The Longest Mile
During a simple nighttime raid on a schoolhouse in Iraq, our unit, the Alpha Raiders, was caught in a heavy ambush. Here are some of my memories of that night.
The schoolhouse outside of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Baker in Najaf, Iraq was not your average school. Insurgents and members of the Mahdi Army had been using it for several weeks as a place to store weapons and ammunition. Knowing that Americans had very strict rules against conducting raids on places like schools, mosques, or hospitals, they often used these as supply points, safe havens, and firing positions. On August 5th, 2004, the local military commanders had run out of patience with the insurgents. I had no idea at the time, but I was about to get my first taste of combat.
As our vehicles screeched to a halt in front of the schoolhouse, my heart was racing. We quickly dismounted the vehicles and stacked up on the gates into the courtyard. In a matter of seconds, everyone was in position and we got the signal to enter and clear the building. First squad entered the lower level of the building and began to clear all of the rooms down the hallway. My squad was close behind and we took the stairs to the second floor.
We stacked as a team on each doorway and once the man in the rear of the stack had given the signal that we were ready, we entered and cleared each room. We were searching for weapons, bomb making materials, police uniforms, ammunition, maps, intelligence information, and anything else that could be used against Coalition forces. After sustaining an increased rate of attacks over the last month, we needed to locate and eliminate the threat before more lives were lost.
Once we had cleared the second floor, I went out on the rooftop with another Marine to get a better vantage point of the rest of the schoolyard, and to provide covering fire if necessary. The rest of the unit continued to search the school grounds. Within a matter of minutes, the entire raid was complete and we were loading back into our vehicles. We met no resistance; there wasn’t a single person on the property and we didn’t find any weapons either.
As we loaded back into the vehicles, everything was eerily quiet in the neighborhood. All of the doors and windows were shut; no children were out playing soccer in the fields. Nobody was around. We were just finishing up our head counts and making sure we had everyone before we left. Off in the distance I heard a familiar sound; a faint thud followed by another, and another. It was the sounds that mortar rounds make once they slide down the tube, ignite and launch. Although the militia were usually not very accurate with indirect fire, you never knew for sure until they landed.
High explosive mortar rounds began landing about 500 meters away and were getting closer. We were being bracketed, a system in which they drop a couple rounds short and a couple rounds far away, so that the insurgents can note the impact points of the rounds and adjust them on top of us. Likely, someone was in a building nearby on a cell phone providing adjustments back to the militia who were launching the rounds.
It was confirmed that we had everyone, so the convoy began to move out of the kill zone as quickly as possible. Off to our left, there were a bunch of buildings and houses. To our right there was a large empty field, about the size of four football fields put together. As the convoy began to come parallel with the field, we came under extremely intense enemy fire.
Explosions from rocket propelled grenades and small improvised explosive devices (I.E.D’s) rocked my vehicle so hard that I thought it may tip. Bullets pinged off the armored sides. Red and green tracers arced through the night air. We had been caught in a full blown ambush and the only thing to do was return fire and get the hell out of there as quickly as possible. Once we were about halfway past the open field, we began to take fire from buildings and alleys on the left side of the street as well. I could hear the difference between the small arms fire on the left and the heavy machine guns firing at us from the field on the right.
At first, I actually stood up in the back of our open-bed truck and turned towards the field to see the amount of gunfire coming towards us. It was awe inspiring. It looked like something out of a Star Wars movie. My team leader quickly slapped me on the back of the head and yanked me back into my seat with a look on his face that said “Sit down, idiot. Are you trying to get shot?!” Suddenly, the incoming fire from our side of the street began to increase.
I shouldered my SAW (light machine gun) and began to return fire into the buildings where the flashes were coming from. The problem, however, is that we were driving so fast it was hard to aim. As I held down the trigger, we began to drive past a long concrete wall just a couple meters away. I was still firing and the rounds ricocheted back towards us. My team leader slapped me again and gave me this look that said “what the hell are you doing?!” Suddenly, there were loud noises and dust and the vehicle began to rock from side to side.
After the third or fourth explosion violently rocked our vehicle, I remember thinking that we would soon tip. I envisioned a convoy full of Marines, spilling out into the roadway from an overturned vehicle as machine gun fire continued to strike all around us. For the first time in Iraq, I felt true fear… not for myself but for our fellow Marines who would need to rescue us. I thought about how I had always wanted to see combat, and almost had to laugh…except this wasn’t funny.
We rounded a corner, and still the ambush continued. At this point, we were about one mile from our base and our vehicles were so severely damaged that they were barely running. We continued to push through the incoming fire until we could finally see the lights surrounding the perimeter of our camp. And then, as quickly as it had started, the shooting stopped and everything was quiet and still again.
I’m not sure how long it lasted, but it seemed like an eternity. We probably covered just over two miles on our return and were under heavy enemy fire almost the entire time. When we got back, I looked at my vehicle and it had a large hole from a rocket propelled grenade punched underneath on the passenger side and such extensive damage that it had to be scrapped completely. I remember standing there under the moonlight, adrenaline pumping, with only one thought: I was going to get my coveted Combat Action Ribbon.
This was the first of many firefights in Iraq; each of them weird, confusing and unexpected. Tunnel vision and adrenaline made it hard to think clearly while rounds were coming in. Targets were hard to identify and the militia often used schools, hospitals and other “safe havens” to coordinate their attacks. This became our new normal for the next nine months.
From that time on, the road between the school and our forward operating base was known as “The Longest Mile”.