Conducting the surge, one raid at a time
Forward Operating Base Loyalty, Baghdad, Iraq: Blacksheep's 1st platoon, led by 1st Lt. Alex Kerr from Murrysville, PA, begins to prepare for a mission to be conducted in a few hours. Around midnight, the platoon leader briefs the platoon on the specifics of tonight's raid -- they will raid a target house in their sector and hope to catch one of the battalion's HVIs or "high-value individuals." This target is a Mahdi Army leader responsible for attacks against 2/17 Field Artillery's own soldiers. The target heads a cell that also includes his brother and father.
The raid plan is relatively brief: The platoon had been to this location a number of times and previously has apprehended these targets before, only to have them be released for lack of sufficient incriminating evidence. This time, though, there appears to be enough significant evidence to apprehend and prosecute. They treat this raid as a fairly regular occurrence.
Once the platoon leader briefs the basics of the plan, the leaders get together to discuss raid specifics like approach to the location and security plan on the ground, to more general topics like radio frequencies to be used, colored smoke for signaling, Humvee rollover drills in the event of IED attack, and the medevac plan. Soon after, they load up in the Humvees and head over to the JSS to pick up a squad of Iraqi Army soldiers. Due to their own operational security concerns with the newer Iraqi battalion 1st plattoon is working with (and the limited size of the unit they are working with on this raid), the platoon leader only loosely briefs the Iraqi Army soldiers on the area where they will to patrol; they don't want the possibility of this mission being passed along to anyone that might be connected to the target, and the Mahdi Army is known to have many informants in the Iraqi Security Forces.
Moving to the Target
The now-joint patrol heads out of the JSS with their Iraqi Army pick-up trucks integrated with the Humvees. As in the fixed joint positions back at the JSS and COP, the Mahdi Army is less likely to attack the integrated force knowing that the Iraqi Army soldiers will react more aggressively against communities if they are attacked by the JAM. Traveling with the Iraqi pick-ups has its limitations as the trucks cannot drive "blacked-out" or without lights -- the Iraqi soldiers do not have night vision. The US troops must make an extra effort to develop routes to the target that won't give away the patrol's actual destination to the many JAM spotters paid to observe specific routes in the area and alert their cell/platoon members by reporting the troop movement.
The mix of Humvees and pick-ups takes a circuitous route through several horribly smelling villages on the way to the target. The US has successfully built the first-ever sewer systems for many of the neighborhoods in Iraq, but the corrupt Mahdi-influenced local governments fail to maintain simple services like regular trash pick-up. The people are left to dump their trash in the street, the rainy season washes the trash into the sewer system, the sewer system clogs up, and the streets fill up with sewage.
Once the line of vehicles enters the target's neighborhood, individual trucks pull into standard covering positions for the dismounted soldiers to approach the target house within a cordon of friendly vehicles. The soldiers dismount from the Humvees and quickly approach the target house. Almost effortlessly, the "stack" of soldiers breaches the outer courtyard door and approach the house. Tonight, the stack order is led by Pfc. Steuben, a younger soldier who happens to be the tallest and fastest at kicking in a door. Following Steuben is Staff Sgt. Benjamin Schneider, and then Staff Sgt. Elston Miramontes carrying a Mossberg 12-guage shotgun. Finally, in the number four position, Sgt. Untulon completes the stack.
After Steuben kicks in the door with almost no sound at all, he cuts right into the house's living room to find two women and two children asleep on the floor. Schneider pushes right past him to the back of the house and the others follow, each with a specific mission to "clear" (check) the rooms in the house. As Schneider puts it, "When we stack up to enter a house, we try not to fall into a set order. Therefore, as we restack over and over as we move through a house, everyone understands the specific role of each position in the stack. This keeps us alive in a very fluid situation. We leave Smoke [the platoon sergeant] and the LT ["lieutenant" - the platoon leader] outside until the house is cleared."
The soldiers quickly clear all the rooms on the first two floors and then enter the third-story roof to detain the sleeping target. Neither the HVI, nor the father (a secondary target), are in the house, but they quickly determine they've caught the brother of the HVI they were looking for.
Even though the HVI wasn't there, the raid is definitely a success. Through the process, they discover that the brother they apprehended is actually much more deadly that they had known going in (a longer rap sheet) - and that the two brothers themselves most likely have been involved in attacks directly against this unit.
The lack of surprise or emotion on the part of everyone is probably the biggest surprise of all during the raid. On the insurgent's side, the mother of the HVI is hardly surprised that her son is being taken away or that the soldiers are looking for her other son and husband -- most Iraqi women wail loudly and in unison as their family members are detained. Of course, she says she had thrown her husband out for his previous activities, but the soldiers feel that she is more likely trying to cover for him.
The captured brother seems very cavalier about the whole detention. He is handled with dignity and respect and he is obviously not in the least uncomfortable about the situation. In the matter of a half hour, he is given water, smokes two cigarettes, and patiently goes through an explosives residue test and detainee scanning (this is completed summarily as he is already in the system and they quickly pull up his file photo).
The most unfazed are the soldiers themselves. This brother -- although not the actual HVI -- most likely was closely involved in attacks specifically directed against this unit's own soldiers. They treat him as if they were cops on the beat extending much or the same fairness and rights typically afforded suspects within the US legal system. There is zero outward animosity. The platoon leader remarks that the soldiers do their best to separate any feeling that they may have; this is just another facet of the job.
The soldiers returned to their common areas in the COP -- a well-constructed, two-story, former Iraqi Police station -- to unwind from the mission. By 7 AM, they slowly head to their bunks to read, play video games, or sleep in preparation to get up and do it all again later in the day.
Please support Joe's embed in Iraq and independent, nonprofit journalism by donating to Public Multimedia Inc. Your contributions are tax-deductible.