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.