Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Operation Arabian

There are many unique aspects to the dynamics of my job. I could easily make your head spin if I attempted to explain how my command structure is organized here. Unlike many military units, working dog teams do not deploy in large groups; in battalion or regimental size units for example. We deploy in small numbers and are operationally attached to other larger units. Because of our small numbers and the force multiplier that a dog team is to any unit conducting counter-insurgency operations, we are often requested to assist other units during their combat missions and operations. A part of my job here that I love, is that every mission is unique. My core mission here as a Marine dog handler is to detect and locate explosives or explosive devices and to apprehend or otherwise neutralize anti-coalition personnel...and this never changes. While my overall mission is constant, the circumstances surrounding these individual operations and missions always presents me with a fresh and unique set of circumstances to work under. No mission is ever the same. My most recent operation, "Operation Arabian" was no exception. I was attached to the 414th Stryker Brigade; an Army unit based in Alaska.

I was escorted to one of our Battle Positions under the cover of the darkness of early morning. An element of the 414th met me at the BP with several Stryker vehicles and escorted me to their headquarters. Later that day I attended the mission briefing outlining the mission's overall objectives, NAI's (named areas of interest) and other coordinating instructions. Truth be told, I was somewhat a fish out of water. I have never attended an Army mission brief before and it was an interesting time. Acronyms are as prevalent in the military as are egos; and both, at times, are equally hard to understand. I have been in the Marines for nearly eight years now and I have yet to master the art of acronym interpretation. Now, in this mission briefing, I was being exposed to a whole new lexicon. I wished more than anything that I had been issued an interpreter like our Iraqi officer counterparts. Many times during the brief, I found myself leaning over to my Army counterpart and humbly asking what this meant, or what that represented on the terrain model. By the end of the mission brief however, I had a clear understanding of our mission, timeline and the NAI's (Don't will get used to the acronyms after a while). I am not going to go into much detail about the mission out of concerns for operational security, but there were a few interesting and somewhat hair-raising moments during the mission which I would like to share.

So there we were...plodding along in our Stryker at a comfortable rate when the gunner yelled out into his mic, "STOP!...STOP THE TRUCK!", as he whipped his .50 cal around the the right side of the vehicle. At the time, I was standing in the rear gunner's hatch and had communication with the crew so I heard his gentle request. I immediately began scanning the barren landscape for any movement; ready to engage. The crew chief asked the gunner what he had. His response caused my heart to race. "Boss", he replied, "I think we just drove into a mine field". I looked outside the vehicle and saw symmetrical circles in the sand in a perfectly straight line on either side of our Stryker...our tires had miraculously passed directly in between two of these circles. The crew chief looked at me as he reached for the mic button on his helmet...I beat him to the punch. "There's no way I'm going out there with my dog Boss". "Call the Engineers", I said, "and let's back this thing out of here." It was a nerve wrenching five minutes as we backed the 23 ton vehicle. The Engineers came and determined that our "mine field" was in fact not a mine field, but rather a camp site recently evacuated by a Bedouin shepherd. The circles in the sand were all that was left of his camp and were the imprints left by his tent poles. It's experiences like this that keep you constantly on your toes and make every mission unique...and for this mission, it was just the beginning.

We completed our mission and the Troop (the Army's equivalent of a Marine company) consolidated at the predetermined rally point to begin the two hour trek back to the COP (Combat Outpost). It was light when we began our return trip, but it was getting dark when the Stryker driver realized that his NOD (night observation device) was inoperable. Murphy's Law states that whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible moment and I am convinced that Mr. Murphy was on that Stryker with us. Sure, we could drive with white light...and risk getting the entire convoy mortared, or we could drive blacked out and risk driving off a 30ft cliff into a wadi; neither option even coming close to ideal. We decided to drive blacked out and have the gunner assist the driver. "Right...Right...No, Left...Right...Straight...STOP...STOP". This went on for the entire two hours. Halfway into the return, I wanted to just get out and walk. We eventually made it back to the COP and were greeted with a salvo of mortar rounds fired from somewhere within the city. I saw the first flash off in the distance as we were entering the COP. Then more...and getting closer. "Incoming!", I yelled. I ducked back inside the Stryker and yanked the overhead hatch closed. To add fuel to the fire, (no pun intended), we were directly adjacent to the fuel bladders. 40 thousand pounds of fuel and a mortar strike could make for a very bad day for alot of people. In typical insurgent fashion, I was told that they ceased their attack and ran before we could ascertain where their mortar position(s) was/were. The QRF (quick reaction force) was launched and I am unaware of the outcome. The fun is never-ending around here.

This was just a typical week in the life of a combat Marine fighting to rid this country of its garbage. We will continue to take the fight to the enemy until there is no enemy, but peace. Until this day comes, we stand ready to execute tempered violence when necessary on your behalf and for the sake of our country and her citizens...the Marines always have, and we always will. Semper Fidelis.

Monday, January 16, 2006


It's a very cold night here in Iraq. If I had to guess, I'd say it's in the thirties. I, being the glutton for punishment that I am, just returned from a run. My lungs are hurting from breathing the freezing air, my knees are aching and my legs are screaming. I couldn't feel any better! What I absolutely love about running, especially in the cold, is that it gives me an opportunity to push gives my body an opportunity to battle with my mind. The first shots were fired in tonight's skirmish as soon as I exited my hooch and sucked in that first lung-full of frigid air. I knew this was coming and stepped off before I could give my mind a chance to convince me otherwise.

This may seen trivial to some...this whole mind/body game that I play with myself. But every battle that my body wins over my mind makes me mentally stronger. And in my environment, mental fortitude is essential. There have been so many times here that I have wanted to give into my mind when it has told me to slow down or quit. Not an option. Please don't misunderstand me...I do not have a large red "S" painted on my chest, nor do I change my clothes in a telephone booth. I am not trying to portray myself as anything other than a simple man learning lessons about what it takes to be successful in combat and in life. Every one of these lessons that I learn, by God's grace, may save lives. It may in fact one day be my own.

Today, I saw some fruits of our labors here. As I was on a patrol with the Iraqi army, I saw large groups of children walking to school. Backpacks, books, and smiles. It was a real joy. I saw an American soldier help a young girl fix her shoe which had broke sometime on her way to school; 550 cord and duct tape will fix absolutely anything! It was moving. I have said all along that among other things, this is a generational war we are fighting. These young children will one day lead this country. Every simple gesture, such as what I witnessed today, will be a memory tomorrow that will eventually lead to our long-term success in this country. It has without a doubt been a collective effort, but I gained a real sense of personal satisfaction by what I witnessed today, and I hope and pray that tomorrow will bring the same.

There is currently a very expansive reconstruction effort in Iraq currently being conducted by the coalition forces and our leadership. In many respects and in many cities, we are giving a large number of Iraqi's better living conditions than before we arrived. It is an unfortunate fact of warfare that infrastructure is often damaged or destroyed to accomplish a mission. By helping to rebuild (and in some cases, build) this infrastructure, we once again show the Iraqi people our commitment to their stability and their country's independence. It is our desire to have the Iraqi citizens to row with us, not against us and this can only be when we convince them of our intentions and show that we are here for the long haul.

Sgt Cann was laid to rest today at Arlington National cemetery. His memory and dedication go with all of us who knew him. America is a stronger nation as a result of his selfless service. He will be missed.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

In Memoriam - Sgt Adam Cann/USMC

It's been a tough week for me. America lost a great warrior this week, and I lost a very close friend and fellow dog handler. On the morning of the 6th of January, Sgt Adam Cann was killed in action in Ar Ramadi while conducting security operations at an Iraqi Police recruiting station. The coward that took Sgt Cann from us, walked into the crowd of recruits and detonated his suicide vest, killing Sgt Cann and many others. Adam will be buried at Arlington National cemetery later this week. I encourage you to say a special prayer for the comfort and peace of his family.

While his brave passing has hit me like a ton of bricks, I have a cherished memory of him that I will carry with me on every future battlefield that I am on. He was my roommate at Camp Lejeune while we were preparing to deploy, and it was there that he shared with me a part of his heart. He told me that if he wasn't able to come home with us, that he wanted us to press on without him. Adam, we will press on brother. Thank you for your friendship, your courage, and most importantly, your commitment to our country and her cause. You will be missed and the torch which you have passed us will never be extinguished. Semper Fidelis, Marine. We have the watch now.

I don't want this post to focus on me, but there is a lesson that Sgt Cann taught me and one which I think we all could benefit from learning. When I was informed of his passing, I must admit, I was extremely angry. Although every American life lost here is without a doubt a tragedy, for me, Adam's death hit a bit closer to home than others. It caused me to really look inside myself, and this is when Adam taught me his lesson. It would be so easy for me to succumb to my anger and frustration and begin to question our involvement and presence in Iraq; which many are currently doing. This would undoubtedly be the easy solution. But Adam's words to me that evening in North Carolina reminded me that it would not be the right solution. I could easily redirect my anger at America, at Iraq, at our President and very easily lose my commitment to our cause. But I, and Americans as well, need to understand that our determination need not, and should not, diminish with the loss of America lives here...It needs to grow. Every American life that is lost here needs to fan the flame of liberty and cause it to burn a bit brighter. If my life if required of me here, and my family's, my friend's and my fellow Marine's commitment is not strengthened as a result, I have failed them, and in the bigger picture, I have failed America.

Enough about me...Adam, rest easy. You will always be an inspiration to me, and to those who served with you. It is my hope that one day I can visit your grave and salute you. Your sacrifice has caused our fire here to burn stronger and brighter.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Way It Is

In Iraq, America is not fighting a traditional war. There will never be a declaration of surrender signed by our enemy conceding their defeat. Understand this...this war will not end with signatures. I say this for many reasons, but foremost is because our enemy has no true leader. Sure, they have cave-dwellers who claim to be in charge, but these cowards understand that their minions will not cease their campaign of terror simply because they have signed a document. We are fighting a war of counter-insurgency...the most difficult, and I would argue the most misunderstood and complex type of war that exists in modern times.

For the warfighter on the ground, this type of war poses so many dangers. In part because to win this type of war, you have to win the hearts and minds of the majority. In order to do this, we the ground-pounders, have to take risks. We have to come to the point where we signify to the peaceful majority that we have entered a new phase in the war...a phase of temporary co-existence. We simply cannot perpetually continue an all out campaign of destruction (which at one time, was the only way to operate) and expect to win hearts and minds of the peaceful majority. If we do not enter this phase, in the long run, only the innocents will suffer and I believe that we will have great difficulty accomplishing our goals here in this country.

Our enemies understand this. They know that by appearing as the peaceful majority with whom we must eventually ally ourselves, that this will give them a short-term advantage. This will allow their suicide bombers to be able to walk into a crowd of police recruits and detonate themselves. This will allow the VBIED's driving down the streets appearing to going to work, to destroy civilians. The insurgents understand that Iraq, with our assistance is moving forward. And they are without a doubt from time to time, going to exploit these risks that we must take to progress. In the short term, these risks may lead to more coalition casualties as we move forward. But in the long term, it is the only way that we are going to continue to move forward and eventually win this war. In a sense, the insurgents are attempting to accomplish the exact opposite that we are. We are trying, through a campaign of tempered force, to show the majority in Iraq that we are accomplishing so much here for their good, while our enemies are trying to show the majority in America that all we are accomplishing nothing.

There have been times recently here when outside the wire, I have wanted to conduct "business as usual". A vehicle driving past me while I am walking on patrol?...are you kidding me? Four months ago...not a chance. But you know what? Now I must take risks which, for as long as I am here, leads to coexistence with the peaceful majority; because that is the only way that we are going to progress and begin to win hearts and minds of the peaceful majority. It stinks, I know. I hate it. But it is simply the facts of counterinsurgency. And that is just the way it is.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Be Proud America

"I must study politics and war so that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy." -John Adams

I woke up this morning to the walls of my hooch shaking and the unmistakable "thud...thud" of mortars being fired and impacting. I wasn't totally convinced that I had not dreamed the sounds and shudders so I laid there giving the wall that, "Are you playing with me?" look. Nope..."thud...thud...thud...thud", this time accompanied by SAF (small arms fire). After a quick kiss from my girls [' picture], I donned my "battle rattle" and headed out to take a look-see. Bingo voiced his objection to me leaving him inside, certain that once again, he was going to miss out on all the action.

I'm sure I was a sight in my green PT shorts, green sweatshirt, untied boots and beenie on my head. But darnit, if Haji wanted to come play in our house, I sure wasn't going to be late to the party. So there I stood...waiting for the call to arms. "Thud...thud...crack...crack...crack". Closer this time. "Wait a minute..." I realized that the barrage sounded awfully close to the range. "You dummy! It's Marines on the range!" As I adjusted my gear, I of course gave the casual "machismo" look around as if to say, "Yep, just as I gear fits just as good outside as it does inside". I ducked back inside as fast as I could.

A good friend of mine returned yesterday from a coalition hospital in Baghdad. He was injured in a roadside blast from an IED. And although his wounds were not life-threatening, they were serious enough to warrant evac to Baghdad. It was great to see him return, and I wanted to share his story with you. Let me tell ya', when you drive down the roads here, the pucker-factor is very high. Some of you probably don't know what the "pucker-factor" is, but those of you who do, you can appreciate it. At any rate, as you travel down the roads here, your greatest threat is from the IED's. You are constantly on edge. And for Sgt V., I'll call him, to have this fear validated, to have looked your worse fear in the face and come back for more, is either the mark of a very courageous Marine, or a masochist. Without a doubt, Sgt V. rated the purple heart, but he did not want it. Why? In his words, "I was in the right place at the wrong time...why should I be awarded for that? It's my job." He is a great example of having the right motives. He does not do his job in search of glory or fanfare, but rather for the intangibles; those rewards that you cannot see, but in your heart, you can feel.

This story has been told many times since this war began. The names and circumstances have been different, but the moral has remained consistent. We are not here on a glory-hunt. There is no medal or piece of colored ribbon that could even come close to meaning more to us than knowing that at the end of the day, we did our jobs and accomplished our missions. Sgt V's story is a microcosm of the bigger picture here. Your Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines are accomplishing our missions while continuing the highest traditions of military prowess and soldierly virtues that has made our enemies fear and respect our nation...whether they care to admit it or not. War is a terrible thing and is without a doubt should be a nation's last option. But when a country is given no other option for a peaceful resolution to conflict, it's all or nothing. Rest assured that America's men and women are giving it our all and we will continue to do so every time that you call on us.

Say what you will about our war, but I challenge you to look into the face of any one of the Marines whom I've had the pleasure to go into combat with; search their souls and try to find anything in his eyes other than a dedication to his country. You would be wasting your time. Be proud America. Stand a little taller tomorrow when you go to work and if someone asks you why, you tell them that you live in the greatest nation on the face of the planet. Tell them that today, there are young men and women a world away fighting to preserve your way of life. Tell them that you are proud to be an American. If you disagree with this war, that is fine. No one can berate you for exercising your rights which we are fighting to defend. But unite under that banner which we call "Old Glory"...a banner which I would gladly go to my grave to defend.

(Linked at radiobs)