Sign up to The American magazine's newsletters (below) to receive more regular news, articles and updates on America in the UK.
Run to the Sound of the Guns
From frozen mountaintops to dusty city streets and everything in between, Run to the Sound of the Guns is a compelling and deeply personal account of a husband and father who nearly lost his life “leading the way” in America’s secretive global wars.
Nicholas Moore served as part of an elite special operations unit at the fighting edge of the Global War on Terrorism. He served for over a decade with the US Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. This is his story.
This extract is taken from “Chapter Three: First Blood, Iraq 2003”, and details the events of the raid on objective Reindeer, a sunken wadi which was estimated to contain between 80 and 150 enemy fighters.
A raid took place on the evening of June 11, 2003, at a location about a two-hour flight to the west. Assets employed by our intelligence had discovered a massing of Military-Aged Males (MAMs) centered near a small but typical village at a wadi. Here, twice daily, they held formations on top of the bank. It was thought that these fighters would shortly launch an organized counterattack against coalition forces. The mission tasking was to disrupt this attempt with a pre-emptive strike. The area of operation was under the control of the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and together with higher command they discussed the specifics of the mission and how quickly the attack could be launched. The 101st required a week of preparatory work, including gathering additional intelligence and writing out orders for tasking purposes. It was decided by higher command to go around the table to see who else could execute the mission faster since time was of the essence. The Ranger element present confidently stated that they could launch the raid within 24 hours, basically that very same evening. Without a doubt a few choice words must have been said during that meeting but the objective was passed onto us. After all, this is what we did for a living – nighttime raids. This was our bread and butter and we did not require a lot of planning or rehearsals. We only needed to refine it to the particular requirements for the raid objective. From what we understood, the objective featured some tents and trucks, and perhaps technicals with mounted machine guns. There were no hard buildings. The tents seemed important. After a short planning process and using map imagery, we laid out the objective outside of our hangar using MRE boxes and engineer tape. During the operations order we were told that everybody on this objective was a hostile target and to engage everyone. Estimates of the forces we were to eliminate ranged from 80 to 150 fighters.
There was a lot of potential for some serious firefights. Objective Reindeer was a sunken wadi about 15 meters long, 10 meters deep, and was adjacent to a large streambed with steep rocky sides. Two smaller wadis channeled into Reindeer. We knew the washed-out creek was big enough for trucks. Objective Reindeer was further divided into three smaller objectives. My squad from 1st Platoon was assigned left flank security at Objective Rudolph, while 2nd and 3rd Squads were tasked with the main effort at Objective Dasher. Second Platoon handled right flank security and blocking any fleeing survivors at Objective Comet.
Third Platoon, however, had an even shorter planning cycle as they had to drive to the objective to provide far-side security to the west, along with the 81mm and 120mm mortar platoon. They were also the Forward, Arming, and Refueling Point (FARP) security for our helicopter support. Third Platoon received a warning order, which basically gives notice of an impending op, and almost immediately the operation order. They discussed their plan while driving to the objective. It was a demonstration of our flexibility and competence with which we were able to virtually instantly launch the mission.
We conducted our rehearsals well and set pre-assault fires as per Ranger SOP. Forward observers and the fire support section coordinated for pre-assault fire from fixed-wing aircraft. We had an AC-130 gunship in support as well. This raid saw the first use of a JDAM in airburst mode rather than of impact detonation. In total six were dropped.
I remember feeling excited and anxious as we loaded onto the MH-47s, rethinking the plan through my head. We had a two-hour flight ahead of us with a fueling stop at the FARP close to our objective. One of the aircraft had a “hard break” – some form of mechanical failure with the helicopter – making it unable to fly safely. It is not uncommon, but it is always a buzz kill. This break didn’t happen until the pilots went to restart the helicopters after refueling. As a result, 2nd Platoon had to leave one squad behind. That sucked for them. When we offloaded at the refueling stop, we made our privates back-brief to make sure they understood the mission and the actions to be taken once we touched down. We re-embarked and headed to Objective Reindeer.
We approached our target area in the night. Each of us was on one knee inside the Chinook, snap-linked into anchor points, waiting for the commands and for the wheels to touch down, freeing us from its metal bowl. Adrenaline coursed within me as I recalled my piece of the pie as well as my squad’s in the overall scheme of things. We all wanted to be tested. Would I personally have it? A ten-minute warning tore me away from my thoughts and I refocused. We were getting it on, the pre-assault fires were completed, and the Little Birds from the 160th SOAR made their gun runs, pouring lead into the enemy.
Our wheels touched down; I unsnapped my link. I never unsnapped early. I always waited until the wheels touched down and then unsnapped my link. Doing otherwise can cause problems should your aircraft maneuver at the very last minute to avoid gunfire or if it took a hit and recoiled as we had seen happen at Takur Ghar in Afghanistan in 2002.
Everybody offloaded as quickly and calmly as possible. Coming off the ramp, the basics rang through my head. Did I unsnap? Check. Charge the weapon? Check. At this time we never flew with a round in the chamber so there couldn’t be an accidental discharge in the helicopter causing an issue with the aircraft. When I hit the ground, the objective could have fooled me into believing this was just another company live-fire training exercise at home. This was testament to our realistic training. But the smell wasn’t what I expected: it smelled like freshly plowed dirt, because the JDAMs had thrown up so much earth. I know the smell well since I grew up next to wheat fields. There was also the smell of explosives – most explosives have a kind of sweet smell. I cleared the brown-out caused by the helo. I took a knee and looked around to get my bearing to identify my team leader. Then I moved toward the objective. I saw 2nd Squad rush south into the wadi. My adrenaline started pumping heavily and I tried to be as calm and composed as possible. We moved toward our sectors as we had rehearsed. The battle erupted into a two-way firefight.
The Little Birds of the 160th littered the nighttime sky, dodging incoming Rocket-Propelled Grenade (RPG) rounds and getting back on track. Brass and explosions painted a canvas illuminating the otherwise dark night. Now this is for real, I thought. I hooked left from the helicopter and sprinted a couple hundred meters to the left end of the company to my blocking position. Second and 3rd Squads pushed straight into the mouth of the enemy position. Everything was going to hell.
Fifteen of us got to our blocking position and we set up just back of the wadi lip. We took a knee. We set the snipers to the far left, the machine gun to the far right, and our two fire teams sandwiched in between. Our set-up stretched between 75 and 100 meters. Once set, we moved in closer to get plunging fire into the objective with our M240 machine gun.
A truck or two, if not more, were on fire. A fast and furious firefight centered around the mouth of the wadi within its tall walls. We were in the fight for less than a minute when the radio announced our first casualty at the mouth of the wadi – the very location the enemy used for their vehicles to enter at Objective Dasher. We did not need to listen to the radio because everyone heard my friend Sergeant Matt Watters, a team leader of 2nd Squad, scream a profanity-laced tirade at the top of his lungs. He had got hit just as he yelled “RPG” and engaged the enemy gunner. Sergeant Watters took the impact of an RPG round that amputated his left leg below the knee and then exploded behind him against the wadi wall, showering him with shrapnel. What I remember still vividly was that he shouted out, “That son of a bitch shot my shifting leg off.”
Funny guy. Matt, a motocross enthusiast and a true Ranger, engaged the enemy with the remainder of his magazine of ammunition, while shouting, “12 o’clock! 30 meters! Kill that motherf**ker!” To this day he doesn’t actually remember doing it, but when his weapon was cleared, unloaded, for medical transport, the guys found the magazine empty. Matt’s rifle should have been inoperable due to the amount of shrapnel damage it had taken, but it still fired! Other Rangers ran to the sound of the guns and engaged the enemy at close quarters.
At the bottom of the wadi was an abundance of 6- to 8-foot-tall elephant grass that was ideal for the enemy to hide in. We suspected that the enemy held positions here, and instead of blocking up high, everybody pushed toward the wadi and moved forward. There was a curved space big enough to squeeze in and hide. In fact, there were enemy in the cracks in the wadi wall, in recesses the size of small linen closets. Two or three guys hid there as Rangers crushed into the wadi toward their hiding spot. We engaged them from above, nearly straight down. Blaine, a rifleman E-4, and I took care of business and killed two to three fighters. We then shot at suspected enemy locations in the tall elephant grass. If the “shadows” in our night vision from the grass shifted, then we engaged them as “likely” enemy positions.
The gunfight raged while Ryan, the first sergeant’s radio telephone operator, helped the platoon medics carry Matt’s Skedco litter out of the wadi back toward ground we owned. The battle was intense and close and Ryan’s shoulder strap buckle to his ruck was shot off. But they got Matt out.
We killed off the insurgents in numbers. The fight waned as 3rd Platoon pushed their vehicles in and the gunfight finally ended.
A rough count of enemy ammunition was conducted and pictures were taken during the Sensitive Site Exploitation (SSE). We then prepped for exfil. The cache inside the tents contained enough ammunition to arm an infantry battalion and could have done a lot of damage. Inside were 6-foot-high stacks of AK ammo boxes and a range of small arms, including RPGs and mines. During the invasion Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts and either aided or were simply not around to prevent the stealing of war materiel, much of which would end up in the hands of insurgents. During planning, the decision was made not to hit the tents with air strikes because we wanted to find out exactly what was in those tents.
I had lost my ear plugs during the flight in, so my ears were ringing from the whine of the CH-47. During the initial five minutes of the mission, the gunfire was deafening, as though I had Earpro hearing protection, which was great. But when my hearing came back, shooting wasn’t as much fun. After the target was cleared and secured I remembered I had a spare pair safety-pinned in my medical pouch. I put them in for the exfil.
The entire operation from infil to exfil lasted three hours – the typical length of a peace-time company live fire. There were no high fives, fist bumps or any genuine celebration as everyone was thinking about Matt.
We returned to our base. The sun came up as we landed, and we had a quick huddle with our company commander who told us what a great job we had done on a very solid objective and so forth. We were all tired and worried about Matt. I saw the back of the pants of a Ranger private covered in red and knew he hadn’t been shot. I quietly told him to change his pants – it was Matt’s blood. Our helo had been the medevac (medical evacuation) aircraft, and in the time it took to get Matt from the battlefield to the surgeons, and return for our exfil, there hadn’t been time to wash out the back of the 47.
We cleaned up, rearmed, and grabbed something to eat. We were in the midst of this when we heard about 3rd Platoon’s gunfight and a downed Apache helicopter. We went to our tent and readied ourselves to be on stand-by as a quick reaction force.
Third Platoon had stayed behind and handed over the battlespace to the original owners, the 101st Screaming Eagles. They provided a rough estimate of the number of enemy fighters killed that night. An enemy counterattack was launched that morning during the Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) around 9am local time. The BDA was still in progress, trying to conduct a rough count. Bodies were moved into countable piles to avoid double-counting, and the objective was cleared again to ensure there were no survivors who could pose a potential threat.
Meanwhile, Apache gunships cycled in and were orbiting in the skies above the objective while Black Hawks transported in elements from the 101st. Apaches were engaged by gunfire from the wadi and one was hit and fell straight down from the sky. Within one minute 3rd Platoon’s Rangers ran out of the wadi and mounted their vehicles to engage the threat. One Ranger later recalled how the six-gun trucks and mortar trucks, about ten vehicles in total, looked like the “Baja 1000” as they raced to the crest of the rise and ran straight into a technical with a mounted Dishka heavy machine gun. They were immediately engaged by approximately 14–18 enemy fighters. The gunfight lasted several hours. In this time the Rangers took two casualties. During the fight, one of the Ranger machine-gun crews, the gunner and his assistant gunner, barreled through to get to the Apache and its pinned pilots. The helicopter was on fire. Fortunately, the learning capacity of Rangers is tremendous and they quickly read the instructions on the cockpit on how to open it. They then undid the seatbelts and successfully extricated the pilots before the ordnance of the Apache exploded. The machine-gunner then laid down as much volume of fire as possible from an M240, while the assistant gunner ran the pilots back to the rest of platoon. The suppressive fire from the platoon allowed for the safe return of the gunner to the platoon line. The distance across the open ground to the Apache was 80–100 meters, and without hesitation the Rangers exposed themselves to harm in order to save the lives of their comrades.
The battle at Objective Reindeer resulted in 70 killed and was our first legitimate fight for Bravo Company. It was a typical Ranger smash-and-destroy-everything mission. In total, 2,000 RPGs, 50 RPK machine guns, 87 SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, and a huge stockpile of ammunition were captured. The operation’s success was a testament to the many hours we had spent on the Bi-lats training we had conducted with the 160th SOAR.
The machine-gunner who had rescued the Apache pilots was recommended for the Silver Star. Two Purple Hearts and a handful of Bronze Stars with Valor Devices were also eventually awarded as well. Matt made a full recovery, minus a leg, and was discharged from the Army. He is now a police officer.
Run to the Sound of the Guns by Nicholas Moore and Mir Bahmanyar is now available in hardback from Osprey Publishing. Click here to buy a copy of Run To The Sound of The Guns