Editor’s note: Reporter Matt Sanchez, currently embedding with military units throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan, has been providing WND readers with a glimpse into the Iraq war most Americans have never seen.
Take a Knee: This infantry Marine rifleman was always alert even when there was no one on the horizon. Going to one knee makes for more stable shooting and Marines spend hours practicing “snapping in,” learning how to make the body conform to the needs of the weapon and not the other way around. This is key in 100-degree-plus weather.
Terror and anonymity go hand in hand. It’s hard to be a terrorist when everyone knows who you are. An attack takes a certain detachment, stealth and a craven willingness to kill people you’ve probably never met. Ramadi, Fallujah, Baghdad – one by one, as neighbors learn who lives next to them and repel those who mean harm, terrorists have moved out of the cities and into the outskirts, the areas that have had little or no authority.
Operation Snake was slated to begin at 0200, 2 a.m.
FOB Sedgwick, in the middle of nowhere and not far from the Syrian border, had running water, electricity, a gym, air-conditioned housing and enough bandwidth to run an encrypted computer network and phone system. The base perimeter was a berm – a type of wall made from pushed-up dirt, a simple defense just as old as the earliest cities in human history that sprung up in what is currently known as Iraq.
The FOB (forward operating base) was a very busy place, with hundreds of soldiers prepared to convoy to the next big bases, Marines settled into SWA Huts (South West Asian Huts) while Navy Seabees cut wood, laid pipe, ran wire and moved heavy equipment. It was hard to believe FOB Sedgwick did not exist only three weeks before.
“It’s called a COP in a box,” that is, a Combat Operation Post ready-to-go, explained Maj. Andrew (Drew) Kelly. A native of Syracuse, N.Y., and a class of ’94 graduate of West Point, at 35 years of age Maj. Kelly was a brigade engineer and part of a team that created these tiny modern villages in remote areas that had more nomad tents than solid buildings. They chose the spot for this strategic base because of two tiny “hard structures” which fishermen used to collect and cook the day’s catch.
Within 10 minutes of arriving at FOB Sedwick, I was in two briefings. Army Capt. Mark Brzozowski of Hampton, Va., listened to his lieutenant’s presentation. (It’s hard to imagine how briefings were done before Powerpoint.) At 30, Brzozowski acted more senior than the typical captain.
With dark hair and a boyish face, the captain had a self-assuredness beyond his years. I got to speak with Brzozowski during the 45-minute gap before the next onslaught of graphs, maps, logistic data and photos.
The captain’s quarters had a conference table, desk, several huge maps and a bookcase filled with literature.
“I have tons of reading to do,” he remarked, motioning to the stacks of books. There were publications on Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as what looked like military publications. Off to the left side was a tiny alcove with a standard military-issue foldout cot. The captain had the luxury of a private quarter, but the term “private” may be deceiving.
In the military, being in charge means responsibility. During our talk, the captain was interrupted no fewer than five times, the last two interruptions coming after he gave specific instructions not to be interrupted. His soldiers were neither disobedient nor disrespectful, but the nature of the messages was so urgent that they required the captain’s immediate attention.
“The enemy is elusive,” he began once again, showing me a magnified map of the territory we were going to cover.
Iraq is roughly the size of California and from my travels throughout the country, I can say there’s lots of space where you just won’t see another human being. We were going to the “desert,” that vast space between the major cities and the border with Syria – the Marines liked to call it the Wild, Wild West.
Desolate, these lands have been the home of traveling peoples for thousands of years.
From the air, western Iraq is a long and wide slate of hardened mud. Dried river beds called whadis and small footpaths look like writing on ancient tablets, those chicken-like scratches that eventually lead to literature. It’s hard not to think of how many peoples have passed through these lands. Here were nomads, fishermen and shepherds occupying lands that have changed names over the century, even while their way of life has stayed very much the same.
During our conversation, I learned that Brzozowski, a Ranger, had also taken part in the first push into Iraq back in 2003. By luck, I came across an account of then-Lt. Brzozowski’s role in “The Thunder Run,” a book by author David Zucchino. What Zucchino described was truly heroic, but you’d never know that from talking to the captain.
Recon, snipers, pilots, SEALS and Green Berets, I’ve met lots of remarkable people throughout my travels, but it never ceases to amaze me how incredibly humble those men and women are. As one female sailor who works with Navy Seals said: “If you meet a real SEAL, they won’t be the ones to tell you who they are, that’s not what they do.”
That seems to hold true for most who serve with distinction. They are the ones who stand out, but they keep to themselves, tend to be easygoing and are not the type to brag.
Brzozowski was a West Pointer, but he went to college late in life under a program the Army provides for soldiers who show exceptional ability, the military version of a night-school student.
One of the main differences between the enlisted and the officers is, of course, the level of education. I’ve met enlisted men and women who are extremely intelligent in ways that cannot be tested by completely filling in a bubble with a number 2 pencil, but a college education does give most degree-holders a common language, if not a common sense of accomplishment.
“They send you to a prep school just to bring you up to speed,” said Brzozowski, explaining the process for getting into one of the most competitive programs the Army has to offer.
As the leader of an infantry company, Brzozowski was not only a tactician and military commander, he was a diplomat, problem solver and disciplinarian all rolled into his rank. We ate dinner with some of his junior officers he called by their first name, the same way a big brother mentors his younger siblings. He was aware of both the success and the limits of the soldiers in his command, these people who all lived and worked together in a space that was not much bigger than a parking lot.
Iraqi soldiers (“jundi”), Iraqi police (“shurta”), U.S. Army and Marines all gathered that day at Sedgwick with one purpose in mind: Chase down terrorists. There was a hint of excitement in the air – being on the offensive was a rush, a great reprieve from all the defensive maneuvers that have come to define the Iraq war.
The American public too often overlooks how many soldiers, sailors and Marines await the day they will be able to fight for their country. In a time when the latest video game or blockbuster movie passes for a thrill, the military is one of the few places that offer the type of dare, challenge and adventure an upwardly mobile society almost looks down on.
This Marine “grunt” popped out of humvee and snapped into an offensive position at every stop. The origin of the word “grunt” is not entirely certain, but most agree that it has something to do with hard work in tough conditions.
The police who came along for Operation Snake were among the first law enforcement officers to stand up against the al-Qaida in Iraq. These were hardened men who risked their lives before everyone else joined the party. They wore blue uniforms and different colored Kaffias over their heads, to keep the dust out of their face. They weren’t shy about their identity at all and hammed it up for the cameras, shouting things like “Rambo” and “Terminator.” A soldier called them “the fighting elite of the Ramadi police.” But waving a machine gun wasn’t going to help root out an enemy that hid in the desert.
Capt. Brozozwski studied the maps, gathered intelligence, coordinated air power and decided which assets would do best in what areas. The whole operation would last less than a day, but the planning was exhaustive. Communication between airpower and manpower, redundant frequencies to coordinate the arrival of one group before the 2nd and diminish as much as possible the probability of both collateral damage (civilians getting hurt) and friendly fire (fellow military getting hurt). Not at all like the movies, this was a daunting task that required planning, review, more planning, communication and finally execution. Just following the captain around from one briefing to the next was mentally exhausting.
I’ve sat through plenty of lectures at school where an eager professor crammed information that I only partially understood and would need a bit of time to let simmer in my head. Usually it took time to review the material, ask the professor questions, confirm what I thought I knew and throw out what I had misunderstood before attempting the final exam.
Operation Snake meant the “studying” was “prac-app” – practical application for a live test that was going to take place within several hours and would deal in life and death. Leaders like the captain were graded not only on how much damage we did to the enemy, but how little harm the enemy did to us.
No reason to panic – there was just too much to get done. The communication frequencies alone were almost like a separate language, an alphabet/number mishmash of codes that enabled a specific person to speak with another specific person. The soldiers meticulously went down the “frecs” (pronounced “freaks”) or frequencies, double-checking that everyone could hear and understand everyone else. When they were through with the checks, they did it again.
We were going into an area that could have had up to 200 al-Qaida, but Brozozwski put the amount closer to 50.
In the field, al-Qaida operatives worked in small groups that could go unnoticed and do as much damage as possible without compromising the other groups. They have often been compared to a hydra, the creature from Greek mythology that regenerated a new head each time a brave heroic warrior chopped one off.
But al-Qaida had a weakness. Like a tiny parasite attached to a larger body, AQI (Al-Qaida in Iraq) needed a host – the local population. That’s where the hydra ran out of luck.
In the outskirts of Ramadi, the local populace was so tired of terrorism that when a stranger approached a local to ask where was the best place to put an improvised explosive device, the locals detained the stranger and beat him with a metal bar. The would-be IED planter only survived thanks to police officers and the soldiers of the 1-9 “Abel” company who noticed the ruckus as more neighbors wanted to join in on the beating.
“They hate the desert,” said RCT-2 Commanding Officer Marine Col. Stacy Clardy out of Camp al Asad. “I’ve had members of terrorist groups turn themselves in because they’re tired of the weather.”
Prior to leaving FOB Sedwick, Capt. Brzozowski gave another talk before we went outside the wire. “We’ve pushed them far into the desert where we’re hunting them down,” he said. Operation Snake was finally under way.
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Matt Sanchez, originally from California, is a New York City-based writer currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. His work has appeared in the New York Post, National Review and the Weekly Standard.
A corporal in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and a student at Columbia University where he’s working on degree in American Studies, Sanchez says his mission in Iraq is “to report on the stories that matter the most, first-person accounts by the men and women on the ground.” His blog, Matt-Sanchez.com, chronicles his work.