Caveat: Much has changed since this original post, and I provide that I’ve edited it to reflect those changes, and to honor my fellow brethren.
We knew that eventually we would leave Tal’Afar (be it at the end of tour, if relived, on a medivac, or in a bag). We knew that the security situation wasn’t stable and that there was a big ramp-up going on to try to stem the Al Qaeda spring offensive. On the 17th of April 2005, I woke up mid-morning after a long day on quick reaction force duty (QRF) to find the empty field outside of our living pad filled with 1,500 + soldiers and vehicles. A steady stream of men was walking in single file lines like ants in and out of our shower and shitter trailer, and sewage was backing up through the pipes and into the pad. 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment had arrived overnight (the main body came in the very next day).
We’d been anticipating 3rd ACR for about two weeks now since we had got told we were getting reinforcements; 2-14 Cav was stretched thin as is was between Tal’Afar, the Syrian border, and everything in between that fell into our area of responsibility. We quickly were paired up with sister Troops and I had a sister platoon assigned to mine; we were to show the boys around as part of a relief-in-place effort to get 3rd ACR acclimated to Tal’Afar; They had been brought up from Baghdad and other parts South for the security ramp-up. One of the platoon leaders [Rob] later served with me in the Surge when he PCS’d to our Stryker Brigade (2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment at that time).
For years after when I would Google “Tal’Afar” I would find articles and stories about 3rd ACR and how they “won” the town back from the Hajj. There wasn’t any accounts of anyone else it seemed other than 3rd ACR [aside from Kevin Powers and his book – but don’t get me started on his Engineer company…] No, all I would find was 3rd ACR, and see stories or accounts about how Tal’Afar was too dangerous to ride around in anything less than a Bradley or an Abrams tank. Bullshit. We’d lost a number of Stryker’s by April due to increasing size and sophistication of IEDs, but we still foiled a large number of attacks and were continuing to disrupt or capture IED facilitator cells, direct-action ‘attack’ cells, and other terrorist financier operations. And most of the time, we did it dismounted.
There felt like a rift between 3rd ACR and 2-14 Cav; we heard grumblings about ‘the real cavalry is here now’ and ‘these tin-can cav scouts’ were no good compared to the mighty tank or Bradley fighting vehicle. It was bad enough the Infantry had such a despise of us misguided step-children, our own Cavalry brethren had beef with us, too. I think it made us feel a little undercut; granted, not all of the men of 3rd ACR felt that way towards us, but I noticed a distinct aura of, shall we call it, ‘cavalry elitism’ from some of the Regiment’s senior leaders.
Tracks. Apparently to be someone you need treads – not wheels (perhaps is what they thought). *And I strike many of the comments that I made about tanks and tankers, because there is time and place for the Abrams; there is a time and place for the Bradley; they are part of the combined-arms team with the paratrooper, the Stryker, the light infantry, and the rear-echelon. In Tal’Afar the Stryker worked wonders.
The platoon we were paired with was good. The lieutenant’s listened to us, and their NCO’s were good, too. Some of the joe’s had a little of the ‘better than thee’ cav attitude but eventually that got sorted out. But the Regiment’s senior leadership thought they were hot-shit, and would teach us a thing or two. I was in a Squadron-wide officer call when good old H.R himself told the room not to worry – the real cav was here, and they brought the “big guns”. We deterred Hajj by going into town every day – yes, even Al Sarai because if you didn’t, Hajj took more and more control of the town; they were trying to drive a wedge between U.S. Forces and the Iraqi populous. 3rd ACR’s idea of deterrence was to park a few tanks up at the Castle and occasionally shoot main gun rounds over Al Sarai and into the empty desert.
Yeah. That worked for all of about an hour until the Hajj (who are pretty fucking smart) got wise to the scheme and weren’t afraid of the sound. All that did was keep the residents in their homes so the only folks who went out were the bad dudes. We did our best to show them the ropes, and like I said my peers and their men listened – and they learned. To reinforce the point one day we were conducting a traffic control point (TCP) – two of theirs, two of mine – so we have 2 Stryker’s and 2 tanks. We saw a suspicious vehicle approach the checkpoint, turn at the last second and pull a U-ey to get the hell out of there. We called it on the radio, mounted up and my two Stryker’s were in hot pursuit. We chased the car down about half a kilometer away in Hassan Qoi where we got the drop on them. They tried to bail, but we were on the ground and had them at gunpoint. By the time we had them zip-stripped and had searched the car, I heard the rumble of our fellow 3rd ACR buddies thundering down route corvette. The tanks pulled up about the time we were pulling an RPG, AKM machine gun, and several RPG warheads out of the car. They were sold on our knowing our shit after that.
All in all, we operated under 3rd ACR for forty-seven days. We practiced our room-clearing drills, cleaned weapons, maintained the vehicles. They set up a softball tourney, hosted boxing smokers, and flew in some country guy to play a concert [I forget who it was – my platoon was pulling duty on the Syrian border that night]. Not long after we returned to Mosul to take part of the Brigade’s new offensive to seal off all of Mosul, 3rd ACR launched an offensive of their own. They had opted to “assess” the situation for a week and had neglected certain parts of Tal’Afar – including Al Sarai. They lost a tank, a Bradley and an M-88 recovery vehicle in that initial push – and taking heavy fire and multiple casualties were repelled by the Hajj, who had entrenched themselves in the area given plenty of time to prepare. I don’t know how many soldiers 3rd ACR lost, or had wounded in Tal’Afar, but I look back in disgrace and wonder if their leadership had listened and were less cocky, if their losses could have been fewer.
I always felt for the troopers of 3rd ACR, and I still do – Tal’Afar was hell, and everyone who served there got their fair share of it. I like to think any errors in judgement came from up at the “head shed” at the top of the chain; the men on the ground were battle-hardened and tested and knew how to get a job done right.
Did 3rd ACR do some good in Tal’Afar? We, yes of course they did. Did their men fight just as hard as we did? Any cavalryman worth his salt fights as hard as he can when faced with the enemy. Do I give 3rd ACR some credit? Yes, yes I do. Do I give them ALL of the credit? Not only no, but Hell No! The truth is before them was us; before us was 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division who had a hell of a time there; before them it was the 101st Airborne who were known for their brutality (and the respect / fear they garnered from it). They wre brutal because they had to be – they arrived in Tal’Afar and took it on the chin from the get-go. Each unit played their part. And if H.R. McMaster wasn’t so high off of his legendary ‘Battle of 73 Easting’ reputation, he might’ve seen and recognized he was a piece of the combined-arms puzzle – a chess piece on the board being moved at the right time in the game. Not the end-all be-all.
Update: In concert together, we all played, and we all were part of the chorus that eventually tamed Tal’Afar. In time, some things have changed, and so have my perceptions – be sure to read V is for Valor to learn more about 3rd ACR and my rekindled attitude towards them. McMasters isn’t a bad guy, and not the pompous jerk that I felt he was at the time. No, he too has my respect.