The first real action Three/Five saw was south of Ad Diwaniyah, around March 23rd or 24th. I wish I could remember how far south, but things were blurry and both time and distance were distorted.
I had never been in the infantry, like most of the other guys on my counterintelligence team. I had been an intel geek for five years and had never done serious time in the field. After the debacle of the border crossing and the first couple of days of the war, HUMINT Exploitation Team Three (HET 3) had sorted itself out and we were back in our assigned trucks. Me, Matt, Jason and my linguist Johnny Nano were with the rear element while Nate (1st Lt Boaz) commanded the forward truck, driven by Randy with Kris and Ra’ad in the back. They rolled with the battalion headquarters element, since Nate as team leader wanted to be able to build a relationship with LtCol Mundy and the rest of the Three/Five headquarters staff.
I didn’t fight, but, I was an interrogator not a grunt, I had a different job. The battalion had plenty of infantrymen, but only six Marines who could conduct interrogations. Another reason the HET was kept out of the fight, unless we were directly engaged by the enemy, was because we weren’t integrated into the infantry units. The Marines in Three/Five had trained together, worked together, they were a finely tuned fighting machine. We had just joined up with them a few weeks earlier and we barely knew any of their names, let alone their combat SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures). The reality was we might get in the way more than we’d be able to help.
It was a little before noon when we got the order over the radio to halt. Even from back in the rear, we heard the fighting. The forward companies were engaged, Kilo Company especially had a fight on its hands. LtCol Mundy’s voice on the radio was the calm, cool, steely voice of command that directed his Marines into the fight with utter confidence.
The Iraqis had ambushed the battalion, fighting from dug in positions and from out of tank trenches, deep channels Saddam had dug alongside the highways to prevent our armor from maneuvering. We had overwhelming fire superiority, our guns were bigger, our Marines were motivated and thirsting to kill. And the Iraqis in that militia were just scared conscripts.
Despite our advantages the Iraqis still fought, and died. By the dozens. The hundreds. We dragged them into piles so that units behind us could more quickly deal with the enemy dead.
After the fight was when HET’s job began. My job. Interrogations and collecting intelligence from the dead enemy. Two of my teammates took our linguists and started working through the enemy prisoners of war, leaving me in the aftermath of that first fight with nothing to do. So, Nate told me to search the enemy dead for intelligence. Maps, letters, rosters. That early in the war, and that far south, we really didn’t know who we were fighting. Iraqi regular Army, Republican Guard, militia… We needed intel.
We put the word out to the grunts to tell us if anyone had killed an Iraqi officer and in short order a young Lance Corporal came running up to me, yelling, “Sergeant, Sergeant! I killed an officer!”
He led me to the tank trench, a ten foot ravine the militia used as a fall back position, and where a few Republican Guard officers had positioned themselves to kill any deserting Iraqi militiamen. My Lance Corporal told me how he had popped up over the lip of the trench, M-16 at the ready, coming directly into the sights of this Iraqi officer who had is AK-47 waiting for deserters. They looked at each other, each rifle brought to bear on the other. My Marine pulled the trigger first. A head shot at probably forty feet. A ridiculously easy shot on a range, maybe, but as a snap shot at a downward angle at a live enemy about to fire on you… ridiculously difficult. My Marine made his first kill, coolly in the heat of battle. He was excited and I was excited for him.
But it was my job to search the body. The Iraqi captain, three stars on his shoulderboards, was face up. He had a hole in his forehead and his brains were leaking out the back of his head into the sand of the tank trench. The Lance Corporal watched as I went through the dead man’s shirt pockets, pulling some maps and setting them aside. He got nervous, killing was one thing, but handling the man you’d just killed was another.
I proceeded with the search, methodically going through the officer’s pockets, gloves on my hands. I took off his shoes, per protocol. His feet still stank of sweat and old socks, he’d only been dead for a few minutes. I went through all of the pockets I could reach, pulling his wallet, a few loose papers, some Iraqi dinar. I still had to search his back pockets, though, and I couldn’t reach them, as the officer was on his back. I stood back. I had to roll him over.
I got close, body on body, reaching under the dead man to muscle his dead weight over. I could feel his stomach gurgling, air moved through his fat slush as I tried to move him. He rolled, slowly, and his left arm moved with his torso… and grabbed me. A dying twitch, but it put me into a bit of shock. A dead man closed his hand on my arm. I stood back, and the Lance Corporal looked at me expectantly, believing I knew what to do. As much as I wanted to just sit down and drink some water, I was a sergeant. A Marine Corps Sergeant. He was my junior and even though I’d never met him before and I wasn’t in his chain of command, our difference in rank meant I was responsible for him. In that moment, in that trench, he was my Marine. I owed him my confidence, whether I felt it or not. I grinned at the LCpl and went through the Iraqi’s front pockets.
Sometimes leadership is nothing but a smile and action.
The Lance Corporal was looking at me, not saying anything. So I asked, just to make conversation, if this was his first kill. It was, he said. Tentatively, hesitantly, he asked me, “Um, Sergeant, can I take his rank insignia?” Of course it was fine, I replied. You take his left shoulder board, and I’ll take his right.
I still have that Iraqi captain’s dried out, crusted, blood-soaked rank.