On Dec. 30, 2016, I arrived in Mosul, Iraq and reunited with soldiers of the Iraqi Special Forces I had not seen in nearly nine years. I returned as a retired soldier and aspiring war correspondent — while they have not stopped fighting the enemies of their country since I left.

After the ride with Sgt. Maj. Abdulwahab from Erbil, which included a stop for lunch at his uncle’s house and Friday prayers, I arrived at the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service observation post on the eastern edge of Mosul. Upstairs I waited for Brig. Gen. Haider Al-Obeidi, my brother-in-arms from 2008 when I served as his adviser. Now my friend is a one-star general and the ground force commander for the push to clear Mosul from ISIS occupation.

With Haider was Col. Arkan, recently profiled in BuzzFeed as the key link between Iraqi forces on the ground and the coalition air power supporting them. Arkan was the first Iraqi since the 2003 invasion to graduate U. S. Army Ranger School. He is also Iraq’s leading air controller, and literally “calls the shots” when his guys need bombs on ISIS targets. He speaks perfect vernacular American English.

Col. Arkan and Brig. Gen. Haider of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service are leading the planning and execution of the liberation of Mosul from Islamic State occupation. Mitch Utterback photo.

I also met Haider’s two bosses — ICTS generals well-known to anyone following their fight against ISIS. I thanked the generals for allowing me to join their unit. Like generals in any army, they were not overly excited to have a foreign journalist embedded with them at the height of their biggest battle to date. I emphasized I was there to work on my graduate thesis for my Master’s in Journalism, and to interview their soldiers from my perspective as former soldier.

Just before dark we departed the observation post for the safehouse — an abandoned home inside a walled compound with a controlled access road. Along the way, we stopped to take a close look at a dead ISIS suicide bomber, killed by a headshot from an Iraqi Special Forces soldier before he could detonate his vest. He looked North African, the guys said. I thought so too.

His vest had triggers on both sides. Dual-primed perhaps to allow him to detonate if one arm was disabled. I plan for a similar contingency by placing tourniquets on both sides of my body armor — but I’m trying to live, and he was trying to die.

Cold, dead hand of an ISIS suicide bomber killed by a headshot from an Iraqi SOF soldier before he could detonate his vest. Mitch Utterback photo.

The kill shot to his right temple was fired by an M4 rifle with optical sights, and was administered in the exact manner these guys have trained. It was the only way to eliminate the threat before he could hit one of his triggers.

Arkan pointed out the booties, or shoe liners the guy wore. He thought it was to avoid static electricity buildup. I thought it was to keep his feet warm in his shoes — it’s below freezing here at night.

At the safehouse Haider and Arkan put me up in their room, which I’m sure is the nicest one. They even gave me my own Army cot. We have an electric heater running off generator power (as does the whole house), Wi-Fi and apparently, the satellite TV bill is still being paid because we have a television with Iraqi cable channels. It’s interesting to be laying in your rack at night watching TV and see your roommate on the news. Haider is literally a national hero and constantly in the media spotlight. He and other ICTS leaders are revered in Iraq like the Apollo astronauts were in the United States during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

My corner of the room in the safehouse. Gear thanks to Kelty Tactical in Boulder, Colorado. Mitch Utterback photo.

We ate our evening meal sitting on the floor around the platter the cook brought in. Chicken, bread, sliced cucumber, roasted tomatoes and French fries made for a fine first dinner in the safehouse. I am grateful the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service travels with their own cooks.

The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service travels with their own cooks and eats very well. Mitch Utterback photo.

Arkan and Haider worked late after dinner. Arkan coordinated air support for his troops in contact with ISIS, and Haider prepared his briefing for battalion commanders on the next phase of clearing operations inside the city.

First morning in Mosul

I woke first the next morning to shower and shave. Yes — they also have hot and cold running water in the house. Once everyone was up, the cook brought bread, cheese, hard-boiled eggs and hot tea. Another fine meal in a combat zone.

After breakfast, I put my helmet and body armor in Haider’s Humvee, while his gunner and driver readied their vehicle for the day. Someone handed me a small cup of coffee with chocolate and cinnamon.  As the sun rose, I sipped my cinnamon mocha and watched the troops prepping their vehicles and equipment. I thought, “does it get any better than this?” Those of you who’ve served know exactly what I mean.

An ICTF soldier performs pre-combat checks on his vehicle prior to departure from the safehouse. Mitch Utterback photo.

One last thing before we mounted up — I provided Arkan my next-of-kin notification information as he’d requested. These guys are experts at planning for all contingencies.

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We rolled to the observation post, dropped Arkan off, and then headed into Mosul’s recently liberated areas so Haider could meet with and brief his subordinate commanders on the next phase of the battle. After briefing his lead element — the 1st Battalion, we walked the streets of Mosul without helmets or vests so Haider and other Iraqi officers could meet, speak with, and encourage citizens. Not far behind, the Humvees trailed in a slow, rumbling convoy.

As Brig. Gen. Haider and his men walked the streets, their vehicles trailed closely behind. Mitch Utterback photo.

Once Haider completed his mission for the morning, we returned to our vehicles and slowly drove out of the densely populated neighborhoods of East Mosul. As we passed, children who’d been required to give the ISIS salute of a raised index finger for years, now smiled and flashed the two-finger victory sign to the men in the black Humvees. Gunners waved and returned the gesture. It was cool.

Upon return to the safehouse compound, Haider and Arkan stepped out to brief the generals on their mission analysis for the next phase. Critical to the plan is the protection of the civilian population. Mosul’s citizens can’t leave their homes until the Iraqi forces are literally on the same street. ISIS keeps civilians hostage in their neighborhoods as human shields, which restricts the ICTS use of firepower. Citizens literally must run with white flags through a firefight to escape from ISIS once Iraqi forces are close enough.

Reducing risk to civilians is a focus of the operation to liberate Mosul I’ve heard from every soldier.

More to follow.

Mitch is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel embarking on a post-Army career as a war and crisis correspondent. He’s currently working on a M.A. in Journalism thanks to the GI Bill at the University of Colorado Boulder.

You can read more of his work here.