4th Bn, 23rd Infantry After Action Reports

4th Bn (Mech) 23rd Inf in Vietnam in 1968

Honorary Colonel of the Regiment Note: This After Action report is a remarkable daily history of the 4/23 Inf in combat in Vietnam written by LTC Clifford Neilson (Col. Ret.) during his command of the battalion from May to November, 1968. I want to thank Colonel Neilson for allowing me to put his diary on the website. Enjoy. LTC (Ret) Fred Drew.

Tomahawks Besiege Mountain

Article from the 25th Infantry Division Tropic Lighting News in Vietnam about the 4th Bn, 23rd Inf Tomahawks

The 4th Bn 23rd Inf: From Alaska, to Fort Lewis, to Iraq and back to Alaska

Read the full story of this amazing journey of the battalion from 2004 to 2006, written by then Battalion Commander LTC John Norris and then Operations Officer Major Clint Baker.

In 2003 the 4th Battalion 23rd Infantry located in Anchorage Alaska as part of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT) started their incredible journey to activate the battalion, stand it up from the ground, transform it, equip it with the Stryker combat vehicle, train, deploy and fight in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom earning the Valorous Unit Award. 4-23 IN is no stranger to transformation, forty years earlier on 25 January 1963 another transformation took place, 4-23 assigned to the 172nd Light Infantry Brigade activated and transformed during combat operations from a light infantry organization to a mechanized infantry battalion. Although similar, this stryker transformation would be significantly different.

4-23IN transformation was part of the Army’s larger transformation efforts to transform the Army to a modular brigade structure. The modular brigade transformation included heavy, light and medium brigades. The SBCT was the medium BCT solution and the 172nd Infantry Brigade re-designated from a light infantry brigade to become the 172nd SBCT. This was the third SBCT in the Army transformation process and fielded the newest Army combat vehicle, the Stryker combat vehicle. In 2003 the 172nd Infantry Brigade was a light infantry brigade with only two organic infantry battalions and required three stryker battalions in accordance with the SBCT modular structure so the brigade would need one more battalion that did not exist. This is the requirement that necessitated the activation of 4-23 Infantry.

This is where the story begins. The battalion activation would not officially take place until 16 March 2004 but the stand up and activation of this battalion actually began in June 2003 when I arrived to Alaska as a MAJ(P) and informed that I would take command of 4-23IN, stand it up and establish the third infantry battalion of the 172nd SBCT. This was in name only, nothing existed, no soldiers, no equipment, nor were there any assigned buildings. Lack of facilities at Ft Wainwright where the 172nd SBCT was located was a critical factor driving the decision to locate 4-23IN at Ft Richardson AK over 300 miles south of the brigade. For the duration of the activation, transformation, train up and deployment to Iraq we would operate as a geographically separate infantry battalion.

Ft Richardson our designated location was not without facility challenges as well. Due to the unforcasted requirements and the arrival of new soldiers and Ft Richardson’s limited facilities, US Army Alaska (USARAK) leadership curtailed some barracks and buildings scheduled for demolition and provided them to the battalion as an interim solution. A permanent facility solution collocated with the brigade at Ft Wainwright would not be fully available until the battalion redeployed from combat in 2006. The 4-23IN battalion HQs was located inside a barracks building on one of the barracks floors sharing building spaces with some garrison staff offices. It was not optimal but it supported our requirements as best as could be expected under the circumstances.

In addition to becoming one of the newest combat formations in the Army’s arsenal, with the newest combat organization and equipment we would also be designated and organized as a COHORT Battalion (Cohesion, Operational Readiness and Training) as part of the US Army Unit Manning System (UMS). Under the UMS concept, the battalion would be formed and manned with over 760 personnel that would remain as a cohesive organization for almost 4 years before any personnel transfers would be authorized.

As part of the UMS initiative, we were extremely fortunate to be able to stand up, man, equip, train, deploy, fight, endure a combat extension and redeploy with the same incredibly talented battalion command group, that included CSM Dennis Zavodsky, XO MAJ Pat Mangin, S3 MAJ Clint Baker and the OPS SGM Cliff Doctor.

I am convinced that our battalion validated the UMS concept and this fact alone contributed to the battalions overwhelming success in combat and instilling a cohesive bond that has endured well beyond our service in the battalion and to our Nation.

We quickly went about the task of building our road to war strategy by identifying the mountain of tasks that lie before us. In 2003 our nation was fully engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Even though the 172nd SBCT was not initially designated as a deploying unit, it was understood that standing up, fielding strykers would be stepping stones enroute to combat. This assumption was foremost in our planning and shaped every decision. Our task list was extensive as you could imagine, and as a geographically separate battalion we literally had nothing but the order to stand up the battalion and for the majority of it, required to do it alone. The initial challenge was what to do first.

Reception, integration and the establishment of the companies was the first critical task in our unit stand up. Company commanders were designated along with a 1SG if available and then soldiers were assigned allowing them to organize and form the companies. One of the unique challenges due to manning a battalion from the ground up is that we did not have any SGTs or 1LTs. Typically, under normal circumstances like this you can leverage adjacent units for NCOs and 1LTs. Unfortunately, due to our geographic location and the only other local infantry unit was deployed to Afghanistan we were unable to fill the shortages. We would eventually correct this over time by growing our own but you can appreciate the impact on training as well as the establishment of company level processes and administration. Soldiers that trained together as COHORT units in basic and AIT began descending on AK from all over arriving individually, in small groups and large groups. The impact on Ft Richardson’s personnel reception capacity was overwhelming not to mention the challenges with Alaska weather. This forced the battalion to be creative in how we welcomed and integrated the new Tomahawk soldiers. Many soldiers had no appreciation for the Alaska weather arriving without adequate winter clothing with some wearing only flip flops and shorts. Working with the installation we were able to draw cold weather clothing and issue it immediately upon arrival so that we could safely take care of our soldiers. The soldiers continued to arrive and gradually we started resembling a fully manned infantry battalion.

The battalion was beginning to fill to full strength and take shape giving us the opportunity to be officially recognized as a battalion so that we could officially uncase the colors of 4-23IN. The U.S Army department of heraldry sent us our new colors with streamers and some historical items that are now back home with the battalion. This included the 4-23IN battalion colors from their service in Vietnam which are now framed and on display in the battalion. During the standup many veterans learning of the activation reached out to the battalion excited that 4-23IN were back in town. We had many Tomahawk Veterans from Vietnam remain in AK after their combat tours and they began knocking on our doors and they went about the task of assembling the Vietnam veterans support at large. Soon our veteran support group expanded including the Honorary CDR and CSM COL Stryker and CSM Main who were extremely active in bringing the new 23rd Infantry Battalion back into the regiment. Inspired by our veteran outreach, we wanted to reactivate the battalion honoring our veterans and leverage our proud distinguished history and legacy of the Tomahawks so we decided to have an activation ceremony and finish the day off with a formal activation ball where our veterans would play a crucial role in these events.

ACTIVATION CEREMONY During the activation uncasing ceremony we asked our veterans if they would hang their combat streamers back on the colors. We had Korean and Vietnam veterans hang the streamers that they personally had earned while serving the 23rd Infantry. The Honorary Regimental Command Sergeant Major CSM Main had the honor of hanging streamers representing three wars. His grandfather served with the 23rd in WWI, his father served the regiment in WWII and he had served the regiment during the Korean War. The silence was deafening and emotional watching these distinguished veterans hang the streamers that their blood sweat and tears earned knowing that they were passing on their legacy to another group of Tomahawk warriors that would soon add to the proud history of the regiment. It was a very proud moment realizing that the torch was officially passed to our battalion along with a tremendous amount of respect.

Later that same day we held the activation ball. One of the key activities of the ball was a punch bowl ceremony. In order to fully celebrate our history, we wanted to have a 23rd Infantry historical punch bowl ceremony and initially pursued getting the Regimental Korean Punch bowl for the ceremony that was located at Ft Lewis WA. Unfortunately, this was too ambitious of an idea due our location and the historical significance and value of the bowl. This information was shared with our Vietnam Veterans and Doug Conn told me that we got this. What this meant is that the Vietnam Tomahawks would donate the silver punch bowl and silver cups so that we could have our punch bowl ceremony.

The punch bowl ceremony celebrating the new and old Tomahawks was equally impressive and live streamed across the web with our veterans who were unable to attend allowing them to share honorary toasts of our fallen, and the regiment. The punch bowl ceremony included a grog representing the distinguished history of the 23rd Infantry Regiment poured over smoking dry ice. The cups were filled and we toasted and celebrated generations of old and new Tomahawks gathering together in the brotherhood of war. A fun night had by all.

The activation ceremony and ball was absolutely amazing and I contribute much of the success due to the active participation of our veterans who participated in both events and who continue to serve the regiment today. The 4-23IN Tomahawks were officially activated. We Serve!

After the Battalion’s activation in March ’04, described in the last newsletter by COL(R) John Norris who commanded the outfit for 3 ½ years (expertly I might add), we began our equipment fielding and train-up program in earnest.  We are talking the period of April ’04 to May ’05 which is when we eventually conducted our mission rehearsal exercise (MRE) at Fort Polk – so about 14 months to get everything done and be ready to fight in Iraq.  At first blush, that doesn’t sound overly challenging until one considers that we didn’t have any weapons or equipment to speak of (we fielded javelins prior to the activation for some random reason), and we were a single battalion on Fort Richardson, AK separated from our Brigade headquarters and fellow battalions at Fort Wainwright by about 350 miles.  Not only did we have to schedule and execute the fielding and training for every single piece of equipment in the unit, we had to pull all the red cycle taskings on the post because the only other battalion on Fort Richardson was deployed to Afghanistan.  With little to no external support available, we were forced to rely on ourselves, innovation, problem-solving, and flexibility; I believe this situation contributed to a positive unit culture. There were two training events that were dictated by Big Army prior to the Battalion’s activation that I should mention.  The Battalion’s senior leaders were required to attend the Army’s Stryker Leader Course (SLC) at Fort Benning.  We took this opportunity to share some cold beers while developing a shared vision for what we called our campaign plan.  In retrospect this was hugely important because this is where the Battalion Commander and Battalion CSM (Dennis Zavodsky – a tough, lean/mean paratrooper with a combat jump into Panama who frightened even us majors in the unit!) laid out their vision for the Tomahawks.  As the Battalion S3, I literally took the butcher block paper from those sessions at Fort Benning back to Alaska with me and built the long-range training plan.  Although the campaign plan evolved over time based on fielding schedules, constantly changing Combat Training Center (CTC) scheduling, and a myriad of other variables, the vision, focus, and end state remained unchanged and crystal clear throughout the train-up.  Finally, right before our activation in March ‘04, Fort Benning brought a Tactical Leader Course (TLC) to Fort Richardson to train PSGs and above on Stryker tactical considerations.  This week-long course went a long way to getting all the cadre on board with the command team’s vision and established an extremely positive command climate which emphasized cohesion, teamwork, and rewarded prudent risk-taking and innovation.  I think all the other soldiers must have been partying that week –haha!

     I want to discuss several important factors in the battalion’s train-up for and eventual success in combat; then I will address each in a little more detail.   One is the idea that we were infantry-centric versus vehicle-centric and focused on mastery of the fundamentals.  I am talking about the absolute primacy of the ability of the dismounted infantry squad and platoon to close with and destroy the enemy – full stop.  Second was gaining a decision from the brigade level to change the Stryker fielding schedule to enable the battalion to participate in the Brigade’s certifying exercise at a CTC.  No, this was far from being a given well into the train-up.  This critical decision also paved the way for an epic off-post battalion field training exercise (FTX) at Fort Lewis to prepare for the CTC.  Third is the advantages gained in unit culture and cohesion from being a separate battalion with life cycle manning – particularly if you are Tomahawks!  Honorable mention goes to old school training management practices/discipline and an unapologetic sense of urgency!  I used to show a slide at the battalion training meetings that was entitled “Every Tomahawk  Minute Counts” that portrayed just how difficult our road to war was going to be.  But we were on that road so we had little choice but to mash the food feed!

     Initially, the new equipment fielding and training was overwhelming and drove the train on the schedule.  Aligning the fielding/training of equipment with the training progression and certification requirements from higher headquarters was worse than a Rubik’s cube on steroids!  They had a whole “tiger” team of folks at U.S. Army Alaska dedicated to trying to sort it out.  I remember the head honcho of the team had these huge matrixes blown up and taped on the walls around his office as if that would help him solve the problem; it did not.  Honestly, I get a little sick just thinking about it now – like I might throw up.  Being the only battalion in the 172nd that was standing up from scratch, we were necessarily the last battalion to field our Strykers.  In retrospect, this was a blessing in disguise because it forced us to work on dismounted infantry skills and tactics at the individual and small unit level.  It was simply impossible for us to try to put the cart before the horse in this case.  This infantry-centric focus was crucial in my view, and having brand new equipment ain’t too bad of a deal either! 

     Life cycle manning was unique; we had almost no buck sergeants and zero 1LTs – just brand new 2LTs.  We would have to grow our own, and they would be exactly what we made them.  Plus, we were all in it for the long haul – we knew from the outset that none of us were going anywhere until our job was done in Iraq.  These junior NCOs and officers were focused, unafraid, and given real autonomy by the Commander/CSM.  Dennis Zavodsky and a cadre of senior NCOs (the vast majority of which were light infantry, airborne and Ranger types) spent two weeks teaching young specialists and even PFCs how to be great team leaders.  They didn’t come with any bad habits or preconceived notions.  Dennis knew how squads and platoons fight, and he knew how to train them to fight.  I watched him give many after action reviews to squads and platoons and was always humbled by his absolute mastery of dismounted small unit tactics.  I was able to carve out quite a few training weeks for the company commanders to do nothing but focus on fire team and squad live fire exercises.  I remember that several of them actually went back and retrained the fire team level which is always a good indicator that people are training to standard and not just checking the block. 

     Other key early challenges included running our own Expert Infantryman’s Badge training and testing event with zero external support, managing a myriad of everchanging individual digital training requirements, as well as fielding a tactical operations center (TOC) and training a staff to operate it in time for the 172nd’s warfighter command post exercise.  For those challenges, enter two men who I cannot possibly give enough credit to for their contributions to the unit – our Battalion XO, Pat Mangin and our Operations SGM, Cliff Dockter.  Both were geniuses in my view and pulled off things that seem like magic to me even today!  Pat was a standout football player at West Point who was known for his kamikaze-like assaults while busting the wedge of opposing teams.  He was also a bit of a closet computer geek (you would not say that to his face – LOL!) which helped us a great deal in the digital and TOC training realm.  Pat always figured out how to make sure the Battalion had absolutely the best TOC around – he never failed in this respect.  Staff training was mostly an “away” game for us because any externally supported staff training was done up at Fort Wainwright – that is a PCS move!  We (the staff) stayed in some run-down old barracks the Army kept around to let the smoke jumpers stay in during the summer months.  Mangin had commanded a company with distinction at Fort Wainwright as a CPT, so he made sure we maximized not only the training opportunities but the cohesion-building opportunities as well!  Cliff Dockter, a rough-talking, Bradley Master Gunner type and a bear of a man is the finest leader/soldier I ever ran into in almost 29 years of service.  He was the most experienced soldier in the formation and the most highly respected.  As new soldiers rolled into the unit, he personally screened and then interviewed those that were eventually assigned to the S3 shop.  Only the very best and brightest handled the important work of the S3 shop and operated the TOC’s equipment.  If Cliff was not a computer genius, he was as close to one as I have ever seen!  He expertly managed all the individual training requirements and prerequisites using a new digital training management system (DTMS), and he was able to make the digital systems do things that even the Project Manager trainers could not figure out.  The EIB training event he pulled off almost single-handedly still stands out as the best one I can think of in all my years in the infantry.  As if that wasn’t enough, because of his Master Gunner background, he taught and certified our officers for live fire training.  As an example of how closely every training event was timed in the Battalion, we completed fielding and training on our brand new TOC just hours before we had to load it on a convoy headed to Fort Wainwright for the Brigade warfighter exercise.  We crushed the exercise.  

     Once training got rolling, most of the equipment fielding became just background noise except for the fielding of the Strykers.  John and Dennis saw this very clearly as they did most important things.  The Brigade had a sequential fielding plan for the battalions, which, as discussed earlier, did have some benefits in terms of our training focus and progression; however, it pushed our fielding so late that it was impossible for us to participate in any sort of Brigade culminating or certifying exercise – we would have to do some sort of home station certification prior to the deployment without ever having operated as a part of the Brigade.  From the very beginning, John Norris made it clear that was unacceptable to him, and we would participate in whatever CTC wound up being the Brigade’s certifying training event.  We would do it as a full-up battalion that was ready to deploy.  He was absolutely right in every way, but it took some work to get there!  In the simplest terms, we learned to do a lot of things simultaneously rather than sequentially.  Instead of the first six companies of Strykers going to the two battalions at Fort Wainwright, John Norris convinced the Brigade Commander to field two companies of Strykers to each of the three battalions including 4-23 IN.  This would give each battalion the ability to make training milestones in a timely manner and then “hot bed” Strykers to the third company.  Likewise, at the Battalion level, I had to convince the Stryker fielding team to field two platoons for each of the three companies rather than all three to only two companies.  The Tomahawks wound up excelling at JRTC but it really took one more puzzle piece to bring it all together – and a great S6! 

     It is often said that the best ideas come from the bottom up.  That was certainly the case for the idea for our off-post battalion FTX at Fort Lewis which was the brainchild of some of our great captains in the unit.  Normally, the cost would have been prohibitive but we had to ship the Strykers to Seattle to get railed to JRTC anyway – the transportation was a sunk cost.  Plus we were supposed to field the last of our Strykers at Fort Lewis anyway.  Most of the units from Fort Lewis were deployed so we would have the run of the place.  It would be February ’05 so training conditions in Alaska would be far from ideal for mounted training.  The reasons to execute this off-post training were so numerous and compelling that it was a no-brainer and an easy sell to the 172nd Brigade and to U.S. Army Alaska.  The exercise featured platoon mounted/dismounted live fire exercises, platoon force-on-force urban exercises with simunitions for added realism, and company level urban force-on-force exercises in the two urban training sites at Fort Lewis (the companies would do their live fires at JRTC).  It was also the first time that Tomahawk 6 and I got to roll in our tactical assault command post – i.e. our Strykers!  Fort Lewis is where all the digital training finally started to come together and produce powerful results.  Our S6 was a fella named CPT Clay Moody who was the best I have seen before or since and simply put, he had the digital systems wired for sound!  The power of the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) was obvious and significant — we called it the lower tactical internet.  We used it for orders, reports, graphics, messaging, etc…  Suffice it to say that I have never seen the lower tactical internet work as well as it did in my time with the Tomahawks.  Other units were never able to leverage the satellite-based Blue Force Tracker (BFT) in the same fashion.  Lastly, I just have to mention that by the time we got to Fort Lewis our Scout Platoon and Mortar Platoon were simply off the charts in terms of proficiency.   

     I could go on for days about this period in 4-23 IN’s history, but I fear I have gone way too long already.  I must add that the unit history was a significant and powerful part of the Battalion’s culture.  John Norris had an exceptional knack for leveraging the things that would build cohesion in the Battalion, and Tomahawk history was one of the most important.  I remember reading everything I could get my hands on about the 23rd Infantry Regiment, and I clearly remember how proud we all were to be Tomahawks!

In previous issues of We Serve, Colonel John Norris the former commander of 4/23 Infantry told the story of the 4/23rd activation in 2004 and Colonel Clint Baker the former battalion operations officer shared the battalions training road to war. Now Colonel Norris shares his story on the 4/23rd combat experience during Operation Iraqi Freedom 2005-2006.

Our battalion activation and training now complete it was now game time, time to deploy for Iraq. After the battalion completed our mission readiness exercise at JRTC we shipped our Strykers to Kuwait where we would catch up with them at Camp Buehring for a short training period and onward movement to Northern Iraq and combat operations.

Our Brigade the 172d Stryker Brigade Combat Team was replacing the 1st Brigade of the 25th out of Ft Lewis in our designated area of operations in Northern Iraq, the ancient city of Nineveh, the cradle of civilization, included the city of Mosul and the surrounding areas on the east and west side of the Tigris River. Mosul is the second largest city in Iraq with an estimated population of 1.6 million.

We organized a key leader element from the BDE and BN to depart Camp Buehring early for Mosul to begin setting the successful conditions for our relief in place/transfer of authority (RIP/TOA) with the 1-25 SBCT. The RIP/TOA process became a sustained best practice for operations in Iraq as incoming units would gain key lessons, TTPs, intelligence, information about operations, key leaders, key threats pertaining to your assigned AO. 4/23 would RIP/TOA with 1-5 Infantry Bobcats commanded by LTC Todd McCaffrey.

It would not take long to get our first taste of combat. Just a few days into our RIP/TOA, with most of the BN still in Kuwait, LTC Todd McCaffrey and I were in the BN HQs exchanging information and we received a report of troops in contact with injuries. We immediately went to the TOC to get an update on the situation and learned that one his soldiers was wounded and being evacuated to the CASH hospital. We also learned that there was a physician’s assistant (PA) on site providing medical care to the wounded. LTC McCaffrey said who is this, our PA never went outside of the wire. This was our 4/23IN PA CPT Pat Williams who went on this combat mission along with our recon platoon sergeant SFC Karl Zagular as part of their RIP/TOA. The patrol was entering and clearing a building that was heavily fortified when the insurgents initiated contact with machine guns and grenades injuring the 1-5IN squad leader and medic. Doc Williams seeing the injuries immediately provided medical aid and protected the injured who were still under machine fire by shielding them with his body. The squad leader was shot through the shoulder severing his artery. Knowing that he would quickly bleed out if not stopped, Pat cut his shoulder open with his pocket knife and grabbed his severed artery with his hands clamping off the blood flow signaling for immediate evacuation. They loaded the wounded in the back of the stryker and drove to the CASH located in Mosul just minutes away to a surgical team waiting for their arrival due to CPT Williams calling forward communicating the type of injury that would require a vascular surgeon immediately. The soldier survived and CPT Pat Williams was awarded the silver star for his heroic actions. Just days into our tour in Iraq, a very humbling and eye-opening glimpse on what was in store for our combat tour.

Mosul was a very complex large urban city, the second largest city in Iraq, the city where Saddam Hussein’s sons Usay and Qusay were killed. It was heavily populated with over 1.1 million people, mostly Sunni and Kurds that created its own challenging tribal dynamic without inserting al-Qaeda into the picture. In 2005 the city was still very violent with al-Qaeda operating freely resulting in enemy contact on a daily basis that ranged anywhere from small arms fire, simple IEDs, complex attacks, and suicide vehicle born IED (SVBIED) the preferred weapon against our strykers and combat outposts (COP). Everyone in the battalion would soon experience combat and the effects of war, some more than others. We had several in the command with double digit IED strikes. Many injured but none killed due to the survivability of the stryker. One severely injured soldier was SFC Harlan our mortar platoon leader who struck a deep buried IED that blew directly beneath him and his driver literally blowing him out of the commander’s hatch in the stryker and into the air over 30 feet and crashing to the ground. The combination of the blast and the landing broke all of the bones from his hips down to his toes. Miraculously he survived and after more than 18 surgeries not only was he able to walk again but continued to serve and would later be selected as the U.S. Army Soldier of the Year and serve with me again when I commanded 4-2SBCT. The Stryker was definitely the right platform for this war.

4/23IN conducted counter insurgency operations with the purpose to restore stability in Mosul, eliminate al-Qaeda insurgents and assist the Iraqi people, the Iraqi Army and Police. Our operations ranged from U.S. only squad, individual platoon, company level and battalion level operations as well as routine combined operations with Ranger and SOF forces to fully partnered operations with Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).

An example of one of our numerous battalion level operations happened the day after our strykers arrived in Mosul. In support of then COL HR McMaster 3rd ACR commander, we conducted a BN cordon in search of a town west of Mosul called Mullhalabia looking for reported foreign fighters and Sunni insurgents. We conducted a 0400 link up with two Iraqi Army battalions that we had not met nor previously conducted operations with and an artillery battalion. This is where we would learn the term “Dry Hole” meaning no insurgents, we would experience many more dry holes throughout our deployment. Although it was a dry hole, the level of planning and mission anxiety is the same, especially your first battalion combined arms mission. The mission was a success in quickly demonstrating our ability to rapidly project our capabilities, conduct a combined cordon and search operations with ISF and exercise battalion level command and control under real combat conditions.

The battalion quickly established a powerful presence in Mosul providing 24/7 coverage, “presence” that provided an immediate impact on improved security. Our approach was simple, be present and responsive, 24/7. The stryker enabled excellent C2 and situational awareness where we had a common operational picture on where everyone was in our AO to include external units using FBCB2 and blue force tracker technologies. We implemented a plan with no less than three stryker platoons in zone 24/7 demonstrating credible presence responding to everything, go to the sound of the guns, especially our ISF partners. This approach quickly disrupted the insurgent’s confidence and now we were affecting their decision cycle in a big way. One of the unanticipated measures of effectiveness identified with our approach was that when we began operations in Mosul the ISF operated with masks on their face concealing their identity for fear of being identified and killed and after just a few short weeks the insurgents were now the ones wearing the masks. We were making progress, our Iraqi partners were regaining control of their city and gaining confidence.

The presence approach to operations enabled our battalion to respond to any situation quickly and assist units in contact, at risk or simply respond to enemy contact. One of these events happened while on a routine patrol with my command element where we received a be on the lookout report (BOLO) for a vehicle in the Al Sinai area, a 4-door silver sedan with 3 military aged males (MAMs) for reported to have recently killed someone in the area. Al Sinai was a chop shop area for known for making SVBIEDs and being a bad place.  We were in the area and reported that we would be on the lookout. We turned the corner and identified the suspect vehicle and so did they, immediately stopping and reversing their direction. We pursued the fleeing vehicle and they stopped, quickly fleeing from the vehicle. My command TAC security team led by the BN S3 dismounted and pursued the suspected insurgents and captured them. The vehicle was loaded with multiple weapons and other equipment including numerous cell phones. The phones started ringing and my translator Coop, a very tall intimidating sometimes overly aggressive Iraqi Texan, who spoke perfect English and Iraqi was yelling into the phone. I asked Coop what was he saying and he said that we had captured a cell leader and they were telling us to let them go or they would attack, he said if you want him come and get him! Thanks Coop, they did, and we were now in the middle of a huge firefight that lasted for 8 hours coming from multiple directions.

It started small with small arms fire coming from some of the adjacent buildings as we were exposed in the open intersection with the detainees, weapons and vehicles. Our security teams started clearing the buildings where the fire was coming from, then more fire from other locations. We reported the situation and our SOP to have multiple units in zone at all times responded quickly cordoning the area off blocking intersections keeping innocent civilians from stumbling into a firefight. What began as a simple capture of a bolo vehicle turned into a long drag out fire fight. More Tomahawk units arrived, swarming the objective and started closing in on the multiple firing locations. I directed our recon platoon to clear one of the target buildings and as they were approaching the target building, they were engaged by a machine gun ambush wounding several of our Tomahawks. They returned fire, broke contact and evacuated our wounded to the CASH. After this we brought in gun ships that engaged the target buildings silencing the fire. The gun ships were literally firing over our vehicles with expended brass raining down on our command strykers literally scaring the shit out of the insurgents inside of the CSMs stryker. Even in the midst of this fight and chaos there was a moment of levity when CSM Zavodsky reported over the radio that the detainees had definitely defecated due to fear and he would no longer allow detainee’s in his stryker. It was also during this time that an Iraqi unit unfortunately stumbled into the kill zone getting engaged by the insurgents. The Iraqis were caught off guard, dazed and confused and were mauled by the insurgent gun fire wounding 18 soldiers as they scrambled from the kill zone. As darkness arrived the firing died down with the remaining insurgents fading away because we owned the night. The fight had ended and CSM Zavodsky and I headed straight to the CASH to check on our wounded. We walked into the CASH which now had wounded Iraqi soldiers sitting and filling the bloody hallways with the surgery tables filled with my soldiers. My BDE CDR COL Mike Shields walked up to me and informed me that SGT Robinson, one of my super star recon warriors lost one of his legs due to the ambush and was now recovering from serious injuries.

Although not a daily occurrence to experience a battalion level firefight, firefights similar to this occurred routinely for the entire battalion and at all levels from squad, platoon to company. Each company operated within their own area of operations and each company had similar experiences. Initially, it was not uncommon to have 5-8 of these types of engagements daily throughout the battalion.

The companies partnered with the ISF and conducted combined operations in their AO to provide security and restore security. Partnered operations started to deliver improved security in our area of operations which was the key to our Nations ultimate endstate and departure.  We partnered with the Police and the Army on a daily basis coaching, training and conducting operations with them. Sometimes a frustrating effort requiring enormous patience but absolutely required if we were going to set the conditions for our eventual departure. We had the opportunity to establish and develop one of the six regional training centers for this specific task. Hamam Al Lil was in our area of operations and the location of the former Iraq agricultural university that was destroyed, looted and no longer functional. We transformed this university into a combined regional training center focused on training the ISF including both the Army and Police. We rebuilt the facilities, improved the compound and designed training courses from leadership, marksmanship, and small unit tactics. We called this training center the Northern Iraq Training Center (NIRTC). Because our battalion stood up from scratch, we were uniquely qualified to stand up this training center from scratch.

In an effort to increase the combat power of the 172SBCT reconnaissance squadron, the 4th squadron, 14th Calvary Regiment, located in the central Anbar Province operating in Rawah, we attached Apache company 4-23IN to them. A CO was tasked to establish a combat outpost in Anah overwatching a major intersection leading to Rawah which was responsible for countless roadside bombs. A CO not only made an immediate impact reducing roadside bombs in the area but also significantly disrupting the Abu Hamza cell responsible for blowing up the police station and running the police out of town. Due to A COs presence, they were soon targeted by Abu Hamza’s cell and CPT Albertus quickly learned of an imminent SVBIED attack on COP Anah. He directed the soldiers to increase their alert posture and go into full battle rattle. The intel report was accurate and the soldiers started receiving small arms fire as a suicide truck was rapidly approaching the COP. Apache soldiers engaged the truck in a hail of gunfire killing the driver but the vehicle continued to roll toward the COP through the concertina wire and hesco barriers then exploding in an enormous fireball destroying the exterior walls of the COP building. The alertness of the company and soldiers saved lives with only four Apache soldiers getting wounded. The actions of A CO in Anbar Province contributed to the successful “awakening” and increased stability in the region

As a result of improvements in security within our AO, and the deteriorating situation across Iraq, 4/23IN was identified as a mobile asset to help in other areas.  I received the word that we were going to be reassigned to Ramadi in western Iraq to help with security. We organized a pre deployment site survey (PDSS) and headed to Ramadi to assess what we had to do. Ramadi was located in the center of Anbar province and a hotbed for violence in Iraq. So much so that when my staff and I walked into the HQs of the PA NG HQs “the bloody bucket” their entrance wall was lined with over 100 photos of those killed in combat, a very sobering reminder on how bad this place was. We conducted our recon, made our assessments and returned to Mosul for continued planning. The plan quickly changed and instead of Ramadi we were now going to be reassigned to Tal Afar in western Nineva to replace the 1st Brigade 1st Armored Division commanded by COL Shawn McFarland who were now tasked to go to Ramadi. This decision would expand our 172 SBCT AO all the way from Mosul to the Syrian border including Tal Afar, Sinjar and Rabea the border crossing point with Syria.

We closed down operations in Mosul and began preparations for movement to Tal Afar where we would assume the battle space of a brigade combat team. We quickly applied the successful partnership lessons from Mosul to this new AO and started seeing success. We inherited another ISF force, the Iraqi Border Police. Now we had partnership with three different Iraqi security forces, the border police, the Iraqi Police and the Iraqi Army. We organized routine ISF security council meetings where we could get the leaders in one location, our dining facility to discuss security issues, combined operations and exchange cell phone numbers. I was shocked to discover that none of these leaders responsible for Iraqi security did not know each other nor had communicated previously. Seeing the leaders exchange cell phone numbers was a sign of progress.

We continued to build on this momentum, our partnership and reestablish security in this AO. The success was contested and not without challenge. My TAC was enroute to a ISF HQs in Tal Afar when we were flagged down by a young Jundi/Soldier who had just shot and stopped a SVBIED dump truck. My TAC was just a few minutes behind the vehicle now laying on its side, wheels still spinning in front of the ISF HQs with a lone Iraqi soldier shaking. He saw the truck approaching rapidly, not slowing assessed that it was a SVBIED and stood firm shooting the driver in a welded steel armored cab stopping him cold. We dismounted keeping a safe distance from the SVBIED providing local security to confirm if the driver was dead and if we could see the explosives. Confirmed, we called forward an EOD team to reduce the explosives which they were more than willing to assist but unfortunately, they blew the explosives in a small court area and created unnecessary collateral damage by destroying several buildings in the process. We were later invited to a ceremony where the young brave Jundi, the Iraqi name for soldier, was singled out for his bravery saving many lives in the process. The senior Iraqi flag officers in attendance instead of presenting him with a medal gave him envelopes filled with cash. My soldiers looked at me and said that we should adopt the Iraqi method.

While at FOB Sykes in Tal Afar we developed a very close relationship with an aviation battalion commanded by LTC Doug Gabram and due to our expansive area of operations and extremely porous border we developed a new combined operation called the aerial flash tactical check point (TCP) using a combination of UH 60s, AH 64s and infantry squads. This aerial TCP was a huge success and gave us the ability to identify smugglers crossing from Syria by having the apache helicopters fly low in front of the vehicles with weapons pointing, stopping them then dismounting our infantry to search the vehicles. The word quickly spread about this technique and before long any time a helicopter would fly over vehicles would stop in their tracks even if it was not an aerial TCP.

Our twelve-month combat tour was coming to a close and as the first battalion to deploy we would be the first battalion to redeploy. We transitioned security operations, turned in our ammunition, theater property equipment, loaded our strykers on HETs and even transferred a company of strykers over to the ranger regiment who saw the value of this combat platform then we began our personnel redeployment. When the call came, I had soldiers in three countries, US, Kuwait and Iraq. We had 200 soldiers already on the ground in Ft Wainwright having reunited with their families with another 100 soldiers in Kuwait ready to board the freedom bird with the remaining battalion including myself awaiting our departure flights from Tal Afar to Kuwait. This is when the phone rang, the brigade commander COL Mike Shields called me and opened his conversation by saying, “are you sitting down”, as he continues to inform me that we have been extended. I asked extended for what, he said to go to Baghdad to help stop the increasing sectarian violence, which we would later learn would be the height of violence in the war in Iraq. Without hesitation he asked me how fast could I get my battalion to Baghdad and do you have any questions. Seeing my strykers loaded on HETS outside of my window I simply said I could be there tomorrow but when will I get my battalion back? He said we are working that!

We adjusted our plans and were now headed for Baghdad to continue the fight.

To be continued in the next issue of We Serve

In previous issues of We Serve, Colonel John Norris, Infantry, former commander of the Regiment’s fourth battalion, told the story of the 4/23rd activation in 2004 and Colonel Clint Baker, his operations officer, shared the battalion’s training road to war. Now Colonel Norris continues to tell the second story of the 4/23rd’s first combat experience during their extension in Operation Iraqi Freedom 2005-2006. The article is also available at www.23rdinftomahawksjournal.com

We successfully completed our 12-month combat tour in OIF and in the process of conducting redeployment operations with Tomahawk soldiers located in three countries, U.S., Kuwait and Iraq, when our battalion and the entire 172SBCT was extended and directed to move to Baghdad. We were told to immediately continue combat operations in support of Operation Together Forward II where Iraqi and Coalition forces would conduct combined operations to clear neighborhood by neighborhood, using the “clear, hold, and build” strategy. The security environment in Baghdad had worsened significantly as a result of the al-Askari mosque bombing with the sectarian violence between the Sunni’s and the Shia’s was off the charts with daily mass killings inflicted on both sides. Iraq’s capitol city was being divided in a horrific and brutal manner with entire neighborhoods being murdered or cleared out through threat of violence. Our senior military and political leadership were looking for quick solutions to help contain the violence and our brigade was the initial and fastest response.

Figure 1 4-23IN Extension Poster designed by Kevin Norris the brother of the CDR, LTC John Norris

The extension call from the brigade commander was a shock to the system but in times of crisis we could not dwell on that and had to begin focusing on the challenge that lay ahead. We immediately planned the movement to Baghdad and began to set up our battalion area for continued operations.  Due to limited existing infrastructure and units already located there our battalion was placed at Camp Striker on Baghdad International Airport (BIAP).[i] Camp Striker was in less than desirable condition, it was an eyesore. It was an old tent city identified for demolition that was weather worn with shredded blue nylon tarps stretched over the tops of the tents to keep rain out with blast walls made of two-foot-tall deteriorating sandbags encircling every tent. Due to the extension, they halted the demolition and assigned our battalion to this area. Clearly not a welcoming site nor a great way to get started in Baghdad. Again, due to infrastructure constraints we did not have a building to occupy for a battalion headquarters, so we were provided with a chapel tent that was repurposed with plywood interior walls that would serve as our makeshift battalion command post. It was not ideal, but we managed and very quickly set back up our C2 systems and had a functioning CP.

While all of this was taking place we were also refitting, rearming, and reorganizing our battalion for continued operations. Because we had already completed our 12-month combat tour and in the process of redeploying, as part of that process we turned in all our ammo, theater property equipment (TPE)[ii] and even transferred 12 strykers over to the 75th Ranger Regiment. We had conducted many partnered operations with the Rangers while in Mosul and they quickly learned how valuable, lethal, and survivable they were and with our brigade redeploying we were directed to transfer them. Of course, we would not see our TPE or our strykers again nor would they be replaced during this extension. We would be down a company’s worth of strykers and much of the TPE that had helped enable our previous success.

The extension required us to reorganize and restructure how we were going to operate. In addition to the loss of strykers, we were also down several hundred soldiers and did not know when they would ever return.[iii] The list of redeployers included key personnel from every company with many members from the battalion including the battalion executive officer, the command sergeant major, battalion staff, gunners, medics, and drivers that were sent home on the first lift to set the conditions for a very complicated split redeployment. During our year in Iraq, Alaska had built the required facilities at Ft Wainwright AK the location of the 172SBCT for the battalion to redeploy to. Unfortunately, we deployed from Ft Richardson AK where we stood our battalion up and our families still lived there so our redeployment was going to be split and difficult to manage so we sent home a very strong team to accomplish this task.[iv]

During this period of transition for the battalion I considered it a two-front war. We were fighting transition and reorganization friction in Baghdad getting set back up to resume combat operations while simultaneously fighting the home front war going on back in Alaska. The extension was not good news for the battalion and it was definitely not welcome news to our families anxiously waiting on their loved ones to return home. Quickly the story of our battalion extension with the circumstances I already stated made national news that was quickly being addressed by every major news outlet nationwide. Our battalion was now being engaged by the media on both fronts wanting to tell this story. The direction that most of the media took was supportive and sympathetic of the soldiers but also at the same time it was not helpful. Our story was being exploited to demonstrate the medias perception of another example of failed policy with us caught in the middle. The extension and media coverage started creating additional unwelcome morale problems and division within the battalion that was also not helpful. As an example, Michael Hastings a reporter working with Newsweek had already embedded with the battalion early in our tour in Mosul and he became a part of the team reporting the combat successes of the battalion.[v] When we were extended, he asked if he could return to our unit and we readily welcomed him back to the team. Unfortunately, he came with a biased agenda verses reporting the horrible sectarian conditions and immediate successes that the battalion was already achieving. His agenda included sending other reporters to Alaska to interview several spouses extremely upset with the extension in an effort to fuel the failed policy narrative.  As the commander and a soldier, I understand why we were extended and yes, I was upset just like everyone else, but we had still had a mission to do, and I needed everyone’s head in the game and not distracted by this two-front war with internal division among soldiers and families.

In an attempt to do some damage control in theater due to the fallout from the extension, LTG Chiarelli the Commander of Multinational Corps – Iraq (MNC-I) met with our battalion in our motor pool to thank us and for an impromptu sensing and Q&A session. We assembled around the MNC-I commander in an informal circular formation, and he spoke a few words, he thanked us then opened for questions from the battalion. One of our soldiers that was upset quickly raised his hand and asked why did you wait until we were in the middle of the redeployment before you made the decision. After a short pause, LTG Chiarelli said that this should tell you how difficult of a decision this was to make and that we did not want to make this decision at all, but we had no other choice.

Moving on would still be a challenge for a while and local unit relations would also contribute to unexpected early transitional friction. The frustration from the soldiers over the extension was understood but then started to see this frustration being transferred to other units serving in Baghdad by repeated rumblings with simple comments like, we did our job now we are doing yours.  Although on the surface the comments seemed harmless and amusing, it was not true, and I knew that it was not helpful. Eventually the team moved on and understood that other units were not equipped like stryker units and they did not have the capabilities or combat experience that we have. In fact, the message that we began communicating that resonated with everyone was that our extension is going to save lives, and that is why we are here.

Our battalion having just departed the second largest city in Iraq and very proficient and experienced in urban operations and counterinsurgency operations soon began operations executing our present and responsive strategy in Baghdad, the largest city in Iraq. In addition to an enduring al-Qaida terrorist presence, we now were operating in a sectarian violence civil war zone with the daily body count rising at an alarming rate. In essence, we were now in between a rock and hard place with both sides willing to kill us as well. The sectarian violence between the Sunnis and Shias was fueled by retribution for years of Sunni Baathist control and an opportunity to take control of the future of Iraq. The Shia’s were also enabled by cross border Iranian militia support and the Sunnis, no longer in control, were desperately trying to return to power. The sectarian violence was unlike anything we have seen before. It could be comparable to ethnic cleansing with mutilated, tortured dead bodies lying on every street corner. Entire neighborhoods would receive night letters with IEDs telling the occupants to vacate within 24 hours or be killed, complete neighborhood cleansing. Horrible brutality, torture and mass killings was commonplace.

In support of Operation Together Forward II, MG Thurman’s initial guidance to our unit, see all of these big red spots in the city, these red dots represent sectarian violence, daily attacks and I need you to go and clear them, conduct combined clearing operations with the Iraqi forces. This was brutal, temperatures were in excess of 100 degrees, block by block, confiscate weapons, highly dangerous and sadly, very predictable. Under this approach, we would operate with Iraqi forces that routinely did not show and move into the designated neighborhoods, clearing the area of extremist elements, and any identified weapons. Our brigade cleared thousands of homes and buildings, confiscated thousands of weapons during the extension throughout all of Baghdad. There was basically no neighborhood that we did not search.

Although the operation was ultimately unsuccessful, we did achieve a significant operational success and vindication for so many Americans lost to IEDs. While conducting clearance operations we discovered a very sophisticated enemy IED factory located in Adamiyah Baghdad. One of our platoons reported that they had uncovered what appears to be an IED factory with extensive electronic devices, materials, and some sophisticated equipment. We brought forward our SSE platoon along with the theater Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) exploitation team so that we could release the platoon and continue clearance operations. The site was confirmed as an advanced IED factory and after exploitation with a lot of valuable evidence and intelligence collected, it was then shared with the FBI who kept me informed, followed this case for years hunting for the actual master IED maker responsible for killing hundreds of U.S. servicemembers. The FBI finally tracked him down and was successfully able to locate him, capture, extradite, prosecute, and place him in prison.

[i] Camp Striker was our area that the entire battalion would occupy. It was not spelled the same way as the Stryker vehicle which became a source of soldier amusement as they would routinely correct the spelling of the base signs to Stryker.

[ii] Theater Property Equipment (TPE). This was property that provided to units in theater that would enable combat operations. The property was considered part of the rapid fielding initiative and the Army purchased equipment and shipped it to theater. This included off the shelf items, Kevlar blankets to add an additional layer of blast protection on the floors of strykers, NASCAR fire extinguishers, Range finders, non-lethal weapons etc.

[iii] The soldiers that returned to Alaska would not return back to Iraq for over a month. When they returned back to Alaska they went back they were released from USCENTCOM authorities to USPACOM/USARPAC authorities and the USARPAC Commander did not want to send them back to Iraq. This argument over the return of my soldiers went back and forth for days requiring me to me prepare a by name letter of justification stating why these soldiers were required to return to then unit. They were much needed, finally returned and rapidly integrated back into formation and resumed combat operations.

[iv] Split redeployment was a significant fight with the BDE and USARAK staff. The distance between Ft Wainwright and Ft Richardson is approximately 300 miles and the original plan was to redeploy the entire battalion to Ft Wainwright. This was unacceptable risk to me because my families all lived at Ft Richardson and I knew that if we all were scheduled to land at Ft Wainwright our families would drive the 300 miles north to welcome home their Tomahawks. This drive is dangerous, and I did not want to lose a family member on the highway when all they had to do was send the married soldiers to Ft Richardson and the single soldiers to Ft Wainwright. To manage this, we had to send home a strong team to handle this complicated redeployment.

[v] Michael Hastings was an embedded reporter with 4-23IN working for Newsweek during OIF 2005-2006 Iraq and later worked for Rolling Stone. He was recognized and published In June 2010, Rolling Stone published “The Runaway General” in June 2010 profiling U.S. Army general Stanley McChrystal leading to his resignation.

Figure 2 IED Factory Adamiyah Baghdad

A horrible example of the type of sectarian violence we uncovered shortly after assuming duties in our area of operations was the Meat market massacre. Uniformed police, armed men had driven to a Sunni meat-packing plant located in the Rashid district of Baghdad in police vehicles, told the workers they were conducting a routine identity check, then blindfolded and handcuffed at least 22 men and shoved them into the factory’s refrigerated trucks. Six of the workers, all Sunni Arab Muslims, were later found shot to death in a trash-strewn lot. Sunni residents of the neighborhood suspected that officers of the Iraqi national police, a mostly Shiite Muslim force, were to blame. Based on initial intelligence we thought so too and feared that Sunni anger could trigger more killings in an area that we were trying hard to control. Additionally, how were we going to help establish security if the ones ultimately required to enforce security are responsible for the murders.

Figure 3 Meat Market Truck

Believing that the police were incompetent, corrupt, unable, and ultimately responsible and also knowing that due to the volume of incidents we were uncovering would simply be ignored if we did not act, we converted our mortar platoon to a Sensitive Site Exploitation (SSE) and follow up force in an effort to get closure on some of the significant crimes that we were discovering. We learned of an actual eyewitness and survivor of this murder from our sister battalion 1-14 Cavalry and in an effort to get additional information we conducted an operation to detain him to protect him for his statements because it was better for him to be detained by U.S. forces involuntarily verses voluntarily which would not appear like an informant. He reported and confirmed that a Federal Police (FP) vehicle was at the scene with identifiable marking on the vehicle that we were able to track and link to a specific FP station. This information enabled us to contact the MP police trainers and 1-14 CAV in support of the FP station and explain to them what we had uncovered and they were able to confirm the information as well as provide photos of the FP officers working at that station. Using the photos from the MP trainers and with the assistance of one of our female humint collectors who was able to speak with the local Iraqi women and children, PVT Julia Thompson was able to get positive identification of the federal police officers from the 8th Brigade, 2nd National Police Division that were responsible helping solve this heinous cold-blooded crime. They were all later arrested and charged with murder.

Figure 2 PVT Julia Thompson engaging with local Iraqi children

Another example of the type of sectarian violence occurred on the same day as the meat market massacre in our area of operations in the Bayaa neighborhood was an execution style murder of a Sunni Army Officer home on leave. The shooting took place near an Iraqi National Police Check point manned by Shia police. Our patrol arrived on the scene just after the murder and we saw the victim lying on the ground with a group of local women in their black abayas surrounding him and wailing in distress. Two assailants armed with 9mm pistols drove up to the victim assassinated him and sped away driving past the checkpoint without being challenged. We secured the area and began questioning the locals about what had happened, and within a few minutes the brother of the victim arrived, and we helped him recover his brother. We provided a body bag and placed his brother in his car. The brother sat in his vehicle sobbing and not leaving so I asked him if he was ok and does he need any additional assistance. Tears in his eyes he said that if he leaves and drives past the checkpoint he too will be targeted and murdered. I told him that we would escort him home and we tucked his car into our patrol, and we safely escorted him to his home.

The sectarianism displayed by the National Police was out of control triggering increased violence and division all over Baghdad causing the Multinational Division Baghdad (MND-B) commander MG J.D. Thurman from the 4th Infantry Division to direct that this entire National Police Force be removed form sector and retrained. Because this police force operated in our area of operations, I got the task to relieve the entire police force which was the size of a brigade and personally escort them to the retraining center. This was no easy task considering the ongoing violence and all the existing security check points manned by the police that would be vacated by their removal. We developed a relief in place plan that would have our soldiers positioned by every check point early in the morning with instructions for the police to return to the police headquarters after I informed the police chief on what was happening and that he was to assemble his entire force, all police officers, weapons, trucks, and personal belongings and be ready to depart in two hours. With all units in position, I arrived at the police headquarters early in the morning with the police chief still asleep. His personal security informed me that he was still asleep, and I instructed them to wake him immediately. The police chief woke, and I explained what was going to happen and gave him very detailed guidance to assemble his police force. He initially resisted and began to argue and then I informed him that he had no choice, and he could do this voluntarily or I will do it by force. He started smoking and shaking and eventually followed my instructions. The entire police force began pulling into the headquarters and as they vacated the check points they were immediately replaced by our soldiers. As the police assembled at the police headquarters, they gathered in a large formation where the police chief spoke to the police instructing them on what was happening and where they were going with our soldiers tensely standing in overwatch anticipating that this situation could deteriorate into violence any minute. It did not, we escorted the police force away without incident and days later this police unit was replaced by another police force.

We learned through the continued application of our present and responsive strategy that the neighborhood mosques were no longer just a place of prayer but now being used as sectarian combat outposts that served as field hospitals, armories, and unit assembly areas to plan and conduct missions from. The mosques were considered no go territory for U.S. forces but after we were able to produce significant intelligence and justification that included mortars being fired from a local mosque onto BIAP we were finally granted permission to begin search operations. We conducted operations on numerous targeted mosques in the red zones and every mosque that we raided uncovered everything from weapons, including sniper rifles, IEDs, uniforms, ammunition, extensive medical supplies, and radios. We were gradually starting to have an impact on the sectarian violence.

Our battalion and brigade were making progress and having an impact that led to our unit being targeted. The strykers were feared and everyone was targeted including bounties placed on the leaders’ heads. In addition to the daily IEDs, and SVBIEDs that we experienced in Mosul, we were now being targeted by snipers and explosive formed projectiles (EFPs). [i] The snipers were thick in Baghdad and as expected during the clearing operations we were exposed and vulnerable for long periods of time. Our brigade was easy and predictable targets and soon we started taking losses across the brigade due to the snipers. One of our Tomahawks, SPC Hans Rhuer from B CO was shot in his helmet and miraculously survived the shot that penetrated one side of his helmet and raced around the inside bowl of the helmet exiting out the back. He was knocked unconscious and had a nasty gash from ear to ear circling the back of his head but survived.

[i] The EFP was a new and highly lethal weapon the size of a coffee can that was coming from Iran that was a self-forging penetrating shape charge made from lathed copper. They were well camouflaged even molded into concrete curbs along the roadways and intersections specifically designed to penetrate armor creating a molten copper slug that would easily penetrate all armor vehicles including our strykers.

Figure 5 SPC Hans Rhuer's Helmet with entry and exit bullet holes
Figure 6 CPL Alexander Jordan KIA 10 September 2006

Unfortunately, we experienced our first combat casualty due to sniper fire on 10 September 2006 in Shaab Ur when CPL Alexander Jordan B CO was targeted by a sniper. As expected, Alex’s loss hit the battalion hard but even more so knowing that had we not been extended he would still be alive. We had fought for 12 months with no fatalities; this was our first and only combat loss.

In an effort to minimize the effects from the sniper fire and an excellent example of combat ingenuity, one of our officers from 2-1 Infantry suggested making camouflage blinds on top of our strykers to help conceal our exposed air guards. His technique of curved rebar arches covered with our vehicle camouflage nets was an innovative field expedient solution that helped save lives. The technique was so successful that it was adopted theater wide and later general dynamics produced a manufactured solution for the vehicles.

Figure 7 Stryker with Camouflage Sniper Blind

Our battalion continued operations throughout all of Baghdad during our 4 month extension, we were used as a mobile strike force and had the ability to rapidly move a significant amount of combat anywhere in the city. We were having a positive impact in the city and although reduced, we continued to be targeted with daily contact throughout our remaining months of the extension. Just five days before our extension was to end, I was personally targeted by a Shia militia EFP suspecting they targeted me in retribution for the relief of the National Police Brigade. We had just departed from a local community center where we were coordinating relief support activities and I was in the lead vehicle and as we turned the corner, an EFP exploded grazing the front of our vehicle, blowing through a civilian vehicle beside me injuring several passengers and then penetrating a concrete building reinforced with rebar. Fortunately, no one in my patrol was injured. Immediately the area was cordoned off with multiple Tomahawk units responding in support. We did not find the shooter but did locate the burning hot copper slug that hit me, penetrated the civilian vehicle and the building. That copper slug now serves as a paper weight on my desk.

Figure 8 LTC John Norris with EFP copper slug that hit his vehicle during the extension to Baghdad

Our 4-month extension, 16 month combat tour finally came to a close, the Tomahawks faced challenges and obstacles unlike any other unit. They met those challenges and were highly successful in helping mitigate the sectarian violence that had consumed Baghdad. This cohort battalion that stood up together, fielded new stryker combat vehicles together, trained and fought together in the two largest cities in Iraq, forged a level of cohesion and expertise that is unmatched proving themselves worthy and tested in the crucible of war.[i]

[i] The Tomahawks were awarded the Valorous Unit Award for their combat actions during OIF.

[1] Camp Striker was our area that the entire battalion would occupy. It was not spelled the same way as the Stryker vehicle which became a source of soldier amusement as they would routinely correct the spelling of the base signs to Stryker.

[1] Theater Property Equipment (TPE). This was property that provided to units in theater that would enable combat operations. The property was considered part of the rapid fielding initiative and the Army purchased equipment and shipped it to theater. This included off the shelf items, Kevlar blankets to add an additional layer of blast protection on the floors of strykers, NASCAR fire extinguishers, Range finders, non-lethal weapons etc.

[1] The soldiers that returned to Alaska would not return back to Iraq for over a month. When they returned back to Alaska they went back they were released from USCENTCOM authorities to USPACOM/USARPAC authorities and the USARPAC Commander did not want to send them back to Iraq. This argument over the return of my soldiers went back and forth for days requiring me to me prepare a by name letter of justification stating why these soldiers were required to return to then unit. They were much needed, finally returned and rapidly integrated back into formation and resumed combat operations.

[1] Split redeployment was a significant fight with the BDE and USARAK staff. The distance between Ft Wainwright and Ft Richardson is approximately 300 miles and the original plan was to redeploy the entire battalion to Ft Wainwright. This was unacceptable risk to me because my families all lived at Ft Richardson and I knew that if we all were scheduled to land at Ft Wainwright our families would drive the 300 miles north to welcome home their Tomahawks. This drive is dangerous, and I did not want to lose a family member on the highway when all they had to do was send the married soldiers to Ft Richardson and the single soldiers to Ft Wainwright. To manage this, we had to send home a strong team to handle this complicated redeployment.

[1] Michael Hastings was an embedded reporter with 4-23IN working for Newsweek during OIF 2005-2006 Iraq and later worked for Rolling Stone. He was recognized and published In June 2010, Rolling Stone published “The Runaway General” in June 2010 profiling U.S. Army general Stanley McChrystal leading to his resignation.

[1] The EFP was a new and highly lethal weapon the size of a coffee can that was coming from Iran that was a self-forging penetrating shape charge made from lathed copper. They were well camouflaged even molded into concrete curbs along the roadways and intersections specifically designed to penetrate armor creating a molten copper slug that would easily penetrate all armor vehicles including our strykers.

[1] The Tomahawks were awarded the Valorous Unit Award for their combat actions during OIF.


Two days after ending 16 months of combat operations in Iraq, the 4th Battalion 23rd Infantry Regiment, the Tomahawks, cased it colors, officially marking the end of their service in Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Through Mosul, Rawah, Tall Afar, and Baghdad the battalion has served with distinction, continuing the proud tradition of excellence set by the veterans of past conflicts ranging from the French-Indian Wars, World Wars I and II, Korea, and more. Though today’s ceremony was marked with bitter sweetness of the ending of a significant time during many Soldiers lives and careers, it was also a time for the command to recognize a few of the heroes from the battalion. Moments before the casing of the colors, 15 Tomahawks received awards for their valorous acts in Iraq, the Bronze Stars and Army Commendation Medals, all with Valor devices, were pinned on by COL Shields, the 172nd Brigade Commander.  These awards and others received throughout the deployment add to the proud history of the 23rd Infantry Regiment and are living examples of the excellence that has become the standard of Soldiers of the 4th Battalion.  In less than a week the battalion will redeploy back to Alaska marking the end of a 16 month long journey that began on a rainy Alaskan day in August of 2005, making today’s battalion formation increasingly significant, as it will be the last time the entire battalion is together in one location. The Tomahawks have shed their sweat, blood, and tears throughout various regions of Iraq, all in the name of bringing Democracy and prosperity to this ancient land.  Upon return to the United States, Soldiers may choose to end their time in the military, move on to new assignments, or find other ways to serve their nation in the continued Global War on Terror.  But regardless of the final destination, each of the Soldiers of the 4th will carry with them the memories and proud heritage of this battalion and its accomplishments here in Iraq as they continue to share their example of excellence with others in their continued endeavors.

LTC John Norris, Commanding.

LTC Norris and CSM Zavodsky case the colors of the 4th Battalion 23rd Infantry Regiment; officially marking the end of the battalion’s tour in Iraq.
15 Tomahawks receive Valor awards for their brave actions during Operation Iraqi Freedom

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