It seems like my old buddy H.R. McMaster is back in the news, now as our new National Security Adviser. Here’s hoping my interactions with him now will be different than when I did so in 2005 in Tal’Afar. I saw this Mother Jones article on ‘The Hero of Tal Afar’….
Hero. Some might call him that. Others may not. After all, it was a long time ago.
But it reminds me of a time, long ago, back in Tal’Afar. It was a hell of a day…
Map showing Al Sarai portion of Tal’Afar
This was it. As we made our turn off of route Sante Fe and the long, straight road to hell that was route Corvette filled my view, I felt it come over me. My legs were shaking, I felt my heart flutter as adrenalin and fear prickled my skin like a million tiny needles. I inhaled, gripped my rifle tighter, and exhaled. And everything became calm. This was it, I was sure of it.
I was checking out – Right here, today.
– 2nd Lieutenant Mathew Bocian: killed in action Sunday March 27th, 2005 in Tall’Afar, Iraq –
Easter Sunday. Ain’t no coming back from this one – no third day miracle going on here. I was convinced. May he rest in peace.
This was how I felt rolling into my third day on QRF (quick reaction force) support to our Squadron. It was just after lunch when we were called out for the second time of the day. Apache Company, 1-5 Infantry was out in sector conducting a pre-planned spot raid on a guy amidst their daily patrols when all hell broke loose. Our Squadron TAC was also out in sector while elements of Blackjack Troop maintained a presence in the center of town, up on the hill at ‘the Castle’ overlooking the pit that was Al Sarai. We’d already gone out once that morning to take EOD to a suspected site of a roadside bomb. Now we were responding to provide additional support for troops in contact.
While out roaming sector and kicking in some dudes door, Apache Company began to take small arms and RPG fire. An IED had disabled a Stryker which thankfully was able to make it clear of the ambush zone – but needed a wrecker. So we were dispatched with one to their location, still receiving sporadic small arms. We always were extra cautious when we had missions like these because the assets we escorted weren’t Stryker’s. They were what we called “legacy” vehicles – Hummvee’s, 5-ton trucks, and other heavy equipment like the wrecker, capable of recovering and towing damaged vehicles. They couldn’t drive like us, they generally weren’t armored as much as us, and they tended to make juicy targets for the enemy.
I don’t recall much about the link-up, but we dropped the wrecker with the platoon that needed it – they would escort it back with their crippled Stryker in tow. We were being called five blocks over by our Squadron TAC. It seems that they had been questioning a group of men unloading sacks of flour from a large cargo truck into an empty, possibly abandoned building. The men were all Syrian and claimed they were hired to make the delivery, came through the border legally, and had paperwork to prove so. We of course had no way to really determine that – it was all just wrinkled paper with a bunch of squiggles on it. Our Squadron Commander was hell-bent on detaining these three guys, but was still conducting tactical questioning on-site.
We parked and secured the very urban area as best we could; this part of town was located down a side street just off of route Corvette, the main thoroughfare running north to south through Al Sarai. We were just shy of a four-way intersection with two story buildings, and tons of small, narrow alleyways that might fit a car – but certainly not a Stryker. Some were even pedestrian pathways far too skinny to fit much else through. Wires hung from every roof, drooped across plumbing pipes, ramshackle corrugated tin supporting portions of roof – it was one of those places that always had your Spidey-Senses tingling.
We were searching through the sacks of flour piled five feet high, and several feet deep. I had to climb up on top of the shoddy stack job and try to dig down under sacks to see if I could gain access to the corner of the room. We were concerned that these were carrying, or concealing weapons shipped in for the insurgent fighters that occupied the stronghold that was Al Sarai. We cut open two and poked around through them, only realizing that clouds and piles of flour going everywhere did not help us in any way shape or fashion. Ok, so… let’s try and see if there is anything buried in the back, and if not, we’ll try and use the mine detector to see if we can get any hits among the pile.
I had probably heaved and moved a dozen 50 pound sacks of flour amid the already crowded room, sweating underneath all of my body armor, helmet and gear – several patches of white flour caked on various parts of my desert-cammo uniform with woodland-cammo armor (we looked a real treat with that in the desert – let alone the city, trust me). Suddenly shots rang out from somewhere in the street, so I started to scramble my way back over the pile to join everyone else running from the room, back out into the street. Some of the men from the TAC vehicles were kneeling on the ground behind a Stryker returning fire with their M-4’s while radios came to life with more reports. The radio always sort of had chatter of some type back and forth, but during contact it is the intervals that change – the time between calls drops significantly.
Various reports were coming in from no less than three other platoons in sector, all somewhere within what was probably a half mile or less – Al Sarai was very congested, very built-up with a maze of alleys and side streets. The sound of PKC machine-gun fire erupted from some side street down the road, while the telltale, higher cracks of AK-47’s pitched in, chipping cement from the walls of the second story building across the street from us. This was when I first met Sergeant Gould. Well, I had met him the many times I would pop into the S1 shop, but this was the first time I got to know him more intimately, and less transactional.
Sergeant Gould was one of the Squadron’s personnel administrative clerks (a ‘PAC-clerk’) known for his dry humor, sarcastic wit, and extremely frank, curt tone he took with people. Respectful yet in your face – he was the master of his own domain so don’t bother trying to pull one over on the old S1 shop while he was around. I received his ire on occasion when I would pop into S1 to inquire on if various awards for my men had come in yet. He often would volunteer to go out with the TAC when they rolled and he wasn’t on shift. This was a common occurrence among the soldiers, NCO’s and officers assigned to Squadron Headquarters. A lot of those guys were Scouts, or had served down on a line unit for a long while before advancing and ‘doing their HQ time’. It was a good way to get back out doing what every real Scout wants to do – be with the men, out in the shit.
A distinct explosion occurred, striking a building just down the road a ways, sending a few pieces of corrugated tin that must’ve been covering something on the roof flying. A mortar. We all got low, and Sergeant Gould and I happened to end up crawling behind a small concrete mass on the sidewalk. The step-down into the street, coupled with these few cinder blocks whoever owned this shop had put here to hold wares during business hours were enough to give the illusion of cover – even if just to make us feel better. We clambered down, knocking gear and bumping into each other as we scrounged to get low and fit when another explosion erupted from the street at the intersection. Another mortar. Mortars. Probably 60mm from the sound of it but still nothing you’d want to tangle with one on one.
We looked at each other, deep into each other’s eyes. I wish there was some cool, catchy, or witty banter we exchanged – but no. I imagine the same look in his eyes he was observing in my own. A third, more distant kaarump let us know a third mortar had landed, but somewhere farther away. Two Stryker’s were maneuvering out and down the road at the intersection; we had OH-58 Kiowa reconnaissance helicopters who had been buzzing back and forth over parts of town all day. A call came over the radio that the Kiowa’s spotted two men with a mortar tube displacing, only three blocks from here in a court yard – the Stryker’s began to mobilize to pursue. Kiowa’s were great because they flew low and slow, and could see things like this. It was not uncommon to – and I did several times that Sunday – see a pilot or co-pilot a hundred feet in the air leaning out the side of their cockpit, shooting their M-4’s down at some dirt bag they had spotted – because they could.
I had two trucks pulling security at out rear which joined in. We had a goodly number of men on the ground from both my platoon and the TAC. Someone made the decision to go in on foot – possibly someone from the TAC or just someone somewhere blurted it out as either a question or a statement – and we all complied. Sergeant Gould, another kid riding along with the TAC, and several of the dismounts from my section began to head into the alley parallel to the road the Stryker’s took off down. The space was tight, I felt pretty boxed-in as well as generally displaced. We had left elements of the TAC and two of my trucks at the location of the flour people, had four trucks take off down the road, and now had a group of dismounts working their way through the alleys in their general vicinity. Gunfire in the distance randomly echoed towards us from across rooftops or down connecting alleyways. The tall buildings cast a long shadow on us, blocking out what little sunlight we had – it was a gray, slightly chilly Sunday. But being in the alleyways and seeing far more concrete than sky always made me feel leery. We tread at a moderate pace, rifles at the ready, gear rubbing up against walls or pipes, fixtures, anything that jutted out from walls of this narrow alleyway. We treated each intersecting alley or street we came to like a linear danger area, setting security in each direction before sending men across one at a time. It was like all those years of training, but instead of a wooded trail or grounds at some school house, it was an empty and epically shitty neighborhood with no living soul in sight, but tons of doors, walls and windows.
Really grainy screen capture from a shitty video of the Kiowa’s
Time has eaten some of these memories. I vaguely recall linking-up with the Stryker’s at the scene, searching some courtyards nearby, and then mounting-up with them and driving back the few blocks to our original location. Somewhere across town a car bomb had detonated on a passing patrol but inflicting minor damage (the patrol was mounted so no one was on the ground). The TAC took off to go be there, and I feel like another platoon from Apache Company was circulating in the area slowly, looking for the mortar men, or other insurgents. The TAC had ordered we take the Syrian’s so we detained them. They sat zip-cuffed and blindfolded in the belly of one of my trucks while we dug out the metal detector and set about looking for possible weapons among the flour. The technique we wanted to use didn’t quite work so well. We were not really getting any readings from the mine detector, but we weren’t sure if the signal would penetrate through several feet of bagged flour – nor did we really know if the mine detector was working properly (if at all). That’s just how it goes with equipment you assume when you arrive in theater. It’s ‘seasoned’, and sometimes there’s no telling if it worked right or at all.
After half hour I decided to give up. The random gunshots and radio calls continued. We heard the whooshing sound of a 57mm rocket whistling nearby before the tremendous crack told us it exploded somewhere else. Jesus – flinging 57’s inaccurately across chunks of land to hit a base was one thing – trying to hit any U.S. forces in town, in such a built up area with thousands of people holed-up in their homes praying this would all just end – that was just crazy! But the enemy wasn’t sane, nor did they care who they hit. So they hastily got a rocket off of some homemade rail launcher; where it landed I don’t know. We were outside getting ready to be done with this flour business when the Apache Company Commander’s Stryker came rolling up with his mortar section. These guys dismounted in the middle of the intersection, set up their own 60mm mortar, did some quick compass checking and adjusted the mortar sites – and then hung about four rounds before grabbing the tube and loading back up.
I remember standing there watching and wondering – how the hell were they registering those? And what were they shooting at? The base plate of the 60mm mortar was meant to grip dirt – not cement. It shifted and jumped a little bit with the recoil of each round fired. The minor adjustments the crew made to the site surely couldn’t have compensated entirely for that movement! It was a bizarre sight, and I have never seen that before, nor since. A call came over the radio for QRF (me) so we mounted up, and prepared to move out. A possible IED was located not too far away, and I had to head all the way back to the FOB to grab the EOD team again. Seems silly to go all that way just to come right back, but – that’s QRF’s job.
EOD was waiting for us at the front gate so there was no time for the detainees to be taken to the holding area (affectionately called the ‘Rattlesnake Pit’). Before too long we were back on route Sante Fe, cruising as fast as we could go without losing the EOD Humvee, but still doing our best to avoid IEDs ourselves. Back in those days, see, speed meant security. Early on in the war it was all too common to need a direct line of sight with your target, and a reference point to track them to, in order to detonate your IED. We all had this faulty notion that the faster you went, the less time the enemy had to dial his phone, get ready to press the buttons, and line you up correctly. Sometimes it seemed to work, sometimes it didn’t. This was before the days of the crush-wire IEDs, or pressure-sensitive ones meant to detonate under the weight of a large military vehicle, not a passing car. Most IEDs were actor-operated visually, but we saw as the war wound on it was much easier to visually (and remotely) arm an IED when the patrol was coming, leaving the technology applied to the bombs to cause the U.S. patrol to detonate it (victim-operated, as it were; the crush-wire, or crush-plate triggering the detonation, or a simple IR sensor like your garage door has so when the vehicle broke the beam it triggered the explosive).
Car after being destroyed
We arrived back in another shitty corner of Al Sarai where we met more men from Apache Company, who took the EOD guys to show them their suspected IED. Gunfire was cropping up here and there, sort of like an odd coyote call – shots fired somewhere in the distance behind you were answered momentarily by a machine gun burst somewhere to your left a few streets down. And off to your front, somewhere unseen two sets of rifle cracks exchanged rounds with each other. It was like chaos had ensued and the entire city was erupting around us. All the while Kiowa’s buzzed overhead, sometimes humming overhead in the distance, and sometimes zipping in with such surprise from some low point unknown that it made you flinch.
Reports were coming in of two men with a heavy machine gun of some type and an RPG a few neighborhoods down. EOD was still assessing the possibility of an IED out here near route Corvette, so we remained while other elements of Apache took off down the road, doing their best to avoid driving by the suspected device. It was about this time that one of the Kiowa’s flew by my right to left, and as it did I saw this spiraling RPG come out from behind a building, fly up on a nice, solid arc – like a quarterback’s Hail Mary long-bomb. It was so close that I could see the fins from it spinning as it made this long arch up… and over…and then began to descend – not coming anywhere near the helicopter mind you. But it was a nice try. There was the whoomp of it hitting something, somewhere – probably another building a block over. Wow, I thought.
Just, wow. The radio was crackling to life with reports from the ground coming in amid the sound of gunshots – you could hear it on the radio as the men were transmitting, and then a second later hear the echo of the rifles from down the street. The Kiowa was pretty zeroed on the two guys who has been harassing Apache Company but were not harassing them. Kiowa’s fly in pairs; the wingman saw the dude shoot the RPG at their buddy, and altered its course as not to fly over that spot. They were calling out their distance and direction to forces on the ground while making low (now faster) circles around Al Sarai. EOD was just wrapping up recovering the device (they often used the bomb robot – or themselves if they feel like suiting up in the bomb suit). And that was when it happened.
I heard a lengthy burst of enemy machine-gun fire let out, and that second Kiowa came screaming right over the building tops, hard-right rudder – kicking its tail end out to turn around quickly. As the ass-end of that helicopter passed in front of me I saw tiny wisps of blue-gray contours, and what seemed to me at the time like a flickering red navigation light. But it was on the left rear of its fuselage. A funny place for a navigation light, I thought. I didn’t realize that it was the burning end of a tracer round from the machine gun belt glowing red from beneath the skin of the Kiowa, lodged somewhere inside. The helicopter made its hard right turn, juked back left to correct course and then disappeared back over the rooftops, flying on somewhere else in the south of the city.
I learned later as we were en-route back to the FOB with EOD that the Kiowa had taken several rounds and limped its way back to the FOB where it was forced to make a hard landing just a few hundred meters shy of the FOB perimeter. Being so close to the FOB and well outside of enemy mortar or rocket range, gun-trucks from the Squadron secured the scene with both pilots walking away with no serious injuries. I was returning EOD to the FOB and being called back out to Al Sarai to support Apache Company otherwise I am sure Squadron would’ve had us as QRF secure the scene. (The helicopter was recovered with a flat bed and a wrecker, and then moved inside to the airfield where it sat at the end of the runway for close to a week before a CH-47 Chinook could come to sling-load it back to Mosul. I’ve checked multiple websites and news articles but could find nothing on the Easter Sunday shoot down, but I remember what I saw).
The fighting wound on as the sun set. Apache Company was now in full-on hunt mode. They were clearing portions of blocks in Al Sarai, and Squadron had given their commander permission to attach the QRF to him, and use us as he saw fit. As their men hit the ground we drove mounted patrols around a perimeter just outside of their search cordon – a bubble if you will, in order to try and identify insurgents trying to escape, or trying to infiltrate to join the fight; we just wanted to disrupt enemy activity. I have lost memory of a large portion of that evening save for one event that sticks out in my mind vividly.
We were slowly combing through the streets on our perimeter when we came to a single-lane “street” that laterally cut across three sects in the neighborhood, intersecting with alleyways that separated them. This was in the heart of the densely-packed southeastern portion of Al Sarai. This narrow one-lane “street” was the only real Stryker accessible way into this part of the neighborhood. In the central core of the insurgent’s stronghold, it was vital to maintain a presence. It was becoming night now and we were using our night vision monocular, or just seeing by ambient light. I did not have my night vision on, as the few lights from the stars that did manage to shine into the alleyways aided the light from the random window or street light; this low-light environment was good enough for me to see without having to use my monocular. When we got to the point to turn down that “street” – the one the Apache Company commander had radioed to us to take, my heart managed to sink a tad bit lower.
“Sir, this is it” my lead scout radioed. ‘Well, Christ. We barely are going to fit down this thing. Ok, take it slow, but let’s try not to linger here – this whole place is like hand-grenade alley to me.’ Oh, ye of little faith. Careful what one wishes for (or for not, in this case). We were progressing down the road, an eight inch to one foot maximum clearance on either side of the Stryker, careful not to rip into awnings or get ourselves clotheslined by hanging electrical wires. It was quiet – all of the men were quiet. Even the chit chat I was making to the crew about our course was curt. The hum of the Stryker was the only real sound in my ears. The warm air from inside the Stryker wafted up and out of the hatches that we stood in, meeting the cooler night air, making your lower parts sweat and upper parts begin to get cold.
We were about half way done with this entire stretch of death when I heard a noise, and the man who was my senior dismount and right-rear air guard, Sergeant Bradley, cried out. The way we were each facing, our backs were to each other. I heard a very distinct, very loud metallic PIIIIIINGGGGG behind me – the sound of metal on metal – and Sergeant Bradley shout “GRENADE!!!”
Everything happened in an instant, yet it took what seemed like forever to process in my mind. If someone had dropped a grenade from the rooftop down onto the Stryker, there were only two places for it to really go; it was going to bounce and land on the roof among our gear and ammo, or it was going to bounce and land inside, having fallen through one of the hatches we stood in. Seeing how I heard it make its initial landing directly behind me, and Sergeant Bradley clearly saw it, I knew it had a decent probability of going into his hatch.
I had to make a decision as to if I wanted to lift myself up out of the hatch and lay down on the roof of the Stryker so that I could avoid the blast from inside, or duck down into the Stryker to avoid the blast on the roof. I had a split second to make my decision. What if I decided wrong? What if it fell inside the truck? I actually had thought about this plenty of times because we’d been hit with so many hand grenades before – would the body armor and SAPI plates be enough to protect from the blast of a grenade if I had to jump on it? Could you survive that? The belly of the truck had another dismount of mine inside along with the Syrian detainees still (we’d yet to get them to the detainee holding area on the base). Could my guy throw these dudes at the grenade to shield himself? Would he know to do so?
All of this happened in literally half a second. I couldn’t make a solid determination either way, and this little voice inside of me said ‘make yourself small.’ Sergeant Bradley screamed out – and I instinctively folded inward, dropping inside and tucking my arms in, planting my face and helmet towards to Stryker’s hull. I squatted down on my bench and leaned into the stowage boxes and pipes and things. I felt like my ass and back were completely exposed to the blast and I had no idea if I should turn to face it, or just stay where I was, leaving my spine to take the shock first. My ass had no protection and was literally hanging out. And so it was like this I stayed, waiting.
The truck continued to roll, and I have no idea what anyone else did because all I could see was close-up views of my own gear and the bench I was damn near hugging. I closed my eyes. All was quiet, yet there was no explosion. And still I waited. After what seemed like an eternity but was probably six or ten seconds, Sergeant Bradley said “Sir, you can come out now. It bounced off the slat, landed in the street. Must’ve been a dud.”
I grew up and out through the hatch like a battle-hardened flower from the tiny seed that I had regressed into. I called on the radio to the Apache Company commander to tell him we had just been engaged by a hand grenade that failed to detonate. We still rolled forward – I wanted to get the hell out of this alley! The men were scanning the rooftops as we moved on but at a quicker pace. The Stryker’s behind us tried to veer left in order not to run over the grenade and lose a tire in doing so. I tried to describe our location and grid coordinate to their commander (Apache Six), and while he was still attempting to find my location in the dense urbanity, I took out one of the cylindrical tubes I kept in my box of pyro inside my hatch and I popped a white star-cluster. It rose high into the air before its firework-like pure white plumage illuminated the sky, giving the advancing Apache Stryker’s somewhere to aim for.
The guys were talking about how close of a call it had been. My Gunner Sergeant Ullibari, having the same dilemma as I, opted to lift up his legs from inside the Stryker and duck his head down, rolling into a ball as he braced himself in the gunner’s hatch, trying to curl up behind the lightly armored top-hatch to his turret that was locked in place behind him. That hatch was his own six-o’clock protection when we were out in town. He was explaining that he felt that was his best shot, facing forward and not seeing the grenade himself either, and hoped that wherever it landed, he had done enough to protect himself.
The Infantry were arriving to our location, and the men that were running up to my Stryker asked me which house it was. We had driven at least seventy-five meters since the incident, arriving at the spot where this “street” finally dumped us out on the east side of the neighborhood, near the edge, where a real road that was very wide would take us to what I perceived as the end of the tunnel. Shaken, I had no real clue as to which house it came from because I was facing the wrong way. Both Sergeant Bradley and I arbitrarily turned on our PEQ-2 infrared aiming devices on our rifles, and pointed far down the alley way to a slight curve where the homes bent around the shallow corner we had come from.
‘Be careful – there’s a grenade laying near the side of the road down there somewhere unexploded!’
The infantrymen trotted-off down the alleyway, keeping to the opposite side of the “street” to avoid the side the grenade was on, wherever it was. We moved to let two Apache Company Stryker’s down with their men. No one ever really saw it, or found it. They hit the house we pointed to and detained two sleeping military-aged males. I was feeling drained. The culmination of the entire day was getting to me.
Tal’Afar in the distance – Driving back to FOB Sykes Sunday 27 March, 2005
We made a few final mounted patrols for Apache before they called their operation complete, and we all displaced to return to the FOB. I had to take the detainees to the holding area. At this point I knew little more than they were some Syrian’s that the Squadron Commander snatched up for being foreign. It came back to me months later that word had got around to the men that I cowered in fear during that incident. I can’t deny that I curled-up like a pill bug, and of course I was scared. I don’t remember acting much differently then, or afterwards as compared to any other time we took close contact. Maybe they saw something else in my face. Maybe the story got relayed to the other men differently. I dunno. None of it matters any longer.
Easter Sunday 2005 will go down as the day the Squadron experienced every form of contact that the enemy could throw at it in a single day. IEDs, small arms, heavy machine gun, RPGs, rockets, a car bomb, precision rifle-fire (aka ‘sniper fire’) – they gave it all to us in their own mini-Easter offensive. And we prevailed.
When I hear about Tal’Afar now, I remember days like that.