There is nothing that can compare to the feeling that washes over redeploying Soldiers as they step off the airplane and their boots touch the ground at their home station. After more than a year of working from sun up to sun down in remote locations where showers and hot meals – let alone phone or Internet access – are often a rare treat, they know that in a matter of hours they will finally be able to embrace their loved ones again.
When the last of the 3,500 Soldiers from 2nd Brigade Combat Team returned home from a grueling deployment to a region of Iraq known as the "Triangle of Death" in November 2007, they had accomplished monumental feats. Their tireless efforts had resulted in a dramatic decrease in attacks on coalition forces and had been instrumental in bringing peace to what had long been regarded as one of the most volatile areas in Iraq. They had reason to be proud.
But it came at a high cost for the brigade.
Fifty-four Soldiers died during the 15-month deployment and another 267 were wounded as they fought alongside their Iraqi counterparts, crippling insurgent forces and bringing peace to the region.
Lt. Col. Shane Finn, 10th Mountain Division (LI) G3, who served as commander of C Company, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, during the deployment, said that as they greeted their Family and friends, the Commando Soldiers were keenly aware of the void left by their fallen comrades.
"You’re so happy to be home and so relieved to have closure from that 15-month deployment," he said. "At the same time, all I could think was – ‘there are some really great people who should be here today.’"
Ten years after the conclusion of the historic deployment, the region remains stable – evidence that the blood, sweat and tears of the Commando Soldiers have had a lasting impact, said retired Col. Michael Kershaw, who commanded the brigade during the deployment.
Into the ‘Triangle’
"We knew – going into this deployment – that it would be extremely difficult," he said. "The area was extremely volatile, and the local people weren’t used to having a steady U.S. presence in their communities. As I spoke with the Soldiers, I asked them to think – ‘how am I going to leave south Baghdad? Am I going to leave things better than when I got here?’"
In August 2006, the brigade departed for what was slated to be a yearlong deployment. Their area of operations was a large section of agricultural land just south of Baghdad, bordered on the southwest by the Euphrates River and crisscrossed by a series of irrigation canals.
The region was in a constant state of turmoil due to sectarian fighting between the Sunni and Shia tribal populations.
Terrorists and insurgent forces had taken advantage of this political unrest and of the region’s close proximity to Baghdad and had established a vast presence in the area.
They had amassed large stockpiles of weapons from stores left behind by Saddam Hussein’s regime, and, as Soldiers of 2nd Brigade later discovered, they had hidden thousands of these weapons throughout the Triangle.
Since the arrival of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003, the insurgents had focused on undermining operations by planting improvised explosive devices in areas military vehicles frequently passed through.
One of the most heavily armed roads was "Route Malibu," a winding roadway that ran roughly parallel to the Euphrates River. The route was vital to the enemy’s ability to supply munitions and materials to insurgent forces in Baghdad, said former 10th Mountain Division (LI) Chief of Staff Col. Mark Manns, 4-31 Infantry executive officer for the deployment.
"There was only one way in and out on Route Malibu," he said. "As you traveled farther from the main junction, you were going deeper into hostile territory."
When IEDs detonated, they left massive craters in the raised roadway.
"The road was only wide enough to accommodate two-lane traffic and – in some places – only a single lane," Manns said. "When these IEDs would go off, there was no way to drive around the craters, so you couldn’t resupply and you couldn’t move troops to where you needed them."
If the Soldiers didn’t maintain constant watch while they waited for repair crews to arrive, insurgents would sneak in and plant additional IEDs in the craters so that when crews did arrive, they would sustain even more casualties.
Before they left for Iraq, Kershaw said that he and Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony Mahoney, the brigade’s senior enlisted adviser, had met with battalion leaders and discussed the challenges they would face during the deployment. They had collectively agreed that they would need to maintain a constant presence within the local communities.
"I relied on the judgment of our battalion commanders a great deal, especially given the fact that they would be the ones employing those companies and platoons in forward areas," Kershaw said. "What we realized is that if we were going to defeat the enemy and secure our gains, we had to be outside the wire of the forward operating base (FOB)."
Platoons and companies received orders to "push out" into villages, establishing and operating out of combat outposts, or COPs.
Outside the wire
Lt. Col. Chris Vitale, military adviser to the Department of State Bureau of Counter Terrorism, and commander of B Company, 4-31 Infantry, during the deployment, said that life in these COPs was difficult. At first, the Soldiers seldom had hot meals, and they often went 30 to 60 days without a real shower. In the beginning, they slept on dirt floors more often than not, and there was very little room to move about inside the wire.
"They endured a hardship that was not common for a war that was categorized by FOB life," he said. "Even when not outside the perimeter of our patrol bases, the Soldiers could not ever let their guard down, because at any moment an … attack was possible."
Finn recalled one particular mission in which he and his company had been sent out to investigate an intelligence tip. The search began with a photograph that showed two Iraqi men burying an unidentified object in the ground.
"I sent one of my platoons, not really knowing what they would find, and they uncovered a cache of sniper weapons," he said. "One cache led to 10, and over the course of the next few weeks, we found over 100 caches along this one stretch of canal."
All told, the company uncovered thousands of IEDs in the month of October, in spite of constant enemy attacks.
"We kicked over a hornet’s nest, and the fact that the enemy was hitting us from every direction made more sense after that," he said. "They realized that we had found their operational cache and that this was going to have a huge impact on their ability to project attacks."
While the Commando Soldiers were succeeding at their mission to disarm and eliminate enemy forces, they did not receive much support from members of the local villages at first, Finn said.
"It was frustrating because we were there to help them, but they really weren’t giving us any information," he said. "What we realized is that we weren’t asking the right questions. We were asking them ‘where is the enemy,’ when we really needed to begin by establishing trust."
Manns said that the Soldiers quickly learned that some of the local villages did not have clean water. Many did not have electricity, and medical care was extremely limited. The brigade leaders realized that if they wanted to win the hearts of the local people, they needed to begin by helping to provide for some of their most basic needs.
In the months to come, the Soldiers of 2nd Brigade worked to establish relationships with village leaders. They brought in medical support, providing more than 10,000 Iraqis with care. They worked with partners from the Iraqi police and army to create and man Joint Security Stations, and local "Concerned Citizens" groups formed in villages across the region. Community members were employed to complete a wide range of projects aimed at building the infrastructure of the local villages.
After seven months in Iraq, Commando leaders received word that the deployment would be extended to 15 months. Manns said that – at first – it was disheartening to many of the Soldiers.
"When you get extended, you take it in stride for the most part," he said. "But to get this news when you are halfway through a deployment in an area this volatile – it was very difficult on the Soldiers."
Manns said that, despite their initial disappointment, the Soldiers of 2nd Brigade showed an incredible level of resiliency.
"I’ve never seen a more professional group of Soldiers," he said. "They came here to accomplish their mission, and they were going to do so no matter what challenges they faced. They were a Family and they rallied together. It was incredible to see."
A few months later, the resiliency of that Family was tested yet again.
In the pre-dawn hours of May 12, a team consisting of seven U.S. Soldiers from D Company, 4-31 Infantry, and an Iraqi soldier were ambushed while guarding a section of Route Malibu.
Their attackers placed IEDs in the road in front and behind the two Humvees, cut the concertina wire, lobbed grenades into the vehicles and then swarmed in with guns blazing.
When reinforcements arrived, five of the eight Soldiers had been killed and three had been captured.
The search for Spc. Alex Jiminez, Pfc. Byron Fouty and Pvt. Joseph Anzack Jr. began immediately, with thousands of Soldiers involved, aided by Special Operations Forces and helicopters from 3rd Infantry Division and 1st Cavalry Division.
Eleven days later, on May 23, Anzack’s remains were discovered in the Euphrates River, south of the area of the ambush. Fouty and Jiminez were still missing.
In the months that followed, the brigade incorporated search efforts into every mission they conducted.
Finn said that throughout the search, the Soldiers of 2nd Brigade conducted themselves with a level of professionalism that further solidified the bonds with members of the local community.
"I think they expected us to react a lot differently," he said. "The fact that the Soldiers – in spite of pain of losing their comrades – continued to show discipline and treat the Iraqi people with respect and courtesy – I think that had a profound impact on our relationship with them."
For the remainder of the deployment, interdependence and communication between the Soldiers and the local population flourished. Citizens came to the Soldiers with information regarding insurgent movement. A tribal council of more than 30 leaders was formed to ensure that peace-keeping efforts would continue after the deployment came to a close.
By the time the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division "Rakkasans" took over operations in October 2007, violence in the region had declined drastically – a sure sign that the Commando Brigade’s efforts had made an incredible impact.
As redeployment approached and the realization set in that they would be going home without their missing brothers-in-arms, Kershaw said that he and Mahoney made certain that the Commando Soldiers knew that efforts to locate Fouty and Jiminez would continue.
"We talked to every aircraft load of people as they were getting ready to leave the FOB in Baghdad," he said. "We gave them the most up-to-date information we had, and that included information on how U.S. forces in the region planned to continue the search."
Finally, on July 9, 2008, the Department of Defense announced that the bodies of Jiminez and Fouty had been recovered and were being returned to their Families. Kershaw said that bringing the fallen back to be put to rest provided important closure for the Families and the Soldiers of 2nd Brigade.
"One of the hardest things for leaders is knowing that – especially in a combat situation like this – you cannot guarantee everyone will come home alive," he said. "I can’t take back the loss that those Families have experienced, but knowing that the Army was able to fulfill the promise we made – that we would bring all our sons and daughters home – it meant a great deal to me, and I know it meant a lot to the Families."
Reminders of the deployment will forever be with the Commando Soldiers who served. The physical scars that many of them bear are an outward sign of the lasting impact, but the memories of fallen brothers-in-arms and the strength and resilience the Soldiers developed as they learned to thrive in the face of great adversity have had an even more profound impact, Finn said.
"Hardships shape you," he said. "Your personal character is molded, and you become wiser as an individual and as a professional.
"I think that if you look at all the NCOs and officers who came out of that deployment, their experiences made them better people and better leaders. Over the course of the past 10 years, they have had an amazing impact in the lives of so many Soldiers," he added.
When asked who the heroes of the deployment were, some said that it was the medics who treated casualties and kept the unit focused in the chaos that followed an IED attack. Others said that it was the senior leaders who consistently communicated the value that each individual – from the youngest private to the most senior Soldier – was an integral part of every mission. Finn said that, in his mind, every Soldier in the brigade displayed a level of resiliency and dedication that was nothing short of astounding.
"There was no one Soldier who did anything more or less heroic than the Soldier to the left or to the right," Finn said. "Any time you deploy together and you share in hardship, there is going to be a bond, but the bonds that developed from that deployment are stronger than usual. We grew through those experiences, and I don’t think there is much that one Commando Soldier would not do for another."
Kershaw said that as he looks back on the deployment and the work that the Soldiers of the brigade accomplished, he could not be prouder.
"In a situation where others may have given up or lost hope, they never faltered," he said. "They redoubled their efforts, and not only did they continue to meet the mission, they never gave up on making south Baghdad a better, safer place than when we arrived. Ten years later, time has shown that it wasn’t just an aspiration of ours – we were able to play a part in making that happen."