I stood on the back of my tank commander's seat and raised a pair of dented, green binoculars to my eyes. Scanning the horizon, I saw the same thing I had been looking at for the past five months -- endless desert. No trees, no bushes and, most important, no Iraqis. I pushed forward the radio switch on the right side of my combat vehicle crew helmet and talked to my second-in-command, located in the radio track about 3 kilometers behind me. "Black Five this is Black Six...tell our superiors that Area CLAW is free of enemy. We're moving forward to secure it." "Roger, Six," came back the voice of Lieutenant Aaron McClain, my executive officer. I had complete confidence that he would get the message to all concerned parties.
"Red and Blue," I called to my two scout platoon leaders, "standard box assembly area, center of mass grid 070620." Both platoon leaders acknowledged my transmission and launched their vehicles forward to establish the northern perimeter for our squadron's (parent unit) assembly area. My "White" and "Green" tank platoons followed wordlessly behind them, they knew the drill by heart.
I hoisted myself up onto my commander's hatch and reflected on the past few days. It was 5:30 p.m. on February 26, 1991. We had been pushing north into Iraq for the past two days, leaving Saudi Arabia and the Neutral Zone over 200 kilometers behind us. We had bypassed Kuwait entirely and, to use the words of my operations sergeant, "driven a very sharp stick right up Saddam Hussein's ass." "We" were the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment from Fort Bliss, Texas. More specifically, the 3rd Squadron of that regiment. Comprised of about 150 combat vehicles and over 1,000 men, it was the most lethal armored force in existence.
I had the privilege of commanding I Troop within this squadron, or the "Nighthawks" as we called ourselves. The Nighthawks consisted of 155 soldiers, nine M1A1 Abrams tanks, twelve M3A2 Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicles, two self-propelled 4.2 inch mortars and all the support vehicles needed to keep them going. The Nighthawks had also led virtually every squadron operation since we landed at the port of Dhahran in September 1990. I pushed my goggles up onto my forehead and tried to wipe the grime from my eyes, succeeding only in adding another layer.
"How much fuel we got left, Milk?" I asked my driver.
Specialist Gerald Laudermilk replied, "About a quarter tank. We staying here tonight Paw?" Milk closely resembled Hoss from Bonanza. When I mentioned this, he took to calling me Paw in retaliation.
"Beats the hell out of me," I replied. "Don't count on it." "You've got the tank Mike," I told my gunner and hoisted myself out of the cupola.
As I vaulted off the tank, my knee painfully reminded me that the past eight years of doing that would surely make me a cripple. At age twenty-nine, I was practically a grandfather in the realm of armored warfare.
An M106 mortar carrier skidded across the crusty brown sand in front of
me, kicking up a two-story cloud of dust. Dirty, leering faces peered out
of the top from behind their M16 rifles and tinted goggles. The words
"Tube Snake Boogie" and an obscene caricature were emblazoned on the side of
"What's for chow?" queried a gargantuan infantryman from the top of the vehicle. Staff Sergeant John Kennedy commanded this mortar squad, all 280 pounds of him.
"Is that all you ever think about?" I asked.
"Lucky for you that I do boss," came the reply, along with a tin of T-Ration soyburgers sailing towards me.
"Much obliged Super K." I tossed the tin over to my tank crew, knowing that I would probably never see it again.
Approaching the radio track, I was greeted by the sight of a slight
individual in a flak vest shouting "I don't give a shit if we're only here
for two minutes! Put up that damn antenna before I kick your ass!" Sergeant
Charles Eubank, the operations sergeant, always got his point across in record
"What's the word Eubie?"
"Hey sir, what a cluster fuck coming up here, huh? Where were all those Iraqi infantry brigades the staff weenies told us about? All I saw was an old dog and a shot down fighter. There ain't been anybody out here since the Babylonians."
"Their intelligence estimates were a bit off weren't they?"
"About as off as my sex life."
"Where's the XO?"
"He's raising hell with the platoons, making sure they refuel and clean out their filters."
"Guidons, Guidons, this is Thunder X-Ray," squawked the radio. "All commanders report to this location ASAP. Acknowledge."
"Nighthawk, roger," replied Eubie. Then to me, "have a pleasant meeting sir."
"Screw you, Eubie."
"Tembrock, get your ass over here and drive the CO to his meeting!"
My driver, Private First Class James Tembrock, had saved my sanity throughout this wonderful sojourn in the Middle East. This twenty year old Californian had a sense of humor that would make Darth Vader double over with laughter. Despite the danger, he had insisted on remaining forward with his canvas covered Humvee rather than joining the combat trains at the rear of the squadron. I had picked Tembrock as my driver because he was quick on his feet and an independent operator. After several months in the Arabian desert, I found that I had gained a good friend as well.
The soldiers I saw on my way to the headquarters wore a hodgepodge of uniforms. Some were desert camouflage, others were night camouflage, here and there was a forest green camouflage, and the ever present sprinkling of Nomex fire retardant coveralls. Our wonderful laundry service had "lost" over half the uniforms we sent out for cleaning. Some soldiers did not have even one complete uniform remaining. To the great displeasure of the colonels and generals, they wore mixtures of forest green and desert colored uniforms. I myself wore half desert and half Nomex. It amazed me that an Army backed by such industrial might had trouble clothing its soldiers.
The squadron TOC (Tactical Operations Center) was a maelstrom
of activity. Half of the staff were erecting shelters,
while the other half were tearing down those already put up.
"I wonder what the Stick Man wants today," quipped Tembrock, referring to our squadron commander's dynamic physique.
"You'd better not let him hear you say that, or it will be Private Tembrock."
"If I say it twice, will he bust me to civilian and send me home?"
"I'll be first in line if that's the case."
I entered the TOC's canvass extension, dodging the onslaught
of couriers and staff officers. Some of my fellow troop
commanders were already present.
"Hi Bo, glad you could make it." The squadron commander's beanpole figure jutted out of the shadows. A smirk momentarily flitted across my face as I remembered Tembrock's comment.
"Wouldn't have missed this for the world sir," I replied.
Lieutenant Colonel John H. Daly Jr. was the scion of a five generation West Point aristocracy. His legacy ran from his father, a general officer, to his great-great-grandfather, a Civil War major general and Medal of Honor winner. As icing on the cake, he had married the daughter of General Creighton Abrams, after whom the Abrams tank had been named. Two of his brothers-in-law were generals. The general consensus throughout the squadron was that Daly held his position because of who he knew, not what he knew. At Daly's side was Major William Martin, the squadron operations officer and driving intellect behind the unit.
"Hey buddy," said a quiet voice and a hand clapped me on the
shoulder. Captain Rick Cortes, the K Troop commander, slid into
place next to me. Cortes was nothing short of a superb troop
commander. His unit was 100 percent reliable.
"How was the ride, Rico?"
"Pure bullshit," he chuckled.
"Yeah, about ten thousand square miles of sand. Looks like the intelligence boys were completely off the mark again. I didn't see a single one of those Russian anti-tank guns they were screaming about."
"Your attention please, gentlemen" said Major Martin as the last troop commander entered the extension. "We are in receipt of orders to assault an airfield located approximately 60 kilometers to our east. This is a total change to our previous plan and we unfortunately cannot issue you any graphic control measures due to time constraints. We will give you a series of checkpoints instead. In short, we will make a 90 degree turn to the east instead of proceeding north to the Euphrates River." Martin's pointer flew over the map board, punctuating each statement he made.
"Right Bill," interrupted Colonel Daly, inserting himself in front of the map. Martin rolled his eyes skyward and surrendered the pointer. "This is the real thing guys," continued Daly. "I have reliable information that there is a battalion of Iraqi Republican Guards at this airfield. They are dug in and protected by minefields, so this won't be a cakewalk. Expect very stiff resistance. We will use the diamond assault formation for our attack." An exasperated groan escaped from the rear of the extension. Not the infamous diamond again. Daly ignored it and went on. "Tank company will take the point, K Troop on the left, I Troop on the right and L Troop in the rear. Our attached artillery battalion will fire an 8 minute, 288 round prep on the objective. After we cross the 37 north-south grid line, we will be in enemy territory. Everything to our front will be hostile from that point on. We will turn and hit the airfield from the north seven kilometers later." Daly's pointer slapped the map at an arbitrary spot. Martin quickly adjusted it to the proper location. "Any questions?"
"Hooo-ah sir," shouted Captain Lee Offen, the L Troop Commander,
"we're finally going to kill something!"
"Hey Lee," countered Cortes, "if you're so ready to kill, why don't you get your ass up front and I'll guard the rear for awhile."
Muffled guffaws erupted from within the extension and radio tracks. Offen's face colored with embarrassment. His lips twitched, but he refrained from entering a verbal battle that he had already lost.
"If there are no more questions, we will begin moving at 2000 hours," concluded Martin.
I glanced at my watch. It was already 1915 hours and it would take me another 15 minutes to get back to my troop. I stepped behind the map board and climbed into the S-2 (Intelligence Section) track.
"Hi Paul, mind if I borrow your radio for a minute?"
Captain Paul Hovey was the squadron intelligence officer. An ex-Marine and former tank commander himself, he knew the importance of accurate information on the battlefield. Unfortunately, he was alone in this regard and fought a never ending battle with the regimental intelligence officers and their make-believe enemies.
"Help yourself Bo," he said, his bloodshot eyes peering over a mass of charts and maps. "Want a soda?"
"Damn straight, thanks."
He tossed me a red, white and blue can that had an Arabic squiggle where the word "Pepsi" should have been. I switched the radio to my troop frequency and grabbed the microphone.
"Black Five, this is Black Six."
The radio beeped as we both turned on our speech scramblers.
"Five here," repeated McClain.
"Warning order. Mission: assault airfield vicinity grid PU447520. Expect heavy resistance from enemy infantry battalion. Departure time 2000 hours. Diamond formation, Nighthawks at 3 o'clock position ..." I sped through the rest of the order. "How's the re-fueling going?"
"Three tanks to go."
"You take care of that Aaron, have Blue Leader form up the troop."
"Roger, I'll inform him."
"I monitored the transmission," interjected Blue Leader, Lieutenant Jon Negin.
"Roger," I replied, "any questions?"
Both replied negative.
"I'll see you in half an hour then. Black Six out."
"Does Negin run the troop in your absence?" asked Hovey.
"Only the tactical part. Aaron has his hands full with the rest."
"Negin is a good kid. The best scout platoon leader we have in the squadron. I wish I could send him ahead to reconnoiter the field."
"Didn't regiment tell you what's there?"
"They just said a battalion of Iraqis, but they can't even tell me where their positions are or what they're equipped with."
"That's funny, we have total air superiority and an entire squadron of helicopters. What are they waiting for?"
Hovey shrugged his shoulders.
"Who ordered the attack?" I asked. "We're making a 90 degree turn from our original direction."
"Colonel Starr did."
"Thanks for the radio Paul, I'd better get going."
"Good luck Bo, keep your head down."
Colonel Douglas H. Starr was the commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. A West Point graduate and highly decorated Vietnam veteran, he was very charismatic and just as impetuous. The soldiers joked that his short stature had given him a "Napoleon complex" and it was universally known that he loved fast cars and fast women. Over a month earlier, on January 22, Starr had commandeered Negin's platoon as it patrolled several miles from the Iraqi border. He ordered them across the border to attack an Iraqi infantry position. Negin's Bradleys decimated the thirty Iraqis and their bunker complex. Negin's platoon suffered only minor casualties, despite the heavy action. Staff Sergeant Steve Ruch's Bradley had sustained twelve hits from heavy caliber machine guns and light anti-tank weapons. The two scouts in the back of the vehicle were wounded by fragments of penetrating projectiles. Private First Class Kelly O'Con expertly drove the smoking track to safety, dodging hostile fire and saving the crew.
Ruch's wingman, Staff Sergeant Peter Baez became thoroughly enraged at the treatment of his partner. Jumping out of his vehicle with an M16, he charged the responsible enemy machine gun nest. His two scouts quickly joined him. Guns blazing, they terrified the Iraqi soldiers, who quickly threw down their weapons and raised their arms. Sergeant Bryan Hunt, the gunner on Baez's vehicle, sprayed a continuous stream of 25mm high explosive shells over Baez's head and into the remaining enemy positions. Hunt vividly recounted the spray of blood and flying limbs to me over a few beers a half year later.
Negin and his victorious scout platoon were instant heroes.
They had fought the regiment's first battle since World War Two.
The publicity shy lieutenant did not relish the attention and
remained silent about the entire affair. A helicopter immediately
snatched Colonel Starr from the scene and flew him to the corps
headquarters, where it was rumored that General Schwartzkopf himself
chewed him out for over an hour for blowing the entire Desert Storm
operation. The appearance of six high-tech Bradleys three hundred miles
west of where they should be had certainly tipped off Hussein that the main
attack would bypass Kuwait entirely. Fortunately for Starr and the coalition,
the Iraqis never made the connection. During the euphoria following the
attack, one of the sergeants muttered "Stupid idiot almost got us all killed."
"Who's that?" I asked.
"Starr!" came the snarled, succinct reply.
I exited the TOC and ran into Cortes heading for his Humvee.
"How about that diamond formation?" he said with a poker face, but with amusement twinkling in his eyes. "I wish we could send a few scout platoons ahead to confirm what's at that airfield."
"You're reading my mind Rick. With all our heavy firepower up front, we'd better hit the enemy dead on."
"The diamond is Daly's baby. He's been dying to go down in the history books as the inventor of a new tactical maneuver."
"Remember, Martin invented the diamond."
"But you know who will take the credit if it works."
"Of course. Good luck out there Rick."
"You too buddy."
He climbed into his Humvee and sped off. I jumped into mine and saw Tembrock poring over a Playboy magazine with huge, gaping eyes.
"Sir, check out this gorgeous picture. Miss January is coming down and this is going up in her place."
I looked over his shoulder and saw a beer advertisement, complete with a plate of juicy steak. "I'd take that over Miss Jan right now too," I mused, spurred on by my rumbling stomach.
I hadn't eaten in 24 hours and I wondered when I would have a chance to do so. The static hiss of the radio announced that the Nighthawks were already on the move. My watch proclaimed that it was 1945 hours. Damn! There was never enough time.
"Hurry up and get us back to the troop Jim. Departure time is in 15 minutes."
The torrential downpour started at 2200 hours. Standing
halfway out of my hatch, I was soaked to the bone within minutes,
despite my wet weather gear. The high velocity winds forced
water into every crevice of my clothing. Visions of the
geographical briefing we had received at Fort Bliss floated wetly
before me. I could have cheerfully choked the pencil-necked geek
who righteously proclaimed that "it only rains about an inch
every two years in the region you're going to." That chairborne
idiot must have had a defective ruler. It had rained almost
continuously for the past three days. Sometimes several inches of
water covered the impenetrable desert floor. The moisture added a
new dimension to the stench that already pervaded our bodies. The last
showers had been weeks ago. Only heaven knew what manner of vermin
infested our bodies now. The tank lurched to a stop and my ribs slammed
into the rim of the hatch yet another time.
"Shit!" I groaned.
"Sorry 'bout that Paw," came Milk's voice over the intercom.
Tanks could stop on a dime. Human bodies were not as fortunate.
The two hour move to the new front line was through tortuous terrain. I continuously prayed that we would not roll any vehicles. I had prayed a lot over the past few days, for a variety of reasons. I checked the coordinates on my GPS (Global Positioning System). This small box picked up satellite transmissions and displayed your location to the nearest three feet on its tiny LCD screen. It could also tell you how fast you were going, what direction you were heading and how far it was to the next checkpoint. The GPS was a life saver, since we had very few maps and the flat terrain made it impossible to navigate by sight. A compass was totally useless on a tank. The armor plating made the needle spin in a circle. Our infantry generals had never quite grasped this dilemma and constantly berated us for not using them. My loader, Specialist Chris Hardman, tapped me on the shoulder. "Black Sabbath or the Scorpions," he proclaimed, holding a cassette in each black-gloved hand. I indicated the Scorpions and he placed it in the walkman. Music flowed out of our helmet headphones. Hardman had rigged the system so that any radio or intercom transmission would automatically cut off the music. Good old American ingenuity.
I motioned Hardman towards me and went over the checkpoints
with him. Chris looked, talked and acted like Bart Simpson, so
that's what we called him. His "rad" California attitude belied
a razor sharp intelligence and swift comprehension rate. Bart
was responsible for navigating the tank when I became embroiled
in tactical operations. He was thoroughly familiar with the GPS
and armored tactical principles. In a pinch, he could even relay my
commands to the troop for a few minutes while I was otherwise
occupied. Bart nodded his head at each checkpoint and then slipped
the night vision goggles over his face.
"How far can you see Bart?"
"Barely fifty meters. Too many clouds."
The weather briefing had indicated 96 percent illumination from the moon tonight. Too bad the meteorologist didn't take mother nature's clouds into account.
"Just keep us from running into another tank or a ravine," I urged him.
"For sure, sir."
"How are the thermals?" I asked my gunner, Sergeant Mike Harrison. Harrison gazed up at me from the bowels of the steel behemoth and raised up a thumb. Pictures of Miss February, Christy Thom, glowed softly in the green light around his station. She had become the tank's mascot over the past few weeks. Harrison was the antithesis to Milk and Bart. We all joked that he wouldn't crack a smile even if he was getting laid. He was also the best damn gunner in the troop. He could cut a broom stick in half at 1000 meters with the 120mm cannon. His stoic manner kept the effusive loader and driver in check, ensuring that the vehicle was always combat ready. This was Harrison's tank. I just rode on it.
I dropped down into the tank and squinted into the sight extension. Varying shades of green thermal images swam into sharp focus before me. The thermal sight constructed a picture based on the different temperatures of objects. It needed no light whatsoever to function. The only problem was that it possessed almost no depth perception or color differentiation. People and vehicles glowed bright green and were highly visible from several miles away. I could see the tank company about 2,000 meters to my left front, its vehicles shooting rooster tails of heated mud fifteen feet into the air. I briefly scanned the control panel to make sure the gun safety was on. It was a needless measure. Harrison took care of it flawlessly.
The tank halted suddenly, punishing my forehead this time. I rose out of the hatch as an inferno unleashed around me. A 155mm self-propelled artillery piece to our left belched fire into the pitch black eastern heavens. Others in the distance began shooting also. A quick glance at the GPS told me we were 2 kilometers from the front line. The tank company must be right on it. The howitzers continued to send death eastward for the next eight minutes. Almost three hundred 155mm high explosive shells hurtled towards the airfield. That was enough fire power to destroy an entire city block. I hoped it would take care of most of the Iraqi battalion. The silence that followed was deafening. The diamond began moving again.
The grim faces of the cavalrymen on the front line surfaced momentarily from the gloom as we slid past them into enemy territory. I reported crossing the line to my executive officer and he relayed the report to the squadron. I cursed the mental midget who had designed command tanks with only one transmitter. You could hear both the squadron and troop frequencies, but only talk on one of them. Army doctrine required that I remain on the troop frequency and control my unit, while the radio track communicated with the squadron. McClain and Eubank were very well trained in this mission and handled it perfectly. Daly had even told the entire squadron that I Troop had achieved the communications standard the other units should strive to meet. Still, I was uncomfortable being able to transmit on only one frequency. "Keep your weapons on safe and your eyes wide open," I transmitted to my troop. "Good luck, gents."
The tank company was drifting north. Daly and Martin exhorted them to get back on track, but they inexplicably continued to drift. The rest of the squadron was tied in to them so we also drifted. As we neared the airfield, my troop was about even with where the center of the squadron should have been. I strained my eyes, but saw only murky darkness. Bart and Harrison could do no better with their goggles and thermals. "I've got a tower and fence to my right!" hissed the radio. Lieutenant Mel Wilson, my "Red" Scout Platoon Leader, had spotted the airfield! I closed my hatch over me and directed Bart to do the same. Peering out of the "protected open" slit that remained, I took the Beretta out of my shoulder holster, pulled back the charging handle and slid the gun back into place. It was 0100 hours.
I had McClain request permission from Daly to enter the field. Granted! I directed Lieutenant John Drake to take his "White" Tank Platoon in. Sparks flew as Drake's tanks smashed through the perimeter fence, entering the airfield from the north. Still no sign of enemy movement. They must be in fox holes. The Republican Guards were not amateurs. They were surely aware of how to hide from our thermals. Wilson's platoon followed "White" through the gaping holes in the fence. "Red and White, secure the tower and hangars," I ordered as I entered the field myself. The two platoons swung west and surrounded the buildings. The scouts began methodically clearing them.
"Milk, face the tank east so we can cover the exposed flank until the other
two platoons get here."
The tank pivoted left ninety degrees.
"I see dismounts ... 1,200 meters," said Harrison over the intercom.
"Two...no, three. Moving away from us."
I dropped down to my sight extension and saw three tiny green figures glowing brightly. The laser range finder flashed from 1220 to 1230. They were indeed moving away from us.
"Black Five, this is Black Six. Spotted three dismounts moving southeast at grid 445505. Maintaining contact. Relay that higher and request guidance."
"Roger six," said Eubie's voice answering for McClain, "don't even think about going after them until you get some backup."
"Roger. Blue, get a section up here ASAP."
"Bravo Section is on the way," replied Negin.
Ruch and Baez were enroute to join me.
"Black Six, this is Red One," said Wilson several minutes
later. "No sign of enemy in the hangars or tower."
"Roger. Assume defensive positions and secure all the buildings. White, back him up."
Both platoon leaders confirmed my orders.
"Nighthawk Six, this is Thunder Six," squawked Daly's voice, "switch to my frequency immediately."
"Black Five, kindly inform Thunder Six that if I drop off my troop frequency, I will lose control of my unit. Please remind him that this would not be a smart move right now."
Daly's calls became more insistent.
"Bart, switch to squadron freq."
The tank and Bravo Section continued to lumber forward.
"Thunder Six, this is Nighthawk Six."
"What's going on there?" said Daly.
I repeated what McClain had told him one minute earlier.
"OK, stay on my frequency."
"That's impossible. As you know, these vehicles have only one transmitter. I have a unit that I need to control."
"Well, think of something. Thunder Six out."
"Bart, switch back to troop freq... and start eating some transistors so we can shit another radio for the squadron commander."
"They've stopped," said Harrison.
Ruch confirmed this over the radio. "Looks like they're entering a building"
"Roger," I replied, "close to 200 meters and hold. Blue, status report."
"About 1,000 meters behind you," said Negin, "ETA 5 minutes."
The rest of "Blue" platoon would be here soon. That made me feel somewhat better. Bravo section halted and intently scanned their surroundings. Thank God for Ruch and Baez. At least there were two proven combat vets up front. They would not lose their heads. I cracked open the hatch and placed the GPS on top of the tank. Its built in antenna could not receive satellite transmissions through the tank's armor. There were external antennas in the regiment, but the staff officers in the rear had grabbed them all as symbols of prestige. The combat troops, who really needed them, had to fend for themselves. I looked into the thermals again and saw figures entering and exiting a square dwelling. They were so large at 10 power that they almost filled the sight. They were helmetless and did not appear to carry any weapons.
"Black Five, this is Black Six. Ask Thunder Six for permission to fire warning
shots. I'd like to see if we can get these guys to surrender."
Daly replied to McClain's query. "This is Thunder Six...wait one." .... pause .... "This is Thunder Six, permission granted."
"OK Mike, point the coax 45 degrees left and fire into the air," I said, checking that direction to confirm there was nothing there.
"On the way," said Harrison.
The staccato of the coaxial machine gun ripped into the night, sending a glowing line of tracers through the sky. The enemy dropped to the ground and crawled to protected positions. Not a single one made any sign of wanting to surrender. Probably too scared at first. I'd give them another few minutes.
"They're shooting at us," stated a calm voice over the radio, in contrast to
the tense situation.
"I see tracers over the Brads," confirmed Milk.
Harrison switched the sight to 3 power and I could see green dots arcing over Bravo Section.
"Bravo, this is Black Six. Return fire, suppression only. Black Five, report our situation to higher."
Twenty-five millimeter high explosive rounds began exploding against the side building. McClain's voice began to relay what had transpired over the squadron net. Daly immediately broke in and directed me to switch to the squadron frequency.
"Black five, please explain to Thunder Six why that is impossible. Tell him
I can hear every word he is saying."
To Harrison, "Squeeze off twenty coax rounds Mike, don't kill anybody, just scare them."
To Bravo Section, "Cease fire Bravo, these guys aren't going anywhere."
Daly's powerful transmitter drowned out the rest of the transmissions as he continued calling for me to switch to his frequency.
"Bart, turn off the squadron net."
"With pleasure, sir."
"Cease fire, cease fire, cease fire," I called out over the
troop frequency. "All elements acknowledge. Anybody take any
The platoons checked in one by one, acknowledging the cease fire. Thankfully, nobody had been hit.
"Put all your weapons back on safe. These guys are probably scared to death. I want to give them a chance to surrender. Don't shoot unless they start using anti-tank weapons."
I faced Bart, "Turn on the squadron net again."
I prepared for another verbal joust with Colonel Daly.
Sergeant First Class Bobby Martin perched on his seat under his "protected open" tank hatch. He was the platoon sergeant for the "Green" tank platoon. An avid biker with "Zig Zag Man" tattooed across his chest, Bobby was a hard core veteran of sixteen years on tanks. What few people knew, is that he had also been one of my tank commanders when I was a brand new lieutenant eight years earlier. The man was a bottomless pit of knowledge and experience. A loud crash rocked his tank, tossing him down into the gunner's position and tilting the vehicle at an awkward angle.
Temporarily dazed, Bobby focused his eyes and found himself
looking up at his seat. His gunner squirmed helplessly below
"What the fuck was that?!?"
No answer. He realized that his helmet had become disconnected. A piercing pain shot through his left knee as he pulled himself up again. He touched it and felt the warm, sticky ooze of blood. One of the pins from his numerous motorcycle accidents had become dislodged. He plugged in his helmet again.
"We get hit sarge?" asked his loader.
"I don't think so, nothing's burning and they'd have finished us off by now."
"I think we hit a mine or a ditch," said the driver.
"Put it in gear and see if you can get us out of here."
The tracks groaned horribly and the entire hull began to shudder.
"No way sarge," said the driver. "I think both the idler arms are crushed."
"Green Three, this is Green Four," called Martin to his wingman, Sergeant Rafael Fernandez. "Hold up. I've got to jump to your vehicle."
"Roger, we're holding," replied Fernandez.
Martin unholstered his Beretta and hauled himself out of his
tank, struggling to keep from sliding down the canted armor and
into the ditch. Greatly favoring his good leg, he limped towards
Green Three. Fernandez reached down and helped pull Martin
"What happened to your leg?" he asked. "You want me to call a medic?"
"No. Damn pin from my bike accident came loose. I'll be OK. Which one of you is getting off?"
Fernandez indicated his gunner, Corporal Dan Sabia.
"This is bullshit!" countered Sabia. "You guys break it and I get to baby-sit it."
"Take good care of my tank Danny," said Martin. "Don't take too much of my stuff."
Martin was universally known for his well stocked provisions. His platoon never went hungry.
"You bet," smiled Sabia and disappeared into the gloom, tanker's bag over his shoulder and pistol in his hand.
Green Three sped forward, trying to catch up to its platoon,
which was behind "Blue" Platoon. In the thermal sight, Martin
saw a picture that chilled his blood. An Iraqi BTR60 infantry
carrier was moving towards the troop from the east. Shadowy
figures of other vehicles moved behind it. A counterattack!
"Laze to that BTR and arm the gun," he told his gunner. He then called his platoon leader, Lieutenant Bill Martinez. "Green One, this is Green Four."
"Go ahead Four."
"We've got a possible enemy counterattack on our left flank. Suggest you orient your elements that way."
"Roger, don't shoot unless you have a positive ID."
"Don't worry, we won't."
Before Martinez could call me, he and Sergeant Martin had
determined that this was not an enemy attack, but Colonel Daly
with his command group. Part of his group was a German-built
reconnaissance vehicle that looked almost exactly like a BTR60.
"Black Six, Green One."
"Go ahead Green."
"We've got six friendly vehicles approaching from the east. I say again, six friendlies from the east at a high rate of speed. Do not fire them up. Appears to be the command group."
"Roger Green One. All elements acknowledge Green's transmission. Black Five, see if you can find out what the hell is going on."
"Its Thunder Six," confirmed McClain.
The squadron commander and his entourage had almost become worm bait. They had disregarded the critical rule of informing a combat unit of their intentions before approaching it. They now moved in positions between "Blue" Platoon's vehicles, making it impossible to determine who was where anymore. The veins in my temple throbbed. I might expect a brand new lieutenant to rush up onto the flank of a unit in contact, but a lieutenant colonel should have known better.
The enemy structure burned brightly, having been set ablaze
by Bravo's high explosive rounds. Something inside the building
exploded at irregular intervals. The enemy was crawling away
from the blaze, but still gave no indication that they were going
"Nighthawk Six, this is Thunder Six."
"This is Nighthawk Five," answered McClain.
"Have your commander dismount his scouts and sweep the objective."
"Roger, I'll tell him."
"I heard him Black Five," I replied. "Relay to him that I strongly recommend against it. I can get only ten guys on the ground. That's not good enough against six confirmed, dug in enemy and several hundred more possibly around here in foxholes. That's what I'd be waiting for us to do if I were the enemy commander. Our guys will be dead before they get ten feet from the tracks."
Daly kept insisting that our scouts leave their vehicles.
Before I could answer again, Harrison slapped my leg, indicating
that I should look through the sight. I saw two figures approaching
Bravo Section from the east. It looked like they had worked their
way towards us from the blazing building. One of them carried a satchel
of some sort.
"Coax, Mike! Laze, but don't shoot yet." "Blue Five, this is Black Six. You've got possible enemy dismounts approaching you from your left. Be alert."
"Roger," replied Staff Sergeant Ruch.
I watched Harrison track the two figures with the coaxial machine gun. One of them turned to look at us and ... the hair on the back of my neck stood on end! He was wearing an American Kevlar helmet! I reached over Harrison's shoulder and flipped the safety switch on.
"Hold fire, hold fire," I shouted over the radio. "Blue Five, those are friendly dismounts. Find out who the hell they are. All Nighthawk elements, I want to know who dismounted people from his vehicle."
Each platoon reported back negative.
Ruch came back on the air and said, "Its an infantry captain. He's from
Thunder Six's track and he's ordering us to dismount."
"Countermand that order until we know what's going on, and remind that grunt captain that I'm the one in command of this unit, not him."
"Black Five, kindly inform Thunder Six that we almost blew away his emissaries and ask him to notify us next time he puts people on the ground in the middle of a fire fight."
"Roger," replied McClain.
A loud Arabic voice startled me. A Humvee from psychological operations unit pulled into our position. Its loudspeaker broadcast surrender ultimatums in Arabic towards the enemy.
"It's too late," radioed Ruch, "we've already got guys on the ground."
Dammit! "Get out there Steve, and keep them away from that burning building."
Harrison slapped my leg again and I looked into the sight.
One of the enemy figures was moving forward! He rushed over to
one of his comrades, hoisted him to his feet and began carrying
him to safety. Daly's voice erupted over the squadron
"He's getting away! He's getting away!"
A split second later, a machine gun chattered and the figure staggered. My stomach knotted painfully as I saw the burning, green slugs rip through his glowing body. Bright green blood and pieces of hot green flesh sprayed out behind him as he sank to his knees. A second burst finished the job. Who the hell had violated my cease fire orders!
"Cease fire! Cease fire! Cease fire dammit!" I yelled into my helmet
microphone. "I want to know who the hell shot that guy...immediately.
All elements acknowledge."
Negative reports flowed in.
"I saw who did it," blurted a nameless voice over the troop frequency. "It came from Thunder Six's track."
"Son-of-a-bitch shot the poor guy in cold blood!" cried another voice through the static.
"Keep that bastard away from us before I kill him myself!" exclaimed a third.
I could hear the roar of my heart pounding in my head. "Clear the net!" I ordered. "Everybody shut up unless you have a valid report!"
"I've got one," reported Baez. "We've got a couple of American soldiers on the ground here from 1st Armored Division."
"Clarify that," I replied. "Did we liberate prisoners?"
"Negative," said Baez.
"What the hell do you mean negative?"
"I mean that there are no Iraqis here! We've been attacking our own people! They occupied this field over twelve hours ago!"
I felt a giant, phantom fist smash into my forehead. My universe shattered into a million fragments. Its bad enough to be forced to kill people, but to attack your own countrymen!?! Those bastards! How dare they set us against our brothers! An overwhelming rage swept over me and I fought to control it. "What are the casualties, Pete," I called to Baez.
"One dead, one wounded."
"How badly wounded?"
"Leg wound. It hurts but he'll be OK."
"Black Five, Black Six. Call for a dust off chopper. Pete, get everybody back from that building."
An instant later, an enormous orange fireball lit up the
sky. The building seemed to lift off the ground and spew forth
hellish, yellow flames. I could see bodies flying through the
air as though they were in an episode of MacGyver. Six of my
scouts were on the ground there! The concussion rocked my tank a
few seconds later and smoking debris rained down upon us. A wave
of hot air rushed into the tank through the slit in my hatch.
"Holy shit!" exclaimed Bart. "That must have been a big one. We're over 100 meters away."
"They're all down!" cried Harrison. "They're all fucking dead!"
I was too stunned to comment. I just looked into the sight at the flaming wreckage. One of the figures stirred! Then another! More of them began to rise and gingerly examine themselves.
"Medic track is on the way," said McClain over the troop net. Thank you God for my efficient XO!
"This is Blue Six," came Baez's voice. "No casualties! I say again, no casualties! How's that for luck?"
"Its the first good luck we've had all night," I replied.
A miserable, smoky gray dawn broke over the desolate airfield. The burning Rumaila oil fields to the south were wreaking havoc with the atmosphere. A Blackhawk helicopter evacuated the body of Corporal Douglas "Lance" Fielder to the regimental aid station. The pilot had first refused to evacuate the wounded Sergeant Napier, until McClain had changed his mind by placing his hand on the butt of his pistol. Steve Ruch sat alongside my vehicle for over an hour, his face buried in his hands, muttering "those bastards" over and over again.
Our "enemy" had been a squad of combat engineers from the 1st Armored Division. The "building" had been their broken down ammunition carrier, filled with demolition charges. They had been waiting for someone from their unit to recover it. The 1st Armored Division had passed through the airfield on the previous day. How could such a colossal screw up have occurred? We asked the engineers why they didn't leave when the artillery hit the field. Their lieutenant stated that they had neither seen nor heard any artillery. Where had the artillery shells landed? The explosions would have been audible for at least ten miles, so the shells had landed in a totally different area. What was going on here? I looked around and saw no sign that there had ever been any Iraqis at the field, much less a battalion. Every pane of glass in the tower was still intact. If Iraqis had been here, the six weeks of U.S. air strikes would surely have broken a few of those. I felt thoroughly betrayed. Had our superiors lied to us or misled us? Why?
Lieutenant Colonel John H. Daly Jr. walked up to my tank. "I need to talk to you Bo," he said. I jumped down from the turret, my knee almost collapsing again. Daly took me aside and said in a low voice, "We have to keep this under our hats. Do you understand Bo?" I nodded my affirmation, wondering what the hell he was talking about. Another Blackhawk touched down not far from us. Two figures in Kevlar helmets and load harnesses jumped out. Incongruously, one of them carried a briefcase. He walked towards us and said, "Good morning gentlemen. I'm Captain Jaquot from the Judge Advocate General's Office. Colonel Starr sent me to conduct an investigation on the fratricide committed here last night."
I sat on the curb of a parking lot next to Rick Cortes in Jubail, Saudi Arabia. We had exchanged our helmets for floppy hats, washed our vehicles and loaded them aboard the transport ships. On the return trip from Iraq, I had witnessed soldiers in a supply depot burning thousands of brand new desert uniforms. Anger welled up inside me as I thought about how many of us had gone without proper uniforms for months. It was all irrelevant now. We were waiting for the buses to take our two troops to the Dhahran airport. We would be one of the first units going home. My elation was dampened by the sight of Lance Fielder's dead body still fresh in my mind. I knew that I would carry it with me for many years to come.
"Tell me something Rick."
"You got it."
"That night we hit the Umm Hajul airfield...what were you guys doing while we were shooting at each other?"
"Not a damn thing."
"You mean Daly just had you halt in place?"
"Not even that. He just forgot about us for three or four hours."
I was incredulous. I could not believe Daly had neglected three quarters of his squadron in the middle of a combat zone. "He just blew you off and left you there? What would have happened if there really had been an Iraqi counterattack?"
"Who knows" said Cortes, nonplused, "we had no clue what was going on."
"One more thing Rick. When did you find out that we killed one of our own there?"
"About a week after it happened."
"Did Daly tell you?"
"No, I heard it through the grapevine."
"Bye honey, I'm leaving for work," called my wife from
downstairs. "Do you want to meet for lunch somewhere?"
"Sure, how about Adolph's?"
"OK, see you there at twelve thirty."
The door slammed shut, leaving me alone in my El Paso, Texas apartment. I glimpsed out the window and saw Virginia's car drive off. Time to get to work.
The day I had arrived home from the gulf, the wives of three different friends told me all about Virginia's escapades while I had been gone. Refusing to believe them, I did some detective work on my own. I quickly discovered that my entire life savings I had brought into the marriage was gone. There was a $10,000 debt in its place. Every paycheck I'd earned in blood in the gulf had been spent in its entirety. I soon uncovered trips to Acapulco, Mazatlan, Cancun and Puerto Vallarta. There were forged credit cards and signature loans in my name. She'd had at least four different boyfriends.
The final straw was when Eubie's wife presented me with some
telephone recordings. "I knew Virginia would deny everything, so
I made these," she said.
Virginia's voice issued forth from the tiny recorder.
"Yeah, I took out over a million dollars of life insurance on him. I can't wait for him to get blown away. Then me and Edmundo can get a beach house in Cancun."
"Who's Edmundo," came the voice of Mrs. Eubank. "I thought you were seeing Carlos."
"Carlos was last week. Edmundo makes a lot more money."
About fifty percent of the married soldiers in the squadron
shared my fate. There was no middle ground. Half the wives had
been absolute saints. The other half had been absolute sluts,
and the queen slut amongst them had been my Virginia. I walked out
the back door and waved to two men sitting in a U-Haul truck.
"She's gone," I told them. I held up a hundred dollar bill. "This is yours if you clear the place out by eleven."
"No problem seń," said the larger of the two."
The place was empty by ten thirty, except for what Virginia had owned before we met, a set of cheap, velvet pictures.
"Here's an extra twenty for your effort," I told the workers. "You know where to drop it off."
"Right my man, the self-storage place."
I tossed the divorce summons on the carpet in front of the door on my way out. "Hasta la vista, bitch."
Rick Cortes and I stood in the reviewing stand on the Fort Bliss parade field. Both of us had just relinquished our troops to eager young staff captains, who would now improve upon our deeds. We watched our former units march by under the direction of their new commanders, a bittersweet experience. My world was slowly coalescing from the ugly mess it had become over the past year. My fluency in German and Dutch had won me an appointment as a Foreign Area Officer. No more tanks and endless field exercises in environmental extremes. It would be embassy duty from now on. As an additional boon, the Army was paying for me to get a master's degree and then sending me to learn French at the Defense Language Institute. I was looking forward to eighteen months of college life with captain's pay. The culmination of all this training would be a two year tour of duty in Brussels, Belgium. I had worked very hard for this assignment since my graduation from West Point. The next four years were going to be much better than the previous eight.
I drove back to my house to start my one month vacation. A stack of mail greeted me as I opened the door. The "Department of the Army" return address on one of the letters caught my eye. My new orders! I hastily ripped open the envelope. Yes, it was from the foreign area office! I rapidly scanned the contents.
"We regret to inform you that your previous selection as a foreign area officer has been canceled. You are cur- rently a promotion risk and, as such, not eligible for the program. You will be returned to your basic branch for reassignment."
This was impossible! Promotion risk? Bullshit! I'd had
excellent evaluations throughout my career and was one of the few
combat veterans in my year group. I'd even won the Bronze Star
in the gulf. Didn't that count for anything? There must be some
mistake. I dialed Lieutenant Colonel Daly's telephone number.
Maybe he could pull in some of his high powered clout to find out
what was going on.
"Hello sir, Captain Friesen here. I just received a letter from DA canceling my FAO appointment. It stated that I have become a promotion risk. Do you know anything about this, sir?"
"I uh ... well, no Bo. This is a surprise to me."
"Is there anything you can do to help me out with this, sir?
"Let me make some inquiries. Stop by my office tomorrow morning and we'll see what we can do."
"Thank you sir, I appreciate this."
I sat in Daly's office at 9 a.m. the next morning. Beads of sweat
glistened from the pores in his forehead as he pushed his glasses
back onto the bridge of his nose.
"Well Bo, it seems that Colonel Starr gave you a below average evaluation."
"When was this, sir?"
"Quite recently, I believe. Just before he departed last month, when Colonel Ivany took over the regiment."
"Do you know for what reason?"
"Uh...no, probably just a personality conflict."
"Personality conflict?! Could you talk to him about it, sir?"
"I don't know....probably wouldn't do much good. Have you considered civilian employment?"
"What do you mean, sir? Its not that bad is it?"
"Listen to me Bo. Things don't always go as we want them to. My father, for instance, only made it to brigadier general. Sometimes you have to do what's best for the Army and not just what's best for yourself."
"I don't believe I'm hearing this, sir. Are you saying I
should just roll over and let Colonel Starr do this to me? How
could that possibly be best for the Army? I'll go to Congress
first. I'm definitely appealing his evaluation."
"Now...now...now don't be rash Bo," said Daly, droplets appearing on his forehead again. "Its best if you just let sleeping dogs lie. You're a very bright person. I'm sure you could find a very rewarding career in the civilian sector."
"The Army is my career, sir. I've put twelve years into it and I don't intend to lose it over an evaluation from one person who has seen me in action for a total of ten minutes. Colonel Starr was totally unaware of what went on in the units. He virtually never visited them."
"Bo, I'll tell you one last time. Don't make an issue of this. It wouldn't be smart."
"Thanks for all your help sir," I spat back as I exited Daly's office.
I was on the Umm Hajul airfield again, but something was out of place. The sky wasn't dark, it was blood red, and I lay on the sandy ground instead of being in my tank. Suddenly powerful hands grabbed me from behind and lifted me to my feet. I struggled, but the unknown person held me firmly in his grip. A sound like ripping paper rent the air and I felt myself sailing back to the ground. I landed heavily on my stomach and rolled over...just in time to see Lance Fielder on his knees next to me. His eyes were wide open and his lips framed the words "Oh my God."
The ripping sound repeated and Lance's chest erupted with several small holes. He clutched ineffectually at his flak jacket and fell forward. A pool of blood began oozing towards me in the sand. Hearing a roaring noise, I looked up and saw a Bradley racing towards me. Smoke belched from its exhaust fan and red fingers of death licked out at me from its coaxial machine gun. It was almost on top of me. I could just make out its tactical designation ... THUNDER SIX! Nooooooooo! A loud ringing assailed my ears....
....the telephone on my night stand virtually exploded with
noise. I groped for the receiver, knocking over a half empty
glass of Jim Beam. My head throbbed painfully and the room was
still a bit out of focus. Where the hell was I? What time was
it? I managed to get the receiver to my ear.
"Is this Captain Friesen?"
"What do you want?"
"I have some information I think you'll find very interesting."
"Who the hell is this?"
"I can't tell you that, but I work at the regimental headquarters. A lot of people are really pissed off about what happened to you. We think you got a raw deal."
"Yeah, so do I, but there's not much I can do about it. How do you know about what happened to me?" My brain screamed in protest.
"I heard Colonel Starr and Lieutenant Colonel Daly talking last month, just before Starr left for the Pentagon."
I was instantly awake. "I'm listening."
"Starr was telling Daly that they had to find a fall guy for the Umm Hajul airfield incident, or they would both be through. Daly seemed real nervous."
"What else did they say?"
"Starr told Daly that you would be the perfect guy to take the rap, since it was your troop on the airfield. Daly agreed with him and Starr said he would take care of it."
"Take care of it ... how?"
"Starr said something about an evaluation that would satisfy some general that your career was over."
"Son of a bitch! You're serious, aren't you?"
"Absolutely. I'm sorry I couldn't tell you more. Look sir, I hope that things work out for you."
"Thanks. Look, let me buy you a beer or something. I promise that I won't tell anybody who you are."
"Thanks for the offer, but I've got a family and I'm only a few years away from retirement. I don't need any problems. Good luck ...." Click!
My temporarily relieved headache returned with a vengeance. So, Starr and Daly in a conspiracy. Fall guy. Both of them were fellow West Pointers. It was a bitter pill to swallow and I didn't have a shred of proof against them. I needed time to figure something out. Most of all, I needed a powerful ally somewhere.
I sat in the living room sharing a German Weizenbier with my father, who had recently returned from an extended vacation in Europe. I was no longer a member of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. My branch had told me they didn't care where I went, so I found a nondescript office job at the Fort Bliss headquarters. My position title was "reassignable overstrength." It was the perfect epitaph to my murdered career. I intended to resign from the Army as soon as all of the debts my ex-wife had incurred were paid off.
The people I worked for were a decent lot. They were mostly
air defense artillery officers who neither knew nor cared about
my predicament. That suited me just fine.
"You know," drawled my father in his thick Rhineland accent, "the pieces are all falling into place."
"What they did to you reminds me exactly of what the Nazis would have done to cover their tracks. Except instead of killing you, they only killed your career."
"They certainly did that. I've got to take some kind of action."
"Do you have enough evidence yet?"
"Quite a bit more than I started out with, but almost everyone is too scared to open their mouth."
"Of course they are. They all saw what happened to you."
The telephone interrupted our discourse.
"Is this Captain Bo Friesen's residence?"
"That depends. Who are you?"
"My name is Bart Gellman. I'm a staff writer for the Washington Post." I motioned for my father to get on the other telephone.
"How can you prove that?"
"I don't know," he chuckled, "what do you suggest."
My mind raced. "There was a Post photographer with the 3rd Armored Cavalry during Desert Storm. What was his name?"
"That would be Lucian Perkins." Bingo!
"This is Bo Friesen Mr. Gellman, how can I help you?"
"Would you be willing to talk about the Umm Hajul airfield incident?"
"Possibly, but I don't want to be the butt of some press slander campaign."
"That's not at all what I had in mind. Were you aware that the Army lied to Lance Fielder's family about the circumstances of his death?"
"No, I haven't heard anything about the incident since an army lawyer concluded the investigation."
"Well, the Army told the Fielders that Lance had been killed by Iraqis. They didn't find out the truth until some months later, when a soldier from Lance's unit called them. Do you have access to the findings of the investigation?"
"No. They promised me that I would get a copy, but I never did."
"I have one here in front of me." My interest perked up considerably. "I obtained it through the Freedom of Information Act. Let me read some of it to you."
I glanced at my father as Bart read from the report. He winked and nodded at me. We had found the ally we were looking for.
"What would you like to know Bart?" I said when he finished. "I'll help you any way I can."
I walked into my office an hour late on the following Monday
morning, confident that nobody would notice. There were some
advantages to being "reassignable overstrength."
"Where the hell have you been Captain? exclaimed my boss.
"We've been looking for you everywhere!"
They obviously had not tried my house, I mused to myself.
"The General wants to see you! Get up to the Chief of Staff's office right now!
"Right away, sir."
I headed for the elevator. The Deputy Chief of Staff stopped me as I exited the elevator on the top floor. I was now on sacred ground.
"Get into my office, Captain!"
I must be in deep shit. They were all addressing me by my rank. At least I was being seen by one of the cardinals instead of the pope himself.
"Sit down. What do you know about this?" said the Deputy, tossing a newspaper at me.
I glanced down and saw my picture on the front page of the Washington Post's Sunday edition. The headline read "Friendly Fire: Captain Friesen, the leader of the armored formation called a cease-fire on the troop radio net from his tank before Fielder was killed."
"Not much sir. I spoke with Mr. Gellman briefly on Friday evening."
"You did what!?! Why didn't you clear that through the Public Affairs Office?"
"I was speaking as a private citizen sir. None of the material I revealed was confidential."
"What you did was irresponsible and casts an unfavorable light on the Army, not to mention this headquarters!"
"Sir, I have no ax to grind with the Army or this headquarters. I was treated unjustly by my previous unit however, and I feel I have the right to speak out about that."
The Deputy's eyes gleamed with fire, but he relaxed and leaned back in his chair. "Friendly fire occurs in every war." I noticed he didn't have a combat patch on his right shoulder. How would he know? "What happened wasn't your fault, Bo." He used my first name, a new tactic. What was he going after? "Rehashing this won't bring that kid back to life. Sometimes its better to let sleeping dogs lie."
Who was this guy? Daly's brother? I nodded obediently to him for the next ten minutes and then left his office, wondering if I'd placated the high command. The mood in my office was quiet when I returned. The useless mound of paperwork on my desk beckoned to me. I sat down and dived in with mock enthusiasm. "Hey sir," whispered the Master Sergeant at the desk next to mine. "Way to go!" He winked and held up a facsimile of the Washington Post article. "I'm glad that somebody around here has some balls."Bart Gellman called several days later and told me that Lance Fielder's mother, Debbie Shelton, had wanted to get in touch with me. I felt uneasy, but gave him permission to release my telephone number to her. I sat nervously at home until the phone rang.
"Can you tell me how he died? I've read all the reports,
but I'd like to hear it from someone who was there. Did you see
"Yes, I did," I choked back the tears. "It was very fast. I don't think he suffered. He was helping another soldier to safety when a machine gun burst hit him."
"Was he shooting at you?"
"No, he didn't even have a weapon in his hand."
"Was it Lieutenant Colonel Daly's vehicle that killed him?"
"I'm afraid so."
"Then it was in cold blood, even if they had been Iraqis?"
I could think of no kind way to phrase it. "Yes, it was."
"Oh my God."
"I know this is of small comfort Debbie, but Lance was the bravest person out there on that airfield."
"What do you mean."
"Well...we were all sitting in our tanks, behind four feet of steel. Lance's fellow engineers were all dug in. Lance was the only one with enough courage to expose himself. He did it to try to save one of his comrades. Considering the large force of tanks they were facing, Lance acted with great valor."
"That is of very great comfort. Thank you, Bo."
I could not frame a reply.
"Would you mind if I called again some time?" asked Mrs. Shelton.
"Please feel free any time. If there is anything at all I can do to help, please let me know. I mean that."
"Thank you, good bye."
I replaced the receiver and took a beer out of the refrigerator. I felt as though a massive weight had been lifted from my shoulders. No, I was not responsible for Lance Fielder's death. Daly and Starr were. I did however, feel a strong obligation to his family. I silently vowed to help them in any way I could.
"Telephone, Captain F," called out the secretary.
"Thanks Lisa. Captain Friesen here."
"Sir, this is Lieutenant Morris. I'm the aide-de-camp to Brigadier General Halley, the 18th Airborne Corps Artillery Commander. The General is conducting an investigation into the Umm Hajul airfield fratricide. He requests your presence at the Chaparral House in Fort Bliss at 0830 hours on 7 November. Will that be all right with you, sir?"
"Requests" my ass, it was a direct order. "Please inform the General that I would be happy to meet him at that time, Lieutenant."
"Thank you, sir. Airborne!" The line went dead.
This piqued my curiosity. I immediately headed for the installation protocol office. They would know about all generals entering or leaving the area. I entered the office under the pretense of seeing if some obscure ceremony we were planning would conflict with the presence of general officers at Fort Bliss. The secretary motioned me to the status board. I quickly found what I was looking for. Brigadier General Fred N. Halley - Chaparral House - 7-21 Nov 91. The investigator was staying for two, whole weeks. This would be an in-depth affair.
I called one of my few remaining friends in the 3rd Cavalry
when I returned to my office. Virtually everybody else I knew
had spurned me like a leper after the Washington Post article
became common knowledge, at least all of those who were captain or
"Have any of you been alerted to meet with some general flying down from Fort Bragg next Monday?" I asked.
"Damn near the entire unit. Daly is holding a massive amount of meetings to 'clear the air' as he calls it."
"When did you find out about it?"
"A few days ago."
"That's odd, they didn't inform me until today."
"That's not all that's odd. Daly's brother-in-law, one of the infamous Abrams generals, is flying into town on the 6th."
"He's not on the post protocol list."
"Of course not. This is all incognito. He's flying commercial. Everything's very hush-hush. The staff duty officer overheard Daly making the arrangements."
"That is a very interesting piece of information indeed. I'll stop by the unit some time for a visit."
"Nothing personal Bo, but I don't think that would be a good idea."
"I understand. Talk to you later."
This was very strange, to say the least. General Abram's behind the scenes visit just happened to coincide with the arrival of the investigating officer, who also happened to be a general. I wondered what else might be going on behind the scenes.
I walked across the street to the Chaparral House, a luxurious little dwelling reserved for traveling VIPs. I glanced at my watch -- 8:25 a.m. Unfamiliar with the layout of the building, I twisted the door knob and poked my right foot into the room. An outstretched arm stopped me short. "Sorry Captain, we're still with the first witness. You'll have to wait outside." Give me a break! It was freezing cold out there. I selected one of the fragile looking Victorian chairs on the patio and gingerly occupied it, fearing the wrath of the aristocracy should it collapse. Thirty minutes later, Lieutenant Colonel Daly's spare frame exited the door. "Yes sir, we'll have to get together again some time," he called back into the house. He turned around and seemed to have a small seizure when he saw me. "Hi Bo," he squeaked and hastily descended the steps to the street. I was next.
I entered the door and saw three individuals sitting at the
far end of a long table. At one corner was a captain, an army
lawyer, and at the other was a female staff sergeant, probably a
para-legal. At the head of the table sat Brigadier General Fred
N. Halley, his uniform bedecked with a sea of decorations. I
noticed that he had several Silver Stars for valor.
"Good morning, Captain," said the General. "Have a seat. Make yourself comfortable. Would you like some coffee?"
"No thank you, sir."
"Well then, lets get down to business. As you know, I am investigating the Umm Hajul fratricide. Captain Cook will read you the privacy act and we can get started."
The lawyer droned out the speech I was thoroughly familiar with and I gave my consent to answer any and all questions.
"Good," said Halley. "Is there anything you would like to say before we begin, Captain?"
"Yes sir. I've prepared an information packet, outlining in detail what transpired on the night of 26 February." I handed him a ten page document I had prepared over the weekend.
The General began reading it, his eyes growing wider with
every second. He passed each page to the lawyer as he completed
it. "Excuse us for a moment," he said after he finished. He
motioned for his two assistants to follow him into the next room.
I caught snatches of conversation though the thin walls.
"Don't quite know how to proceed from here ... need more guidance ... your recommendations?"
They all returned after a few minutes.
"These are some serious allegations," stated General Halley. Captain Cook looked a bit worried. The staff sergeant smiled, apparently amused by her superiors' discomfort.
"Yes sir, they are, and I stand by them."
"So, you say Colonel Daly almost caused several more friendly killings during the assault?"
"What leads you to believe that?"
"Sir, its all in my report."
"Isn't it possible that your unit was a little trigger happy?"
I saw red and fought to bring my emotions back under control. "Absolutely not, sir." I retorted icily. "On the contrary, we displayed remarkable restraint. Colonel Daly made many potentially fatal errors during this operation. First, he attacked the airfield without conducting any reconnaissance to find out what was there. Second, he approached my unit without warning from an exposed flank, seriously endangering the lives of the twenty soldiers in his command group. Third, he dismounted soldiers in my sector during a fire fight without informing my unit. These soldiers could have been shot by any one of my vehicles. Fourth, he countermanded my orders and needlessly sent my scouts into an unsecured area in which a vehicle was exploding. It was sheer luck that these scouts did not die during the final, massive explosion."
"All of Colonel Daly's actions were in direct violation of Army doctrine and regulations. Furthermore, these actions were reckless, irresponsible and unnecessary. Colonel Daly was extremely lucky that we did not lose twenty or thirty more American soldiers because of his actions. All of this occurred during an operation in which we never even saw a single enemy soldier. It was only my unit's restraint that prevented several additional tragedies. If these would have occurred, I would have been made the scapegoat for them as well."
"Calm down Captain," soothed General Halley. "Nobody's
making you the scapegoat for anything. I intend to get to the
bottom of this affair."
"Thank you, sir."
"Now, lets get on with the questions." He asked me a few more generalities that I had covered in the report. I assured him that the fatal burst had come from Daly's vehicle and that Fielder had been unarmed at that time.
"Do you have any final statements, Captain Friesen?"
"Yes, sir. Two very important questions concerning this incident have never been addressed. Number one: Where did the order to attack the airfield originate? Number two: Where did the false information about an Iraqi battalion occupying the airfield originate? I believe the answers to both these questions will shed a great deal of light upon what went wrong at Umm Hajul."
"Well, the airfield had been on the corps' target list, but those are some valid questions Captain. You can be sure this investigation will answer them." The General concluded the interrogation and escorted me to the door. He stepped out onto the porch with me for a brief moment.
"I just wanted to tell you Captain, that you did the right
thing out there on that airfield. I know you've been through a
very difficult time." I couldn't believe my ears. Somebody was
actually taking my side in this issue! "However, you are a
victim of this just as much as Lance Fielder -- a victim of bad
luck." At that moment I realized he was soft-soaping me. I knew
I would get no help from his quarter.
"We should have this wrapped up within a month," he said.
"I'll make sure you get a copy of the final report." It seemed
I'd heard that promise before somewhere. "Please remain available
at your office for recall."
"Yes, sir." I saluted and made my way down the steps.
It was 6:00 p.m. and the desire to go home confronted me. I
dialed the number to the Chaparral House to inform them of my
whereabouts. The mess sergeant serving as the butler answered
"No sir. The General and his party departed a few hours ago."
"When will they be back?"
"Sir, they departed for Fort Bragg."
"Thank you, sergeant."
I hung up and dialed the number to my friend in the 3rd Cavalry. "Hi, this is Bo. How many of you guys were called in for questioning today?"
"Just Daly. Twice, once at 0730 and again at about 0930."
"You're sure nobody else got called in?"
"Positive. We were waiting until this afternoon, when a call came in saying that the General had departed for Fort Bragg again. What a waste of time!"
"It sure sounds like it. Thanks."
I replaced the receiver and rocked back in my chair. This entire affair was taking on the manner of an Agatha Christie mystery. Why would the General fly back on the same day he arrived, especially after he had made reservations for two weeks? Then there was the question of the dozens of witnesses who were never called in. Daly however, had been called in again after I was questioned. Did the General fly home to confer with his superiors about the best course of action to take regarding my allegations? I was in no position to find out. I had no choice but to wait for the final report.
I moistened the seal on the last of eight packets and pressed it shut. One month had come and gone without even a whisper about the investigation. I gave the boys at Fort Bragg another month for good measure and then took matters into my own hands.
I had prepared packets regarding the Umm Hajul incident and its aftermath for seven prominent congressmen and senators. The Secretary of the Army would receive a courtesy copy. Each packet contained the same information I had given Brigadier General Halley, along with several more sheets of pertinent facts. I implored each official to personally look into this matter. The packets would be in the mail today.
I pulled my car into the driveway of my parents' house after a long drive back to El Paso from Ruidoso, New Mexico. I had taken four days of vacation to relax in the Lincoln National Forest. I was thoroughly exhausted from all my relaxation and looked forward to a good night of sleep before facing my mundane job the next day.
"Well, well, well," chortled my father. "The most important
man in the U.S. Army has returned. Did the FBI drag you off the
I shot him a disdainful look. "Aren't we in a humorous mood today," I replied.
"Its going to get quite a bit more humorous, son. The Army's been looking for you since Saturday morning."
"What did you tell them?"
"That there are no telephones in the forest and they would, therefore, have to wait until your return. It would seem the letters to congress have them running scared."
An urgent knock on the door punctuated his statement. I
tugged on the knob and came face to face with my boss, who was in
a heavily agitated state.
"Captain Friesen, thank God I've found you," he blurted. "Where have you been? We've been searching for days!"
"On vacation, remember ..."
"Never mind. Here are travel orders and a plane ticket to Fort Bragg. Your flight leaves in three hours."
"Sir, I just got back into town and I have several urgent projects needing my attention at the office."
"Don't worry about that. Just be on the flight. The orders came directly from the 18th Airborne Corps Commander. They also state you are to bring a copy of your congressional correspondence with you. I have no idea what this is about, but Lieutenant Colonel Daly has also been ordered to Fort Bragg. Have a nice flight." He turned on his heel and was gone.
"Airline tickets hand-delivered to our residence personally by your boss," said my father from the shadows. "You must be a special person indeed."
"What do you think this is all about?"
"I think the boys in green are finally listening."
I sat in the room of my Fort Bragg transient officer quarters munching on a cold pizza crust and watching MTV. This was my third day in wonderful "Airborne Country." The incessant drone of aircraft from Pope Air Force Base and austere surroundings made me glad I was not an infantryman. Still, I had to respect these soldiers who were always the first to be placed in harm's way. They made our job as tankers much easier.
On my first day at Fort Bragg, I quickly realized that I was not here to shed any light on the investigation. The brass had called me here to keep me away from the press. General Halley rehashed the same questions he had in Fort Bliss, with a few more thrown in about my allegations that Starr and Daly had conspired to destroy my career. It could all have been handled over the telephone instead of costing the American taxpayers several thousand dollars.
"Remain available in your room in case we need to ask you
some more questions," Halley had said. I was called in two more
times for the same drill. I began wondering how long they would
keep me here when the phone rang, drowning out Tom Petty on the
"Captain Friesen," I answered.
"Sir, this is Sergeant Perkins from 18th Airborne Corps headquarters. You are no longer needed for questioning and may return to Fort Bliss at your earliest convenience."
"Thank you sergeant," I replied and hung up the telephone.
My earliest convenience would be as fast as I could get to the Fayetteville airport. The press had apparently lost interest and I was a free man once again.
The next four months passed in a frenzy of moves and counter-moves. The chess game of the conspiracy progressed at an alternatingly maddening, then stagnant, pace. I moved one set of pieces, but I was always unsure as to whom my actual opponent was. Starr? Daly? The entire army? A certain general somewhere? The Abrams dynasty? I despaired of ever finding out or obtaining justice for myself and the Fielders. I received veiled threats virtually every week, stating that the "General didn't want to hear any more about this issue." The General apparently was more interested in good public relations than the truth. It seemed as though the web of deceit grew thicker every day.
Colonel Douglas Starr had been forced to retire from the Army just three weeks before he was due to be promoted to brigadier general. This was not due to his involvement with the airfield incident, but rather for his fondness of female enlisted soldiers. He had finally been caught in carnal abandon with a shapely private first class. The senate had pulled him from the promotion list and he'd received his walking papers. It was even rumored that his wife had divorced him. The entire matter, of course, remained confidential. The official reason for Starr's retirement was that he could not afford to send his children to college on a brigadier general's salary. Ninety thousand dollars a year was simply not enough money. Starr had dismissed a captain for allegations of adultery just before we left for the Middle East. Apparently the colonel lived by a set of moral standards different from those he expected of his men.
The Army had conducted two more investigations into Lance Fielder's death, bringing the total to five. The Army Inspector General's Office (IG) conducted an additional two investigations into why Lance's family had been told that Iraqis had killed their son. The first IG investigation determined that it was a "miscommunication" caused by lack of documentation accompanying the body back to the 3rd Cavalry's regimental aid station. I talked to my former executive officer, Aaron McClain, about this. Aaron had resigned from the Army and was now living in Montana. He told me that he had attached a casualty report tag to Fielder's uniform with a safety pin before zipping him into a body bag. This tag contained information indicating Lance had been a victim of friendly fire. He told Debbie Shelton the same thing during a separate telephone conversation. Debbie and I made the IG aware of these facts.
The second IG investigation returned the same finding as the first. Incredulous, I called up McClain to see what he had told them. His number had been disconnected and the operator was unable to help me locate him. He had dropped out of sight shortly after being questioned by the IG. During this time my old troop First Sergeant, Kenneth Sayles, stepped forward to proclaim that the casualty tag had been "blown away" by rotor wash from the evacuation helicopter. I failed to see how that could have occurred when it was pinned to Fielder's uniform and zipped into the body bag before the helicopter arrived. Furthermore, several of my former soldiers told me that the First Sergeant had not even been at the evacuation site. He had departed after becoming violently ill when he saw Fielder's body. The IG did not solicit comments from these soldiers. Sayles, incidentally, was still working for Daly.
I talked with Debbie Shelton, who had been working closely with MacArthur Foundation researcher Patricia Axelrod to examine the IG findings. More disturbing inconsistencies surfaced. Thoroughly sifting through hundreds of pages of testimonies, they discovered that Lance's body had arrived at the regimental aid station wrapped only in plastic. When the body left the airfield, it had been fully clothed and wearing a flak jacket. The IG maintained that the evacuation helicopter flew straight from the airfield to the aid station, making it impossible for anyone to tamper with the body before it arrived. Regimental radio logs however, stated that the very same helicopter had landed at the regimental headquarters for fifteen minutes prior to flying to the aid station. The IG conveniently ignored all of these facts.
Debbie and Patricia firmly believed that the documentation had been removed from Lance's body prior to its evacuation to the aid station. I had to admit that this seemed very likely. Did Colonel Starr or one of his subalterns remove this documentation during the fifteen minutes the helicopter was at the regimental headquarters? Were they trying to prevent a stain on the honor of the 3rd Cavalry? It was doubtful these questions would ever be answered.
"Telephone for you, Captain Friesen."
I turned from my vital mission of planning a tree planting ceremony and cradled the receiver in my hand.
"This is Major Smith from the Fort Bliss Staff Judge Advocate Office."
The army lawyers. What did they want? "How can I help you, sir?"
"I'm calling to see if you mailed your correspondence to Fort McPherson."
I was without a clue. "What correspondence, sir?"
"Your reply to General Burba." General Burba was the Commanding General of Forces Command, all the Army combat units located within the continental United States.
"You have me at a loss, sir. A reply to what?"
"You mean to tell me you have no idea what I'm talking about, Captain?"
"None whatsoever. Please enlighten me." My patience grew thin. What kind of game was this guy playing?
"General Burba issued you a formal letter of reprimand on 14 April. You have missed the 30 day period to submit matters in your defense."
"Is this in connection with the Umm Hajul airfield incident,
"I believe so."
"Sir, I never received notification of this reprimand."
"That's impossible! A general officer was supposed to formally serve you with it within days of it being signed. It will now automatically go into your record because you did not rebut it."
"How many times do I have to say this,sir? I did not receive any notification. Do you have any suggestions about what I can do?"
"Absolutely. We'll prepare an acknowledgment of receipt and send it to Forces Command. If they don't accept it, you can take legal action against them for depriving you of due process."
"One question, sir. Do you think this was deliberate?"
"I couldn't even hazard a guess about that, Captain. One thing I can tell you however, this is the first time I've ever seen a letter from a general not make it to the addressee."
I mailed the acknowledgment the next day and the rebuttal two weeks later. I received no reply from General Burba for the next two months, but I was able to get my hands on the investigation that sparked the reprimand. It was over 1,000 pages in length, but still did not answer the two crucial questions. Who had ordered the attack and who had fabricated the information about an Iraqi battalion on the airfield? It was a classic example of a huge amount of eyewash to lend false credibility to the findings. Any document supported by five pounds of testimonies must be valid, but nobody would ever read the testimonies. Nobody, except me.
I spent weeks analyzing every single testimony. Once again, some serious discrepancies were present. The boundary between the 18th and 7th Corps had run exactly through the middle of the airfield. This gross blunder was in direct contravention of the most basic tactical principles the Army had. How could one 25,000-man corps assault half the airfield while the other corps attacked the second half? Even the newest private had more common sense than that. The converging forces ran a tremendous risk of shooting at each other and sustaining friendly casualties. If Thunder Squadron had not encountered the engineers, it would have continued attacking four miles into the neighboring corps' territory. Hundreds of soldiers driving trucks in the supply columns there might have suffered fiery deaths. Nevertheless, colonels on both corps staffs had drawn this boundary directly through the Umm Hajul airfield and generals had given it their blessings. The investigation's findings glossed over this.
Daly's and Starr's testimonies were even more disturbing. Although Starr stated that he had no knowledge of friendly units at the airfield, six other officers testified that they had told him or the regiment to stay away from Umm Hajul for that very reason. Starr contradicted himself in another testimony when he stated that he was sure Daly got the message of possible friendly troops in the area. Daly denied that Starr told him anything.
In several testimonies, Daly stated that he had never heard me give the cease fire order before he fired the fatal shots. In his final testimony, he casually mentioned that he heard me give this command over the radio. Daly also stated initially that he shot Fielder because he looked as though he were fleeing. He later reversed this and said he opened fire because Fielder was moving forward to attack. One thing was crystal clear from the report. Daly knew of the corps boundary running through the airfield and the prohibition against firing across it. He did not share this information with his subordinate commanders. Furthermore, he himself fired across it to kill Lance Fielder. In a final attempt to shirk responsibility, Daly testified that his gunner, a staff sergeant, had asked for permission to pull the trigger and then shot Fielder.
Finally, the investigation never addressed where the 288 high explosive artillery shells fired at the airfield actually landed. Were the cannons over ten miles off their mark, or did $60,000 worth of shells deliberately impact in the middle of the empty desert? Even worse, was the artillery commander aware of friendly force locations that officers at my level were not privy to? Despite these and other inconsistencies, the sixth investigation found nothing unusual about the incident and contributed the fratricide to the "fog of war." I wondered if Lance had known about this fog before he idealistically went to fight for his country.
The Army released information about my reprimand to the press and they had a field day with it. It was then that I found out that Daly and Starr had also received reprimands. I firmly believed that Daly's clout would be able to remove his before it even entered his official record. Starr probably couldn't care less, he was out of the Army.
The telephone on my desk buzzed as I was putting the finishing
touches on my computer programming assignment. I would need
a new career when I left the military and I had chosen computer
science. I had submitted my resignation paperwork a month
earlier. I would resign from the Army in September. I saved my
program and picked up the phone.
"Hello, this is Richard Pollock calling for Captain Bo Friesen."
"This is him, but you can drop the captain. Just Bo will be fine."
"OK Bo. I'm the Washington D.C. producer for 'Good Morning America.' We'd like you to appear on our show to give your version of what happened at the Umm Hajul Airfield."
"I would like to do that very much Mr. Pollock, but I doubt that the Army would allow it. Can you wait until this October?"
Possibly, but I can't guarantee it would still be an item of interest."
"Can I let you know in a few days?"
"Sure, let me give you my number."
The producer of CNBC's "Real Story" called several days later with the same offer. Debbie Shelton would be on the program as well. In the end, I decided to make an appearance on both shows. This would probably be my best chance to get across my side of the story. I set a date with both networks for July 27th. I would take leave from the Army to fly to New York City for the live appearances. I told my superiors nothing of my plans when I submitted my leave request.
"Hello Bo, this is Richard Pollock," said the receiver into
"Hi Richard, is everything still a go for next Monday?"
"I hope so. Have you told anybody about your appearance?"
"Just my folks, why?"
"There have been several military types snooping around the New York set, trying to pry information from the people there. They seem desperate to know who will be appearing."
"Have your people told them anything?"
"Just that we will be having a segment about the incident. We had to give them the chance to send a spokesman. They declined of course."
"So nobody mentioned my name then?"
"I'm the only person who knows its you, Bo. Charlie Gibson won't even know until the day of the show."
"That's good, because my leave would be canceled very fast if they knew I was appearing on the program."
"All right then, it seems that both our ends are covered. I'm looking forward to meeting you this weekend. Have a good flight."
"Thanks Richard, see you on Saturday."
I spent the entire next day at the university checking into
possible courses of study. I stopped by my parent's house on the
"They always seem to want you when you're not around," my father greeted me. "The telephone started ringing at 8:00 a.m. already. This is for you." He handed me a sealed envelope.
"General Burba's office has been calling every hour to explain how sorry they are that it took so long to reply to your rebuttal. They finally had a courier deliver this. He left about 30 minutes ago."
I tore open the envelope. The seven line letter was signed by General Burba. It stated that he had withdrawn my reprimand based upon the "very persuasive statement" I submitted. He concluded by informing me that he "considered this matter closed." He may have considered it closed, but I certainly did not.
"What do you make of all this Dad?"
"I hope you don't believe for one minute that it was withdrawn due to your rebuttal. If that were the case, Burba would have done it two months ago when he received it. I think they're running scared because they suspect you're appearing on national television."
"I hope they don't cancel my leave."
"We'll find out in a day or so."
My father had hit the nail on the head. The reprimand had not been justified to begin with, considering the information contained in the body of the final investigation. General Burba's office had stated that my rebuttal had brought up information he was unaware of. Had it taken two months for him to evaluate this information in his mind? It was too great a coincidence that he withdrew my reprimand at the exact time I was appearing on "Good Morning America."
The General definitely had egg on his face. Everything contained in my rebuttal was also in the body of the investigation. Either he had not bothered to read the investigation before issuing the reprimand, or he had done so in spite of overwhelming evidence in my favor. Now that it was about to become public knowledge, he quickly retracted it. The reprimand had been a charade. Its real purpose was to punish me for speaking out.
I nervously adjusted my tie and cast a final glance at the mirror. I closed the door of my Ritz-Carlton hotel room behind me and made my way towards the elevator. "Good Morning America" had provided excellent accommodations, right at Central Park. I felt uncomfortable in a suit and knew that I probably looked somewhat out of place. Army officers rarely carried themselves well in civilian suits because they rarely ever wore them.
I entered the elevator and descended to the lobby. The doors opened and I strode out, scanning the assemblage of people. My heart pounded furiously as my eyes came to rest on Debbie Shelton and Ron Fielder. I knew them only from newspaper and magazine pictures, but I identified them immediately. Recognition flashed in their eyes as well. I walked towards them, certain that my heart would burst forth from my chest with the next step. I had talked to them many times over the telephone, but this was our first face to face encounter.
Debbie alleviated my fears with a quick hug and I shook hands with Ron. We soon fell into a conversation about a variety of topics. It seemed as though I had known them an eternity. These were good, decent people. It greatly reinforced my feelings that I had done the right thing by helping them crusade for justice. I only hoped justice would be served.
Debbie and I entered the set of "Good Morning America" at 6:30 a.m. the next morning. I was a bit nervous, but my desire to tell the nation about this sordid affair overrode all other emotions. I was incredibly anxious to have my five minutes in the spotlight. Charlie Gibson's voice broke my reverie.
"It is five minutes past the hour. Not all our Gulf War
casualties were caused by the enemy. Some American soldiers died
at the hands of their own countrymen. Sergeant Lance Fielder was
one such soldier. Occupying an airfield they had captured twelve
hours earlier, Lance's unit came under attack by the U.S. Third
Armored Cavalry Regiment. Rushing to the aid of a fellow
soldier, Lance was killed by friendly fire. In a moment, we will
speak with Army Captain Bo Friesen, the commander of the troop
ordered to attack that airfield."
"Two minutes!" shouted a man to the rear of the cameras. A woman guided me to the stool opposite Charlie. I cringed as another padded make-up onto my forehead.
"Ten seconds! And five, four, three...."
"Good morning. I'm Charlie Gibson and we're back with Army
Captain Bo Friesen, the commander of an armored cavalry unit
during the Gulf War who was tragically ordered to attack an
airfield already occupied by friendly forces. Sergeant Lance
Fielder, an American combat engineer was killed by friendly fire
during the ensuing battle. Good morning Captain Friesen."
"Good morning Charlie."
"Can you give us a brief description of the events leading up to the assault on the Umm Hajul airfield?"
I sped through the events, desperately trying to compress
several hours of action into a few seconds. There is no way to
do it, but I did so anyway.
"Now, friendly fire incidents have occurred in every war," continued Charlie. "Is this one any different from the rest?"
"Definitely. This was not a "fog of war" incident. My superiors withheld information about boundaries and friendly unit locations from officers at my level. If they had shared this information with us, Lance Fielder would still be alive today."
"When you say superiors, who do you mean?"
"My Squadron Commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Daly, and my Regimental Commander, Colonel Douglas Starr."
"Why would these officers withhold that type of information?"
"I believe they did so in an attempt to gain glory for themselves. There was not a whole lot to fight for in Iraq. There were no cities or bridges to capture and the enemy ran faster than we could follow. Faced with the possibility of not being able to make a name for themselves in combat, I believe that Starr and Daly created a heroic attack against a non-existent enemy."
"And once on the airfield, who actually fired the fatal shots?"
"Lieutenant Colonel Daly's vehicle."
"Is it unusual for a squadron commander to be that far
"Yes it is, especially since he had over a hundred combat vehicles at his disposal. He completely disregarded them and concerned himself only with his own actions."
"Why do you think he did that?"
"The only way to get a medal for valor is to actually take part in the fighting. Since there was very little fighting at hand, Daly could only win a decoration by personally charging forward."
"And did he win a decoration?"
"Yes, a Bronze Star, but that was the standard award for all captains and above after the war."
"Is it possible that the fatal shots were fired in the confusion that surrounded the fighting at the airfield."
"No, the situation had already calmed down considerably before Lieutenant Colonel Daly's arrival at the scene. Although we still thought our opponents were Iraqis, they did not have any weapons in their hands, nor were they making any threatening moves towards us. Shooting them was completely unjustified, even if they had been enemy soldiers."
"Then we are talking about possible criminal negligence here."
"Definitely negligence. Whether it is criminal is not for me to decide."
"You contacted Lance Fielder's mother, Mrs. Debbie Shelton.
What made you decide to do this?"
"I have a son myself. If anything were to happen to him, I would want to know everything I possibly could about it. I had a moral obligation to Lance Fielder's family."
"The Army formally reprimanded you for this incident, did it not?"
"That is correct."
"And then withdrew that reprimand a few days ago."
"Why do you think they did that?"
"I can only guess that they heard I would be appearing on your program."
"Where do you think this investigation should go from here?"
"I think a disinterested civilian body should conduct an investigation. The Army has investigated itself six times already in this matter and we are still no closer to the truth."
"And what about Captain Bo Friesen? What happens to you now?"
"I've submitted my paperwork to resign from the Army."
"Because of this incident?"
"As a graduate of West Point, you must have had the potential for a good career."
"I had intended to make the military a career, but it is no longer possible."
"Thank you for taking the time to come and talk to us, Captain Friesen. In a moment, we'll return with Mrs. Debbie Shelton, the mother of Sergeant Lance Fielder."
I resigned my commission as an officer in the United States Army on September 30, 1992. As of this writing, the U. S. General Accounting Office is investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of Sergeant Lance Fielder and the attack on the Umm Hajul airfield. Lieutenant Colonel John Daly is still in the Army and currently assigned to the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations in the Pentagon. I have no idea of the whereabouts of retired Colonel Douglas Starr. While I hold no animosity towards the Army, I do feel that this incident should be discussed openly to prevent such tragedies in the future.
I recently attended a parade by the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment. I stood in the background in my faded jeans, my considerably longer hair blowing in the cold winter breeze. I recognized very few of the camouflage figures and felt certain that even fewer of them recognized me. Cymbals crashed and bass drums boomed the cadence for over a thousand boot clad footsteps.
As the ranks of cavalry troopers marched past, the announcer recited the hundred-year regimental history. His final paragraph stated that, during the Gulf War, the regiment captured two Iraqi airfields. What the audience did not know, was that American soldiers had stubbornly defended one of those airfields. The regimental history made no mention of Lance Fielder's sacrifice, but I would carry his name in my heart forever. He was the real hero of the Battle of Umm Hajul.
The General Accounting Office concluded its investigation into the Umm Hajul incident in April 1995. The findings determined that both Colonel Starr and Lieutenant Colonel Daly had been negligent in their duties and failed to inform their subordinates of critical information. It also brought to light that the several members of Daly's vehicle crew, as well as the regimental surgeon, all received Bronze Star Medals for valor. Citations and witness statements for these awards and Daly's Bronze Star Medal all contained false statements about what occurred that night at the Umm Hajul airfield. All of them contained some reference to heroism in combat against an enemy force. The regimental surgeon was the ranking member on the helicopter flight where all the documentation on Lance Fielder's body mysteriously disappeared. Daly's Officer Evaluation Report, which directly affected his promotion, also contained false statements about what had transpired during the operation.
Colonel Starr is currently living in the Middle East as a consultant. Lieutenant Colonel Daly's reprimand was never filed in his official record. He was selected for promotion to full colonel, but the U.S. Congress, at the urgings of Senator Fred Thompson, did not approve this promotion. Daly appeared before the Senate Sub-Committee on Investigations on June 29, 1995 to explain his actions in Operation Desert Storm. The Assistant Secretary of the Army and the Army Vice-Chief-of-Staff appeared with him. Senator Thompson, the committee chairman, called for Daly's immediate dismissal from the military. Mrs. Debbie Shelton requested that the army revoke Lance Fielder's post-humous Bronze Star Medal for valor, because he had not been in contact with enemy forces at the time of his death.
Lieutenant Colonel John H. Daly Jr. is still on active duty and working in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations at the Pentagon. He received a second reprimand for misleading statements resulting in the inappropriate awards for valor. Senator Thompson believes that this action was insufficient and has requested that the army re-examine what action it will take regarding Daly. Lance Fielder's Bronze Star Medal for Valor was rescinded and he received the Soldier's Medal in its place, a higher and more fitting award.Rest in Peace, Lance.