Telling The Story Of 'The Hardest Hit Unit In Iraq'

Kelly Kennedy i i

hide captionThey Fought For Each Other is based on a series of columns Kelly Kennedy wrote for the <em>Army Times about her time embedded in Iraq.

Courtesy of Kelly Kennedy
Kelly Kennedy

They Fought For Each Other is based on a series of columns Kelly Kennedy wrote for the <em>Army Times about her time embedded in Iraq.

Courtesy of Kelly Kennedy

By Kelly Kennedy

In-depth reports from 'Military Times'

Journalist Kelly Kennedy embedded with Charlie Company's 26th Infantry Regiment for several months in 2007. She spent hours with the soldiers out on patrol, and now relates their worst and best days in her new book, They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq.

The unit lost 14 men in Iraq, including nine soldiers who were killed when their Bradley fighting vehicles were hit by IEDs. Before Kennedy's arrival, another solider — 19-year-old Ross McGinnis — died after he threw himself on a grenade to save four of his friends. Kennedy talked to many of McGinnis' fellow soldiers about the incident, and tells Terry Gross what happened.

"On Dec. 4, they were out on patrol, and the grenade came in right in through Ross' turret — he was the gunner — and he sees it and he tries to catch it. He's chasing it around the turret, and he's yelling 'Grenade,' trying to get the guys out of the truck, and no one really understood what was happening," Kennedy says.

"They didn't have time to react, but Ross knew what was going on ... and then one of the other guys saw the grenade and watched as Ross threw himself against it and took the brunt of the force of the grenade and died instantly — but saved four of his friends."

McGinnis was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and one of the soldiers he saved — Staff Sgt. Ian Newland — promised "to never waste the gift" he received that day, as Kennedy wrote in the Army Times. Her series for the paper, called Blood Brothers, followed the 26th Infantry during their time in Iraq — as well as the issues they faced after arriving home.

Kennedy covers medical and health issues for Army Times, Navy Times, Marine Times and Air Force Times. Her writing has also appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Denver Post, The (Portland) Oregonian and The Salt Lake Tribune.

Excerpt: 'They Fought For Each Other'

Book Cover: They Fought For Each Other
They Fought For Each Other
By Kelly Kennedy
Hardcover, 336 pages
St. Martin's Press
List price: $24.99

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.

Chapter One
Second Platoon Meets Adhamiya

At their tiny combat outpost in the Adhamiya neighborhood of Baghdad, the soldiers of second platoon acted like kids going to an amusement park: jumping around, grabbing gear, punching shoulders. They hugged the other members of the company like long-lost brothers, joyful to be part of a whole. Nothing could be worse than the two months they had spent separated from the rest of Charlie Company — they had not even lived on the same post. The men of second platoon had been attached to another unit, as often happens in war zones, and their company commander, Captain Mike Baka, had fought hard to get them back.

Baka, grinning at their antics and their proximity, gathered his boys in October 25, 2006, for their first formation back together in months. Now that he had them back, he had to prepare them to do battle in Baghdad's worst neighborhood.

"Second platoon!" he shouted, and the men stopped kicking up dust and stood still to listen. "Welcome to Adhamiya!" Baka paused as a barrage of deep-voiced "Hooah!'s" erupted from the platoon and bounced off the khaki-colored buildings.

"If there's no violence in your sector, something's amiss," Baka continued. "If 1 percent of the 400,000 people who live in Adhamiya are shitheads, that's 4,000 shitheads. We're up against some bad odds."

"Roger that, sir!" yelled Private First Class Daniel Agami, and everybody laughed, eager to see their new sector.

"The enemy does not have a uniform," Baka said. "You won't know who you're up against, but they'll know who you are. There is no front line. There is no moving forward. You will have to get to know the people. You will have to assume they want to hurt you while you treat them like neighbors."

The guys grew quiet, having already met fear and pain two months into their deployment, but still not quite clear about the exact nature of the new mission — or, for that matter, the mission in Iraq. They knew they were part of the "surge," and they had heard the term "counterinsurgency," but many of the guys believed the two words were interchangeable without understanding the philosophy behind the new counterinsurgency manual written by General David Petraeus and his aides. In fact, they did not know the manual existed. According to the manual, they were supposed to spend just as much time sitting in living rooms drinking sweet, strong tea and trying to make connections with Iraqi citizens as they did rolling down the narrow streets shooting insurgents. But they would learn quickly.

Second platoon arrived at Combat Outpost Apache on a brilliantly sunny day and Baka decided to welcome them by taking them on a three-hour tour of the two-kilometer-by-three-kilometer neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad. Baka's other platoons — first, third, and the scouts — had been patrolling Adhamiya since late summer.

"The hardest part will be holding yourselves back," Baka told second platoon. "For every shithead, there are 99,999 people who just want to get on with their days. They don't want violence. They've been caught in the middle and are doing everything they can to help their families survive." He explained that the soldiers would gather intelligence by asking for it. They would spend much of their time offering up help in the form of water, electricity, soccer balls, and school supplies. But they would also have to memorize minute details, like how the street litter had changed from the previous patrol and how traffic should move at certain times of the day and what time the kids should be walking to school. Changes in the details signaled danger.

"Second platoon!" Baka said. "Let's go see the neighborhood."

They climbed into several up-armored Humvees, loaded with the usual amount of ammunition and water and bravado, and then rolled past a mural of the Grim Reaper a soldier from a previous unit had painted on a wall. Rumor was that the artist had died in Adhamiya.

Second platoon rolled out of the front gate onto one of Adhamiya's main roads. Baka, riding in the platoon leader's vehicle, decided to take them to a suburban area of town first, where things might be calmer but would still give them a sense of the place.

"Watch for IEDs," Baka warned First Lieutenant Ryan Maravilla, second platoon leader, and Maravilla's driver, Private First Class Jose Quinones, who rode in the lead vehicle. "IED" stands for improvised-explosive device — or roadside bomb. Baka spoke over an intercom system that allowed the whole platoon to hear him, including Sergeant First Class Tim Ybay, second platoon's platoon sergeant, and all of his noncommissioned officers: Staff Sergeant John Gregory, Sergeant Jose Villa, Sergeant Ryan Wood, Staff Sergeant Robert Morris, Staff Sergeant Raja Richardson, Sergeant Billy Fielder, Sergeant Alphonso Montenegro, and Sergeant Michael French. Ybay, thirty-eight and from the Philippines, served as platoon daddy for second platoon. A former drill sergeant, he came from a military family — grandfather, dad, aunts, cousins, brothers, and sister had all served. He'd gone to college for three years, studying criminal justice, but in his third year, he decided he just didn't want to be in school anymore. By infantry standards, he was an old man, but he needed the experience. He'd served in Bosnia and Kosovo, but Adhamiya was his first combat tour.

Ybay, pronounced "Ee-buy," liked to tease his men, making them drop for push-ups and telling jokes over the intercom system. But this day, he was quiet. "The insurgents hide bombs in the garbage," Baka continued. Maravilla's eyes instantly began sweeping the road for signs of the bombs, which could be placed in sewage drains, or hidden in a bag of trash, or even buried beneath the street. The "suburban" area of Adhamiya also boasted snipers and men tossing grenades.

"Watch that group over there," Baka said, nodding toward a few young men gathered on a corner. "Most of the insurgents are young males, so be on the lookout for any suspicious activity."

The platoon tried to take it all in, but in the middle of a city neighborhood, it was hard to focus on anything. In Iraq, traffic doesn't stay in lanes. Everyone crowds together and merges and turns with a haphazard hope that everyone else is paying attention. Horns blared constantly. With no electricity, the streetlights could off er no clue as to who had the right of way. People on bikes and pedestrians appeared from between cars parked — or abandoned — on the side of the road.

On the residential streets, children and chickens walked through sewage and filth. Generators roared to provide some homes with electricity. Occasionally, second platoon heard AK-47 fire in the distance, but that could have been caused by anything. Someone might have had a birthday or won a soccer match. Or killed a member of a rival group. Or started a firefight with the Iraqi army or police. Or killed a soldier.

"Focus," Baka admonished his men. "Pay attention to your sector."

Watching the sides of the road, Baka noticed something that seemed odd to him. "Hold up, hold up!" he said. Baka had taken a year of Arabic — the only class in which he had received an A+ at West Point — and the license plate on a car indicated it was from Dubai. "Foreign fighters?" Baka said, more to himself than to the others. Recent intelligence showed many of the insurgents were coming in from Iran, as was their weaponry. "Let's check it out."

He got out of the Humvee and started walking toward a house near where the car was parked, and then he noticed his guys were hanging back a little, trying to process their new neighborhood. But Baka didn't have time for them to think about it. "Hey!" he yelled. "I need some people on the ground with me!"

Instantly, Agami was by Baka's side, followed by Fielder and Montenegro, ready to watch the captain's back. As Baka approached the house, his soldiers turned away from him, M-4s up and ready. In the front yard, a man in a long white robe explained through Baka's interpreter that the Dubai tag was similar to a temporary plate in the United States, and all new cars came in through Dubai. The explanation seemed legitimate, so Baka loaded everybody back up to head into the city areas for their first encounter with Antar Square and the Abu Hanifa Mosque.

Baka led them through narrow streets, picking his way past burned-out cars that created an impromptu obstacle course, piles of garbage that had cluttered the roads for months, and streams of sewage that drizzled down the gutters. The fumes of sulfur and rot caused the soldiers' eyes to water. "Oh my God," Agami said, riding with his squad in a Humvee behind Baka. "How can people live here?"

"Hey!" Maravilla yelled. "Is that a person?"

One of the piles in the sidewalk looked human-shaped, but it couldn't be a body — people were walking past it, almost over it, as if there were nothing at all on the ground. Baka had the vehicles pull near for security, dismounted from his Humvee, and pulled back a scrap of cardboard covering the man's face. The man was young, shot between the eyes, and it looked as if he had been beaten. "Jesus," Maravilla muttered. "You'll see this often," Baka said. He called the location of the body back to the company command post so they could contact the Iraqi army to come pick the man up. With the help of an Iraqi interpreter, the soldiers interviewed some Iraqis on the scene, and received answers Baka had heard before: "He's not from here." "We don't know how this happened." "What a terrible accident."

Shaking his head, Baka turned to his soldiers and saw their mouths gaping in disbelief. He tried to explain that the Iraqis were trying to protect themselves, but he could see from his soldiers' faces that they weren't impressed by the explanation. Baka had them get back in the vehicles.

"OK! Load up!" he said.

"Watch the rooftops," Baka said again, as they entered an area with shopping centers, hotels, and four- and five-story apartment buildings, each fronted with arched balconies and latticed barriers that allowed women — or snipers — to look down at the street without being seen. Private First Class Ron Brown watched, but also tried to keep track of traffic and pedestrians. "Hey, Captain Baka," he said. "That dude's following us with a camera."

"Where?" Baka yelled.

Baka ordered the driver, Quinones, to turn the Humvee around as Baka let the others know over the radio that they were on the chase. The man was taking pictures of second platoon's patrol from the back of a car. Baka had already learned the insurgents liked to record everything — the grislier the better. But those videos and pictures could contain important intelligence for the Americans, if they could get their hands on them. They raced after the car and stopped it on a busy street. The soldiers surrounded it, pulled the driver out with his camera, and began to question him. But as they did, another car rushed through the intersection and slammed into a concrete post. "What the hell?" Maravilla said, looking over at Baka from the passenger seat.

"VBIED!" Quinones yelled, instantly assuming the car contained a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device — a suicide bomber in a car. "Wait," Maravilla said, as they prepared to flee the scene. "That dude looks dead." The "suicide bomber" was slumped over his steering wheel.

"Let's check it out," Baka said, and sent a message over the radio for the guys in the trucks behind him to back him up. Baka had assumed the car belonged to another one of Adhamiya's bad drivers and had simply crashed into a concrete pole because the driver wasn't paying attention. But Baka's men were not yet familiar with Adhamiya's traffic.

"You gotta be kidding me," Montenegro said. "What if it blows up?" But he jumped out with the rest of the platoon, figuring the company commander must know what he was doing. Baka walked toward the car, followed by his men looking toward the rooftops for snipers and pointing their weapons out.

"Shit," Baka said as he got near the car. Blood poured from the side of the driver's forehead. "Gunshot wound to the head."

A sniper, apparently aiming for the soldiers and Baka, had hit the civilian driver instead as he chanced through the intersection.

"Where is he? Where is he?" Agami shouted as the guys realized they were in immediate danger and began looking for the sniper. They scanned the tops of buildings, but they did not see anybody. The platoon medic quickly bandaged the man's head. He had survived the gunshot wound, and was conscious and confused.

"Load him up," Baka yelled. "We gotta get this guy to a hospital."

As they moved the Iraqi man into a Humvee, the patrol started taking fire. "Just go!" Baka yelled, and had Quinones lead the way, tires bumping over the curbs and soldiers bouncing hard in their seats.

"Sir, sir!" Maravilla shouted. "Don't you think we're going a little fast?"

Baka laughed. "It's always a little fast," Baka said. He told Quinones to hurry, and they hit a dip in the road, sending soldiers flying up out of their seats.

"Whoa," Maravilla said, eyes wide as he grabbed the dash. "So this is Adhamiya."

Excerpted from They Fought For Each Other by Kelly Kennedy Copyright 2010 by Kelly Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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They Fought for Each Other

The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq

by Kelly Kennedy

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