Monday, May 7, 2007

Taking the fight to the enemy: The story of Bravo Company 2/136 in Fallujah

CAMP FALLUJAH, IRAQ - In March 2006 Bravo Company 2/136 Infantry, of the Minnesota National Guard and the 34th Brigade Combat Team Redbulls was assigned to the Marine Corps base at Camp Fallujah, Iraq to provide security for the base. At the time Camp Fallujah was receiving indirect fire mortar and rocket attacks on an almost daily basis, and on average one person a month was being killed by these attacks.

One Bravo Company soldier said he was so worried about these attacks when they first arrived in Fallujah that he slept in his body armor. Eleven months later as Bravo Company was being replaced by a Marine Corps Battalion, there hadn't been an indirect fire attack on Camp Fallujah in over two months. This is the story of how one infantry company took the fight to the enemy, and effectively eliminated attacks on Camp Fallujah.

When Bravo Company arrived at Camp Fallujah they replaced a similarly sized company of Marines in a mission that primarily involved static defense and security, manning guard towers, gates, and two combat outposts known as Barney and Flanders. They did limited patrolling and performed security sweeps of the supply routes to Barney and Flanders, but for the most part their role was defensive.

During their first six months at Camp Fallujah, Bravo Company continued this mission as it had been defined by their predecessors. That changed in August 2006 when 40 insurgents in armored dump trucks launched a brazen daylight attack against combat outpost Flanders. The attacked was decisively repulsed by 10 Bravo Company soldiers who killed over half the attacking insurgents with only one of their number being seriously wounded.

The attack on Flanders was a significant escalation by the local insurgents, and Colonel Bristol the commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group (II MEF MHG), decided that decisive action and a change in tactics was needed in response. At Colonel Bristol's disposal was a large force of non-combatant Marine Corps administrative staff, truck drivers, intelligence officers, logistics experts, medics and other support personnel responsible for supporting the combat operations of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary force deployed throughout the rest of Anbar Province. He also had one US Army mechanized infantry company from Minnesota, complete with Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

Bravo Company had been sent to Iraq with a Force Protection mission that was primarily defensive in nature, but Colonel Bristol had a problem and he recognized Bravo Company's true capabilities and potential. He pulled Marines from his various support and headquarters companies, and assigned them to take over many of Bravo Company's defensive duties, and gave Bravo a new mission: "Go out and get the insurgents."

The orders were vague, but the mission was clear: eliminate the insurgents, or at least push them back out of mortar range of Camp Fallujah. Bravo Company soldiers turned over the guard towers to the Marines, loaded their Bradley's and started actively hunting for insurgents.

The Iraqi insurgents don't wear uniforms, and they hide among the civilian population, and so there are really only two ways to find them and eliminate them:

1. Gather actionable intelligence that identifies them or locates their safe houses.

2. Wait for them to attack you, and then counter attack decisively.

Bravo Company's three platoons were assigned separate sectors of the battle space around Camp Fallujah, and they started actively patrolling six days a week. Platoon leaders and platoon sergeants were given latitude to plan their missions, and they immediately began to locate weapons caches and gather intelligence.

When actionable intelligence was uncovered by Bravo Company, or from other sources, missions would be planned to raid suspected insurgent hideouts. Many of these missions were conducted in conjunction with Navy SEAL teams, or elements from Marine Regimental Combat Team 6 (RCT 6).

On other occasions missions were specifically planned to try to provoke insurgent attacks, and lure them out of hiding. First Lieutenant Timothy Sevchek of 3rd platoon described some of the tactics that they used when they were "out trying to get shot at". Such as sending a small patrol of two hmmv's into an area with suspected insurgent activity, with the rest of the platoon following 1000 meters behind in Bradley Fighting Vehicles to rush in and engage the enemy if the lead hmmv's were able to draw fire.

In addition to the fire power of their Bradley's, Bravo Company also had the support of an attached mortar platoon, as well as a battery of Marine Corps artillery equipped with 155mm howitzers. Most Bravo Company missions were conducted within range of the mortars and artillery emplaced on Camp Fallujah. When intelligence dictated a mission outside the radius of these fire support assets they would have to rely on air support which was not always available, and was never as quick to respond at the dedicated mortars and artillery.

Tactics for routine patrolling included searching every house in every village in the area for weapons and intelligence on a regular basis. Visiting every village in the area several times a month allowed the Bravo company soldiers to get to know who belonged in the area, and who was out of place.

Bravo Company's battle space included the main highway and secondary roads connecting Baghdad with Fallujah, and so there was a significant amount of insurgent traffic passing through the area enroute to and from the more intense combat in Baghdad. To interdict this traffic Bravo company would frequently establish snap traffic control points (TCP's). These check points would be established at random locations and times to hopefully surprise and capture insurgent vehicles trying to avoid the main highway (MSR Mobile) and sneak into Baghdad.

These sorts of proactive offensive operations proved to be highly effective. In the six months following the attack on Flanders, Bravo Company soldiers killed 25 insurgents and captured over 50 in their small area of operations. They also captured large quantities of weapons and explosives. Speaking with Bravo Company soldiers, their pride in the job they had done was obvious.

I spoke to General Zilmer the commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force about Bravo Company, and he gave them high praise. There was similar praise from Colonel Bristol who accompanied Bravo Company personally on numerous missions. Colonel Bristol is a 30 year veteran of the Marine Corps with who has commanded Marine infantry units in combat three times prior to this tour in Fallujah. Speaking with Colonel Bristol on his final day in Fallujah, he emotionally described Bravo Company as "the best combat soldiers he had ever had the honor to serve with."

Day by Day, by Chris Muir (updated daily)

Chris Muir is the cartoonist that I met in Kuwait. He spent two weeks in Iraq at the same time I was there in February 2007, and so thought it would relevant to showcase his work on my site. Here is a link to Chris' humorous travelogue of this Iraq trip: