Taps echos for the dead on Iraqi desert, dispatches from America's war on terror

by Miles Smith, Lt. Col. U.S. Army  

May 11, 2005

Hello Friends and Family:

Sorry it has been so long since I last wrote you. Every time I sit down to write some emergency comes up and I don't get back to it for quite a while. The days have just been flying by. I guess that is a good thing, but it leaves very little time to keep up with my friends. We had a rough spell here for a while in March and early April, but things have greatly improved since then. As most of you know we have lost two soldiers since my last letter.

The first was one of my soldiers, SGT Paul Thomason, who was killed on Palm Sunday. The timing was kind of ironic and made it that much harder for the troops. Paul was a great guy always smiling and upbeat. He was bringing a load of soldiers back from medical appointments in Tikrit when an IED detonated under his HEMTT cargo truck outside of Kirkuk. The IED was unusual in that it was placed in the middle of the right-hand lane instead of on the soft shoulder as they usually are. EOD estimated that it was 200-250 pounds of low grade explosives that detonated right under the armored cab of the HEMTT. Sometimes the bad guys get lucky. I am still unsure of how they got it under the pavement without any outward signs of digging. The trigger wire ran to a Motorola radio in the ditch and was well hidden in a crack in the pavement. Four other soldiers of ours were hurt in the blast and ensuing wreck. After the remainder of the convoy stopped to render aid it was hit by small arms fire and a second IED. Several of our troopers showed a great deal of heroism that day. One, SPC Hall, climbed out of the wrecked HEMTT and returned fire wounding one of the ambushers even though he had a pretty nasty cut on his head. While the firefight was going on SPC Orlandini, the medic on the vehicle crawled several hundred yards under fire with a badly crushed foot to render aid to SGT Thomason and the other wounded. I am very proud of these soldiers and how they reacted in the face of a very tough situation. They kept their wits about them and did what needed to be done. It is very hard to lose a soldier. But it hits even deeper when it is someone you have talked and joked with every day for the past year.

The second loss was SFC Kennedy from 1ST Squadron down at FOB Caldwell. SFC Kennedy was a combat advisor on a mission with the Iraqi Army (IA). His IA Company and a Special Forces team were searching for a suspected weapons cache south of Balad Ruz when they ran into a terrorist training camp. The insurgents had laid out a very elaborate ambush with multiple defensive belts and obstacles. As they drove up a remote trail the bad guys hit them with mortars, RPGs, and heavy machine gun fire. They were unable to assault into the ambush because the insurgents had cleverly set up their ambush behind a series of irrigation canals. One of my lieutenants attached to 1/278 was wounded while trying to retrieve a civilian advisor that was killed in the initial attack along with SFC Kennedy. Our guys did a great job of rallying the IA soldiers and moving them to flank the enemy positions. The Regiment rushed reinforcements in and it turned into a 14-hour firefight, which was not mopped up until the next morning. Our Air Force forward air controllers brought in an AC-130 and some F-16's to breakup the enemy's defenses during the night. They ended up killing over twenty insurgents including at least five foreign fighters (Jihadists). These folks were obviously hard core terrorists as we were only able to capture one of them. The rest decided that meeting Allah was preferable. Even as bad as this battle seems, it is a good sign because it means that the insurgents no longer find it safe to be in the cities. The locals are not turning a blind eye to them anymore and are telling the police and army about them. Therefore the terrorists have to move out into the desert, which hinders their operations. This is good for us because we can bring a great deal more firepower to bear with less collateral damage when we find them.

To honor our fallen comrades we held memorial ceremonies here at Bernstein and at Caldwell. This is a time honored tradition in the Army which serves the very important purpose of helping soldiers deal with the shock and grief. The most poignant and gut wrenching part is the playing of Taps and the Final Salute. While it is painful to conduct this type of ceremony it truly helps us move on while not forgetting the sacrifice our friends made for us.

Two days after the memorial service for SGT Thomason insurgents tried to assassinate our IA Battalion Commander, LTC Safa. What they did not bargain on is that he is a pretty tough character and a deadly shot. LTC Safa was traveling along with the Battalion Intelligence Officer and his driver to a meeting. A car pulled up beside as if to pass them on the highway. LTC Safa riding in the back seat spotted the rear passenger in the vehicle raising an RPK medium machine gun (a banned weapon). He quickly shot the man and then the driver and front passenger all while going down the highway at 60-mph. Unfortunately, the assassins were able to wound both CPT Naji the Intelligence Officer and the driver. In the ensuing wreck LTC Safa was also injured. Despite his injuries he was able to finish off the fight with the three armed terrorists and help capture the fourth. Needless to say LTC Safa has become somewhat of a folk hero in this area, kind of like Wyatt Earp.

A week later, on March 31, the terrorists set off a car bomb in the middle of Tuz. Their target was a group of Shia pilgrims loading buses to attend the Arabeen religious holiday services in Karbala. The IA had just setup a checkpoint a few blocks from the gathering to provide security. The terrorist detonated the bomb when the IA soldiers stopped him short of his objective. In doing this the IA soldiers willingly put themselves between danger and the people they were protecting. Unfortunately, one soldier was killed and eight others wounded. In addition, a ten year old boy was killed while playing in front of his house and several more children were injured. The bomber was wearing an IA uniform in order to get through the checkpoint. However, the IA soldiers were alert and recognized that he was not Iraqi and was likely from Sudan.

While these passages may be a little graphic I include them to show that the good guys are winning and to dispel the belief that the Iraqi Security Forces turn and run. The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police work day in and day out in very harsh conditions. They do not have the training and equipment our soldiers do, but they are a dedicated bunch. I am proud to be serving with them and it makes me angry when they are disparaged in the press. Nothing is easy in Iraq nor quick and these guys are doing the best we can expect at this time. The vast majority of Iraqis are intent on bringing their country back to prosperity and peace. Because of this we have seen a steady decrease in terrorist activity in our area over the last month. While it will be many years before they can completely stand on their own the Iraqi people are cooperating and working together.

Despite these tragic and trying events we have made progress in our efforts to eliminate terrorism and bring prosperity to the Tuz District. We have had a significant breakthrough in one of our insurgent strongholds, the village of Yanijah, without resorting to violence. Yanijah is the largest Turkoman village in our area with about 13,000 residents. It is located five miles from our base on a strategic main supply route between Tikrit and Tuz. This main road through Yanijah has been the scene of the vast majority of IEDs in our area including the one that killed SSG Steffany back in February. Up until SSG Steffany's death we were getting very little intelligence about the terrorists and bombers suspected of being in the town. Since then we have tried a new approach instead of working clandestinely with informants to get intelligence we switched to a “vinegar and honey” approach. The “vinegar” was letting the people of Yanijah know that we had lost patience with their harboring of terrorists and then following this up with repeated raids on the houses of suspects both during the day and in the middle of the night. In addition, we fired artillery illumination over the village on several occasions to let them know we could reach out and touch them without even leaving our base. We kept the psychological pressure on by leaking rumors that Yanijah was going down the path that Fallujah followed and would meet the same fate. After a few weeks of this we made overtures through the Turkoman political channels that we would be open to talking with some of the good people of the village. Lo and behold a delegation of local businessmen and tribal leaders showed up to talk with us. They played tough at first, but I informed them that in my right hand I had money for projects to bring prosperity in my left hand (the one Arabs use to wipe their butt) I held death and destruction for the village and it was up to them to choose which they wanted. They began giving us ideas about security and requested that we build a check point right in front of the village. They said that they would even pay for the soldiers to man it as long as we hired some young men from the village. These brave men have developed into a grass roots town council that is now working with the district council and us to bring projects to the village and increase employment. They have also made Yanijah an unwelcome place for terrorists to hide out. Since this breakthrough we have not had an IED on this stretch of road in over 45-days, before we averaged around two per week. In addition, we have been able to capture several insurgents working out of Yanijah and have leads on several more to include some “big fish”.

I had the opportunity last month to attend two Kurdish festivals that we jokingly referred to Kurdapalooza and Kurdstock because of the incredible crowds they drew. The first was a memorial ceremony for the Anfal Campaign, which was Saddam's 1988 operation to wipe out the Kurds in Northern Iraq. Not much was heard about this at the time, but he murdered over 180,000 of his own people in a systematic campaign of genocide. Those that were not killed outright were driven into Iran, forcibly relocated to Southern Iraq, or sold into prostitution and slavery. The memorial included a “Passion Play” type performance recreating the destruction of a Kurdish village on the outskirts of Tuz. The play was performed using the ruins of the actual village and the actors were all survivors of the attack or their children. It was a very emotional event. My interpreter, Hajji who grew up in the US, broke down during several scenes and could not translate the words, but seeing the effect on him was more than enough for me to understand the meaning. Interestingly there were several local Arab and Turkoman leaders there as well. It says a lot for the Kurds to be able to forgive, but not forget, and welcome the other ethnic members of the community to such a personal memorial.

The other festival was a celebration of Jalal Talabani being elected president of Iraq. He is the highest ranking Kurd ever to serve in the Iraqi government and every Kurd in the country was overjoyed. It was not lost on them that in a span of two years the man that tried to destroy them was replaced by a Kurd. The celebration continued on for two weeks with parades, concerts, and gatherings of all sorts. Of course we were invited to them all, but after a while you just get too embarrassed to go somewhere and be thanked over and over again for saving the Kurdish people and liberating Iraq. It is funny that you don't see these things on American TV, but they were all over the Iraqi and some Middle East Stations. The vast majority of Iraqis are very grateful for the Coalition presence in Iraq

I hope this letter has found you well and that everything is going good for you. I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for all your support over the last year. I can't tell you how much the troops and I appreciate it.

Sincerely,

Miles C. Smith

LTC, Cavalry

Executive Officer

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