I’ve scratched a million experiences into journals over the years. Some of those memories lie dormant, pressed between pages in black and white, until I visit the paper I saved them on. Others never fade. They remain vivid, in color, like I lived them just yesterday.
In the blazing heat of a 2003, Iraqi summer, we flew south to Al Asad Airfield. The wind sweeping through the doorless cockpit was a welcomed relief; otherwise, I would have drowned myself in the sweat of my own stress. Steve Schiller, our squadron commander, demanded that we fly in tight formations, even when we flew long cross country flights. He knew we could fly lazy and loose, any pilot could do that, but it took hard work and precision to fly in a tight formation with a single rotor disk separating each aircraft in flight. His own competency and high standards were infectious in 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment.
I flew with Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bob Keiffer. A tall, lean, Ohioan, who always had a smile on his face and a kind word to say, Bob was a wonderful man who, while fierce on the athletic field, was a gentle and generous man – one I deeply respected. I never heard anyone speak ill of Bob Keiffer. On that hot August morning, he and I were in the middle of a large multi-ship formation of Kiowa Warrior helicopters and I was on the controls. I bit my lip and tensed every muscle in my body as I struggled to keep the helicopter perfectly in position so as not to invite the wrath of the other pilots in the flight. We were painfully critical of each other, which inspired exacting perfection.
Several times during the two-hour flight, riding the desert winds like a rollercoaster south, I slipped slightly out of position. Bob never said a word despite the fact that other pilots were apt to transmit their disapproval over the radio at the slightest of errors in the formation. Every now and then I felt a gentle nudge on the cyclic and collective to help me regain my position, but never a word of disapproval. Bob, having flown thousands of hours as a standardization instructor pilot, could have taken the controls and held us in position without error, but he let me work and learn throughout the flight.
When we arrived at Al Asad we gathered to critique our flight, as we always did. “Good units will pick a scab until it bleeds,” an old sergeant once told me, and I suspected I’d bleed a little that day. If brutally honest critiques define good units then we were superb. We were painfully critical of everything that occurred from mission planning through execution because we strove for perfection. No one wanted to be identified as the weak link.
“Chalk 3 was out of formation several times,” one of the young warrant officers offered without identifying the pilots by name. “They slipped back to two rotor disks or more three or four times,” he added.
I cringed and waited for the others to pile on with criticism of my failure to maintain perfection. I knew they were right and I had to tighten it up, but I dreaded the scars the public critique would leave on my pride.
“Did we?” Bob asked, acknowledging that we were Chalk 3 and questioning as if he was not aware that we had failed to maintain our position. “Well, I’m sure that’s when I was on the controls,” he added. “Won’t happen again.”
The subject changed and I, my mouth slightly agape, was saved from public embarrassment. Bob, being the senior warrant officer in the flight had ended the discussion by noting that it must have been his mistake when we both knew it was entirely my inadequacy that had sparked their criticism. He smiled and the conversation was never raised again. Bob spared me that day and I was grateful for it, but I was not the only one to be spared on that trip.
We had flown to Al Asad Airfield because we were going to go after a terrorist group with training camps in Southwest Iraq. The men operating in those camps were believed to be tied to the Canal Hotel bombing, which had occurred on August 19, 2003. Twenty-two people were killed and over 100 wounded in the attack, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Special Representative. We had flown to Al Asad on August 26th, and after a couple of days of planning and rehearsals we were set to go. We were going to search for their caches of weapons and training facilities, but more importantly, thanks to some very good intelligence, we knew where the lead weapons facilitators lived. It was a large house way out in the middle of the desert.
The plan was to initiate the attack by dropping a bomb on the house. Our teams would observe the bomb impacting the target and then we would insert Pathfinders (highly trained infantrymen) by helicopter to conduct sensitive site exploitation and see which of the terrorist we had killed. We divided the expansive training area into large sections. A Scout Weapons Team (SWT) was assigned to each section. Our task was to conduct a thorough reconnaissance of the entire area in order to locate weapons caches and anything else that might be of value.
After detailed planning and meticulous rehearsing we were set to go. The night prior to the mission I lay on a cot inside an old Iraqi hanger thinking about the mission. I went over all the details in my mind. I inventoried all of my equipment to ensure that I had not missed anything. Finally, satisfied that I was ready for the mission, my thoughts turned to the people we planned to kill. Sadly, we knew that there were women and children in the house we were going to bomb. I struggled with that idea. Those people were already dead. Their fate had been decided and they didn’t even know it. We had determined that they must die – victims of circumstance. The actions of the men would decide the fate of their family. As I struggled for sleep I pictured an Iraqi woman lining children up on a mattress, tucking them in for a night’s sleep from which they would not wake.
We rose at 3:00 a.m., checked the weather, and headed out to the aircraft. Bob and I had conducted a preflight the night prior. We took one final look at the helicopter and buckled into our seats. Then, in the dark silence of the desert morning, Bob looked over at me and asked if I cared to pray with him? I, who had already been praying silently in my own head, gladly agreed. Bob offered a beautiful prayer for the people that were about to die and their families. It was a moving moment for me personally and confirmed in my mind what a special man Bob Keiffer really was.
We hovered out to a taxiway, lined up in formation, and departed for the objective. We flew across the desert in silence, but for the necessary radio calls. Our brigade commander monitored our progress from a UH-60 helicopter and Major General David Petraeus, our division commander, tracked the battle from a command and control UH-60. About half way to the objective the Air Force jets checked in on the radio. They carried the fateful bombs beneath their wings. Everything was progressing as planned.
Then Steve Schiller transmitted over the command net radio, “The bombs are a no-go. We’re going to go in with the Pathfinders, but no bomb.”
LTG Ricardo Sanchez had decided not to initiate the attack by dropping the bomb. Instead, our Pathfinders would land adjacent to the house and go in on the ground. I was relieved and concerned all at the same time. No bomb meant that our Pathfinders would be assuming much more risk at the objective.
At the release point we separated from the other SWTs. Bob and I, with our team, headed to our assigned zone and awaited the code word to begin reconnaissance. At first light we monitored the radio calls as the Pathfinders went in on the ground. They assaulted the house and soon thereafter they reported, “Dry hole!” None of the men we were looking for were present in the house…only women and children. They were spared and that merited another prayer. Thank you.
We soon began to find cache after cache of weapons. We found stacks of Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs), heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles, and mortars. Our search continued throughout the morning. We located the caches, took photos, and then shot them with rockets and .50 caliber machine guns in order to blow them up. When we needed fuel we flew to the Forward Area Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) we had established in the desert.
Around noon Bob and I saw two men sitting on a small hill. It was the only humans we’d seen all day. The caches were hidden in the crevasses of large wadi systems. There were no houses or farms nearby. We were literally in the middle of nowhere. Nothing existed but desert as far as the eye could see in every direction. Yet here were two men sitting on a small hill.
We moved in to take a closer look. They were sitting on a ground cloth and about twenty-five meters away from them was a large blanket spread out on the ground. The scene did not look right. We made several passes, making sure to keep our weapons on them at all times, yet getting closer and closer with each pass to try and see what they were doing out in the middle of the desert. Our lead Kiowa flew right over the blanket as Bob and I keep a gun on them. When lead broke right the wind from the rotor blew up the edge of the blanket and we could see weapons stashed under it. I called Schiller and reported what we saw. “What do you want us to do?” I asked.
The Brigade Commander called Gen. Petraeus and asked what he wanted us to do. He asked if the Pathfinders could go get them, but they had loaded their helicopters full of detainees on the main objective and things they had taken from the house. The lift helicopters were full so we had nowhere to put them. Bob looked over at me and said, “They are going to tell us to kill them.”
With that thought in my mind I focused on the two men. They were just sitting there watching us. I knew they were the enemy and might attack us later if we let them live. I was prepared to shoot them, but I didn’t want to do it this way. I wanted them to do something. I wished they would raise a weapon, try and fight, do something. We had been flying a pattern, which took us straight at them each time and as time passed they relaxed more. I suppose they thought that if we were going to kill them we would have already done it. It would catch them by total surprise when we came back around and this time squeezed a blast of .50 caliber into them.
Schiller called on the radio. “Can you shoot the stash they have?” he asked.
“Sure,” I replied.
“Then blow it up and return to the FARP,” he ordered.
They were spared, yet they had no idea how close to death they came. On the next pass we shot the store of weapons. The men exploded up to their feet and began begging us not to shoot them. They turned their palms up as if to say they were innocent as they flinched from secondary explosions in the cache. They were not innocent, in fact nothing could have been further from the truth, so secretly I hoped that they would try and defend themselves. It was a strange emotion, one that would revisit me numerous times in the decade to follow.
Bob and I flew back to Al Asad in silence, shaped by our experience, both recognizing that many people were spared that day, some perhaps deserving, others most certainly not.