The following chapter is from the book “American Warfighter” and provides a 2/75 Ranger’s account in the 75th Ranger Regiment and Iraq. You can purchase the book by clicking on the book’s cover below.
“Shut up and shoot!”
Silver Star, Baghdad
Iraq was in crisis. The regime had fallen, its military and police forces had abandoned their posts, the civilian bureaucracy had vanished, and nearly every public service and institution, business, market, gas station, and every other entity required for normal daily life had collapsed into the vacuum. All that remained was a mixture of confusion, hope, fear, celebration … and retribution. Our military had smashed Saddam’s forces, but now it was our responsibility to keep Iraq from tearing itself apart amid lawlessness, power grabs, and revenge killings.
In early May 2003, just a few days after the president’s “Mission Accomplished” speech, the White House issued a statement that a little-known former State Department diplomat had been appointed as our top official in Iraq. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer would serve as the “Presidential Envoy” and “oversee Coalition reconstruction efforts and the process by which the Iraqi people build the institutions and governing structures that will guide their future.” The organization that the ambassador would oversee, the Coalition Provisional Authority, was responsible for everything—governance, the economy, utilities, transportation, education, housing, medical care, and anything else that a government either provides or regulates. Everything, that is, except security. Military operations would remain in the hands of the American generals.
In the early days of the war, our invasion and occupation of Iraq was often compared to our experiences in Germany and Japan after World War II. We wanted similar results, but nothing about the wars was similar. Those nations were defeated in 1945, their armies surrendered, and their people unconditionally submitted to foreign occupation for several years. We didn’t fight like we did in World War II, nor did we have the same objectives, so we shouldn’t have expected similar outcomes. In Iraq, we only toppled a leader and his cronies, not a nation. The army never actually surrendered and the people weren’t willing to take advice, much less orders, from people they considered outsiders at best, or infidel invaders at worst.
Every action by the coalition was met with growing resistance. One of Bremer’s earliest and most criticized orders was to disband the Iraqi military, intelligence services, and militias, and to purge senior Baath Party officials from public employment.
Some of our military leaders were shocked by the order. “None of this was coordinated with the U.S. military,” wrote retired Lieutenant General Daniel P. Bolger in his book about the war. That’s partly debatable, as many accounts have shown Bremer’s order was circulated at the Pentagon, although likely not as widely as necessary for everyone to voice their concerns about the document. The commander in charge of the invasion, General Tommy Franks, would have surely opposed the order because his plans had always relied upon the Iraqi army to keep order.
Regardless, there wasn’t an existing military to “keep order,” as Franks may have hoped. Divisions of the Iraqi army didn’t line up in ranks to watch their commanders surrender to the Americans, and then await orders for their next mission. They abandoned their bases, took off their uniforms, and melted into society. Their installations were ransacked and their equipment was looted. The Shia and Kurds would have strongly opposed bringing the Iraqi military back. Still, Franks and others hoped to recall the army—or whatever remained of it—and use it to restore order and augment the shrinking size of the U.S. military footprint. There were rumors that portions of the army were ready to come back, but Bremer’s order officially took that option off of the table.
The process to weed out top Baathists from power was equally criticized because it removed too many potential leaders from the bureaucracy and probably pushed them into the coming insurgency. American political leadership saw it as a necessary act, however, if Iraq was ever to emerge from Saddam’s shadow. His Baath party had been in power much longer than the Nazi party held power in Germany, and its tentacles had reached deeply into every sector of society.
“Baath Party members were required to attend weekly indoctrination meetings where they had to memorize the latest party slogans eulogizing Saddam,” wrote Bremer. “Members were expected to recruit children … party members were required to spy on their family, friends, neighbors—and fellow Baathists. These dehumanizing practices, combined with Saddam’s and his sons’ capricious brutality, had created an atmosphere of pervasive fear and mistrust throughout Iraqi society.”
Most everyone agreed that those who had committed serious crimes during Saddam’s reign of terror shouldn’t have been allowed to return to government or military service, but the order cut far deeper than the senior levels. Rather than judging Baath party members individually, the order banned all those who had achieved a certain level of membership. Included in the ban were people like university professors and mid-level bureaucrats, who claimed to have only joined the Baath party out of economic necessity. Bremer noted that the “administrative inconvenience” caused by banning these individuals from public life would eventually be eased because, in his estimation, “apolitical technocrats were usually the people who made organizations work.”
While purging the most rotten Baathists from power may have been necessary, the “apolitical technocrats” failed to emerge amid the growing insecurity. Many simply feared being killed if they worked with the Americans, or even went back to their old jobs in the Iraqi government. We couldn’t have expected a foreman to return to his job at the utility company if doing so would cause his family to be murdered.
So the nation remained in a broken state of crisis, with these two miscalculations—the order to disband the military and to purge the government of senior Baathists—becoming emblematic of the next few years in Iraq. Bolger later wrote that “de-Baathification was announced as a fait accompli. It guaranteed Sunni outrage.”
Ultimately, Iraq was an enraged, broken society long before the invasion, and it was only held together for so long by Saddam’s brutal grip. Now that his regime was gone, Iraq was less of an actual nation than a collection of groups with justifiable grievances against one another, a deep and paranoid suspicion of everyone’s motives, and an understandable reluctance to surrender their newly obtained freedom by trusting the Americans or another faction with power.
Former Baathists weren’t driven from power everywhere, however. The only large city in Iraq that was seeing any level of relative peace at that time was the northern city of Mosul. There, Major General David Petraeus was implementing a counterinsurgency-like strategy, and had managed to secretly have his area exempted from the de-Baathification order so he could freely select Iraqis for positions based upon competence, diversity, and balance. Other exemption requests were denied, and the order cut wide and deep across the country.
Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority would spend the next year in a desperate effort to keep those factions from pulling Iraq into deeper chaos. The orders to disband the military and purge senior Baathists kept the Shia and Kurds aboard, but eventually significant portions of the Shia faction would wage war against the Sunni insurgents and the coalition for years to come. Some believed, as time would eventually prove, that the war simply wasn’t over yet. Scores remained to be settled. Winners and losers in the conflict had yet to be decided. And until those who wanted or were willing to fight had been killed, exhausted, or clearly defeated, the insurgency would rage on.
Meanwhile, our military was still very much in the fight. Aside from trying to establish some law and order while beginning to train a new Iraqi military and police force to replace them, coalition forces were actively seeking two objectives whose acronyms would become synonymous with the era: HVTs, or “high value targets,” and, of course, the WMDs that had partly lured us into the war to begin with.
Since the invasion, a special group had been scouring all of Iraq looking for WMDs, but in early May its hopes began to fade. “Leaders of Task Force 75’s diverse staff—biologists, chemists, arms treaty enforcers, nuclear operators, computer and document experts, and special forces troops—arrived with high hopes of early success,” wrote Baron Gellman in an early May 2003 edition of the Washington Post. But the group was packing it up and heading home.
The 75th Exploitation Task Force, which was its formal name, didn’t find the WMD stockpiles that Western intelligence agencies had predicted were there. Officials blamed many factors, but according to Gellman’s article, “the greatest impediment to the weapons hunt … was widespread looting of Iraq’s government and industrial facilities. At nearly every top-tier ‘sensitive site’ … intruders had sacked and burned the evidence.” The task force’s mission would soon be handed over to an entity called the Iraq Survey Group, whose work would stretch into the coming months.
Elsewhere, special operations forces were trying to capture or kill HVTs. While there were rumored to be hundreds of such targets, dozens would become infamous for their inclusion on what became known as the “Most Wanted” deck of cards that were distributed to coalition forces by the U.S. military.
“Cards showing ‘ace’ of spades Saddam Hussein and 54 other regime members have become hits around the world, especially in the United States,” read a report from the Armed Forces Press Service. “So far, 17 of the Iraqi most wanted have surrendered or been taken into custody.” The cards became so popular that they were selling in stores in the United States, and the media would report HVTs being captured by referring to their specific card within the deck.
Americans were beginning to learn a great deal about one of the face cards: the Ace of Hearts—Uday Hussein. The eldest son of Saddam was well known inside Iraq for his brutality, which far surpassed that of his father. He tortured athletes on Iraq’s national soccer team who failed to perform to his expectations, raped girls and women who were unfortunate enough to catch his eye, and killed without fear of punishment. While many believed Uday’s psychopathic behavior excluded him from succeeding Saddam, some feared he would indeed eventually assume the presidency through the force of his father’s grip on the Baath Party and Uday’s command of the fanatical Fedayeen Saddam, which was a paramilitary band of fighters who swore allegiance to Saddam personally.
In late May, writers Brian Bennett and Michael Weisskopf published a striking article in Time magazine titled “The Sum of Two Evils” that illustrated the need to capture, or preferably kill, Saddam’s sons. It was the first of many articles introducing Uday and his younger brother, Qusay, to the American people. Their story recounted the tale of one of Uday’s former aides who said that he arranged a party in 1998 at an equestrian club for his boss.
During the party, Uday stood atop a building and used binoculars to search the crowd for a target. “Uday tightened the focus on a pretty 14-year-old girl in a bright yellow dress sitting with her father, a former provincial governor, her mother and her younger brother and sister,” the article explained. After failing to entice the girl away from her family, Uday’s bodyguards simply “picked her up and carried her to the backseat of Uday’s car, covering her mouth to muffle her screams.”
The girl was returned home three days later, with “a new dress, a new watch, and a large sum of cash.” Her father protested publically for weeks, demanding punishment for Uday. The serial rapist and heir-apparent finally sent his bodyguards to speak with the father. They demanded that he not only send the girl back to Uday, but that she must bring her twelve-year-old little sister, as well. After being threatened with death, their father submitted and sent both of his daughters with Uday’s henchmen.
Uday Hussein was a monster who needed to be killed, and quickly. Thankfully, he and others on the infamous deck of cards were now being hunted by some of our nation’s most highly skilled warfighters, including twenty-four-year-old U.S. Army Corporal Jeremiah Olsen.
Olsen was a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment, whose recruiting website describes its members as “more than just physically strong, Rangers are smart, tough, courageous, and disciplined. Rangers are self-starters, adventurers, and hard chargers. They internalize the mentality of a ‘more elite Soldier,’ as the Ranger Creed states and as their intense mission requirements demand.” In early June, Olsen’s heroic actions would prove his regiment’s motto: “Rangers Lead the Way!”
Jeremiah Olsen: I was born on Whidbey Island. That’s north of Seattle, Washington. There’s a naval air station there where EA-6B Prowlers and A-6 Intruders were stationed. There is also a lot of history on the islands north of Seattle, making it a nice place to be a kid.
Why did you want to become a Ranger?
It was around the year 2000 and I was living in Seattle, working and skirting the line between trouble and half-heartedly going to college. I figured that I needed to change the way I was living my life. So I thought that if I was going to join the military, I was going to join on my terms, which was to be something within the special operations community. I just wouldn’t have been happy doing anything else.
I went to the recruiter’s office and said I wanted to join the U.S. Army’s Special Forces and become a Green Beret, but there were no openings into that program. So the recruiter said, “Hey, you can go to a Ranger battalion.” He showed me a video about the Rangers, and explained their role in special operations. I thought, “Why not?” and decided to sign up.
Most folks get confused between Ranger School and the Ranger battalions. They’re two separate things. The Ranger School is just that—a school. Its graduates earn the right to wear the “Ranger” tab on their uniforms. “The” Rangers, however, are a full-time unit—not a school—and they’re part of the military’s special operations forces. Rangers go through different training, and it’s pretty much non-stop throughout their time in a unit, and most go to the Ranger School, as well. Ranger battalion soldiers wear a tan beret that sets them apart in dress uniform.
In the end, being a Ranger was a better fit for me because they are a special operations force that performs mostly direct action missions. That’s where I like to be. So, when I was about twenty-two years old, I enlisted. I first went to basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, then to advanced infantry training, also at Fort Benning, and then I went down the street to airborne school. Once those preliminary steps were completed, I was then dropped off at the Ranger indoctrination course for the selection process. Back then it was a four-week course called the Ranger Indoctrination Program. Now it’s called the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program and it’s eight weeks long due to more instruction.
How tough was the program?
Most soldiers begin the program at the peak of their physical and mental conditioning. Almost all have just gone through basic, infantry, and airborne schools, like I had. Others had already been soldiers in the regular Army, so they knew the program’s reputation for intensity and they trained hard before arriving. Still, we started with 350 soldiers, and after all was said and done, only about forty of us graduated.
I thought that the initial program was going to be the toughest part of being a Ranger. I was wrong. Actually being a Ranger is much harder, by far, than the selection process. That’s why they try to weed out anyone who isn’t mentally and physically prepared for the rigors of being part of a Ranger battalion.
The selection process was intense. A cadre of active Rangers closely watched us at every step of the way. Just like any special operations selection course, it is meant to test the heart and physical ability of the candidates while testing their decision-making process under duress. The cadre set out tasks for us to complete every day, and all tasks had to be accomplished successfully and within the allotted time, or else you’re out. It was always, “You must pass this,” or, “You must pass that.” Everything was pass the individual task or team task, or fail the overall selection. Which is to be expected, but not everybody shows up with the right mindset, and they allow these stresses to break them.
For instance, one night we had to do a pretty long road march in full gear, maybe eight miles, and then start a land-navigation course before dawn. The course itself was long and had very large sections of land between the points we had to navigate from and to, during the day and into the night. We were all tired, hungry, and thirsty, which is how we always felt during the course, I think. A lot of the guys got dehydrated. That caused them to become confused, and then lost, or it caused them to just flat give up. It’s a weird thing when you look down and see someone who seemed so ready for selection just give up on life and lay there like they’ve accepted defeat. But, naturally, everybody has a breaking point, and just like that, they were out of the program.
Some tasks were small and short, while others were large and long. But it was everything in between the tasks that got to people the most. We’d get ready to perform a mission, form up in ranks, and then the cadre would notice that a soldier had something untucked or that some other small thing wasn’t correct. “Everybody get down!” We’d hear that and start doing push-ups. And it wasn’t just doing a certain number—we had to do push-ups until someone quit the program, or if we were on a hot blacktop, we would do exercises until there was a fresh puddle of sweat under each man. If the puddle evaporated, we kept going. It’s kind of comical, actually. I always tried to see the humor, and feed off of the big picture around me. People got too caught up in the pain to see the humor in the actual activity we were doing. It is a game, a serious game, but in the end you never let the game beat you if at all possible. At least that was my weird outlook on the whole thing.
It was always like that: the extreme version of absolutely everything. Once they had us going all day and we only ate a single Meal-Ready-to-Eat, or MRE, early in the morning, which wasn’t out of the normal. We were burning through calories and by mid-afternoon we were all very hungry. We were in a field and they were teaching us how to make a modified stretcher out of sticks to carry an injured person off the battlefield. The cadre said, “Everyone, go to the wood line and get a stick!” Everybody sprinted to the edge of the woods, which was at least 200–300 meters away, and did their best to find what they thought would be a good stick. The last guy back would inevitably cause us to repeat the event, of course. So then the cadre said, “Oh, none of those sticks are good enough. Go get more.” We did stuff like that all afternoon, until we were drenched with sweat.
It can get pretty cold in Georgia on a late winter night, especially if you’re wet from head to toe from sweat, and exhausted. That’s when the cadre made a bonfire with our sticks. We couldn’t share its warmth, of course. They told us to get out of the firelight and into the wood line. So we sat there, tired, hungry, thirsty, and freezing, all the while watching the cadre enjoy the bonfire from a distance. “This fire sure is warm!” they said. “If anyone is cold, come on out and enjoy the fire!” If you did, you were out of the program. Still, some guys walked from the tree line and up to the fire, shivering and defeated. But on the bright side, they did warm up.
As it got later in the evening, our empty stomachs were growling and the hunger was intense. We were already hungry from the previous days, and this day was worse. That’s when the cadre decided it be a great idea to roast hot dogs over the bonfire. The cadre shouted, “Hey! Who wants a hot dog? They’re so good. Come and get it!” The smell blew over to the wood line and drove some of the guys crazy. I saw several of my friends who were in better shape than me, who were stronger than me, break at that point. All night long I saw guys walk over, sit down, eat a warm hot dog by the bonfire … and quit. They packed their stuff a few hours later and were sent somewhere else. Probably Korea. Thankfully I don’t like hot dogs, but either way I wasn’t falling for any of that garbage.
The lack of sleep was also part of the process of finding out who was mentally tough enough, I think. The Army has a rule dictating how many hours that a school must allow a soldier to sleep. I think it’s about three hours a night, but very rarely do I remember sleeping for three hours. Most of the time I only got about an hour’s worth of sleep each night.
In the end, the weeding-out process is more about the mind than the body. Our flesh and blood is stronger than we think, and it can take a great deal of pain before it actually stops working. But our minds? Well, they’ll break way before our bodies will, and when our minds give in, for whatever reason, that’s when our bodies will break, too. For instance, even though your ankle might be medically fine, if your will to fight has gone, you might actually feel like your ankle is broken, like you cannot walk. Your mind will make every excuse in the world to stop.
After that we had to do a land navigation task, working with a map and compass to get from one point to another in the dense woods. I remember making good time and being about halfway through the distance when my body started to cramp up because I was so dehydrated from those brutal push-ups and the stick hunting. It was so bad that I couldn’t even bend one of my legs. So I started to drag my leg through the woods, but it kept getting caught on vines and underbrush. It was like trying to drag a pole through thick bushes. Finally, my abs started locking up, and then my sides. I was out of water, and there was nothing to drink but whatever was in the disgusting swamp. I remember thinking, “I can’t move.” So I sat on a log and tried to gather my thoughts and wait out the cramps.
One of my friends just happened to walk by and he asked, “Hey, are you all right?” I mumbled something about not being able to move. He stood me up and gave me some of his water. “Here, drink this,” he said. I took a big gulp and gave it back, still dazed. Then he said, “What are you doing, man? You need to hurry up!”
Just having him stand me up, give me a little water, and tell me to get going had an effect. I snapped out of it. I was like, “Oh, yeah. What am I doing? I just wasted ten minutes sitting here!” My leg was still messed up, but I kept going and passed the navigation task. I owe that guy a beer, to say the least.
So, after four weeks of days like that, and seeing my class shrink from about 350 to about forty or less, I was finally selected to be a Ranger. The 75th Ranger Regiment had four battalions at the time: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and HHC [headquarters and headquarters company]. I volunteered for the 2nd Ranger Battalion stationed at Joint Base Lewis–McChord near my home in Seattle.
The battalions put all of the new guys on a one-year probationary status to see if you’ve got what it takes, or if you slipped through the cracks to get there, even after all of that weeding-out during the selection program. Which I learned is a great thing, and like in all SOCOM [Special Operations Command] units, it’s a necessity.
Rangers have a multi-year training cycle and are always preparing—airborne operations, cold-weather operations, helicopter operations, or whatever else. When you arrive at your battalion, you jump right into whatever phase of training they happen to be in. Right off the bat. It’s pretty intense. I got assigned to a squad and, as a new guy, I got hassled. Some guys can’t take it and they get out. The Rangers, like all SOCOM units, is an all-volunteer unit, and soldiers can leave at any point. It’s not a big deal, either. It’s hard, and if you can’t take it you really shouldn’t be there. The Army will just send you somewhere else.
I arrived at my battalion when they were planning to do airborne operations. We’d get on a plane somewhere, fly for a while in air rig parachutes, and then jump into God knows where. I’d land in the woods somewhere and be like, “Where the hell am I?” Sometimes it’d be Alaska, sometimes New Mexico, and sometimes Oregon. It was always fun to try and figure it out before someone leaked where we actually were.
One day in late August of 2001, we got all of our gear, parachutes, rucksacks, and everything else, and loaded onto a C-17 military transport aircraft. We flew from Washington State to Europe, and aside from stopping on the East Coast for fuel, our feet didn’t touch the ground until we jumped from the airplane somewhere over Germany.
We all landed in a farmer’s field, formed up, and began a long road march to a training area that was about seventy kilometers away. We cut through fields, walked down country roads, through villages, and even walked alongside the Autobahn for a ways. I remember walking through towns and guys would come out of bars with a beer in hand. I was so jealous; with an M-249 necklace [linked ammunition] and a heavy pack on my back, I just wanted a taste of that German beer! A car hit one of our guys, too. The German didn’t see him at night, but luckily the car hit his rucksack and sent him flying over the roof. He ended up okay; kind of funny, but luckily he was all right.
We finally reached our objective later that next evening, which was a training area for allied forces. We set up perimeter security and prepared for our simulated fight against what’s known as an opposition force, or OPFOR. We fought them for a few hours, shooting each other with simulated rounds. We left that area and trained in a few other places, eventually reaching a large training ground near a town called Hohenfels, Germany. That place has notoriously horrible weather, and the conditions are unusually harsh. The locals told us that’s why Hitler sent his SS troops to train there; if they could fight there, Hitler figured, then they could fight anywhere.
That’s where I was on September 11, 2001. We had been in the woods for several days and everyone was exhausted, dirty, and cold. We were inside cleaning our weapons and preparing for more training later that afternoon when a military intelligence officer came in and said, “Hey, you guys need to watch this.” He turned on the television and that’s when we saw that the Twin Towers had fallen. We were all like, “When do we leave to go fight? Are we going to war now, straight to Afghanistan, or are we heading back to Fort Lewis?” We were all ready to go, ready to fight. We ended up going back to the States first, though, because we didn’t bring everything we’d need to fight in Afghanistan. Or maybe some other command decision was made.
It was a frustrating time for me; I was due for a promotion shortly after that training deployment and scheduled to attend Ranger School. They told me that I wouldn’t deploy to Afghanistan and would stay on schedule, attending the next class at the school. I was really angry. I said, “This is so stupid. I’m going to fail out of Ranger School in the first week so I can deploy with you guys.” They told me that I’d get kicked out of the battalion for that. It was a catch-22.
So, the battalion deployed to Afghanistan, and I went to school in Georgia. It sucked. They didn’t get into too many tussles, though, so I didn’t feel so bad. Now, if they had gotten into a lot of big firefights without me, then sure, I would have been pretty angry to not have been there for my guys. The battalion returned later that next year. We did some more training and then the Iraq War was getting ready to kick off. So we packed up and shipped out.
The 2nd Ranger Battalion deployed to the region around Iraq and staged in an area just across the border. From there we did pre-invasion incursions, going in at night and then coming back. As the invasion drew closer our incursions became bolder. We flew in C-130s into the country, but at very low altitudes. Those trips were similar to carnival rides, and we placed bets on who would puke first.
When the war kicked off, our task force’s mission was to search for WMD sites during the day and then HVTs at night. The deck of cards came out with a bunch of HVTs on the faces. Saddam was the Ace of Spades, I think. We went after all of them, and some other guys, too.
I was a team leader for machine gun squad. For us, being able to do what we had trained so hard for and help out in the big picture was a great thing.
Could you describe a typical mission?
Well, one night, after the deck of cards came out, we went on an HVT mission. My team flew out from our base, landed on the target’s house, and quickly grabbed a couple of guys before they knew what was happening. As I secured the back of the house I noticed a guy running off into a field of palm trees. I was like, “You’re kidding me, right?” So I chased the guy down, tackled him, and then flex-cuffed him. I checked him for weapons, and then dragged him back to the house. He was acting important and running his mouth so I told him to shut up and then placed him against a wall. A few minutes later a helicopter came for the prisoners, then we flew back to base.
The helicopter landed back at the airport and my guys and I were walking back to the hanger. Then my platoon sergeant walked up and said, “Hey, Olsen, some guys want to talk with you.” I thought, “I’m in trouble for smacking that guy I grabbed.” We went to a little building on the other side of the airport. I didn’t know who they worked for but they brought me into a room and one of them said, “We watched your mission from satellite video, and saw you chase that guy down and catch him. It’s good you didn’t let him get away. He’s a very bad guy.” Then they told me who he was. Turned out that he was pretty high up on the deck of cards, and they assured me that I could have broken his arm or leg for good measure; he at least deserved that.
That was crazy. You never know who you’re going to snatch sometimes. It could be nobody, or it could be somebody. When you’re doing a mission like that, in the moment, it’s just your job. You’re using the skills you’ve acquired to make sound decisions to accomplish your objective and make sure your guys come back safe. Now, looking back, I would never go about military service in any other way. I don’t know how I’d feel about my service if, after all of that extreme training, I never got to put any of it to use. Flying out on helicopters, sliding down ropes and experiencing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan like I have … I am just grateful that I got to do it, and that none of my guys got killed while I was there.
Tell me about June 11, 2003.
We did a raid targeting a large number of individuals on the night of June 11, far out in the wilderness area, and nowhere near any cities or towns. It ended up being a pretty big firefight that lasted into the early morning hours of June 12. One of my friends lost half his leg, and a lot of enemy fighters were killed, too. That specific part of the operation may still be classified, but what happened the following morning isn’t.
After the raid, we secured the detainees and waited until sunrise. That’s when the larger, regular army forces would arrive to pull security on the area and perform what’s known as site exploitation [looking for intelligence and evidence]. So until then, a few other guys and I pulled away to the perimeter to provide security. Then we waited.
I was the truck commander of a Humvee. Our vehicles were set up very differently than trucks are now. They didn’t have any armor; they were stripped of everything but the windshield and the roll bar, on which we mounted either a .50-caliber machine gun or a MK19 belt-fed 40mm grenade launcher. We had two or three machine gun mounts on swivel arms on the back and sides, and then we had our own personal weapons. There was no shielding from bullets and there was no shielding from being seen by the enemy; there was nothing. But, the beauty of that configuration was that the Humvee moved faster—if it’s possible for a Humvee to move fast—and anybody could shoot at any time, and from anywhere on the vehicle.
The sun rose over the desert and I stood up in the turret of the truck, manning the .50-caliber and looking for anything unusual. It was early June so it was warm but hadn’t yet reached the sweltering temperatures that it’d rise to later in the day. It was dry and kind of nice, actually.
The first contingent of regular Army guys started arriving. They were from one of the airborne divisions, but I cannot remember which. I saw them set up a sniper team about 150 meters from my position, so I knew it wouldn’t be too much longer before we could pull back. I was looking forward to that because, as usual, we had been up all night. The other guys around me were sleeping, and I was scanning the horizon.
Earlier that morning, Apache attack helicopters were sent out to secure our perimeter and provide over-watch on our objective. The Apache attack helicopters were still flying patrols on the outside of our perimeter to ensure nobody snuck up on us. So I was standing there, in the back of the truck, leaning on my gun and looking out across the desert when I noticed that one of the Apaches had stopped. It was hovering over an area about two hundred meters from my truck. There was a berm between us, sort of rocky ground, so I couldn’t see what had caught its pilot’s attention. Then a second Apache joined the first, both oriented in the same direction. I leaned in, and remembered thinking, “What are they looking at?”
Just then one of the pilots turned his head. I could see them that clearly—and the gun affixed to the bottom of the Apache whipped over in the same direction, and then let loose a burst of gunfire. I said, “Whoa! What are they shooting at?” I thought for a second that maybe they were just testing their guns. Sometimes they’ll do that in the open desert. But then they started shooting their rockets, and I immediately knew it was for real.
Around me at the time was the driver—one of my best buddies who is still in special operations—and about three guys from an anti-armor team with a Carl Gustav [84mm man-portable reusable anti-tank recoilless rifle]. I yelled at everyone to get in the truck. The guys from the other team were like, “What? What’s happening? Show me where…” but I cut them off. I said, “Just get in the truck or I’m leaving you.”
Just as the driver started the truck I saw a smoke trail go toward one of the Apaches and hit it right in the tail rotor. It was a rocket-propelled grenade. The helicopter went straight down, and the other Apache took off, probably because it didn’t want to get shot down either.
I said, “Holy shit! We gotta go!”
The guys piled into the truck and we moved in the direction of where that RPG came from. We were hauling ass and saw the crash site as we came close to the berm. We were still about 150 meters away but I could see the helicopter on the ground, burning. The tail rotor was blown off but it was still largely intact, which made me think the pilots could still be alive. I also could see enemy fighters moving towards the helicopter.
My driver started heading closer to the crash site, but a sergeant on the team that was with us, the guys with the Carl Gustav, asked us to stop. He outranked me, but I was hesitant to stop. He wanted to get into a better position to fire the Gustav. So I told him, “I need you to get out of the truck, because I am going to get those pilots, now!” So they got out, and we left them. They were out of AK range, though, so they were fine and safe. The driver then headed straight for the downed helicopter and didn’t let off the gas until we got there.
As we pulled up, the driver slammed on the brakes about twenty meters from the helicopter because the fire was causing some of the rounds and rockets to cook off. Just as the pilots were climbing out of their cockpits I saw two, maybe three enemy fighters with AK-47s shooting at us from the cover of a nearby berm. They were about thirty meters from me and about twenty meters from the pilots. It was all pretty close. They were just sticking their guns over the top and firing wildly. I laid down some covering fire from my .50-cal, giving the pilots enough time to run over to our truck. They were both fine, though one was limping from getting banged up in the crash.
I’ll never forget what one of those pilots said, a lieutenant colonel, I believe. I can’t really remember his rank. He looked at me and, with a 9mm pistol in his hand, said, “Come on! Let’s go get those sons of bitches!” I had to smile and kind of shake my head. I said, “All you’ve got is a pistol, sir. Get in the truck. I’m getting you out of here.” The other pilot, the one limping, had already climbed in the truck; the lieutenant colonel was adamant, though. He said, “No, I want to fight!” I said again, “No, sir. I’m getting you to safety. Get in the truck!” He finally got in. The driver threw it in reverse and backed out of there while I kept firing at the guys on the berm.
We drove to the location where I remembered that the regular Army had set up a sniper team. I turned to the pilots and said, “Stay with the snipers. Don’t move, and don’t get shot; they are fifty to eighty meters in that direction … now go!” They were okay, but I never saw those pilots again. I wonder what became of that lieutenant colonel. I’ll never forget that guy. He really cracked me up. I wish that I’d had an extra M4 that morning to let him borrow, but regardless, I wasn’t letting him get hurt. It was my job to protect them and get them to safety. I liked his attitude and fighting spirit, though.
Then I looked back to the berm and saw one of the insurgents peeking over the top. I told my driver, “Head straight for that berm where that guy is.” We hauled ass, right back at them, but they quickly hid back behind a berm. As we neared the crash site, we saw that the entire helicopter was on fire. Its .25mm cannon ammunition was burning off, rockets were blowing up, and there were hellfire missiles that were lighting off. It was making a whole lot of noise. The enemy had taken cover back behind the berm again, and I don’t think they could see us or hear us. I think they lost track of where my truck had gone because of the berm and the noise.
That was our chance to seize the initiative. I decided that we’d drive over the top of the berm and then open up on those guys. Once we crossed the top of that berm, though, we’d be wide open and without armor or backup. I couldn’t afford to waste time changing belts or clearing a jammed machine gun. And while we had our personal M4s and sidearms, they weren’t good for seriously stopping someone. So I took advantage of the lull to re-link my .50-cal ammunition belts in our large ammunition canisters, or ammo cans. Our cans were larger than most, thankfully. Before that day we had gone to a few pilots and borrowed the cans meant for their helicopter guns, which are huge cans, much larger than what would normally be found on a truck-mounted gun. I also bartered for their selection of different kinds of .50-cal ammo, which was a better selection than we had. The cans could hold several belts. I then took an extra fifteen seconds or so to double check the .50-cal to make sure it wouldn’t jam. I figured either rush into it and get a jam from bouncing in the desert, or take a second and straighten it all out so that there are no problems while engaging the enemy.
When everything was ready, I told my buddy, “Creep forward, slowly, so that I can take careful aim at whatever we see on the other side.” He did, and the trucked rolled slowly over the top of the berm. Just as we started to roll down the other side I looked to my right and saw an insurgent standing about ten meters away. He had an AK-47 in his hand and was aiming at the top of the berm. He was caught totally by surprise, probably not thinking we’d come rolling over the berm like that. He glanced up with a surprised look on his face. I swung the turret around and opened the .50-cal up at him. At that range, the .50-cal tore him to pieces.
Then I saw another guy on our right, about fifteen meters from the first. He started shooting his AK so I shot him, too. Another enemy fighter farther to the left started shooting, so I walked the rounds up to him and across his hip. While I was shooting the guys on the left and right, I didn’t see the two insurgents who had taken positions directly in front of our truck, behind where the ground gave way to a wadi [a gully, dry except during rainy periods] about 8–10 feet deep. They were standing on a rock, holding their guns over the top and firing at us from pretty good cover.
My buddy took out his M4 and started shooting in the same direction that I was shooting. Man, he was one brave dude that day—riding into the fight without a second thought, driving and laying down fire at the same time. He was awesome, but then he got shot. The bullet from the AK passed through his M4’s receiver and nearly took off his thumb.
He started moaning, “Ohh! Ohh!” and making a whole bunch of other noises. Again, the guy is one of my best buddies, but we’re pretty tough on each other in the Ranger Battalion. I kind of kicked him in the head a little and said, “What the hell are you yelling about? Shut up and shoot!” I was just joking, of course. He looked up at me and said, “Hey, asshole. I’m shot!” I looked down and saw that he had blood spurting all over himself and the truck. I said, “Oh, shit. I’m sorry, dude! Okay, okay! Just put it in reverse and go.”
He had started to go into shock a little. He said he couldn’t work the gearshift because he was shot in the hand. “Just use your other hand,” I said, then turned the .50-cal back on the fighters in front of us. They were still sticking their guns just above the edge of the ground, doing a wild AK spray in our direction. My bullets couldn’t penetrate the ground, so I was only suppressing them so they couldn’t take accurate aim.
My buddy was still fumbling with the gears when I heard something off to our left. I looked over and saw another fighter was shooting at us. I swung the .50-cal around and sent one long burst in his direction. He fell over into the wadi. Either I hit him or he decided to run. I’m not sure which.
I could then hear other American trucks racing in our direction … but they were not there yet. Just then the driver threw the gear in reverse with his good hand and stomped on the gas pedal. We flew back over the berm and away from the enemy shooters while I suppressed them with the .50-cal, but then I was worried about backing into the helicopter that was still exploding. Rounds and missiles were popping off.
I shouted, “Stop! Don’t get too close to that helicopter!” For a one-armed driver bleeding all over the place and in partial shock, my buddy did a great job. Even in that condition, he was still in the fight. Amazing.
I put the truck into park for him and got him out. I put pressure on the wound but it kept bleeding. So I then put a tourniquet on it with medium tension until the bleeding stopped, or at least slowed. Then I pulled out a pistol, gave it to him in his good hand, and told him that if anyone came over that berm to shoot them. I ran to get a medic. I grabbed my M4 and ran to the nearest truck that had just arrived and grabbed a medic that just happened to be there. He came with me, grabbed my buddy, and carried him back to his truck.
With my buddy being treated, I jumped into the driver’s seat of my truck and drove back over the berm and in position to get back into the fight. I shut the truck down and climbed back up into the turret and started to suppress the enemy with the rest of my fellow Rangers who had by then arrived. Then I talked with the other guys about how to dislodge or kill those fighters down in the wadi and where their position was.
As I was firing, I saw something fly out from the gully, hit the ground and roll towards my truck, coming to a stop about ten meters away. “Oh, shit! Grenade!” I only could think of one thing to do: cover my nuts. I remember thinking, in a split second, that I didn’t care if I got hit in the face, I just didn’t want my balls to be blown off by a grenade. So I covered them up with my hands, closed my eyes, and looked down to cover my head with my helmet. Then the grenade exploded.
Nothing hit me. I was like, “Oh, whoa!” I looked around to see if there were any holes in me. None, except where a bullet had passed through my pants when we were being shot at earlier. For a moment I thought, “Wow, I got lucky,” and then started shooting at the enemy again.
Finally one of our guys threw a grenade at them. That slowed down their rate of fire enough for two of our guys to run up there, pop into the wadi and shoot them both. That was the end of the firefight. After that, we set up another perimeter.
I later learned that the Apache was shooting its cannon and missiles at a Toyota truck with a mounted machine gun. It was sneaking up on us through all of those berms. The pilots had destroyed the truck and forced all of the enemy combatants to dismount and take positions behind the berm where I had found them.
Looking back, whether those pilots were dead or alive, I was at least going to get their bodies out of there for their families. As a Ranger, part of the creed that we live by is that we will never leave a fallen comrade behind. I would gladly do anything, and by any means, to get those pilots or my men out of there. As with any Ranger in the regiment, there is no hesitation to close on the enemy and destroy them in order to complete the mission, or help a soldier in need. This is why someone joins the regiment, and this is the essence of being in the regiment. I was just happy that I could be in the right place at the right time, and have the opportunity to help in any way that I could.
For saving the downed pilots, Olsen received the Silver Star, the third-highest military combat decoration for gallantry in action.
The day after Olsen’s battle, CIA Director George Tenant appointed David Kay, an international weapons inspector, to head the Iraq Survey Group’s efforts to locate evidence of Saddam’s WMD program in Iraq.
Then, on July 22, coalition forces converged on a house in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul after a tipster reported it as the location of Uday and Qusay.
Our warfighters “swiftly moved into assault positions while infantry from the 101st Airborne Division set up a cordon around the villa to stop anyone from escaping,” read one account of the raid. A bullhorn was used to tell the brothers to surrender. Their answer? A barrage of gunfire. At that point, “things just went ballistic,” said one participant. “Those guys put up a massive fight.” Using C-4 explosives, U.S. forces stormed through the iron front gate—the only viable entrance to the walled compound, participants said. From there, some began clearing the first floor, while others climbed back stairs and crossed the roof for other entry points.”
After the attack, the lifeless bodies of Uday and Qusay were hauled away, ending at least one horrible chapter in Iraq’s bloody history. Later that year their father would be pulled from a hole in the ground in a farming village near his hometown of Tikrit. After a lengthy trial, Saddam Hussein was hung three years later on December 30, 2006, in Baghdad. The hunt for HVTs would continue as former regime officials became part of the insurgency, and as the conflict bred new insurgent leaders who needed to be killed or captured.
As for WMD, David Kay found no stockpiles and resigned from the Iraqi Survey Group in early 2004. He told Congress that he didn’t think the stockpiles ever existed. However, during an appearance on Fox News Sunday in February 2004, Kay said, “Although I found no weapons, (Iraq) had tremendous capabilities in this area. A marketplace phenomena was about to occur … sellers meeting buyers. And I think that would have been very dangerous if the war had not intervened.”
Indeed. After more than a year of searches, investigations, and analysis, a final report covering the search for WMD was released by the Central Intelligence Agency in the fall of 2004. Among several key findings, the report stated that although Saddam didn’t possess stockpiles of WMD at the beginning of the war, he certainly intended to possess them in the future.
“Saddam wanted to recreate Iraq’s WMD capability … but probably with a different mix of capabilities to that which previously existed,” read the key findings in the CIA report. “Saddam aspired to develop a nuclear capability … but he intended to focus on ballistic missiles and tactical chemical warfare capabilities.” The report also stated that even though Saddam had no written plan or active WMD program, “his lieutenants understood WMD revival was his goal.”
The ways and means to achieve that goal were kept close at hand, as well. Christopher Hitchens recounted one example in his memoir that he unearthed during a visit to Baghdad after the invasion: “Unnoticed by almost everybody, and unreported by most newspapers, Saddam Hussein’s former chief physicist Dr. Mahdi Obeidi had waited until a few weeks after the fall of Baghdad to accost some American soldiers and invite them to excavate his back garden. There he showed them the components of a gas centrifuge—the crown jewels of uranium enrichment—along with a two-foot stack of blueprints. This burial had originally been ordered by Saddam’s younger son Qusay, who had himself been in charge of the Ministry of Concealment, and had outlasted many visits by ‘inspectors.’”
This wasn’t an isolated case. More than ten years later, the New York Times published a story not only revealing that there were indeed thousands of WMDs found in Iraq—albeit in smaller numbers than the feared “stockpiles”—but also that some of our warfighters were exposed to chemical weapons. “From 2004 to 2011, American and American-trained Iraqi troops repeatedly encountered, and on at least six occasions were wounded by, chemical weapons remaining from years earlier in Saddam Hussein’s rule,” wrote C. J. Chivers in an October 2014 edition of the New York Times. “In all, American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs.”
Whatever conclusions one can draw from the WMD issue, one thing remains clear: the tyrant and his sons were dead, and their regime’s goal—or fantasy, depending upon your estimate—of developing a WMD program was halted. The world was mercifully spared from a future where the Hussein family continued to possess unimaginable wealth and held aspirations for regional domination.
Nevertheless, while the initial invasion was successful and the regime was toppled, America’s warfighters found themselves still fighting and taking casualties, especially in Baghdad and in much of the country’s Sunni-dominated provinces. Some said the attacks were coming from the remnants of Iraq’s army, while others, including many Australian officers who had experience fighting or studying that type of war, saw ominous warnings that an insurgency was sprouting from the ashes of Saddam’s Iraq.
Meanwhile, in the supposedly friendly Shia south, a new threat to our warfighters was emerging in the ancient city of Najaf. The nation was spiraling towards the civil war the coalition was working to prevent, but simply couldn’t stop.