Kiowa Down !!

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November 22, 2004

‘They weren’t going to get this bird’
Kiowa down, pilots injured. Stryker troops resolve to rescue fliers and keep helo out of enemy hands

By Matthew Cox
Times staff writer

TALL AFAR, Iraq — The ramp drops and the infantry scouts sprint out the back of their Stryker vehicle, their gear rustling in the early-morning calm of the streets.
The only other sounds heard during the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment’s Oct. 13 sweep for insurgents are roosters crowing in the distance.

But the scene was dramatically different just five weeks earlier, when another routine sweep landed these soldiers in an all-out fight to recover a downed American helicopter and its crew.

No media were on hand to record the battle in this northern Iraq city of more than 300,000, but Army Times reconstructed the action through interviews with more than a dozen soldiers who were in the fight.

It was Sept. 4 at 8:50 a.m. operating about 1,500 meters apart, 5-20’s Scout Platoon and B Company had just completed searches for terrorist leaders in the eastern section of Tall Afar. The battalion is part of 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (SBCT).

Two OH-58 Kiowa helicopters were buzzing overhead, providing overwatch for the 160 or so soldiers on the ground.

The calm routine changed in a flash as rocket-propelled grenades streaked toward the helos.

Scout Platoon leader 1st Lt. Rob McChrystal saw a round hit one of the Kiowas behind the engine.

“I saw it kind of burst into flames,” he said. “It started to spin and go toward the ground. The first thing that went through my mind was, ‘This is not a good situation. We need to get there before the enemy does,’” he recalled. “The [thing] that goes through your mind is them jumping on the Kiowa dancing around and executing the pilots. … We all loaded up. Guys came sprinting from all different directions.”

Lt. Col. Karl Reed, 5-20 commander, didn’t have a visual on the attack on the Kiowa, but he didn’t have to. What he heard from the tactical operation center inside his Stryker command vehicle told him there was big trouble outside.

“I could hear a barrage of fire open up,” Reed described in his official account of the battle. “The very next thing I heard on the net was, ‘Aircraft down! Aircraft down!’ I could see the hovering wingman in the area of the downed aircraft, but the terrain was dense.”

Pilots, stay put

Reed fought with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He now was going to lead men in what he described as “the most complex and potentially deadly firefight I have ever witnessed.”

It was 8:57 a.m.

Reed made radio contact with the downed aircraft from 3rd Squadron, 17th U.S. Cavalry, and told the Kiowa pilots to stay put.

He assured them that he could see their icon on his computer screen’s digitized map page and knew they were less than 1,000 meters from his position.

“A killed or captured pilot began to race through my mind, but we were lucky we were so close,” Reed said.

B Company commander Capt. Damien Mason was coordinating the medical evacuation of three Iraqi national guard soldiers who had been injured in a separate RPG attack.

That’s when he heard that the Kiowa went down. He soon regrouped his forces, anticipating the order to move to the scene.

The Scout Platoon’s four Strykers, also less than 1,000 meters from the shoot-down, arrived at the scene within five minutes. Soldiers dismounted about 75 meters from the Kiowa and quickly secured the crash site and set up a perimeter.

The engine was still smoldering. The tail boom had crushed a rock wall. The Kiowa was a total loss. The pilots were huddled nearby.

“They were very happy to see us when we showed up,” McChrystal said.

Both pilots were disoriented and had suffered back injuries. One could walk, but Scout Platoon soldiers carried the other on a litter to the Stryker medical evacuation vehicle.

Meanwhile, with the prize of a downed U.S. helo tempting them, dozens of enemy fighters surged to the area and opened fire.

McChrystal said he stopped counting the incoming blasts after the enemy hit his perimeter with 15 RPG rounds.

“We were definitely outnumbered,” McChrystal said, recalling he had about 20 soldiers with him. Unmanned aerial vehicle surveillance counted about 60 insurgents moving toward the crash site from different directions.

“I knew their resolve to get that Kiowa was high, based on the volume of fire,” he said.

“They hit us from the west — I could tell it was coordinated because they would back up and hit us from the south.”

Sgt. Charles Foster, a sniper team leader and another sniper set up on a rooftop on the southeast corner from the crash site.

They started to take heavy machine gun and small-arms fire, but answered with deadly accuracy. Foster said the sniper he was with shot 12 enemy with his M24 sniper rifle in the first 20 minutes.

Still, the enemy continued to try to close in on the disabled Kiowa.

“The enemy was moving on us in a matter of 10 minutes from the time the bird went down,” Reed said. “This was very unlike the enemy we had encountered before in Tall Afar — they were forming and attacking in our direction with courage and coordination.”

Mason remembers hearing the worry in McChrystal’s voice over the radio. “Hey, I need more forces to hold onto this aircraft,” Mason heard him say.

Bring in Bravo

At 9 a.m., Reed ordered Mason to bring in Bravo Company and secure the west side of the crash site. Though the downed Kiowa was only 1,500 meters away, a hostile urban jungle of blind alleyways and two- and three-story buildings separated them from their objective.

Meanwhile, heavy enemy fire prevented the Scout Platoon from clearing the surrounding buildings to gain the high ground in the urban terrain as Reed had directed. “We were losing initiative,” Reed recalled.

Determined to get a closer look, he dismounted from his Stryker command vehicle and headed toward the crash site with members of his staff on foot.

“As I look back now, I realize that we just did not have the bodies on the ground required to properly hold that particular piece of ground,” Reed said.

A section of A Troop, 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry, was blocking avenues of approach to the rear and did not have the dismounts to help.

When Reed found Scout Platoon leader McCrystal, “he was clearly in need of more men. … I had gained a better understanding of the enemy situation against their small element by making the face-to-face link-up,” Reed said.

The two leaders quickly hashed out a plan to hold the position.

“I told him he would have to potentially hold for quite a while,” Reed said. “Everyone on the ground was painfully aware that this was going to be a fight until B Company effected link-up.”

Reed admitted he was surprised by the intensity of the fight.

“It was the first time in 10 months I had observed men returning to their Strykers for re-supply of ammunition,” he said.

Meanwhile, B Company had run into problems of its own as it struggled to maneuver to the 1,500 meters to the crash site.

Rolling down one stretch of road, it was bracketed by heavy fire. Staff Sgt. Scott Hoover, vehicle commander of a Stryker anti-tank system, was in the lead.

“They were shooting out of the doors and windows,” he said of the insurgents.

“They hit us with over 15 RPGs,” said Mason, who described how the enemy seemed unafraid to mount close attacks.

“A lot of them were on the ground around our Strykers,” Mason said. “There was one guy — he had a PKC machine gun. One of my guys nearly cut him in half. … It was a long, linear, near ambush.”

One RPG round blasted into one of the company’s lead Strykers, damaging the transmission.

“I felt something slam into us,” recalled Sgt. Bryan Dabel, mortar section leader, who was inside the Stryker when it got hit. “We knew we were in the middle of a kill zone.”

The Stryker managed to roll out of the area for a few hundred meters. Hoover’s Stryker backed up to secure the front of the disabled Stryker. “It was very hectic, you really didn’t have time to think,” Hoover said. “There was so many [anti-Iraqi forces] coming from everywhere, there was a lot of quick shooting.”

“We had seven RPGs shot directly at our vehicle. … Everything was happening so fast.”

Sept. 4 was a war-zone reality check for B Company. Until then, the unit had only heard of this kind of fighting in areas such as Fallujah and Najaf, said Staff Sgt. Joe Labrosse, platoon sergeant for 1st Platoon.

“It was our turn now,” he said. “We were out the hatches. Everyone in the vehicle was firing. If we were running out of ammo, everybody was handing magazines to each other.”

Insurgents fired machine guns and RPGs all along the main road that B Company advanced along. “It was a gantlet,” Mason recalled.

The situation looked bad.

“We had a static helicopter that wasn’t going anywhere; I had a static Stryker that wasn’t going anywhere, and we were taking fire from three different directions — from the south, north and west,” said Mason, who added that he began to wonder why they weren’t just blowing the bird in place and moving on.

“I thought to myself, you know, we are not the only guys hurting,” Mason said, thinking of the outnumbered Scout Platoon.

But with the column at a dead halt, he knew they weren’t going anywhere until his soldiers were able to hook up that disabled Stryker to another by a tow bar so it could be pulled out.

That’s what Dabel and his fellow soldiers had to accomplish under constant enemy fire.

“Jumping out in the middle of RPG fire was scary, but that had to be done, so you didn’t think about it,” Dabel said.

“It got a little nerve-wracking but everyone kept their head,” Dabel said.

Mason then ordered 3rd Platoon to break off and move to the crash site and assist Scout Platoon until the rest of B Company could get moving.

Gathering the defenses

By 9:30 a.m., B Company had consolidated near the crash site, but heavy enemy fire was preventing 3rd Platoon from securing the four buildings that formed an L-shaped high ground around the crash site.

A UAV flying overhead was monitoring a buildup of about 20 more insurgents linking up with several cars. They were taking RPGs and machine guns out of the trunks and moving east — straight into the alleyways that led to the Scout Platoon, Reed recalled.

Reed received word that two F-16s had come on station to provide close-air support, and the Sunday punch he needed now came in the form of a 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition.

The target was a burning wall at an intersection hit by RPG rounds earlier. The smoking structure was about 300 meters west of the 5-20 scouts and 300 meters due north of B Company.

The challenge was to drop the JDAM close to the enemy without harming friendly forces.

“Dropping a 2,000 pound bomb in the middle of a city close to maneuvering troops can get hairy,” said Reed, who was able to give his units a three-minute warning.

When Mason learned of the incoming JDAM, he saw his opening. “I said ‘OK, as soon as that bomb hits, I’m going to flank around and take those buildings.’”

Soon after, the JDAMs smashed into the battle zone with shocking force. The explosion drove a huge plume of smoke into the air.

“We moved under the concussion,” Mason said. “When that JDAM hit, they didn’t know what was going on.”

The blast stunned the enemy and B Company soldiers exploited the moment, rapidly dismounting and charging to clear buildings and secure an overwatch position.

It was now 9:57 a.m.

“The timing of their arrival was as good as I could have asked for,” Reed said.

Perhaps more than anyone, Scout Platoon leader McChrystal was also relieved.

“Right before B Company showed up … we are afraid we getting overrun here,” he said. “Once 3rd Platoon and the rest of B Company showed up, I knew we could defend this crash site. They weren’t going to get this bird.”

But Reed couldn’t enjoy the moment for long — he still had troops and a helo to safely get out of the area.

“C Company was on the way, and although I didn’t know how the hell we were going to get this twisted wreck out of there, I was depending on C Company to have thought through what they needed,” he said.

But it turned out that even JDAMs had not put an end to the attacks that day.

Reed’s interpreter told him over the radio that someone in the police department was directing locals to “protect the mosque from coalition forces.” It was right next to the crash site.

That call to arms sparked intense fire from three sides. The new action, after nearly two hours of combat, forced soldiers to leave covered positions for more ammunition.

“You could see soldiers running to get more ammo from their vehicles, passing cans of ammo and AT4s forward to dismounted positions over the tops of roofs and through windows,” Reed said.

Time for the TOWs

Troops aboard one Stryker pumped off two TOW “bunker-buster” missiles, helping slow the attack. The first missile hit a wall, blowing a cloud of debris into the roadway and hitting about five insurgents. The second missile hit a truck in which several enemy with RPGs were trying to hide.

Mason said the TOW shots finally signaled that they were going to put down the insurgent attacks in this operation.

“When I heard these TOWs go off, I realized we had fire superiority, we held the high ground and we had heavier weapons than anyone,” Mason said.

The enemy still got in some licks, however. Insurgents lobbed some 60mm mortar rounds, slinging shrapnel and injuring 5-20 soldiers and Iraqi national guard troops.

One round landed right next to the Stryker medical evacuation vehicle where the two injured pilots were being treated. The blast punctured several tires, Reed recalled.

Everyone repositioned, Reed recalled, and at 10:35 a.m., C Company arrived.

With the crash site still under heavy fire, C Company’s 1st Sgt. James Mapes and a little more than a platoon of men went to work on the OH-58, using large power saws to cut off the bird’s rotors, Reed said. They disconnected the rocket pods and hooked a HEMTT truck’s large crane and two tow ropes, attached to Strykers, to drag the fuselage aboard the flatbed truck.

“I couldn’t believe how prepared they were to recover this aircraft,” Reed recalled. “It looked like they had rehearsed.”

Still, 60mm mortar rounds kept coming. That is, until an F-16 strafed the area. By 11:30 a.m., the Kiowa was loaded, and the Americans began moving out.

Troops with B Company had killed 66 enemies and the Scout Platoon killed 46, Reed said. There were also 17 enemy wounded.

The number of 5-20 troops killed: Zero. However, five soldiers were wounded, in addition to the two pilots.

the soldiers of 5-20 said the mission to recover the downed Kiowa and its two injured pilots was the most intense fight they had encountered since deploying to Iraq in December 2003.

Scout Platoon’s Sgt. 1st Class Michael Keyes, who jumped into Panama with the 75th Ranger Regiment in 1990, said he thought he’d seen it all, until this fight.

“I thought, well, I’ve seen more s--- in Panama in four days until we got up here to Tall Afar,” he said. “Tall Afar has been pretty intense.”

Mason agreed. “It was definitely the biggest fight — on the scale of numbers of RPGs involved, this was the biggest fight,” Mason said.

“I’m amazed at how few casualties we had.

The insurgents “were trying very hard to get to that helicopter … and turn it into a victory for themselves.

“We stayed and we fought and I’m glad we did.”

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