Wednesday, March 20, 2013

High school rivals become brothers in arms

Matt Bacik
Matt Bacik 

BRANCH OF SERVICE: United States Army 
RANK: Captain 

YEARS SERVED: 2002-2006 


UNIT IN IRAQ: 82nd Airborne Division and 3rd Ranger Battalion 

HOMETOWN: Chesterland, Ohio 

HIGH SCHOOL: Gilmour Academy ‘98

Jim Asher 

BRANCH OF SERVICE: United States Army 

RANK: Captain 

YEARS SERVED: 2002-2007 


UNIT IN IRAQ: 82nd Airborne Division 

HOMETOWN: Bay Village, Ohio 

HIGH SCHOOL: Lutheran West High School ‘98

Jim Asher
“You talk to older veterans about how they stay friends with the guys they met in the military until they die, so it is really cool. I’m just thankful I had that opportunity.”
Army Captain Jim Asher just happened to be visiting his brother in Washington D.C. late July, 2005 when he received a phone call from his good friend, fellow Army officer Matt Bacik.
“They got me again Jimmy,” Bacik said.
“Aww, son of a bitch,” Asher responded. “What happened?”
Bacik was not in Iraq, as Asher believed, but across town being treated for serious injuries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Unexpectedly, the two were again placed in the same geographical area in the latest in a long string of odd coincidences that followed the two soldiers throughout their military careers.
For Bacik, it was a military career that would soon end due to a massive IED blast July 22. The explosion blew his boot off and mangled his foot and lower leg. In an instant, Bacik was leaving Iraq, a place where he had spent a significant amount of his military career, for good. He had no idea, when he phoned his buddy Jim, that Asher was just minutes away from the hospital.
“(After the phone call) I ran over to Walter Reed and Matt’s mom was there all shaken up,” Asher recalled. “I surprised him when I showed up because he didn’t know I was in the area.”
“I was pretty out-of-it in the beginning but I know he made my family and I feel much better when he showed up,” Bacik said. “My wife (then-fiancĂ©) Deborah and my parents had all met him before so it was good for all of them to have a calming voice in the room.” 
Asher and Bacik met in 2002 at Fort Benning, Ga. while both were beginning their careers as United States Army officers. As recent college graduates (Bacik from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Asher from Cedarville University in southern Ohio), the duo were attending Infantry Officer Basic Course (IOBC) before proceeding on to Army Ranger School.
“The first time I met him I thought, ‘Man, this guy is a punk,’” Bacik recalled laughing. “He just had a real smug look on his face. We became friends though and ended up having a lot of fun.”
In conversation, the two young officers were shocked to realize they unknowingly played football against each other in high school in 1997. Bacik, a native of Chesterland, Ohio, attended Gilmour Academy and Asher, from Bay Village, went to Lutheran West High School in Rocky River.
“We were in the same squad at IOBC and started talking about high school football,” Asher said. “We discovered we played in that same game and started recounting different plays.”
After completing Ranger School, both Asher and Bacik shipped to Fort Bragg, North Carolina to become members of the historic 82nd Airborne Division. It was there the friendship between the two Army lieutenants from northeast Ohio blossomed.
Along with Lieutenants John McNamara and Chris Carlson, Asher and Bacik formed a group of four friends that made the most of their time in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “Yeah, Jim and I had a lot of fun running around and drinking too much while we were at Fort Bragg,” Bacik said laughing.
During one training exercise, the two found themselves together in a trench while another platoon was preparing to “attack” them. “We were basically playing war,” Bacik recalled. “Jim and I were in this trench and it was November and so freaking cold. This was the culminating exercise of a week-long training and we just so sick of being out there so we just stood up and started shooting our blanks from our M16s like you would see in the movies. The officer responsible for making sure we were learning stuff got really pissed at us for that.”
Despite that incident, Asher and Bacik were both sharp young officers with promising Army careers ahead of them. When U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March, 2003, it was only a matter of time before the lieutenants from Ohio, both platoon leaders for infantry units, would be on their way to Iraq. By September, both men had orders to put their extensive training to the test and join the fight in the Middle East.
As platoon leaders, Asher and Bacik were responsible for a large group of infantry soldiers; some of them combat veterans with lengthy military careers. It was a tall order for a young lieutenant less than two years removed from college.
“You show up as a brand new lieutenant out of Ranger School and these guys have a lot of real-world experience, but at the end of the day the Lt. is in charge,” Bacik said. “It is very personality-driven as far as what the relationship shakes out to be. You have to really lean on those guys and draw whatever you can out of their experience and skill set.”
Asher lead a platoon of about 45 soldiers and it was on him to make certain that unit was ready to go into combat.
“The enlisted guys were the experts on the different weapons systems, they were the ones actually doing it,” he said. “I was focused on whether they were trained to a certain standard.”
“The big picture maneuvering-type stuff is what I was responsible for,” Asher explained. “On a mission, the enlisted troops are the boots on the ground; I was just directing traffic at that point.
Upon arriving in Iraq, Bacik’s unit went to Fallujah in central Iraq; while Asher’s squad moved on to relieve an undermanned Marines company in Mahmoudiya, directly south of Baghdad. Before shipping out, the Marines ominously briefed Asher’s unit on the “bad neighborhoods” in town, the ones they typically steered clear of. The city’s location in relation to Baghdad made it a key strategic position for both American troops and insurgents.
“That was one of the things we wanted to change,” Asher said. “We were going to go everywhere and a lot of those bad neighborhoods are where we made our first contact once we got there.”
It took just two days in Mahmoudiya for Asher to experience enemy gunfire for the first time. He decided to tag along with another lieutenant and about eight other soldiers to do a quick drive through of the city to try and get a feel for the layout. As the sun began to set on the unfamiliar land, Asher expressed concern and believed it was time to return to base but the other officer disagreed.
“He wanted to push on, so we go into one of the ‘ghetto’ areas and next thing I know I’m hearing AK-47s open up from one of the rooftops right above us,” he recalled. “We were able to return fire and get out of there. We weren’t outfitted to storm the building and clear it like we would have liked.”
Amazingly, none of the American soldiers were hit that night. In another part of the country, however, Matt Bacik would not be so lucky. Not long after arriving, Bacik earned the first of the three Purple Hearts he would compile in Iraq; all from IED explosions. “The first one was really nothing,” he said. “I just took a piece of shrapnel to the face and was back out there a day later.”
A roadside bomb October 20, 2003 near Fallujah was far more serious. Having lost a good friend in the blast, the events of that day are forever seared into Bacik’s memory. A large piece of shrapnel entered into the lieutenant’s body from the rear and passed completely through his left thigh and embedded into his right thigh. He ultimately recovered despite a massive loss of blood, but none of that mattered once Bacik learned his good buddy and squad leader, Staff Sergeant Paul J. Johnson of Calumet, Mich. did not survive the attack.
“I really looked up to him, he was the best squad leader I ever had and the best non-commissioned officer I ever met,” Bacik said. “Just about every day I replay it in my brain, trying to think what could have been done differently. I always come to the conclusion nothing could have been done so it doesn’t haunt me, but I certainly think about it a lot.”
Bacik was taken to the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad to recover. By Thanksgiving he was up walking again and by mid-December had rejoined his unit and taking part in missions. The next time Matt Bacik was wounded by an IED blast would be his last.
In January, 2004, filmmakers Garrett Scott and Ian Olds arrived in Iraq to begin filming a documentary about U.S. troops in Fallujah. For a month, the crew lived amongst the troops, performing several interviews and even accompanying them on missions.
“At first it was kind of cool, like ‘oh man they are gonna make a movie about us!’” Bacik said. “But after about a day it was back to business. Reporters were everywhere and I talked to a lot of them. Most of them had a view of what they thought was going on and it seemed they were just trying to get information from us to confirm it. I felt they were biased, sometimes towards us, but usually against us and I was always skeptical. The film crew [for the documentary] were the only ones who I felt were seriously just trying to document what was going on without placing any spin on it.”
The film, Occupation: Dreamland, was released in September, 2005 and featured Matt in several scenes, including interviews and scenes during missions. While being able to see himself in action in Iraq is a unique situation, Bacik doesn’t spend much of his time watching.
“I know what we did over there and I don’t need anything but my brain to tell me. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t out there because it is such a small snapshot of everything that went on." 

In the early days in Iraq, American troops did not enjoy some of the luxuries that arrived in subsequent years. There was no access to the internet and troops would get 10 minutes a week on a satellite phone to keep touch back home. Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs, were the only available food.
“We didn’t have running showers for the first six months,” Asher added. “We just had an elevated bucket so if the water sat all night, especially in the winter; it was freezing cold when you turned it on.”
Asher made sure to monitor his troops for physical and mental health. Like Bacik, he relied heavily on his more experienced enlisted troops. “I had the best squad leaders I could have ever asked for,” he said. “Anything we did that was a success, I would give them 100 percent of the credit because they were the ones out there executing.”
On occasion, Asher would joke around with his troops to keep things light, knowing everyone was under a degree of stress. “I enjoyed spending time with the enlisted. The camaraderie is so strong and they weren’t worried about the politics,” he said. “They really focused on training and execution; it made my job easier.”
Asher noticed a steady increase in violence the longer his unit was in Iraq. In the early days they faced the occasional mortar attack or an IED consisting of a mortar round buried along the road being ignited by an insurgent hiding behind a berm. “By the time we left, there were IEDs all over, some consisting of daisy-chained 155mm rounds being set off by cell phone a mile away.”
Relations with the locals also deteriorated. Initially happy to have the American liberators in their country, many eventually grew frustrated over living conditions which made them less welcoming to U.S. troops.
“They wanted to know about getting electricity back and getting schools up and running,” Asher explained. “We were put in a role where we were acting as civil affairs but our mission is combat; we are infantry paratroopers. That was very challenging.”
Frustrations also mounted for American troops as they did their best to help the civilians, yet still faced constant attacks. “It kind of left a bitter taste in your mouth.” As a platoon leader, Asher had to ignore his own frustrations and focus on maintaining the morale of his enlisted corps.
“All of them came in wanting to do a good job and help out and we had to let them know nothing they did was pointless. They were going out there risking their lives but there was a reason for it. As clichĂ© as it sounds, it was all about taking care of your buddy. The goal was to get everyone home. I told my guys all the time, I wouldn’t trade one of them for a whole city.” 
When Matt Bacik shows hit two little daughters his prosthetic leg, he calls it his “robot leg.” Occasionally he tells them stories about his time in service and what daddy was doing overseas. What he hasn’t discussed with them is the hell he went through after an enemy IED mangled the lower half of his leg.
“Initially I just wanted them to cut the thing off,” he said. “But they wanted to try this and try that.”
One fateful explosion turned into an eight-month ordeal that Bacik will never forget. The giant tears in his flesh became infected and he would spend time receiving antibiotics intravenously. Doctors removed the drugs, but the stubborn infection continuously returned. Several excruciating times, Bacik headed back to the surgical table followed by more antibiotics. The process continued to repeat itself until Bacik could hardly stand to take anymore.
“At the eight-month mark, when a doctor told me they would amputate if I wanted, it was the biggest relief ever,” he explained. “When I first got hit and my leg was all chewed up I knew the foot was probably gone and had no qualms about it. When I got to Walter Reed they told me I wasn’t a good candidate for amputation because the skin on the leg was all cut up and it needed to heal first.”
As soon as his leg was amputated just below the knee, Bacik began to make a dramatic recovery. Within 30 days he was walking with the aid of the prosthetic and after 60 days he was jogging. Before all that though, he had some unfinished business to take care of. 
Prior to his deployment, Matt Bacik took his then-girlfriend Deborah to a jewelry store to pick out a ring. The plan was to get engaged after he returned from Iraq. After Matt’s injury, everybody was rightfully more concerned about his health than his relationship status, but Bacik never forgot the ring.

At his first opportunity and still in a wheelchair, Bacik returned to the Jeweler to pick up the ring. When the store manager, not expecting Bacik for a few months, recognized him, he was overcome with emotion at the sight of the wounded young man and tears began to stream from his eyes.

“He knew I wasn’t supposed to be back for awhile and when I rolled in there all beat up, I guess it hit him pretty hard,” Bacik recalled. With ring in hand, Matt and Deborah, who he credits nursing him back to health, made wedding plans and were married February, 2006. 
The injury to his leg not only changed dramatically, the direction of Matt Bacik’s life, but also caused the parallel existence he shared with his buddy Jim to veer off course. As Matt was going through the ordeal with his leg, Jim remained stateside and was sent to New Orleans to assist with the aftermath of the devastating hurricane Katrina. After serving in Louisiana, the Army sent Asher back to Fort Benning to work at Airborne School and eventually Basic Training.
After completing his rehabilitation, Bacik was discharged from the Army and enrolled at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala. and ultimately earned his Master of Business Administration. In April, 2009, Matt started the Bacik Group; a highly successful management consulting firm with branch offices in three different states. He has remained involved with the military including doing work with the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit organization that assists to meet the various needs of severely injured service members.
Jim Asher completed his commitment to the Army and left active duty in June, 2007. He continued his life of service to his country, however, and is now a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Asher and Bacik remain close friends and talk on the phone about once a week. Bacik’s kids love to hear from “Uncle Jim,” who also sends them gifts on their birthdays and Christmas. Both men admit Iraq still comes up quite often as they continue to assist each other with the transition back to civilian life.
“I get more scared now thinking about some of the situations than I was at the time, “Asher said. “The mind is pretty remarkable. There must be defense mechanisms or something, because I didn’t feel scared. I was just doing my job and almost numb to the fear.”
“Coming home was quite an adjustment,” he added. “In a span of 48 hours, I went from combat infantryman to meeting my family at the airport and going out for a steak dinner, meanwhile, on the way I’m worried that an orange barrel on the side of the road was going to blow up.”
Like Asher, Bacik has no regrets from his service and time in Iraq.
“It takes some time to figure out what things you can take with you from the experience and what things you need to just let go,” he said. “Obviously I learned a lot from it and it definitely took a while to realize I wasn’t hunting anyone and nobody was hunting me. But I am never sorry I was over there and never sorry I got hurt.”

Friday, November 11, 2011

Northeast Ohioan was among first to go to war in Iraq

Jason Tangi

BRANCH OF SERVICE: United States Army

TIME SERVED IN IRAQ: 1 year, 6 months

UNIT: 3rd Infantry Division

HOMETOWN: Berea, Ohio

HIGH SCHOOL: Berea High School '96

Just six months after graduating from Basic Training at Fort Benning, Army specialist Jason Tangi was still trying to adjust to life at Fort Stewart in southeastern Georgia. So consumed in the renovation of the house he had secured for himself and his girlfriend back home, Tangi was not yet privy to the mutterings around the post about a potential pending deployment to Kuwait for some kind of training mission.

In classic military style, the next two weeks were spent preparing for the “training mission.” Exhausting days, which began at six in the morning and sometimes stretched until midnight.

Jason barely spent any time with the girlfriend he had relocated from familiar surroundings to a world of unknowns.

The members of the 3rd Infantry Division were granted one precious down day before shipping out with a destination of Kuwait for a “30-day training mission.” It was mid January, 2003.

As mid-January became late-February, it became clear the alleged “30-day training” was going to run a tad long. Days were long, repetitive and boring. Jason remembers cleaning his weapon more times than he could count. Equipment was checked, rechecked and rechecked once more.

The only escape the soldiers could find was hanging out on the back of large cargo trucks. It was the only escape from the monotony; hanging out with your buddies, telling stories, smoking cigars. One night as the guys were trading stories they noticed something emerging from the Kuwaiti desert that appeared to be heading towards them.

“We were sitting on the back of the truck telling stories when all of the sudden we see headlights – and I mean miles of headlights,” Tangi recalled. “Suddenly we see [semi-trailer trucks] filled with ammunition, rockets, Bradley fighting vehicles and TOWs (anti-tank guided missiles) as far as the eye can see.”

It was instantly apparent to all there was something going on that extended beyond a “routine training mission.”

“The next day we woke up and we combat loaded,” Tangi said. “The Bradleys were stocked with enough ammo for four days of constant battle.”

“[Leadership] told us ‘this is the best training we can give you to be combat-ready.’,” he said. “You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know what was going on.”

“You could see on the faces of the senior [non-commissioned officers], they had never had this kind of training before,” Tangi added.

The first week of March the commander ordered the soldiers in Tangi’s unit into formation to inform them of plans to “sit on the Iraqi border.” All munitions and equipment were cleaned and checked one final time and chemical agent antidote auto-injectors were distributed.

Morale was mixed among the soldiers of 3/7 Infantry. “Some guys were like ‘whatever’; you had the gung-ho types [eager] to go, then you had other guys saying ‘oh man I didn’t sign up for this,’” Tangi said.

“Personally I was confused,” he added. “I thought about the war I’ve seen on TV and in movies and I felt, ‘Holy shit, am I ready for this?’”

On March 16 the soldiers put on the thick layers that make up the chemical warfare suit. They would not take them off again for 30 days. On March 18, the unit was called together once again to discuss plans. As a captain went over specific movements and objectives, the big picture remained ambiguous to many of the troops.

“Finally somebody asked, ‘Are we going to war?’” Tangi said. “I’ll never forget the captain’s response, ‘Please don’t make me have to actually say it, here is the Iraqi border and here is where we are going – do you understand.”
Nobody had any further questions.

Crossing the Iraqi border

One of the first things Tangi’s unit encountered after entering Iraqi territory was an abandoned NATO facility which had sustained significant damage from some type of explosion.

“My first thought was, ‘That’s NATO, why is this building all shot up?” he recalled. “It could have been abandoned for years, maybe even since the Gulf War, but I saw that and thought, ‘Aw hell, we’re really going to war.’”

Tangi described the next eight days as the most miserable of the war. The division drove continuously for eight days straight, stopping only a couple hours at a time to allow troops to relieve themselves and grab an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) and some water.

The convoy of large military vehicles traveled at a high rate of speed with no lights as to avoid alerting any insurgents of their presence. Night vision goggles allowed drivers to see the vehicles ahead in the convoy; however several factors made visibility a major challenge.

“There was a lot of sand kicking up so you could barely see and you never really knew where you were,” Tangi explained. “Many people think the desert is completely flat, but there were a lot of cliffs and overhangs [in the terrain].”

As a result, several vehicles went over cliffs and got stuck or rolled over completely. Along the way the division encountered some resistance, but none that required the troops to get out of the vehicles.

“The Bradleys just unloaded,” Tangi recalled. “When those Bradleys open up you’re talking about hell coming down on [the enemy] – nothing is left moving on the other side.”

Karbala Gap – first combat

It was called the “last steppingstone into Baghdad” in a March 28, 2003 New York Times article. The Karbala Gap, a 20-25 mile-wide stretch of land between the Euphrates River and Razzaza Lake; and about 50 miles south of Baghdad, was a key strategic position in the war.

If the Iraqi forces failed to defend the area, it would essentially open completely the route to the capital for advancing coalition forces.

Given the significance of the Karbala Gap, Tangi’s unit predictably expected the potential for strong resistance from the Iraqi Republican Guard.

“This was going to be our big battle because the enemy knew if we passed through the Gap it was a big push towards Baghdad,” he explained.

Once the division reached a point about 20 miles outside Karbala, they stopped to receive some assistance from their friends in the sky. As soldiers watched from truck tops, U.S. Air Force fighter planes soared overhead filling the once-quiet desert night with thunderous roars.

While taking fire from anti-aircraft artillery, precision U.S. bombing strikes began to knock out power grids and enemy resources; paving the way for the ground troops. (According to Tangi, the air strikes were preceded by thousands of leaflets warning civilians a few days prior of the exact date and time the bombings would occur. The Air Force took every precaution to minimize civilian casualties.)

From his vantage point, Tangi remained in awe of the spectacular visual taking place in Karbala. Little by little sections of the city’s lights were eliminated and ground fire ceased. It was nearly early morning hours when the Air Force had accomplished its mission and succeeded in darkening the entire city.

“Seconds after the last set of lights went out we heard ‘Let’s move in,’ and we were in our vehicles and rolling,” he said.

As the convoy entered the city, it was met with an eerie calmness. The mission was to find the enemy and eliminate them to allow subsequent units to pass through en route to Baghdad. It seemed finding the enemy might be the more challenging task.

The Bradleys moved slowly attempting to bait any Republican Guard members hiding in the city. Finally, the Bradley Tangi was riding in stopped. He heard the humming of the mechanical rear door as it began to open; ready or not his first taste of combat was imminent.

Growing up in Berea, Jason Tangi was known as an exceptional athlete. However, no pregame jitters experienced while playing football for Berea High or taking the mound as a pitcher for Hiram College compared to the anxiousness he was experiencing watching the Bradley door open, releasing him into the great unknown that is the battlefield.

“As a team lead I was always the first one out,” he said. “So you just haul ass out of there and find the nearest cover.”

It was there Jason would first experience enemy bullets whizzing passed his head. There are three distinct sounds bullets make travelling passed your head.

“If it makes a swoosh sound, its not even close.” Tangi explained. “If it goes passed with a whistle, kinda close; but if you hear it tumbling - that means get your ass down it was real close.”

Thanks largely in part to thousands of leaflets dropped by the Air Force warning Iraqi civilians of imminent airstrikes, most of Karbala was empty and quiet. Once the city was secured, Tangi and his fellow troops were granted a day and a half to relax and catch their collective breath.

“It was a chance for supplies to catch up to us bringing more MREs, water and ammo,” he said. “It was almost like a party, we didn’t have anyone within miles of us and air support everywhere – we were all going to just chill.”

Unfortunately, just six hours into the breather the unit received radio transmissions about the Iraqi Republican Guard holding the Euphrates River.

“Next thing I know I was back in that Bradley hauling ass,” Tangi said.

“Hauling ass” in a Bradley in the Iraqi desert means traveling about 40-45 miles per hour. According to Tangi, riding in one of the bulky vehicles at such speeds “feels like you are sitting in a dryer.” He also likened the experience to riding in a school bus doing 90 mph over impossibly bumpy terrain.

The frantic trip, it turned out, was all for naught as the Republican Guard had abandoned their posts in such haste their uniforms remained in their bunkers.

“We later found out the Iraqi troops were being held in their positions basically at gun point by their superiors,” Tangi said. “The superiors took off, however, as we started to get close and once that happened the rest of the troops took off their uniforms and ran.”

Wearing civilian attire, the fleeing members of the Republican Guard were able to integrate themselves into the general populace and avoid capture or death.

On to Baghdad

After passing the Euphrates River, the trip to the Iraqi capital was relatively uneventful. In desperation, Iraqi leadership was making comical attempts to conceal the progress of the U.S. military towards Baghdad. Upon arrival, however, Tangi’s unit decided to leave no doubt in any Iraqi mind.

“We basically made a statement by driving right through the middle of the city and drove around in a circle to let them know we were there,” he said.

Although Jason had seen the last of the major firefighting, the remaining time spent in Baghdad would prove to be the most challenging time of his life. With two infantry companies as well as two support companies crammed into tight living quarters, personal space became and unattainable fantasy.

They unit continued to conduct missions, kicking in doors and eliminating the enemy when they could be found. But a return to the makeshift living quarters was hardly a chance to unwind and relax.

Troops were forbidden to leave the perimeter and there were no adequate latrine facilities. Many soldiers, Tangi included, battled bouts of dysentery.

“I lost about 20 pounds in a few weeks,” he recalled. “It was the worst thing I ever went through in my life, it was downright miserable.”

In addition to health concerns, missions were conducted during all hours of day or night. Sleep was difficult and obtained in small increments.

“Outside of the pride of serving your country, there are no rewards for being in a war zone,” Tangi said.

In His Own Words…


There were certain guys that are just non-stop funny, doing crazy things to keep us entertained. I remember a few guys built a basketball hoop and found a half-deflated ball and they would play Horse; that was what they did for fun.

One of my buddies came outside in his flak vest, helmet, boots; and nothing else. He was butt-naked running around grabbing the “basketball.” The sergeant was chasing after him yelling to put clothes on so he turned around and tried to hug the sergeant. Now the sergeant was the one running away.

We told a lot of stories. Those guys know everything about me, every crazy thing I’ve done. You talk about girls, the things you did in college, sports, brag about your athletic accomplishments and the biggest thing – the first thing you were going to do when you got home.

Contact with loved ones:

We went into Iraq March 18. The first time I got to talk to someone back home was late-May. It was basically “hey I just want to let you know I’m alive and tell everyone I love them.” We had two minutes to talk. Later on we would get to talk for five minutes, once every three weeks. You really had to keep on that because the next guy was waiting right behind you.

We had to stand on top of the building with guards around us so we wouldn’t get picked off by a sniper. We had this big-ass thing with a huge antenna on it to talk on. Because there was such a delay, you had to instruct your loved ones to limit their talking, so it was basically a one-way conversation letting them know you are still alive.

Going home:

When they told us in late-August we were going home, nobody believed it. We packed up all our stuff and started moving. We kept moving until we got to Kuwait. Once we crossed the Kuwaiti border it was like, “holy shit we’re goin’ home!”

We were in Kuwait for about a week and a half. During that time we got to go to the PX, I had Burger King, holy cow did it taste good. I’ll never forget ordering three Whoppers with cheese, a large fry and a large coke; and I ate it all – and I shit my brains out all night. It just went right through me, but it was worth it.

When we got on the plane to go home it was pretty much chaos, everybody was so pumped up and excited. We got to call our families from Germany and let them know we were coming home.

Talking to my dad was kind of emotional because he was also infantry and did two tours in Vietnam. The whole time I was gone he was picturing me going to Vietnam. He wasn’t aware of the advances in technology we had at our disposal. He was always really paranoid when I knew it wasn’t as bad as he thought, but I couldn’t get that across to him. When I called him and told him I was home in the States, I could hear him start to cry a little bit.

Once we arrived in Savannah, a large gathering of family and friends were waiting in a parade field. We got in formation and marched to them. It was unbelievable how good it felt to be home. I didn’t know whether to cry or dance or hoot and holler.

The only thing I wanted to do was go home and sit and not hear anything. I went home, sat on my couch with Zeus, my chocolate lab, next to me and sat there for like an hour and listened to nothing – it was the first time I was all alone in eight months.

Over there you feel alone inside but there is always someone around you. You are always doing something, hearing something, getting yelled at.

Finally after about an hour and a half I got up, looked at my girlfriend and said, “Let’s order pizza.”

Historical context:

Sometimes when I watch the news I think, ‘Holy shit, I was in one of the first companies to enter Baghdad, we circled the city to prove a point we were there.’ I’m very proud that I was there and that I served.

Once we started training new guys to the company and we started getting those gung-ho ‘I just want to be over there’ types, I would tell them, ‘just be careful what you wish for, it is not what you think it’s going to be.’ No matter what you prepare for or how you prepare, nobody knows what it is going to be like until they are there.

Changed life outlook:

One of the most significant things I brought home with me was a new perspective on life. You hear all the time to ‘live life to the fullest” from lots of people. I’ve heard it my whole life and I always thought, ‘Alright, but you don’t have to get up early for work and go to four meetings tomorrow so shut up.’ Since Iraq, it is nice to wake up in the morning and think, ’I have to go to work, but I get to relax and drink a beer tonight, I get to watch the Indians play tonight; it’s going to be a great day.’ I have a whole new outlook on life, I’m so happy. I really am.


The unfortunate reality of soldiers who survive war is dealing with the painful memories of friends and comrades who did not come home. Tangi often thinks about fellow Ohioan, Pfc. Marlin Rockhold, who was killed by sniper fire while directing traffic in Baghdad. Not only assigned to the same unit, but Tangi and Rockhold went through basic training together.

He would not allow his story to be printed without mention of his fallen friend.

Less than two years after his deployment, Tangi would serve another 12 months in Iraq, this time as a sergeant. Although this time he would see far less action on the battlefield, he discovered an oversight that ultimately saved the U.S. military thousand of dollars. For his actions he was awarded the Bronze Star.

Jason admits he joined the Army to pay off his student loans. “They threw $20,000 at me and I figured, four years I’m in, I’m out; what could go wrong,” he said laughing. “Twenty-one months in Iraq and I guess I paid for that college diploma.”

Tangi separated from the Army after serving his four-year commitment. He now lives in North Olmsted, Oh and works as a sales manager. When reflecting on his time in the war, he does not hesitate to put the experience in perspective. ‘Like my dad said about Vietnam, it is something I would never want to do again, but something I’m extremely proud of,’ he said.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Winning hearts and minds: a combat medic in Iraq

Tony Morales

BRANCH OF SERVICE: United States Army

TIME SERVED IN IRAQ: 1 year, 3 months

UNIT: 82nd Airborne Division

HOMETOWN: Cleveland, OH

HIGH SCHOOL: James F. Rhodes '04

Combat medic Tony Morales knew the time to apply all the training he had received from the Army had arrived. His company was engaged in a night-time firefight in the farming village of Wynot near Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Al Owja. Four insurgents entrenched in fortified positions amidst a palm grove were making their final stand against the Americans.

Two Apache helicopters leveled the thick brush, virtually reducing it to splinters. Shortly after, the shooting ceased and Morales received to the call to assist on the scene.

“It was my first time applying my training in a real world situation and I was a little apprehensive,” he recalled.

The mindset of a combat medic differs drastically from that of a normal infantry soldier. Rather than going to “kick some ass,” medics are prepared to attempt to save lives, sometimes even those of the enemy.

The benefit of being a medic is to enjoy popularity amongst fellow soldiers.
“Everyone in the unit loves the medics,” Morales said. “We were the ones taking care of them, making sure they stayed healthy.”

“Medics also have a lot more freedom than other troops, I could walk up to the platoon sergeant and talk to him like a normal guy,” the Old Brooklyn native added. “We didn’t have a squad leader we had to report to.”

The insurgents were hit hard by the Apache attack combined with the American ground forces. When Morales arrived at the scene it was very dark, but he noticed a fellow medic working on one of the enemies. The Iraqi had taken several hits from M-16 fire on the ground.

“We still have to help the enemies if they are wounded, although it is strange working on a guy who was trying to kill our guys just moments earlier,” Morales explained. “But the whole thing about being over there is trying to win hearts and minds. We want to let them know we are Americans and even though they may think we are bad, we are actually the good guy.”

“One of our other companies brought an enemy back to their aid station who was bleeding from all four of his extremities. They bandaged him up and applied tourniquets and stopped the bleeding. The physician assistant performed CPR and ultimately was able to save the man’s life.

He was so grateful he ended up becoming an informant and provided a lot of valuable information about the area in which they were operating.”

The other medic instructed Morales to check another of the wounded who was marked with a green light.

“It was really dark outside and all I could see was the green light as I approached so I pulled out my flashlight and shined it on him,” Morales said. “He was laying there motionless and looked dead; I had never seen a dead body before but I still had to assess him to make sure he wasn’t still alive.”

“I shined my flashlight on him and saw his face. His eyes and mouth were wide open. I checked for a pulse on his neck and had my head right above his head to listen for breathing.”

Experiencing a deceased man on the battlefield was a first for the young medic, but he kept his mind focused as best he could and proceeding to the next wounded man.

The first thing Morales noticed about the second man was that he was not a man at all, but a teenager. A ricocheted round struck the young insurgent underneath the chin.

“I go to check for a pulse and saw the pool of blood behind his head,” Morales said. “I lifted his head and saw the huge hole in the back and realized he was dead. Then I went to help my buddy who was working on the only insurgent still alive.”

“After finishing bandaging up his wounds, I started an IV on him and we took him to the EVAC helicopter. He ended up dying sometime later.”

Roadside bomb attack

Early in the Iraq War, roadside bomb attacks achieved routine success for insurgents in Iraq. Reports of the attacks were well publicized in the American media as they sometimes resulted in American casualties. As time went on, the U.S. military developed technology to counter improvised explosive device, or IED attacks.

In addition, convoys of military personnel were better at spotting potential IED threats along the side of roads.

Tony was riding in a convoy over a bridge when the horrifying shock of an IED attack became a reality. The convoy never saw the two 120mm artillery rounds rigged as IEDs. The explosion went off next to the humvee directly in front of Morales.

“The gunner on top of the humvee was exposed except for an armored shield partially covering his body,” Morales recalled. “Luckily only one of the rounds actually went off; I saw the other fly through the air and went over the side of the bridge.”

The force of the concussion jarred the gunner violently inside his turret. The convoy was ordered to “blow through” the area, meaning quickly accelerate all the vehicles in the convoy passed the point of attack.

As a medic, Morales could only think of the physical status of the troops inside the humvee in front of him, especially the gunner on top.

“I was concerned for them,” he said. “I immediately told my platoon sergeant, ‘you gotta go let me check on them.’”

After the convoy stopped, Morales was able to treat the gunner, who had regained consciousness. The gunner suffered bumps and bruises and a concussion, but survived the attack without serious injury.

Attributing electronic countermeasures and improved vehicle armor, Morales admits he was fortunate to avoid any more serious IED attacks during his Iraq deployment.

Sniper Scare

The village of Wynot presented challenges for the U.S. Army because the thick forestry and back dirt roads were ideal for terrorists to move weapons, supplies and personnel while remaining beneath the radar of U.S. forces.

For this reason, Morales was taking part in a traffic control point the day he suffered the closest call of his Iraq deployment.

Surrounded by dense forest and vegetation, Morales and his fellow 82nd Airborne troops were stopping cars traveling through the backwoods roads and searching vehicles for any type of contraband.

They were also matching identifications against a list of high value targets of which the military had significant interest in capturing.

“These back roads weren’t patrolled by anyone, not even the Iraqi police,” said Morales. “It made them perfect for transporting weapons and explosives.”

As dusk approached with darkness imminent, Morales’ squad leader ordered him to place an infrared chem-light on the humvee.

“We put chem-lights on our vehicles at night so helicopters will see us and know we are friendlies,” he explained. “I was going to jump up on top of the humvee, but instead decided to just grab the truck’s antenna from the ground.”

It was a decision that probably saved his life.

As Morales grabbed the antenna, a gun shot rang out. A mere three feet away, a bullet ricocheted off the back of the humvee. Realizing he was the target of the sniper, Morales quickly dropped to the ground.

“Everyone was yelling, ‘Where is he, where is he?’ So I pointed into the direction of the woods but all we could see was dark forest,” he said.

“I was way nervous at that point,” Morales recalled. “That was the first time I had actually been targeted and was definitely a little shaky.”

After a few tense minutes, one of the gunners opened up into the forest, which quickly set off a chain reaction of soldiers shooting towards the direction of the sniper shot.

Unable to see the sniper, the strategy was such that amongst the showering of 5.56mm rounds and grenade blasts, somebody would get lucky and take him out.

As his friends were unleashing hell into the direction of the sniper, Morales noticed nobody was watching the road behind the trucks.

He decided to keep an eye out in case the sniper was a diversion for a suicide bomber to come down the road.

Morales remembers being startled by the blasts from the M203 grenade launcher before the reassurance of a friend.

“Relax doc, its just 203.”

After several moments of the massive retaliation, the troops began to cease fire. Suddenly another shot went off.

“The round whizzed right between a buddy of mine and the platoon sergeant,” he said. “They actually heard it go by. “

For a second time the Americans opened fire on the forest. An Apache gunship even assisted clearing the area. An extensive search of the area came up empty; there was no sign of the sniper, dead or alive.

Later on, after obtaining information from some of the locals, troops from Morales’ unit raided a house they believed belonged to the sniper.

“We took him down and found the sniper rifles including an old Russian Dragunov sniper rifle,” he said.

Readjusting to life back home

After returning from Iraq and completing his active-duty service with the Army, Tony Morales found difficulty adjusting to the life that previously defined normalcy.

He never seems to have as much in common with his old high school friends as with his Army buddies, several of which he maintains consistent contact with.

Acclimating into a normal civilian life also serves as a challenge.

“I’m almost there but not quite, it takes a while,” he said. “When I first got back it was non-stop partying and drinking until eventually I started running out of money and needed to get a job.”

That first job was as a server in a restaurant. While nothing to be ashamed of, it certainly didn’t suite a combat medic only months removed from the war zone.
“I did that for two months and hated it.”

Through the Army, Morales was able to get certified as an emergency medical technician and is now attending Boise State University. He remains in the Army Reserves.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Arabic-speaking soldier lead Forrest Gump-like existence in Iraq

Albert Fanous

BRANCH OF SERVICE: United States Army

RANK: Specialist


TIME SERVED IN IRAQ: 1 year, 11 months. (2 tours)

UNIT: 101st Airborne Division

HOMETOWN: Strongsville, Ohio

HIGH SCHOOL: Strongsville High '00

In the early stages of the Iraq War, news broke fast and furious. From an American soldier killing his own by tossing grenades into a command tent, to the Iraqis pounding their shoes on the felled giant statue of Saddam Hussein; the stories provided the lasting images of the war.

For most of us, the images we saw on television seemed worlds away. Strongsville, Ohio native and Army veteran Albert Fanous was there for most of it. Prior to deploying for the initial stages of the Iraq War however, Fanous nearly had his deployment derailed due to a freak training accident.

Three months before receiving orders, Fanous and his fellow soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were going through training which they believed was to prepare them for an imminent war. While practicing helicopter drops, Fanous suffered a misstep. Searing pain shot through his foot and lower leg.

“We had a three-mile march after the drop and my foot was swelling and the pain was excruciating,” he said.

The result was a broken foot. Having been born and raised in Egypt until he was 14 years old, Fanous’ ability to speak Arabic fluently made him an invaluable asset to his unit. Although he had the option to stay behind as his unit was preparing to deploy. Fanous took his cast off a week early to stay with his military brothers.


“Oh my god we are under attack!”

As the deployment to Kuwait neared, veterans from the first Gulf War began dispensing invaluable advice. From them Fanous learned of which items he needed to pack extra; such as baby wipes and how to wash clothes and keep clean when facilities are not available. Also, senior non-commissioned officers passed on various tricks such as keeping water bottles in wool socks overnight to keep them cool. The Gulf War vets provided insight that could only be obtained from experience.

The 101st arrived in Kuwait in March, 2003 and began performing training exercises. The repetition quickly became tedious and the chemical warfare equipment was extremely hot and uncomfortable.Many troops were hoping for something to break up the monotony. Unfortunately, what they received was a tragic event that would scar the Army and shock Americans back home.

After a particularly heavy night of scud missile drills, Albert was part of the first of many incidents that would make national headlines in the States. It was the wee hours of March 23, 2003 and Fanous had just drifted off to sleep. Suddenly a loud explosion, quickly followed by another, rocked the camp.

After months of preparing to go to war, frantic soldiers assumed the war had come to them. Chaos ensued with soldiers throwing uniforms on and gathering their weapons.

“Oh my god we are under attack!” Fanous thought.

Rumors quickly circulated throughout the camp. Orders were given to proceed to a bunker and wait.
“Finally news came out that one of the guys had gone crazy and dropped grenades into the command post,” Fanous recalled.

The soldier who would obtain notorious fame for murdering two troops and injuring 14 others was Sergeant Hasan Akbar, an American-born Muslim convert who was upset the U.S. was on the brink of war with a predominately Muslim nation. The two men murdered that night were Air Force Major Gregory Stone and Army Captain Christopher Seifert. Fanous and the 101st had not yet set foot in Iraq and were already mourning the loss of two of their own.


Part of the infantry, Fanous worked with a team of three guys on a heavily-armed Humvee designed primarily to destroy enemy tanks. Humvees like the one Albert manned are equipped with two .50 caliber machine guns, a MK 19 40mm grenade-launcher machine gun and a tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided or TOW missile system.

“Our job was to provide security for all the ground troops making the march from Kuwait to Baghdad. Our orders were to destroy any enemy tanks and make contact with any Iraqi military personnel. “

“Heading into Iraq, I was worried, excited and experiencing pretty much every other emotion,” Fanous recalled. “I was optimistic I might not see much action, but I was prepared for anything because I knew once the Islamic aspects of Jihad kicked in there might be more fighting; I hoped for the best but expected the worst. “

Once they got into Iraq, Fanous’ unit saw nothing in terms of resistance.

“Every time we thought we saw something, it was either abandoned or destroyed,” he said.

The biggest enemy in those early days was the infamous sandstorm. So intense were some of the storms they nearly eliminated visibility completely and grind the 101st’s progress to a halt.
“It made it impossible for us to even see,” Fanous said. “It’s hard to describe, you go outside and everything was completely red and we were just covered in sand.”

For Albert’s team aboard the humvee, the sand also created headaches with equipment maintenance.

“The .50 caliber was fine, it is a very old weapon system and it can take about anything,” Fanous explained. “The Mark 19 was a more delicate weapon system that needed to be cleaned constantly; you really had to baby it.”

The storms also prevented the ground troops from essential air support, which further slowed things down.


When Albert and his team arrived near Karbala they waited briefly at the outskirts of town for the infantry guys to catch up.

“It was apparent somebody had been there before us because there were dead bodies all over,” he said. “We weren’t sure who had killed them, but we knew the Baath Party was driving through towns and killing people who were not going to resist (against the U.S.). The 3rd Infantry Division came in with their Bradleys and fired a warning shot at a couple of vehicles and everything broke loose from there.”

Americans came under heavy fire from small arms and RPGs.

“To be honest, if it wasn’t for the Bradleys, it could have been very messy,” Fanous said.

His squad leader placed him in position with his scoped machine gun. He was clear to take out any suspicious people coming through. Fanous was instructed to be selective with his targets – only fire if the person had a weapon and never on women or children. While lying prone on the pavement next to his humvee, Fanous saw a vehicle coming. In between him and the vehicle was a Bradley. As the vehicle tried to pass, the Bradley pulled out in front of it. As Fanous watched through his scope, enemy combatants jumped out of the vehicle with RPGs.

“Apparently the guys in the Bradley had already noticed the weapons because they really lit them up,” he recalled. “I wanted to fire but I didn’t have a clear target and the Bradley was taking care of business; I did not end up firing a round in that battle.”

It was the battle in Karbala that made it clear what life in Iraq would be like for Albert and his Army brothers. “We were fighting an enemy that was not wearing a uniform and did not use the same tactics as us. Our training did not prepare us for some of those things,” he explained. “We knew they were willing to die for anything, so every time something happened we just tried to react to it as best we could.”

There were times when Fanous experienced a very positive response from Iraqis. Some towns received U.S. troops positively, throwing flowers and candy at convoys. Often, children would wave and interact with the Americans. Fanous felt most Iraqi citizens considered the troops as liberators.

His Arabic tongue was not always a blessing, however, especially when fellow soldiers would attempt to get Albert to translate jokes to Iraqi citizens. Most were received only with strange looks and bewilderment.

“It was getting annoying,” He recalled. “I told them, (the Iraqis) aren’t going to get our sense of humor, something that is funny to us in the States is confusing to them.”

“I also spoke to some Iraqi soldiers when we were there and found out they were paid very poorly, if at all,” Fanous added. “Often they only had raw onions and bread to eat.”

April 9, 2003: A Historic Day

“I remember one specific day and every time I see it on TV I think ‘wow, I can’t believe I was there’,” Fanous recalls. “All because we were tired of eating MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat),”

Albert pleaded with Sergeant Cooper, his platoon sergeant, to go to the city in search of better food.

“I said, ‘hey Coop, I’m tired of MREs, I speak the language and you have the authority, let’s go to the city and get some food.”

At first, Sergeant Cooper expressed doubt, but a persuasive Fanous wore him down and before long they were gathering money and preparing a food-procurement mission. The group of troops headed to Baghdad and were passing through Firdos Square, the site of the famous giant statue of Saddam Hussein. There was a large gathering of people making a lot of noise. At first, Fanous admits, the size of the crowd made the troops nervous as they initially had no idea what was taking place. The attention was on an Iraqi attempting to pull down the statue with a tractor.

“The only thing he was succeeding in doing was popping a wheelie with the tractor,” Fanous recalls laughing. “It was the funniest scene.”

Finally, a U.S. Marine armored recovery vehicle wrapped chains around the neck of the giant statue and began to pull it down. As viewers from around the world watched live, the statue bent forward and then collapsed to the ground in what would become the most symbolic image of the war. As Fanous watched, the Saddam statue was toppled and dragged down the street with hundreds of Iraqis hitting it with the bottoms of their shoes.

“I told everybody, ‘this is part of history, we are going to tell this story to our grandkids when we are older’,” Fanous said. “Knowing the significance of hitting someone with the bottom of your shoe in Iraq, it made me realize, ‘wow, they really do hate Saddam.’”


Fanous remembers most the people in Baghdad treating U.S. troops well.

“Some started bringing us food and water and even offered their homes for us to take showers,” he said. “I was surprised how we were treated.”

Although patrols in Baghdad rarely resulted in combat, they would often bring the discovery of explosives or a weapons cache, one of which was stashed in an amusement park. While in the amusement park, troops came upon an abandoned, broken-down motorcycle.

“One of our guys was a motorcycle mechanic back home and he got the thing running,” Fanous recalled. “Next thing you know we are taking turns riding it around the park; my first time riding on a motorcycle happened in Iraq.”

Not long after Fanous’ unit received orders to advance to Mosul in the northern part of Iraq. They were told they would spend the remainder of their six months there. “Six months then became eight months, then 10 months,” Fanous said. “After that it was like ‘we are going to be here forever, we are never going home.’”

On the way to Mosul from Baghdad, orders came down to clear a city called Mahmoudiya. While clearing the houses, Fanous and his team stopped at an abandoned police station. “I was notified there was a document they needed me to decipher,” he said. “It was a hand-made map of the area; it had firing limits, reference points and was clearly designed for military use.”

Superiors asked Fanous if he thought the map was an indication of enemy troops in the area. “Without a doubt,” he responded. Barely having finished his statement, the door of the building exploded from an RPG round.

“Everything just erupted from there; they were just firing at us from every direction. Guys were on the rooftops and everywhere else. We started returning fire and called a medevac for the guys injured in the RPG blast.”

An ambulance was dispatched from Baghdad, but came under heavy fire as it arrived.

“I’m not sure if the driver was hit or not, but the ambulance veered off the road and slammed into a ditch,” Fanous said. “We then called for an air medevac but when the helicopter arrived he wasn’t able to land on the LZ (landing zone) due to power lines so he radioed to the ground that the power lines were in the way.”

In desperation, U.S. troops felled the power lines by ramming them repeatedly with Humvees. Despite their efforts, the medevac pilot determined the area too hot to land. There was too much enemy fire.

With several troops injured from the initial RPG blast, Fanous was part of a team that would have to find an alternate LZ for the medevac, further from the heavy firefight taking place. Then began the process of racing humvees back and forth trying to get all the wounded to the medevac site. “This left us very shorthanded for the battle that was taking place,” Fanous said. “There were only two trucks with mounted heavy guns, and now one of those would be used to transport the wounded.”

“After fighting shorthanded, we finally received backup from battalion and were able to take control of the fight. I think we had about 80 kills that day and took 14 wounded of our own but fortunately no KIA.”

The Americans stayed in Mahmoudiya that night. With the power knocked out, it was eerily dark. Fanous had the unenviable job of guard duty that night. Relying heavily on his night-vision goggles, he saw what appeared to be a cargo humvee approaching.

“I asked if we had anyone scheduled to come in at this hour,” he said. “My lieutenant told me to let them approach until we could identify who it was.”

As the vehicle approached, Fanous realized it wasn’t a hummer, but a pickup truck. He fired a warning shot in an attempt to stop the truck. The warning shot alerted the guys on the rooftops who began to fire on the vehicle. Two men jumped out of the truck and began running towards Fanous’ position.

“Everybody on the rooftops was focused on the truck and hammered it pretty good,” he said. “I saw both guys coming towards me. I gave the order to stop in Arabic and received no response.”

Fanous fixated his laser sight on one of the men and fired. Immediately he dropped to the ground. It was the first time Albert had shot someone.

“The second guy stopped next to a tree. I asked the lieutenant if I should cease fire and check it out,” he said. “The two guys turned out to be looters. The guy I shot was injured, but he lived. “

Uday and Qusay Hussein

Fanous and the 101st started working with Special Forces from Task Force 20 looking for high-value targets around Mosul. Several unsuccessful missions brought about a feeling of mental exhaustion from the fruitless searches. Then one day, everything changed.

“We were called into a briefing and given Intel on the whereabouts of Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay Hussein from a Special Forces soldier,” he recalled. “About noon we were locked and loaded and ready to go to the area of a house in which the brothers were allegedly staying. Each platoon had a different assignment near the area of the house. We were told we would also have air support and the goal was to capture the brothers without bloodshed.”

After several false alarms, Fanous was skeptical. He knew something was different however, when U.S. troops were greeted with a wild scene near the house.

“At first we were more occupied with the crowd in the streets than with the house,” Fanous said. “It was on the verge of a riot; they were shouting and throwing rocks at us. We could tell by the actions of the crowd that Uday and Qusay were really there.We fired several warning shots which began to disperse the crowd.”

Per orders, Fanous positioned his vehicle to block the road on the east side of the house. A fierce battle between Saddam’s sons and Special Forces troops raged on. Qusay Hussein’s teenage son was there fighting with the brothers, along with a bodyguard.

As gunfire and rocket rounds soared through the air, Albert heard somebody yell, “With our blood and soul redeem you Uday and Qusay!” Fanous was stunned to realize the sons of Iraq’s long-time dictator were camped in a house U.S. troops had travelled past several times.

Finally, a barrage of TOW missiles and an airstrike penetrated the reinforced concrete walls of the house. The crackling of gunfire ceased as Special Forces troops quickly entered what remained of the house. Before long they emerged with the bodies of Uday and Qusay Hussein.

News about the operation quickly spread around the globe. The U.S. decided to put pictures of their dead bodies on television to prove to the Iraqi people the brothers’ fate. Fanous recalls being placed on lockdown as Iraqi citizens celebrated all over with gunfire.

Mosul and home

The rest of his time in Iraq was spent in the northern part of the country performing various missions around the city of Mosul. One day Fanous recalls his unit passing through a small city that could not be found on maps.

“We started talking with the people and found out it was a Chaldean Christian town,” he said. “We became friendly with a priest we called ‘Father Tom’ at the town monastery and before long we were getting invited to weddings and baptisms, it was nice. They appreciated us being there because Christians are in such a minority in Iraq and our presence made the townspeople feel protected from Muslim extremists.”

American troops would later assist Father Tom in establishing an orphanage in the area. The endeavor included building a new playground and forged a friendly relationship between the troops and the Iraqi kids.

“We showed them some of our equipment and even let a few of them drive the hummers,” Albert said. “They played a lot of soccer with us, but most of them were young teenagers and they really kicked our asses. Later, they thanked us by having a festival in our honor. “

“After I returned home from Iraq I saw a news report of Christians in the Mosul area getting killed by militant groups. It made me sad because I recognized some of the churches that were shown on TV.”

As the months dragged on, day-to-day life became increasingly difficult. Fanous recalls sleeping on sidewalks, going weeks without adequate showers and having to wash clothes by hand – which dried quickly in the overpowering heat. Food was irregular and dysentery was common. Nearly every soldier lost a significant amount of body weight.

Communication to loved ones back home was sparse at best. There are some letters Fanous wrote in Iraq that have yet to reach home. Back home in Strongsville Albert’s parents were flipping between the Middle East-based Al Jazeera network on their satellite television and local American news networks searching for news on the war.

“When I got home my dad told me he would watch Al Jazeera and hear that we were having a rough time, and then he would switch to American news networks and hear we were doing great – no resistance,” he said laughing.

One day while on patrol in downtown Mosul, Albert stumbled upon an international call center. Using his Arabic tongue, he negotiated with a local contractor to set up a call center just for the Army. It was a move that instantly made Fanous the most popular guy in the 101st.

“At first the Army was concerned about OPSEC (Operations Security), but they eventually allowed it,” he said. “Before you know it every camp in the area was asking about the contractor, the guy was making a ton of money. Every once in a while he would give me free calls. Life got much better from that point.”

Around the same time, troops also started receiving packages and were able to request things from back home. On a different patrol, Fanous had another opportunity to use his language skills to improve morale.

“I was on patrol and I found what looked like a pizza box,” he explained. “At first I didn’t say anything about it. Later I told everybody I was going to get some fresh pizza. We get to this place and it looks cool. They are throwing the dough into the air and made it really thin. They put some type of meat on it and then cracked on egg on top and put it in the oven. So I was like, ‘that’s not pizza, where’s the cheese?’”

While the pizza tasted alright, the Americans politely asked if the chef could leave off the egg in the future. Later, Fanous would find another pizza place.

“I went in and asked the owner if they had pizza ‘like the Americans eat it?’ It turns out the owner used to run a Domino’s Pizza in the States. We eventually convinced him to build a mini pizza shop in our battalion area. That became one of our main staples the rest of our time there. We ended up handing stuff like that on to the guys that came to Iraq after us,” he said.

Today, Fanous feels confident his ability to communicate with locals made life just a little better for the countless troops that would come after him. He would make another trip to Iraq before completing his commitment to the Army and returning home to Ohio where he is finishing a college degree.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

It was like Black Hawk Down, except with Amtracs instead of helicopters

Jim Martin

BRANCH OF SERVICE United States Marine Corps

RANK Corporal



UNIT IN IRAQ 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion

HOMETOWN North Olmsted, Ohio

HIGH SCHOOL North Olmsted High School ‘00

“I was watching the movie ‘Blackhawk Down’ with my mom before I left for Iraq and I told her, ‘Don’t worry, it isn’t going to be anything like that, we are just going to be going in to make sure the enemy is dead after the Air Force and Navy bomb the country.”

“When I got home I told her, ‘I’m sorry; it was exactly like the movie except instead of helicopters, it was Amtracs.”
– Jim Martin USMC, 2001-2005

In the weeks and months following the terrorist attacks on United States soil Sept. 11, 2001, many young men and women were inspired to enlist in the Armed Forces. Having already committed to the United States Marine Corps several months earlier, North Olmsted’s Jim Martin was not one of them.

Already a month into boot camp at Parris Island, SC., Martin and fellow Marine recruits were gathered unconventionally by a senior drill instructor. The young recruits were oblivious to the horrible events taking place in New York City and Washington D.C.

Events that would ultimately have a profound impact on the next few years of their lives.

Before speaking to the attentive recruits, the drill instructor removed his field hat, or campaign cover.

“I’ll never forget him removing his campaign cover because drill sergeants don’t do that,” Martin said. “He told us to take our training seriously because in the next four years we would be going to war.”

There is a component of Marine Corps basic training in which drill instructors lead recruits to believe a major war has started. The object is to gauge how well the trainees respond to an intense level of adversity.

“Obviously they didn’t have to do that with us because it did start,” he said.
A year-and-a-half later, Martin, now stationed in North Carolina at Camp Lejeune, was attached to the 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion. As U.S. –Iraqi tensions mounted, the unit soon received orders to deploy to Kuwait.

“They only wanted our air wing but they brought us as tag-alongs,” he said.
“We were like the bastard children of the operation,” he recalled. “Everyone else flew [to Kuwait] and we took boats over.”

Though sometimes scenic, especially while passing through Suez Canal, the boat trip took the Marines a month to arrive in Kuwait.

“It’s a long ride on a boat doing the same thing everyday,” Martin recalled.
After the seemingly interminable boat trip, Martin hoped the unit would stop at Kuwaiti Naval base, which was “an actual Navy base with things to do.” Unfortunately they arrived at Camp Shoop; a far more primitive base offering the Marines an opportunity for good old-fashioned manual labor.

“We had to set up everything, including tents and vehicle staging,” he said. “Initially, there was nothing in the middle of the desert and then a week later it was a makeshift Marine Corps base in the middle of Kuwait; it was kinda cool.”

With the base erected, Marines settled into a tedious daily routine. As the days turned into weeks, troops became bored and restless.

“We were sitting there wondering if it was ever going to happen,” he said. “We were really bored and sick of doing gas mask drills and the same stuff we did at Camp Lejeune.”

In downtime they played intramural softball games using a softball made of duct tape and an axe handle for the bat. The bases were sandbags of course. Waiting for letters to arrive from home proved futile. “At that time they hadn’t set up the mail system very well,” Martin explained. “We ended up getting a lot of our letters sent before we went into Iraq, after we got out of Iraq; so mail was kind of a tricky situation.

“Its funny because you get into a routine then all of the sudden the president gave his 48 hours to get out or we’re coming in speech and the next day we were mobilized,” Martin said. “The camp was packed up and disappeared and we were headed to the Iraq border.”

Most the Marines were eager to move into Iraq. A month of killing time and playing softball in Kuwait was only extending the amount of time the troops would be stuck in the hot dusty desert halfway around the world.

“Morale was real high, we were ready to go,” he said. “Some guys had been in the Marine Corps eight or 10 years and had never seen combat.” It was like finally getting to play in the football game you have been practicing for.

During his month in Kuwait, Martin was able to make just one phone call home. Years later he would learn through friends that communication would improve immensely in the months and years following the initial Iraq invasion.

Following the initial U.S. air strikes, described at the time as ‘Shock and Awe,’ Iraq retaliated by firing scud missiles toward Kuwait City.

“We were on our way to the border at that time and had to quickly put on our chemical warfare suits and gas masks because we weren’t sure where those scuds were going to land.”

The missiles were flying right over their heads.

“It was our first real scare,” he said. “No more gas mask drills, this was for real.”
In the back of the vehicle, 18 Marines scurried to put on gas masks and chem suits with hearts pounding and a sense of urgency.


A word Jim became very familiar with was “push.” If a vehicle broke down, somebody would stay back and everybody else would continue to push. “Our mission was to get to Baghdad as quickly as possible; so fast there would be no way the enemy could stop us,” Martin explained. “It was just constant movement, through day, night and sandstorms; we didn’t sleep much at all.”

“I remember being so tired at night with my night-vision goggles on and just doing everything I could to stay awake,” he said. “People were taking the ground coffee out of MREs and chewing on it.”

Initially, Martin, along with other Marines was fired up to cross the Iraqi border, assuming action would soon follow. “Then we got across the border and there was NOTHING and it seemed to last forever,” he said. “We didn’t even see any camels so it was like, ‘This is war?’”

The task force was making its way towards Nasiriyah, Iraq’s fourth most populous city.

“Everything we heard about Nasiriyah from the Army was [the enemy] was surrendering on the bridges,” he recalled. “At that point we thought we weren’t even going to see any action and to be honest, we were a little upset about it.”

“It’s like a quote I remembered from the movie Memphis Belle when one of the pilots says, ‘I can’t go home and tell my girl I didn’t even kill one Nazi’,” he added.
When Jim and fellow Marines arrived in Nasiriyah, they quickly determined the reports they had received from the Army to be vastly inaccurate.

“The first thing we saw was the remains of what was Jessica Lynch’s column completely destroyed and everybody thought ‘Uh oh, they aren’t surrendering on the bridges,’” he said.

Before gaining fame as a prisoner of war, Private Lynch was riding in a convoy of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company. The convoy made a wrong turn and was ambushed. Several soldiers were killed and vehicles destroyed in the ferocious battle.

“We were just supposed to open the city up by securing the south and north bridges for the Army to come up behind us and through to Baghdad as quickly as possible,” Martin said. “Unfortunately our intelligence was bad; the Iraqis had set up shop to make a last stand in Nasiriyah.”

The plan was to take a hard right upon entering the city in order to avoid the route through Nasiriyah ominously dubbed “Ambush Alley.”

“Ambush Alley was set up perfectly for mortar pits and snipers,” Martin explained. “We decided to squeeze through a back alley in the city hope the enemy would not even know we were there.”

Martin’s column was the first on top of the bridge and found themselves staring directly at enemy tanks on the other side.

“The last place you want to be when encountering enemy tanks is in a tight column on a bridge way above ground,” he said. “So we began to engage the tanks, utilizing a team of Humvees equipped with TOW missiles, and knocked the tanks out.”
After successfully negotiating the bridge, the column took the hard right heading into urban terrain.

“We get into the back alley and discover [the Iraqis] had cut the sewer lines and flooded the streets with sewage and if you know anything about tracked vehicles, we got stuck in the sewage in the back alley.”

Martin admits the tactic was smart and effective.

“You almost have to give them credit,” he said. “They knew that is where we wanted to go, bogged us down and because the quarters were so tight the column behind us had to go straight down Ambush Alley and ended up taking losses because they had set the place up with mortars, sniper fire and RPGs.”

As it became evident to the enemy Martin’s column was stuck, they also began to take fire.

“That is when I started to get a little nervous,” he said. “I knew all the fire power was on our side, what I had in my vehicle alone was probably more than what was shooting at us, but you can’t help but think of that one lucky round, plus they had mortars, which they basically just put [the round] down the tube and pray; and what if one of those lands on me.”

What ensued was a grueling 10-hour battle that took the lives of several Marines and injured many more.

Martin does not remember ever being truly scared throughout the battle in Nasiriyah. Instead his instincts stemming from his training automatically kicked in.
“You just have to do it [instinctively],” he explained. “There is no time for thinking when lives are on the line.”

Rather than remain sitting ducks, the unit opted to proceed, uncharacteristically leaving two vehicles, a tank and an amphibious vehicle, behind.

“It was unheard of,” Martin explained. “But it was getting to the point the vehicles attempting to pull the stranded vehicles were also getting stuck.”

With Martin’s column pulling themselves out of one bad situation, the column of Charlie Company, which was forced to go down Ambush Alley was taking an intense barrage of mortar rounds, RPGs and tank fire. In what would become one of Operation Iraqi Freedom’s bloodiest campaigns, the Marine Corps would suffer 18 casualties along with several more wounded in action.

In addition to the fierce fighting, one of war’s true tragedies occurred in the northern part of the city.

Despite the onslaught, the column from Charlie Company began to make its way through ambush alley heading north through Nasiriyah.

“The rest of the task force didn’t know there was a platoon north of the city,” Martin recalled. “So our air officer called in for air strikes because we were getting hammered.”

“He asked over the radio if there was anyone north of this parallel,” he continued.
Unfortunately the unexpected intensity of the fight resulted in a confusing jumble of radio communications. When there was no response to the call over the radio, the air support was officially ordered.

The tragic result was an Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt firing on U.S. Marines in Nasiriyah. Although it was unclear to U.S. Central Command investigators how many Marines died as a result of the friendly fire incident, as many as 10 servicemen were killed in vehicles while receiving both hostile and friendly fire.

“It is tough losing somebody at all,” Martin said of the incident. “But when it comes from the same team, it is really difficult to accept; but it happens.”
In all, Martin spent 10 grueling hours in the city of Nasiriyah.

“The 10 hours we spent inside the city were pretty brutal,” he said. “There were some heroic things going on in the city; guys volunteering to go back in to rescue Marines that were trapped in the city and guys trapped in the city camped out in buildings [continued to fight] and killed a lot of the enemy.”

It was during his time in Nasiriyah, Martin had one of the few memories that will always haunt him.

“We were just outside the city and had set up a roadblock,” he recalled.
A car approached at a high rate of speed and ignored several requests from U.S. servicemen to stop.

“In previous situations like this there were bad guys in the car, so we did what we had to do and lit it up,” he said.

Sadly, the car was occupied by an Iraqi civilian and his young daughter.

“I don’t know why he didn’t stop; I’ll never know why he didn’t stop,” Martin said. “We fired warning shots and gave him ample opportunity to stop.”
The father was not hit, his daughter was fatally wounded.

“We tried to medevac her but she died on the way to the chopper.” Martin said.
After Nasiriyah, Martin’s unit bounced around the country performing various small missions. He believes it was leadership’s way a giving them a little break after the intense fighting in Nasiriyah.

As it turned out, the rest of the deployment would be mostly uneventful before word in early June the Marines in the task force would be returning home.

“They told us we were heading back to Kuwait and we assumed it was for more supplies,” Martin said. “They said we were getting on the boats and heading home, we all thought ‘You gotta be kidding me!”

Arriving in Kuwait would be to be an awesome experience for the weary Marines.
“Kuwaiti Naval Base had a swimming pool, showers, a Pizza Hut, a Baskin Robbins and even though we still had a lot to do as far a washing vehicles and equipment, we were so happy to be there.”

“The weekend we got back a buddy and I went to Myrtle Beach and we just partied.” Martin remembers. “They told us to not try and live the rest of our lives in that first weekend – and nobody listened.”

Now separated from the Marine Corps and working as a police officer, Martin sometimes reflects on his time in Iraq.

“I don’t get people saying they are ‘anti-war, pro-peace;’ I’m anti-war and pro-peace too but sometimes you have to fight for some things.”

“Nobody is pro-war; I am pro-defending America,” He said.

“I come from a family of Army veterans so I was raised to have the utmost respect for veterans, especially the guys who fought in Vietnam, because they got the shaft,” He added. “Still, once I returned my perspective changed because now I feel part of a brotherhood [of war veterans], now I get what they are so proud of.”

Going to war in Iraq made Martin thankful for the exhaustive Marine Corps training he once loathed.

“You finally get why they train you the way they do,” he said. “You complain about it the whole time you are at Camp Lejeune, but everyone seemed to perform so well because so much was ingrained in them, it just kinda clicked and they knew what to do when the bullets started flying.”

“In the movies, you always see one guy breaking down and losing it [during battle], Martin added. “But I can’t think of one instance of that; everyone just did what they had to do.”

Jim Martin is honorably discharged from the Marine Corps and serves as a patrolman for the city of Independence (Ohio) Police Department.