RIDING WITH THE BLACKHORSE IN (IRAQ PART 2)

Blackanthem Military News, WASHINGTON, D.C., January 19, 2006 18:43

 

C-130 Prepares to load. Kuwait (Photo by Gerald Williamson)

Let me begin this second in a series of articles with the heart felt thanks to those who made our visit to the 11th ACR in Iraq possible. Without their support and pull, it would have been impossible to gain the unprecedented access to our troopers that allowed us to record their well deserved place in history. We were fortunate to be witness to and record their heroic actions and humanitarian acts of kindness and compassion. The media that reports the events in Iraq is often biased and paints the picture to the American public that portrays their own agenda. The daily acts of caring our troops bestow upon the Iraqi people rarely make the news.

We went into this project with an open mind. We saw and recorded the daily and nightly operations without a preconceived picture of things others wanted us to see. We literally "fell in" with the troops and shadowed them as if we were part of the team. We were not treated to a news media Dog and Pony Show in a highly protected environment. Because we were former veterans of the great Blackhorse Regiment, we were immediately accepted and trusted like brothers. With that, were able to talk on the same level with the troops and share their deepest thoughts and concerns.
 

Dining in Baghdad. Camp Liberty (Photo by Gerald Williamson)

We found that the morale was high and our 11th ACR brothers and sisters were highly dedicated to the missions and believed in their cause. They were also very respectful to we Vietnam veterans and hold us in high esteem. They also sought our blessings, guidance and advice on how they were performing. Our opinion was often requested as if for approval from a parent. It was very emotional being with these fine soldiers.

With that said, please try to attend and support the Welcome Home Celebration in March 16-18 at Fort Irwin. I believe these troopers consider our veterans respect and admiration above that of the general public.

Kuwait - Destination Iraq

We loaded up with other civilians at 2:00 AM in a bus with closed curtains for a thirty minute drive to a military airstrip somewhere in Kuwait. We were some of the few that wore desert BDUís. The majority of the passengers wore civilian clothes and were American contractors. As you looked at the group you wondered who and what job they were headed for. We got the usual once over and sometimes after seeing the Vietnam Vet embroidered over our shirt pocket got an inquiry. Our standard reply was that we were just visiting. This drew more speculation and scrutiny until we explained our mission.

Photo by Gerald Williamson


We spent hours waiting and discovered that flight times were always a secret and they would never tell if you were on a flight until it was time to board. We boarded a C-130 as the sun peeked over the desert and were on our way.

In our request for special treatment to get us to the 11th ACR as soon as possible, we skipped the news media briefing and credentialing process which would have cost us two days of our trip. This was a mistake that would haunt us repeatedly during our stay. We figured that once we were with our Blackhorse brothers, we didn't need any papers. Problem was, we later had to move from place to place under the control of other units and branches.
 

1/11 Armored Cavalry Regiment checking house just outside Abu Ghraib Prison. (Photo by Gerald Williamson)

One example was the hassle we got entering the various dining facilities. Both military and civilian contractors eat there and carried identification that we missed out on in our haste to move forward. Military entered one door and civilians entered through another after they were wanded and or searched. We were usually escorted to chow with group that contained a Sergeant Major or higher. Boy did we feel like celebrities. Yes, we also dined with privates and enjoyed the interaction and conversation.

On one instance we were in the Green Zone where a lot of senior military dined. Lots of brass and generals. The security was so tight there that even LTC Blackburn couldn't convince them we were OK. We were directed to the dreaded civilian door. After more exchanges between the LTC and the Lieutenant in charge of security, we were sent the next station for the search. The 3rd Infantry Division sergeant I was face to face with stood motionless for a moment as he read the Vietnam Vet over my pocket. A disgusted look came over his face and he turned to the Lieutenant and shouted, "Iím not going to search these guys" and waved us in and said, "Go on in Sir." I reached out in mutual respect, shook his hand and said ĎThank you and thanks for serving our country".
 

Abu Ghraib Prison Death House.
Saddam was very efficient in the art of Death (Photo by Gerald Williamson)

Now I am going to share a closely guarded secret with you. After seeing the dining facility and the bounty of everything imaginable, I thought it were best not to take any photos. I often told the troopers that I was not taking any pictures inside because "if the folks back home saw them, you will never get another CARE PACKAGE". I would compare it to a quadruple Golden Coral. This was in Baghdad and not the norm at our other stops.

DAY ONE

We arrived in Baghdad around noon and as is usual inside the military machine, we were on our own. We were supposed to start our visit in Mosul with the Regimental Headquarters but the flight was not going that far that day. Once I found a land line I called 2/11 ACR and requested someone bring us home. Within minutes a Humvee arrived with the familiar Blackhorse on the gun shield for the ride to Camp Liberty. The in-flight service on the C-130 was low budget, no frills and limited to the bottle of water you picked up at the back ramp.
 

Dual Gallows, Abu Ghraib Prison
Records found documenting over Ten Thousand deaths while Saddam was in charge (Photo by Gerald Williamson)

2/11 was a little unprepared for our visit which was now a week sooner than expected. We were treated to lunch and issued newer body armor. We were told to get some rest and they were going to pick us up at 2:00 am to raid several suspected terrorist homes. "Welcome to our War!"

We were definitely sleep deprived by now but we knew we would have to check our camera gear in preparation for what was to come in a few hours. The video light was in excellent condition but the bulb did not survive the shock in the C-130. It really did not matter because the light would have given away our position and ruined the troops night vision.

We rolled into the streets of Baghdad which were empty due to the curfew. The first glimpse of the city would be at night which would take on a whole new look when the sun came up. We turned into a neighborhood and the street narrowed. The computer facing the front passenger glowed with the navigational three dimensional picture of building roof tops and the Humveesí ever changing position. This was star wars at itís finest. Driving with no lights through the streets of Baghdad with the 11th ACR.

(Photo by Gerald Williamson)


We had linked up with an Iraqi army unit who unlike the ARVNís of Vietnam, did most of the searching while the 11th ACR backed them up. When we reached the suspected house there were vehicles scattered in defensive positions. The word came over the radio and doors flew open and the race was on along the six foot tall wall to the front gate that was chained. The team was prepared with bolt cutters and quickly stormed the front door and knocked and shouted in Iraqi. Dogs were barking throughout the neighborhood as the door opened and the team entered and began interrogating the occupants. My escort cleared me to enter and capture the process on video. The Iraqi army began searching the house. Most houses are not air conditioned with only ceiling fans to move the hot air. I began to notice the heat building up under my body armor and had thoughts of Vietnam. It was a very similar feeling. Perhaps this is why most of the occupants slept on the floor. It is the lowest point and therefore the coolest.
 

(Photo by Gerald Williamson)

The interpreter got Intel from the resident that caused a stir and we were out the door and running down the street to another home where they hoped to find a suspect. Too late, he was no longer there.

We left the neighborhood empty handed that morning but gathered more information for future raids. It was still dark as we headed for the infamous Abu Ghraib Prison. Last April the Marines fought of a fierce attack on the entrance and guard tower that made world news for weeks. Soon after that the 11th ACR sent to relieve the Marines and took over perimeter security. The interior of the prison however is controlled by a private civilian contractor. We were given what is now considered a rare tour of the prison along with the 3rd Infantry Division Commander and viewed Saddamís Death House. After the invasion by Coalition Forces, documents were discovered in the form of ledgers that listed over ten thousand deaths in the prison. That is just the ones that got written down. They are still fearful of doing any excavation around the complex at this time for fear of uncovering mass graves.

Inside Abu Ghraib Prison. Gerald Williamson, former member of the 11th ACR in Vietnam has the undivided attention of 11th ACR troopers. He explains the ramifications and parallel of what would take place if the US allows a few in the vocal minority to cause them to leave Iraq before it is stable. The parallel being how the US abandoned the South Vietnamese people and the slaughter that followed at the hands of the communist North. (Photo by Gerald Williamson)


Media tours were halted after the media hammered the militaryís handling of prisoners while under the control of a National Guard unit. While the prisonerís treatment was without question wrong, it amounted to nothing more than what takes place at a college hazing. As usual the media worked it into frenzy for months. The real story in the prison which gets hardly any notice is the deplorable conditions that existed when Saddam was in control. Saddam and his sonís were very efficient at murder and torture as the various areas in the prison became Danteís Inferno to tens of thousands of Iraqis.

The Gallows and Baseball

This was an assembly line where two could be hung as quickly as one. The best comparison was to the batting order in our own American baseball. The scenario went like this. The first two unfortunate prisoners would step up to have the noose tightened around their neck with the executioner standing between at a podium with dual levers. When the trap door dropped, the bodies hung below on the next level. The next two prisoners in line to meet Alah, (On Deck), had the job of taking the dead prisoners down and dragging them to the door. They then moved to the gallows. From the door, the next two prisoners in line, (In The Hole), would drag the bodies outside to a waiting truck. They would then become (On Deck). This process worked well until a prisoner resisted, applied a union job action and refused to participate. He would then be counseled by having his hands connected to a rope that would be looped around a steel hook projecting from the concrete ceiling. He would be hoisted above the floor and repeatedly struck with sticks and other objects of pain like a Mexican PiŮata until he decided death by hanging was less painful. The counselors would take care not to damage the extremities while inflicting maximum pain. After all, this prisoner still had to be able to perform his part in the assembly line. We saw many of these ceiling hooks in various rooms throughout the prison.
 

Inside Abu Ghraib Prison. Gerald Williamson, former member of the 11th ACR in Vietnam has the undivided attention of 11th ACR troopers. He explains the ramifications and parallel of what would take place if the US allows a few in the vocal minority to cause them to leave Iraq before it is stable. The parallel being how the US abandoned the South Vietnamese people and the slaughter that followed at the hands of the communist North. (Photo by Gerald Williamson)

During the tour we were taken to a hall that had no window and was ventilated by holes in the concrete block. The hall was about fifteen foot wide and half the length of a football field. Imagine this hall filled to capacity, standing room only of hot bodies without air conditioning. Saddamís cronies were sending so many prisoners that the warden could not handle any more. He called one of Saddamís sons to ask how he might handle the problem. Uday or Qusay shows up with his entourage and immediately has a solution for the warden. He pulls his pistol and does a head count one, two, three bang.

He proceeds to repeat this down the hall as his assistants reload the magazines and drag out bodies. Problem solved.

THE VETS ARE COMING

Our early arrival in Baghdad at 1/11ACR was a surprise to the troops. Very few knew about us or why we were really there. Perhaps we were spies for the brass and really doing an IG inspection. It later proved to be a real morale booster. On our first daylight mission in the early morning hours we made our way to the three Humveesí. The crews were gathered around for the briefing and the team leader announced that two Vietnam vets would be riding with them today. We got a few bewildered glances as the briefing continued. When the briefing concluded they manned their vehicles as we waited to be directed to ours. When I entered the back seat behind the driver I introduced myself and told them my name was Eric and not Sir. The crew still seemed a bit uptight and bewildered having never experienced a situation like this. I added that I had served in Vietnam with the Regiment and had a combat MOS. I also told them not to baby-sit me and stay focused on their job. "If the S--- hits the fan, just pass me a gun, I can take care of myself." With that the ice was broken and their silence changed to "Hooah". The gunner above me then added, "When they said some Vietnam vets would be riding with us today, we figured, these guyís have got to be at least sixty or seventy years old by now". Their mind now at ease, I said that we left our walker and wheelchair inside HQís.

 

By Eric Newton
Photos by Gerald Williamson