It’s a typical hot summer evening in Northern Iraq. As the sun is setting behind me, I am watching my silhouette taking a drag of a cheap cigarette. Next to my silhouette is the one of the Iraqi soldier who gave me the smoke. He had broken away from a group of Iraqi soldiers to take a closer look at the gear I was wearing. He did not speak any English, but when I put my index and middle fingers to my mouth, he rapidly scrambled through his pockets to pull out his unfiltered cigarettes. He had noticed that I was carrying more than one radio and made the gesture of an airplane flying, an explosion and pointed directly at me. I shook my head from side to side with a nervous smirk on my face. He laughed and seemed content of my presence. The team leader of the “special team” I was supporting that night popped his head from inside a building and said to me, “It’s a go!”
He had spent the last hour negotiating my participation for the mission. In the military bureaucracy, higher-ups were reluctant of placing me in such a high profile mission. But they had no choice. No one else was available, and the sole approval for the mission was based on having someone with a specific set of skills, like the ones I possess.
In 2004, Americans learned the story of a twenty-six year old man from Philadelphia who was beheaded by a group whose leader was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. After Zarqawi’s death, intelligence reports indicated that one of his right-hand mans had been running insurgency operations in a town within the AO that this “special team” was in charge of. This individual had been featured in the beheading propaganda video that was exploited by news outlets all over the world. At this point he was responsible for providing arms to foreign fighters and a large percentage of roadside bombs within the AO. The mission was to capture him, dead or alive.
The rest of the team came out of the same building where the team leader was. I took one last drag of the cigarette before I flicked it away. I could feel the unfiltered smoke burning my lungs and calming the nerves produced by the consumption of multiple generic energy drinks.
We started running dry drills in a compound nearby. These drills covered the dynamics in which the team operated when clearing rooms. In the past, I had received intense close quarter combat training that prepared me for the mission. Nonetheless, these guys had been doing this as a unit for months, maybe years. The techniques that I was used to had the same fundamentals as theirs, so I adapted quickly. Once the drills were done, the team leader pulled me aside and said to me, “Only team guys enter rooms first.” I was not to be the point man when clearing a room. Then he handed me a mission package with all the specifics that I needed to provide close air support for them. Whoever did this planning had spent copious amounts of time putting this package together. I like doing my own planning, but since this was something outside of my scope of operations, I studied and learned the graphics as fast as I could.
Accompanied by a light breeze, the cover of darkness was finally here. In the distance I could hear the rotor wash of the helicopters who were tasked to take us to the site of the mission. Once the helicopters landed and shut down their engines, I ran to seek the lead pilot. When I found him, we discussed landing and extraction zones for the mission. A few minutes later, it was time to go.
We boarded the aircraft and took off. My mind was going a thousand miles a second. I could feel a tingling sensation in my stomach, and I could not help to notice the cold sweat running down my back caused by nerves and all the gear I had. I was in the same bird as the team leader. Just before we took off, the team leader had said to me that if we took any fire as we were approaching the target area, that I had his permission to “level” the place. I wish I could have seen my face then, I am sure it was full of awe and disbelief. I asked him, “Are you serious?” He laughed out loud and said, “Nope, just keep us safe.” In mid-flight I looked at my watch and noticed that it was time for the gunship and fighter aircraft that was supporting us to contact me. Yet nothing was coming through my headset. I informed this to the team leader, and he said to me that I had to step outside to talk to them. Apparently you could not “talk” to the supporting aircrew from the inside of this helicopter. I hooked my harness to a different hook of the helicopter that allowed me to place my feet on the rail of the aircraft and my back to the abyss. The feeling of traveling outside a helicopter flying at three thousand feet was unreal. I felt that I was part of that summer’s action blockbuster movie. Once my entire body was outside of the helicopter hanging by a harness connected to my hip, bingo! I could hear the voice of the pilots loud and clear. I instructed them to provide us safe haven to the target area.
 Area Of Operations