I had been in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, for about a whole two weeks and was probably as “green” as I could possibly be. The region was still engaged in a heated conflict with IS and attacks of all kinds were occurring daily. I had just arrived at the Peshmerga‘s 9th Brigade, one of the only known Kurdish military units taking in foreigners in Iraqi Kurdistan. 9th Brigade was located in Daquq, a city just outside Kirkuk, and had a main forward operations base located about 5 kilometers from the front lines with the Islamic State. Little did I know that when I woke up, I would be involved in the most significant firefight of my life that following night.

We were given a summarized brief by our elected “platoon leader” the previous night. Our objective as a unit would be to assault and gain control of two Islamic State controlled villages consecutively. While we did this, other Peshmerga units would do the same on our right and left flanks across some several kilometers of terrain. We were broken down into two squads and would move out in our two armored pick-up trucks when the green light was given in the morning. Well, Murphy’s Law is a thing and unfortunately no plan survives first contact.

The next morning we all got up early and shuffled around the base restlessly, squaring gear away and stuffing food into our faces. Now, the Kurdish people are not known for their punctuality but holy shit is it time to go when the powers that be say it’s time to go! When the little Kurd that was the PSD (Personal Security Detail) Chief for the General of 9th Brigade opened the door to our room out of nowhere and said something to the effect of “let’s go now,” we got our kits on and hurried to the trucks. That’s when I noticed we were missing a few of our guys, so I ran back to gather them up. Having found them, we came running back to the trucks only to watch them haul ass out the front gate without us. Those of us left behind were partially to blame for this, but the Kurds gave zero warning of when mission launch would actually be.

Well I wasn’t there for the first day, but I did hear it straight from the guys who went when they got back later. Apparently our team of dudes rolled up to the farthest point from the battle to retake the villages where they had to sit and watch under the General’s orders. I was told that a few pot shots were fired and a VBIED (Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) was taken out as it rushed Peshmerga forces. All in all it sounded like a boring day and I didn’t feel like I missed much. Despite this I was pretty upset, at no one in particular, about being left behind and missing out on the “action.” That was all about to change.

The fall of Kirkuk

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The following day our Peshmerga Lieutenant/handler rallied us mid-day to go out to the villages that had been captured the day prior. This time we loaded up in our black Humvees with all of our crew served weapons and ammo. When we were good and ready, we bounced out the front gate in a column doing communications checks with each other over our Motorola radios. Driving through the city in the turret of the Humvee, I observed the daily activities of Daquq from behind my M240G machine gun. We soon made a hard right and started heading through an outlying village full of farmers and people from humble dwellings. Civilians came out to observe our convoy passing through their village with curiosity; children smiled and waved with enthusiasm on occasion. Everyone seemed to be fascinated with the foreign westerners riding under the Peshmerga flag out to the front lines. We eventually reached the beginning of the farthest war-torn village after passing through the countryside and isolated dwellings; several ruined buildings still stood smoldering from coalition ordinance. Peshmerga stood around nonchalantly observing us with mild curiosity.

The order was given to dismount so I passed off control of my turret to a nearby Peshmerga and joined my squad near the berm line on the village exterior. The other squad, who got there first, was quick to inform us they had just received sniper fire from the outer field so I made a concerted effort to keep my head from being exposed over the top. We were told to clear a nearby house in the field and then set up a perimeter, so we drove over to it and I covered them with the 240G while they cleared it out. Once done, our Humvees were re-positioned along the berm line in a makeshift gun line and crew served weapons were employed accordingly — later the up-armored pick-up trucks were brought in as well. This was done quickly to establish site security and then it was time to stand-by to stand-by, which meant drinking chai and (mindfully) lounging about near the berm.

I was sitting in the turret of our Humvee with some of my squad when my radio squawked unexpectedly, so I radioed back with a, “Say again your last, over.” The next thing I heard was thick Arabic come across the channel; I looked at my A-driver with a shocked expression and asked if he heard that. After a brief “what the fuck,” we shrug it off because the chatter was the last and only time we heard it come through our communications. We knew it was from an external source but could do nothing with the information due to our limited resources. The rest of the day went by uneventfully and we started up a firewatch rotation as night rolled in; the Kurds felt content standing around a camp fire they had made, certain the Islamic State would not attack.

What I remember most was how cold it was that night, in the bone dry, cold desert air. In fact, I eventually stuffed my woobie (military issue blanket) into my plate carrier. Another volunteer and I had set up our PKM and two MG3s along the top of the berm earlier in the day, but for some reason the Peshmerga had thought they were better suited in the back seat of the gun trucks — a few less positions to man. For the duration of the night, I wandered around from post to post and occasionally over to the fire where the Peshmerga stood, sacrificing my natural night vision for a little warmth. At one point I attempted a power-nap up against a tire in between my watch, which turned into 6 power-naps over the course of an hour due to the cold shivers waking me every 10 minutes. Finally, I had enough at around 1 a.m. and decided to head back to my two friends who were standing near a brick water pipe structure that we had parked our Humvee next to, which was sporting a DShK (large Russian machine gun). I greeted them and we stood around for a while.

Out of nowhere, insane amounts of tracer fire erupted to our right and left flanks so far out we couldn’t hear them but we thought nothing of it. We figured if the Peshmerga were so calm, why should we worry? They’d been in this fight longer than any of us and must have had a reason for being so relaxed. We continued to stand our post as the situation demanded.

Peshmerga look to conduct joint security operations with Iraqi forces

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We were talking among one another when the Peshmerga soldier next to us did a sweep of the terrain to our front with a high-powered flashlight. Unfortunately, only one Peshmerga, a commander, possessed night vision. To compensate for this, a MILAN rocket system, capable of thermal imaging, had been set up and flashlights were used intermittently to scan the perimeter. The Peshmerga who was scanning stopped on a reflective glint on the ground near a small berm, some 100 meters out. We realized it was not there before and one of us said something along the lines of, “Yo. You see that?”  Just as we did, the Peshmerga shut off the flashlight. We quickly urged him to turn it back on but neither of us spoke Kurdish very well at that point, so it took a few seconds. As this was happening I could hear the patter of distant footsteps sprinting across open ground. I turned and exclaimed in a hushed tone, “You hear that dude?! He’s trucking hard!” The Peshmerga turned on his flashlight and began to scan with it again, left to right, starting at the last known location. He stopped again; the glint was directly to our front and a little further back than before. We were certain this was an Islamic State combatant.

My friend and I decided we were going to open fire but should get approval from the Lieutenant first, who was sleeping in a truck. Our third guy stepped back to look for him. A few moments passed before I looked at my friend and said, “Fuck it,” before we proceeded to tear into the glint with bursts from my RPK paired with his semi automatic AKM. As we are doing this, the General of 9th Brigade came storming up to us shouting, “Stop!”

The General reached our position and proceeded to lecture us in flustered broken English about how “we must have disciple.” When we informed him of the Islamic State fighter only 100 meters away he replied by telling us how, “that is 1 kilometer away,” angrily gesturing to a light in the distance as if we were mentally retarded. He stormed off not wanting to hear us out, like we were inferior to his intellect — we were left standing there, pissed at the situation. We stepped to the left, behind the brick box, from where we were firing and begin to complain about what just transpired; we did that for a whole three minutes.

My sentence was cut off by the WHOOSH and ping of an RPG soaring through the air, clipping the side of the Humvee to our right with one of its fins. I dove to the ground shouting, “RPG!” slamming down to the prone. It was at this moment that adrenaline and training kicked in. I pushed off with my hands, still clutching my RPK, and landed in a kneeling position behind the right corner of the bricks.

Incoming red tracers filled the night sky as I popped out from my newfound cover, firing my rifle at the source of the incoming rounds. We started firing in the direction of their senders in an attempt to lay down a solid base of fire while screaming “Fuck You!” Their muzzle flashes were faint, probably 150-200 meters out, but they were accurate. Rounds dinged off the Humvee and came in small, alternating bursts as we returned the favor with our rifles. These guys were well-trained and we had definitely engaged their scout earlier. I begin burning up as my adrenaline spiked and asked my friend to pull the woobie out from my plate carrier. The drum in my RPK went dry and I peeled back behind cover to reload it with one of my magazines; thankfully I had brought an excessive amount and wasn’t going to be out of ammunition anytime soon. I turned to my friend and ask, “Do you think he believes us now?” in reference to the 9th Brigade General.

I began shouting orders at three Peshmerga crawling around at the base of the berm; I wanted them to maneuver to the right and fire from there in an effort to create some flank security plus intersecting fields of fire. Unfortunately they didn’t speak any English, so they just stared at me blankly as I screamed. My friend ran over to me and told me to calm down. I assured him I was fine and continued to fire my rifle. That’s when he looked at me as we heard the sound of large steel objects soaring through the sky. “Incoming,” he said and we ducked down as mortar struck.

We were rocked by the blast as the rear of our gun truck below us, over looking a small wadi on the left flank, exploded and peppered us with secondary shrapnel. We later learned the (61mm) mortar had impacted about a meter behind the tailgate. I shut my eyes and felt the small rocks sting across my face as my friend shouted, “God damnit,” as his ass got riddled in unison. I opened my eyes and realized I was fine but that our second squad was in that truck and one of them was in the turret. We called out to the cloud of dust where the truck was, asking if they were alright. A loud “yeah” was given in response, and they left their truck to occupy a berm line farther up. The dust cloud parted and one of our guys could be seen in the truck’s turret attempting to get a damaged PKM to function while swearing up a storm. We turned back and continued firing into the darkness.

More mortars started to rain in around us — they were bracketing us with precision. I remember truly experiencing fear for the first time as I realized that one of them would probably slam into us at any moment. However, there was nothing I could do about it so I continued shooting at the ghosts trying to kill us.

It was at this moment a convoy of vehicles came in behind us, full of Peshmerga. I was elated that we had received reinforcements, but that quickly passed as the convoy got to the berm’s base and turned around to leave. Peshmerga were running to jump on the fleeing vehicles as they pulled away. I turned to a Peshmerga that had joined us at our small box, a man I later learned was the Brigade XO and Colonel, screaming, “Where the fuck are they going!? Are they fucking leaving us!?”

I turn to my friend with far more experience than I and asked,”Bro, are we supposed to be leaving dude?” He casually glanced around the corner for a second before turning back to me with a, “Nah, were good. We’re staying, chill out.”

We continued shooting for a bit when my RPK suddenly stopped. I hastily attempted to clear the malfunction and discovered the charging handle was stuck mid way. After several more attempts to pull it back, I turned back to my friend and told him, “this shit is fucked,” as I considered making a dash for the DShK that had not yet fired a single round. He grabbed my rifle from me and proceeded to pull it apart in the darkness. Something fell out and he returned the parts to me saying,”Finish this, I gotta go work.” Sure enough, I reassembled my rifle and the 1961 Yugoslavian piece of shit was back in the fight.

We were barely holding our own at this point when two recent new guys in the group came running up the berm with an MG3 and ammo can in hand. They slammed it down to the left of the box and begin grazing fire. Incoming rounds smacking around them as the MG3 went cyclic. The gun, after an insane volume of fire, finally ran away (goes full auto on its own due to the rounds cooking off from over heating). They held it on target and swept the Islamic State fighter’s positions. Our own guys started sending mortars out simultaneously toward the enemy. Rounds were still coming in on us but not the way they were previously. We began shouting, “fuck you” and “Allahu Akbar” at the Islamic State fighters, taunting them as we shot intermittently to conserve ammo.

I jumped off the berm and slid a short distance near the bottom in an attempt to grab the ammo back pack where we kept the extra rifle magazines. I couldn’t find it anywhere but I ran into another volunteer fighter. In an attempt to be useful, I asked him to help me suppress the wadi to our left since my spot had been taken on the box. We pushed to the left side firing into the tall grass. Daylight was breaking and the incoming fire had started to lessen. Under our covering fire, a Humvee began pushing the left side armed with an M2 and PKM machine gun. Once they had made it across the wadi, they began firing out into the badlands toward the fighters. In response to the whole situation, the IS fighters collected their wounded and bounded out of there with talking guns. The last shots were fired as the sun came up and hundreds of Peshmerga returned to the scene.

We walked off the berm, covered in spent casings, to see a body being loaded into a truck bed. It was a Peshmerga Major, Nazmahdeen, who had been returning mortar fire when he suffered a direct hit with a 61mm and was cut in half. The Peshmerga who fled during the attack had returned to seek their glory. News crews followed them as they crowded around the 9th Brigade commanders who spoke into the massive TV cameras. We walked back to a rearward position where some of our Humvees had been relocated and drank water as we smoked our cigarettes. We decided to take a team photo, proud that we had kicked ass — we had done our part and held our heads high with a proud look of defiance.

I later learned we had been surrounded and that the convoy that come through to get us had broken through it. The tracer fire we had seen earlier in the night on the flanks was due to similar assaults on Peshmerga positions. This would be the first time an Islamic State ambush was held off and forced back in the history of the conflict.