their fallen comrades and request assistance from the stryker team to destroy the remains of the little bird.
QRF #2 departed to return to the IZ with the fallen, while elements from the other teams remained on station while they waited for confirmation that the little bird had been destroyed. Once the aircraft began to burn, and the teams started returning to their respective vehicles, they and the army units started recieving sniper fire from one of the high rises in the vicinity.
What started with sniper fire soon turned into an all-out firefight, with light and heavy machine gun fire, small arms, and grenades attacking the teams for the next hour. With some of their dismounted elements cut off from the vehicles, the teams were unable to leave the area. By now the battlefield was fully engaged, and the U.S. personnel were in the fight of their lives.
“It was insane,” remembered a former contractor who was there that day. “I remember hearing grenades just exploding everywhere. I watched one that looked like it was in slow motion bounce right on the hood of our vehicle about a foot from my face before falling off the side and detonating.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Stryker teams were engaging all targets with Mark-19 grenade launchers,.50 caliber machine guns, and other heavy weapons. Air assets, including AH-64 Apache strike helicopters, were called in for gun runs on the high rise buildings, with the explosions from their rockets creating a dense fog of smoke and debris that rose high above the city.
Finally, during a lull in the shooting, the exhausted security teams were finally able to recover their dismounted personnel and exfiltrate the contact area, roughly five hours after the fighting began.
The men of the U.S. State Department and U.S. Army acquitted themselves remarkably well that day. U.S. Army after action reports put the enemy death toll at at least 100, with probably many more gravely wounded after the fact. For the Americans, besides the five initial casualties, not a single other man was lost. Indeed, only one was slightly wounded and made a full recovery.
PSD Team#1 was able, under the cover of fire, to safely extract their principle and return safely to the IZ, with no casualties to themselves or their protectees.
A total of five souls were lost that day, one on the first little bird, and four more on the second:
- Shane Stanfield, 25 years old. United States Marine Corps
- Arthur Laguna, 52 years old. U.S. Army Aviation
- Steven Gernet, 42 years old. U.S. Army, Special Forces Group, 75th Ranger Regiment
- Casey Casavant, 36 years old. U.S. Army, 75th Ranger Regiment
- Ron Johnson. U.S. Army, 75th Ranger Regiment
Dan Laguna later stated that he had never seen anything like the fighting that day, even after decades working in special operations. Other personnel were stunned at the ferocity of the firefight, yet were proud that they were able to not only complete their mission of defending the State Department personnel under their protection, but also bring back the fallen men.
“It was very eye opening and humbling, knowing the force, capability, and capacity that a working unit can do, especially under attack… that ability to repel against these insurgents that were actively trying to kill us,” said a former contractor in the middle of the fight that day, when asked how he felt when it was all over. “Not to mention the fact that we were able to recover our comrades, and have it bring even more of a bond to the guys on the team… it brought the entire group of men together.”
“Talk about sobering. I had been through shootings and other attacks, but was never in such sustained, massive combat. It was such an unknown stress that my body has never felt. I slept probably 12 hours solid afterward… my roommate thought something was wrong with me because I went to bed that night and didn’t wake up for a long time. When I did, I felt like I had slept for three days.”
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