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Saturday, November 15, 2003

Jason Blows His Top: A Detailed Account of a Mortar Attack 
Well, it’s been months, but I finally blew up at someone the other night.

It felt good.

2015 hrs. I’m in the aid station writing. The first round was close enough to flex the windows. Four more rounds, about 10 seconds apart, then four more. All close. The guys on the roof sound off with the ‘incoming’ air horn, which is far quieter than the incoming, and always seems to go off after the detonation. Every time I hear it, I wonder to myself why we bother with it.

Then four more rounds. Again, all close. I stick my head out the door and shoo everyone inside, under cover, and clear out so the medics can get set up for any wounded that may come in.

12 rounds would make this mortar attack the most persistent yet. Usually the enemy prefers to fire 3-6 rounds and then get the heck out of dodge. Not this time. Apparently he loaded up the back of his truck with mortar rounds and wanted to use them all. By the rate of fire, and the fact that no windows were broken by the blast, it was probably a 61mm mortar, possibly a section of two, but I don’t think so. It’s hard to tell from inside a concrete building, though. I was not in any real danger.

But I’ve got over a hundred guys around to account for, and my first concern is to positively account for every single one of them as fast as I can. I do not want to learn the next morning that someone out in the latrines or walking about or jogging had taken a frag and had bled out where he lay in the night because nobody knew where he was.

2LT Micah, the medical platoon leader, was out, but his senior noncommissioned officer, SSG Paredo, was there, and I told Paredo to get positive accountability of all his people and give me a thumbs up when ready. Then we both got to work.

I walk outside on the veranda and make my way towards Battalion headquarters, which is in another part of the same building. I’ve got 23 soldiers who work there and 29 more field artillery attachments who live next door, so it’s a good place to start. The front way around is open, and borders on a large concrete parking lot and an open area. The walkway around the building is elevated a couple of feet above the parking lot. 61mm shells have a lethal radius of up to 50 meters or so—more if you’re elevated. I’ve seen the way mortar shell fragments distribute themselves from scars on buildings, and a ground impact definitely projects fragments upwards in a shallow cone shape—maybe 20 or 30 degrees or so and up. Mortars have a blast radius of about 40 meters, and a 'do you feel lucky' radius much larger than that. So anything that landed in the parking lot while I was walking around the building stands a good chance of slicing me up.

Soooo, I took the back way, which provides overhead cover the whole way, and is bordered by sand, a low stone wall, and the river beyond that. Much better cover.

The thought process isn’t that complicated, obviously—I’m just describing the layout. If James Joyce were to place Stephen Daedalus in the scene, and describe the stream of consciousness process, he’d probably simply write “Accountability. No one bleeding out. Headquarters boys, first, then redlegs. Maintenance and mess after. Ooops—better not go that way. Overhead cover in back. 18 inches.”

Joyce would have then completed “Ulysses” in 30 pages, beat Hemmingway to his own prose style, never have bothered with “Finnegan’s Wake,” Molly Bloom would never have discovered the joy of Chiquita bananas, and I could have completed my useless Lit degree a year earlier and saved thousands of dollars. But I digress.

I get to the TOC, and everyone there is busy fighting the battle and trying to get counterfire on the firing point. It hasn’t been three minutes since impact, and the battle captain, 1LT Antoine Smith, is already repeating a grid coordinate and pointing it out on the blowup satellite photo to the Battalion commander. Excellent. Already have radar acquisition. Finally got the Q36 radar pointed in the right direction. Helps when they use the same firing point night after night. Dipshits. Level the place. Work fast. Where’s the Sergeant Major at? Busy helping fight the battle in the TOC. Off duty NCO might be in the living area.

I’m looking for the Battalion Operations sergeant major, SGM ______, who’s in charge of accountability of the Tactical Operations Center. But he’s involved with the battalion commander running the command and control, so I gun for the senior off-shift TOC NCO I can find in a hurry. I figure he might be in the living area. I go through the TOC and enter the living area, and find some of the guys in there. No TOC NCOs, but I find the civil affairs team senior NCO, with one of his four soldiers, watching a video game.

“I need a casualty report for your section, sergeant. I see half your team right here, I just walked past your young specialist on the way in here. You’re only missing sergeant Maureg. I haven’t seen her. Give me a thumbs-up when you’re good.”

“Roger, sir!”

I’m a little irritated at this point. A staff sergeant should have to be reminded to get off his butt and account for his people after a mortar strike. And he should know more about where his people are than I do. The low intensity of this conflict is allowing us to get away with some bad habits and complacency. This mistake would not be tolerated during any rigorous training exercise in peacetime.

Still, the light in his eyes came on right away and he jumped to it in good shape, so I figured the issue was closed. I turned to one of my best specialists in the TOC and said “I’ll be looking for the same thing from the TOC. There’s no NCOs here, so I’m telling you. Spread the word, and I’ll come back for the report.”

“Roger, sir!”

It was Specialist Jeffrey T. a bartender in Kendall, Florida, in real life, and a good sniper and scout. Could be a superb squad leader in any infantry unit in the Army tomorrow. I was in great hands.

“Hoo-ah. See you guys in a bit.”

And off I went. On the way out the door, I see the field artillery NCO already working on tracking down his people. Good. Another blast. Hollower, deeper, more percussive sounding. That’s us. That’s 155s. Excellent. I don’t think it’s been four minutes yet. That’s our fastest yet.” More blasts. The sweet sound of freedom. “That’s ours, guys!” say a few of the older hands. Well, we’re all old hands at this, now. But the radio in the TOC in the next room confirms the fact: it’s the 1st Brigade combat team, firing their 155mm guns from across the river, maybe a mile and a half away. They sound as loud as the 61mm shells that landed within our own compound just minutes before.

Off I go to find the maintenance, mess, S1, and S4 sections, who all live together. Again, the back of the building. I’m pretty safe, although it doesn’t quite feel like it. I find the S4 section intact. S1 section is missing one man, no one knows where he went. “Find him. Give me a thumbs-up.” Maintenance is all accounted for. Only one private around from mess—so I have to keep looking for those guys.

I venture out front now—with our own rounds impacting on the mortar launch point, it’s reasonably safe—they won’t be able to do any firing with Hell opening up over their heads, anyway. I’m looking for 1LT B., the support platoon leader, who lives in a reinforced tent across the road. I find him walking out to check on his own guys, and we walk into the mess tent together. I find three mess NCOs calmly watching the big screen satellite TV.

“Got everybody?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ok,” I said. “Next time there’s incoming I need a thumbs-up from you guys. Don’t come running across the open looking for me when there’s still rounds falling, but I need to know everyone’s ok.”

“Roger, sir. Were there people looking for you?”

“Nobody came looking for me. That’s the problem!,” I laughed. But things were good here. I wasn’t too keen on guys watching TV in a tent during a mortar strike, but they had walls around them, and I also wasn’t too keen on them LEAVING the four walls to cross the open area to find better cover during the next mortar strike. I just chalked that up to a judgement call on the ground and moved on. Mortars and commo next. Medics should be done by now. Truckers last.
I walked over past the medics area and found the mortar platoon leader, 1LT John Czworka. Good, level-headed man. I asked if he had accountability of his platoon, and he said his platoon sergeant was still working on it. Fine. I stepped into the aid station. All up. Good. Where’s 2LT Micah? He went to the TOC. Good.

Off I go, to the communications platoon’s living area, again using the rear side of the building. There’s bunches of 155 rounds launching now, and they make me jump everytime I hear them. This is by far the most aggressive counterbattery fire I’ve heard go out all year.

WHOOONGA!!!

That’s the sound of democracy headed downrange. Good. Pulverize the bastards.
WHOOONGA!!!!

Make them a pink mist, or scared shitless to try mortaring us again.


It’s now been a good six or seven minutes—maybe ten-- since the first incoming round hit the dirt. I find the signal officer, standing out back. “What’s up?”

WHOOONGA!!!

“Hey, Dave, what’s up. Is commo accounted for?”

“So, are you loving it?”

(here’s the promised blow-up you’ve all been waiting for…)

IS COMMO FUCKING ACCOUNTED FOR?!?!?!?!?!?!?!!!!!

Steve jumps out of his skin. I had forgotten I was even capable of an eruption like that.

But he instantly said “Alright! I don’t know! I’ll go check!” and went inside. I stayed outside to take a deep breath and make sure I wasn’t still angry. I wasn’t. He was trying to lighten things up with levity—which I do all the time, myself, but just timed it wrong with me. I only had one thing on my mind, and I was just not tolerant of anything that would slow me down or distract me in the slightest.

WHOOONGA!!!

WHOOONGA!!!

I felt pretty good actually.

WHOONGA!!!

I felt even better. I went inside after Dave. All his guys were ok. I got a report that the mortars were all ok. I grabbed Dave by the arm and said “Dude, You gotta understand that my sense of humor changes RADICALLY when we’re in contact. I still love you, man.”

I think he understood just fine. He knows it was just business.

To be honest, I wasn’t too happy that that much time had gone by and he still hadn’t gotten accountability of his crew, but his senior NCO was all over it, so no one was left hanging, uncovered by their leadership. And that's mostly his senior NCO's job, anyway. Everything was working as it should. Dave hadn't done anything wrong--I still felt bad.

That left the truckers, who were 300 meters away across open ground. They were supposed to move to Bravo company’s building, in case of a mortar strike, and radio in, which they hadn’t yet. But the radio net was all tied up anyway, so there was no way they could. I went back to the aid station and told them where I was going, so that if more incoming came in and I didn’t come back in 10 minutes they’d know where to look for me. But one of my medics said the truck platoon leader,, was just by and said all his people were ok.

I went back to the S1 section to follow up with their missing man. Found him sitting at his desk. HHC was up. A quick reaction force of several Humvees with 50 cal. Machine guns was already rolling out the gate to seize the mortar firing point. I gave the thumbs up report to the Battalion S1 and went back to the TOC: our O.P.s said our first rounds were right on target. With a timely radar acquisition of the firing point, quick response by the field artillery, aggressive counterbattery fire with some major ordnance, and a mounted quick reaction force leaving the gate in a matter of minutes to seize control of the field—hopefully, before their survivors have a chance to evacuate any wounded, weapons, or vehicles—I think there is an excellent chance that this mortar crew made the last mistake of their lives tonight.

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