The Battle for Baqubah: Killing Our Way Out is a firsthand account-and sometimes a minute-by-minute tale-of a raw, in-your-face street fight with Al Qaeda militants over a fifteen-month span in the volatile Diyala Province of Iraq. This story is presented through the eyes of a first sergeant serving with B Company 1-12 Cavalry (Bonecrushers), 1st Cavalry Division, out of Fort Hood, Texas.
The author takes the reader into the midst of the conflict in and around Baqubah-Iraq's "City of Death"-a campaign that lasted most of 2007. The author and his fellow Bonecrushers watched as the city went from sectarian fighting amongst the Shiite and Sunnis, to an all-out jihad against the undermanned and dangerously dispersed US forces within Baqubah and the outlying areas.
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Battle for BaqubahKilling Our Way Out
By Robert S. Colella
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 First Sergeant Robert S. Colella, Retired
All right reserved.
Chapter OneON NOTICE
STANDING IN THE HOT Texas sun, squinting through my sunglasses, I observed the company guidon frozen in place by the windless air. Standing behind it was a company of 19 kilos—M1 tankers—all neatly aligned, all standing at parade rest. Their berets were fitted to their heads, and their ACUs looked crisp. All of them wore a slight scowl on their faces because they had been told not to wear their sunglasses in formation. I knew without a doubt that each of those men were judging their new company commander standing in front of them, knowing he would be the one that was either going to make their imminent deployment successful or miserable.
In front of the guidon, my friend and previous S-3 coworker, CPT Matt Chitty, stood rigid at attention and called the company to attention for the very first time. The company snapped to attention with the dull sound of boot heels clapping together. CPT Chitty bellowed out, "First Sergeant!" The first sergeant (1SG) ran from behind the formation to the front of the company and stopped in front of his new commander and rendered a crisp salute. CPT Chitty returned his salute and said with a strong voice, "First Sergeant, take charge of the company," then turned away to be greeted by friends and family.
Not one to turn down free chow, CPT Marc Austin (Matt's replacement in the office) and I turned to walk away and head into the battalion conference room for the traditional lunch and refreshments, also known as a "grip and grin." The command sergeant major (CSM) of 1-12 Cavalry came over and told me to report to his office. With the, "Roger, Sergeant Major," still sitting on the tip of my tongue, he turned and walked away before I could respond. I thought, That's odd.
But not one to keep a CSM waiting, I told CPT Austin, "I'm off to the CSM's office, and I'll catch up with you back at the office."
I worked my way through the crowd to give Matt a quick word of congratulations and off I went. While walking to the CSM's office, a million things went through my mind. I didn't know much about the sergeant major and really kept my distance from the CSMs unless I absolutely had to interact with them.
But my mind wandered. Could it be a 1SG job? I was a sergeant first class promotable but knew there were no first sergeant openings within the battalions in our brigade, and I was already knee deep into the reception, staging, onward movement, and integration piece (RSO&I) for our upcoming deployment, so I really had no idea what he wanted to talk to me about. As I walked into the battalion headquarters, I gave myself a quick self-check and straightened the cuffing in my pant legs over the top of my boots, then headed toward his office. At his office door, I knocked without losing momentum and looked inside to find him sitting at his desk. I stopped the required amount of distance, three paces from the front, and stood at parade rest, clutching my beret behind my back in my right hand. He told me to relax.
"It appears that a 1SG in my battalion has gotten himself into a bit of a bind, and it looks as if he won't be able to recover from it," CSM Harris said. "We will need a replacement 1SG and you're it. You will continue to work for the brigade S-3 plans section as the brigade master gunner until the unit hits the ground in Kuwait and then they are yours. The company you will take over is Bravo Company. It has had a little bit of a discipline problem, and it will need to be addressed."
No worries, I thought. I've dealt with this type of stuff before.
The one thing I had found out throughout my career was that you never get a team, squad, platoon, company, or higher the way you want it. By the time you mold them into the way you want them, you move on to the next big challenge. Why would this be any different, right? The meeting was brief and to the point.
Shortly after, I walked back to brigade with my head spinning with thoughts of how exactly this situation came about. I knew MAJ Poznick, my old boss in the brigade S-3 plans section, was in 1-12 as the battalion S-3. We had a good working relationship and he had mentioned to me on several occasions that he was my spokesman down at battalion and he was going to get me down there eventually. Knowing he was talking to the CSM about me was the only logical explanation of how I had been selected for the position, not to mention that they were running out of time and had to get someone in that position sooner rather than later. I still had my doubts that it was really going to happen or if this was just part of a contingency plan.
Regardless, I went on as if I were now getting a company but took it with a grain of salt since replacements still trickled in. If there was an eligible master sergeant or sergeant first class (P) that came in while I was still in Kuwait on the advance party, they would slide him into that position since I was in the S-3 shop and already slotted in an important job for our deployment. Typically, a master gunner doesn't do a specific master gunner job while deployed, and instead finds himself doing tactical operations center work and or eventually getting slid over to a MTT to help train and work with the Iraqi army. The 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team (HBCT) 1st Cavalry Division was going over to be the Theater Ready Brigade. Based on that, we were supposed to stay in Kuwait for an untold amount of time, and if needed, we could be flexed into the troubled areas and quickly reinforce existing units. We were scheduled to replace the 1st Infantry Division brigade and they would stay in Kuwait for four months conducting training before they would receive the word to go north. So based on that assumption, we planned to do the same. We (Marc and I) had a major role in both the theater-specific mandatory training for the entire brigade and also had the task of planning and setting up the sustainment training for the battalions while they were in a hold status to go north.
The next few weeks were a blur of activity. We had meeting after meeting, PowerPoint slide after slide to get finished for the final deployment brief to the brigade commander, Colonel Sutherland. Once the big brief was over, we had a little bit of time to take care of our personal affairs, get our gear packed—including getting our new issue of ACUs and other Rapid Fielding Initiative (RFI) equipment—then try to spend time with the family before we left with the advance party to Kuwait to set things up for the main body. Little did we know that we would get the call with less than a twenty-four-hour notice of wheels up to leave. In typical Army fashion, we acknowledged last transmission, grabbed our gear, and prepared to leave.
I made one huge mistake in the final twenty-four hours at home: I left in the middle of the night without saying good-bye to my daughter, Abigail. I could not bear the heartbreak of saying good-bye to her—and my wife, Jennifer—one more time. I thought my daughter would not have really understood me leaving since she was only three years old. I had been gone most of her life, and she had no real idea who I was when I came home from my first deployment. I had been hesitant to establish that bond, knowing that I would be leaving again in less than a year. When I had left for Korea, she was only five months old, and I returned when she was two years, one month old. I was only home for twelve months and left again, two weeks before her third birthday. One out of three birthdays was not a good ratio, and I knew it would not get better for a few years.
On top of that, Jennifer's nerves were already shattered from the previous deployment. I just couldn't look them both in the eyes again and put us all through the drama of me leaving again for a twelve-month deployment. I figured it would be best to sneak into Abby's room, give her a kiss on her warm little head, tuck the sheets around her body, and leave for war in the middle of the night
So I shuttled my bags and rucksack out the front door to the ground behind my truck and went back to lock the door behind me. I clearly remember thinking, Will this be the last time I ever walk through this doorway again? I pulled the door tight and proceeded to throw my two duffle bags and rucksack into the back of the truck. I put the keys in the ignition and cranked the engine over. As the truck warmed up, I let my mind wonder about the "what if's." What if I get killed? What if this is the last time I see my family? What if this is the last time I see the house? What if ...? I snapped out of the thoughts and turned off the mental switch that made me a husband and a dad—and I turned on the switch that made me a soldier. The switch was what got me through the last tour in Iraq: I had been able to think of the mission and my soldiers and block out the worries of family and household issues back in the States.
I soon linked up with Marc at the company to draw our weapons and other sensitive items from the arms room, and we shuttled our equipment over to the staging area, which was a gymnasium that had since been converted into a deployment staging area centrally located on the 1st Cavalry side of Fort Hood. We were piggybacking off of another brigade's flight that had deployed prior to us and had a few vacant slots. We were the only two guys flying out from our unit. As we were standing in the parking lot, we linked up with the point of contact from that unit and he informed us that we had to pack all our personal gear into our hull baggage (helmet, tactical vest, body armor). We were not told this prior to packing our equipment and now had to try and jam it into a bag in the middle of a parking lot. Recognizing this was not going to happen, Marc called his wife Katie and asked her to bring up an extra flight bag. Within thirty minutes, she showed up and we managed to get our equipment in the bag. I was glad he called Katie, but felt bad since he had to go through the good-byes one more time.
There is nothing like getting on or off of a civilian charter flight. Not wanting to waste space, the Army tends to pack the flight with overloaded soldiers carrying everything from their one personal bag to sensitive items (night vision, weapons, guidon, etc.). It never fails to have a bunch of people screaming at you to hurry up and sit down or hurry up and get off. I have never really seen the need to yell at people who want to sit down or get off the plane faster than anyone.
The plane was scheduled for one stop in the States and that was in Bangor, Maine. The stop in Bangor made a soldier feel proud. All the old-time veterans and their wives lined up at the arrival gate and shook each and every service member's hand. I had made that stop once before while I was taking my R&R from Iraq in 2005, and they did the same exact routine. This time I had a little extra time to wander around the terminal, and I went over toward the lead well-wisher's office to look around. In the office, I noticed a book that allowed service members to sign in and jot down a few notes. The book was opened to a random page and I quickly scanned it before turning to a blank page to sign in. As I scanned down the names, I noticed a name that stood out: "Don Eacho, SFC, HHC Scouts 1/9 IN Korea/Ramadi, Iraq." Seeing that name brought a flood of memories and emotions back that had been suppressed for over a year.
SFC Eacho was a fellow platoon sergeant in my last unit. He was the scout platoon sergeant, and we had talked often and found ourselves working together on many missions. In addition to his daily patrols, his platoon brought out the EOD teams when we needed them. In March 2005 on our forward operating base (FOB), I ran into him in the latrines one early morning. He was just finishing shaving and packing up his hygiene kit as I was removing my toothpaste and toothbrush from mine.
"What you got going on today?" I asked.
"Same old same old," he said.
We both laughed halfheartedly as he wrapped up.
"See you later," he said and walked out.
But later never came. While on patrol, an IED blew up under his HMMWV and killed him; the medic, SPC McGowan; the driver, SPC Tymane; and the BN physician's assistant, CPT Sean Grimes.
So, standing there at the sign-in book, I asked myself, Why was this page turned to that specific entry? What were the chances of that? Was God sending me a message? I am a believer that things happen for a reason, and whether we figure it out or not is totally up to us.
After we left Bangor, we stopped in Ireland, but we did not get to see or do anything but grab a bite to eat, buy a quick souvenir, and stretch our legs for a minute. Then it was back on board for the final flight into Kuwait.
When we landed in Kuwait, we were quickly loaded onto a bus and shuttled to Camp Buehring an hour away, then unloaded in the dark with generator-powered lights shining down on the marshalling area, where we were to in-process and get herded around like a bunch of goats for the next few hours. Fortunately, we linked up with our brigade representative, CPT Parker, and he had our rooms squared away and a vehicle ready to transport us to our barracks.
The biggest challenge standing between us and our rooms was finding our green duffle bags in the mountain of hundreds just like them. It never failed that it would get stacked under a million other bags three rows deep, and you would end up passing by it a few times, getting your heart rate elevated because you'd start thinking, "Is it lost?" As you'd scan the mountain of bags, you'd feel a slight glimpse of excitement because you might spot something that resembled what you marked your bag with. You'd tear through the pile with much enthusiasm just to find out it was someone else that had tried doing the same thing you did to make your bag stand out. Finally, a small victory was won, and we found all our bags and could relax and go on to the next stage of our lives, complete with duffle bags and rucksacks. That day was September 11, 2006.
From that point on, Marc and I were pretty much together nonstop. We settled into our rooms and quickly set up a routine of exercising at the gym and running PT around the camp just to keep our edge and try to get acclimatized to the environment. We also started doing our range reconnaissance and setting the conditions for all the training that was about to happen. Fortunately, I ran into SFC Stanfield, an old Bradley master gunner friend I had known since 1996 in Korea. He was the brigade master gunner for the unit we were replacing, and was a wealth of knowledge and made our job easier for the time being. For about a week, we went about our daily routine of exercising, planning, attending meetings, and gathering outside our living areas to smoke our evening cigars and catch up on the latest information. As usual, we started hearing rumors of the brigade going straight into Iraq with only ten days on the ground in Kuwait to get the mandatory training completed. Rumors in this type of situation flew routinely, so Marc and I both took it as such and continued our planning.
A few days after hearing the initial rumors, we were sitting out in front of our rooms on a picnic table talking, smoking cigars, trying to relax, and taking in the coolness of the evening twilight. The brigade S-3, MAJ Tim Karcher, stopped by and pulled up a seat on top of the picnic table, pulled out his cigar and lighter, kicked his patrol cap back on his head, lit his cigar, took a big drag, and looked at the red hot cherry on the end.
"Gentleman, there has been a change of plans," he said. "Everything we have been planning for over the past few months is out the window. We will have minimal time on the ground as a brigade, and we are heading north."
Now, when you read things like this on the latrine walls or hear it from a friend that has a friend that works at the Pentagon that knows your aunt's sister, you don't pay any attention to it, but when it comes from a man like MAJ Karcher, it is as good as good will get. Talk about a bombshell being dropped. Marc was also informed that he would be going to a MTT team with MAJ Karcher to help get the Iraqi army (IA) stood up. The MTT team concept had been going on since the start of the US presence in Iraq. An MTT team was a group of non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and officers that get detailed out from other units and combined into an "advisor and trainer" role that helps mentor Iraqis into soldiers. The NCOs and officers live and fight side by side with the Iraqi army on a daily basis. Building the Iraqi army was the ticket out of Iraq for the United States, so the MTT teams had an important mission. Unfortunately, the importance of the mission required the brigade commander to give up some of his best officers and NCOs, including MAJ Karcher and CPT Austin.
Excerpted from Battle for Baqubah by Robert S. Colella Copyright © 2012 by First Sergeant Robert S. Colella, Retired. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
SSG Kiddy, C 1/12 well written and executed to a T! I was there and this book is dead on event oriented.
As a Platoon Leader for 2nd Platoon, Attack Company, 5-20 IN who came to Baqubah in March of 2007 to plus up forces within the city, I can say that 1SG Colella honorably documented the exploits of his Company and all the units involved within the fight for Baqubah. From my own experience and speaking on behalf of others who were a part of TF 5-20, Baqubah was the only show in country. We as a Battalion had been maneuvered around Iraq for months prior and no where we went did we encounter such ferocious fighting by such a deep seeded enemy, to include some of the worst neighborhoods of Baghdad, the Main Effort! This is an excellent read, and is a fitting testament to those who fell, fought, shed blood, lead troops, or Soldiered up and rode the pony vaulting more walls maneuvering under contact then one could imagine. Every American should read this to get a glimpse of the unique sacrifice made by troops in the initial stages of the counterinsurgency strategy set in place by then LTG Odierno and GEN Petraeus to “clear, hold, build” and grow local defense forces for the purpose of achieving a stable security to facilitate the exit of Coalition Forces from Iraq. If you understand anything about armed conflict or Urban Operations the successes achieved by the troops to task are amazing.
-turns into a dog and rolls on the floor-
Good. I gotta go.
*Walks into a casino amd sets at a poker table.* Deal me in.
Who you are?
Walks in with a yawn.
Well wrote book that tells about a whole rotation of this Unit. The day to day activities and how every day is a battle in these areas we are or were in even when not fighting directly with the enemy. The 1SG talks about some awesome Units that come with the surge like 3-2 SBCT. I deployed with them in 03-04 OIF and are an awesome bunch of Fighters, it was good to see the 1SG write how they came into sector and helped him and his Unit to turn the tide. I retired in 2007 after coming out of Iraq and American Soldiers are awesome and doing awesome things everywhere they go. 1SG did a great job of painting that picture visually and emotionally. Great job 1SG Colella great book. He never did say though how that church got his name to send him packages on both his tours, LOL
Excellent book and very informative. I am not a military person so I thought it might be hard to understand, but the author explains everything in such great detail - there is no misunderstanding anything. This book should be read by everyone. The war "we non-military" people thought was being fought wasn't even close to what I imagined. This is extremely real and very deep. I have always been extremely proud of our soldiers, but this book made me rethink EVERYTHING I thought and/or assumed.