During this holiday, when we should reflect on what we are most thankful for, I am thankful for the Marines.
Of course, I’m thankful for all the men and women who currently serve, thankful for my fellow veterans and retirees who have served in every branch, but it’s the Marines with which I have a special reason for thanks.
My gratitude began with a question posed by my literary agent when she asked me if I would be interested in co-authoring a memoir. I paused for several seconds then answered honestly. “I’ve never written memoir before.”
“Would you like to try?”
My simple yes was followed by a project that changed my life.
Shoshana Johnson had survived a deadly ambush, had been shot through both of her ankles and taken prisoner by a mob of Iraqis in the early days of the war. She and her fellow POWs were detained for 23 days. They were days filled with terror, confusion, boredom, and camaraderie.
Shoshana and her fellow POWs endured it all together until they were rescued.
I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to help Shoshana Johnson tell her harrowing story. I’m equally grateful for the opportunity to get to know one of the people who had a hand in the rescue of the seven American prisoners, all of whom had no idea that, save for one commander’s decision, they may not have been found.
Joel McCollough and his unit were operating in Iraq from the first days of the war. An interrogator and intelligence analyst, McCollough and his unit played a crucial role in ensuring the brave Americans who had endured weeks in captivity finally made it home.
Shana’s memoir, I’m Still Standing, told her side of the tale. In his short story, Seven Nightingales, Joel share’s his side of the rescue mission.
It’s a tale best told from the beginning and one you won’t want to miss.
From the time we crossed the Kuwait/Iraq border with Third Battalion/Fifth Marines on 20 March 2003, Human Intelligence Exploitation Team Three (HET 3, call-sign Jesuit 3) had driven with almost no sleep, fought alongside the grunts, and slogged through dozens of interrogations for almost three weeks. On 11 April we rested for a day after taking the Azimiyah Palace. There were six of us, plus our two linguists; 1st Lieutenant Nate Boaz, SSgt Matt Leclaire, SSgt Randy Meyer, Sgt Chris Kieffer, Sgt Jason Jones and myself, Sgt Joel McCollough. Ra’ad was our volunteer linguist from Kuwait, and Johnny Nano was our contractor linguist – an Iraqi refugee from Detroit.
In 2003 multiple media accounts appeared about how The Seven were found and rescued. They’re all bullshit. The truth is I’ve never read a completely accurate account, and I don’t claim this telling is perfect. But it is how me and my team experienced it.
On the morning of 12 April HET 3 was ordered to report to a grid coordinate a little bit north of Baghdad, and attach to a unit named Task Force Tripoli. I was still recovering from being deathly ill, and the rest of the team was still recovering from the fight to take the Azamiyah Palace. I was good to drive, though, and when the order came in over the radio to move we loaded up our two trucks and rolled to the grid coord we had been given, which was north of the city.
We had never heard of Task Force Tripoli, and for good reason. No one had. TF Tripoli was completely ad hoc. It was thrown together at the last minute to take Tikrit, Saddam’s home town. The original battle plan for the invasion had included the Army’s Fourth Infantry Division coming into northern Iraq through Turkish airspace and blocking any Iraqi military or regime officials fleeing Baghdad. But the Turks refused to allow the Coalition overfly rights at the last minute, which meant most of northern Iraq was untouched. A few Special Forces teams were air dropped into Kurdistan, far to the north, but no American troops had been in Saddam’s backyard, his hometown.
Maj. Gen Mattis, the commander of First Marine Division, had a problem with that. When Baghdad fell and Tikrit was still untouched, Mattis collected parts of the three Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) Battalions, along with a few tanks and some air and intelligence support elements and sent them north, a fast-moving ad hoc task force to take the city and complete the invasion.
LAR battalions are unique in the Marine Corps. They consist of Marines driving and riding in Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs), which look like boats on eight wheels carrying a really big gun on top in a turret. They’re fast, and their primary function in the initial invasion was to go ahead of the infantry and screen the main force’s advance, to protect the flanks. TF Tripoli, though, was made up almost entirely of the three LARs, 1st, 2nd and 3rd. Serving as the main assault force was not a traditional responsibility for a LAR battalion, but Mattis wanted Tikrit taken quickly and the LAR battalions had more flexibility than the infantry battalions. They could quickly re-focus, which is what was needed for the assault on Tikrit while most of the US military remained focused on Baghdad.
The LARs were never assigned HETs for the initial invasion, but during the course of the invasion Mattis and the rest of the Marine Corps leadership quickly came to realize how vital human intelligence was to the fight. So, when Mattis put TF Tripoli together he wanted HETs to go with it. HET Three had already been moved from our original assigned unit, Three/Five, to support One/Five’s assault on the Azamiyah Palace, so presumably leadership figured HET Three would be an easy team to move again to support TF Tripoli.
A second HET arrived at the rally point shortly after HET Three, to join TF Tripoli. They were Chief Warrant Officer Dunn’s guys and they had spent most of the invasion with rear units. They still hadn’t been shot at. They wanted to get into the fight and we were more than happy to let them.
HET Three was exhausted. We had been on the front line, fighting, for three weeks straight. We had no idea what we might run into in Tikrit, and if it was going to be another hard fight. We had no problem with someone fresh taking the lead. Dunn’s HET ended up going with the majority of the Task Force to lead the attack on Tikrit while HET Three went with 3rd LAR, commanded by Lt. Col. Clardy, to set up a blocking position on the road to Tikrit just outside of Samarra, defending the rest of TF Tripoli from any possible attack from the eastern side of the Tigris River. An easy assignment, since we expected any resistance would come from Tikrit, not Samarra.
We left the rally point outside Baghdad that afternoon, and arrived outside Samarra late that same night. The drive was hard. Over 120 kilometers from Baghdad to Samarra and moving in convoy through small villages with large vehicles meant squeezing down narrow dirt roads and dodging power lines. It was the fastest movement HET Three had ever done, no rest, just constant driving hour after hour. When 3rd LAR finally stopped late at night on the 12th just south of Samarra we all caught a few hours of sleep.
Meeting the Locals
On April 13th we awoke before dawn outside Samarra on the cold, dewy ground. Those hours of sleep were precious and we relinquished them grudgingly.
HET Three’s job that morning was to screen Iraqis coming south out of Tikrit for intelligence on what the enemy situation was like. Since TF Tripoli was an afterthought and most of the US war machine was still focused on Baghdad, the task force didn’t have UAVs or satellites available on such short notice. There was just HUMINT. Re-directing satellites can take days and the UAVs were busy looking at Baghdad. That meant the only information leadership had would be derived from my team talking to Iraqis and finding out what was happening in Tikrit. That morning me, Jason and our linguist Johnny Nano set up a roadblock on the highway just north of the bridge over the Tigris that crossed into Samarra on the east side of the river. We set up before dawn, and as the sun rose people began to trickle down the highway from the north, out of Tikrit.
Jason and I worked with Johnny to talk to the civilians driving toward Samarra, mainly farmers in little white Toyota pickup trucks, their beds brimming with cucumbers, tomatoes and other basics for market in the city. We dragged. We’d only had a few hours of sleep and I had driven all day and most of the night, but we were focused in our questions; how many Iraqi troops were in Tikrit? Where were the Fedayeen? What could we expect on the approach to the city?
We didn’t really trust the answers we heard – all the farmers were telling us Tikrit had been abandoned and only a handful of fighters were still there in defensive positions. We had the mindset Saddam was going to put up a final stand, to go down fighting. That mentality was one of the main reasons the military planners of the invasion had thought Sadam would use chemical weapons as a last ditch effort to save his regime. We had all worn chem suits for the initial days of the war based on that line of thought. It was difficult to change our thinking and consider Saddam might just try to hide.
As the morning progressed Samarra woke up and realized that the Americans were on the other side of the Tigris. They slowly, tentatively, began investigating our presence and crossed the bridge. We were the first Americans they’d ever seen. HET Three had the only two linguists in 3rd LAR, which meant we were constantly being pulled in multiple directions. Lt. Col. Clardy set up his headquarters near the large traffic circle just south of HET 3’s initial roadblock. In the center stood a massive brick mural attached to a replica of the Malwiyah Tower, the original of which is a part of the Great Mosque of Samarra. Around 9 am a large group of local tribal elders arrived, wanting to talk to ‘the general,’ so we used Ra’ad to allow Lt. Col. Clardy to talk with them, and reassure them we had no intentions of attacking Samarra, a Muslim holy city. The elders were almost certainly Saddam loyalists, but it didn’t matter to us. None of them were on any targeting lists and our mission was to take Tikrit, not try to deal with old men who might have been affiliated with the Saddam regime. In fact, I had heard that Lt. Col. Clardy had specific orders to stay on the western side of the Tigris and avoid entering Samarra entirely.
A little bit after the tribal elders’ arrival, around 9:30 am, a small group of Iraqi policemen quietly approached me, Matt and Johnny. They wanted to talk in private, so we took them into a nearby empty schoolhouse, and sat down with them. They said they had information, that Chemical Ali had been in the area recently and that there were American pilots being held in the city. As much as we were interested in Chemical Ali, since he was a high-priority target, any news about the seven POWs made us immediately drop everything else.
As of the morning of 13 April, seven Americans remained in the hands of the enemy. Five were members of the 507th Maintenance Company, party of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. On 23 March in the first days of the invasion they were the tail end of a huge supply convoy. They got lost in An Nasryiah and were ambushed. The story of the 507th has been written about too many times for me to add anything, I wasn’t there and I only know what I’ve been told and what I’ve read. The Iraqis attacked the unit; nine soldiers were killed in action, several wounded, and six were captured. Pvt First Class Jessica Lynch was captured and subsequently rescued several days later while being treated by Iraqi doctors in a nearby hospital. Sgt. James Riley, Spec. Joseph Hudson, Pvt. First Class Patrick Miller, Spec. Shoshana Johnson, and Spec. Edgar Hernandez, were all captured and held by the Iraqis. The very next day an Apache attack helicopter went down and both pilots, Chief Warrant Officers David Williams and Ronald Young, were captured. The Iraqis consolidated all seven and kept them together for the rest of their captivity. That story is theirs, and not mine to tell. I was with HET Three and we had a different perspective.
US intelligence had periodically received scraps of information about the POWs, most recently a few days prior in Baghdad. The military had Special Forces and CIA teams dedicated to looking for them, but no one had yet been able to get accurate enough or timely enough information to locate them. After Baghdad fell and they were still missing, we knew that the chances of finding them alive had greatly lessened. Any regime element still holding them probably feared keeping the POWs captive was dangerous. We were afraid the Iraqis would just kill them rather than risk being caught with them. April 13th was their twenty-second day of captivity.
While Matt and I talked to the cops using Johnny and Lt. Col. Clardy talked to the tribal elders using Ra’ad, an old man approached Jason and in broken English said he knew where the Americans were being held. Jason wanted more information, but as soon as the old man caught sight of the tribal elders talking with Lt. Col. Clardy he fled, saying they were ‘evil.’ When the sheiks left, however, he returned. This time he approached one of the 3rd LAR Marines who immediately found Randy. Any mention of the POWs meant instant, focused attention.
Matt and I had already informed Nate about the potential lead on the POWs, and by 10 am he had informed Lt. Col. Clardy of what was going on. Intelligence on the POWs presented a serious problem for Lt. Col. Clardy. Obviously, the POWs were a major priority for the entire US military and any real possibility of recovering them wasn’t something he could pass up. But 3rd LAR’s position outside of Samarra on the west bank of the Tigris was only supposed to be a blocking position, preventing any Iraqi military elements on the eastern side of the river from attacking the main body of Task Force Tripoli as it advanced north toward Tikrit. As much as Lt. Col. Clardy wanted to take advantage of the intelligence on the POWs, he had his orders and a mission to conduct on a specific timeline. When its screening mission was done at the Samarra river-crossing, 3rd LAR would have to move out to support the attack on Tikrit.
Randy talked with the old man. He was probably in his 70’s or 80’s, skinny, dressed in an off-white dish-dasha (traditional male Arab robe) and smoking a cigarette. He was sitting in an old white four-door sedan with maroon leather interior. As old as the car was, it was in good shape, and the old man was in the same condition. His face was worn and lined like a well-used baseball mitt, but his dark eyes were sharp and alert and his movements were quick and sure. He must have been nervous, he was alone and approaching an invading army with information that might get him killed if anyone found out. But his eyes held only respect, not fear. He held himself differently than many of the Iraqis we had talked to, not because of his physical stature, he couldn’t have weighed more than 150 pounds soaking wet. But it seemed like he knew what it was like to be in command. He had authority in his bones.
He explained in broken English he was the sheik of a local tribe, feuding with the elders who had approached us earlier. He presented Randy his business card, made of thick, white, textured card stock with silver writing in Arabic. The man explained that he knew where the American POWs were located and would like to negotiate their release. He said that the men holding the POWs were regular Iraqi police, who were not loyal to Saddam. They continued to keep the POWs because they feared retaliation from Chemical Ali and Saddam supporters in the Samarra area if the POWs were freed.
Without a linguist the going was difficult, but more information was forthcoming. The elder told Randy that his nephew was actually the senior guard and he simply wanted to give the POWs back to the Americans. Randy replied that if that was the case then his nephew should just load them up and bring them to the Marines at the checkpoint outside Samarra.
But the old man said the guards were not willing to take that risk. While still in Samarra they had a measure of control, they didn’t trust that the Marines would let them go after having held Americans prisoner. Using his sketchy Arabic and working through the old man’s broken English, Randy pressed for more details. The tribal elder informed him the POWs had been brought to Samarra in a white ambulance and that the ambulance was parked in the driveway in front of the house.
The detail about the ambulance got Randy’s attention. This was something that hadn’t been broadcast on the news. It was a detail we had learned in Baghdad a few days earlier, when Sgt. Mike Yugo on another HET had done an interrogation and learned the possible location of the POWs. A Special Forces team had rushed to the site, a hospital in the heart of Baghdad. They didn’t find the POWs, but the locals said that ‘the Americans’ had been there but had been moved a few hours prior in a white ambulance.
Randy didn’t know Matt, Johnny and I were getting similar information from the group of cops in the schoolhouse at that same moment, and we didn’t know what he was finding out from the old man. As much as Matt and I tried to pin down details of the POWs’ location using maps and detailed questioning, the Iraqi cops couldn’t identify the building where the POWs were being held. It seemed like they couldn’t understand how a map worked. It also seemed like they wanted to be compensated for their information, and they were dribbling out details. But as frustrating as it was to not be able to identify their exact location, we had enough to be highly confident the POWs were actually in Samarra. In fact, we were sure of it. We used all the questioning techniques we knew to ensure that the cops were telling the truth, as far as they knew it.
With the information about the ambulance, Randy had a detail that strongly indicated the old man’s story about knowing where the POWs were located was true, so he began looking around for the rest of the team to track down one of the linguists, Ra’ad or Johnny. Of course, we were all busy in one capacity or another and were nowhere in the immediate area. He didn’t want to leave the old man, he was afraid the guy would leave and take the POWs location with him. Randy was exhausted. We all were, but Randy had driven all the way from Kuwait, through the fight to the Azamiyah Palace, and continued to be a leader and worker on the team. He was alone with the old man, and realized there was only one way to get the detailed information needed to track down the POWs.
Randy told the old man to wait, hoping desperately he would, and ran to his truck to locate Nate’s Garmin GPS. He immediately turned it on so it would begin tracking satellites and ran back to the old man. He explained he wanted the elder to drive to the location where the POWs were being held and simply push a button on the GPS. It was a basic model GPS, with only a few buttons. They went over the steps multiple times to ensure that he would not touch anything else that could delete the coordinates once they were obtained. After several repetitions of the process, Randy was reasonably confident the old man knew what to do.
Taking a Risk
Though he was a little nervous about handing out Nate’s GPS to a completely un-vetted source without permission, Randy had enough information to feel it was a risk worth taking. He was willing to roll the dice, and hope he didn’t just throw away Nate’s GPS. Leaders take risks, and Randy was a good leader. As the old man left, Randy told him that if he wanted our help he would have to bring along his nephew who was guarding the POWs. Randy handed the old man the GPS and the man promised he would be back in thirty minutes. As the elder left, Randy started the timer on his watch, hoping he hadn’t just been conned out of a GPS.
By this time Ra’ad was done translating for Lt. Col. Clardy, evidently more issues had arisen after the sheiks had left. Ra’ad rejoined Randy and together they waited for the old man to return. And after about twenty minutes, he did. The same old car, and now in the passenger seat a younger man looking skeptical and a bit scared. He was heavy set, with dark olive skin in his early 40’s. He had a thick, dark, characteristically Iraqi mustache, the kind that always makes Westerners laugh a little bit. Those kinds of ‘staches haven’t been worn in the Western world since the 1800’s. He was wearing a simple white shirt and blue trousers, Western clothes in contrast to his uncle’s traditional Arabic robe. Randy proceeded to ask the nephew the same questions he’d asked the old man, while making sure the tribal leader didn’t interrupt or add any commentary.
Their stories matched but, far more importantly, there was a ten-digit grid coordinate on the GPS. For the first time since their captivity, the US military had solid intelligence on the POWs’ location. Seven lost Americans were at long-last located.
The rescue was still far from certain. The grid coordinate was in the middle of Samarra, a city we had been told was expressly off-limits. Randy began to run through a mental checklist of all the information Lt. Col. Clardy would need to authorize putting Marines at risk, to quite literally go out on a limb based on intelligence derived from a human source we had no way of fully vetting. Randy’s gut and his intelligence experience told him the old man and his nephew were legitimate, but at this point he still didn’t know Matt and I had corroborating information from separate sources, so, as tired as he was he methodically worked through the information we needed to effect a rescue. Even though Randy had the coordinates of the building, he still needed a location description and threat information. There was no way Lt. Col. Clardy could send his Marines wandering around Samarra with no idea what they were facing or what building they were looking for. And time was becoming a factor. The battalion was supposed to leave for Tikrit in an hour. The main force had already moved into attack positions near the city a few hours north and 3rd LAR was supposed to advance to support the offensive.
The old man wanted to negotiate two things before he would provide the rest of the critical information needed to locate the building holding the POWs. He wanted a guarantee on the safety of the guards, who we suspected were probably members of his tribe. Randy told him that if the guards were in civilian clothes, unarmed, and had treated the POWs according to the Geneva Convention they would not be harmed. Second, the old man wanted us to assist him in removing from power the sheiks that had arrived earlier. He said it was because they were supporters of Saddam, but in reality they were probably just his personal rivals. Randy explained that US forces would take action on any information that could be verified as presenting a threat to us, but we would not arrest or attack civilians who were not fighting us.
The old man then asked for permission to take care of the problem himself. Randy just smiled at him and applauded his courage. There was a glint in the old man’s eyes. He understood. He again seemed formidable despite his small stature and worn frame. Randy told him that the Marines would be leaving the area soon and there would be no one to act as sheriff for quite a while. We knew what would happen when we left, but it wasn’t a problem we could solve. In the wake of the chaos created by the invasion and Saddam’s fall, old scores would be settled.
The old man and his nephew assisted in drawing a sketch and map to the location of the POWs, evidently they understood maps much better than the cops Matt and I were trying to work with. The old man informed Randy the POWs were in a brownish colored house, number 13.
The main difficulty in the debrief centered around one landmark. The old man described it as a large tower he called a “spirally.” He said it in English with a thick Arabic accent, “spy-rha-leee,” and he said it in Arabic, but Ra’ad did not know the Iraqi dialect word the old man used. With careful questioning, Randy eventually concluded the old man must be talking about a large electrical transformer tower.
But it took time, and time was not on our side. As the deadline for 3rd LAR’s movement approached Lt. Col. Clardy faced an increasingly tough decision—either take a chance to rescue the POWs or give it up to fulfill the operational demands of the larger scheme of maneuver. The route the old man described was relatively simple, it went straight over the bridge and into the city for about a kilometer, then making a right turn at the “spirally.” After the right turn it was about two blocks and then a U-turn and then another right turn after a block. The U-turn was due to a median in the road. There would be an ambulance in the driveway of the building holding the POWs.Threats were the next priority. Randy questioned the old man regarding the Iraqi military presence, even though they’d likely fled already. More importantly, Randy asked about the Saddam Fedayeen presence, as the Fedayeen had been much more of a problem than any of the Iraqi military elements. The old man explained that everyone in town was too afraid to fight in the area we were going but that other areas of the city could be dangerous. This meant that the old man’s tribe controlled that area of Samarra and would provide safe passage, but other parts of the city were probably in the hands of Saddam loyalists and if the 3rd LAR Marines went anywhere else they would most likely be attacked.
Randy had the information we needed. He shook the old man’s hand and again promised the tribesmen guarding the POWs would be safe as long as they offered no resistance. As the old man and his nephew drove away, Randy was aware time had now become a critical factor.
He ran back to the HET with Ra’ad chubbily running in tow, a cigarette hanging from the Kuwaiti’s mouth. When Randy got back to the truck he looked urgently for Nate. Up until this point he hadn’t had a chance to tell anyone else what he was working on, the rest of the team had been fully occupied. Nate, Jason and Ra’ad had been dealing with tribal elders while Matt, Johnny and I had been dealing with the cops. Randy needed to tell someone the information he had acquired and the plan he had set in motion.
Randy found Nate just as our lieutenant was walking to the HET Three truck, talking to 3rd LAR’s senior intelligence officer. Nate was explaining how Matt, Johnny and I were in the middle of debriefing local cops who were claiming there were seven American prisoners in the city and that Chemical Ali was hiding in Samarra. When Randy heard the rundown of the information Matt and I were getting, his confidence in the accuracy of the information he had obtained from the old man became complete. This was corroboration.
Standing alongside the HET Three truck, Randy laid out everything he had learned, as well as the minor detail of having loaned out Nate’s personal GPS to get it done. Nate didn’t flinch at Randy’s initiative. He trusted his Marine. Nate needed to gauge Randy’s confidence in the source–needed to know what Randy’s gut instinct was saying. Randy’s response was clear and confident that he believed the old man. 3rd LAR needed to move on the house immediately to recover the POWs. That confident response was all Nate needed to hear.
The concern now was how to convince Lt. Col. Clardy a rescue mission was possible. The 3rd LAR battalion commander had never worked with a Human Intelligence team before and he had no reason to trust Nate, a young 1st Lieutenant. A rescue would mean sending Marines into an Iraqi holy city, an area higher headquarters had designated as off-limits. Success, of course, would justify the risk. But if there were no POWs, if HET Three’s intelligence was wrong, and if Marines died on the mission, Lt. Col. Clardy’s career would probably be over. Nate was about to ask a senior Marine Corps officer to risk his career on the intelligence HET Three Marines had collected.
Without hesitation, Nate picked up the radio handset in the HET Three truck and called for 3rd LAR’s battalion headquarters, call-sign ‘Wolfpack.’
“Wolfpack, this is Jesuit Three Actual.”
“Jesuit Three Actual, send your traffic.”
“Wolfpack, I need Wolfpack Six’s location immediately, over.”
“Sir, we’re not sure where he is, we’ll send a runner.”
Nate cursed under his breath, but there wasn’t anything he could do.
“Roger that, Wolfpack, Jesuit Three Actual out.”
Waiting isn’t easy when you’re mentally and physically exhausted and lives are in jeopardy. The minutes ticked by, and the waiting was done in tired silence. The POWs lives were on the line. Nate is a pretty patient man, but it didn’t take long before he was once again on the radio, calling battalion headquarters.
“Wolfpack, this is Jesuit Three Actual, over.”
“Go ahead, Jesuit Three.”
“Wolfpack, this is a fucking priority, where the fuck is goddam Wolfpack Six??”
We gave each other sidelong looks, eyebrows raised. Nate was cussing? Shit was getting intense.
“Sir, we’ve sent a runner, we’re looking for him and…”
“Break break,” Nate interrupted battalion’s transmission, “Marine, then you need to send another fucking runner. And another one. Keep sending your fucking runners until you find the fucking BC. I don’t give a good goddam if you use every fucking Marine in headquarters. Find. The. Fucking. BC. Am I understood?”
As Nate let off a little steam on the radio operator, Randy leaned back against the truck and Ra’ad lit up another shitty Iraqi cigarette, the Kuwaiti seemed to like them for some reason. Nate started to lean on the radio operator a bit harder, who was an unfortunate target of opportunity. Just as it started to get really heated, Lt. Col. Clardy walked up from behind, listening intently to Nate going off with a bit of a smirk on his face. Randy could have warned Nate with a nudge, but he thought it was more entertaining to watch it all play out. Small moments of pleasure should be taken when they present themselves, even if it’s at your commanding officer’s expense. Especially if it’s at your commanding officer’s expense.
Lt. Col. Clardy interrupted Nate, “Lieutenant, can you please stop berating my Lance Corporal? What do you need?”
The radio handset dropped to Nate’s side. He swiveled and fired a glare at Randy, briefly mouthing, “You bastard!” Randy’s only response was a tired grin, just a twitch of the corner of his mouth. Nate turned to Lt. Col. Clardy.
Nate explained how the intelligence the cops had provided had just been corroborated by Randy’s source. Lt. Col. Clardy listened to everything the team had learned from our Iraqi sources in the preceding two hours. He said he would talk to 1st Marine Division headquarters and make a decision on whether or not to send a platoon into Samarra to recover the POWs. Lt. Col. Clardy also brought Captain Miller into the briefing, the commanding officer of Delta Company, 3rd LAR, who would be responsible for conducting the rescue if the mission was authorized.
Lt. Col. Clardy walked to his command vehicle, and got on the radio. We knew that the Special Forces teams in Baghdad would be the best option to go after the POWs. They had trained for hostage rescue missions for years. They were specialized shooters who knew exactly how to conduct this kind of operation. But they were hours away, and 3rd LAR would not be able to wait, it had to move to support the attack on Tikrit. The sources, the cops and the old man, would probably be gone and the Special Forces team would have to go in blind. By then, the POWs could be moved again, or simply killed. Lt. Col. Clardy knew that he had only a narrow window to make a decision.
He was only gone a few minutes, and when he returned he declared he had not been able to communicate with Division headquarters. In the absence of guidance from higher headquarters, Lt. Col. Clardy gave the order to act on HET Three’s information.
He said, “We’re Marines, gents. Kicking down doors is our job. One more firefight, if it happens, in the middle of this whole war is worth the opportunity to save captive Americans.”
Smoke billowed around the makeshift headquarters location. Locals had set fire to a mural of Saddam in the nearby traffic circle and it swirled above the Marines as they prepared for the rescue mission. Captain Miller called over 3rd Platoon and Randy briefed the situation, the route, and the likely threat. Ra’ad loaded into the back of the lead LAV and Randy climbed on top to make sure he had a view and was able to communicate with the driver. He was in an incredibly exposed position, but it was his job to navigate the platoon to the building holding the POWs. The driver didn’t have the GPS with the grid coordinate, nor the sketch. Randy had obtained the directions first hand, and felt he was responsible for the mission. It was his information that was now responsible for putting at risk an entire platoon of Marines.
Randy, Ra’ad and the platoon of 3rd LAR Marines crossed the bridge in two LAVs and made a right turn at the first electrical transformer tower. But it didn’t feel right to Randy. The area around the tower did not match the description the old man had provided. Randy decided to turn around, and directed the driver to make the next left turn.
Seemingly out of nowhere a lone Iraqi soldier with an RPG on his shoulder popped up, ready to take a shot at the platoon. But the LAV gunners in their turrets spotted him immediately, and swiveled their massive weapons to take aim on him. The Iraqi soldier changed his mind about confronting the Marines, and ran. Still, it was a strong reminder the platoon was by itself beyond friendly lines.
Randy guided the two-vehicle convoy back to the main road and put the sketch away. When the source had provided the directions they had seemed simple, but now, in the city itself, they didn’t make sense. So he set the GPS to guide to the location the source had marked. He was worried. He was trying to guide a handful of Marines through enemy territory, far beyond any quick reinforcements from the other side of the river if they ran into any sizable Iraqi force, all based on directions that now seemed unreliable. But he trusted the grid coordinate, and he trusted his source. He stared at the arrow on the face of the GPS screen and they began to close in on the marked location, the GPS indicated it was about one kilometer away.
And then Randy saw the land mark the source had described. It was definitely a “spirally,” but it wasn’t an electrical tower. It was the real Malwiya minaret, fifty-two meters high, standing in the middle of the city. It twisted into the sky, a mud-brick spire. Spirally. He looked for the right turn, and saw it. The area matched exactly the old man’s description. The LAVs were already in the median, so instead of having to make a U-turn they simply made a direct left turn onto the street where the source claimed the POWs were being held, the high-clearance LAVs bumping over the concrete curbs.
The platoon dismounted the LAVs and scanned the buildings lining the street for any sign of the POWs. Ra’ad and Randy headed further down the street from where the LAVs were now parked, following the GPS arrow which said they were within 80 meters, then 30 meters, then 20 meters and then inexplicably back to 80 meters.
The platoon had now been in Samarra, alone, for at least ten minutes and Randy knew that the Iraqi soldier who had run away might have simply retreated to get reinforcements. The Marines couldn’t afford to spend an excessive amount of time in the city. Randy heard the Marines yelling from behind, back at the LAVs, and realized 3rd Platoon was loading back up into the vehicles and waiting for him and Ra’ad to join them. But Randy felt that he could not go back, he had to find the POWs and he was sure he was close. So he kept moving praying that the GPS would give him the magic answer. Ra’ad followed behind, putting his trust in Randy. The 3rd Platoon Marines again hollered for Randy, “Staff Sergeant! Come back!”
He stopped, unsure of what to do but not ready to give up.
At that moment a sweet sound rang out down the street, sweet as hearing fresh Guinness pour from the tap. Randy heard one of the LAV drivers shout “I see one! I see one!” From his vantage point on foot, Randy couldn’t and neither could anyone else, but that driver’s conviction he had seen one of the POWs was what they needed to keep moving forward.
Only about half of the platoon had been loaded back up into the LAVs, so they all began to move at a slow roll or quick trot toward Randy’s end of the street and around the block to the front of the house the LAV driver had pointed to. Ra’ad and Randy were ahead of the platoon at first, but quickly fell behind as Randy stayed with the Kuwaiti linguist who was struggling to keep up. Ra’ad had definitely lost some weight since he joined us, but he was still an out of shape chain smoker. Randy struggled with wanting to sprint ahead with 3rd Platoon and go after the POWs, it wasn’t far, after all, just around the block and Ra’ad would certainly catch up. But the portly linguist was Randy’s to care for and if he didn’t protect him, no one would, so Randy stayed with Ra’ad, pulling him along as fast as possible.
Randy and Ra’ad came around the corner just as the Marines formed up in a stack outside the gate of the house spotted by the LAV driver, ready to breach. Through the crack of the gate we could see an ambulance sitting in the driveway with an Army shirt that said YOUNG on the back hanging off the side mirror.
“This is it,” Randy thought to himself, “We are fucking going to rescue our people.” The 3rd Platoon Marines breached the gate first and then the house, quickly locating the POWs inside the main room. The old man had been true to his word, the guards were unarmed when the Marines came into the house. They were lying on the floor along with the POWs, creating confusion regarding who was a guard and who was a POW since the American prisoners all wore striped pajamas and flip-flops, and were as skinny as Iraqis from their captivity. The Marines quickly resolved the situation and separated the Iraqis from the Americans. The guards were put into the kitchen and the POWs were ushered outside and placed near the ambulance, with the 3rd Platoon Marines standing close watch.
Randy felt pulled in ten directions, from the moment the LAV driver spotted the POWs events had unfolded second-to-second, with no time to absorb what was happening. He was still shocked the whole plan was working and he couldn’t stop staring at the rescued POWs, sitting next to the ambulance. Then a strident voice, one that only a Gunnery Sergeant of Marines can have, cut through the fog. The Gunny needed a decision as to what should be done with the Iraqi guards still in the kitchen. As Randy walked toward the house, one of the POWs, Apache pilot Chief Warrant Officer Dave Williams, jumped up and ran to Randy.
“Sergeant! Please, don’t arrest the guards. They were good, they helped us.” Dave explained that the guards had treated the POWs well. He even said the guards had given them hamburgers and fries the night before. He didn’t know about Randy’s deal with the old man. He was just trying to help the few Iraqis that had treated them gently during their captivity.
Dave was the person the LAV driver had seen. Dave had made a run for the roof when he heard the LAVs and was able to shout and wave before being pulled down by one of the guards, who said he did it to protect Dave.
The Gunny pushed Randy to make a decision. Staying in one place in the middle of unfriendly territory was extremely dangerous and they had been in the city for at least twenty minutes at this point. Randy decided to let the guards stay in the house, instead of trying to turn them over to the old man at some future point, which might or might not happen. The decision made, one of the guards asked if they could go get weapons to protect themselves. Randy told him to get their guns and do what was needed to protect themselves, but to wait until the Marines had left the area, otherwise, there was a very good chance the Marines would see them as a threat. The guard grabbed Randy in a hug, thanked him and kissed him on each cheek.
As Randy left the house the POWs were already being loaded up in the LAVs, but making space for the injured POWs who couldn’t be crammed in like the Marines meant not everyone could ride in the vehicles. After the POWs were safely inside, Randy, Ra’ad and 3rd Platoon Marines climbed onto the two LAVs and hung on as best they could. The ride back to the main body of Marines was short, but unforgettable. The LAVs raced back to 3rd LAR and the city flew by, the exhaust from the LAVs filling the Marines’ nostrils. Nate was with the rest of HET Three, monitoring the radio and the progress of the mission. When 3rd Platoon started rolling back from the rescue site, they called in,
“Seven Nightingales inbound.”
Nate didn’t believe it at first, it was too good to be true. He asked for confirmation.
Again, the 3rd Platoon radioman said, “That is affirmative, seven Nightingales inbound.” “Nightingale” is the military codeword for an American Prisoner of War. Nate was shaking a bit as he put down the radio handset. He squatted down and put his head in hands, barely holding back tears. The rescue mission had succeeded.
Nate stood near the bridge, waiting for their return. He was the first person Randy saw as they drove up. Randy gave HET Three’s team leader a thumbs-up as they drove to the traffic circle. All the Marines grinned as they crossed the bridge back into friendly lines, crowded on top of the LAVs with precious cargo tucked inside.
I am sure every Marine there was as overwhelmed with the moment as Randy. I was. Randy had started his stopwatch when he gave away Nate’s GPS to the old man to obtain the POW’s grid coordinates. He glanced down when he saw his smiling face at the foot of the bridge. It had been 2 hours 10 minutes and 13 seconds, the best/worst hours of his life. Of all of our lives.
The LAVs pulled into the large traffic circle on the western side of the bridge near the burning mural of Saddam. The backs of the vehicles opened and we off-loaded the POWs, finally completely safe after 22 days in captivity. We sat there in the shade of the LAVs for a few minutes, Marines offering American cigarettes and water and pieces of MREs. Shoshana was crying, and Randy held her. We walked the POWs to the nearby school where Matt and I had debriefed the group of Iraqi cops. We had one Marine walk with each POW and we formed a circle around them. We wanted to get them out of the sun and make them as comfortable and secure as possible while helicopters flew up from Baghdad for their ride to Kuwait. We needed a place to talk to them, feed them, and to let the 3rd LAR doctors check out their injuries, though not necessarily in that order.
I walked next to Joe Hudson, and offered him a Marlboro Red, a real American one, not one of the cheap Iraqi knock-offs. He started crying as he took it. I don’t know if it was because of the small act of kindness or if Marlboro Reds were his brand and he was happy to finally have a real one. I noticed he was walking a little funny, so I asked him if he’d been injured, he said it was nothing, no big deal, but I demanded to know. He finally admitted he had been shot in the ass when they’d been captured. For some reason he didn’t want anyone to know, but obviously I told him it wasn’t an option, we had to have the docs take a look.
Once we were all inside the school we assigned Marines to stand outside every window of the small school to make it feel safer. Per protocol, we did a quick debrief. We gathered all their names and social security numbers. Then gave them more food Johnny Nano had somehow acquired from the locals. Some rice, bread and sodas.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the POWs, to go from captivity and complete uncertainty about whether or not they would live through the day to being rescued and headed for home within twenty minutes or so. Their disorientation showed. Randy wanted to help Shoshana into another room so she could change, so he helped her up and they began to cross the room. As they walked side-by-side across the abandoned schoolhouse floor he glanced down when they began to crunch through a pile of broken glass. She was barefoot and she was walking through the glass simply because he had guided her that way. She didn’t complain or attempt to avoid but just walked straight into the middle of it. She had been shot through the ankles when she had been captured, but still, she walked through the glass.
Randy’s guilt was overwhelming when he saw Shoshana’s bloody footprints. He reached down, picked her up and carried her out of the glass, cradling her in his arms. He asked a couple of Marines to hold up ponchos as she changed into one of the flight suit 3rd LAR had found for the POWs and then took her back to be with the other POWs.
HET Three is bonded to the POWs for the rest of our lives, but Shoshana and Randy have a special bond that has held throughout the years since the rescue. The entire team helped collect the intel, but Randy was the only one of us that actually went on the mission. He was primarily responsible for the rescue, and because of this I think he feels a continuing personal responsibility for the POWs, especially Shoshana. We spent two extraordinary hours with them that day. Sitting and eating together, they looked like family and Dave Williams looked like the caring father of the group. We took some pictures and joked with them, just letting them tell their story and relax in safety. The safety of being surrounded by hundreds of armed Marines after twenty-two days of being alone and afraid.
We confirmed they had been held at the site in Baghdad Sergeant Yugo had identified, where the Special Forces team had missed them. The five members of the 507th had never been told by their Iraqi captors that their comrade Jessica Lynch had been rescued. They were ecstatic to hear that news. All the Marines involved were relieved, proud, but most of all elated that lost American service members had been found. We had known for the entire invasion any of us could have been captured by the enemy during the war, and we identified with them. Every Marine in HET Three and 3rd LAR was dragging both emotionally and physically from weeks of fighting, living in the dirt and living with fear, but this moment brought back life to us all. HET Three had been doing its job and we were determined to do it well and not regret anything we had to do. We collected information to save Marines and kill the enemy, but for once the intelligence we had collected had brought only life, not death. No Iraqi or American died or was even wounded on the mission. Success was a drug, and we were all high on it as we talked to the freed POWs. This moment made all the shit we had seen and done worthwhile. It’s still a moment I look back on when I wonder if my life has been worthwhile. The POWs were as much our saviors as we were theirs.
Despite not being able to get in contact with higher headquarters when he tried to call for guidance on the rescue mission, Lt. Col. Clardy had had no trouble calling for helicopters to come get the POWs. Communications had evidently been restored. He’s never said and as far as I know he’s never been asked, but we suspect he might not have tried to ask for permission to do the rescue at all, perhaps because he suspected permission would be denied, and the opportunity would be lost. He took a risk on HET Three, and it paid off. Army Blackhawk helicopters showed up and we helped the POWs aboard. 3rd LAR sent two Marines to escort them to Kuwait, Marines had found them and we’d be damned if they were out of the Marine Corps’ care until they were fully out of harm’s way. Lt. Col. Clardy summed it up well in his report to Task Force Tripoli and 1st Marine Division when he said:
“This event is the highlight of our actions during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Each Marine and Sailor involved was touched by the emotion of the recovery and feeling of accomplishment. None will ever forget the look on the seven soldiers’ faces when they realized that they were safe and in the hands of the U. S. Marine Corps.”
Incidentally, the rescue mission is still one of the most successful operational uses of Marine Corps Counterintelligence in Marine Corps history. HET 3’s collection efforts, how multiple HUMINT sources were used to corroborate actionable intelligence, are often used as an instructional anecdote of a textbook success in the Marine counterintelligence course at the schoolhouse in Dam Neck, Virginia. HET 3 is also one of the only Marine Corps Counterintelligence/HUMINT units to conduct wartime Prisoner of War debriefs.
J.E. McCollough served in the Marine Corps from 1996 to 2005. He is a combat veteran, including Operations Iraqi Freedom I and II as a Counterintelligence Specialist, and the recipient of a Purple Heart and a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with ‘V’ Combat Distinguishing Device.
While in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, J.E. served as a part of 1st CI/HUMINT Company, 1st Intelligence Battalion. He was attached to 3rd Battalion/5th Marines,Task Force Tripoli and 3rd Battalion/23rd Marines at various points during the invasion and was attached to 2nd Battalion/4th Marines in Ramadi in 2004.
Including post-Marine Corps civilian deployments as an intelligence analyst for the Department of Defense, he served over forty months in the Middle East and Central Asia between 2002 and 2011.
J.E. maintains a site for his memoirs and has written articles for TIME magazine’s Battleland online as well as RangerUp.com. He currently lives in Portland, OR.