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Snakes in the Attack
CALLSIGN “DEADLY”SNAKES IN THE ATTACK
A Personal Account of an AH-1W Pilot During the War with Iraq
Author’s NoteThis personal account of the war in Iraq was written to convey to my family and friends just what I went through during the war. Therefore, it is not an official history of what my unit accomplished or participated in, but rather a “Rated PG-13” and unclassified version of what I experienced. My concern is that this journal is forwarded in e-mails to others outside of my circle… and I want to ensure that when this falls into a stranger’s hands, that what I’ve written is taken in context with the how and why I composed this piece. These observations and opinions are mine alone. They don’t represent my command, or the United States Marine Corps. JLC
As I reflect back on the past month that I spent in Iraq fighting the war, I’m amazed at what we accomplished. On a personal level, I’m astonished I’m alive. On the micro level, I’m truly overwhelmed at what my squadron achieved. We flew nearly 3,000 combat hours with 27 helicopters and we did not lose a single Marine to an accident or to the Iraqis. On the macro level, I’m astounded at the intensity with which the Marine Corps fought the entire war…The Marines’ tenacity won the war. Through pure luck, I was fortunate enough to be part of this team.
I kept a small journal during the course of the war. It’s not all that organized. Sometimes I didn’t write for days on end because of the tempo of operations. Other times, I didn’t write for days because of the severe boredom (mostly after the hostilities stopped). Some of the events that I wrote about rated one or two words in the journal… enough to jog my memory. Other events were captured in a paragraph, because I wanted to graphically encapsulate a moment that I had witnessed or taken part in. My methodology of making entries into the journal was haphazard at best. I never logged entries by date. Events were simply entered with a bullet at the front, followed by my thoughts. Some entries were late and out of order. So if actions appear to be out of order, it’s not intentional. My goal here is to capture my exact mindset so that I can relate them to you. Besides, once the war started, every day was a blur.
This series of recollections is based solely on my perspective. My point of view was that of a Marine, a squadron operations officer… and a flight leader and pilot flying AH-1W Super Cobras. Depending on your physical location, your experience level, and your ability to process incoming information, will determine how closely your perception mirrors reality. In aviation, we call it “situational awareness”. It’s human nature to expect differing perceptions by different people viewing the same event. For example, my co-pilot/gunner throughout the entire war was “Kujo”. Although he only sat 3 feet in front of me in the cockpit, Kujo’s recollection of a particular event may not exactly match mine, because at a given moment, we may have not had the same level of situational awareness. I know that General Franks, the theater commander, had a different point of view than me… just like I had a different perspective than what the Lance Corporal driving an M-1 Abrams tank into Baghdad had.
I apologize for the length of this document in advance. It’s going to be rather long because I’m going to do my best to portray to you not only situations, but my thoughts and emotions, too. I’ve pared this down a couple of times through some revisions… so hopefully I’ve kept this relatively pertinent to the highlights of my experience.
This is my best recollection of what happened.
The Lead up to Day One
Two days prior to the war officially beginning, a good portion of my squadron’s aircraft and aircrew departed the ship to move to an austere dirt airfield in Kuwait. This facilitated our ability to get to our assigned targets quickly, as opposed to trying to launch off the ship, which would add to the distance to the target. Typically, shipboard launch cycles are more complicated than those launched from ashore. I was lucky enough to be designated the division lead for a flight of four Cobras that were tasked to destroy Iraqi border posts that could send a warning to other Iraqi military units of our pending invasion. The mission was to be executed at night.
The day that we flew off the boat, my CO had asked the ship’s Catholic chaplain if he would offer each of us general absolution prior to our departure. Just prior to the flight briefing, the priest entered the ready room. After saying a short prayer, he absolved us of our sins, and I was able to take communion for the first time in many years. Mind you, I’m not your model Catholic. I can tell you that I was clutching the crucifix that I had received from the chaplain that morning… and had a lump in my throat. Remember the old clich? that “there are no atheists in foxholes”? It’s true.
For the former-athlete in each of us, do you recall the feeling you had before the big game? We called that light-headed, queasy-stomach, feeling “butterflies”. As I flew off the boat that day, war hadn’t even been declared. We were still in the last minute diplomacy stage. Nonetheless, I was more nervous than I have ever been before. I felt like I was launching into Hell. It’s humorous to me now, in hindsight, that if I only knew then what I know now, I would have saved my butterflies for a few other missions I flew in the war. I mean, for God’s sake, all I was doing this day was repositioning my aircraft from the ship to a dirt airfield to prepare for the war. But I knew at that moment that I was heading toward a fight… and that was a bit unsettling. During these times, you think about your family. I thought about my wife, my kids, my parents, and my brother and two sisters. You beg God for strength.
At the clandestine airfield that we parked our aircraft, we were sleeping in tents, eating Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs), and going through our final mission details by studying target photos. We rehearsed each phase of the mission. I can recall sitting on my cot, watching Kujo, who had his eyes closed, mimicking the hand and finger movements that he would have to do, in order to fire the missiles at our assigned targets. Identified as aviators at this airfield camp simply by the fact that we’re wearing flight suits, we’re not identifiable as officers because we’ve removed all our patches from our flight suits. About half way through the day, the Gunnery Sergeant who ran the camp came into our tent and informed us that as members of the camp, we’d be put to work. For two hours, the Gunny had us working like an awkward construction crew… building tent frames with two by fours, and then stretching the canvas over the frame. Looking back, it made for a nice break in the mind-numbing mission planning. And the Gunny was a pretty memorable character.
Living in the sand for the first time, we realized that even the lightest of winds caused quite a bit of the sand to turn into dust in the air. With ten knots of wind or more, visibility could quickly be reduced to next-to-nothing. Something that would definitely affect us later.
Back home in the States… and even on the ship… we all are accustomed to getting the latest news and developments at a moment’s notice. FoxNews, CNN and all the other cable networks bring it to you live, twenty-four hours a day. But at this austere airfield, like most places we go to fight, there’s no news service. We had received snippets of information that the war had started with some Tomahawk missile strikes through military radio and e-mail traffic. Reality hit quickly when I was walking from the command post tent back to my living tent. Hearing a loud whining/screaming noise in the sky, my eyes turned up to see who was flying over the camp. I was expecting to see one of the jet boys zipping overhead, showing off. But as the noise got louder, I saw a missile flash over the camp. It’s on its way from Iraq toward Kuwait City. That’s when the air raid sirens began to growl. That whole damned day, we were busy running into the cement pipe bunkers they had put in place to protect us, wearing our chemical suits and gas masks. The first time was tense. By the fifth time, the amusement factor was low. I remember hearing the air raid siren once, and then hearing a loud BOOM. Looking up, we saw that a Patriot missile battery had intercepted an Iraqi SCUD missile right over our tents. Because we were scared to death of the chemical threat, the gas masks immediately went back on… and we ran for the bunkers… again.
The First Mission of the War
Back when I was growing up, I loved to read books about the World War Two era. One of the phrases that stuck in my mind from reading those books, that the GIs used when things weren’t going just right, was SNAFU (Situation Normal, All F*@ked Up). My God did that apply the first day of the war. Now remember, we were planning on executing our first mission at night. That’s key for a couple of different reasons. First, you can take advantage of the cover of darkness: the Iraqis wouldn’t be able to see us. Second, the squadron’s schedule is set by the launch time of the aircraft. Maintenance crews need to have advance notice to prepare the aircraft for flight. Pilots have to get the required amount of rest, and then prepare for the mission. On this day, no less than five times, the word changed on what time they wanted us to launch. It ranged from, “GO RIGHT NOW!” to “Go 8 hours from now”. It was a mental rollercoaster. My stomach was going from knots to somersaults all day long.
Around dinnertime, the word to launch finally comes, and of course, it’s GO RIGHT NOW! My flight of four is supposed to be the lead flight out of the airfield, but our timing is all screwed up. The winds have picked back up, and visibility is less than a mile. In the confusion, another flight of Cobras departs the airfield ahead of us. Oops. Lots of talking on the radios to sort it out. For those of you who haven’t looked through a pair of NVGs (Night Vision Goggles), they are built for use in darkness. If there is too much light, then they don’t work correctly. The worst time to fly on the goggles is right after sunset. And of course, that’s when we had launched. The sand in the air is something that we hadn’t dealt with too much in training. In accordance with our peacetime training rules, if visibility is poor, you don’t fly. Common sensesafety. But in war… when American lives are at stake, sometimes you have to push the edge of the envelope and deal with conditions that you’re not normally accustom. With the reduced visibility and lack of moon that night, I can say that that was the darkest night I’ve ever flown in my life. Now mind you, I’ve been a Marine for almost 15 years. I’ve been flying Cobras since 1990. I’ve got a fair amount of experience. But this was dark. Seat-cushion-clenched-in-your-butt dark. Not only did the sand hang in the air to minimize horizontal visibility, but also the desert that we were flying over was completely smooth and lacked any detail. You couldn’t tell, from two hundred feet above ground level (AGL), how high you were. No depth perception. You couldn’t see obstacles until you were right on top of them. That’s a bit nerve-wracking.
Our flight of four flew north and reached the release point. The four-ship split up into two 2 aircraft elements (a flight of two is called a section… two sections makes a division). My section went to the right. My CO’s section went to the left. We proceed to our firing points. Upon arrival, Kujo is working the FLIR (Forward Looking InfraRed) sensor to find our assigned targets. Unfortunately, the target area photos didn’t quite display all the surrounding terrain features that were in the FLIR’s field of view. What seemed like hours for Kujo to pick out the right targets, actually only took about a minute or two. As I’m sitting in this hover, waiting for Kujo to find the targets, I look down to my right side. On my NVGs, I can see a Kuwaiti family outside their house, looking up into the sky, and watching the “fireworks” show. Kujo locates the targets… three missiles away. Border post destroyed. Thank God that’s over with.
After the initial border post strikes, my section proceeds to a FARP (Forward Arming and Refueling Point) that had been set up only hours prior near the Iraq/Kuwait border. None of us had been there before. The FARP was located on an asphalt road… but there were power lines and sand all over the place. Just to land for gas took me four attempts. I kept having to wave off because of the lack of visibility. Not being able to land because of visibility had never happened to me before. I’m fighting panic and despair. We’re just about out of gas. Finally with Kujo’s help, we make it safe on deck. After refueling, we shut down and assumed a strip alert. In this alert status, we’d get a launch order when the Marines on the ground needed CAS (Close Air Support). In the mean time, my CO’s section gets gas at the FARP, and proceeds back out for a CAS mission. Thirty minutes later, he returns, and says that visibility where they wanted him to go was horrid. Now about my CO… a tough man. One of the best “sticks” in the squadron. And if he’s telling me that it’s bad, then you know it’s bad. I get a launch order. Great.
On my second flight of the war, the fear factor is pretty high. Not because of the Iraqis… it’s the lack of visibility. We can’t see in front of us. I can only see a road underneath us, so Kujo navigates us down the roads, making turns at intersections… and we pick our way back up to the front. Once there, the Grunts are starting to push across the border. They’re taking sporadic mortar fire. Because of the reduced visibility, we couldn’t find the enemy for them. Low on gas. Time to head home. As we travel back toward our original sand-and-tent base, I can no longer keep tabs on where the ground is. There are tall radio towers and power lines everywhere that we can’t see. I jerk back on the stick once, when I saw that a radio tower that was less than fifty feet from our aircraft. I’m starting to get vertigo. Kujo bails me out. Flying right down the highways and roads, we pick our way back to our base. Aeronautical navigation charts were worthless that night. We needed a Rand McNally roadmap.
After landing, I remember my knees knocking. I thought it was just me… until I saw the rest of the pilots who had flown that night. To a man, each was ghost white with near-death stories to tell. We dragged ourselves back to our tents to get some rest. But from that point on, we were woken up every thirty to forty-five minutes because the Iraqis had launched another damned SCUD missile that was heading in our direction. We didn’t sleep a wink. Every time you just approached falling back asleep, the air raid siren would growl. You’d throw on your gas mask, and then trudge (not willingly) back to the bunkers. Some guys decided to forego the bunkers, and just slept on their cot wearing their gas mask. I tried that… felt like I was suffocating. Some guys just slept in the bunker.
Just after first light, we launched back to the ship to get our aircraft back for routine maintenance. I was working on zero sleep in the past 24 hours. As I made my approach to the ship, I was cleared for the landing spot just abeam the bridge. I looked up to the Flag Bridge once I was on deck and saw some of the MAG (Marine Air Group) staff looking down at us… giving us thumbs up, and big smiles. I was emotionally spent. The plane captain had to help me out of the aircraft. My legs felt like they were going to give out on me. Down into the ready room, our MAG commander, “Boomer”, was standing at the front of the room. I’ve known this man for five years now. He’s a good man. A family man. Almost fatherly to the officers. As I set my gear down in one of the chairs, Boomer walked up to me. As the tears welled up in my eyes, he put his hand on my cheek and told me how proud he was of all of us. All I could manage to say with a huge lump in my throat and tears about to stream down my face was, “Skipper, it was so goddamned dark out there.” I thought that if the rest of the war were like that, I wouldn’t survive. That was my first mission.
Not Finding the Fight and the Weather
My next flight in the war was in the vicinity of Basrah. We launched off the ship and proceeded to the FARP for gas about an hour prior to sunset. We pushed up north to work with the British. In the dwindling daylight, I came to realize that although the Brits and I are both speaking English, we aren’t speaking the same version of the language. I just can’t figure out what they want me to do… and where they want me to go. Just after sunset, I had flipped down my NVGs, which have two independent battery packs for power. Battery set one dies immediately. No problem, switching to number two. Dies. Great. I can’t see anything. My dash two that night, “Murph” and “Kramer”, make a desperate call on the radio to avoid traffic. In the haze and darkness, another section of Cobras had some how intermingled with my section. One of the Cobras passed right in between my aircraft and Murph’s. Near mid-air collision. Great. Spent the whole night searching for work. Frustrating. The oil fields in Rumaliyah that the Iraqis set on fire light up the sky. You couldn’t even look in that direction with your NVGs because the intensity of the light degraded the abilities of the NVGs to the point where they were basically useless. Sent to search for Iraqi troop movements to the north of a river. Can see some Iraqis on the FLIR, but cannot tell if they are soldiers or not. Can’t engage them. Felt like we were missing out on the action. We recovered back aboard the ship after first light, having not fired a single round.
The weather turned bad. Sandstorms throughout the entire region clobbered the skies. Even at sea, visibility was reduced down to less than a hundred yards or so. It continued for three days. During that time, frustration grew amongst the aviators. A portion of our squadron had made it ashore before the weather had completely closed in, and was able to do some limited flying. But for us, we were relegated to watching CNN and FoxNews on the television. Watching your brother Marines in combat, and being unable to go out and provide support for them, was one of the most exasperating things I’ve ever had to deal with. Finally, the weather cleared. We get another chance to help out with the effort.
We launch off the ship and head up to a FARP about one hundred miles deep into Iraq. From there, we launch up north to the city of An Nasariyah. While we were on the ship during the bad weather, we had seen on TV the intense action going on in that city. This was my first real flight during the daylight hours. Approaching the city, I felt completely naked. At night, the darkness hides you from the Iraqis, but in the daytime, you’re there for everyone to see. Really makes you feel vulnerable. We make our way around the west side of the city, avoiding the built up areas. On the north side, a Marine unit has just crossed the river, and is waiting to continue up the road. Approaching their location, we get directed to engage an enemy mortar position that is located on the river’s bank. We roll in with rockets and guns. Holding back over friendlies (where it is relatively safe), Kujo spots enemy anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and regular artillery just to the Marine unit’s west. After receiving clearance from the FAC (Forward Air Controller), we engage. Back over friendlies again. Looking down, we notice that there are two Marine LAVs (Light Armored Vehicles) that had been hit prior to our arrival. We had heard on the news that some of our Marines had died in that ambush. Sobering. Out of gas. We race back to the FARP for reloads and more gas. Back to the fight. The Marines have resumed their movement up the road to the north. Now we’re escorting their convoy along the roads. Military gear and trucks all along the roads. We engage a truck with ammunition in the back. Secondary explosions. Cool. A few kilometers to the north, we spot some Iraqi soldiers in a ditch waiting to ambush our vehicles when they get close. Huddled in the trench, they began to move, undetected by the Marine convoy, toward the road with their weapons. Up to this point, we had destroyed a lot of military equipment, and smashed military buildings. This was the first time we’d be specifically rolling in against another human. This attack definitely had a different feel to it. I put the aircraft into a dive and strafed the trench with the cannon. We continued escorting and shooting as the Marines marched to the north. We race back to the FARP for more gas and reloads.
That night, we returned to where the Grunts were located when we had left them to go get gas. It’s dark now. The Marine vehicles are parked in a coiled formation… so that each individual vehicle can fire in a specific direction to protect the rest of the vehicles in the coil. Each tank and LAV is assigned a particular sector of fire. As we approached, we could see that they were in a pretty decent firefight. As we moved to get over their position, fire is going out in every direction from the coil. TOW missiles, 25mm chain gun, M-1 tank main gun, and heavy machine gun fire. We were so low over them that the firing of the machine guns made your teeth rattle. Every couple of minutes, a FAC would give me a rollout heading, and I’d either ripple a pod of rockets, or blast away with the cannon. Everything was danger close.
When you’re a brand-new Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps, you begin your career by going to The Basic School (TBS) at Quantico. During your six-month tenure at TBS, one thing they demonstrate to you is called the “Mad Moment”. In this demonstration, they essentially show you what it looks like with machine guns shooting, artillery shooting, tanks shooting, and aircraft shooting, all at the same time. The demonstration lasts about 5 minutes. Up north in Nasariyah that night, the mad moment lasted for hours. Except now there were bullets flying in all directions.
The tactics that the Iraqis used this night were a sign of the times to come. Using the cover of darkness and small guerilla-type teams, they’d attempt to sneak up within RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) range of the Marines. Often, they’d drive vehicles with their headlights off at a high rate of speed right into the Marines’ position, with the hopes of killing as many Americans as possible. This particular night, I saw the Iraqis drive a Greyhound-style bus at full speed with its lights off right at the Marines. An M-1 tank main gun round slammed into the bus just as it reached the Marines’ perimeter.
A Brit GR-1 Tornado jet checks in with the FAC, and is going to work in conjunction with my flight to protect the coil. Much like my first encounter with the Brits, the FAC was having a difficult time describing to the jet crew exactly where the Iraqi targets were. After talking the pilot onto the target by using a large fire as a checkpoint, the Tornado begins his target run. As the jet passes over the city of Nasariyah, all hell breaks loose. Large caliber AAA and SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) begin to race through the sky in every direction. 100-millimeter AAA rounds looked as though they were in slow motion as they arced up into the sky and exploded. Low trajectory shots angled through the darkness around us. This was the first time we’d been shot at. It was absolutely terrifying… and nearly made me freeze on the controls. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my whole life… it was petrifying. Out of gas. Avoid the city. Make our way back to the FARP. Launch one more time to the coil. It’s no better than earlier that evening. After shooting again, we proceed back to the FARP. We shutdown the aircraft and sleep for 2 hours. It was freezing cold. No cots or tents; no sleeping bags. We slept on the ground next to the aircraft. Long transit back out to the ship at first light.
Tasked with supporting the British forces around Basrah again, my section launches off the ship in the mid-afternoon and proceeds to the British headquarters, which is outside the city. Arriving at their location, we shut down our aircraft in order to conduct a face-to-face briefing with them. After having some difficulty communicating with them earlier in the war, I want to ensure that we’re on the same sheet of music. Talking to their U.S. air liaison team on the ground, “Howdy”, who’s my wingman, and I are tasked to screen north of the city to check out suspected sites where the Iraqis are waiting to ambush British ground forces. We depart the Brit headquarters and fly to the north side of the city, where we begin conducting armed reconnaissance. As soon as we began our search, Kujo locates military equipment bunkers where the Iraqis had stockpiled ammunitions and weapons for their troops. The bunkers are everywhere. To describe the bunkers, they are basically about the size of a two-car garage. There is no roof. And the walls are large dirt berms that a bulldozer has made. They are good to protect against ground fire, but essentially worthless against aircraft. As we size up the weapons cache, Kujo spots an AAA piece with large stashes of ammunition at the ready near it. Kujo engages with a TOW missile. Rolling off target, I spot Iraqi tanks in bunkers. They’re T-62 tanks, which are exports from the Former Soviet Union. One by one, we begin to pick off the tanks with our TOWs and Hellfires. Finally running out of missiles, we race back to the FARP for reloads. As we arrive at the FARP, I spot a Marine truck convoy departing the airstrip. Our ordnance team had gotten word to leave the FARP and proceed up to the north to the next base. Without the ordnancemen, we won’t get any reloads. Trying to flag them down from the air, I finally decide that the only way to get them to stop is to land on the road in front of them. Once I landed the aircraft, Kujo jumped out and ran over to tell the convoy commander that we need them to go back to the airfield. Thankfully, they complied. We race back up to the north. Approaching the site where we had last attacked, we discover more Iraqi tanks. One by one, the tanks explode. Iraqi soldiers were diving into bunkers and shooting back. Setting up from the west, Howdy and I roll in to attack the bunkers with flechette and high explosive rockets. Done with that area, we resume our search. Just to the north of the tanks, we locate some military trucks with military supplies and ammunition in the back. We destroy 5 of them. Confident that we’ve hit everything that was a threat, we head back to the Brits’ location to shut down and get some food. It’s funny… the Brits were having trouble getting air support because they weren’t in extremis like a lot of the other coalition forces… so we were the only air support for them that whole day. When we asked for some food, we were expecting a full British MRE, which we had heard great things about. Instead, all they gave us was one packet of a heated meal. Nevertheless, it was pretty good.
Launching out again that evening in support of the Brits, they had tasked us to attack a suspected covert meeting site that the Fedeyeen forces had been using. Following that, we were to attack the Ba’ath Party headquarters in Basrah. Lastly, we would fly up and conduct visual reconnaissance for some of the Brit infantry units. Upon launching, we realized that the Iraqis had started some oil fires in the outskirts of Basrah. What they would do is dig a large trench with a bulldozer, and then fill the trench with oil. To obscure visibility for aircraft, they’d light the trenches on fire, which would put up a thick black smoke into the air. That night, the smoke was hanging in the air from 350 feet to about 1,000 feet. Working our way around the southern side of Basrah, so that we can find the Fedeyeen meeting site, we begin to take a heavy amount of small arms fire. We could see the muzzle flashes on the ground as the Iraqis were trying to shoot us. The volume of fire is enough that we have to turn around and move back to the western side of the city. From there, we move to the firing position we had selected to engage the Ba’ath Party headquarters. Finding the three buildings on the FLIR, Kujo begins to pump Hellfire missiles into the buildings. “Mookster”, who is Howdy’s copilot, begins to shoot TOW missiles at maximum range into the buildings. It was quite a sight watching all these missiles going down range. After hitting the buildings, we proceed up north to meet up with the infantry unit. They had taken fire recently from a village to the north of their position. We couldn’t find anything. We took gas, and then proceeded 60 miles to our new home ashore in Jalibah.
The Road to Al Kut
The next mission cycle I flew in was to support the Marines as they moved up the highways between An Nasariyah and Al Kut. We launched in the early afternoon to head up north. Upon reaching the front lines, the FAC that we were to support had his unit stopped along a road while they reconnoitered a small village up ahead. On arrival, we were tasked to check out the village. Not fully aware of the threat, we pushed north along the highway to check out the village. As we moved around the western side of the small town, large black puffs started appearing around our aircraft. After a pregnant pause, loud booms were