Charlie Rock Strikes Back

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The enemy would not get the jump on Charlie Rock. A civilian pick-up had been spotted five hundred meters out on their right flank, another one crammed with people vanished behind a sand bungalow 1,200 meters away at their two o'clock. Here on the outskirts of Ash Shinariya, a small town on the Euphrates 200 kilometers south of Baghdad, crews spent their night watching thermal imaging detectors in Bradley fighting vehicles. They'd been picking up enemy scouts probing their sandbagged positions blocking a bridge over the Euphrates, five kilometers south west of town.

The high-tech tracking was valuable, but a recon mission would provide critical intelligence for Charlie Rock. First Sergeant William Mitchell headed out with in M-113 track along with a squad of three tanks and a scout humvee. The order was fire only if fired upon. And yet somehow, soon enough, those high-tech thermal images would become a flesh and blood enemy in a heavy exchange of fire.

Studying Ash Shinariya from his hatch, Mitchell, a wiry 34 year-old, turned to his crew—blonde Texan Sergeant Robert Jones and care free Californian Private First Class Jonah Bishop—and cracking a wide grin he uttered into his mic, "lees go een start a feet." (Translation from Mississippi's best Braveheart imitation: Lets go start a fight.) The recon mission was to test Iraqi defenses around Ash Shinariya. But in spite of the Braveheart bravado nothing came of it. At 9:59am Mitchell ordered the small squad to turn about face. Three minutes later, just after the lead Abrams M1-A1 had swiveled around, the first enemy shot burst in a black cloud 150 meters above and 200 meters away at one o'clock from Mitchell.

"What the hell was that?" shouted Jones. Mitchell called company commander Captain Jorge Melendez one kilometer away by the bridge on the radio. "Rock Six, this is Rock Seven. We got a round fired. It came out of town and detonated in the air."

Sergeant First Class Barry Rather —"Barbarian Four"— was in a tank thirty meters away from Mitchell. "We got white trucks. There's a bunch of people in them. They've moved to the right and moved behind that building about half a click away at two o'clock."

Melendez came back: "Okay, so now we know the enemy is in the town. I assume they do not have anything to hit us at this range?" Then came a single heavy caliber shot that cracked over Mitchell's track, followed by another, then a burst. "That's close," said Mitchell. "Somebody's moving up on our right just over the berm." A second round burst in the air, perhaps 50 meters closer. "Mortar rounds, that's what it is," said Mitchell, upright again in his hatch. "They're coming from inside the town." The squad backed up about 30 meters. As two more rounds exploded in the ground 50 meters front and right, the unseen machine gunner somewhere on the right began firing repeated bursts over Mitchell's track.

"Rock Six, Rock Seven," said Mitchell into the radio. "I've got fire on the left and the right. I've got mortars in the town, probably defending the breach, but right now they're taking snapshots at us."

Melendez shouted back: "Sounds like they're trying to flank you guys." Unbeknownst to the enemy, U.S. scouts were now working feverishly to come up with "grid references"— coordinates for Mitchell's squad to start firing at. Two more mortar rounds landed in a cloud of dust about 30 meters out to the right. Over the rattle of Iraqi machine gun fire, the scouts announced they had a grid: "six dash four dash dash two dash six dash seven, niner dash two dash three dash three dash five."

At 10:28 am, Melendez gave the tanks permission to fire. The lead tank, "Barbarian 2," acknowledged — that tank is headed by Sergeant Al Wallace, 28, who back in Kuwait decorated his 120 mm barrel with the moniker "Baghdad beware". At 10:29 am just as a figure appeared on the roof of the distant bungalow, Barbarian 2's barrel exploded like a bomb. A cloud of dust enveloped the tank as 60 tons of Abrams recoiled across the road. A second passed then the impact. The bungalow disappeared in dust. "Rock Six, we no longer have a sniper problem," said Mitchell. He would later recount how the round hit two feet under the figure on the roof. "It just collapsed underneath him. Those heat rounds had to have killed 10 or 15 in that building. Bam! That's what I'm talkin' about."

The Iraqi's immediately responded with more machine gun fire and three mortar rounds, again wide and to the left. "It's coming from right over that berm," yelled Micthell, pointing to a ridge 500 meters off to the right. "Shoot that woodline, shoot that woodline." Jones opened fire with his .50 caliber machine gun as up ahead Barbarians 2 and 4 did the same with their same weapons. Hot shell casings fell about Jones' feet inside the track. A few hundred meters ahead three Iraqi's sprinted across the road, firing upon Wallace.

At 10:35, the tenth mortar round landed and Jones poured more .50 cal in to the berm on the right. Rather's Barbarian 4 fired its 120 mm — this one painted, "Baghdad's Nightmare." Again the strike was good. ("I finally busted my cherry," Sgt. Rather would joke later.) Gratified again, this time in the ditches in front of the bungalow —a few seconds later another mortar exploded plum on the road, 40 meters ahead of Barbarian 2. "The Iraqi's have zeroed their distance," said Mitchell, as all three tanks in Micthell's track made a sharp reverse. "Let's show 'em what real mortar fire is all about." Mitchell made the radio call and seconds later the ground around the bungalow erupted in dust, like it had been flattened by a giant fly swapper. "Thunder Base, Rock 7," said Mitchell. "I want you to go right a hundred, ahead a hundred, and then converge all weapons." Then leaning over to Rather, now along side in Barbarian 4: "Watch this Barbarian 4." At 10:43 am, all nine 120 mm mortar rounds fell flat on the bungalow. "YeeOww!" yelled Jones. "Yeah, yeah," smiled Mitchell. "You know I used to be a mortar man."

Back at the blocking position Mitchell estimated at least 20 or 30 Iraqi dead, in the bungalow and the ditches around. Not a single round, not even a piece of shrapnel, has hit the Americans. "Good stuff, good stuff," said Capt. Melendez. "Now I have an idea of the capability and how they're deploying it. And I got the result I was looking for—it ain't much."

Twenty four hours earlier,42 year old Iraqi civil engineer Abdul Amir had told the check point soldiers that the Army in Shinafiyah was staying at home and the only fighter they might confront would be poorly trained militias. " Some of them want to fight, and some of them may be made to fight."he said. "It's suicide. There is no benefit, only fighting, only death. Their only chance is cheating, fighting beside children, using white flags, whatever they have to do."

Melendez only needed a moment of reflection to forget his initial jubilation. "Mixing white flags with civilians and shooting between them?" he asked. "Sorry people. Sorry people."