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Tragedy leads 39th Brigade Combat Team to caches

By 1st Lt. Chris J. Heathscott

CAMP TAJI, Iraq (Army News Service, Oct. 18, 2004) -- A firefight on the banks of the Tigris River Oct. 3 transformed a small patrol through Taji, Iraq, into a huge operation to seek out the individuals responsible for the deaths of two 39th Brigade Soldiers.

The men involved in the operation overcame emotion in order to successfully execute a plan, which ultimately gave birth to the discovery of a major weapons cache and apparent hub of terrorist activity.

"Essentially what they had set up was an [improvised explosive device] manufacturing facility," said Maj. Damon Cluck, Operations Officer of the 39th's 1st Battalion, 206th Field Artillery Regiment.

The unearthing produced 23 120-millimeter mortar rounds, a South African 155-millimeter round, and multiple detonation devices. Although representing only a small portion of the find, these are the ingredients to construct IEDs, some of which were already wired and ready for placement.

"That in itself made the cache significant in addition to the rockets and direct fire stuff that was found," said Cluck.

Three caches found

The plan for the operation, which resulted in the finding of a total of three caches, was conceived in response to an ambush, which killed two American Soldiers just hours earlier. The incident occurred during a joint patrol with Iraqi National Guard Soldiers, along with Soldiers from the 39th's 206th Field Artillery Regiment Oct. 3.

The firefight took the lives of Staff Sgt. Christopher S. Potts, of Tiverton, R.I., and Sgt. Russell L. Collier, of Harrison, Ark. This led to the decision to reorganize and go after those responsible by sealing off that area of Taji Village and searching 23 different homes and buildings inside.

"Immediately, we went into planning to go within 12 hours," said Maj. Christian Neary, commander of A Battery, 1st Battalion, 103rd Field Artillery Regiment, which is deployed with the 206th. "The brigade commander asked us to [wait] 24 more hours, so we could build combat power from the rest of the brigade task force. So, essentially, 36 hours later we moved down there and conducted a cordon and search."

Justice served, not revenge

Building combat power seemed somewhat of an understatement as hundreds of Soldiers came together to seek out the shooters. As the leadership planned the operation, the potential for strong emotions driven by the loss of their fellow Soldiers became a concern.

"I didn't want them going in for revenge, but I wanted them to go in for justice," said Neary. "We kind of pounded that into them during that 36 hours between the firefight and the mission, so that they knew we were going in there looking to find the folks that were responsible, not just looking to find anybody that was there to hold them accountable."

As the participants gathered for an operations order at the Iraqi National Guard headquarters on the eve of the mission, Lt. Col. Keith Klemmer provided the Soldiers with a brilliant glimpse of professionalism.

"What Colonel Klemmer said was 'there are two things that will make the mission a success,' and this is just perfect, ' courage,'" said Staff Sgt. Shawn Buffalo, an advisor support trainer for the ING. "He didn't need to explain that. Everybody knew. We were going into an area of possible contact, because it was where we lost two fellow soldiers. The response was so quiet in the room when he said that. Everybody knew what he meant.

"Second thing he said was 'honor,'" Buffalo continued. "He said 'honor means going in there being professional Soldiers, not letting your emotions run away with you. Do your job that you were trained to do and in doing so don't dishonor the memory of Sergeant Potts and Sergeant Collier. You'll do no honor to their memory by going in there and doing something out of hate.'"

As the Soldiers worked through their emotion from the initial incident, the Klemmer's words further built upon the foundation of professionalism laid by the ING following the firefight.

ING and U.S. troops form bond

"During that time, the ING came up, several of the officers, several of the [noncommissioned officers] that have kind of proven themselves to be more professional than we ever thought possible, and said 'We're sorry about your loss,'" said Buffalo. "'It's not acceptable. We're going to do anything we can. Let us know what we can do.'"

The bond built between the Iraqi and American Soldiers had apparently strengthened due to the incident, as they worked together in a near flawless execution of the plan.

"My guys strong-pointed every building while the ING did the deliberate search inside the buildings looking for weapons and illegal contraband," Neary said. "Their performance was very good. I was very pleased with their actions. They were motivated not only by the fact that they were Iraqi National Guard Soldiers, but they were also motivated because some of their guys were involved in the firefight the day before."

Insursurgents netted included triggerman

Along with the ING, the 206th, and the 103rd, the mission included the support of Soldiers from the 39th Brigade's 2nd Battalions of both the 7th Cavalry and the 162nd Infantry. Through the joint efforts, more than 50 men were detained for questioning, with more than 20 later determined to be involved in anti-Iraq operations. Among the detainees: the triggerman responsible for the deaths of Potts and Collier.

"I really think it turned out to be kind of a part of the healing [process], because before we went in there, we didn't really know why this had happened," Cluck said. "It was a firefight that developed out of nowhere, in an area where we'd never had a problem before. Going back in there and seeing the quantities of stuff we found really explained why the firefight had happened and why that area was so important to them that they would fight like they did two days before."

"We found a lot of items inside of the houses and on top of the roofs," said Capt. John Vanlandingham, officer in charge of the ING's Advisor Support Trainers. "We found three caches with numerous rockets, mortars, mortar tubes, rocket tubes; there was actually a 155 South African round that was set for an IED, it already had the wire coming out of it.

`Devotion winning war'

"It was a smooth operation, everybody knew what they were doing, we had time to rehearse and do some training with the ING before we went in and they did an outstanding job in their cordon and search," Vanlandingham said.

"You bring together that diverse group.ING ... our battalion, plus support from another infantry battalion.and do that kind of [operation] and it go off without anybody getting hurt and finding the kind of stuff we found.I thought it was a pretty successful operation," Cluck said.

"You've got to give kudos to the battalion staff of the 206th," said Buffalo. "The battalion staff of the 206th and the 39th Brigade planned an outstanding operation."

"You've got small unit leaders that are out there fighting this war," Cluck said, reflecting on the loss of his two Soldiers. "That's what those two guys were. They went out there, they saw a fight, and they went into it. They went into it with the ING, that they were supporting, and nobody ever backed off. Potts was moving forward when he was hit and Collier laid down his weapon to go to Potts' aide and that's when he was hit. That kind of devotion to duty, that's what's winning this war."

(Editor's note: 1st Lt. Chris J. Heathscott is the 39th Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Officer. See related article "Joint operation nets massive weapons cache." )


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