We had a sniper problem. Plain and simple, what began as opportunistic or harassment fire escalated into a full-scale issue. It all was at and around the Castle in Tal’Afar (the old Ottoman Empire fortification that ringed the central hill smack dab in the center of the city.) Across the way from the Castle to the east was Al Sarai, Tal’Afar’s AIF stronghold and bad-neighborhood trophy winner. In the fall of 2004, up at the Castle we occasionally had small arms fire directed at us from the winding endless series of alleyways and courtyards. It was horribly inaccurate and most of the time you just could still stand there.
Probably closer to Thanksgiving we began to get more, how can I describe it, ‘nice try’ pot shots. We would be up on the roof of the Iraqi police station there keeping our eyes on Al Sarai, when the faint slapping sound of a round hitting the concrete wall would be quickly followed with the report of a rifle in the distance. These shots were often a dozen or more feet away (I actually recall one time seeing the round impact the concrete wall of the police stations about fifteen feet from our position as we stood and talked with our Troop Commander near the edge of the perimeter). Knowing they were so inaccurate, we would stand our ground and go about our business. By the thirds or fourth shot, we usually took it sort of like seeing some lightening on a nice summer’s day; “there’s a storm coming, probably want to move on inside now…” It just never really bothered us because we knew it was fairly poor shots.
All of that changed very rapidly in March. We were not on Castle duty at the time, but after returning from the Syrian border town of Rabiah, we heard that there was a sniper near the Castle. Apparently, the marksman was, from the distance across the gap somewhere in Al Sarai (probably a 300 to 400 meter shot) shooting out the day and night sight optics on the remote weapons station (RWS) of the infantry’s Stryker’s. Now, for those not in the know, the RWS is operated by joystick from inside the Stryker; pretty cool because it limits crew exposure in hostile environments and it is far more accurate than “free-gunning” the flex .50’s we rocked on our Reconnaissance Stryker’s. So to take out the day and night sights (two separate lenses on the unit) required a little knowledge on the Stryker as well as serious marksmanship and discipline.
The sniper had also shot out the LRAS on a Reconnaissance Stryker, as well as shot one of the Blackjack Trooper’s in the head. His CVC helmet actually saved his life, as it caught and deflected the bullet. So when we did a logistical run up to the Castle one day and saw everyone hiding behind things – HESCO baskets, concrete T-walls or berms, anything – I understood why. The Castle still needed guarded by U.S. forces, and that still presented targets for the sniper. So while there, you limited your exposure. Gone were the small eighteen inch concrete berm at the edge of the perimeter that we used to take cover near (or just the plain old dirt). Now there were HESCO baskets three feet high, obstructing the view across the gap and into Al Sarai – but also providing thirty-six inches of packed earth between you and a bullet.
Things changed when the Brigade Deputy Commanding Officer came to Tal’Afar to get a routine tour of the battle-space, and promptly was shot in the upper arm [note: thanks to LTC Gauthier for helping me get that detail right]. But that was the last straw. Brigade enlisted the help of the Navy Seals (yup – the real deal, but I don’t know from which SEAL Team). The SEALs sent us a counter-sniper element who 2-14 Cav took and deployed around the area and neighborhoods near the Castle. They were there for about a week when during this flush-out operation, one of the SEALs was shot in the hand I believe. The SEALs left, but they returned a few weeks later seeking vengeance.
That brings us to young Lieutenant Bocian and his platoon’s famous (or infamous) run in with the Navy SEALs. I was tasked to escort the SEAL boys out to the Castle for their return to this counter-sniper game. I do admit these guys were all pretty cool; almost Hollywood-ish in the style of their longish hair, the advanced gear, tools, and weaponry that they had – their kit was personalized and set up uniquely for each operator. They had customized rifles and M-4 carbines with silencers, advanced optics and scopes, all the cool stuff that as an infantryman / cavalryman in an infantry brigade you would salivate over. All the guys were trying to chat with the SEALs while we were getting our pre-mission briefing. I think it was sort of a bravado thing – we all wanted to make them think we weren’t turds or POGs.
And after we gave the mission overview to the entire platoon, we began to load up around 2300 or so. We spread them and their assault packs and equipment out among the four Stryker’s in the platoon. As customary when we had guests on the truck, my dismount and air guard (Herb at the time) took a seat inside the belly of the Stryker, offering his hatch to the guest(s). We did this because a lot of the folks we escorted places were folks we were handing an area off to, and needed to actually be able to see the area we were traversing through. I stepped up on the ramp and got in my hatch. The other stayed empty. I leaned down inside and said “if any of you want to ride the hatch, feel free to do so, you’ll see more of the route in and terrain.”
The blank, empty stares that I was met with still are etched in my memory. Crickets. These guys just stared at me. Finally, what I assume was one of their senior NCO’s said ‘Lieutenant, you couldn’t pay me enough to stand in that hatch.’ I was sort of shocked. Here these guys are Navy SEALs and all, the cream of the crop and hardcore special operators – and no one would stand in that hatch. I am not knocking them, because when it comes to bad-asses, they’re in an echelon far above me. But I figured being such bad-asses, they’d jump at the chance.
“Oh. Well, I don’t really have a choice. No problem though.” Or something to that effect, I said. Herb got back in his hatch and we presumed to roll out of the gate just before midnight. We wanted to throw off AIF, so if anyone was tracking our movement from the shadows, we had been instructed to take a convoluted route in to the Castle. In the mission briefing at Squadron, we decided on a series of main routes and secondary streets that would twist and turn us around the west side of Tal’Afar and to the north, eventually letting us move more towards the center of town and to the Castle. We figured we wanted to maintain surprise, as not many folks in the Squadron even knew the SEALs were back.
We made a right at the end of FOB road, heading down route Sante Fe, but instead of bearing left as if we were going to follow Sante Fe around the northern edge of the city, we bore right. This took us into town, past the old granary and towards the first traffic circle, close to the main market area of Tal’Afar. That was the direct route into the Castle, so we made a left up an unnamed side street. Now, it was pitch black out, with no real lights in the city, and I had chosen to not use my PVS-14 night vision monocular. I reserved that for my Kevlar helmet for when I was dismounted – I didn’t like using them on the strap-on harness that would affix them to the CVC helmet. I also wanted to maintain my own actual night vision while we drove, letting my eyes adjust to the night and the streets. But my driver could see everything he needed to through the thermal drivers visual enhancer (DVE) screen.
‘Uh, Sir? Two just disappeared.’ He was speaking of C-32, the senior scout and lead vehicle in our platoon. “What?” It was about that time that over the radio came a very disgruntled two; “STOP! Stop stop, everybody stop.’ I keyed the mic on my CVC helmet. “What’s ‘a matter, Two?” We were stopped on the main road, about to make our left hand turn onto the side street, with the rest of the platoon behind us. This is what you call “your ass flapping” because one vehicle was around the corner, but the rest of us were now on the main route, stopped, being targets.
‘We fell into some kind of hole.’ Well, now this is all a bit ridiculous I thought as I switched helmets, and prepared to dismount and get on the ground. I gave the order to dismount, and ramps went down and we stepped out into the night. I was seeing the silhouette of my senior scout, Two, walking up towards me. ‘The goddamned ground came right out from under us. Damn’ he said, bending over, then back, trying to stretch out his back. ‘Fucker hurt when we went in.’ I had no idea what he was talking about so we took a few more steps into the dark side road when the Two truck’s ass end was staring up at me. Sure as shit, Two was in a hole. A giant hole. A smack dab in the middle of the road. After turning off of the main route, this road formed a ‘T’ intersection with another alley to its right. Smack dab at the start of the ‘T’ was a sinkhole roughly ten feet wide, about fifteen feet in length, and a solid six feet deep.
C-32 had rolled right into it, nosed-down, and the hole swallowed up the first three quarters of the Stryker. The only real way to get in and out was to crawl through the gunner’s hatch or the two air guard hatches at the rear of the Stryker. “Where the fuck did this come from?” Was this a trap? Was this part of a coordinated ambush? Was there just some pothole that couldn’t take the weight of the Stryker and gave way? We had no idea, but we knew that we were stuck.
I forget the how and why, by the QRF was unable to bring me a wrecker from the FOB, so we decided that the best option would be for the two Stryker’s from my Bravo section to press on and make their way to the Castle to drop their contingent of SEALs off. They then could go back to the FOB and retrieve a wrecker, and we would finally be able to extricate C-32. During that time, we would hook up the tow bar and attempt to self-recover C-32 by pulling him backwards out of the hole, if possible. That way we might save Bravo section a trip back to the FOB, and they could just return from the Castle to grab us.
Rolling anything less than three Stryker’s in the battle space was a huge no-no. And even when mechanical problems caused us to do that, I felt uneasy rolling around with less than four Stryker’s. Now, we were splitting the platoon and sending half on with the mission, and leaving half up shit’s creek without a paddle. But, what else were we to do? The SEALs from the Two truck loaded up with the rest of the SEALs in Bravo section. The SEALs that were on my truck (I think four guys) opted to stay with us and pull security while we attempted to self-recover. It was pretty much pitch black out, and we were in a part of the neighborhood that I personally rarely ever traversed, with only half a section [only one truck could move and use it’s gun]. One of the buildings had a small exterior light on it, which was barely enough to light up anything, but just enough to outline you in the darkness. My driver and I decided to do the hook-up process ourselves. Some of the men from Two truck dismounted to pull security as well. Total, I probably put eight or nine men on the ground (SEALs included, as well as my driver and myself, who were working and unable to pull security).
We worked like dogs in the dark, lying flat on the ground and reaching over the edge and into the hole, trying to hook the tow bars and shackles up to C-32. It made a hell of a lot of noise – these large, heavy metal poles getting slid around over the asphalt. Every now and again I would look around and all I saw was black. It was a very unnerving feeling knowing that there were people out there in the dark, but that I couldn’t see them, and just us two were there. At least the men still in the Stryker had the cover that was the vehicle itself. I felt like my ass was hanging out flapping so bad it would get wind-burn. But every now and again I would see these two green eyes, as a silhouette of a SEAL leaning out from an alley or courtyard caught my vision, before fading back into the darkness. The green eyes were the two lenses of their aviator-style night vision goggles [a headset that had one goggle for each eye, allowing you to see in the dark with depth].
Despite being hooked in, Two would not come unstuck by simply trying to pull it loose. Fortunately for us a passing infantry platoon going on a counter-reconnaissance patrol in Tal’Afar had been instructed to escort a wrecker to our location and drop them as they passed. With the wrecker we were able to lift the front end of C-32 up a little, allowing us to slowly back it out of the hole without the belly and wheels being completely stuck on the rim of the hole. When we got it out, we saw the sheer size of the sinkhole. It’d swallow a car easy; it almost swallowed the Stryker! Surprisingly after a quick inspection by the wrecker, C-32 was in decent shape. The front two A-arms had struts sheared off, but otherwise the Stryker was intact and operable. We hooked it up to the wrecker, threw it in the middle of the convoy, and I led the platoon from there.
We got the rest of the SEALs to the Castle. One of the SEALs who was in the Two truck broke his wrist when they went over the edge and everyone inside slumped and slid forward. Squadron apparently got reports that there was sewer pipe work being done there, but that was not annotated on the digital FBCB2 maps we had of the town. We labeled that on the FBCB2 as an obstacle, so no one else would make the same mistake. We got back to the FOB. C-32 got repaired the next day.
And ultimately the SEALs got their man. In a series of ops, they engaged suspected positions for the sniper (who they now believed may have been an AIF sniper-spotter team, probably of Chechen origin). When they thought they got him, they had an infantry platoon action the area, but all they found was a pool of blood, some drag trails till the blood faded off, and an HK-91 rifle. It looked like the scope had been removed. So whoever these guys were, they were well-trained. AIF can always find more rifles [though the HK-91 was definitely not something you found lying around in Iraq].
We didn’t have a sniper problem in Tal’Afar after that. Not ever again.