Operation Viking Hammer, Special Forces in Iraq, 2003. The only firsthand account.

Hello all, I was one of the few Green Beret’s of the 10th Special Forces Group that participated in Operation Viking Hammer in 2003. The first chapter in my book called Quest For War is the only first hand account ever written of this significant battle. I’ve been told repetitively that this chapter of my book is one of the most eloquent conveyances of what it’s like to be in combat ever put into words. I decided to provide an excerpt today so I could link to it from the Operation Viking Hammer Wikipedia page, and because I want people to know how brutal combat really is. A good followup is my piece called Haircuts for the Dead


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In accordance with the battle plan, my team had organized into four separate elements. All of the Green Beret teams were grouped into “attack prongs” that were given a color as a name. Three of my teammates, one carrying a Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle, were part of the Green Prong. The other part of my team organized into another three smaller groups and we constituted the Yellow Prong. I was the leader of one group of the three yellow prong elements, and my objective was to stay on the front line of the attack into Sargat. My Team Sergeant and one of my other teammates formed another Yellow Prong element, and their mission was also to push the front line with a different group of Kurds. My Captain, Uncle Andy (the leader of the CIA Special Activities Team we’d been working with for months before the war even started), and some other CIA personnel, constituted the command and control element. Each of our teams was going to integrate into a 500 to a 1000 man Peshmerga force.

The mission of the yellow prong, and the purpose of Operation Viking Hammer, was to secure the Sargat Chemical Facility: a place that had gained national level interest because of its potential to tie Sadaam to Al Qaida, and because it was suspected to contain evidence of chemical weapons or poisons production. I couldn’t believe I was finally part of something this big. [1]

I walked outside and glanced into the dark sky, then walked to the trucks among hundreds of Kurds that were shining flashlights onto the loam dirt and concrete buildings inside the compound, chattering with one another in Kurdish as they prepared weapons and ammunition. We loaded our .50 cal and MK19 along with tripods and ammo cans into the back of a small white pickup truck [2]. I boarded the back of another similar pickup truck that had small benches in the bed. I sat down, and placed Old Sarge’s buttstock on the floor, barrel up, and squeezed it tightly with my famous black leather fingerless gloves that now had duct tape keeping the cutoff fingers from falling apart; the same gloves I was wearing that memorable day in Kosovo. I reflected on that experience for a second until the Kurdish driver started the truck, and took off in the general direction of AAI’s lair in the massive mountains that loomed in the distance. Along the bumpy road, I watched the outline of the jagged mountains grow crisper against the sky as the sun rose behind them. My senses started to tingle as my nervousness increased.

As the truck grew closer to the small village of Dekon, and the sun had risen a bit more, a bewildering impressionistic scene materialized before me as I squinted and peered into the distance through the dust from over the roof of the moving truck. I saw thousands of Peshmerga everywhere. A giant dark and tan blob of them sprawled for at least a mile wide across the sparsely grassed flatlands not far from the edge of the foothills. The massive panoramic scene of the Peshmerga horde was interspersed with hundreds of cars and trucks and other vehicles of all types that were coming and going from as far as I could see in every direction. The cool breeze blew the rising dust up and away, thousands of feet into the huge, orange, dawn sky above the sprawl of warriors. Belts of machine gun bullets and worn weapon’s barrels reflected in the burgeoning sun and twinkled like space matter within what looked like a dark and imperceptibly massive spiral galaxy that was comprised of Kurdish warriors, laid oblique onto the green and brown terrain.

As the truck grew a bit closer, I was able to distinguish Peshmerga fighters of all ages pouring out of taxi cabs, overloaded small cars, pickup trucks, farming tractors, motorcycles, and all of them were wearing their best PUK Peshmerga attire. Some had pistols with fancy handles stuffed into their waistbands, most had AKs, but some had belt-fed machine guns, shotguns, or hunting rifles. Some had colorful bags or backpacks with embroidered flowers and other designs on them, and still others had brought the whole family along.

As I scanned the crowd of black and white checkered head wraps, baggy brown pants, and moustaches, I was confused by the presence of a few extra-large dump trucks. After I watched Peshmerga cram into the back of them, I realized that the dump trucks actually served as Peshmerga armored personnel carriers. I took special notice of a fascinating green flatbed truck, about the size of a big 2.5-ton Army truck, that had a giant two barreled anti-aircraft machine gun bolted to its bed, and it reminded me of a battleship. I also spotted many land rovers that had 106 MM recoilless rifles or Katoosha rocket pods mounted to them.

As our vehicle penetrated the edge of the Kurdish mass, the collective murmur of thousands of Peshmerga became audible, grew louder and louder, and then the smell of human feces mixed with dust and body odor became overwhelming. The Kurds cheered vigorously for us alongside the truck as we parted the sea of them, with their weapons raised into the air above intense dark eyes. I waved and smiled to them all as the truck slowly crept into the center of the sprawling Peshmerga horde.

The Kurdish leadership expected at least eight thousand Kurds to show up, and as many as ten thousand. I estimated that the crowd of Peshmerga covered at least one entire square mile, not counting the vehicles everywhere. This War against AAI was like a community event to the PUK, and Kurds from all over Northeastern Iraq had hitched a ride any way they could to get there.

We got off the truck and found the Kurdish leaders that we would be moving through the battle with. We also conversed randomly amongst ourselves to help cope with our nervousness, but soon the nervousness got the best of me, and I really needed to use a bathroom. Someone told me there was a small shed about 250 meters away through the crowd that was “the bathroom.” I navigated through the crowd for a few minutes, and hundreds of smiling Kurds patted my back and shoulder. One Kurd said “I love your George Bush!” emphatically only inches from my face. Finally, I cut through the gracious and smelly crowd and made it to the shed.

When I opened the clumsy wooden door, I instantly knew the shed had been the source of the intense fecal smell. There were two small mountains of human feces in the two back corners of the shed, and the holes in the floor were not even visible anymore. There was a metal rake leaned against the wall so people could make space to defecate by raking other people’s feces to the corners. There were smear marks on the walls where the Kurds had wiped off their left hands. I used the rake to clear a spot and there was fecal matter on the handle, and I got some on my black leather gloves. I did my business and left as fast as I could; it was unbelievable, but I had bigger things to worry about.

It was full daylight when I walked out into the fresh air, and I reached down and grabbed some sand to clean my gloves. I instantly noticed that all of the Kurds in my immediate vicinity were very intensely facing the mountains, and some murmured to each other in low serious voices without looking at each other. I curiously faced the mountains as well, to see what they were all looking at, and my blood ran cold. I saw figures of AAI fighters on the first ridgeline watching us with defiance, and I instantly knew why everyone looked so solemn. The scene reminded me of the movie Braveheart, where the two enemies faced off before battle, and like the movie, we were just waiting for some kind of signal to begin the charge.

I made my way back through the crowd to where my team was, and my Captain told me there were aircraft inbound to “prep” the front ridgeline (“prep” is a fancy military term for bombing the hell out of somewhere before you go in). As the sound of the approaching aircraft became audible in the distance, I watched the AAI fighters run back off the ridge out of my view, just before the ridgeline burst into violent explosions as three or four large bombs dropped in succession along the crest. The ethereal boom of the thunderous explosions shook the earth and sent a tingling shock through my body, and the crowd of Peshmerga cheered vigorously, at least until the AAI fighters reappeared on the ridge not more than a minute later. The AAI were not distinguishable as anything more than dark abstract anthropomorphic shapes due to the distance, but I could feel that they had no fear.

At that moment, from the unexplored places in my mind, a feeling arose that I had never felt so strongly before. The feeling was the unique brand of fear people feel when they face another group of human beings that wants to kill them [3].

A Peshmerga man in his 40s, who had his weapon slung and wore a typical pair of tan baggy Peshmerga pants (which we called MC Hammer pants), began to climb up the side of the battleship, which was now completely encircled by hundreds of restless Peshmerga. He expertly manipulated the creaky cranks and wheels until the massive cannon pointed in the direction of the AAI figures on the ridge. The barrels of the weapon were probably ten feet long, and they both had large cylinders on the ends that looked like giant silencers.

The Kurd fired the weapon, and my ears instantly rang from the noise. The gun was exceptionally loud, and made a disturbing metal-on-metal grating sound as it fired. The sharp repetitive bark of the weapon’s report rolled like thunder towards the mountains, and then echoed back as a slightly more dissipated form. The unnatural smell of gunpowder from the cannon became mixed with the smell of human feces, and then drifted over the murmuring horde in the cool breeze. The battleship’s tracers looked like glowing softballs flying through the air towards the ridge. I assumed the battleship was firing flak rounds because the rounds exploded in the air above the ridge. The cannon fired so fast and powerfully, and it rocked the truck back and forth so violently, that the surrounding Peshmerga horde rippled as hundreds of men recoiled from around it. The battleship made the AAI Fighters scramble, and again dozens of their dark forms disappeared from view over the ridge. [4]

The firing of the battleship was the signal to charge. The expansive Peshmerga mob began to build a collective, invisible momentum, the kind you can feel propel you forward without needing to be told. In response to this propulsion, the line of trucks and crowd of unconventional warriors began to ooze towards the mountains. I too was compelled forward by the unspoken force of energy. As the sea of fighters advanced, a low and gruff war cry began to emulate from the crowd. It was like how the men in Braveheart yelled as they began to charge the enemy, except we were all carrying rifles and machine guns instead of broad swords and battle axes.

I jumped into the back of a light pickup truck as it crept towards the mountain stronghold. From my elevated position in the back of the pickup, I was floating on top of an impetuous tan colored sea of weapon clad Peshmerga wearing black and white head wraps, all of whom were trotting, elbow to elbow, eyes trained on AAI’s mountain den. Some AAI fighters were scurrying along the ridge. Soon there were more Kurds firing the 106s, and the battleship continued to fire over our heads onto the ridge to help secure our approach to the valley entrance.

We reached a destroyed AAI checkpoint and the Green prong branched off, as planned, and they hustled towards the ridgeline to my left. I wished them well, and I watched my teammates walk straight up the enormous ridge distributed among their Peshmerga until they became indistinguishable shapes among their horde. I continued forward towards the opening of the valley, and then I heard the Green prong come under fire, which made the hair stand up on the back of my neck because I knew it wouldn’t be long until we made contact as well.

We continued towards the mouth of the valley, and drove by one of the checkpoints that we had observed so many times during the Advanced Force Operations mission I had done prior. There was someone’s burnt and now rotting lower leg laying on the ground with the jagged tibia completely exposed. The foot was still wearing a boot, and there was shredded skin, meat, and shards of clothing attached. The Kurds kicked the rotting human leg out of the way emotionlessly as we all continued to move forward another couple hundred meters. There were 1500 Kurds spread out behind and in front of me when we finally stopped. I dismounted and glanced in the direction of the continuing sound of the Green prong’s sporadic firing to my left. [5]

I moved rapidly on foot along the windy dirt road, a mere speck within the enormity of the Peshmerga crowd, careful not to venture into the long grass because the Kurds had told us prior that there were landmines, which made me perceive the grass as frightening and unnatural. As I walked up the valley among the mass of Peshmerga towards the enemy my sense of imminent danger increased with each step.

I continued around the bend and finally the great expanse of the Sargat valley extended before me. To my left I saw a blur of rough green and brown grass extending for thousands of yards along a massive bald ridge with jagged rocks strewn all over the place. The bombs that were dropped a few minutes prior had perverted the landscape, thrown blackened rocks everywhere, and casted a burnt ozone smell into the air. To my front, the narrow light-brown dirt road slithered up the sparsely grassy and rocky valley floor up and through a small village called Gulp, which was about one kilometer away. The village had jagged but beautiful layers of snowcapped mountains far behind its primitive outline. These mountains marked the Iranian border, and essentially comprised the finish line for this attack; which seemed like a hundred miles away. To my right I observed a small knoll with a few small shrub-like trees on top and some piles of rocks. I was glad that I brought Old Sarge and not my M4 carbine as I gazed across the expansive terrain.

I made radio contact with my company mortar team as I continuously scanned the hills to my front along with the horde that surrounded me. I was encircled by a whirling blur of tan MC Hammer pants, thick black moustaches, white and black head wraps, the yellow glistening of belts of machine gun bullets, the rattle of weapons, the smell of body odor, and incessant nervous chatter in Kurdish. My senses were overloaded by the size of the terrain, the crowd of smelly warriors chattering and clattering around me, and the sound of pitched shouting and machine gun fire from the Green prong to my left. So far this attack was everything I dreamed it would be.

Suddenly, machine gun fire broke out from my right and front simultaneously. The clarity of the world around me instantly froze and then became a mirror that shattered into fractals of confusion and sunlight and sky and blue and green as I searched for cover. The Peshmerga began sprinting toward the sound of machine gun fire, and their murmuring turned into frantic shouting as bullets snapped overhead and weapons fire echoed around me. My heart rate and nerves surged, and there was nowhere to take cover. I was on an open road in an open valley, with possible landmines off the road. That feeling of nakedness and doom that I had felt a few days prior when a mortar almost hit me swept over me again. I got down in the prone in a small rut on the side of the road, a pathetic attempt at cover, relieved that I hadn’t laid on a landmine, and began to scan the knoll to the right through my rifle’s scope to try and identify where the fire was coming from. I could see the Peshmerga on the offensive, already at the bottom of the knoll, running in a swarm towards the firing. I spotted what looked like an AAI Fighter near a pile of rocks, but I could not confirm well enough that it was not a Kurd. The Kurds were moving so fast that they could have made it there by then so I didn’t take the shot.

Bullets were flying everywhere. Tracers bounced off of the hillsides and dirt around me. The Kurds began to spread out in flanking operations, having no choice but to accept the risk of landmines and venture off of the road.

I began to run with my team to the front towards Gulp, but slowed down, looked up, and scanned the sky when I heard the rapidly growing sound of a Jet flying at low altitude, approaching from behind me. All of the Peshmerga around me intensely scanned the sky with both fear and awe in their concentrated eyes, mouths agape under dark moustaches. As the aircraft grew rapidly closer, it sounded like a knife was ripping through the atmosphere like a giant piece of heavy blue canvas. The ear piercing sound of the jet grew even more colossal and unnatural when the pilot fired a massive burst from the aircraft’s main machine gun at the hillside just beyond Gulp. The hillside burst into dust as if it had erupted instantly, and I felt each of the hundreds of small explosions in my gut. I instinctually crouched in response to the devastation I had just witnessed as I ran towards Gulp. The AAI fire stopped and the Kurds and I cheered triumphantly; The motivational effect of the airstrike was instantly realized. The Peshmerga horde, and I among them, sprinted and screamed towards Gulp as the noise of the aircraft faded and became a background tone for the Kurdish chatter and battle rattle that surrounded me.

The magnitude of the scene was almost imperceptible as I ran along the road. Thousands of Kurdish fighters ran and yelled towards the hills, the sound of machine gun fire was omnipresent, aircraft streaked overhead, the smell of burnt ground and body odor mixed with machine gun grease flooded my flared nostrils, wounded Peshmerga limped past me, and the Kurds were thoroughly distributed across the vast terrain like locusts. [6,7]

We made it to Gulp, and I stopped and stood next to a very old stone Mosque; the one I had seen from a distance. The Mosque had two holes in its roof, and I caught a glimpse of dead bodies on the inside through some openings in the primitive outer walls. In close vicinity to the Mosque, there were several dead AAI bodies on the ground. Blood trails from the bodies steamed in the cold morning air and ran like small rivers through the micro terrain near each corpse. I picked up one of the Radical Islamic teaching books that were scattered around the outside of the mosque. The cover had Arabic writing on it, and pictures of British and American flags burning with the Twin Towers smoking in the background.

The vehicles caught up with us, and we miraculously united with our truck that had our heavy weapons in it, so I jumped into the back and we continued to advance towards Sargat. One large group of Peshmerga followed another Green Beret team south, and another large horde continued with us. As we drove out of Gulp, I swallowed dust, inhaled the burnt air, and continued to look at the motionless dead bodies until they were out of site, masked by terrain.

We started receiving fire from a valley to our south and rounds pinged off the earth and stones around the truck I was in. We all jumped out and I tried to locate the source of the fire, which I failed to do. I got frustrated because this was the second time we’d taken fire, and the second time I had been unsuccessful at identifying exactly where it was coming from. The terrain was incredibly huge and mostly light brown, with small tads of green, so the tan uniforms of the AAI fighters blended in well. [8]

My Team Sergeant spotted them, and he told us to pull the MK19 off the truck and set it up. I faced up the hill to our east in case we were attacked from over the hill. He fired the MK19 for about 50 or so rounds and the AAI fire stopped. Either the AAI who were shooting at us died, or they ran away, or the advancing Kurds to our south took them out.

None of us knew that the Green and Red prongs were flushing the bulk of the AAI fighters into Sargat. We were about to hit hundreds of them head on.

We quickly threw the MK19 in the truck, I jumped in the back again, and we kept moving forward. We drove onward until I had a full view up the valley that led to Sargat. I could not see Sargat yet, but I knew it was right around the corner. Prior to the Attack during all the preparations, and because of all the intelligence we had collected on the AFO mission, my mind had constructed a vision of Sargat as some kind of evil medieval fortress or demonic monster, so my anxiety surged as I got closer [9]. My team and I dismounted and continued on foot among the Kurds.

In the distance across the valley, along the Green Prong’s ridge, I saw their horde pressing forward on the high ground, and I knew my teammates were amongst the mass of advancing human forms. The gunfire, explosions, smoke, and Kurdish yelling increased in volume continuously as we progressed further east.

I rounded a corner caused by a spur in the terrain, and there were tracers flying and ricocheting everywhere. The Kurds screamed at us to get down with crazed intensity in their eyes and I ran for cover. One of my teammates had the M240 machine gun and a few Kurds helped us with ammo. We ran forward to where a cluster of Peshmerga was pinned down along the road, and I focused my vision intensely on the foot of the ridge on the other side of the valley where the majority of fire seemed to be coming from. I could have run one hundred miles because of the adrenaline.

We ran through a light sprinkling of snapping tracers until we found cover behind a very small finger that extended into the valley. The streaming tracer bullets that were accompanied by snapping sounds kept me low as we set up the M240 and I started spotting for AAI. There were a few AAI below a rocky part of the Green Prong’s ridge about 300 meters away, firing up at the Green Prong as they advanced. All of the Kurds around me fired into the same area, but their fire was not very effective. My teammate unleashed a hail of fire with the M240, and the AAI dispersed a bit while I scanned with Old Sarge.

Through my scope, I saw a bearded AAI fighter moving backwards, and firing upwards at members of the Green prong. I placed my mil dot crosshairs on his tan waist. At this range, since my sight was set to 500 I knew that aiming at his waist would put the round in the chest area. My training took over and I became super calm for a second, I completely ignored the chaos of war around me, and became hyper-aware of my own breathing.

I inhaled then slowly exhaled, and when my breath was almost all the way out I carefully squeezed the trigger, never pulling, the rifle fired, and the round was on its way. Since I was in a steady position, my rifle’s recoil did not kick enough to take my aim off of the AAI fighter, and I watched him falter and fall to the ground, then crawl down the hill into some light trees or shrubbery. I fired a few more rounds and he stopped moving [10]. The noise of war flooded back into my ringing ears and I realized that I lost sight of my Team Sergeant, who we called “Grit,” and my Captain. I quickly assumed they were engaged somewhere else so it was just my three-man team amongst a several hundred strong Peshmerga group. The Kurds received some kind of signal to move, likely by cell phone, walky talky, or maybe pure instinct, so we started moving rapidly forward on the front line of the attack into Sargat.

My team and I jogged down the sparely grassed hill, off the road and onto the rocky and grassy valley floor along with our group of several hundred Kurds. Fifty or so Peshmerga were in my immediate vicinity, along with hundreds more slightly ahead and behind me in clear view. An old man of about 70 years old gave me a giant toothless grin and a big thumbs-up as he walked along with an AK in one hand and a cane in another.

As we continued incessantly forward, the tracer fire increased, and the mind shattering sound of combat became ubiquitous and grew towards a crescendo. The Green prong was heavily engaged, and I actually heard the distinct bark of that Barrett .50 cal reverberate periodically. Mortars exploded, RPGs sizzled through the air, and tracers flew everywhere once I rounded the huge corner of the valley and cast my eyes upon the objective.

Sargat was a primitive, shambolic cluster of concrete dwellings sparsely interspersed with skinny wilted trees; eerily dark even under the clear midday sky. It looked like a giant bowl had been tilted towards me, with a rim made of massive olive and brown ridgelines. The back side of the bowl, which extended from beyond the main cluster of disorganized structures, was horizontally striated with enormous and twisting tendril-like lines of ledge. The tendrils looked like they were bleeding due to the erosion of reddish soil that was interlarded with the ledge outcroppings. The angle of the sun on the jagged ledges casted long lines of gloomy shadows down the steep hillsides.

In entirety, the whole back side of Sargat looked like a giant beast of biblical proportions, with its dark octopus-like coils encircling the village protectively. Nestled into the shadows of the tentacles were dozens of crooked grey concrete building structures, semi-organic to the ledges they were under, each with their own form, with black windowless openings that looked like empty black eyes. In my mind’s eye, I imagined dozens of enormous creatures with cavernous eyes watching me from within the extended coils of the sprawling beast, and the increasing sound of reverberating war served as the creatures’ unhallowed screams. The occasional flashes of weapon’s fire from within the black eyes made them seem alive and mystical. In the distance, birds flew fitfully from some of the sickly trees as explosions startled them, and they looked like mere specs in contrast to the unimaginable scale of the terrain and geography around them. The rows of menacing white mountain peaks along the Iranian border loomed behind the beast, challenged the enormity of the sky, and projected a sense of governance over everything in the expanse below them.

I felt impossibly small as I jogged up the valley floor towards the sound of machine gun fire in a semi crouch as bullets snapped and whizzed by me, headed into the low part of the bowl, and into the clutches of the beast.

The span of ochre valley that led into Sargat had staggered layers of stone walls running across it at random intervals. These stone walls were the only cover or concealment available except for a small ravine that was a thousand meters ahead of us. I didn’t have time to perceive any more of the scene to fully orient myself, because I immediately began receiving an unimaginable volume of machine gun fire from our 10 and 12 o’clock. I sprinted through snapping tracers towards the protection of the nearest row of stone walls and dove down behind it. I still had no idea where Grit and my Captain were, which had me concerned, but I knew where my team was, and that our job was to keep bounding forward with the front line.

As we fired and maneuvered from one stone wall to the next, one of the guys on my team fell and badly bruised his knee, but kept going forward. With the amount of tracer fire, and other munitions exploding everywhere, it was nearly impossible to locate any AAI fighters to fire at. There were Kurds everywhere firing alongside us, and I was almost killed by a Kurdish machine gunner when I moved laterally to get to another stone wall; he smiled and nodded to me apologetically even though we both knew it was my fault. Mortars landed violently with intense concussion, earth upheaved, RPGs streamed through the air, and the three of us finished another sprint and made it to another wall. We smiled at each other, and exchanged some comedic comments about what a nice day it was.

I attempted continuously to spot targets and fire at AAI from behind the wall. In one case, like a fool, I did not have my barrel above the stone wall, only my scope, and my round hit the wall right in front of my barrel when I fired. One of the guys on my team yelled “I saw that!” It was embarrassing, but I was too scared to care. The Kurds had staged the trucks along the road to our 4 o’clock, and one of them was a 106MM recoilless rifle truck.

The 106 had no sights on it, so to aim it, I watched the Peshmerga gunner open the breach, look through the barrel from back to front, and then move the gun until his target was in the center of the tube. He had so much experience with firing the weapon that he knew how to adjust for elevation based on his estimation of the distance. I heard him firing the cannon repeatedly over the other noise as we fought our way deeper into the valley toward Sargat, bounding from one row of stone walls to another under intense fire. I felt tiny within the ridiculous amounts of heterogeneous and unnatural sounds of war that encircled me. My eyes darted from point to point with such rapidity that my senses couldn’t process the changing images fast enough, and for a while it was as if I couldn’t see anything at all.

My senses and fear were so inflated from the perpetual uncertainty of death, and primitive state of survival that swept over me, that my ability to smell became animalistic. There was a heavy earthy and grassy smell in the air because of the dirt the mortar rounds were upheaving. I smelled the oil and carbon from my rifle, my black leather gloves, my breath, the smoke of munitions in the air, my sweat, and the crispness of the cool morning air were so strong I could taste them. The sounds were even more exaggerated than the smells. Rockets streaking, mortars tearing through the sky, the snap of bullets over my head, the bark of my own rifle, the deafening sound of the 106s, Kurdish machine gun fire, distressed Kurdish chatter, distant and near enemy machine gun fire which was correlated to the snapping sound over my head like the two were in harmony, the ringing in my ears, and all of this was echoing back and forth in the valley, growing and growing with such intensity I thought the entire valley would detonate into oblivion. [11]

I popped my head up to scan for AAI, and in slow motion, a tracer left the edge of one of the buildings on the outskirts of Sargat and whizzed just past the right side of my head with a snap. Every time I tried to locate any AAI from behind the wall in order to engage with my rifle, bullets streaked by my head and slammed into the wall in front of me with inconceivable force.

An unbounded, incessant, and increasing stream of tracers poured over the stone wall, and bullets continued to slap into it. I looked down along the stone wall that extended to my left where my other two teammates were, and dozens of Peshmerga had spread out between and beyond them. They popped up and down as they struggled to engage AAI, and tracers streamed past them all in depth.

We struggled for several unimaginable hours, an eternity, trying with futility to locate and accurately fire back at AAI while taking heavy fire, until finally, as I scrambled around behind the walls, one of my teammates shouted to me, eyes full of bewilderment “what the fuck are we going to do!?” I tried to get a hold of the mortar team, but I could not reach them anymore. I tried to call my Captain, but I couldn’t reach him either.

I had no idea what to do and I felt completely isolated; miniscule in contrast to the situation, massively disappointed in myself.

I am a Green Beret. I am supposed to know what to do.

Within 30 seconds of primitive mental churn, options started to materialize in my sub-conscience while I tried to ignore the ambient sounds of war and the constant interruption of bullets ricocheting off of the wall in front of me.

We could not move forward, because we didn’t know where any of the AAI fighters really were. We’d have been shot instantly because of the sheer volume of fire and because there wasn’t any more cover until we made it inside Sargat. Moving to the left made no sense, because there were no stonewalls there, and that meant no cover. There was no doubt that we had to move, and to the right presented the highest probability of survival; the best of all uncertain and bad choices.

As my mind churned and I prepared myself to move, a new, very low, ominous sound joined the valley’s war symphony. This sound was so deep and profound it seemed to command the lesser sounds of war in the valley. This new sound originated from a very large heavy machine gun on the huge ridge to the east above Sargat, and it was mowing down the valley floor from an unknown AAI position. It was as if the beast itself had spoken.

The reality that the instrument which produced this new sound could at any nanosecond render me shredded to pieces on that valley floor, elicited an epic feeling of absolute and pervasive doom from within an unfamiliar and primitive place within my soul. A heavy feeling swept over me like a black tidal wave, and joined with the feeling of disappointment in myself; I had never imagined such a feeling of oppression was possible. I was convinced that I was going to die, and I froze. [12]


Out of nowhere, through a horizontal rain of tracers, my Captain sprinted over to me from somewhere to my right and dove down beside me; his sudden presence confirmed my suspicion that we were in deep trouble. He asked me, yelling over the noise, if we were doing ok, and he told me there was cover to our right. As he sprinted away, half crouched, through a hail of bullets, I suddenly felt a rush of motivation; he inspired me. He had left his laminated and folded map on the ground next to me, and just as I picked it up he came bouncing back over to get it. I said “hey sir, I would have brought you your map, don’t get yourself killed!”

My small team and I conversed briefly by shouting to each other over the incessant sounds of war, and decided to move to the right or we were doomed. I also very suddenly decided that these extremists were not going to deprive me of seeing my newborn baby daughter and my wife again, and that was when the fear in my mind transformed to fury and hate, perhaps evil, like water suddenly reaching a rolling boil. I felt like a swarm of emboldened atoms rather than a man, superhuman, a vortex of wrath that negated all emotion or sympathy for any life on earth other than my own or my team’s. This rage was what I needed, so with a newfound level of primal aggression, I told my team to start bounding to the right, and I prepared to move.

I got up and started running. I perceived an increase in the snapping sound of the bullets flying by me, the volume of my own heartbeat increased, and my own pulse rushed through my ears as I saw muzzle flashes out of the corners of both eyes. Everything was a blur, but within a few seconds, through the mist of my own fragmented kaleidoscopic perception, a small tunnel of clarity poked a hole in the confused and blurry world around me, and through it I clearly saw a small gathering of people huddled behind a slightly higher portion of stone wall approximately 100 meters away. When I initially jumped up and ran, I had no idea where I was going, but now I had a specific destination.

After almost getting shot again by another Kurd who was behind a wall that I ran in front of, I dropped down behind another wall. When I got down AAI concentrated fire at the wall where they had seen me disappear, and I cursed out loud in response. So I crawled about 20 feet, then popped up and made another final dash through the tracers until I reached the cluster of people behind the cover of the larger chunk of stone wall. I was relieved that I made it, and soon my other two teammates joined us.

My Captain, Uncle Andy, Bafel Talibani, and one of our interpreters were all there behind the wall. Bafel was talking to his father, Jalal Talibani (the future president of Iraq) on a satellite phone. His dad was mad at him for participating in the battle and putting himself in such danger. Uncle Andy, who probably read the shell shocked look of fury on my face, told me this was the last time he would ever go on an operation with a bunch of Green Berets; he was joking.

I spotted a few fleeting AAI Fighters about 250 meters away on the other side of a few buildings, and I shot at them, but I couldn’t confirm whether it was my bullets that wounded them or someone else’s [14]. The ominous sound of the Heavy AAI machine gun continued as my Captain and Uncle Andy conversed by shouting in each other’s ears over the noise.

They said we needed to get the .50 cal on to the high ground, to take out AAI’s heavy machine gun.

My Captain told my team to make it happen.

The .50 cal was in the back of a pickup, and all the pickups were lined up 400 meters away to our 3 o’clock. I took a nervous deep breath, looked across the expanse of terrain, then exhaled shakily. My whole body tightened as I peered across four football fields of streaming tracers that I was about to run through to get to those trucks.

All three of us simultaneously ran out into the pouring tracers; I felt like I broke the barrier to another dimension when I left the protection of the stone wall. As I ran, there were hundreds of Kurds firing past us and we continuously yelled to make sure they saw us coming so we didn’t get shot by friendly fire. Heavy lines of tracers flew past me in both directions, like a laser light show, and bullets struck the ground and hills everywhere. I was so tense, braced in anticipation for the impact of a bullet, I felt as if my muscles might rip out of my skin. A large caliber tracer struck a washed out embankment and ricocheted upwards, spinning very fast like some kind of firework. It arced over our heads and we ran under it like a ring of fire. We were in awesome physical condition, so the sprint didn’t bother us, even though we were each carrying about 50 pounds of kit.

Finally, huffing and puffing, but extremely focused and unimaginably furious, I reached a white Nissan truck. One of my teammates jumped in the driver’s seat, I got into the passenger seat, and another jumped in the back. Just as I sat down and the vehicle lurched forward into the flurry of bullets, one penetrated the front windshield with a pop and a zing, and went out the open door next to me; it passed right in front of my face. My teammate floored it and we drove for about 300 meters until we turned up a very small trail and stopped. I dismounted.

There was a huge green hill to my front, which completely blocked my view of Sargat. On my left, I could still see the valley of Kurds being oppressed by a relentless volley of tracers. We needed to bring the .50 cal machine gun, and a sufficient amount of ammo, to the top of this hill. I smelled the earth and grass, and then the terrifying sound of AAI’s heavy machine gun spoke again as I reached the bed of the truck to get the .50 cal. My teammate, our communications sergeant, an animal of a man, grabbed the 80 plus pound machine gun and easily hoisted it onto his shoulder, prepared to run up the hill with it. My other teammate grabbed the tripod for it, which was also at least 20 pounds. I slung Old Sarge and grabbed 2 ammo cans, and so did a half a dozen Peshmerga who showed up to help.

We sprinted up the massive ridge, 300 meters to get to the top along a 45 degree or steeper angle. We charged upwards like machines, with the focus and intensity of Olympians with guns, on a mission to dominate the valley and get out alive. I dug the toes of my boots so furiously into the grass and dirt as I powered up the hill that I could feel individual small pebbles through the soles, and I breathed mechanically with each stride. [15]

I reached the crest of the hill and my thighs were pumped and my heart was almost exploding in my chest, but I was fine. Miraculously, I spotted a divot in the ground on the top of the ridge. The ridge was completely bald, green, and rounded on the top, and this divot enabled us to set up the .50 cal and have a small amount of protection. I looked out over the entire expanse of Sargat, and I met the enormous creature in my mind’s eye face to face. From on top of the ridge, my eyes rendered the dark scene below me like dynamic impressionism somehow imbued with violence.

We crawled up and got into the divot, which was only about a foot deep. I saw a Kurd get gunned down on the front side of the hill as his group tried to advance from the south; he was sickeningly dismantled as tracers passed through his body. I also glimpsed the notorious Sargat Chemical Facility compound for the first time; it was right below our position on the ridge. I recognized it because I had memorized the overhead imagery prior.

From up there on that ridge, the sound of war in the valley had a different feel to it, more ambient with more reverb, but louder, as if the valley was boiling over with noise, a cacophony of death. The sounds of war are unforgettable, especially the coalesced sound of screaming human voices, loaded with such an abnormally high amount of agony, fear, stress, and urgency. From the divot, I scanned the bowl and searched for the location of AAI’s machine gun.

I quickly identified a dark grey, cyclops-like concrete structure with a single black opening, which served perfectly in my mind as the head of the beast. I saw large tracers flying from it, and the black eye lit up with each shot as if it was alive. I knew It was where the heavy machine gun was. My teammates had already set up the 50 on its tripod, and it was ready for action. I pointed out the building to my team, which was probably 600 meters away. My communications guy didn’t hesitate and began firing the .50, which increased the noise in the valley tenfold. We immediately came under fire in response, and I slid down as low as I could into the divot. I laid my weapon on its side so I could stay low and still look through the scope sideways. My teammate walked his .50 cal tracers onto the flashing eye, and I helped feed ammo from the different ammo cans. My fear was that we would not get on target before AAI got on target with us, it was like a duel, so we had to be quick. Soon we were absolutely shredding the eye, and we just kept hammering it until we had fired about 600 rounds into it. As my teammate fired, I looked through my scope and saw our bullets actually passing through the structure. The AAI tracers stopped emitting, and the eye stopped flashing.

They Kurds below us began to advance when we started firing. The Peshmerga stampede flooded the perimeter of the evil fortress of Sargat, and swept through it like ants suddenly rushing through the paths of a large and complex ant farm. I glanced at the now dark and empty eye of the beast one last time before we packed up the gun, and ran down off of the hill rapidly. We went through the ruins of the chemical facility, careful not to touch the extremely hot barrel of the .50 cal. When we got to the bottom, and linked up with my Captain, the strangest thing happened. [16]


The Kurds brought us assorted meats on what looked like a silver platter. It was lunch time.

.  .  .  .  .

There’s more in the book, the intensity doesn’t end here, but this does cover the main part of the battle to capture Sargat.


Thank you!