An Alamo in central Iraq. 19 FEB 2007
The town of Tarmiyah lies about 15 miles north of Camp Taji. About half way to the sprawling airbase at Balad on the banks of the Tigris River, Tarmiyah had long been the home of insurgent activity. During OIF 2 it was a known hotspot to us and was the place where a UH-60 carrying now congresswoman Tammy Duckworth was shot down. Just to the west of the town in JAN ‘06 we had lost a good friend from 4ID, CW3 Rex Kenyon when he and his co-pilot CW2 Ruel Garcia had their ’64 hit by a MANPADS. So to say the events that occurred on 19 FEB were unexpected wouldn’t exactly be true, at least to those of us who had been here before.
Early that morning an AWT belonging to B Company (Reapers) 1-227 had taken off from Camp Taji and was working in the 1st BCT sector just west of Camp Taji. Flying that day as CZ 03/04 was 1LT Brian Haas and CW3 Brian Haas (yeah, that’s not a typo) their wingman was CPT Mike Hutson and his CPG CW2 Erik Hoskinson.
At 0708 AIF forces launched an attack on Joint Security Station North in the city of Tarmiyah using a truck bomb. Inside the station were elements of 2-8 CAV’s Demon Company.
Popcorn popping, thought Army Staff Sgt. Jason Fisher. That’s the sound the bullets made as they hit the wall of the American outpost.
It was early morning and Fisher’s comrades were still asleep. But he had stayed up overnight, processing suspects wanted in the killing of an American soldier two days earlier. His outpost often took gunfire, usually sporadic, but this time it didn’t let up. Then he looked out the window and saw it: a white truck barreling toward the converted police station.
Fisher turned to run. Suddenly, he was flying through the air.
The blast sheered off the front of the building, burying some of the soldiers. Others rushed to dig them out and find their weapons and flak vests in the rubble.
Coated in cement dust, the soldiers looked ghostlike as they made what would become a more than four-hour stand, outnumbered nearly 3-to-1 by militants…
The truck bomb destroyed most of Demon Company’s communications equipment and Humvees. But the soldiers managed to start a Humvee engine for just a couple of minutes — long enough to turn on the radio and report being under fire.
Twelve miles away, at the large American base at Taji, battalion commanders watched the battle on video from an aerial drone. Word spread quickly. So many soldiers gathered at the operations center, pleading to go to Demon Company’s aid, that commanders ordered them out of the room. Most continued to linger by the door.
Help soon came in the form of the two Apaches, flown by Haas squared and Hutson/Hoskinson.
In the meantime SFC Freddie Housey had retrieved a Harris Radio from one of the damaged Humvee’s and climbed to the roof of the building to direct the incoming AWT.
After the truck blast shook Demon Company’s JSS location, the AIF fighters initiated a ferocious ground assault, firing on the position with automatic weapons and RPGs. SFC Housey, on the roof of what was left of the JSS, pleaded with CZ 03 to get there as soon as they could.
For their part, CZ 03 and 04 were flying toward the beleaguered unit as fast as they could go. CW3 Haas was on the radio trying to make sense out of a very confused situation on the ground so they could place fires upon the enemy as soon as possible. Unfortunately, SFC Housey couldn’t give grid coordinates to the approaching helicopters, but he did describe the direction and type of fire he was receiving. By 0720 CZ 03/04 had reached the town and began to develop the situation.
“The Apaches were the first ones on the scene,” said Housey, “It was the best view in the world. Everyone felt better.”
CPT Hutson describes what happened next;
CW3 Haas was in radio contact with Demon while I was flight following as Hoskinson updated our TOC of the developing situation. After transmitting our situation report to the TOC, we off-tuned to Demon’s frequency and then realized the seriousness of their situation. The JSS had taken a direct hit from a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) through their front gate.
They were taking sustained small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fire from all directions and had suffered casualties. Due to the intensity of the firefight, the Soldiers were unable to get to their casualties and believed the enemy was inside the compound. The fear in the kid’s voice on the other end of the radio drove home the urgency of the situation.
As we arrived on station in the vicinity of the JSS, the damage we saw was chilling. The VBIED had ignited the JP8 fuel storage tank (at) the facility and left it burning out of control. Also, most of the wall around the area had collapsed.
Our first goal was to locate the source of the enemy fire so we could set up close combat attack runs. The ground unit reported they were taking RPG fire from adjacent buildings to the north and east. We looked but could not find anything. Then the ground unit reported the enemy had adjusted fire from the JSS to us.
Lead was hit multiple times on the first run, but was able to stay in the fight. Unbeknownst to them, they had taken an anti-aircraft round in the tail rotor gearbox. As we attempted to vary our orbits around the station, lead spotted a motorcycle fleeing the area where the JSS was reported to have taken fire. We tracked the motorcycle into a palm grove to the east of the JSS, approaching from the south to get a better look.
As I maneuvered back into formation with lead 175 feet above ground level, I felt a firm jolt underneath the aircraft and saw Hoskinson’s overhead canopy pane crack, obstructing my forward field of view. Hoskinson shouted over the intercom that we were descending rapidly into a palm grove and quickly made a Mayday call. Crazy Horse 3 (lead) turned 180 degrees to cover us when they received our call we were taking fire. It turns out they just turned around into the same maelstrom of bullets we had just flown through.
I recovered the aircraft and got it as straight and level as I could with my limited field of view. I took over lead, and lead became our wing to keep an eye on our aircraft. We wrapped around the north side of the city and, once we cleared the western edge, (we) proceeded directly to Taji. During this time, the cockpit voice was going crazy announcing the various emergencies caused by the battle damage we had just taken. Cockpit indicators told me I had taken damage to the utility hydraulic system, rendering our 30mm gun inoperative. We had also suffered flight control damage, illustrated by the “BUCS FAIL” message on the up-front display.
Our wingman, now flying trail, was able to see and relay to us that our wing stores were on fire. I looked out the left side of the aircraft and saw the rockets beginning to cook off. I punched off the stores and began looking for a place to set down the aircraft.
However, after conferring with our wingman, we decided the tactical situation did not permit this. After assisting me in getting the initial emergencies under control, Hoskinson, by peering through the small windowpane in front of him, began to guide me back toward Taji. Trail took care of the radio calls so I could concentrate on flying. He also relayed the events to our TOC and requested a follow-on air weapons team (AWT), and ended up conducting a battle handover with them.
After establishing a heading back to Taji, I suspected Hoskinson had been hurt and asked him about his condition. His reply was, “I’m fine. Just fly the aircraft.” I knew when we got hit that he’d been hurt, but I didn’t know to what extent. Hoskinson ignored his injuries and kept me concentrated on getting the aircraft home to Taji. Hoskinson performed incredibly well during this emergency. As we surveyed our damage, he reported that a round had penetrated his floor and damaged the cyclic, which had fallen over to the stop. I later discovered that same round had hit the bottom of his seat and sent fragments into his calves. Since we couldn’t transfer the controls, I had to depend on him for obstacle avoidance, as I was practically flying blind. I knew there was a set of high-tension wires between Tarmiyah and Taji, but I could not see them. Thankfully, Hoskinson spotted the wires, which gave me ample time to negotiate them.
CW3 Haas and 1st Lt. Haas did everything they could to assist us getting home. They took over all radio calls for us and helped us assess our aircraft damage, allowing us to control the aircraft and monitor our own systems. On our way back to Taji, we passed the replacement AWT. Crazy Horse 3 relayed our situation and the tactical situation on the ground in Tarmiyah to them, including a warning that we had taken fire by some heavy-caliber weapons in the eastern palm groves.
After landing CPT Hutson counted at least 22 bullet holes in his aircraft. His wingman had a bullet in their intermediate tail rotor gear box but it continued to operate and returned them safely to Camp Taji. CW2 Hoskinson’s wound had been caused by a 12.7mm machine gun round that had struck the aircraft immediately underneath his seat. Erik returned to action, flying missions a week after his wounding.
There are not too many aircraft that can take that kind of punishment and keep flying. There is no doubt in my mind, that if I ever go to combat again that the Apache is the aircraft I want to fly.
The second team of Apaches CZ 18/19 assumed the fight from 03/04 and rushed toward the besieged JSS. Flown by CW3 Matt Skiver and 1LT Clint Burleson in CZ 18 and CW2 Micah Johnson and CW2 Troy Moseley in CZ 19 were conducting their regular Combat Air Patrol when they heard CPT Hutson’s MAYDAY call. They immediately broke station, flying en route toward Zone 99 and Tarmiyah.
Around 0810 CZ 18/19 arrived from the east passing Hutson and Haas on the way in. Once they determined that CPT Hutson was going to be able to recover his aircraft successfully, they assumed CZ 03/04’s mission at the JSS. Not getting a complete battle handover from the previous flight for obvious reasons, the flight checked in with Demon 06 who gave them a quick situation update. One aircraft then pushed down to Blue 4 (SFC Housey) who informed the flight that the JSS was still in danger of being overrun. They also received a grid coordinates of an enemy position and clearance to engage by Stallion 06 (2-8 CAV’s commander) who was developing the situation through a UAV feed, back at Camp Taji.
While all that was going on, the flight began to take heavy fire from enemy fighters in and around the JSS. After about 10 minutes on station Micah Johnson in CZ 19 reported to lead that they had been hit and had problems with one of their Hellfire launchers as well as having indications in the cockpit of a utility hydraulics failure.
The flight disengaged and flew northwest into a clear area to assess to the damage to the aircraft. Flying alongside CZ 19 in his aircraft, CW3 Skiver reported that he saw visible fluid all over the tail of the aircraft, but there was no fire or smoke visible. After checking his cockpit pressure indications and assessing that he could continue the fight, CW2 Johnson told lead that he was good to go. So the flight returned to the JSS to provide security and close combat attacks until a BHO could be made with another AWT.
At about 0840 a MEDEVAC UH-60 proceeded inbound to evacuate wounded from the JSS. It was going to land in a field adjacent to what was left of the building.
As soon as the UH-60 touched down, Blue 4 reported that the JSS was now taking fire from a building 100 meters south of the JSS. CZ 19 dove down out of his overwatch position in a north to south gun run directly over the top of the UH-60 sitting on the ground in the LZ, engaging the enemy position with 20-40 rounds of 30mm cannon fire.
After breaking off the attack run, 1LT Burleson reported spotting enemy fighters to the north of the JSS that were also engaging the JSS from a rooftop position. The flight then maneuvered to place fires upon that position with both aircraft firing their 30mm cannon at the enemy. On the break 1LT Burleson reported seeing secondaries from their attack.
On a second attack run CZ 18 felt a sold impact on the aircraft, which violently jolted the aircraft upward. Matt told LT Burleson that he thought they were under fire from RPGs.
Almost as soon as that occurred the flight received a call from Blue 4 stating that the flight was being engaged with both small arms and heavy caliber machine gun fire. The flight maneuvered to attempt to throw off the enemy’s aim. Due to the nature of the threat to the ground forces, the AWT remained on station, exposed to enemy fire, protecting the Soldiers in the JSS for another 30 minutes until they got a BHO around 0930 from AH-64s Attack 22 and 26 belonging to the 36th CAB based out of Balad about 10 minutes flight time to the north.
CZ 18/19 returned to Taji. After landing they inspected CZ 19 and found damage to both wings, with the tail and main rotor blades receiving small arms damage. There was also damage from heavy machine gun fire to the tail section and the hydraulic return line from the tail rotor controls was severed.
After Johnson and Moseley jumped into a spare aircraft, at 1055, CZ 18/19 reassumed the fight in Tarmiyah. The situation at the JSS had stabilized somewhat so they began a search for the weapons pylons that had been jettisoned by CPT Hutson earlier that morning. They were on station for about 15 minutes when Blue 4 once again reported that the JSS was under attack.
Friendly forces marked the area the fire was coming from with tracer fire from a .50 CAL machine gun. After observing the marking rounds the flight engaged the area and adjacent street with 30mm cannon fire, silencing the enemy fire. After about 30 minutes on station 18/19 was relieved by another Crazyhorse team and they returned to Taji, their flying day over.
The battalion maintained a presence in the area for the rest of the day, sending one AWT after another to provide security for the JSS and those participating in the operations around it.
That night around 1900 while on station near Tarmiyah CZ 12/13 received a tasking from 2-8 CAV’s JTAC, HAVOC 12. They were asked to investigate a Bongo truck near a house where persons had been observed trying to recover the weapons jettisoned previously by CPT Hutson. After being talked onto the target using a video feed from a UAS, HAVOC 12 cleared CZ 12 and 13 to engage the truck using 30mm cannon. The resulting attack yielded a large secondary explosion and fire which ultimately caught the nearby house on fire.
Although we wouldn’t lose any aircrews in or near Tarmiyah for the rest of the deployment it would be a place we would visit over and over again in response to enemy activity. It wouldn’t be until we returned to Iraq, in 2010, that the town would eventually be considered secure.
By the end of February, the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade had participated in 32 separate enemy engagements that month. We had lost two aircraft with many others damaged as well. Worst of all we had lost 4 fine officers, men who were sons, brothers and fathers. Men whose loss we mourn to this day.
We came away from that month changed. There were lessons we learned, things that we probably should have seen before, but either pride or stubbornness didn’t allow us to. But we mourned, learned and moved on. It was all we could do. It may sound cliché or corny but we owed it to them to keep going; it is what they would have done.