March 2008, Western Nineveh Province, Iraq: The sun
was setting over Nineveh as four terrorists driving tons of explosives
closed on their targets. On August 14, 2007, the Yezidi villages of
Qahtaniya and Jazeera were under attack, but only the terrorists knew
it as they drove their trucks straight into the hearts of the
The shockwave from detonation far outpaced the
speed of sound. Buildings and humans were ripped apart and hurled
asunder. Superheated poisonous gases from the explosions gathered the
smoke and dust and lofted heavenward, while the second detonation
quickly followed. The terrorists had landed their first blows straight
through the heart of the Yezidi community, turning a wedding party into
hundreds of funerals.
Four mushroom clouds over Yezidi Villages: Is Europe Next?
the attacks were not over. Yezidi men grabbed their rifles, and while
two more truck bombs rumbled toward Qahtaniya and Jazeera, a hail of
Yezidi bullets met them. The defenders who fired the bullets were
killed with honor while standing between evil and their people. Two
other truck bombs detonated on the outskirts of the villages.
the sun rose the next morning, screaming victims remained trapped in
the rubble. Survivors clawed and ripped at the wreckage, working
themselves to exhaustion to rescue their wives, husbands, children and
The attacks on Qahtaniya and Jazeera killed more than
five hundred people, and garnered international news. No group claimed
responsibility, yet the attacks bore the mark of the al Qaeda beast, in
the way that fangs to a jugular vein spells Dracula.
Mark of the Beast: One of the Yezidi villages attacked on August 14, 2007.
Qaeda is still trying to spin Iraq into civil war, but whereas in
2005-2006 al Qaeda was succeeding, today al Qaeda is being shredded.
Iraqi officer near Sinjar told me that recently a group of perhaps
twenty “jihadists,” many of them foreign, descended on a Nineveh
village. The Iraqi officer said the terrorists killed some adults and
two babies. One baby they murdered was 15 days old.
recently, such terror attacks inside Iraq could have coerced the
village into sheltering Al Qaeda. Yet this time, the “jihadists” got an
unexpected reception. Local men grabbed their rifles and poured fire on
the demons, slaughtering them. Nineteen terrorists were destroyed.
Times have changed for al Qaeda here. Too many Iraqis have decided they
are not going to take it anymore. Al Qaeda in Iraq is still fighting,
and they are tough and wily, but al Qaeda Central seems to realize
there are easier targets elsewhere, perhaps in Europe, where many
people demonstrate weakness in the face of terror.
was apparently not in Iraq before this war, and at the current rate
they will not be here when it’s over. The Iraqi Army and Police are
doing most of the work these days, but their own operations are
significantly augmented by what we bring to the fight.
American helicopter unit in Nineveh is 4-6 Air Cavalry Squadron. The
normal strength of the “Redcatchers” is forty helicopters – thirty
Kiowas and ten Blackhawks – but the Squadron has lost one Kiowa and a
Blackhawk in Iraq, costing more than a dozen lives. The soldiers were
lost forever, but the helicopters were replaced, and the squadron is
flying hard as ever, and to great affect. The pilots and crews work
24/7, performing both direct combat and combat support missions.
flew from Mosul in one of the Squadron’s Blackhawks from “Darkhorse”
troop en route to FOB Sykes near Tal Afar. The “Hawks” are powerful,
fast, and loud. Blackhawk rotors are better designed than Vietnam-era
Huey “choppers,” and do not generated the percussive whop whop whop.
And so despite that Blackhawks are loud, when they fly low, fast and
into the wind, they can at times literally sneak up on people on the
ground. First there is silence, and then VRROOOOMMMM the Hawk flies right over your head.
flew low from Mosul to Tal Afar in broad daylight, and if we happened
to cross paths with a surface-to-air missile, the day could get
exciting and final. Back in 2005, I saw Deuce Four soldiers capture
more than two dozen surface-to-air missiles in Mosul, and missiles are still occasionally launched at aircraft. The enemy has been putting much effort into shooting down aircraft.
were dark storms to the north as we flew low over mostly desolate
terrain, and there were electrical wires that have claimed other
helicopters in Iraq. Out in the far distance were the two Yezidi
villages that had been bombed last August. Blackhawk crews from 4-6
were the first to spot the four mushroom clouds. They had flown medical
supplies and soldiers to the scene of the carnage. The ground crews at
their FARP (Forward Arming and Refueling Point) had treated many dozens
of wounded Yezidis, who had brought their wounded to the nearest
Americans they could find. Yezidis (also spelled Yazidi) are fond of
Americans and our soldiers get along great with them. Saddam called
them Devil worshippers, but then it was Saddam’s wars that killed over
a million people and filled human lungs with poison gas. The Yezidis
are more concerned about sending their kids to school and then off to
Back in 2005, I went alone without soldiers to Yezidi villages.
I would not hesitate to stay the night in a Yezidi village. A pilot
told me that if he ever had to make an emergency landing, he would try
to reach the nearest Yezidi village. So when the villages of Qahtaniya
and Jazeera were bombed, our people knew that friendly people had been
attacked, and the helicopter and ground crews, along with American
Special Forces and other soldiers, rushed to help. When Iraqi
government officials arrived, Yezidis threw rocks at them, and the
officials retreated. Yezidis tend to get along well with people who do
not barbarize them. But Saddam was a criminal, and he unleashed his
cannons on Yezidis, and the other Kurds, and the Shia, and the
Iranians, and the Kuwaitis, as well as financing attacks against the
There is a well-informed American officer here at Tal
Afar who works closely with Yezidis in western Nineveh. One evening we
talked about the bombings and looked at never-before released videos
and photos. Kurdish Peshmerga rushed aid to Qahtaniya and Jazeera, and
a Kurdish commander began putting defenses around those and other
Yezidi villages. (The Yezidis consider themselves Yezidis first and
Kurds second, while the Kurds consider Yezidis to be Kurds.)
KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) arrived to Qahtaniya and Jazeera with
tents supplied by the United Nations. The Yezidis did not know what to
do with the tents; their custom is to take in, and care for, their own.
But the Yezidis, not wishing to offend the people who brought the help
and the tents, and wishing to show gratitude, spent some of the
daylight hours in the tents and then stayed in other Yezidi homes at
the Blackhawks of 4-6, might be the hardest-working “hawks” in Iraq.
Some days, they fly to the Iranian border—where the warning comes over
the radio: “This is the Iranian Consulate. You are approaching Iranian
airspace.” Or to the Turkish border: “This is the Turkish Consulate.
You are approaching Turkish airspace.” The Syrian frontier with Nineveh
has no alarm.
Darkhorse pilots fly over a large expanses -- up
to the Turkish, Iranian or Syrian frontiers, over to Dahuk, Mosul,
Irbil, Kirkuk and even all the way down to Baghdad on shuttle missions.
For combat missions, Darkhorse crews often prefer to work with
American Special Forces teams, who are usually accompanied by Iraqi
soldiers, eager to close in with terrorists.
Patrick Fougere, a Darkhorse crew chief, sometimes shoots with his
7.62mm M-240 machine gun, sometimes with his 35mm Nikon D-40 camera.
Here, American Special Forces and Iraqi soldiers uncover some ten tons
of explosives they found in a Nineveh wadi.
September, two Darkhorse Blackhawks were zooming over the desert near
the Syrian border when an SF soldier spotted a suspicious tarp. The
tarp was suspect because it was apparently covering something in a wadi
in the middle of nowhere, and it was close to the two Yezidi villages
that had been attacked just a month prior.
The pilots landed and
the SF and Iraqi soldiers popped out to take a look. Pulling back the
dusty tarp, they found approximately ten tons of ammonium nitrate --
enough to kill hundreds, if not thousands, of people either in
gigantic, spectacular attacks that garner news, or the daily boom-sheet
of smaller bombs, most of which are barely reported, if at all.
Special Forces soldiers weren’t carrying much C-4 plastic explosives,
but did not want to leave the cache, so they rigged what they had.
The plastic explosives detonated, causing some of the ammonium nitrate to explode.
The Special Forces team is on the ground in the wadi that forks to the right. The ammonium nitrate apparently was from Russia.
shockwave pops up the desert dust. The pilot reached up to prepare to
restart the engines in case the shockwave disrupted the airflow. The
engines kept running.
The cache was found near the Syrian border. Patrick Fougere kept snapping away and got these colorful shots.
hundreds of lives were saved, including Americans, in one of those
missions that practically nobody who was not directly involved will
ever hear about.
Jellyfish of death.
Origin of the jellyfish.
2005, nearby Tal Afar was known as “Al Qaeda city,” as terrorists used
it for training and R&R. And though Nineveh Province is now the
most dangerous place in Iraq, it’s much quieter than a couple years
ago. Still, there is plenty of trouble, especially when your job is to
find it, and the summer of 2008 likely will bring the showdown into
Mosul, where the media probably will report a small part of it, missing
99 percent of the fighting to disrupt the terrorists and drive stakes
through their hearts.
The job of going nose-to-nose with
terrorists is complicated by the increasing use of suicide vests
(S-VESTs), which are exploding all over the place these days. Some of
the vests are small, actually just belts with a few hand grenades’
worth of explosives. These are Jihadist ejection seats, which are not
per se offensive weapons. When all is going wrong, and the terrorist is
about to get caught, he can kak off the explosives and eject out of
The larger suicide vests, often loaded with ball bearings,
can kill dozens. These vests are often worn by young fighters,
typically male -- though more females are starting to explode. The
young men come to Iraq to fight like infantry soldiers, only to find
themselves terrorized into wearing suicide vests. In 2005, I wrote
about a young Libyan who was happy to have been captured by American
“Deuce Four” soldiers in Nineveh because Iraqis were mistreating him
and trying to force him blow up some Mosul police. Like many foreign
fighters, the Libyan was not hardcore. He was so grateful to be
captured that he began telling his entire sad story. The best thing
about foreign fighters is that, contrary to myth, often they do not
want to die, and when they get caught, they blab everything.
14 March 2008, U.S. soldiers were running a biometric registration
station at the Iraq-Syria border. An unknown person came into the
building wearing a powerful S-VEST studded with ball bearings. When the
person detonated, American soldiers PFC Cody Cook and SSG Bennie Lamb
were wounded. Interpreter Faysal Kayif Rashoka and three other people
were killed. The vest was powerful enough to collapse a substantial
portion of the building onto the wounded American soldiers, causing
additional injuries. One Iraqi body was so damaged that the remains fit
into two computer-printer boxes.
The key to killing the
terrorists is knowing where to look, so the Darkhorse helicopter crews
prefer to hunt with Special Forces. The SF emphasis is on leveraging
limited assets with intelligence, mobility, speed and relative
superiority. If Genghis Khan had helicopters, he might have been
conducting “Nineveh Strikes.” You can fly for thirty minutes at a 150
mph out here and hardly see a soul, but there are tire tracks all over
the Nineveh deserts, and explosives and many foreign fighters came in
on those tire tracks. The Nineveh Strike is a hunting technique often
involving a dangerous type of vehicle interdiction where a helicopter
swoops down on a moving vehicle and stops it.
mission was to fly to two “Named Areas of Interest” (NAI’s) near the
Syrian border and be prepared to conduct Nineveh Strikes. The date was
28 September 2007, about one week after creating the deadly jellyfish,
and six weeks after the attacks on Qahtaniya and Jazeera. The two
Darkhorse helicopters lifted into the night accompanied by two Kiowa
Warriors from Blackdeath, another vital arm from the Redcatcher
Squadron. The two Kiowas fly slower, and so the Kiowas launched about
fifteen minutes ahead of the two Blackhawks.
The pilots in the
first Blackhawk were CW3 James Gallagher in the left seat, and CW2
Louis “Gonzo” Gonzales in the right. SGT Ron Hinman was a crew chief on
the left door gun, while crew chief SGT Josh Price had the right door
The second Blackhawk had CW3 Alan Moore in the left seat,
and CPT Ashlie Christian was in the right seat. Sitting behind Ashlie
was SGT Kevin Heitz, the crew chief with the right door gun. The left
door gunner was SPC Patrick Fougere.
The aviators’ night vision
goggles (ANVIS-6) are fantastically sensitive and crisp. A firefly
would appear bright as a slow moving tracer bullet. The ANVIS-6 are so
sensitive that when a man puffs on cigarette, he casts a clear shadow.
Car headlights wash across the desert as if giant spotlights from a
World Fair were mounted on a little car. The headlights can be seen
bouncing up and down in the desert, so far away that nobody in the cars
could possibly hear the “Hawks.” By the time they do hear the
Blackhawks and turn off their lights, it’s far too late.
this night, lunar illumination was 98 percent. Even with the naked eye,
the night was bright enough to cast shadows. For the helicopters,
nights with 30-50% illumination are better than day. Crews can see the
bad guys from miles away with their ANVIS-6, but the bad guys cannot
see the birds. On nights with a bright moon and no clouds, the Hawks
are easy to see when they get close.
That night, each of the
two Blackhawks carried five Special Forces soldiers and six Iraqis. CW3
Moore and CPT Christian were in the cockpit, while the Ground Commander
(the “GC” was the Special Forces team leader, whom I’ll call “CPT
Kris”) flew with them in the trail Blackhawk. That night, CPT Kris was
on the left side of the Blackhawk. When the helicopters approach
something of interest, they will circle left or right depending on
where the GC is sitting, and with CPT Kris on left, they would circle
The Blackhawks had not yet reached their NAI
when they spotted a Bongo truck out the right. Although the Bongo was
outside the NAI, and close to a village, the Special Forces GC, CPT
Kris, wanted to at least circle the truck. SGT Josh Price, who had done
many Nineveh Strikes, was irritated, thinking they were wasting fuel
and time. CPT Ashlie Christian radioed to “Chalk 1” (the front
Blackhawk that was flying low) to circle the truck. CW3 Alan Moore, the
pilot sitting beside CPT Christian in Chalk 2, started bringing the
aircraft to the left around the truck.
The Bongo had two bags in
the back. One was covering a man who was considered a High Value
Target, but the ANVIS-6 goggles provide no X-Ray vision, and nobody saw
the hidden man, who apparently was playing the combat version of
hide-and-go-seek. The ultimate big boy game where “Ready or not here I
come with a Blackhawk and a machinegun,” meets “Bring it on, I’m
The truck drove slowly to a small building, stopped briefly, and then continued slowly down the road.
the Air Mission Commander and the Ground Commander in the high bird
called Chalk 2, Chalk 1 was down on the deck and pulled low beside the
slowly moving truck. So low that SGT Ron Hinman was looking straight
out over his machine gun at the two men in the truck’s cab. Rotor wash
lifted the dust causing the beam from Hinman’s infrared PEQ-2 laser on
his machine gun to look like a light-saber through his goggles. The two
men in the cab were clearly visible, and when the passenger looked over
in Hinman’s direction, the laser reflected off the internal parts of
the man’s eyes, causing them to glow brightly like devil eyes in the
night goggles. One burst from Hinman’s machine gun would have finished
them, but still nobody saw the man hidden in the back.
most people faced with about 20,000 pounds of roaring helicopter, the
men in the truck acted like nothing was out of the ordinary. So the
pilot, Gallagher, sped up the helicopter and got ahead of the truck,
then pirouetted in the moonlight and roared nose-to-nose down the
middle of the road, with his 600-watt light shining through the truck’s
windshield while dust and rocks ticked and pinked off the windshield
and the cab filled with dust in the blinding light.
kept the truck coming, with a hand waving a white rag out the window,
but he was disoriented and slowly driving off the road. Gallagher came
closer, flying directly over the windshield and over the truck, rocking
it with the rotor blast, creating a huge amount of disorienting dust.
The driver veered slightly off the road, but kept moving in the general
direction of a village a few hundred meters ahead.
2 hundreds of feet above, the GC ordered the ground force in Chalk 1 to
stop the truck. Gallagher put Chalk 1 down between the truck and the
village. The five Special Forces soldiers were out of Chalk 2 in
seconds, but the Iraqi SWAT team got clustered somehow and took extra
seconds getting out. The Iraqis would be disoriented; they usually wear
no earplugs and the Blackhawks are loud. The moonlight was bright so
they did not need night vision, but the Iraqis weren’t wearing headsets
in the helicopter to hear (in English) what was happening. The Iraqis
would only know that the helicopter had landed and that the Special
Forces got out, and that the Iraqis should follow, then take three to
five steps, get down on one knee and face away from the helicopter,
which would roar away. But that’s not what happened. We will never know
what the SWAT members were thinking.
What we do know is that the
truck continued toward the Blackhawk which was still on the ground. In
the pilots’ seats, Gallagher and Gonzales could not see the truck
because of the dust. Circling hundreds of feet above, pilot CW3 Moore
was radioing to Gonzales to get off the deck because the truck was
about to crash into his Blackhawk. Moore could not fly into a position
where Fougere could shoot the Bongo with his machinegun; the Bongo was
so close that Fougere would have had to fire through Chalk 1’s rotors.
The Bongo came through the dust and SGT Ron Hinman, gripping his M240H
saw the truck nearly on him, so close to the helicopter that Hinman had
to press the butt of the machine gun down to lift the barrel up to
point into the windshield. Hinman was ready to fire when an Iraqi
soldier, apparently protecting the helicopter, rushed toward the truck,
getting in front of Hinman’s gun. Just then, pilot Gallagher lifted off
and began roaring away.
Nobody saw the third man in the back.
The Bongo passenger had gotten out and was walking toward the Iraqi
soldiers and the interpreter, who was screaming at the passenger to
stop and get down. The man kept coming. The interpreter and two Iraqi
soldiers closed in and tried to subdue the passenger. He detonated.
Ball bearings ripped through flesh and zoomed off into the night as a
fireball lifted into the moonlight, temporarily blinding Christian’s
goggles hundreds of feet above in Chalk 2.
On the ground,
Special Forces soldiers shot and killed the driver and were checking
the wounded and getting them away from the truck in case there were
more bombs. The man hidden under the tarp in the back did not move.
critical radio retrans site atop a nearby mountain was not working,
making communications difficult. The Blackhawks needed the Kiowas to
try to call for medical evacuation helicopters, but the Kiowas also
could not reach the FOB, and in fact were themselves miles away but
rushing to the scene.
The closest ground forces would take two
to three hours to arrive, so if there was any serious ground fighting
coming, four helicopters with limited fuel and ammunition would be
anchored to the ground where Chalk 1 was. Half of the ground force was
still airborne in Chalk 2, but quickly landed, and the rest of the
Special Forces and Iraqi soldiers disgorged into the moonlight.
Chalks 1 and 2 had a total ground force of twenty two men armed with rifles. Eight of the twenty two were dead or wounded.
pilots expected a quick turnaround, but the Special Forces team was
trying to save the interpreter and were also busy stabilizing the other
wounded. They moved the wounded away from the Bongo truck just for
safety, yet nobody saw the hidden man in the back.
They moved the wounded near the Chalk 2 helicopter that was on the ground.
Kiowas arrived and were on high cover, but for thirty to forty minutes
the ground forces were on the deck, and eventually began to draw
“crows.” Groups of men in the village were coming out. Meanwhile, the
man remained hidden in the back of the Bongo.
Pilots Moore and
Christian, with their wheels on the ground, started taking fire from
the village. The machineguns mounted on the sides would have been
handy, but the Iraqi SWAT members were courageously putting themselves
between the fire from the village and the helicopters. The SWAT members
were firing back while trying to protect the helicopter and wounded,
but unfortunately, they had moved between the door gunner and the
The four helicopters and ground force were on their own.
The nearest base was Tal Afar, but with retrans down, they were unable
to communicate well with the TOC (Tactical Operations Center:
headquarters). If one helicopter got shot down, this could be a serious
catastrophe. A burning helicopter near the Syrian border with limited
fuel in the other birds would be an invitation for wounded Iraqis and
Americans to be taken prisoner and spirited across the Syrian border.
circling his Blackhawk in the dark, told the Kiowas to get down low and
cover while he climbed to make better comms. The Kiowas call signs were
Blackdeath 12 and Blackdeath 13. Blackdeath 12 was piloted by CW2 Dave
Caudill and CW2 Jack Varble, while Blackdeath 13 was piloted by CW2
Shane Nicholson and CW2 Clint Hall.
The Blackdeath aircraft
swooped low over the village, while Gallagher kept circling his
Blackhawk higher and higher into the night, but he still couldn’t get
good comms. A thousand feet, two thousand, three thousand -- comms
still weren’t working. At about four thousand feed AGL (Above Ground
Level), Gallagher made contact with FOB Sykes with a SITREP (situation
report), saying they would do their own casevac.
ground, the SF and Iraqi soldiers loaded the dead and wounded onto
Chalk 2. Gallagher and Gonzo then came down with Chalk 1 and picked up
The pilots started pushing the motors as hard as they
would go for the nearly eighty five miles to Mosul. The slower Kiowas
could not keep up, so they stayed back and destroyed the truck and its
contents with a Hellfire missile, some 2.75 rockets and .50-caliber
machine-gun rounds, then headed back to FOB Sykes. Nobody realized that
a high value target had been hidden in the back of the Bongo truck, and
the Kiowa pilots shot him to pieces. His parts were found later.
the two Blackhawks with dead and wounded were traveling about 180 mph.
Moore would push the engines into the thermal red zone with the
temperature exceeding 903°C, but would pull back down before twelve
seconds passed, so the engine didn’t overheat for too long. Once the
temp dropped, he would push back over 903°C, careful to keep it under
the twelve-second transient limit.
SGT Kevin Heitz was manning a
door gun with one hand, while holding a bandage over a Special Forces
soldier’s wound with the other. Over a half hour later, they landed at
the Combat Support Hospital in Mosul where they were met by medical
staff with stretchers.
Three Special Forces soldiers were
wounded. Three Iraqis were killed, including the interpreter whose wife
had just had a baby. The Special Forces soldiers had been close to the
SWAT and were upset, while Iraqis were bawling for their dead and
wounded. Josh Price put his arm around one Iraqi who could not stop
crying. The aircrew offered to give blood for the wounded Iraqis even
though they were not permitted to do so because they were on flight
status. The blood was not needed..
The Darkhorse helicopter was
drenched in blood. The seats were soaked and there were pieces of flesh
and brains all around, along with ball bearings. SGT Heitz later had
the seats burned, but that night asked the fire department to come and
hose out the blood so the bird would be clean when they flew the SF and
Iraqi SWAT back to duty.
The three wounded SF soldiers immediately returned to duty.
this had been scheduled as their last mission, the Special Forces team
did not go out like that. They planned another mission to that village,
again heliborne and Iraqi soldiers on the ground, ten days after the
previous mission. They swooped in, interdicted a number of vehicles
without incident, and raided the village. They avoided suicide vests by
making the men strip naked and walk toward them. The raid uncovered
weapons, including about 1,000 rounds of 14.3-mm anti-aircraft
Nineveh in late March 2008
are no guarantees, but this could be the endgame for major combat
operations in Iraq. Combat is likely to heat up in Mosul and western
Nineveh by about May. There likely will be some reports of increased US
and Iraqi casualties up here, but this does not mean that we are losing
ground or that al Qaeda is resurging – though clearly they are trying.
If there is an increase in casualties here as we go into the summer of
2008, it is because our people and the Iraqi forces are closing in. We
have seen just how deadly al Qaeda can be. This enemy is desperate.
They know they are losing. They are not likely to go out easy. The
enemy is smart, agile and adaptive. Likely they will land some
devastating blows on us, but at this rate, our people and Iraqi forces
appear to be driving stakes through al Qaeda hearts faster than al
Qaeda is regenerating.