The year was just shy of 2008, it was two weeks until Christmas and I was a month into the winter rotation in Mosul, Iraq with 5th Special Forces Group. My team and I were a part of a unit known as A/1/5 CIF, or the Commanders In-extremis Force, and we were young.
A/1/5 was a Green Beret unit specifically trained in advanced direct action missions to capture or kill high level terrorist targets as well as hostage rescue. We were combined into a joint task force consisting of a company of Rangers, SEALS and elements of Joint Special Operations Command’s (JSOC) elite Delta Force to hunt down and destroy al-Qaeda and its leadership in the Iraq insurgency, mostly in and around the city of Mosul and within the Nineveh Providence.
It was 4 p.m. local time, which meant it was 4 a.m. to us, due to the team adopting what we called as the “reverse sleep cycle.” We rested during the day so we could own the night while we hunted bad guys.
I had yet to do my morning rituals as I reached for the satellite phone on its charger; I had just messaged my then girlfriend to ask if she was free for a quick call. We made pleasantries and she asked me how my night had been.
That mission instantly flooded into my thoughts.
We were on what we call a “time-sensitive target.” A high value target (HVT) had popped up for some fresh air and the powers that be located him and confidently sent the coordinates to the task force, who then put the wheels in motion for The Legion CIF to adjudicate the target. The HVT was a known suicide-vest facilitator and what we dubbed a “true believer,” that might not be too keen on giving up. We chose to surreptitiously secure the perimeter and conduct what is known as a “call-out.”
A call-out is dangerous, simply because you are literally using a bullhorn with an Iraqi interpreter to, well… call them out of their stronghold or home. It’s loud, and once the trap is sprung, you are effectively letting everyone in the neighborhood know that the Americans are here. That can be dangerous in some of the worse off neighborhoods, and this “hood was up to no good.” It didn’t take long for the bad guys in the area to start taking offense to our intrusion, and a smattering of automatic gun fire soon erupted.
And just like that we were in another gunfight.
Only this time the perpetrators had no clue where we were–we moved like ninjas with a green hue where our eyes were supposed to be. We split the unit and worked our way to the flanks of the failing enemy ambush when it happened. As we moved north toward the gun fire, I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I turned and just as I locked eyes with him, he tried to flee.
“Stop motherfucker!” I yelled and repeated the same phrase in Arabic–he froze. I had my rifle trained dead-center on his forehead as I steadied toward him. “Right side,” I heard from my teammate, though I already sensed his presence as we both moved in unison.
The man was draped in traditional garb and was about a foot shorter than me; as I reached for him to take control of him he sprung at me. His hands snatched for my rifle and we were locked eye-to-eye. I could smell his chai-laced breath. I tugged once on my rifle and when it didn’t follow with me I snapped into an almost autonomic response–training took over as my right hand moved to my pistol and I brought my helmet replete with my night vision goggles down hard onto the face and nose of my attacker.
Before he or I knew it, my Glock 19 was under his chin and as I pulled the slack out of the trigger I remember saying to myself, “You will remember this the rest of your life.” In that split second of hesitation, I chose another path and I pistol-whipped him to the ground and landed on top of him, hard.
I flipped him and flex-cuffed him just as a small pool of blood began to form on the ground from a laceration across his forehead. He just added himself as a “plus one” to the guest list of the interrogators back at the compound awaiting our HVT.
We ex-filtrated the area with both the HVT and the would-be rifle thief. But, I didn’t want to talk to my girlfriend about that. I didn’t feel like I was in any danger and I didn’t want her to worry, so I just said, “Nothing much, played HALO,” and then asked what sort of lingerie she was wearing.
The rest of that conversation is for me, but after about 30 minutes it was time for me to start my workday. I grabbed my toiletries and headed for our community shower trailer to wash off last evening’s mission that ended four hours ago. Ahead of me was a teammate we will call “John,” heading in the same direction.
“Morning,” I said.
“Fuck off,” John warmly replied.
We chose our individual stalls (it pays to be a Green Beret) and began our hygiene routines. As I was soaping up my “poofyshowerscrubberthing,” I heard it. The high-pitched whine of what was most assuredly several rockets screaming down onto the outpost.
WHUMP, WHUMP, BOOOOOOM!
The shockwaves from the impact were literally lifting the shower trailer from the ground. I was being blinded by my shampoo as I pushed hard against the flimsy shower walls, riding the damn thing like a rodeo clown.
I was naked, soapy and now blind. “Are you kidding me!” I exclaimed, “This is how I die! Fuck it! Fuck you all!” I bellowed and then I heard John. “WOOOOOOHOOOOO, fuck you Iraq!” he screamed in between maniacal laughter. I started laughing along with him.
Little did John and I know that not 3-400 feet away, an intelligence sergeant making her way from a debriefing was bleeding to death, torn to shreds by an insurgent rocket that landed right in front of her. We were too busy pretending not to be scared.
I wrapped my towel around me and made a run for my hooch after the initial volley of rockets stopped, got dressed and quickly ran to the medical aid station to await possible casualties. No one assigned to the joint task force were injured; the rockets all fell literally just outside the entrance to our compound. The same rocket attack killed three doctors just down the road at the combat support hospital. They had just finished with their day of trauma surgeries that saved some service member’s lives.
Later that afternoon I heard that the deceased intelligence sergeant’s husband was also in Mosul. He was a platoon sergeant in a U.S. Army infantry company across the airfield. He had to identify his wife’s remains at the morgue and was to be accompanying his wife home.
The next day I made another call home and my then girlfriend asked me, “What did you end up doing yesterday?” I just repeated the same thing I always did: “Nothing much, played Call of Duty with the Delta guys again.”
I never told her about almost dying, or seeing death, being near it, causing it and desperately trying to beat it. I didn’t want to be looked at differently or feared. Death in war is simply what occurs and you remind yourself of that by saying, “It is what it is.”
Featured image courtesy of Derek Gannon