Batteries. I look back now and it seems my entire professional life from 2004-2005 revolved around batteries. I can recall a myriad of instances as I prepared my rifle and equipment for a mission that I would mutter to no one in particular, “Seriously, where the hell are all the batteries for this stuff?” Donald Rumsfeld was even quoted on this issue having infamously stated “As you know, you go to war with the batteries you have, not the batteries you might want or wish to have at a later time.” He couldn’t have been more right as finding batteries for equipment back then was like trying to find a Sunni Muslim in a Bible factory. I sat there holding two 3V lithium batteries in my hand contemplating how best to ‘spread the wealth’ amongst my various optics and devices. My PVS-14 Night Vision Monocular took one, my weapon light took two, and my PAQ-4C IR Laser Targeting Device (which only works in conjunction with Night Vision Devices) took two AA’s. I had no AA’s to power the PAQ-4C so that was out, but at least my rifle would still look badass…which was nice. No PAQ-4C meant that shooting accurately under the PVS-14’s would be challenging at best so in the end, I went with my overt weapon light. “I may not immediately see the enemy but at least they’ll be able to see me.” I thought…while pondering my life decisions. As I finished inserting the batteries and testing it, the call to mount the vehicles and prepare to roll squelched across my radio.
It was sometime in September of 2004 and our Cavalry Troop was about to embark on yet another raid to net a High Value Target and personal confidant of none other than Saddam Hussein. Saddam had been captured about nine months prior to this and since then had been enjoying regular dental check-ups, semi-professional lice removal, and for all intents and purposes, growing a pretty sick beard. However, in that time, his former minions, along with quite a bit of inadvertent assistance from our own Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA: Can’t Provide Anything), had been growing and employing a fairly successful army of insurgents. On this particular moonless night, our target was a man known to us simply as ‘The Tailor.’ He had been Saddam’s personal couturier so it wasn’t a very clever codename for him at all. He no doubt had a real name but if you think any of us knew it, you’d be wrong. I’ll bet you think we had a photo of him, too. At first I was a bit surprised to learn that Saddam had once had a personal fashion designer. But in hindsight, it makes perfect sense; you can’t possibly ascend to that level of sexy by just owning two pairs of jeans like this writer does. That realization eluded me though as the smell of diesel fuel permeated the air; emanating from the plethora of tactical vehicles only moments away from beginning the 20 kilometer movement to the target.
That target, located in the village of Ad Montassim, was the residence of the village elder. I don’t remember his name so we’re just going to call him ‘Gary.’ Up to this point, Gary had been aligned with US Forces and was fully committed to doing his part to end the insurgency. He was truly a decent man, a good leader to his people, and he had urinals in his bathroom. However, we were going to raid his house during his Mother’s funeral to try and capture a guy who had made a living off of saying “Make it work, Saddam!” Needless to say, this little operation (even if successful) would surely, and dramatically, alter the nature of his relationship with us. I mean, unless The Tailor knew that Saddam’s inseam, waist size, sleeve length, and neck circumference all combined and decoded would translate to a Latitude/Longitude reading that would lead us to either WMD’s, Bin Laden, or even Waldo at that barber pole warehouse, this was a terrible move in terms of alienating an ally and destabilizing a wide swath of our Area of Operations. The juice, as they say, was not worth the squeeze. But what did I know; I was just a guy that couldn’t even find batteries.
“You Guys Need to Hurry”
Those were the words that came over the radio from our Squadron’s Tactical Operations Center before we had even moved a solitary inch. This was not at all their fault as just like most tactical and strategic blunders throughout the history of warfare, this one belonged to a higher level of command. Someone at either Brigade or Division had decided that they wanted in on the action and ordered a drone over the target area. Not a good drone though (like a Predator that flies at high altitude, can’t be heard, and you know…can shoot stuff); they launched a Shadow UAV which flies low and sounds like a lawnmower…a really loud and crappy lawnmower. Needless to say, as soon as this glorious piece of technological advancement and tactical superiority arrived over the target area, everyone (with the obvious exception of Gary’s Mom) ran in every conceivable direction. Apparently, it looked like a shotgun going off but I wouldn’t know as we were still about 15 kilometers away moving as swiftly as a convoy of Abrams Tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and HMMWV’s can move. Picture Rosie O’Donnell leaving from (not arriving to) the all-you-can-eat buffet and you have a fairly good sense of how rapidly we were rolling. Michael Moore would also be an acceptable comparison.
As we finally neared our objective, a flight of two OH-58D Kiowa Scout Helicopters swooped in and began to aggressively orbit the target area. Unlike the Shadow UAV, the Kiowas and their pilots were very useful. As we dismounted our vehicles they were already giving us pinpoint locations on the ground where we would find the individuals that had quickly decided that the funeral was over prior to our arrival. Our entry team breached the target and immediately found a very dissatisfied Gary in the sitting room with his deceased Mother. He had quite a bit to say which, not surprisingly, consisted mostly of wishing death on everyone. While all of this was happening, the bulk of the force was busy rounding up the majority of those that had fled but not gotten very far. So far, it did not appear that The Tailor was present; not that any of us knew what he looked like anyway. As we were zip-tying our detainees and preparing to ship them off to Abu Ghraib Prison so that they could learn to hate us even more, one of the Kiowa crews came up on the radio and advised us of one more individual that seemed especially desperate to elude capture.
“That’s a Bold Move, Cotton.”
As the Kiowas were providing overwatch, they observed and reported one individual who had actually leapt into the Tigris River in an attempt to flee our little dragnet. How the ‘lawnmower’ missed this is beyond me but what can you do? Immediately, the thought became that this had to have been The Tailor as only the most despondent of people would ever even consider making physical contact with that absolute cesspool of a river. Do you have any idea how many dead and decaying bodies have been found by Coalition Forces floating in that river? I don’t have the exact statistics right here in front of me but I’ll bet they’re startling. Unfortunately for Staff Sergeant David Ridings and me, at the very moment this revelation came to be, we were standing amongst those in charge. Right away it was abundantly clear to both of us who would be going to go recover The Tailor. As our target swam further across the river, a plan was conceived.
It was simple enough really; One Kiowa pilot would hover his aircraft low above The Tailor and flare, raising its nose so that the aircraft’s downdraft would push him back to the riverbank. As he was doing so, the co-pilot would lean out his door and keep his M4 Rifle trained on the target in case he was armed and decided to get brave. Once forced onto the strand, David and I would search and secure him before bringing him back (perhaps slightly damaged due to necessary falls) to the Command. The pilots brought the aircraft down and just as Kiowa pilots always do, performed the maneuver flawlessly. The Tailor attempted to continue his grandiose escape but there was no fighting that downdraft. Within seconds he was quite noticeably incensed but nonetheless on his way back to our side of the river. We guessed that he would hit the brink about 50 or so meters down from us so David and I headed that way. The problem we would discover was that beginning at the embankment and continuing out for 20-30 feet into the river was a very thick and seemingly impenetrable concentration of reeds and the Helo had blown him right into it. The reeds ran the entire length of the Tigris and now we had to figure out how to even get to him let alone retrieve him. He clearly wasn’t going anywhere so we walked back to those in charge and while I reported our findings, David quickly inspected a small rowboat that was sitting at the riverside. He determined that it was seaworthy despite both of us being in the Army and we quickly began to board it in the hopes of paddling our way into Squadron and Division history. We hadn’t even gotten it completely in the water when we were advised that we weren’t “certified” to operate a rowboat which deemed our rendezvous with destiny unsafe. There was also concern that The Tailor might pull us into the water in which case we would surely drown under the weight of our body armor. David and I decided we’d have to go back to where our target was located and swim out to get him. As we moved back down the bank, those in charge decided to join us. Hooray for us, am I right? As soon as we got to the spot, David and I began removing our body armor and preparing to fight our way through the reeds and an unknown depth of bacterial casserole in order to claim our prey.
“WTF are you guys doing?’ was queried emphatically from one of our onlookers. “Splitting Atoms; what does it look like we’re doing?” I thought, but wisely kept to myself. “Keep your body armor on! We don’t know if he’s armed, for Christ’s sake!”
At this point, I feel we should quickly recap what you just read:
Everyone good on that?
Alright, moving on…
For the next three or four hours, David and I fruitlessly attempted to get through the reeds and to our target. We crushed them down and balanced precariously on them, tried to push our way through them, but mainly just tried not to drown. There were several instances that we took a step only to find there was nothing beneath our feet as we went completely under. At one point while completely submerged, a very strange looking and glowing fish attempted to rob me before I scared him away with my weapon light. Made the right call on those batteries, didn’t I?
Needless to say, we never got to him. Shortly after dawn, our B Troop arrived to relieve us on the objective and David and I, along with the rest of A Troop, headed back to our FOB. I can’t speak for David but I was actually hoping for an IED attack. We had to be near hypothermic at that point and an explosive would have certainly brought some heat. We arrived back unscathed for breakfast, showers, and tetanus shots, just in time to get word that B Troop had recovered our target. These were the main bullet points of their report:
In terms of winning hearts and minds and reducing the numbers of young men and women that would join the insurgency, this entire operation was obviously a complete failure. Even if we had captured our target, the anger amongst the Iraqi people would have been the same. But in the fall of 2004, no one knew what success even resembled. We were fighting the war we wanted to fight and not the war in which we actually found ourselves. We didn’t analyze, or even give any thought to, the second and third order effects of our actions; that for every military-aged male that we (rightly or wrongly) killed, wounded, or sent off to Abu Ghraib Prison, we created more insurgents out of his friends and family. It would be another three years before the military as a whole figured these things out and dynamically altered the course of our efforts.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that if given the opportunity, I would do a lot of things differently. But in all my time in combat, I can’t say that I actually have more than just a few regrets; and swimming in the Tigris River with David Ridings will never be one of them.
Now if you’ll excuse me, my laptop is about to die and I don’t have another battery.
**The Tailor’s name was Kamal. I just remembered so that one’s on me everybody.