April 13th – The Rescue

Posted by on Apr 13, 2012 in iraq, Marine Corps, prisoners, Uncategorized, war | 10 comments

From the time we crossed the Kuwait/Iraq border with Third Battalion/Fifth Marines on 20 March 2003, Human Intelligence Exploitation Team Three (HET 3, callsign Jesuit 3) had driven with almost no sleep, fought alongside the grunts, and slogged through dozens of interrogations for almost three weeks. On 11 April we rested for a day after taking the Azimiyah Palace. There were six of us, plus our two linguists; 1st Lieutenant Nate Boaz, SSgt Matt Leclaire, SSgt Randy Meyer, Sgt Chris Kieffer, Sgt Jason Jones and myself, Sgt Joel McCollough. Ra’ad was our volunteer linguist from Kuwait, and Johnny Nano was our contractor linguist – an Iraqi refugee from Detroit.  A lot of conflicting accounts of the rescue appeared in the media in 2003, I’ve never read a completely accurate one, and I don’t claim this telling is perfect. It’s just how me and my team experienced it. enjoy, J.E.   On the morning of 12 April HET 3 was ordered to report to a grid coordinate a little bit north of Baghdad, and attach to a unit named Task Force Tripoli. I was still recovering from being deathly ill, and the rest of the team was still recovering from the fight to take the Azamiyah Palace. I was good to drive, though, and when the order came in over the radio to move we loaded up our two trucks and rolled to the grid coord we had been given, which was north of the city. We had never heard of Task Force Tripoli, and for good reason. No one had. TF Tripoli was completely ad hoc. It was thrown together at the last minute to take Tikrit, Saddam’s home town. The original battle plan for the invasion had included the Army’s Fourth Infantry Division coming into northern Iraq through Turkish airspace and blocking any Iraqi military or regime officials fleeing Baghdad. But the Turks refused to allow the Coalition overfly rights at the last minute, which meant most of northern Iraq was untouched. A few Special Forces teams were air dropped into Kurdistan, far to the north, but no American troops had been in Saddam’s backyard, his hometown. Major General (MG) Mattis, the commander of First Marine Division, had a problem with that. When Baghdad fell and Tikrit was still untouched, Mattis collected parts of the three Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) Battalions, along with a few tanks and some air and intelligence support elements and sent them north, a fast-moving ad hoc task force to take the city and complete the invasion. LAR battalions are unique in the Marine Corps. They consist of Marines driving and riding in Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs), which look like boats on eight wheels carrying a really big gun on top in a turret. They’re fast, and their primary function in the initial invasion was to go ahead of the infantry and screen the main force’s advance, to protect the flanks. TF Tripoli, though, was made up almost entirely of the three LARs, 1st, 2nd and 3rd. Being the main assault force was not a traditional responsibility for an LAR battalion, but Mattis wanted Tikrit taken quickly and the LAR battalions had more flexibility than the infantry battalions. They could quickly re-focus, which is what was needed for the assault on Tikrit while most of...

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First Interrogation

Posted by on Apr 9, 2012 in iraq, Marine Corps, war | 0 comments

Before you read this post, I’d like to reiterate my earlier disclaimer. Not everything in this memoir is true, and some of it is intentionally distorted or altered. This memoir is intended to relate my impressions and thoughts on combat and the war in general. It is not a detailed or literal account of exactly what happened in the war. In other words, sometimes I make shit up for literary effect. enjoy, J.E. My first interrogation was the next day, or the day after, I’m not really sure. It was a junior militia fighter who gave up all his information to direct questioning. No waterboarding needed, no real technique applied, there was no time to do either, anyway. We had Marines advancing and we needed information. Force protection was the priority, which meant finding out where the enemy was waiting for us. I asked questions and he answered. The next ambush was a few klicks north, and Kilo Company was about to roll into an onslaught of RPGs, mortars and small arms. I gave Nate the grid coordinates of where my prisoner told me the enemy positions were located, he passed them to battalion headquarters who called in an artillery strike. LtCol Mundy had saying, ‘Never send a Marine where you can send artillery.” Hell rained down on the enemy. The artillery strike thundered ahead of us for several minutes as shells destroyed their positions. We killed them all. By the time Kilo Company got there, dozens of Iraqis were dead in their ambush sites. That evening at the nightly Three/Five staff meeting held at LTC Mundy’s vehicle the Kilo Company commander shook Nate’s hand, and thanked him for keeping his men safe, keeping them alive. “Hey, Nate, your guys saved my guys today. We would have rolled into that ambush. Thank you.” His eyes glistened slightly and his voice may have caught just a bit, as did Nate’s when he replied. “It’s our job, sir, and you’re our brothers.” Knowing I played a part in saving Marines still keeps me warm, all these years later. Life is shit sometimes, but somewhere out there are guys who got to go home, love their wives and see their kids grow up because of the questions I asked that Iraqi. That gives me some measure of peace when the walls close in. What a fucking cliche, ‘when the walls close in.’ It’s not the walls that press in on me, it’s the memories of all the people I’ve hurt. Well, no, that’s not it, exactly. I think I sometimes still struggle with the dissonance between having enjoyed hurting people and knowing I’m not supposed to enjoy hurting people. Which is bullshit, of course, we all enjoy hurting each other, we do it often enough. I shouldn’t feel guilty for enjoying what everyone else enjoys. Right? After the terror of being helpless while taking incoming fire, laying in a hole waiting to die, having control over the enemy was exquisite. Not out of any desire for revenge, but it felt delicious to have power over another human being, have them bound in front of you and answering your questions. Answers which, in turn, killed men and saved...

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First Fight

Posted by on Mar 29, 2012 in iraq, Marine Corps, war | 0 comments

The first real action Three/Five saw was south of Ad Diwaniyah, around March 23rd or 24th.  I wish I could remember how far south, but things were blurry and both time and distance were distorted. I had never been in the infantry, like most of the other guys on my counterintelligence team. I had been an intel geek for five years and had never done serious time in the field. After the debacle of the border crossing and the first couple of days of the war, HUMINT Exploitation Team Three (HET 3) had sorted itself out and we were back in our assigned trucks. Me, Matt, Jason and my linguist Johnny Nano were with the rear element while Nate (1st Lt Boaz) commanded the forward truck, driven by Randy with Kris and Ra’ad in the back. They rolled with the battalion headquarters element, since Nate as team leader wanted to be able to build a relationship with LtCol Mundy and the rest of the Three/Five headquarters staff. I didn’t fight, but, I was an interrogator not a grunt, I had a different job. The battalion had plenty of infantrymen, but only six Marines who could conduct interrogations. Another reason the HET was kept out of the fight, unless we were directly engaged by the enemy, was because we weren’t integrated into the infantry units. The Marines in Three/Five had trained together, worked together, they were a finely tuned fighting machine. We had just joined up with them a few weeks earlier and we barely knew any of their names, let alone their combat SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures). The reality was we might get in the way more than we’d be able to help. It was a little before noon when we got the order over the radio to halt. Even from back in the rear, we heard the fighting. The forward companies were engaged, Kilo Company especially had a fight on its hands. LtCol Mundy’s voice on the radio was the calm, cool, steely voice of command that directed his Marines into the fight with utter confidence. The Iraqis had ambushed the battalion, fighting from dug in positions and from out of tank trenches, deep channels Saddam had dug alongside the highways to prevent our armor from maneuvering. We had overwhelming fire superiority, our guns were bigger, our Marines were motivated and thirsting to kill. And the Iraqis in that militia were just scared conscripts. Despite our advantages the Iraqis still fought, and died. By the dozens. The hundreds. We dragged them into piles so that units behind us could more quickly deal with the enemy dead. After the fight was when HET’s job began. My job. Interrogations and collecting intelligence from the dead enemy. Two of my teammates took our linguists and started working through the enemy prisoners of war, leaving me in the aftermath of that first fight with nothing to do. So, Nate told me to search the enemy dead for intelligence. Maps, letters, rosters.  That early in the war, and that far south, we really didn’t know who we were fighting. Iraqi regular Army, Republican Guard, militia…   We needed intel. We put the word out to the grunts to tell us if anyone had killed an Iraqi officer and in short order a young Lance Corporal came running...

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What War Is

Posted by on Mar 23, 2012 in iraq, Marine Corps, Uncategorized, war | 1 comment

    Your first war is filled with things you’ve never done, never seen, never heard, never smelled. It’s a different continent, and everyone who goes there feels like the first white man in the Congo.  It’s the world after you fuck your first girl; you were a virgin, and now you’re not.  That first morning after you’re not sure what’s changed, but there is something fundamentally different, even if it’s not visible and no one else can see it.  You know something has changed. Some think war is an experience – something bad that happens to you like a father that slapped you around too much but then you grow up and move on.  War isn’t a time period in life, it’s the end of your old life and the beginning of life after, BC turns to AD and you never really move on, it’s with you for always.  That old life ends the first time you’re shot at, that first time you hear the snap of a bullet pass by and look around in bewilderment and indignation, thinking, why is that guy trying to kill me?  Why would he want to do that, I never did anything to him!  Did that really just happen?  And then more bullets come.  Panic starts to set in, shutting down your thoughts.  The panic is suppressed by the fear.  And the fear is overcome by training, when you revert to a mental subroutine that lets you function in situations you’ve never experienced before. I discovered war consists of essentially two emotions, boredom and fear and not necessarily in that order.  Sometimes they overlap and...

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Posted by on Mar 18, 2012 in iraq, Marine Corps, Uncategorized, war | 0 comments

Crossing into Iraq in that never-ending convoy felt like being caught in a river’s current, we flowed across the border in an inevitable stream of war machines. In the afternoon light of the desert we poured through breaches in the berms and tank trenches on the Iraq-Kuwait border, passing long-abandoned UN border posts standing a useless watch. Further on, as darkness fell, we began to pass the GOSPs.  Saddam had ordered them set on fire, so we drove through the jets of flame spewing from the earth.  At the closest we maybe got within 200 meters of a GOSP on fire, maybe as far as 400 meters. That may sound like a long ways away, but the heat was so intense it felt like my face was melting. The hot air blasted through the open windows of the truck and we held our arms up to give our faces a little relief.  This was one of only two times the entire invasion when I didn’t drive.  Randy was driving, and I was in the front passenger seat because Nate and Matt had taken my truck to go get the Kuwaiti linguists.  At some point past the GOSPs the call of nature called, and I had to piss.  We couldn’t stop, of course, so I opened the door and managed to turn around in the seat, even in all my armor and gear. Facing the rear I opened the humvee door and expressed myself as we drove through the night.  I left a trail of piss into...

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My Introduction to War

Posted by on Mar 14, 2012 in iraq, Marine Corps, Uncategorized, war | 3 comments

We all fear the unknown, and mankind’s fear of death comes from having never experienced it.  Ask the few people who have been certain, utterly certain, they were about to die, and I think you’ll find men and women who can ponder their own end without the paralyzing fear so many have.  Not that we necessarily want to embrace that ugly bastard, but we’ve shaken his hand and we’ve huddled together in the same fighting hole. It’s not that we’re more brave than the rest, but for some of us the fear has been worn away from long familiarity. Or maybe we’re just used to it always hanging around.  I’m not saying fear is a friend, but I think I’d be lonely without it. In March of 2003, a few days into the invasion of Iraq, I was lying in the survivability hole I’d dug for myself.  With my gas mask on, suffocating, completely certain the rockets Saddam Hussein’s army were firing would kill me with choking, agonizing, chemical weapons, that hole felt like a shallow grave.  It was only a foot deep and I had been trying to snatch a few minutes of sleep, laying in the cold, sandy earth of southern Iraq.  Then the alarm had sounded, and Iraqi artillery was incoming.  I jerked out of my quasi sleep with the squelch of static from the radio.  It was a punch in the chest and my blurry senses tried to keep pace with my reflexes as I instinctively donned my gasmask and waited.  And waited.  The act of breathing is deafening inside a gasmask.  I could hear my Staff Sergeant.  While I stayed in my hole he stayed in the humvee, exposed to fire as he manned the radio telling us over and over, “We’re going to survive this.  Our chem suits work.  Our gasmasks work.  We’re going to survive this.”  His mantra was good to hear, but I knew the rockets were inbound, and the gas was coming.  I was convinced I was about to die.  The utter imminence of those rockets made every sound around me an explosion, but thinking about dying was difficult with the sweat in my mask and the rocks in my back, lying in that shallow hole. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I survived.  The rockets missed and Saddam never used chemical or biological weapons against us.  Still, the depth of that fear has stayed with me through the years since, still a part of me but now more of an old cyst I can’t remove than a rope around my neck.  And maybe at some point I stopped caring if I survived.  I have pondered my own mortality, and realized it doesn’t matter. I’m going to die at some point, so a few years plus or minus don’t really matter that much. A twenty-four year old kid has a tough time realizing he can die, but once he does that realization stays with him. Since the invasion I’ve had rockets crash down near me, I’ve been blown up by a roadside bomb, I’ve been in foolish motorcycle wrecks, and put myself in dangerous situations in foreign cities where I should have been robbed or killed, but I just couldn’t care.  Somehow I keep surviving. This story is not entirely true. There...

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An Iraq War Memoir

Posted by on Mar 14, 2012 in iraq, Marine Corps, war | 0 comments

This is a project I’ve been working on for the last few months, and which I hope to complete this year. I was a US Marine in 2003 and fought in the invasion of Iraq as an interrogator/counterintelligence specialist, which provided me a somewhat unique perspective on the war as it was fought.  The posts in this blog are part of my larger project, hopefully you find it interesting. Enjoy, Joel

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