Sunday, September 30, 2007

From Iraq to Energy Independence

My Iraq Experience
February 14, 2005

Many people say that a picture speaks a thousand words. Some say it speaks louder than words. This particular picture evokes a thousand emotions. It was taken on board the USS Yorktown (CG-48) on April 24th, 2004 in Iraqi territorial waters by an intelligence officer, who was standing on the aft missile deck of the ship, facing the action. The aft missile deck is located in the back one-third of the ship and is where missiles are launched. The photo shows a part of the missile deck at the bottom of the frame. It is late afternoon just before sunset on an overcast and windy day. The sea is moderately choppy, and the air humid. Coalition forces have placed an exclusion zone of one nautical mile around the Khawr Al-Amaya and the Al Basra Oil Terminals. This area is heavily traveled by fishing and cargo dhows (boats). The oil terminals are the lifeline of the Iraqi economy, producing one million barrels of oil per day. There are two oil tankers docked at the Al Basra Oil Terminal, pictured at the left. Center stage shows the US Navy Patrol Craft USS Firebolt (PC-10) maneuvering to intercept a cargo dhow as it encroaches into this exclusion zone. The Yorktown is also maneuvering to avoid another dhow heading directly toward it. Everyone is alert as adrenaline kicks in.

We, the USS Yorktown, had departed Bahrain at 0400 that morning after three days of well-deserved liberty. We met up with the USNS Supply (AOE-6) to replenish our fuel, food, and ammunition. Our helicopter, Proud Warrior 433, also helped to expedite our replenishment. After about three hours alongside, we began our long journey back to Iraq. Once we arrived, the US Coast Guard Patrol Boat USCGC Aquidneck (WPB 1309) came alongside to be replenished. Two hours later, we brought the Firebolt alongside and replenished her. Soon after we cast her off, I reported to the pilothouse for my 1700-2200 watch as the Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch. On my watch team, I had three lookouts, a helmsman and a messenger. There were also a quartermaster of the watch and three officers in the pilothouse. At the time the picture was taken, we were all poking fun at one of the junior officers and just having a good time. The captain and some crew members were having a cigar social on the helicopter flight deck. It had been a very long day and everyone wanted to make the best of it.

As the sun was setting and the day unwinding, a big event was about to unfold. The dhows we were maneuvering around were not the normal dhows that transited the area. Although they looked the same, these dhows looked suspicious. They were laden with cargo but only had one or two personnel on board. They were also heading either toward the oil terminals or toward the Navy ships in the area-usually they would keep their distance. These suspicions led us to investigate the situation more closely. The same situation was unfolding at the Khawr Al-Amaya Oil Terminal, where the Australian Frigate HMAS Stuart (FFH-153), British Frigate HMS Grafton (F-80), USS Thunderbolt (PC-12), and USCGC Aquidneck were patrolling. Since we were the command ship, we directed the Firebolt to send a boarding team on a rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) to shadow the dhow that was heading towards the Al Basra Oil Terminal, and to escort it out of the exclusion zone. Nevertheless, the captain of the dhow seemed defiant and undeterred by the Firebolt’s boarding team and continued on course. The Firebolt then requested permission to board the dhow and commence a search. Permission was granted, and the boarding team proceeded alongside the dhow. As the Firebolt’s boarding team approached the dhow, they noticed two more dhows approaching the oil terminal. As they radioed for backup, a big explosion ripped through the RHIB. We were under attack!

As soon as we discovered this was not routine traffic, we contacted Central Command to alert them of the situation. We simultaneously directed the Stuart to take tactical control of the other US ships near the Khawr Al-Amaya Oil Terminal in order to secure it. The Grafton and Firebolt conducted the search and rescue operation of the fallen comrades while we responded to the other threats. The other two dhows approaching the Al Basra Oil Terminal were successfully blown to pieces about 100 feet from the oil terminal. We immediately launched two RHIBs to aggressively pursue any dhows within the exclusion zone. Meanwhile, the USS George Washington (CVN-73) Carrier Strike Group was about 200 nautical miles away and was sending two MEDEVAC Helicopters to airlift personnel injured or killed in action.

All these events unfolded in a span of about five hours, which covered my watch. As the effects of the adrenaline wore off and reality set in, I became very exhausted and was ready to go to bed. After all, it had been a very long day and the events, surreal. Little did I know that I had been selected to lead a small team to patrol throughout the night. I thought to myself: “Why me?” I later found out that I was one of three people qualified, capable, and trusted to lead such a mission. Naturally, I was to relieve the other two guys who were already out patrolling.

We were briefed on the mission of our patrol as well as on the rules of engagement. I laughed at the rules of engagement part because it was the same that had been applied ineffectively earlier that day. In any given military operation, there are guidelines and standard operating procedures. However, under the decentralized command philosophy, the commander makes decisions as the battlefield situation and information change. I decided this would apply in our situation since mission success and our survival depended on it. As we departed on patrol, the MEDEVAC Helicopters arrived and refueled on board the Yorktown before heading to the Grafton. While the helicopters were refueling, we discussed the events as they unfolded. We wondered how the guys on the Firebolt were coping with everything. The mood was somber with a hint of anger.

The patrol lasted for about six hours and was very eventful. As we patrolled the area, we searched for debris and any unexploded devices. I spotted a few pieces of debris floating in the water and maneuvered toward them. We pulled out a few pieces of the dhows that had blown up and an exploded Improvised Explosive Device (IED). We also retrieved a partially burnt hat and some melted plastic. As we continued our patrol, we surveyed the damage done to one of the tankers and the Al Basra Oil Terminal. There was glass strewn everywhere and the oil tanker nearest to the attack was dented by the blast. The Khawr al-Amaya Oil Terminal was damaged slightly but was functional by morning. The blasts damaged generators at the Al Basra Oil Terminal necessary for loading and unloading tankers. We were very exhausted and finally relieved by a fresh team at 0500 the next morning.

This well-coordinated attack was poorly executed, but deadly, nonetheless. Two US Navy sailors died instantly from the blast while a Coast Guardsman died the following morning. Three other sailors were injured but were listed in stable condition. One of the deceased sailors was two weeks shy of terminal leave and ultimately, retirement. “Coast Guardsmen don't get killed. Marines get killed," was being echoed throughout the media along with the news of the first Coast Guardsman to die in combat since the Vietnam War. As the news reached all coalition troops in the area, anger and discontent were aroused.

This long and arduous combat deployment was very emotionally and physically draining. Long days often merged into long weeks as one mission led to another. It was not uncommon to work 130 to 140 hours per week; sometimes going on only 45 minutes of sleep. Skimpy meals were often cut short by unexpected events. Sleep and free time were rare commodities. At some point during the attacks, e-mails and phone calls were ceased for tactical silence. The morale of the crew plummeted due to the attacks and was directly related to the relative frequency of the e-mails and letters we received. Despite these circumstances, I was able to maintain a level head and respond positively to every event. This experience taught me how to perform efficiently under extreme pressure. I understood the rigors of our tight schedules and limited resources, and developed the capacity to accomplish the mission on time in spite of tremendous stress. I learned the critical importance of mission accomplishment and troop welfare. Accordingly, I was instrumental in implementing a flex schedule that increased rest and relaxation while simultaneously reducing the stress level of my sailors. I was also able to whet my leadership skills. I led by example as well as through direction, delegation, motivation and inspiration. This proved very important throughout the attack as I mobilized the anger and adrenaline of my sailors to achieve positive results. I also learned the true essence of teamwork as we depended on each other to make it through this ordeal. In addition to dealing positively with the typical issues of personal maturity, I triumphed over great adversity. I have proven my mettle in mission critical situations demanding endurance, stamina and flexibility. I overcame personal anguish through strength and determination to survive. I also learned the real values of life and the evils of combat. As a result of these lessons and experiences, I decided to leave active naval service and re-concentrate my efforts on another frontier – ENERGY INDEPENDENCE.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

Wow this is an amazing story. I remember this night. My mom and I saw this come across the screen on CNN and we knew my brother was in Basra. A few hours later he then called to let us know he was alright. My brother hasn't talked about this night very often. You might remember my brother SK2 Ashworth.