NG Company takes fight to enemy in insurgent stronghold

NG Company takes fight to enemy in insurgent stronghold

Aaron Flint

For nearly a year, National Guard soldiers with Alpha Company, Task Force Saber, controlled a sector in the place Time magazine cited as the worst place in Iraq–Ramadi.

The Marines operated in the heart of Ramadi on one side of the river, while Alpha Company operated in the urban area on the other side of the river. The urban portion of Alpha’s battlespace alone contained upwards of 40,000 people. Faced with the daily threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), small arms fire, sniper and rocket attacks, Alpha’s commander, Major Jason Pelletier of Milton, Vt., put together an unorthodox team of tankers, infantrymen, field artillerymen, and Long Range Surveillance snipers from different units across Vermont, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania to stay on the offense in the counterinsurgency fight.

During their time in Ramadi, Alpha, whose parent unit is 3-172nd Infantry Battalion (Mountain) headquartered in Jericho, Vt., successfully held the line in a battalion-sized battlespace for close to a year while serving under Task Force Saber and the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 28th Infantry Division. More than holding the line, Alpha took the fight to the enemy, increasing the foothold of coalition and Iraqi Security Forces.

“We took the Iraqi Army from conducting squad-level patrols to owning their own urban battalion battlespace in under a year,” said Pelletier of the increased presence of Iraqi Army forces in Ramadi. “We’ve done it by creating an unconventional combat set that is combined arms in nature.”

To hinder the IED threat and provide security for the main routes into and out of the city, Alpha manned observation posts (OPs) with tanks, high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs), and Bradley fighting vehicles from the main combined arms platoons referred to as “vigilant hunters.” From these OPs, the men were able to successfully engage IED emplacement teams on the main routes and overwatch the sector. With a combined arms team of tankers and infantrymen, Alpha was able to combine the optics and the firepower of the tanks and Bradleys with the ground assets in the HMMWV crews.

While manning OPs, the platoon charged with securing the sector at any given time then used their HMMWV crews to patrol the heart of the city. These crews became the eyes, ears, and representatives of the unit on the ground. In addition to regular combat patrol missions, these crews roamed the city and gathered atmospherics on the neighborhoods, checking in with shop owners and local families on services and any unusual activity in the area.

“It was pretty wild,” said Sergeant Brandon Allmond, a 21-year-old tanker from Philadelphia, Pa., who ended up serving as a truck commander with Alpha Company. “When you’re roving, it’s just your two trucks and the guys in those trucks. You are your own security, you are your own overwatch, and you are your own assault team.”

While it was mainly the truck crews roving the guts of the city, they knew they had the Bradley and tank crews watching their backs at all times.

Although a smaller unit, Alpha was able to organize into a highly lethal team. Crucial to Alpha’s success were the enablers who contributed their resources to the mission. Several teams composed the enablers offering resources to the mission, including the Task Force Saber intelligence shop, as well as tactical human intelligence teams, Naval Special Warfare teams through their work with the Iraqi soldiers, Marine Corps K9 teams, Civil Affairs groups, counter-IED engineer units, and others.

Part of that enabler team included Marine Corps Major David Berke from Miramar, Calif. Berke and his Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO) team started operating with Alpha Company when Berke first came to Ramadi.

“I never thought in my career I’d be on the ground in a firefight with my M-4 (rifle),” said Berke, an F-18 fighter pilot who spent the last three years as a Top Gun flight instructor.

As a piece of the full spectrum combined arms fight, Berke’s ANGLICO teams coordinated air support for the Soldiers when they came under enemy contact or were conducting raids, creating a link between the Army ground units and the Marine aviation units in sector. Berke is used to seeing the fight from 20,000 feet in the air, traveling at 500 miles per hour. Now, Berke is on the ground in the middle of firefights, getting shot at by rocket propelled grenades and going on high-speed car chases.

“The only way to be effective as a direct supporting unit is if I know the battlespace as well as you do,” said Berke. “I need to know the mosques, the soccer fields, and the alleyways. The more familiar I am with the battlespace–the less time it’s going to take me to get the air support you need.”

Besides coordinating air support, he and his team could be counted on as skilled riflemen on the ground. In another sector, Berke was pinned down in enemy crossfire. Fortunately, he was already in radio contact with the F-18 pilot overhead.

“We’re in major contact down here,” yelled Berke.

The pilot, an old friend of his from Top Gun school, immediately fired on the enemy from the air.

“I’m reminded of why I joined the Marine Corps in the first place,” he said. “We are fulfilling the motto that every Marine is a rifleman.”

For the Soldier on the ground, the battlefield is complex with few standard operating procedures on how to respond to a myriad of situations.

Vigilance is key, said Sergeant Brett Clairmont of Richmond, Vt. “I find myself feeling like I don’t have enough sets of eyes–I’m scanning rooftops, windows, scanning the ground for IEDs, and looking long distances for RPGs.”

“Going out there day after day knowing that in a split second it can go from people smiling and waving to the streets clearing and being in the middle of a full blown firefight,” adds Allmond as to what the hardest part of the job at hand. “It’s the anxiety of knowing that it will happen, but just not knowing when.”

No matter what the rank of the Soldier, Captain Gregory Knight of Huntington, Vt., said you’ve got to listen to the Soldier on the ground–the Soldier referred to is the on-scene commander.

“That guy knows exactly what situation he is in,” said Knight, battle captain for Task Force Saber. “We do it as a matter of course now, but the complexity and the speed at which things happen is mind-boggling. You can write SOPs all day long, but you’ll never crack the book. For the higher headquarters, it all comes back to providing support to the guy on the ground (who’s) taking the fight to the enemy.”

It’s that “taking the fight to the enemy” that Knight said has made Alpha and Task Force Saber successful.

“You’ve simply got to be aggressive,” said Knight.

Staying aggressive is what guided Clairmont and his fellow Soldiers when they roved the city.

“That’s our preventive measure (roving), that’s why we go back out there,” said Clairmont. “That’s how we prevent the enemy from putting more IEDs in. We know that at some point we’re going to have to go back in, so we need to keep a constant presence in the area. Plus, we feel confident in our ability to detect IEDs.” Just as much as staying aggressive, the soldiers had to be creative.

“If you can dream it, you can do it,” said Staff Sergeant Ed Robinson, a financial analyst for GE Financial in Virginia. Robinson led one of the sniper teams from the 104th Long Range Surveillance Detachment that watched the backs of the vigilant hunter platoons and conducted missions of their own. Robinson said Ramadi was more than just a testing ground for the combined arms team.

“It was simply what is necessary to be effective in this environment,” he said. “Conventional sniper and LRS tactics are not the norm here. We have to combine sniper, ambush, and recon roles into one operation. Because of the nature of the fight, because of the mystery of who the enemy is, you can put different tactics to use and see what works.”

By manning OPs and staying on the offense, Alpha was able to minimize the IED threat.

“IEDs have plagued every unit before us,” said Pelletier. “We’ve been able to sustain single-digit IEDs during our final five months, and we found and disabled 80-90 percent of those.”

Besides stopping and removing emplaced IEDs, Alpha Company had an aggressive focus on locating and detaining the terrorist and insurgent networks responsible for carrying out the attacks, and then forwarding the criminals to the Iraqi court system for prosecution.

“Critical to our success was our ability to develop and employ a stand alone detainee processing system, at the company level, with the highest court conviction rate in the entire Marine Expeditionary Force,” said Pelletier.

Manning, an infantryman, organized the detainee operations for Alpha Company. He says units need to be aware of what the Iraqi courts need to see from the detaining unit.

“… The Soldiers were bogged down in paperwork and weren’t able to discern contraband as well,” he said. “Out of all the detainees we brought in, our conviction rate was about 30 percent. Once we started our detainee ops program from mid-November on, our conviction rate doubled up to over 60 percent. The bottom line isn’t how many guys you’re sending to (prison). The bottom line is that you’re saving your fellow Soldiers’ lives out there with each terrorist you bring in.”

But all the success did not come without significant heartache. Alpha suffered most of their losses early on. Sergeant Joshua Johnson, who died in January during a support mission for the Iraqi soldiers, fought in one of the toughest battles in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division before deploying to Ramadi. Second Lieutenant Mark Procopio, assigned to another company, died while rushing to the aid of a downed helicopter. Specialist Will Fernandez, Sergeant Mike Egan, and First Lieutenant Mark Dooley were killed last September while on their way to assist their fellow Soldiers. Dooley cruised straight through the Infantry Officer Basic Course and Ranger School before deploying with Alpha Company.

On Memorial Day, President Bush quoted Dooley’s letter home during an address at Arlington National Cemetery. In the letter, Dooley said, “Remember that my leaving was in the service of something that we loved, and be proud. The best way to pay respect is to value why a sacrifice was made.”

That was the moral compass that guided Alpha Company.

“No matter how hard it is, you can’t come out here, lose someone close to you and then say kill ’em all,” said Pelletier. “You have to be able to bounce back from that and still have the ability to hand out teddy bears to kids–to demonstrate compassion even after tremendous loss. The bottom line is that you honor their sacrifice by continuing to do what is right.”

Pelletier said the quote, “War will always be a human endeavor” sums up the counterinsurgency fight.

“We focus so much on all the gear, the F-18s, the up-armor,” he said. “In the end, when you strip it down, this is a person-to-person commitment won by individual Soldiers at the lowest tactical level–the team leaders, squad leaders, and platoon leaders.”

As the Soldiers of Alpha Company made their way back home, they left Ramadi behind–knowing of the hardship they endured, the fine Soldiers they lost, and the success they accrued. They also left knowing that a much larger force would be replacing them in their area of operation, but that the struggle against terror will continue for those still in the fight.

“You can’t duplicate this; training cannot duplicate this,” said Allmond of his tour in Ramadi. “Yeah, I hate it here. But if I had the choice, I’d do it all over again.”

Second Lieutenant Aaron Flint, from Fort Harrison, Mont., served as a platoon leader with Alpha Company, Task Force Saber.

COPYRIGHT 2006 U.S. Army Infantry School

COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group