We had been planning a large Squadron-minus operation for several days. Al Sarai and the surrounding wadi systems and the small clusters of buildings on the outskirts of that South East side of town were a safe haven for the Hajj. We had got the FRAGO and as the men prepared the trucks and their equipment, I went to the Squadron rehearsal. Charger Troop had been selected to roll out of the FOB first, the first company to get to its objective on the East side of Sarai; My platoon was selected to be the first out of the wire to lead the Squadron effort. I was ecstatic. Here we are, a big operation and little old me has his platoon at the tip of the spear!
We rehearsed and eventually made our way back to the CP after the briefing. Roll-out time was scheduled for 0030; time on target was expected an no longer than H-plus four hours. We should be home well before sun-up.
You start to do the backwards countdown in your head; it’s 2015 right now – we need to line up on the main road outside of headquarters at 0000 – to do that the Troop needs to form up, conduct PCC’s and PCI’s and be ready to roll around 2345. To have completed that and be ready to roll by 2345 we probably need to form up at the Troop around 2315. Before that I should walk up to the CP and get some coffee, and go over the plan one more time with the CO and my fellow platoon leaders. If I go try and catch an hour of sleep, it’ll take me 10 min to walk back to the hootch and then, well – before you know it its 2130 and you might as well just go take a shit grab your gear and head right back to the CP. Too jittery with pre-combat giddiness to really sleep anyways.
We had lined up and the time came. As we were getting ready to roll out, a huge explosion that had the telltale ‘crackle’ of a 107mm rocket filled the air, impacting just outside of the FOB. Rotary wing was already airborne and we had Kiowa’s go do a flyover to see what they could see. FOB Sykes was far far outside of mortar range, but a rocket might get there depending where the point of origin was. Ah, shit – Hajj is onto us. Probably saw the headlights of all the vehicles as they converged from across the FOB to this central spot along the now defunct Iraqi airstrip.
The call came in and staggered we went – My platoon rolled forward and we made our way out of the front gate, locking and loading our weapons as my driver did the dick-dance that was the left-right-left wiggle of the serpentine just outside of the entry control point’s gate arm. As soon as the four truck cleared the serpentine, we gunned it and picked up speed. Illumination wasn’t the best that night but it also wasn’t totally dark. I had flipped my PVS-14’s up and with the little moonlight you could make out the shadowy gray-scale that was the road, the culverts and wadi’s, the fields, and the semi-dark portions on the horizon that was Tal’Afar. Roving power outages plagued the city at night (either a normal part of an under-prepared and overloaded power grid, or by design of the Hajj).
As we began to pick up speed I noticed that there was a little more rumble to my Stryker than normal; on the Stryker, the rear four wheels do propulsion, and when engaged in 8×8 the front four that steer will also then drive. As our differentials would wear out, there would be a reciprocating grinding sound from the rear 3 or 4 diff (or both). I didn’t hear that exact grinding, but I did hear something and I felt a little vibration. “Hey Heinzman” I called to my driver “Are you stepping on it?” ‘I am sir – pedal to the floor but we’re not picking up speed to keep up with Two.’ Odd I thought – I don’t want them to get too far out front nor do I want to stall the main effort. “Hey Two, this is One – slow your roll please, I’m having trouble getting speed. Got a lot of vibration here.” A roger came across the net. ‘Yeah a lot of vibration here’ I repeated as my driver kept his foot to the floor. There was an intense few seconds of a shuddering, and then miraculously all sound and feel disappeared.
“Well, seems to have cleared up” I said as our speed increased. We didn’t get more than a few seconds into this new found speed when the radio came to life. ‘Hey One, Three; your right number three wheel just came off. It’s uh, following you.” What the hell? On this news Two began to slow and so did we. I looked as best I could over the front of the Stryker and to the right (to command the vehicle, I ride in the left-rear air guard hatch). ‘Holy shit’ my dismount in the right rear hatch said. I flipped down my PVS-14’s and as we began to slow I saw the dark circular shape in the road, about four feet from our side, slowly gaining on us. “What the mother-fuck” I said. ‘One, this is Two – what should we do?’ I guess we need to stop. ‘One, Three- you’re sparking a little.’
The Stryker can drive and operate fine so long as you have your front two and rear two; in this instance the a-arm that held the hub and the wheel had lost hydraulics when the entire wheel and hub sheered off and the a-arm was dragging on the ground. We began to slow, and pull off to the side as I radioed to the commander the situation. I kept staring at that tire. It just kept rolling, hell it looked like it was picking up speed. It had rolled right along beside us for a while as if guided by some invisible force. It ended up beating us and got ahead by about fifteen yards before it ran out of steam and slowed, flopping down onto its side.
“Dismount” I said. I did the quick switch from my CVC helmet to my MITCH and we hit the ground. I got on my personal MBITR radio and ordered the platoon now coming up behind us to take lead on the Squadron effort. Me, my dismount and my senior scout and his dismount struggled to right the several-hundred pound tire and began to roll it up to the Two truck. We didn’t want to leave it least the Hajj leave us a present in it when we came back, even though we were still on FOB road we were just 75 meters shy of checkpoint 101, the intersection with Route Sante Fe (and the long abandoned Iraqi Army post). As our second platoon slowly drove by us, we struggled to get the tire lifted up onto the ramp and then rolled it into the back of Charlie Three-Two, my senior scout’s Stryker.
My dismount and I crawled in as the ramp went up. The Stryker can cram in ten or more dudes and that’s normally how the Infantry rolls. As scouts we have half the manpower so we’re used to a little more cush conditions inside when it came to room. Thank Christ we didn’t have too many dismounts inside because they’d have been crushed by that fucking tired. Hell, The tire fit just perfectly into the belly of the beast, and it tilted ever so slightly to the left, the leading edge of the tire hitting the ceiling and stopping it. I was wedged between that left side of the tire, and the bench and my senior scout who was standing on it, out of his hatch. And this was how we continued on, filling in the spot where second platoon had been. My Stryker had to wait for the main effort to get past, and then turn and limp back to the FOB. That close to the FOB I knew they’d be alright and with that much firepower rolling into town Hajj would be occupied.
We conducted our night raid on various suspected IED makers, financiers, direct-action Al Qaeda cells; there was minimal resistance and aside from sporadic AK fire the raid went off without a hitch. We had to hand our detainees off to someone else as we were barely able to squeeze ourselves back into the Two truck for that ride home. That’s when you really begin to worry – its on the way out of big operations like this, because you’re around long enough for support elements to go IED the probable routes you’ll take home. And as if I am not puckered-up enough when I am free to ride low in my hatch, now I am wedged between the Two’s ass and this tire, all the while praying we don’t get blown to fuck.
We didn’t. But the image of that tire rolling on its own right past us like it expected us to yield to its right of way will always stick in my mind. Better images like that than some of the other more unfortunate ones that plague most of us.