A death in the family

This was an article that was forwarded to me, it was published in the LA Times.

A Death in the Family

The loss of a corporal in Iraq changed the way an Army unit pursued its mission. In the end, a promise was kept and top suspects arrested.

By David Zucchino
Times Staff Writer

March 5, 2005

MUQDADIYA, Iraq - When his battalion took charge here in mid-February, Lt. Col. Roger Cloutier made a vow to himself and his soldiers: If one of them was attacked, the entire battalion would respond swiftly and violently.

"We will hunt down the enemy if he attacks us," the colonel told his staff. "I don't want to give him any rest or refuge. I want to haunt his dreams."

A week later, Cpl. Jacob Palmatier, a 29-year-old administrative clerk, asked to be relieved of desk duty to man a grenade launcher on a convoy headed south. He was in the turret of a 5-ton truck when two slivers of shrapnel from a roadside bomb tore into his midsection.

Minutes into one of his first combat missions, Palmatier bled to death on the side of the road, the 1,481st American troopto die in Iraq.

It was the first combat death in Iraq for the Battle Boars of the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, and it set in motion a series of events that transformed the battalion's very presence here.

It triggered a manhunt that penetrated an insurgent cell, leading to the capture of eight suspected cell leaders. It precipitated a showdown that redefined the relationship between Cloutier and local sheiks and mayors. It forged tighter bonds between the Battle Boars and the local Iraqi army battalion, energizing an investigation into that unit's infiltration by insurgents.

But more than anything, the repercussions of that single American death fulfilled a commander's promise in a way that gave his soldiers a measure of grim satisfaction and a sense that they were somehow more secure.

"It was the catalyst," Cloutier said, red-eyed and weary after two days of round-the-clock raids and firefights after Palmatier's death. "It was like pulling out the one log that breaks the logjam. Everything just started flowing."

The colonel confronted the local political establishment, threatening villages with an invasion of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.

"This will not stand," he told tribal sheiks and village mayors, demanding that they divulge the names of the insurgents who were responsible for the bombing.

Palmatier's boss, 1st Lt. David Suttles, a smooth-cheeked officer four days younger than the corporal, was with him when he died. Suttles believes that Palmatier's was a meaningful death in which good flowed from tragedy.

"Because of the response to the attack, and what we learned and what we did afterward, everyone in this battalion will be safer because of his death," Suttles said, smoking a cigarette on his cot just down the hall from Palmatier's bunk.

At 7:17 a.m. on Feb. 24, a bright, sunny Thursday, someone hiding in a field used a cellphone to trigger an explosive charge attached to two 130-millimeter artillery shells as Palmatier's truck rumbled past. Within minutes, Palmatier was dying and his buddies inside the truck cab, Pfc. Stephen Fuller and Pfc. Marcus Riles, were wounded and struggling to escape from the wreckage.

At Forward Operating Base Normandy, a fortified camp in the area, Cloutier was shaving. He was in a buoyant mood; he had just been told that two insurgents had been blown up and killed while trying to set a roadside bomb. Minutes later, he was told that a man was down on the morning's combat logistical convoy, carrying mail and supplies.

Cloutier sent a quick-reaction force to search for suspects. He surrounded the site with tanks and Bradleys. His Iraqi army counterpart, Col. Thear Ismael Abid Tamimi, set up eight roving checkpoints around Muqdadiya, a market town in the flat farm country on the edge of the Sunni Triangle 60 miles northeast of Baghdad.

At one checkpoint, Iraqi soldiers stopped a gray Opel. A similar car had been used in the assassinations of an Iraqi sergeant major Feb. 20 and a city councilman two days later. Inside, according to military officials, were High-Value Targets Nos. 6 and 8 on the battalion's list of the 10 most-wanted insurgents in its sector of Diyala province.

That arrest helped break open a Sunni Muslim insurgent cell with links to Syria and Chechnya, Cloutier and his intelligence officers said. The two men - brothers in an insurgent group built on blood and tribal ties - had ordered the assassinations, they said.

At the bomb site, Cloutier summoned the city's mayor and police chief. He forced them to look at the blood and wreckage. He warned them, "We're not going to play this game."

The colonel conveyed the same message to tribal sheiks and the mayors of surrounding villages. "I told them I knew that they knew who did this," Cloutier said. The colonel ordered local officials to report to his office at 5 p.m. that day with a list of suspects' names.

Cloutier also wanted to send a message to his soldiers. He had them pick up every bit of metal and paper and wreckage at the site.

They wiped up every drop of blood. He didn't want to leave anything for the insurgents to claim as trophies.

Late that afternoon, sheiks, mayors and police officials filed into Cloutier's sparsely furnished office inside a former Iraqi military compound, just past a stuffed boar's head mounted over the operations center. The colonel had shared tea with most of them during introductory visits in this country where U.S. commanders are like local viceroys, dispensing money and organizing civic projects. He had been cordial and diffident.

Now, 10 hours after Palmatier's death, Cloutier was seething. He did not greet the men. He did not offer them tea. He did not stand.

Cloutier is built like a football lineman, thick through the shoulders and neck. His dominant feature is his massive skull - shaved to the scalp, pink and shiny. In his combat fatigues and boots, coiled in anger, he is a formidable sight.

For nearly an hour, he railed at the Iraqis. "I told them I have money in one hand and tanks in the other," he said. "I asked them what they wanted: the money or the tank."

After he finished, the colonel paused and said, "Now I want the names."

The Iraqis handed him 13 names of alleged insurgents, he said. One by one, he asked the officials to promise to support him and the newly elected Iraqi government against the insurgents. Each man agreed, he said.

Information provided by the officials, along with intelligence from the interrogation of the two suspects from the checkpoint, helped lead Abid and Cloutier to High-Value Target No. 2. The suspect, who had been hunted for a year by the previous battalion in Muqdadiya, was traced to a pair of prefabricated houses along Lake Hamrin near the Iranian border, Cloutier said.

The next night, a convoy of armored Humvees and Bradleys rolled out of Normandy, accompanied by soldiers from Abid's 205th Iraqi army battalion. At the edge of the lake, the American vehicles surrounded two houses.

Iraqi soldiers broke through the front door of the first house. In a bedroom with his wife, his young children asleep in another bedroom, was Target No 2. (Commanders, citing security concerns, did not release the names of detained suspects.)

Soldiers found weapons, ammunition and bomb-making materials in the two houses, intelligence officers said. Also recovered, they said, were documents linking the detained man to guerrillas from the war-torn Russian republic of Chechnya and a photograph of the suspect in Syria with other insurgents.

The next day, soldiers returned to the houses, using sticks to punch out foam ceiling tiles. From above a child's bedroom, a machine gun, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a bag of ammunition clattered to the floor. Soldiers also found booklets titled "Jihad in Iraq" and two identity cards, both with Target No. 2's photo and the words in English: "Syndicate of Honorable Gentilmen in Iraq."

Under interrogation, Target No. 2 provided the names of seven local men who he said served as financiers and planners for the cell, intelligence officers say. The following night, in three raids in downtown Muqdadiya, Iraqi soldiers backed by American troops stormed into several homes and detained five of the seven.

Less than 72 hours after Palmatier's death, three of the battalion's 10 most-wanted men had been captured, along with five others alleged to be key members of the cell.

Cloutier said three of the suspects had ordered the bombing that killed Palmatier. Officials also obtained the name of the man who had planted the bomb, he and an intelligence officer added.

After the raids, Cloutier thought of all the times he had chatted with Palmatier in the hallway. He was glad he had taken the time to get to know him, he said, because his greatest fear was peering into a body bag containing one of his soldiers and not recognizing the face.

"I knew that kid. God, he was a good kid," the colonel said of Palmatier, who left behind a widow, Bridget.

His voice cracked, and he wiped his eyes with his fist. "Screw those bastards. I'll hunt every one of them down. Palmatier died because of some coward."

Inside his desk drawer, the colonel has placed a photo of Palmatier manning the grenade launcher. Next to it is a piece of shrapnel from the fatal roadside bomb.

Across the compound, in Palmatier's barracks room, there was a blank spot on the floor where his cot had been. On a wall was a nail where he had hung his gear. Above it was written his nickname, "P. Diddy," bestowed in honor of his tortured attempts to rap.

His roommate, Pfc. Kenneth Berry, sat in the dark, staring at a DVD on his laptop computer. He mentioned that Palmatier was a college graduate, a history major at Illinois College. He taught Berry to "work smart," he said.

Just two days before his death, Palmatier had been interviewed for a battalion videotape to be sent back to Ft. Benning, Ga. The tape showed a smiling young man with a shaved head and dark-rimmed spectacles discussing Iraqi culture and history.

Down the hall, Fuller, who was hurt in the attack, recalled that Palmatier's body had slammed into him as he sat behind the wheel, fighting to control the truck as it pitched on its side. He had injured his knee, but the psychological effects were worse. The night before, he had met with counselors from the battalion's combat stress team.

"They helped me talk about what happened," Fuller said in a near-whisper.

Lt. Suttles sat smoking in his room across the hall, turning the details of the bombing over in his mind, how he had run back to the stricken truck from his Humvee, trying to calm his soldiers in the chaos and watching a medic frantically try to save the dying corporal. Palmatier never regained consciousness.

Two things helped him sleep at night now, the lieutenant said.

"One, everybody on the ground did exactly what they were supposed to do in the event of an attack," he said. "And two, Cpl. Palmatier didn't suffer."

On Sunday, the battalion assembled in full battle gear for the corporal's memorial service, flanked by dozens of Iraqi soldiers in scarlet berets. Palmatier's rifle, boots, helmet and dog tags were arranged on a pedestal, along with his Purple Heart and Bronze Star. There was also a medallion bearing the battalion's motto: "Our Country, Not Ourselves."

Staff Sgt. Terriance Hamilton, a close friend, sang a hymn called "I Won't Complain."

"He didn't have to go on that mission," Hamilton said afterward. "He thought he should be there."

Cloutier and Suttles fought back tears as they rose to speak. The lieutenant said Palmatier was doing his job perfectly, scanning his zone with the grenade launcher, when the explosion killed him.

The colonel said, "If you measure a man's wealth by the number of people who love him, you'd have to say Jacob Palmatier was rich indeed."

Taps was sounded. Riflemen fired a salute. The first sergeant called the roll, repeating Palmatier's name three times, each call answered by silence.

That evening, photos of the latest detained suspects went up on a display board inside the battalion's cramped intelligence office. Below the words "The Hall of Shame Proudly Presents A Rogues Gallery," the sullen faces of High Value Targets 2, 6 and 8 stared.

One day soon, many in the battalion vowed, the display would carry another photo - that of the man who planted the bomb that ended the promising life of Cpl. Jacob Palmatier.
Outstanding. This article should appear in leadership manuals.
"My Mission,My Men, Myself"

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