A Christmas Present from Haji

We kicked out of the FOB early morning on the 24th of December – Christmas eve’s day. Our destination was Sinjar. Sinjar was a quiet town with little enemy activity. They were extremely friendly towards Coalition Forces and the Kurdish factions in Northern Iraq. Attacks in and around Sinjar were few and far between, but AIF was known to operate anywhere. Today’s mission was a targeted raid on three houses in Sinjar whom intelligence identified as two Al-Qaeda financiers and one suicide bomber cell.

For as friendly as the Sinjar townspeople were, they still had their own security problems, which is why it didn’t surprise us that AIF could be right under their nose. We were in town and had blocking positions established just before first light. It was a cold, gray Christmas Eve’s day. Our platoon blocked the highway in and out, with an offshoot that led into the east side of the town. We searched all vehicles trying to leave town, and all the vehicles trying to enter the town before sending them back the way they came.

Sinjar was at the base of Mt. Sinjar (duh) which was a natural obstacle; with our blocking positions and helicopter assets the town was now damn near inescapable. We stayed there most of the morning and into the afternoon. After the target homes were hit those blocks were searched in conjunction with the local Iraqi Policemen (IP’s). First (Red) platoon would later recall how it had broken into its target house and began to clear rooms, entering the bedroom to find the target mid-thrust on his wife. We in the Cav community would call that ‘Balls-deep’ because, well…. self-explanatory.  I think the poor woman was more mortified than her husband, and the soldiers who witnessed the act were all pretty disgusted.

I guess the silent ‘Ghost Soldier’ reputation for Stryker’s still held true. We’re quiet and usually all you hear is the sound or ramp’s dropping and doors being kicked-in.  The raid ended around two in the afternoon with no enemy attacks, and two of the three targets nabbed. A few weapons were confiscated and by in large the townspeople were grateful for our being there. The Police Chief even offered to arrange a marriage with his daughter to one of our platoon leaders. I think he just wanted to get her to America (and judging on some of the other women I’ve seen in Sinjar, she probably wasn’t that hard on the eyes. They tend to dress very western, not bound by Islamic law). I spent the rest of the evening in my room. There was a semi-large dinner at the chow hall that night, with Christmas Day being the main celebration meal.

Somehow it still didn’t really feel like Christmas and with the chow hall attack a few days prior, no one was really in the mood to celebrate. Details were slowly getting out, and the rumor of a rocket attack ruled out. It was pretty common knowledge that a suicide bomber had been the culprit. As a result the Iraqi’s no longer could eat in our chow hall. Instead they were having their own separate chow tent being carved out over by their living pad. It was initially blocked off by dirt mounds scraped out by the engineers, and then walled in with HESCO baskets. Iraqi’s would eat with Iraqi’s, with food cooked by Iraqi’s. The Iraqi National Guard (ING) would no longer get all the free KBR support, it needed to exercise its own sustainment systems. I think it made some Iraqi soldiers mad, but honestly I didn’t care if a Jundi wasn’t getting three hot meals a day anymore. Half of the ING guys were supportive of AIF anyways, if not AIF plants themselves.

Most came for the free training, got a few paychecks and then absconded with their gear and weapon from their checkpoint some night, never to return. Now they were blowing themselves up in our mess halls. The rift between the ING soldiers and American’s grew that day. I personally didn’t trust them anymore. An internal crack down of our ING led to the detention of the ING Major on our base- evidence came to light that he not only was an AIF sympathizer, but he sold out our troop’s recent attacked convoy (the convoy was taking Iraqi Police recruits to Mosul for training; AIF launched a coordinated ambush and killed most if not all of the recruits, as well as severely wounding some of the men from our Troop’s headquarters platoon). High pay-off target for the enemy. He was in the detention holding area (the ‘D-HA’) a while before being sent to Mosul to the detention facility. I hope he rots in hell. It was funny to see how quickly your level of trust starts to deteriorate over time, along with your level of compassion towards these people.

Christmas Day we got our recon patrol, and my Christmas present was that ‘Uncle Andy’ the C.O. was going to come with us. There was a lot of rumor-intelligence coming from Mosul that AIF was trying to go after another spectacular attack in the region, and they desperately wanted to capture an American Soldier to behead on camera around the holiday time frame. Many more ‘fu-gas’ IED’s were being seen, made out of some type of burning agent and not just explosives. I guess the goal was to kill less, but allow for a higher chance to try and capture someone alive if they have to flee a burning vehicle.

Squadron wanted to begin working bait missions where snipers would be covertly implanted in hot spots with heavy patrols to be used as bait; as the enemy would prepare for an attack on some poor patrol who kept driving around the block, the snipers could pinpoint them and take them out. It was working successfully in Mosul and was being extended to Tal’Afar. We were going to reconnoiter some potential sniper hide locations for possible insertion. We had two men from the Long Range Surveillance Detachment (LRS-D) who had arrived at FOB Sykes, plus the Red 4 actual (SFC ‘P’) because ‘P’ was school trained and the Troop’s senior sniper. We looked at a few locations on the Northern part of Tal’Afar along Route Sante Fe, between checkpoints 201 and 301. We were turning up checkpoint 201 on the road that led north into Avghani to look up at the hills and gain some elevation to take some measurements.

I had followed Charlie 3-2, my ‘Two’ truck through the abandoned IP checkpoint there and was starting to creep off the road into a trail that cut into the foothills. A car on the road ahead of us had pulled over and stopped to wait our move, and a few people shy of the checkpoint in a large garage building went about their business. Suddenly and without warning my Gore-tex jacket fluttered in the warm wind as a “Poomph” vibrated through the truck and our bodies. A black smoke cloud rose beside Charlie 3-3, my ‘Three’ truck just twenty-five or so feet behind us.

‘What was that?’ My Gunner let off a few Mk-19 rounds over a dirt berm to behind the checkpoint, masked lowland up to the foothills where a trigger-man could be. I also heard a few M4 rounds be fired. ‘Cease fire, cease fire- does anyone have anything? Three what’s your status?’ Based on the small size of the explosion we didn’t know what exactly happened- was at an IED strike? A hand grenade? What was it? Did anybody see anything? We stopped immediately and the Platoon did a herringbone on the sides of the road.

“This is Three, no casualties or BDA, negative contact, but I’ve got a good sized IED crater here.” The car that had stopped quickly backed up back where it came from and quickly disappeared into the windy hill road. The workers at the garage took cover, but then came out to see what had transpired. We had the area blocked off and we dismounted to investigate the scene.

There was indeed a crater in the wet ground at the dirt berm right next to the now abandoned IP blockhouse that had been the checkpoint’s center. The blockhouse already had its blue and white paint job pocked with AK-47 rounds from a some battle before; now it had to big chunks of concrete and plaster missing from the blast as well as a nice black charring. The area around the crater also had lots of black charring to it as well. The ground was wet and muddy so it’s hard to tell when the device went in, but there was enough fresh clay from under the dirt a ways, plus charred earth to see it had been about a foot down or so.

I took photos for the debrief report while ‘Uncle Andy’ radioed the strike higher. SFC ‘P’ helped with some post-blast analysis. “Look at the chunks of PE-4 on the side of the Stryker” he said, pointing to the front underside of the Charlie 3-3 vehicle. There were some globs of what looked liked off-white clay, or plaster stuck to the Stryker. I fished around inside the bottom of the crater and pulled out a postage-stamp sized of brightly silver bent piece of steel. It had ridges. “Looks like a 122 round, you can see how close the arming bands are right here” SFC ‘P’ said. “It was probably in the ground a while, PE-4 and a 122 round. Either the PE-4 was frozen and didn’t ignite correctly or it was poorly made, because it didn’t ignite and instead stuck all over the side of the Stryker.

It might have not even have been fully dry yet.” PE-4 was the cheaper and often home-made equivalent of the American plastic explosive known as C4. Judging by the nature of this stuff and the weakness of the explosion, looks like it was a homemade variety and not the best at that. ‘Uncle Andy’ was on the radio doing his thing and wanted to know why no body shot anybody that they thought could have initiated the device. Truthfully no one had seen anybody whom could have initiated the device – sure the family in the car could have done it and backed away real quick, or one of the workers in the garage – but there was nothing left of the device so most likely it was cell phone or short wave radio. The trigger man was probably in the top floor of a building somewhere up to 300 meters away. “We’re not murders, Sir – no one PID’d” [positively-identified an enemy].

Three truck had one flat tire but nothing significant at all. We continued on with out mission and turned into the foothills following a trail back towards route Sante Fe that led up just behind a power substation. The remainder of the patrol and been uneventful but at least we got our Christmas present from the Hajj. Maybe the real present was the device sucked, and no one was hurt. Merry freakin’ Christmas…

About anotherwarriorpoet

Mathew Bocian served as a Captain in the United States Army with the Stryker Brigade and was deployed to Mosul and Tal'Afar in 2004 - 2005, and to Baghdad for The Surge in 2007 - 2008. He left the Army in 2012 and now uses his poetry as a way to heal from the traumas of war, while attempting to express to readers the realities of war. He is the recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and holds a master's from the Graduate School for Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
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