FORWARD OPERATING BASE HAMMER, Iraq – It was just another patrol for Sgt. 1st Class Billy Brown, from Hartsville, Tenn., and his mortar platoon, March 26.
As they left Combat Outpost Cashe 10 minutes before noon, all of his Soldiers were focused on their mission.
“We were going to check out an IED (improvised explosive device) site and search the area for a mortar site,” he said.
As the vehicles rolled out into the mid-day heat, a call came over the radio. The mission was being changed. Their commander, Capt. Brian Gilbert, from Boise, Idaho, the commander of Company D, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, ordered them to proceed to the market in Jisr Diyala.
Company D had received information that Shia criminals had just delivered a cache of rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns to the market in Jisr Diyala and Brown’s platoon needed to investigate.
The previous day, Lt. Col. John Kolasheski, from Loudon, Tenn., commander of the 3rd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, (the unit that Company D is currently attached to) and Gilbert were in Jisr Diyala to witness the opening of a new 140-stall market directly across the street from their designated objective.
Brown explained that on that day he had a gut feeling things weren’t right in Jisr Diyala. His intuition would be proved right this day.
“We were getting information that things could happen, but nothing concrete,” he said. “Initially, I expected it to be just another cache site, but it turned into a slug-fest.”
As Brown’s vehicles entered Jisr Diyala, they immediately noticed that the normally crowded streets of Jisr Diyala were empty.
“There were only a few people out on the street and hardly any cars,” he said. “I ordered everyone to get ready right then. It was obvious something wasn’t right.”
Brown’s Soldiers switched their weapons from safe to fire and scanned for signs of trouble. It would soon find them.
As the Soldiers in the lead vehicle moved down the street towards the market, they could see men running away from the market. A few moments later, they started taking small-arms fire from an alley as they passed.
“The lead vehicle took the brunt of the first volley,” Brown said. “They kept their cool and kept traveling. The third and fourth vehicles returned fire as they drove by.”
In Company D’s command post, Gilbert listened intently as Brown reported what was happening. Gilbert ordered Brown to move the platoon down the street, to the Joint Security Station in Jisr Diyala and prepare to regroup.
The mortar platoon’s trucks continued to their destination a few blocks away as criminals continued to fire from the east of his convoy.
“They really started bringing the hammer down on us,” Brown said. “When we have made contact in the past, the bad guys had always shot at us and moved on. When they kept shooting, I knew that they meant business. We were in for a fight.”
Brown pulled into the JSS and immediately informed the 3rd Brigade, 1st National Police Division and local police about what was going on in the market.
While Brown spoke with the policeman, Spc. Kyle Few, from Columbus, Ohio, the gunner in the lead truck, saw men running from the market carrying items deeper into Jisr Diyala and away from the Soldiers.
Brown radioed back to Gilbert, who was about to roll out from COP Cashe, and updated him on what was going on.
As Gilbert was exiting the gates of COP Cashe, he agreed that Brown and his men had to stop the cache from being moved out of the market.
Brown’s platoon started moving to stop the criminals from fleeing the market when his vehicles started taking small-arms and machine gun fire from both sides of the street.
“I was surprised,” admitted Brown. “There were a lot of bullets flying at us. It was very hard to identify targets, but my guys maintained their discipline and chose their targets carefully.”
The fighting grew intense as Brown and his platoon started moving up streets to take the fight to the insurgents. Moving was slow, however. The debris and trash that covered the market streets provided perfect cover for potential IEDs.
“We didn’t know if they had set up anything for us,” Brown said. “We had to try and identify targets and look for crush wires (used to detonate IEDs) at the same time.”
During a lull in enemy fire, Brown and a few of his Soldiers dismounted and slowly worked their way to an enemy location. They found seven surprised men with bags in their hands. Moving swiftly, the mortar platoon detained them.
The bags contained NP uniforms and a weapon that had recently been fired.
As the mortarmen prepared to move up and continue the fight, the newly-arrived NP Training Team and the NP, took control of the detainees.
“When the National Police got involved, they were very effective,” Brown said. “Their leadership did a good job of interweaving themselves with us and taking control of our detainees.”
The battle, however, was far from over.
Using cover, criminals continued to move and fire at the combined force. With bullets raining down on them, Brown’s men maintained their composure.
“Every one of my guys took the appropriate action,” Brown said. “All of them maintained their sector of fire. They chose the right targets and didn’t get reckless and start changing their sectors to get into the firefight. It was a great thing to see. Everyone was talking and communicating. The number of guys actually firing was really low. The bad guys were being very careful and were doing a good job of not showing themselves. It took a lot of discipline on my Soldiers’ part not to just start firing at everything.”
As Brown and his Soldiers were fighting, Gilbert and the scout platoon were moving to cut off escape routes. With another platoon on the way, a noose was slowly being tightened on the criminals.
Brown coordinated with the NPT team and the NPs to move the detainees away and continued his search for his attackers and their cache.
The criminals, seeing the market flooded with policemen and Soldiers, had taken a few RPGs and abandoned the rest of their cache. They were attempting to run, but were finding their routes of escape closed off.
As the Soldiers searched, they were once again attacked from two different positions. Using the local youth center and a school as cover, the criminals increased their rate of fire. Seeking cover, Brown returned fire and gave Gilbert a situation report. Despite taking fire, he had two things working in his favor: the criminals were cut off from their cache and his platoon finally knew their exact location.
All of Brown’s Soldiers laid down suppressive fire at the same moment. As the barrage of 240B machine guns, 249 squad automatic weapons and .50 caliber machine guns echoed, enemy weapons grew silent.
At this point, the other two platoons in Company D had positioned themselves around the trapped fighters, restricting their avenues of escape.
Within 15 minutes every platoon in Company D had responded to the crisis and were present to help their brothers-in-arms.
“We were all on refit at Rustimiyah when we got the call that the mortars were taking contact,” said 1st Lt. Erik Miller, from Starcross, N.J., the 2nd platoon leader. “We just rounded up everyone as quick as we could and got to them as fast as we could. Within 10 minutes, we were there to help.”
Miller explained that listening to the whole incident over the radio never crossed his mind.
As Brown coordinated with Gilbert, small-arms and machine gun fire exploded out from enemy positions. Brown and his Soldiers scrambled for cover as bullets whizzed past them.
As Soldiers called out enemy positions and returned fire, Brown’s interpreter was busy helping refill magazines. Hydration was also becoming a concern and Brown’s noncommissioned officers began to expose themselves to enemy fire to get their troops water.
Brown and two of his Soldiers were bleeding from flying debris and bullet ricochets, but the fighting continued.
“I didn’t even realize I was bleeding until after it was over,” Brown said. “When you’re out there in it, you don’t have time to think about anything but the task at hand.”
Criminals started firing RPGs at the Soldiers’ positions. Brown estimated at least five landed near him and his troops.
“When they started firing RPGs, I knew we had to step it up and bring it back at them,” Brown said.
Gilbert ordered Brown’s platoon to employ their MK-19 automatic grenade launcher and M203 grenade launchers.
It was a chance many had been waiting for the whole deployment. Spc. Jordan Roedl, from Austin, Texas, Brown’s gunner, had maintained his MK-19 for a year and had frequently pestered Brown for a chance to use it. Carrying the 78-pound weapon from his living area out to his truck every morning was a chore. Mounting the weapon in his gun turret before every patrol had strengthen Roedl’s back and arms to the point that it wasn’t as hard as it had once been early in the deployment, but it still wasn’t easy.
When he heard Gilbert’s orders over the radio, it was music to his ears. Just moments before, an enemy bullet caused the soda can he had been drinking from to explode, showering him and his fellow Soldiers in the sticky fluid.
“I’m not going to lie,” Roedl said. “That was the best point of the whole deployment. I had been cleaning that heavy weapon this whole deployment. It was a pain to carry around, but when I finally got the chance to open up with it, it was worth it.”
As grenades ripped into enemy fighting positions, the policemen fired an RPG of their own at the enemy fighters. The blasts were enough to silence the criminals’ weapons for the final time.
Soon after, 3/1 NP Div. policemen and Soldiers breached the school and scattered enemy fighters. Using the school as a strong point, NPs and Soldiers from Company D quickly took over the compound and ended the fight.
At the end of the encounter, 11 enemy fighters were killed and 24 suspects were detained. Company D had only sustained three minor injuries. Kolasheski believed the attack was part of the criminals’ plan to disrupt the economic progress the citizens of Jisr Diyala had made over the last year.
“Extremists took cover in schools, medical clinics and people’s houses knowing full well we would have to fire back at them,” he said during the local security council meeting three days later. “They attempted to put hardships on the people of Jisr Diyala and cause damages to the infrastructure we have been working the last year to build. Their actions clearly demonstrated they do not care about the people of this area.”
Gilbert agreed with his commander. “The attack really angered me. It was obvious that that they were trying to undo all of the hard work we have accomplished here,” Gilbert said. “They saw the attack as an opportunity to cause friction between us and the good people of Jisr Diyala. The good thing about it is how we were all able to effectively deal with it. A year ago, I do not believe we could have ended the violence so fast. Of course, I credit much of that to our Soldiers, but the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) and Sons of Iraq did their part as well. The National Police were right in the fight with us. The Sons of Iraq quickly volunteered to man National Police checkpoints so they could lend more men to the fight. It was really a team effort.”
When Brown thinks about the incident, he is just thankful. “As a leader, you want all of your guys to come home safely,” he said. “Outside the wire, it can get pretty crazy. It can all kick off at any moment out there and you and your men have to be ready. I believe that if we hadn’t have been prepared, it could have gotten bad out there. That’s what the enemy was hoping for, anyway. At the end of the day all of our guys are still here and a lot of theirs aren’t. I think that shows how ready my guys are when they roll out.”
The 1-15 Inf. Regt. and 3-1 Cav. Regt. are assigned to the 3rd HBCT, 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Benning, Ga., and have been deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom since March 2007.