Saturday, July 07, 2007

"I'm Still Standing"

By Lt. Col. John Valledor
On any given day, thousands of Soldiers are manning static gun positions all over Iraq as part of cohesive, forward-based force protection measures.Radical Shiite militants taught our nation a painful lesson in 1983 with the high-profile suicide truck bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks at the Beirut, Lebanon, International Airport. Fast-forward to 2007 in Iraq, and the threat of suicide truck bombings is all too real and pervasive.Very few Soldiers burdened with the task of securing their bases will ever face the reality of having to make on-the-spot life saving decisions of applying deadly force in a suicide attack scenario. For Spc. Brandon Rork, a 24-year-old mortarman from Norwood, Ohio, that life-altering moment occurred one hot Sunday afternoon in a small village on the banks of the Euphrates River.June 10, 2007 started out like any typical day in the Iraqi farmstead of Sadr Al-Yusufiyah. Rork began his shift on the machine gun position located on the rooftop of Patrol Base Warrior Keep. Most days are spent fighting boredom and wiping the sweat from one’s eyes as the machine gun shelter, made of sheets of plywood, sand bags and thick wooden beams, swelters in the searing 112-degree heat. From his vantage point, Rork overlooked a narrow stretch of asphalt road directly in front of the patrol base, known as Route Pinto.On an average day, Rork counts more than 80 Kia Bongo trucks, three to five dump trucks and about 60 locals’ vehicles slowly meandering along the gentle curves in front of the patrol base. This day seemed slightly different. Inexplicably, the Edsel market was closed and local national pedestrian traffic had trickled to less than a handful.The midafternoon silence was broken by the loud whining noise of a blue dump truck’s engine as it barreled down the Edsel market’s vacant road in excess of 35 miles per hour. Seconds later, the truck driver began to turn toward the patrol base’s southern gate. Rork briefly panicked, realizing the intentions of the truck’s driver. He opened fire from his machine gun, pouring more than 100 rounds into the engine compartment of the fast-approaching truck. This caused the truck to veer right, knocking over a brick wall. Rork shifted his fire into the dump truck’s windshield and cabin, finally causing the truck to crash to a stop at the huge HESCO-barrier gate, made of huge wire baskets filled with earth. Rork’s fellow roof-top gunner, Spc. Charles Osgood, manning the nearby west-facing gun position, also opened fire on the truck with his M-4 carbine. Osgood watched as the truck driver leaped from the cabin and darted to the rear of the truck bed in a hail of gunfire. He fired several rounds into the fleeing driver, piercing his upper right leg, the round shattering his femur.The driver dropped onto the road, where 1st Sgt. James Rupert, Sgt. Jomo Fields, Spc. Rico Roman and an interpreter named Fox moved to secure him. As they approached the wounded driver, Fields frisked him and yelled that the driver had a suicide vest on. Fox yelled out in Arabic for the man to remove his belt and toss it.The driver incapacitated and dazed from his injury and under the influence of an unknown narcotic, attempted to pull the suicide belt’s initiator but instead managed to rip off his belt, failing to detonate it. He was quickly dragged into the patrol base by the reaction force for medical treatment and tactical questioning.The driver was a 27-year-old from Ramadi, and began his fateful journey days earlier. Three months before, he had been earning a meager living working for an al-Qaeda inspired insurgent group, guarding kidnap victims before to their Shari’ah court interrogation sessions. The “Save the Anbar Province Sheikh Council” that were actively seeking out and targeting al-Qaeda networks eventually drove him, and others like him, out of Ramadi. He was funneled by a shadowy underground network of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to Fallujah.It was there that he met a fanatical Islamist leader responsible for forming and trafficking homegrown and foreign suicide ‘martyrs’ to their ultimate targets. From Fallujah he was moved to a safe house in the village of al-Owesat, directly across the Euphrates River from Sadr al-Yusufiyah.On the morning of the attack, he crossed the Euphrates in a small boat and moved to a meeting place at the intersection of three major canal locks, known to coalition forces as the Crow’s Foot. It was there that he first saw the explosives-laden truck.A self-declared ‘holy warrior,’ inspired by a desire to “eat lunch with the Prophet Mohammad,” he met with his suicide-mission contacts and received a quick class on how to get to the patrol base and detonating the truck – which contained 14,500 pounds of military-grade munitions and explosives. (By comparison, the Beirut truck bombers used an equivalent of 12,000 pounds of TNT, Timothy McVeigh used 2000 lbs. at Oklahoma City)He was to simply drive to the patrol base’s southern gate and flip three switches crudely mounted on the truck’s steering column. The first was intended to fire a rocket, mounted on the top of the truck bed, to destroy the rooftop gun positions. The middle switch would detonate the truck’s main charge, and the lowest was a backup, in case the other two failed.He drove a series of dirt roads that led to a right turn into the Route Edsel market. Speeding through the market to the southern edge of the patrol base was made easy by the nearly empty streets.He pressed harder on the accelerator as he made his final turn into the base. Then his windshield and cabin exploded in an astonishing hail of machine gun fire. Confused and stunned by the sudden crash into the base’s walled gate, he had no time to reach for the three switches - he simply leaped out of his cabin to regain his bearings, only to be struck down by the painful sting to his leg. Dazed from the loud gunfire and hazy from the drugs he took earlier to relax him on this, his final day on earth, he failed to initiate his suicide belt.His hopes of martyrdom and a follow-on meeting with promised virgins in the afterlife were shattered by the quick reflexes and actions of an alert Army infantryman.Rork remembered seeing a strange local national the day prior to the attack at the patrol base’s front gate that sought permission to recover the body of his dead brother, a local dump truck driver. Hours earlier, Delta Company, operating along a road leading to the village of Sadr al-Yusufiyah, reported discovering a body floating at a nearby canal, with bound hands and a gunshot wound, near one of their fighting positions.It is believed that terrorists attempted to coerce a local driver to carry out this suicide mission to allay suspicion by our Soldiers, who check all drivers entering the village and know most of the drivers. The man’s unwillingness to cooperate along ultimately cost him his life.In the days following this failed attack, local human intelligence sources learned that the plan included a follow-on force of about 70 armed terrorists in several small groups, scattered around the patrol to exploit the suicide bombing by swarming the demolished patrol base. They planned to kill any wounded Soldiers remaining, capitalizing on the high profile attack’s propaganda value. Thanks to Rork’s attention, this attack became an embarrassing example of the local al-Qaeda group’s deteriorating capabilities.Locals said that when the terrorist teams heard U.S. machine gun fire instead of the expected blast, they disappeared into the vast tribal farm fields in shame. Further, in the weeks following this failed attack, the villagers of Sadr al-Yusufiyah were murmuring that al-Qaeda is a doomed cause and its failure was a sign from Allah that he was on the side of the Americans.It took an explosive ordnance disposal team an entire day to complete the controlled detonation of the truck’s lethal load. Seven small-scale blasts shook the village and surrounding areas, in one case knocking down power lines and reminding the villagers of the dreadful consequences of the planned attack had it succeeded.This event highlights the remarkable expertise of our Army and its Soldiers. Had this attack succeeded, like the one in Beirut, it too would have been a tremendous tragedy. The explosives hidden in the truck would have leveled the patrol base as well as two-thirds of Sadr al-Yusufiyah. Our military has learned its lessons from the past and it continues to apply them in ongoing combat operations in Iraq. Rork managed to dig through the mangled remains of the destroyed dump truck and found its unique hood ornament. He carries it in his pocket as a good luck charm and symbol of what he calls “a good day.” He remains joyful and relieved by the fact that he’s “still standing” and that he “didn’t lose more brothers” that fateful day. A two-time veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Rork is humbled by the belief that on that day “God was on his side”.

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