Inspired by the experiences of Heath Smith
Clash in the Desert
by Heath Smith
There was a definite naivety on my part about what combat would eventually involve. Along with so many others, I pictured it as a battle between a good guy and bad guy or right versus wrong. That the distinction between the two would be obvious. And that we would be the good guys on the side of right. But only time would tell.
I joined the Marine Corps the summer after high school. Not having much of an idea of what I wanted to do and very little insight into the different job opportunities in the Corps, I decided to go the infantry route of infantry. This was during peacetime, so it seemed innocent enough and I would get some good weapons training. Let’s fast forward through boot camp at Parris Island and the school of infantry at Camp Geiger, NC. Our first deployment culminated after a peacekeeping mission in East / West Timor when planes hit the world trade centers. This began what seemed to be a never ending stream of scuttlebutt about what our next mission would be.
Moving forward to the work up for our next deployment and the war in Afghanistan going full throttle, these would be a very interesting 18 months. There was a wild energy during this workup that seemed much different and a level of focus and intensity I don’t recall in the previous cycle. Training for combat is always a top priority for infantry units, but the atmosphere was much different, post 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan going full throttle.
This being my second deployment I would be charged with leading an infantry team into combat. We deployed with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, in January of 2003 and headed toward the Middle East. We flew off the ships in February on CH-53’s and ended up in Northern Kuwait, prepping to cross into Iraq upon receiving orders. Being in Kuwait and on high alert, we would have to put on MOPP gear multiple times for the threat of being hit with chemical weapons from the Iraq regime.
On March 21st we crossed the breach into Iraq and headed to the southern port city of UMM Qasr. Soon after crossing the border, we were hit with a barrage of artillery fire. This halted our offensive posture and we immediately called for close air support. Once the threat was suppressed, we were able to move into Umm Qasr and start clearing the city. This involved CQB (close quarters battle) and going building to building and house to house, dictated by what objectives needed to be cleared. We took what seemed like hundreds of prisoners in Umm Qasr.
Once they saw the overwhelming firepower and fierceness of the 15th MEU, we started seeing more and more Iraqis decide they didn’t want any part of this fight. The hard thing was to tell who the enemy actually was. The majority of resistance in Umm Qasr was from pop shots and sniper fire and wasn’t from an organized and well put together fighting force. This being said, sniper fire provided its own set of unique challenges while trying to move from building to building clearing the city. Umm Qasr was a big objective during the beginning of the invasion due to it being a port city in the southern part of the country. This CQB fighting lasted a while and then the 15th MEU was dispatched to Nasiriyah, Iraq’s 3rd largest city.
Moving in convoys proved to be dangerous as we were traversing wide open terrain with enemies hiding amongst the civilian population. This, along with hitting a massive sand storm, made me feel like we were sitting ducks. We set up a defensive posture until the storm let up and then completed the trek into the city. Nasiriyah, being much bigger than Umm Qasr and having a much more urban setting, provided a new set of challenges. This, coupled with the heavy combat that proceeded our arrival, proved to be brutal and would test our readiness and resolve.
The resistance was much different than what we had encountered previously. This was evident in the steep price the Marine Corps and coalition forces paid during the battle for Nasiriyah. There was a far greater organized infantry and mechanized presence making for a much different urban combat setting. This intense urban warfare took its toll on the coalition forces and highlighted the ethos and unwavering resolve of the Marine Corps and other US forces. Nasiriyah was also an important objective to secure in the push to Baghdad. The city was along what would become a thoroughfare heading to the middle and northern objectives in Iraq, and also sat upon the Euphrates River.
While our MEU and the other coalition forces fought the Fedayeen and Republican Guard for control of Nasiriyah we were still dealing with an element of sniper fire coming from within civilian populations. This only added confusion and required that our unit remain hyper vigilant on every patrol and while clearing all structures. This also wreaked havoc on so-called “civilized warfare” or following a set of acceptable practices during combat or rules of engagement, if these do in fact exist. These rules, many of which would protect civilian bystanders in real-time, were paramount for us to follow to the best of our abilities. I believe this led to us taking more of the Iraqi population captive, due to not knowing who was friend or foe at any point. With the heavy combat in Nasiriyah ending, the majority of our role would become security and safety of sensitive targets. At the conclusion of our mission we flew out of Iraq and back onto the ships of the 15th MEU.
At the end of the day, combat is a never ending list of horrors, tempering my naivete into something deeper. Something more respectful. And that is this: My memory will hold forever the decency and honorable actions shown by the Marines I had the pleasure of serving alongside.