Mortar fire was a fact of life in Al-Mahmudiya. Vehicles headed out on patrol were routinely targeted.
“The enemy would usually fire off about five rounds and take off before we had a chance to catch up,” said Nigel.
Mortars are indirect-fire crew-serve weapons. They require two soldiers to operate them. The target is not visible to the gunner, who is known as “the mortarman.” The mortarman uses specialized instrumentation to calculate the payload’s trajectory on both horizontal and vertical planes—known as “azimuth” and “inclination.” Nigel was the mortarman, the guy who did the aiming and firing. His partner was the forward observer, who might be fifty metres away on a hill. His role was to report back to Nigel how far the actual impact fell from the target. Mortars could be aimed at targets anywhere from two to ten kilometres away.
“Your distance can be a little off; your deflection can be a little off,” said Nigel. “Then you make minute changes to the calculation. By the second round, you should be on target.” Nigel took a lot of pride in his technical skill. He was obviously good at it. There was a sharp contrast in the way he talked about his training and his expertise as a mortarman, and what his job actually was. He had simply not fully absorbed the reality: he would be killing people. The truth had not yet grokked.
Nigel had been in Iraq about two months when he was assigned to a vehicle check point at a bridge over the Euphrates in the village of Jurf Al Sakhar southwest of Baghdad. He recalls it being late March or April of 2004.
The bridge provided access for vehicle and truck traffic into Baghdad. It was the main munitions supply artery. Over the course of a few years, the Mujahideen’s ordnance supplies been depleted, and they were desperate. The goal of the mission was to cut off the supply entirely. The Marines searched every single vehicle. If they found anything contraband or suspicious, they’d call it in to the command center.
“You could find anything in the cars. You wouldn’t believe it. There would be these weird, beat-up cars with millions of dollars of American money in the back,” said Nigel.
I asked Nigel who the drivers were.
“We didn’t interrogate them,” he said. “Whatever information was found out was never relayed back to us. We were just guys out there operating a check point. We were grunts, bringing people in.”
Although he’d been told they’d be at the bridge for only a day, Nigel’s platoon ended up staying for ten. Every afternoon at about four, mortar rounds from the enemy would start. The good thing, he said, whoever was firing wasn’t very good at it.
About the eighth day, the mortars started hitting in the afternoon, just like clockwork. Nigel headed toward his position. Suddenly a fusillade of machine gun fire sprayed from a palm grove about 100 metres away on the other side of road. He could see the fighters. They were wearing the black uniforms of the Fedayeen, Saddam Hussein’s special forces.
It was the first time Nigel saw an Iraqi squad in uniform. There were about twelve guys.
“They were very disciplined,” said Nigel. While his entire platoon—about thirty men—had occupied themselves with the bridge, the Fedayeen had sneaked into the grove and began firing off AK-47s.
Then a mortar round erupted from about 3,000 metres away. But this time was different: for the first time, the aim was precise, and the targets were accurate.
Nigel dove for his fighting hole as rounds cracked over his head. Four additional marines jumped in after him. The next six mortar rounds landed just outside the hole.
“We were lucky. We would have been turn into pink mist if the rounds had landed any closer,” said Nigel.
As soon as he had his gun site in place, he fired off a few rounds. His forward observer, about thirty metres away, called in the corrected coordinates. Nigel fired a few more rounds and struck the enemy’s equipment. The incoming mortar fire stopped. But the machine gun fire from the palm grove was ceaseless. Bullets blazed overhead for another thirty minutes.
With no more incoming mortars, Nigel had a minute to breathe. He turned and looked up the road, away from the bridge. A pickup truck approached them, driving through the desert. During the entire battle, there had been no vehicle traffic. Given the precision and coordination of the Fedayeen attack, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility for the pickup truck to be part of it. All the same, rather than immediately firing, he signalled for the truck to stop. It kept coming. He waved and shouted but it inched forward.
“I kept motioning for it to stop but it kept coming right at us. Whoever was driving had to have seen there was firefight going on right in front of them,” he said. The truck was entirely too close by then. A vehicle-borne IED could have done a lot of damage. He fired his service weapon at the truck, maybe half a dozen rounds. Then the truck halted. The driver’s side window opened, and a hand emerged waving a white rag.
His attention was then redirected to the palm grove. Within a few minutes, a helicopter gunship arrived to back them up. “The helicopter fried the palm grove,” said Nigel. “Once air support comes in, you could say the rest is a walk in the park.”
When the battle was over, he inspected the truck. Blood covered the seats and the interior door on passenger side. He searched for bombs and found nothing. The truck was empty. The driver and passengers had disappeared. Some hours later he heard a report from base command that a man carrying two mortally wounded girls had arrived at an American military infirmary several kilometres away. The man had been driving his daughters towards Jurf Al Sakhar apparently on their way into Baghdad when he was engulfed by the firefight. He’d abandoned the truck near the bridge and carried both wounded girls across the desert. They died a few hours later. The girls were four years and seven years old.
Nigel’s shots had pierced the cab door on the passenger side, mortally wounding the girls.
That firefight, said Nigel, was probably the most traumatic of his entire deployment. He felt he was about to die the entire time. But his responsibility for the two girls made it especially horrific.
“Killing those girls stayed with me for so long that I think I struggled with that more than having been shot at. That’s my weak spot.” He rested his chin on the back of his hand and that point and stared into space. I intuited that we didn’t know each other well enough yet for him to express his true feelings. I did know, though, that this was the axis of his PTSD, the event around which he’d had organised his emotional life ever since.
The next day, a surreal event punctuated his experience. About 10 am, he and the platoon heard people wailing, chanting, and shouting from some distance away. They could see a huge procession, around 75 people, approaching them in a tight cluster. Shots were fired. AK-47 rounds cracked the air.
“But here’s the thing, Iraqis fire off guns for every occasion: funerals, soccer matches, any time anything is being celebrated,” said Nigel. “At first we didn’t know what was going on. Were they shooting at us?” Then he realized it was a Saturday, the day Iraqis customarily hold funerals.
The procession closed the distance. When the throng was about 200 metres away, he recognized it was indeed a funeral cortège. Groups of men carried coffins above their heads. Others wielded AK-47s and fired live rounds into the air. Women cried and wailed.
“We realized it must have been a funeral procession for some of the guys we had killed the day before,” said Nigel.
They group walked straight toward the platoon. It was as if they wanted to say something. Their anger was palpable.
“They were confronting us. How far were they going to take the confrontation? I had no idea. You’re not trained for situations like this. They were staring right at us.”
The crowd was about fifty metres away and still moving. Nigel made a decision. He grabbed a bazooka, an AT4, and climbed up on a small hill not far from them.
“We were outnumbered. If they were going to keep coming at us and eventually overrun us, because there were way more of them, I was going to fire the bazooka into the centre of the crowd take them all out. In my mind, I designated this line. If they crossed this line, that was when I was going to push the red button. I felt really terrible about what I was going to do, but I was going to do it. It had been a shitty 24 hours and I wasn’t going to let these people walk up on us.”
It was as if they’d read his mind. They walked right up until they were just a few metres away.
“As soon as they got up to the line, they started going back. As weirdly as they arrived, they went away,” said Nigel.
I asked Nigel about what the group were trying to say. Did he think they wanted to show the Marines the fruits of their mission, and to demonstrate that the entire effort led to nothing but killing people they knew and loved?
“Yes,” he said. “That was it. Then they stopped.”
That was the end of the battle and the end of the mission. They left the Jurf Al Sakhar bridge and never returned.