Standing Their Ground Where Comrades Fell

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Colorado Springs Gazette
February 5, 2008
Pg. 1
By Tom Roeder, The Gazette
MOSUL, Iraq -- The five men in the lead Humvee died instantly.
The other 20 soldiers in the column felt the massive blast more than they heard it. They saw the remains of the rig falling to earth.
Before the dust cleared, a firefight erupted, with dozens of insurgents firing machine guns, mortars and rockets. Fort Carson’s Violator Platoon was caught in the open Jan. 28 by a well-planned ambush.
They could have fled southeastern Mosul’s Palestine neighborhood for the safety of Forward Operating Base Marez across the river.
But they wouldn’t leave their fallen comrades.
“We weren’t going anywhere,” said Sgt. 1st Class Lloyd Lane of Richmond, Va., who helped lead the platoon through nearly three hours of battle to hold the cratered and bloody ground where five members of his platoon died. “We weren’t moving.”
The platoon is a part of the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, which was sent to this city 225 miles north of Baghdad in December to help quell rising violence. It’s one of six battalions that left Colorado for Iraq in December with Fort Carson’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team. The other five are in and around Baghdad.
While attention has been focused on Baghdad, the 1.8 million residents in Mosul have seen a decreasing American Army presence since the war began.
Until reinforcements were ordered, a single battalion of American troops was stationed in this city that’s centered around ancient Babylonian ruins amid rolling hills.
Meanwhile, insurgent groups including al-Qaida in Iraq have moved here to take advantage of impoverished and disenfranchised Sunni Muslims to fill their ranks.
The Fort Carson battalion plans to help rebuild eastern Mosul.
But first, the soldiers and the Iraqi troops who outnumber them here must destroy the insurgency.
The Violator’s soldiers were on a “targeting” mission to capture a suspected insurgent boss. They had played hideand-seek with the suspect for most of the morning.
“After we had no luck we decided to head back,” said 1st Lt. Francisco Hernandez of Montrose, Violator’s commander.
The platoon’s soldiers knew something was wrong when the streets cleared of people, often a telltale sign of a forthcoming attack.
About 12:30 p.m., the first Humvee in the convoy, carrying Sgt. James E. Craig, Staff Sgt. Gary W. Jeffries, Spc. Evan A. Marshall, Pfc. Brandon A. Meyer and Pvt. Joshua R. Young, was blown to pieces when a bomb detonated beneath it.
The bomb had been buried carefully, Hernandez said, and may have been in place for weeks as insurgents waited for a target. Commanders say the bomb probably carried more than 100 pounds of explosives.
“It stopped us, the driver didn’t even have to hit the brakes,” said Sgt. Richard Augafa, from American Samoa. “I saw my buddies on the ground. The turret hit the ground as the dust was clearing. It was about 30 meters away. I saw it fall for a second or two.”
Hernandez yelled for Violator to stop and form around the bombing site. Before his words came out, the soldiers, including many Iraq veterans, were moving.
The action to defend the dead was automatic.
“You don’t have time to think,” said Pvt. Robert Greenlaw-Moore of Columbia, S.C.
Insurgents in a field near the Humvees and within surrounding buildings, including two mosques, opened fire.
The Humvees moved to dodge the fire. Drivers kept watch for other bombs.
“When I was backing up I watched to make sure I didn’t hit anything that could be an IED,” said Pfc. Andrew Fatula of Cushman, Mass., using the Army acronym for improvised explosive device, the homemade bombs that are the insurgent’s biggest weapon in Iraq.
Hernandez said he spotted nine positions the enemy was using for cover, each inhabited by as many as five gunmen.
The four surviving Violator Humvee gunners raked the enemy positions with fire from the 7.62 mm machine guns.
“It sounded like popcorn,” said Sgt. Gary Dishroon of South Elgin, Ill., who put short bursts into every enemy position he saw.
The Americans were shocked to see that the enemy had taken cover in houses of worship.
“I was like ‘Jesus Christ, they’re firing from the mosque,’” Lane remembered saying early in the battle.
The insurgents had just started, though. Machine guns were soon joined by rocket-propelled grenades that whooshed toward the Americans. As many as 10 of the explosiveladen rockets exploded near the patrol, detonating on the road or against nearby walls.
Hernandez said the Humvee gunners saved the rest of his platoon from the grenades — their bullets caused the insurgents to fire without aiming.“They had IEDs on every avenue of approach,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew Houser of Bristol, Tenn.
“We were caught in a kill sack,” Hernandez said.
Insurgent mortar rounds landed all around Violator’s Humvees. Troops inside the Humvees yelled out targets for the gunners, giving clock position and distance to targets.
A few soldiers lowered bullet-proof Humvee windows and blazed away with their M-4 rifles. Enemy gunners rebuffed repeated attempts by the soldiers to get out of the Humvees and secure better firing positions.
“If we would have dismounted, we would have taken more casualties,” Lane said.
The platoon members buttoned up inside the armored Humvees and waited for help. They were on their own for about half an hour. Soldiers recalled the sound of dozens of bullets hitting the armor around them.
“A few minutes out there can last forever,” Houser said. “This was 35 minutes. We were the only patrol in that area. It’s the loneliest feeling.”
OH-58 Kiowa helicopters launched from the battalion’s base in answer to the platoon’s urgent calls for help. The pilots came in low to blast targets.
But the overwhelming insurgent fire quickly turned skyward and drove one of the helicopters off with damage and turned back to the Humvees.
“It’s a feeling of fight or die,” Dishroon said.
The soldiers kept their heads, ensuring they only fired at people who were shooting at them. Lane said the last thing the soldiers wanted was civilians to die.
“We had positive identification on every target we fired on,” he said.
A quick reaction force of Humvees and tanks from Forward Operating Base Marez on Mosul’s southwest side rolled toward the firefight. It, too, was targeted by insurgents.
“Even as a first responder, we were hit by an IED,” said Sgt. James Luce of Chicago, a member of Violator platoon who was part of the rescue team.
The rescuers knew that five men had been killed.
“We were angry and wanted to get into the fight,” Luce said. “We were furious.”
The insurgents changed tactics when American help arrived, firing less often and moving more frequently.
“Even when the tanks showed up, they still wanted to fight,” Hernandez said.
Enemy positions were hit with 120 mm tank rounds and a rain of bullets from the increasing number of troops on the scene, including some who climbed to rooftops.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever loved the tankers,” said Houser, a die-hard infantryman.
It took another two hours of fighting before the enemy fled and let the Americans recover their dead.
Hernandez said his men fired more than 8,000 rounds.
When the firefight ebbed, the soldiers of Violator wanted to help recover the bodies. They were turned back by officers who thought they had seen enough.
“When we came around the Humvee I saw one of my soldiers and bit my lip,” Lane said. “The commander told me to go back to my vehicle. There were tears in my eyes.”
It was 4:30 p.m. when the stunned platoon members returned to the base. There was a chaplain waiting. They hugged each other.
The soldiers of Violator platoon carried each of the five caskets onto a plane bound for America.
The entire platoon plans to attend a memorial service for the five today. “We need to thank them for what they did in our lives,” said Luce.
Violator platoon was back on patrol in Mosul within 48 hours of the bombing. The war doesn’t pause for mourning.
The men share stories about their dead friends now. The tales are generally funny ones, some unprintable.
“We’ve all been remembering them,” Lane said.
“Right before you go to bed is the hardest,” Houser said. “That’s when your mind is at ease and you start seeing the pictures of what happened that day.”