Tom Ricks’s Inbox
Some of the most interesting accounts of the Iraq war have come in notes from young soldiers writing to comrades who are preparing to deploy to the country.
Here, Army Lt. Brendan Hagan, a resident of Arlington and a recent graduate of George Washington University, advises an ROTC buddy on what to bring with him (the letter has been edited slightly for space). Hagan is now a highly regarded infantry platoon leader with the 82nd Airborne Division, operating near the town of Samarra: Date: Mar 24, 2007 8:02 AM Subject: Could be useful to you, could be crap - Hi Adam, Well, I am finally sitting down to try and put some stuff on paper. These will be rambling thoughts so you will have to take them or leave them. . . .
What are the top pieces of equipment you wish you had/didn’t know you needed?
K Desert ghillie suits or ghillie blankets [used to camouflage snipers]. We use abandoned houses and shacks when possible, but it does not always work out. So the ability to hide in the open is critical for engaging IED emplacers. Besides you can only use an abandoned house a few times before the enemy will catch on and booby trap them.
K Spotter scopes or good binos are a must. Every vehicle needs to have a good set of binos. IEDs are usually surface laid, but the enemy uses trash, bushes and even sandbags to hide them. After a while you learn what to look for, but the binos give you standoff for suspicious objects and allow you to assess whether it is an IED or not.
K Always carry everything you might need in the vehicles. Think of as many contingencies as you can and be prepared to execute any of them at any given time. Example: conducting a hasty raid. To start with you have to get in, so you need shotguns. Have at least one on each patrol (I have one in each team). In addition, sometimes you run into steel doors and a picket pounder is more useful to batter it in. As for flash-bangs [non-lethal grenades] use them when the situation merits. Also understand that raiding tools are different in different environments. Outside the City of Samarra a shotgun is usually all that is needed because the houses are not usually walled and the doors are mostly wood.
K Always have all your night fighting equipment with you (i.e. thermals, NVGs [night vision goggles] and tac lights). The situation is always changing, you might go out on a short patrol early in the morning and get diverted to something that lasts all night long. Just be prepared for it. . . . If we strike an IED the thermals are back up instantly scanning to the flanks for movement. I also have an LRAS on one of my truck. This is an amazing thermal [imager] that can see a man picking his nose at 3 km. It is an awesome tool, which stays on at night and scans ahead and to the flanks constantly.
K Make sure all extra ammo for the crew-served weapon is NOT inside the crew compartment. The two catastrophic kills we had on Hummers had extra .50 cal rounds inside the crew compartment. As troopers came to aid and get survivors out, rounds were cooking off in the fire, creating more of a danger. Keep them in the trunk, behind the blast doors or make buzzle racks on the sides of the turret. I like them on the turret, that way the ammo is at hand for the gunner and in the event of a catastrophic IED the rounds will most likely be blown away from the vehicle, causing less of a hazard for everyone.
K Have fire blankets on all vehicles in a standard location. IEDs often are Arty [artillery] rounds with some kind of accelerant attached (meaning cans of home made napalm or gas). They do this to try and burn the vehicle down. The IED will probably not destroy the vehicle, but if the accelerant gets on the tires, it will burn the truck to the ground. The blankets will let you extinguish burning personnel and help you get them out of the truck.
K Be very careful when driving on dirt roads. Don’t do it if you don’t have too. That is where the enemy kills us. Dirt roads facilitate large catastrophic IEDs and allow the enemy to dig them in right under the vehicle. The hummer does not take a mine strike well. My platoon struck a pair of large AT [anti-tank] mines double stacked and rigged with pressure wire.
The explosion killed everyone inside, the only thing left was the trunk section of the vehicle. Our Charlie company had a similar event, but in addition when their buddies came to their aid, one stepped on a secondary pressure wire, killing several more. In all they lost eight dead from that event and two wounded. Huge loss. To help mitigate this, do an assessment of the dirt road you want to use. Do local nationals use that road frequently or do they avoid it? Is it a road that only military traffic uses? Can I get there a different way? Do I set a pattern when I use it? Ways to avoid getting hit with a big killer are to vary your routes. Dismount and go in across country, air assault, boat ops, etc. Remember the enemy is smart and adaptive, they have been doing this for five years and the dumb ones die quick.
K When a vehicle does get disabled by an IED or mine, slow down and look for secondaries before you move up to aid. Don’t rush up to them, approach with caution and make sure there are no more IEDs. Almost all secondaries are within 35 meters [yards] of the first one. I know you want to get to them but you might get more troopers killed by rushing.
K Don’t be afraid to dismount. Many units don’t want to get out of their vehicles and are afraid to do so. Luckily, my paratroopers prefer to be out of them. Vehicles limit you to roads, and roads are where IEDs are. Vehicles are also large and noisy, they allow the enemy to keep track of you easily. Moving dismounted in the dark, helps us get where we have to go undetected. . . .
K Whenever you talk to someone get their full name. There will always be three. Their name, their fathers name and their grandfathers name. It seems tedious, but it is very useful. Through names we know who their brothers are, cousins, uncles etc. Their naming system helps to make connections between people. On top of names, you must understanding the importance of tribe/sub-tribe. When we showed up here we had a terrible RIP [relief in place, or turnover from one unit to the next]. The company we were replacing had been confined to the FOB [forward operating base] for the previous three months, because of bad stuff. . . . I’ll leave it at that. Covering the sector was one platoon from another company and they knew very little. Bottom line is the previous unit never learned enough to understand the importance of sub-tribes. Everyone here is a member of a tribe, which is a large unit. What is important to know is their sub-tribe, the clan or group of families within the tribe. With this information and a person’s full name you can track most people down. . . .
One way we’ve used simple info to get great results was with a [weapons] cache we found in an unused orchard. We stumbled onto the largest cache ever found in our division’s history, by accident. But we used simple reasoning to lead us to another of equal size. When we found the first one we grabbed the local sub-sheik and showed him what was within his area of influence, then used him to tell us who owned every piece of land from the river to a major road in the region. It turned out that the land the cache was on and numerous other tracks of land were owned by a father and series of brothers. We used this info to search other orchards owned by the brothers and found a second large cache.
Seems simple, but most people would not have asked who owned all the adjacent land and put the family connections together. This allowed us to refine our searches to specific fields and orchards.
. . . One last thing to remember is to use your personnel that have been here before, but do not get sucked into the that’s-not-how-we-did-it-last-time thing. Their basic knowledge is good to have and they should be a dependable person when the bullets start flying, but your deployment will be extremely different from their last one. Remember to change your TTPs [tactics, techniques and procedures] when it is appropriate. The situation here changes all the time. IEDs become more complex and the enemy becomes more ingenious as time passes. When your guys were here before, the rule was to drive as fast as you can so that the IEDs blow up behind you. Well, now we drive very slow (any where from 15-35 mph, situation dependent), so as to see them first and not get blown up at all. Everyone will have a different opinion on this, but that is what works for us. . . . Good luck and I will look after your girl for you when I get home, don’t want her to get lonely. Brendan
Tom Ricks is The Post’s military correspondent. This feature aims to give readers a snapshot of the conversations about Iraq, Afghanistan and other matters that play out in Ricks’s e-mail inbox. Have an interesting document? Send it to TheInbox@washpost.com. Read the full text of this letter at www.washingtonpost.com/outlook