Friday, November 12, 2004

Becoming a Veteran

Yesterday was certainly an exciting day, for a number of reasons. First, it was Veterans Day. That's always a good day to sit back and reflect. However, there was very little time for reflection this year.

It all started rather early with another loud explosion. Obviously it wasn't really close, but it was big enough to wake me up. So my day started with a mortar and went on from there. Throughout the day we experienced sporadic mortar and rocket attacks that, once again, were less than intimidating due to their complete lack of accuracy and apparent randomness. However, once the sun went down, the fun really began. I was sitting in my office writing email or studying or reading, with SGT Crawford dutifully at my side, trying to while away the time. A soldier came in and said, "Hey you guys need to see this!" We grabbed our Night Vision Goggles (NODs) and ran outside. In the direction of the front gate to the base here could be seen tracer rounds shooting into the sky and small explosions could be heard. After watching for a while, and being confident our soldiers had things under as much control as can be had in such circumstances, we headed back into the chapel. Soon someone else ran in and said, "AIF is inside the wire!" AIF are the bad guys, terrorists, them what you will, they can taste American blood. So SGT Crawford and I grabbed our ballistic vests and helmets and he grabbed his weapon and we proceeded to the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) to find out what was going on. As we stood in the TOC listening to the intel reports coming in and the Battle Captains assessment of the situation, one of our senior NCO's came running in, almost ashen and said, they're attacking our compound. Every guy grabbed his weapon and headed outside. Someone or something had tripped a trip flare on our perimeter, about 100 meters from the TOC and the guard towers had opened fire on it. Tracers continued to fly for the next several minutes, only meters from my position. I told SGT Crawford to grab the soldiers not actively engaged in the fight and set up a defense around the TOC. He did that perfectly. I continued to monitor the situation from inside the TOC so as to be able to respond quickly should someone need a chaplain. The fight at the fenceline soon died down but everyone remained on edge and ready to cap the first guy who didn't know the password. Throughout all this the fight at the front gate continued and intensified. Grenades and .50 cal bursts could be heard. At one point someone out front cut loose with a Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher. That is one bad weapon and they certainly put some serious hurt on haji.

A couple of hours later, around midnight Zulu, I felt it sufficiently safe for SGT Crawford and I to make our way to the air field, where several of our soldiers were manning fighting positions, prepared to defend the airfield. We walked the 200 meters or so and began making our way from one firing position to another, checking up on the morale of the guys and saying a quick prayer. As we stood and talked with each team inside their bunker or next to their vehicle we watched with interest the goings on at the front gate, approximately half a mile away. Gunfire and explosions continued. Overhead we could hear the drone of what turned out to be an AC-130 Spectre Gunship circling over head watching the fight and waiting for it's opportunity to strike. The Spectre is the bad boy of airborne armament. Armed with two 30mm cannons and a 105mm Howitzer it strikes fear into any enemy that knows it's in the area. Haji didn't know! As we watched it circle suddenly it "lazed" something on the ground. That means it pointed an onboard laser at a potential target. The beauty of the laser is that it is invisible to the naked eye. However, to those of us with NODs it shows up clearly as a bright red line from the plane to the ground. That lasted only a second or so before we heard 3 explosions in rapid succession as the rounds from the Spectre's Howitzer hit their intended target with ferocious accuracy. It was terrible and beautiful. Haji continued to fight but even if he didn't know it, his efforts had been crushed. Then, as if to add insult to injury, it appeared. We didn't even hear it coming because it was flying only about 200 feet off the ground and going very fast. It was either an F-15 or F-16 and it flew toward the fight and then pulled up and punched it's afterburners. Beautiful. We didn't hear anything and assumed that it had abandoned it's run for some reason. Later we learned it had struck what it wanted and done so with impunity as yet another of haji's "secure" locations was pounded into the realm of the unrecognizable.

Not too long after that the fighting died down. Today we learned that despite their being direct and indirect fire fights in at least 5 locations throughout the city, only 5 US soldiers received minor injuries and were returned to duty before the sun came up. On the other side of the coin, one of those 5 locations reported 52 AIF dead. We also got pictures of some of the damage done. The most encouraging picture of all was one of an AIF "soldier" lying face up next to a mortar tube, with something of a surprised look on his face. His hair looked to be parted strangely. In reality the top left side of his head was missing. Speculation is that when he attempted to fire a mortar at us, the mortar cooked off too slowly and he got curious and decided to look down the tube to see why it hadn't fired. Timing is everything!

Things continue to be tense around here with Ramadan coming to a close and the events in Fallujah being what they are. The bad guys are looking for somewhere else to hole up. This may be that place. So the next couple of weeks should be exciting.

Happy Veteran's Day!

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