April 9th 2004 I found myself participating in one of the fiercest battles ever fought inside the “Triangle of Death”. What started off as a normal squad patrol with 15 Marines ended with hundreds of Marines battling their way through a town. For years I have been thinking about my actions on that day and what could have been done different. This is why I suggest everyone who carries a weapon for a living should bust their ass and train hard. You never know where you may end up and who’s lives may be on the line. Below is my account from that day.
On 5 April 2004, Fox Company 2nd Battalion 2nd Marines participated in a five-day battalion operation to protect Shia pilgrims along Highway 8 aka “Route Jackson”. Over the course of the week, thousands of Iraqi Shia were expected to travel on foot between Baghdad and the cities of Najaf and Karbala in honor of the Shia religious event known as Arba’een. This was the first time in decades that the pilgrimage had been permitted and the number of people participating was greater than had been anticipated.
1st platoon occupied a firm base in the Karch Oil Facility and the rest of the company occupied a firm base several miles to the south in an ice factory. The company sent out patrols throughout the day and night in order to deter attacks on the thousands of Iraqis walking to the south. Fox Company positions were in Lutafiyah in the southern portion of the battalion’s AO while the other two companies occupied positions to the north in Mahmudiyah.
The company experienced contact each day, either through the detection or detonation of IEDs, mortar attacks on the firm base, or short firefights with insurgents. The company firm base was attacked with mortar and machine gun fire each night and several Marines were injured outside the ice factory when mortar rounds landed close to the company position. While the company’s Marines experienced multiple engagements throughout the week, no pilgrims were attacked within Fox Co’s AO.
I was the Platoon Sergeant for 1st Plt at the time and was responsible for taking care of my Marines and the platoon’s operational control while advising the platoon commander. We had set up the patrol base the day prior in an abandoned building the locals turned into a trash collection area.
It wasn’t the best place, but it didn’t stink and we could pull all the vehicles and Marines under the shade. The night prior myself and the Lt. climbed one of the highest tanks in the field located next to our patrol base. We did this at sunset so we could get eyes on patrol routes but hopefully not skyline ourselves in the process. After we had figured out the route the 1st squad patrol was to take, we sat for a while and enjoyed the sunset. We had been up there now for about 40 min when a long line of tracers appeared overhead, then started impacting the oil tank. Simultaneously two mortar rounds impacted in the area. We quickly slid down the backside of the tank to take cover. The attack was over in 20 seconds but drove home the fact that we were always being watched and the insurgents would exploit any opportunity we gave them.
Once we got off the tank we launched a squad on patrol. Their 1st checkpoint was the area where the insurgents had launched their attack. Then they were to head north while skirting the city on the east.
The squad didn’t expect contact, since the insurgents typically don’t attack and stay in an area. The patrol was to return to base in 4 hours. As soon as the patrol got to their northernmost checkpoint they were heavily engaged. Murphy’s Law came into play and all communications with the squad went down. I remember looking to the north and seeing tracers flying through the air in all directions. I kind of felt like a father watching their kids get into their 1st fight in school…and was hoping that they came out unscathed. As the other two squads were preparing to depart and link up with Marines in the fight communications were re-established. No one hurt, and the squad was returning to base. Once they got back I debriefed the squad. Plans for 1st light were to launch another squad into the same area to search for evidence left behind the night prior. You might not think that this would be important but it really does help to know where you enemy set up, how long they were waiting, if they were employing multiple belt fed machine guns, bolt guns, etc. Every bit of intel you can gather is important.
The next morning I had the Marines assist in reinforcing an observation post on top of the tallest tank in the field. This would allow us to keep an eye on the patrols, and more importantly an eye on the town. I took up an M82A3 (.50 cal sniper rifle) and an M40A3 (7.62mm sniper rifle) and most importantly a Marine who could call wind. Cpl Tucker had been a range coach on Parris Island prior to getting to our unit. So he had a great understanding of how wind affects bullets, and how to read the wind. His ability to do so would prove critical that day.
The squad was to depart and head straight north to the southern edge of the town and then patrol through the easternmost part of the town until they reached the attack point from the night prior.
The patrol left the base around 07:00 that morning. As soon they were moving towards the town Cpl Tucker who was behind the spotting scope noticed a dead animal on the side of the road. Not too out of the ordinary. However, he did pick up a slight reflection coming off the animal. I got behind the glass and noticed the same glint. The squad was notified of a possible IED and preceded with caution. As they approached the dead animal they saw the wires leading into it so they set up a cordon per SOP.
Shortly after the cordon was set we noticed woman and children slowly clearing out of the area. All the Marines on the ground knew what that meant, but were unsure where the attack might come from. Cpl Tucker and I were actively scanning the area to their north for any sign of insurgent activity. EOD was called and they gave a 45 min ETA from their location. Moments later a motorcycle with two men on it drove by the squad; in their passing they dropped two grenades. By the time the grenades went off, the bike had disappeared behind buildings and made its way out. Then it seemed like all hell broke loose and the squad started taking heavy fire from the northwest. I immediately called for our remaining two squads to mount up and to link up with the squad in contact and extract them. They were to come into the town via the MSR then head east to link up with the squad. After that call both comm systems I had on the tower stopped working, we had zero ability to communicate with anyone.
The 1st shots out of my rifle were just over a thousand yards. Not an issue for the M82A3, especially since the one I had with me was one of the few that drilled. Cpl Tucker and I were both laying on a metal roof, surrounded by metal barriers, this combination reflects a lot of sound and about made us both deaf after the 1st shot. We took the 4 seconds to jam in some ear protection otherwise we would undoubtedly be completely deaf in minutes and practically useless.
The effect the Mk211 rounds had on the insurgents was devastating. Each guy who caught one of my rounds was blown into pieces and left a pinkish mist in the air. The insurgents were trying to flank the squad on the east, but our precision fires kept this from taking place. While all this was happening the other two squads at the patrol base were loading up and getting ready to drive into the fight. Meanwhile, the Company Commander and 2nd Plt left the Ice Factory to reinforce 1st Plt.
The squad in contact was taking more and more fire as the minutes went on, so they started moving to find a defendable position. As they were moving north two of the Marines became separated from the squad and the insurgents tried to maneuver on them. However, Cpl Tucker and I kept mixing metal & meat and the two Marines were able to rejoin the squad.
The squad eventually found themselves deep in the town. In their search for a defendable position they kept moving northwest. This made supporting them from my position even harder. As they would bound from one area to another Cpl Tucker & I would be scanning for targets of opportunity and killed them as they popped up.
Unlike how Hollywood might depict, it was not “one shot, one kill” 100% of the time (Short Video Here). Most of the targets were moving & only stopped for seconds at a time. They were at various distances, and the winds were coming from multiple directions and gusting. If a round did miss the target and Cpl Tucker saw the splash he fed me instant corrections and the next round was out a second later. This enabled us to connect a number of times on distant targets under bad conditions.
The squad finally located a small schoolhouse they could easily defend. They cleared the school and set in for one hell of a fight. The school was the best defendable position around and they were being surrounded by insurgents the second they took it over.
While the squad was defending their position Cpl Tucker and I kept the insurgents off the rooftops, for if they got access to a vantage point they could lay down effective machinegun fire and kill my Marines. I was not about to let that happen. We noticed three insurgents with belt fed machineguns heading up a tall building north of the schoolhouse. The rooftop of that building would have allowed the insurgents to fire down into the schoolhouse and also keep reinforcements from reaching the schoolhouse. Taking this team out became our priority. The 1st round we sent out was off by a few mils. Cpl Tucker picked up the splash and gave me a correction. 2nd round was also off, but a lot closer than the 1st. The 3rd round landed on the stairway wall they were crouched behind. The backside of the wall turned red and we didn’t see any activity from that point on. During the debrief at the COC the next day the distance from our position to the insurgent machinegun team was 1614 meters as measured by Falcon View.
EOD arrived with one of the battalion’s CAAT sections. As they approached the squad’s position, the CAAT section saw the muzzle blasts from our position and mistook those fires for an enemy sniper. They engaged our position with .50 cal machine gun fire as they attempted to link up with the squad. This went on for a while. We would fire, and then get a volley of .50cal back at us from multiple machineguns. When the rounds started impacting the oil tank I became a little worried…after all we are sitting on top of hundreds of thousands of gallons of flammable liquid. Lucky for us the Russians who built the tanks built them well and they withstood the hundreds of rounds of .50cal that slammed into the side.
Due to the massive amount of fire received on their planned route, the company had to find an alternate route to reach the squad. The company CO, the BN FAC (forward air controller), and the 2d platoon commander (along with a squad from 2d platoon) moved to establish eyes on the enemy when they were engaged from the east-west road on the south side of Hy Salaam and the palm grove. They returned fire and attempted to move to a position where they could better observe the enemy positions and call for air support. As they were moving further east I noticed an insurgent heading down an ally way with what looked like an RPK. As he turned, I noticed the forend and the scope. By the time my round made it out there he jumped a wall and was gone. Seconds later Cpl Speer (a squad leader in 2nd Plt) was shot as he came around a corner. I did not know that at the time. By this time the QRF from 1st Plt had two casualties that needed to be airlifted out. I later found out that as the 1st Plt QRF came under heavy fire Marines that I once considered lazy, unmotivated, or weak minded were stepping up and taking charge.
The Battalion QRF was called in along with a Huey to evacuate the dead/wounded. When the BN QRF showed up with a full company (150+ Marines) and the BN jump CP, both companies got on line to clear the town from south to north. Fighting was intense for a few hours, but once the FAC got the F14’s rolling the insurgents started to head back home, and this was when time was on our side. From our point we could see insurgent’s running back home with weapons in hand. Most would go inside and not come back out; those who did were now targets of opportunity. I remember one middle aged man who ran to the hut in the back of his house. He dropped off his RPG and came back out with a pitchfork and began working his garden. 1st round out just missed him and he ducked behind a palm tree. Not only will the Mk211 round penetrate armor, it will also penetrate palm trees! The 2nd round made another pink mist cloud. These were bad people who had been trying to kill Marines, so in my mind (and in accordance with the ROE) they all needed to die.
As the day winded down, there were fewer and fewer people who needed killing. People started storing weapons and ammunition in coffins atop vehicles so they could drive them south out of the town past the Marines. I saw one group dump a body out of a coffin and fill it back up with weapons. We were bingo on Mk211 by that time and using my M40 would have not been effective. Had we more rounds for the .50 I would have thoroughly enjoyed dropping more bodies around the coffin.
The sun was starting to set so Cpl Tucker and I packed up shop and got off the tower. When we got back to the patrol base we were not surprised that everyone was gone. So we walked over to the guard building of the oil field. Inside we found 9 guards with AK-47’s. We did our best to ask for a key to one of the trucks, and eventually Cpl Tucker was able to talk the man into the keys. For those of you who know Cpl Tucker you know he’s a very diplomatic man who has certain abilities to persuade people. As we walked outside of the building the armed guards followed us. They started looking around for other Marines. The hair went up on the back of my neck and I started to talk on my non-operable radio. I then started pointing to various locations in the field and waiving. The guards also started looking. I pointed to my sniper rifle and then pointed to more locations. I was trying to give the guards the impression that we were under observation from multiple sniper teams. It must have worked because the guards got quiet and went back inside.
As Cpl Tucker and I were walking out to grab one of the vehicles and drive it back to base one of the CAAT teams drove in to pick us up (the driver would later become the SNCOIC of the Marine Scout/Sniper School in Quantico). As this was the last day of the Arba’een pilgrimage and the operation had concluded, the company then consolidated on Route Jackson and returned to FOB Mahmudiyah. Once we linked back up with the Plt I learned of our two casualties and Cpl Speer. When I heard what had happened to him and where it happened I was a kick in the balls. All I could think of was the insurgent with the scoped rifle and if he was the one who killed Cpl Speer. The ride back to the FOB was depressing. When we got back I went to the company CP to pick up my platoon’s mail. Next to 1st Plt’s mail was 2nd’s. On top of 2nd’s stack was a letter from Cpl Speer’s wife, with kisses all over it and little hearts. I knew she would be getting a visit by some Marines in Dress Blues shortly and it’s a visit no one wants to get…
It’s one of those thoughts that will never leave you, always wondering “what if”. Could I have done something different? Could you have trained harder? Should I have had that area inside my field of view? I was surprised that no other Marines were killed in that battle. It was 12+ hours of constant fighting with the sound of gunfire never leaving the town until sunset. This can probably be chalked up to the tactics the Marines employed and the leadership of the commanders.
Two months later I was hit by an IED and was medically retired from the Marines two years later.
From April 2004 to the time I retired, I trained those Marines in my charge as much as possible.
Even though my battle was over I knew the training I provided the Marines could possibly save their lives at some point & time. While I was going through the medical retirement process I was reassigned to the Division Training Center (DTC). Upon arrival the CO saw my drive and determination and asked me to stand up the 2nd MarDiv Pre-Sniper course. I couldn’t have been happier; my CO was able to pull some of the Marines’ most experienced snipers over to the DTC so they too could share the knowledge and experiences before leaving the Marines.
After retiring from the Marines in I moonlighted at Blackwater, one of the best places to train at the time. After being there for a while I thought it could be done better, so I started my own training company Tier 1 Group (T1G). T1G has since trained thousands of special operational forces, training that has saved dozens of lives (this is documented). I left T1G in 2012 to further improve on the way our military trains.
Comments from those Marines on the ground on Bad Friday:
“I had the privilege of commanding the “Warlords” of 2d Battalion 2d marines during this action and to this day I remember the reports, the radio calls, and the action on the ground clearly. I also remember the gut wrenching feeling of losing Sgt (posthumously) Mike “Papa Smurf” Speer and knowing that Good Friday took on a completely new meaning for me in terms of sacrificing one’s life for ones friends as Sgt Speer did. He was leading from the front, as I would expect any Marine NCO to do, and did so because it came naturally to him and because he was “heading to the sound of the guns” when he was struck down. Staff Sergeant Reichert has done a superb job of recounting the events of that day, the uncertainty surrounding actions in an urban insurgency environment, and the exceptional professionalism, skill, loyalty, and confidence exhibited by so many who are part of this Nations newest “greatest generation.” I will pass on to those of you who will read this a small excerpt from something I wrote about these amazing young people and ask that you keep Eliza Speer, and so many others in your prayers this day and every Good Friday. My Marines and Sailors have always been my heroes. My last letter to the families of 2d Battalion had the following at its conclusion and while I am seldom happy with things I say or write, in retrospect, this describes my admiration for those Marines and Sailors well: In closing, I will say yet again what an honor it has been to have been given the rare privilege of commanding such fine men under difficult conditions. They led, they fought for a nation and for a people, and they kept faith with each other and with you. They inspired the world with their example of what is best among the youth of our country and they have established a legacy of leadership and courage that will become the foundation for the leadership of the Naval Service well into the twenty-first century. As we reunite with our families and recall the moments of courage and compassion that changed our lives during the past seven months, I think you will see a change in these men. That change will reflect the special knowledge of what it means to have given freedom to a nation, hope to a people, and strength to each other during moments when the measure of a man’s life is defined by his actions. You and they will find that those actions will stand the test of time and be remembered with great pride. Freedom has taken hold in Iraq and it will not let go because of what these brave men have done. God Bless each of you, God Bless America, and Semper Fi from your Marines and Sailors in Iraq!” Col Giles Kyser “Warlord Six”
“I was the company commander of Fox 2/2 as a captain during the action Steve described above. Scenes from that day are etched in my memory as they are, I’m sure, for all the Marines that fought that day. I was with the rest of the company at the company’s firm base in an ice factory about three miles south of 1st platoon. We were tracking via radio how 1st Platoon was investigating a suspected IED when we got a call that a squad from 1st platoon was in heavy contact and pinned down with two Marines wounded. I grabbed Lt XXXXX, the 2d Platoon Commander, and we mounted up with his platoon to head north. We screamed up Route Jackson until we reached the palm grove west of Hy Salaam and the road that leads into the town on the south side of the palm grove. Once we arrived, I made radio contact with 1st Platoon. I was only able to reach 1st Platoon sporadically on the radio, but I heard enough to know that most of 1st Platoon had reached the engaged squad and now the entire platoon was pinned down. A canal, chain link fence, a line of market buildings, and a few hundred meters of palm grove separated us from 1st Platoon. The battalion quick reaction force (QRF), along with a forward air controller (FAC), arrived shortly after we did. As I explained the situation to the QRF, the FAC made contact with a couple of F-14s that had arrived overhead. The F-14s reported a large group gathering down the road to the east, but the pilots couldn’t tell if the group was armed. If we could get eyes on this group and they were armed, we could drop a bomb on them and put an end to this fight. Lt XXXXX and I pushed down the road with one of his fire teams and the FAC, using the market buildings for cover as best we could. Within a few dozen yards we drew fire and dropped to the prone. The rounds snapped over our heads. We were putting almost no fire back in return, as we had trained not to shoot unless we could positively ID a target. I saw a fighter running across the road at about two hundred yards away and pulled the trigger on my shotgun (back then a rifle company didn’t have enough rifles for the whole company- it’s a different Marine Corps now). I knew I’d have no effect at that range, but I hoped to get the Marines around me firing back at the enemy. The muzzle was just a couple feet from Lt. XXXXX’s ear and he was deaf on that side the rest of the day. It was obvious at this point that we were not going to get down this road and get eyes on this group gathering. We started bounding back the road, firing to cover one another’s movement as we went. At this point Lt. XXXXX got a call on his ICOM radio and I heard it on mine: “Cpl Speer’s been hit.” “How is he? Is he OK?” “I’d rather not say, sir…” By the time we bounded back up the road to where the rest of the company was, Cpl Speer was laid out on the ground, his legs sticking out from under a poncho. One of those rounds going over our heads as we were in the prone had hit Cpl Speer just above the plate in his body armor and exited under the back rim of his helmet (Michael Speer was promoted to Sergeant posthumously). I checked back with the QRF section leader and told him to hold the corner of Route Jackson and the road leading into Hy Salaam with his heavy machine gun vehicle while 2d Platoon and I would move around the north side of the palm grove to clear Hy Salaam from north to south. Shortly after we stepped off, the fire at the intersection increased and I doubted that the QRF could maintain their position while we went all the way around to the north side of Hy Salaam. We turned the group around and then plunged through the canal, pushing through the waist-deep mud and filth and then broke a hole in the fence. Now we were in the palm grove. I told Lt. XXXXX to spread his Marines out on line and we advanced toward where 1st Platoon was still pinned down. Episodic shots rang out to our south. As we advanced through the palm grove, I walked up next to one the 2d Platoon Marines. “Hey XXXXXX, how you doing?” “I’m fuckin scared sir.” “Yeah, I know- the enemy’s scared, too.” Within a few minutes, we reached 1st Platoon. The enemy had either broken contact after getting atritted by Reichert’s fire or they had seen 2d Platoon coming and pulled back. We led 1st Platoon back out of the palm grove to the road that we could use as an LZ for the wounded and to link up with LtCol Kyser (the battalion commander) and Easy Company who had just arrived from Mahmudiyah to our north. A couple of helicopters arrived and the company loaded Cpl Speer once one of the birds landed on Route Jackson. Our wounded were still being carried out of the palm grove when we got the word that the helicopters had to leave to support the assistant division commanding general, whose convoy had just been ambushed several dozen miles away. We raced to get our wounded out of the palm grove and on the bird just before it took off. Once the helos lifted, the battalion commander, operations officer, the Easy Company CO, and I gathered on the hood of a HMMWV and scratched out a quick plan to clear Hy Salaam. We put both companies on line and cleared through the densely packed neighborhood house by house. The enemy broke contact in short order. We later learned that the enemy fled out of Hy Salaam and the neighboring ville to the south with their weapons tucked in coffins. We had heard of the enemy using coffins to hide their weapons before; now the insurgents had to fit those weapons in the coffins along with the bodies of several of their fighters. We consolidated back on Route Jackson and prepared to head north- this was when Reichert and Tucker were making their way back out of their hide site and back to the 1st Platoon patrol base that 1st platoon had emptied during the fight. Lt. XXXXXXX (the 1st Platoon Commander) told the QRF he had lost contact with Reichert and they raced back in to the oil depot to pick the two Marines up. We returned back to FOB Mahmudiyah. Two days later I was back in Lutafiyah with a Fox Company Platoon to meet with the town council, our first meeting since the Hy Salaam firefight. As we approached the town we could see columns of black smoke rising to the sky- it turned out to be smoke from burning vehicles that were part of a logistics convoy that was driving up Route Jackson unannounced. It had been ambushed and was now in disarray for several miles up and down Route Jackson. It was the start of another long day in Lutafiyah. As I write this from Afghanistan ten years later, I find my memory of Bad Friday works in patches, with images, conversations, and short reels of time seared into my brain, but with foggy gaps between those sharp memories. I recall that radio call and the conversation in the palm grove like it was yesterday. I don’t remember a word that was said over the hood of that HMMWV. A lot of our Marines did some extremely brave things that day. I’m deeply in their debt for their actions on that day and many others. And I’m still awed that they all kept moving toward the sound of the guns every time they were called upon to do so. Semper Fidelis” LtCol Tim Bairstow “Fox 6″
“I will never forget you and I thank you with all my heart. You made many men humble and kept us safe engaging from your nest! THANK YOU SIR!” Cpl Jimmy Chappell 1st Plt Fox Co Team Leader
“Even among the small arms fire and other unspeakables, that 50 thundered and cracked across the sky with vengeance. Thank you.” Doc Aye-Vita 1st Plt Fox Co Corpsman
“Our son was one of the injured Marines airlifted out during this engagement… He was a member of 2Marines 2 D, Mike Speer was one of his best friends. My wife and I are forever grateful for your service. Thanks for keeping our son alive… ” Scott