Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Beginning: Son of the Infantry

The soldier adjusted the helmet liner on his son’s head and gave him a wink. The parade was about to start, the other soldiers were lining up in formation and the six-year-old boy was about to ride in a real Army jeep with his father, Major John M. Grist.

The little boy was me and I can remember how proud I was to ride in that jeep during a Winter Park Christmas parade in the mid-1950s. The helmet liner was too big, but so was the Army fatigue shirt that I wore. When we drove past my mother and sister, I waved proudly. The spectators applauded the marching soldiers and I felt like I was also in the Army. It was a defining moment for a little kid.

My father graduated from Infantry Officer Candidate School (above photo) and served in World War II as an infantryman. Although most of his time was spent as a firearms instructor at Fort Benning, Georgia, he went to Europe toward the end of the war to command a prisoner-of-war camp filled with German soldiers. He received orders for the South Pacific just as the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Like many boys of my generation, we enjoyed our adventures as we wore our fathers’ helmets, carried their old metal canteens and buttoned up their Eisenhower jackets. I even tried on the Nazi uniform Dad brought home and was surprised at how small it was (because it was worn by a German teenager who was probably scared to death). When I put it on, it gave me the creeps.

My father was a quiet man of deep inner strength. Like his comrades, he brought home the kind of patriotism that was more intense than the flag-waving kind. I learned from him that there was something special about America and that it was the responsibility of the members of each generation to protect the gift of freedom they received from their parents.

My mother and father were children of the South. I grew up with stories about my ancestors who fought in the American Revolution and who defended the doomed cause of the Confederate States. They taught me that the men in my family had stepped forward in every war that America ever fought. I was raised to understand that the blood of patriots flowed through my body and into my soul. I have never forgotten that lesson.

On October 16, 1969, retired Major Grist gave the oath of office to his twenty-year-old son who was graduating as a second lieutenant from Infantry OCS. After making a few parachute jumps as a sophomore cadet at the Citadel, I decided to enlist as an infantryman. My father’s eyes got misty as he finished administering the oath to me, my mother pinned on my gold bars and the family tradition continued.

I would never claim to be half the man that my father was. When I came home from Vietnam, I joined the rest of America’s phantom soldiers of the time. We all returned as tired old men in their twenties who had seen too much of the worst of man. Then we blended un-noticed into a society that didn’t even try to understand or appreciate us. I didn’t continue my military service at that time, but nine years later I remembered the good things about the Army and I re-enlisted as a sergeant.

My father suffered a massive stroke in 1981. Before he died the following year, I spent a lot of time with him in the hospital as he tried to recover his lost abilities. He was trying to stand up one day when he lost his balance and fell toward me. I caught him and we slowly sat down together.

As he rested his head on my shoulder, he asked if he could take it easy for a minute. I told him that I had leaned on him my whole life; it was his turn to lean on me. Dad looked up at me and said “I’ll take it...”

Then he winked at me, just like he did when I was six years old.

SFC Chuck Grist

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

R. Clarke Cooper: Wartime Lieutenant Moving Up

Lieutenant Cooper (left) with me in Baghdad in 2004
Today I received an email from my former lieutenant, R. Clarke Cooper. During my tour in Iraq, he was the aide to Brigadier General Sandy Davidson. As the sergeant in charge of Davidson’s Protective Service Detail, or PSD, I received my daily briefings and instructions from Cooper.

After we came home, this remarkable young officer returned to Baghdad as a civilian employee for the State Department where he became the Congressional liaison for Ambassador Khalilzad. Now that Khalilzad is leaving his post in Iraq, Cooper is back in the States to “pave the way” for the man who will likely be America’s next United Nations ambassador.

I wrote the following about Cooper in my war journal:

"R. Clarke Cooper began his tour in Iraq as a “lowly” second lieutenant. He eventually made first lieutenant, but the requirements of his job in a war zone should have made him at least a captain. That was not the way it was, though. One-star brigadier generals like our boss only rated a lieutenant for an aide. General Davidson hit a home run when he got Cooper because the young officer was a professional and dedicated subordinate.

Cooper was no stranger to the world of politics. In 2001 U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton named him the Assistant Director of the National Park Service for Legislative and Congressional Affairs. Before that he was the Deputy Director of Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s Federal Affairs Office in Washington where he helped negotiate the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. Cooper also served as the Director of Governmental Affairs for the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida.

Our lieutenant was a graduate of Florida State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in history, the president of his senior class and the president of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity. His military service included training at the U.S. Army Intelligence School at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. For crying out loud, the guy was even an Eagle Scout.

It didn’t take long to realize that Cooper was not your ordinary lieutenant. As an old man with a lot of dust on his boots, I knew this young man faced a promising future. He was focused and driven by an energy that wore me out sometimes. Cooper was awake each morning before the general and he was still working after the boss hit the rack. It took almost twenty-four hours a day to manage the activities of any general and Cooper was masterful at the job.

When Major Eversman left us, Lieutenant Cooper became my supervisor by default and we depended on each other to get the job done. With my tendency to scorn the political world in which he lived, the lieutenant often strained to keep me on a short leash. Fortunately, he knew his own limitations and he wisely depended on my experience for tactical decisions. His willingness to do this only increased my respect for him as a leader. He was diligent in his supervision, he knew how to use his soldiers as resources and he let them do their jobs.

I routinely met Lieutenant Cooper at the CPA (later the American Embassy) to review various administrative items and to plan the tactical movements related to General Davidson’s schedule. I waited for the L.T. in the large rotunda outside Ambassador Bremer’s office and we ate lunch in the ornate mess hall at the CPA. It was amazing to be in the heart of the operations center for everything going on in Iraq.

The CPA was filled with high-rollers from Washington, D.C., political appointees, diplomats, spies and the generals from the various countries in the Coalition. The place over-flowed with all the cloak and dagger stuff imaginable in a war-time headquarters building. It was a little like the Pentagon with a touch of Rick’s CafĂ© in “Casablanca” thrown in."

Clarke Cooper is on the fast track in the high-speed world of politics. He is intelligent, resourceful and destined for much greater things.

Remember his name. You will hear it again…

SFC Chuck Grist

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Thinking Blogger Award

I am grateful to Toni of Bear Creek Ledger for listing me as one of her nominees for this award. It is always nice to create a new award, especially one designed to pass on to five other bloggers who make you think. As an old soldier, I do have some favorites:
Michael Yon's Online Magazine is a great example of a guy who has been there and done that. He reminds me of Ernie Pyle and some of the correspondents who have written for "Soldier of Fortune" magazine. He is a courageous adventurer and friend of the warrior. His total objective is to tell the truth about war and those who wage it, no matter what the cost to him personally.
Blackfive - The Paratrooper of Love is another site that has been straightforward about war. The story must be told; who best to tell it than the warriors themselves.
365 and a Wakeup also tells the first person story of someone who knows what it's all about. It is well-written and I admire this guy.
A Soldier's Perspective is from the Noble Duty Milblogger Coaliton and it recommended because it is plainspoken common sense and covers a wide spectrum of concerns for all Americans.
Wake up America is an all-American blog. That is not just because Spree interviewed me via Centcom; I enjoy the read, too!
Rules of participation (as relayed by Toni):
Congratulations, you won an award! Should you choose to participate, please make sure you pass this list of rules to the blogs you are tagging. The participation rules are simple:
1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ (above) with a link to the post that you wrote.
Thanks again to Toni and congratulations to my own nominees!
SFC Chuck Grist

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Gold Convoy

Since my team in Iraq was responsible for protecting a general during our 2004 tour, we spent a lot of time at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone. My direct supervisor was Lieutenant Clarke Cooper, Brigadier General Sandy Davidson’s aide. (Davidson is now a major general at Centcom and Cooper is the State Department’s Congressional liaison for American Ambassador Khalilzad.)

When the general wasn’t being escorted by our C.O.B.R.A. Team, we often escorted other Coalition officers and civilians. We also were used to protect Iraqi civilian VIPs as well and General Davidson’s driver often accompanied us. Sergeant Herbert Hale was a highly skilled tactical driver.

The following entry from my war journal tells about our “secret mission” for the embassy:

“One morning we met Lieutenant Cooper and Sergeant Hale in front of the main doors of the U.S. Embassy. Cooper arranged for us to take some radios and recovered historical artifacts to the Iraqi National Museum and it would take our Humvee and the general’s to carry all the boxes. Cooper brought out the first set of boxes and put them in the general’s Humvee. He then called me over, pulled the top back on one of the cardboard boxes, moved a handful of styrofoam pieces out of the way and there, in all its glory, was a solid gold bar that weighed about 40 pounds.

I looked at him with an expression that suggested I wanted more information. He said he would tell me more later, but this was the one and only time we would do such a mission. When he walked back into the embassy, I opened the first container again and then a second one and I saw that both contained large bars of solid gold. I grabbed my camera and took pictures of the gold bars for posterity, but the movie “Three Kings” kept popping into my mind.

With some of the unusual activities we had seen in Iraq, I was concerned about the way this was being done. Although I maintained complete faith in Cooper, when he came out again with more boxes, I made sure he confirmed with me and the guys that there was written authorization for the transfer.

Cooper showed the paperwork to us and said the embassy administratively transferred the gold to the Ministry of Culture the day before and the written documentation was sent to the museum by diplomatic courier. Cooper said it was all legal and above-board. His word was good enough for me, but it was still nice to see the paperwork. The sting we did with the master sergeant ran through my mind (the C.O.B.R.A. Team assisted the Defense Criminal Investigative Service in apprehending a soldier who was a thief) and I wanted no part of any questionable deal. I knew Cooper would never knowingly involve us in anything improper, but I didn’t want him screwed either.

After everything was loaded, we took on an Iraqi passenger named Christina who worked with the Ministry of Culture. She sat in the only remaining seat since the rest of them were filled with boxes of artifacts and gold. We then proceeded on what was clearly a secret mission for the American embassy to transfer some eight hundred pounds of gold bullion to the Ministry of Culture via the Iraqi National Museum. Naturally, the enemy would love to get their hands on a bunch of gold bars. I tried to imagine how many IEDs, mortars or rockets could be purchased with all that gold.

Many Iraqi nationals must be aware of the transfer and this was a major concern to me. Was there a ministry employee who was a bad guy and who might try to hijack the shipment? I had to hand it to Cooper because he also thought about that possibility; the actual mission to transfer the gold was officially scheduled for the next day. He moved it up a day without telling anyone, so any plans to rob us would be screwed up. Sharp guy, that Cooper.

We pulled out of the embassy compound with the gold and the priceless artifacts and drove toward the Al Rasheed gate. We then headed north into Baghdad through heavy traffic. According to Cooper, by the time we reached the museum, representatives from the Ministry of Culture would already be there.

We kept getting stuck in traffic and I waited for potential hijackers to make their presence known. We scanned every car, every face and every building for any sign we were going to be attacked. We finally rolled into the offices next to the museum with our secret cargo of gold hidden in boxes marked “Ministry of Culture” and mixed in with the artifacts. While Cooper went inside, I pulled out my video camera and filmed the gold, lifting one of the bars partially out of its box.

Some Iraqis came out of the museum offices and removed all the boxes from our Humvees. We watched as the boxes with the gold were stacked separately. Then, as the other boxes were being carried inside the museum, the gold was loaded into a white NTV(non-tactical vehicle or SUV). Armed Iraqi men dressed in civilian clothes left with the gold, presumably to deliver it to the Ministry of Culture. At least we hoped that was what they were going to do.

Once they were gone, I was able to relax and not worry that we were caught up in some sort of sting operation. I still wasn’t totally convinced this gold wouldn’t end up being stolen by some Iraqi or group of Iraqis and somehow get delivered to the bad guys. We would certainly never know.

Our secret mission ended quickly as did our own opportunity to pull a “Three Kings” gold heist. Let’s face it, we were all cops so such a daring feat wouldn’t possibly work for us. Not only was honesty a factor, but we didn’t want to spend our lives waiting for the swift sword of justice to cut our heads off. In reality, the Iraqi people deserved to be the ultimate beneficiaries of the gold since it almost certainly came out of Saddam Hussein’s personal treasure stash. As long as the Sunni insurgents or Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army didn’t get it, I was satisfied. I still felt like I was living in some Humphrey Bogart-type world.

Spys, secret missions, gold bullion. Like Bogey said, it was the stuff that dreams were made of.”

SFC Chuck Grist

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Muqtada al Sadr and The Mahdi Army

Today the Associated Press reported that Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army may have split into several different groups. This story said that as many as 3,000 of these militamen are now financed directly by Iran and not even loyal to al Sadr. (News photo above is from May, 2004.)

The article (written by Hamza Hendawi and Qassim Abdul-Zahra of the AP) quoted two senior militia leaders who said that hundreds of these Iraqi fighters have crossed into Iran and are being trained by the elite Quds Force, part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. These same Iranian troops are believed to have directly trained Hezbollah in Lebanon and Muslim fighters in Bosnia and Afghanistan. This is further indication that the most dangerous foe in the war against terror continues to be Iran, a country with a long history of terror sponsorship.

In April, 2004, Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army conducted an uprising which resulted in the deaths of both American soldiers and Iraqis. I was in Baghdad at the time and I wrote the following as American military leaders began to realize the seriousness of the threat posed by the Mahdi Army:

“After the protesters marched across the Republican Bridge on April 3rd, the Stars and Stripes newspaper and the Washington Post reported that men from the Mahdi Army were in the crowd chanting “Just say the word, Muqtada, and we’ll resume the 1920 revolution”. They were referring to the uprising against British rule. The continued violence in Najaf was also associated with the Mahdi Army. Al Sadr’s remarks were interpreted by his followers as a call to arms and the violent members of his militia commenced their attacks on Coalition forces.

Remembering that some sixty per cent of Iraqis were Shiite, it was wise to note that Al Sadr and his followers were also Shiite. Although his father was a great ayatollah, Muqtada was just a low level cleric who didn’t even finish his formal religious training. With the family’s claimed lineage to the Prophet, Muqtada attracted a large number of highly fanatical and dedicated followers. Al Sadr appealed primarily to the younger Shiites who were less educated and easier to manipulate. As Americans later discovered, many of his followers were nothing more than common criminals who hitched their wagons to what they believed was a rising star.

An arrest warrant was issued for Muqtada al Sadr on April 5th. Some reports said there was military action in the area of his home. His venomous anti-Coalition rhetoric incited his Mahdi Army followers to engage in violence against us and he turned his militia members into nothing more than new branches of an increasingly vicious insurgent enemy. His speeches made him sound like a man who was laying the groundwork for a fundamentalist revolution like the one in Iran. If that ever happened, the streets would be filled with even more crazed Islamic fundamentalists looking to kill Americans.

By the 6th the news was filled with stories about the Sadr City-based violence. Three more soldiers were killed in that area and several Marines were lost in action in Fallujah. The Mahdi Army militiamen had their own uniform and they were usually dressed in black shirts and pants as well as green headbands with Arabic slogans on them. Their black outfits reminded some of us of the Viet Cong and their black “pajamas”. One of the running jokes was about hearing “gooks in the wire”, a comment left over from the Vietnam era which referred to the highly skilled Viet Cong sappers.

With only fifteen minutes notice on the 7th, we were ordered to escort one of our unit’s officers to BIAP (Baghdad International Airport). On our way back, about two miles from the gate to the Green Zone, we saw about fifty Shiite demonstrators in the median of Route Irish. They were headed east toward the gate and they carried flags and signs. Some of the people were beating themselves with chains. These civilians were being herded like cattle by members of the Mahdi Army who wore their trademark black uniforms and green headbands.

At our high rate of speed, we passed them quickly and we didn’t see any overt display of weapons. I notified the officer on duty at the gate that the protesters were on their way. We drove only a short distance into the Green Zone when the QRF (quick reaction force) passed us. They reacted quickly to our report. The QRF met the group of Shiites outside the Green Zone and engaged in a firefight with the Mahdi Army members, killing several of the militiamen.

Later that same day, I was handed a document that said the Mahdi Army was declared a hostile force at 2355 hours the previous night. Since the members of the Mahdi Army were now officially enemy soldiers, they could be engaged upon that status alone, without regard to any overt hostile intent. If we had been given this valuable intelligence in a timely manner, we could have engaged the Mahdi Army members ourselves. Their new status was probably why the QRF was so anxious to make contact with them.”

The average soldiers in Iraq in 2004 knew that the Mahdi Army was being trained and funded by the Iranians. Al Sadr routinely made trips to Iran along with other Shiite leaders and his militia should have been taken out at that time. The failure to disarm all the militias will be remembered as one of the biggest mistakes of the Iraq war.

America’s leaders must remember that we cannot fight “half-wars”. Once the fight has commenced, anyone who opposes us must be decisively engaged and defeated. If we are going to wage war, we must do so until our enemies are forced to surrender or until they are destroyed – just as our fundamentalist adversaries promise to do to us…

SFC Chuck Grist

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

When the War Began

Now that we have passed the fourth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, I decided to pull out the journal I started in December, 2002. When the war began in 2003, I was assigned to a team that was mobilizing military police units at Fort Stewart, Georgia. As that mission came to an end, I asked to be released to go to Iraq. My unit wouldn’t release me until the following November.

I made this entry on March 21, 2003, and it reflects what I had seen on the news or heard through “rumor control” as the war began:

“On March 19, at about 2130 hours (9:30 p.m.), the United States acted on intelligence information and dropped bombs on a location in Baghdad where Saddam Hussein and his sons were believed to be hiding. Thus began Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Since then, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, the 3rd Infantry Division, the 7th Cavalry and other units have invaded Iraq. As of this writing, it is uncertain if Hussein was killed or injured, but intelligence sources said he was carried out of the building on a gurney with oxygen. It may or may not be true.

The Iraqi port of Umm Qasr has been captured, some 75 Tomahawk cruise missiles have been fired and fighting has taken place near Nasiriya at the Euphrates River. The capture of airfields H2 and H3 in the western portion of Iraq probably involved the Rangers and the Marines have seen intense fighting in southern Iraq which resulted in the first U.S. combat casualty, a Marine officer.

B52s have left Britain for parts unknown. This could be part of the ‘Shock and Awe’ strategy developed to shock the Iraqi military into surrendering. Large numbers of Iraqi soldiers have surrendered, but many are either resisting or withdrawing. In Safwan, a southern Iraqi town, civilians have cheered the arrival of liberating American troops.

Communications seem to have broken down within the Iraqi military leadership and some negotiations may be underway between American commanders and Iraqis with regard to surrender of some units.

During the fight for the main highway near Basrah, U.S. Marines were shelled by Iraqi mortars, but there were no casualties. Saddam Hussein (if he is still alive) has supposedly offered a bounty for the capture or death of an American.

A couple of military helicopters have crashed, killing numerous American and British soldiers. Some of the oil fields in southern Iraq are reportedly in flames. U.S. forces have gone to suspected sites of weapons of mass destruction, but the results are unclear. American and British naval forces have captured Iraqi ships carrying mines off southern Iraq.

Thousands of protesters around the world are active today with many violent protests occurring. Once protester fell off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and was killed. Tens of thousands protested in Cairo, there was violence in Yemen and over 1000 people were arrested in San Francisco as other protests continued.

CNN journalists were just ordered out of Baghdad. They were about the last ones there. Most journalists left when they were advised to do so.

As I continue to work with the soldiers at Ft. Stewart, I am impressed with the dedication of the troops going overseas. They know they will face danger and, quite possibly, death. They know they might have to endure chemical or biological weapons, but they continue to prepare themselves and their units for war. It is an honor to work with them…."

Reading this now is a reminder of how we all felt at the time. The nation was standing together, we had a common purpose and we were resolute in our determination to achieve victory. We would face whatever the future held for us, but we would face it together with courage and fortitude.

Some of us still feel that way…

SFC Chuck Grist

Monday, March 19, 2007

Afghan Soldiers & Cops Visit America

Following our escort of Brigadier General Mohammad of Afghanistan, several of us were asked to escort some of the Afghan police officers and soldiers to a local Walmart. I had already gotten to know several of these men and I was more than happy to help them spend a little time shopping in America.

Because our guests were making their first trips out of Afghanistan, they entered a world that was totally unfamiliar to all of them. As a result, one American soldier was assigned to each Afghan cop or soldier. In many ways they reminded me of children who were going to Disney World for the first time.

These men were fascinated with the wide variety of products as well as the different types of Americans and styles of dress. Coming from a world of constant need, they marveled at a world of plenty. It was difficult not to feel sorry for them, but I couldn’t help it.

My first escort was for a soldier in the Afghan National Army. His name was Ghulum Sakhi Jamshid. (See our photo above.) He spoke no English and we had to communicate by sign language. Unfortunately, he had spent much of the $100 or so that he was given for the trip and only had about $25 left. Walmart was kind enough to give the Afghans $10 gift certificates and he spent his on a flashlight and a bag of trail mix. He was a single man with no children, quiet, respectful and religious. Although we couldn’t communicate very well, we had a few laughs and I helped him select a decent flashlight. He spent the ride back to his barracks playing with the flashlight like a kid.

The second time we went to Walmart I escorted an officer of the Afghan National Police. His name was Wahidullah Kalimzai and he was married with two children. He saved most of the money he was given and apparently brought some more cash from relatives. Almost all of it was spent on things his family members would need. He bought moisturizer cream, shampoo, clothes and other things for the women in his extended family. He also purchased two toys for his kids. Like the Afghan soldier, he was a quiet man and although he probably didn’t have much back home, he bought nothing for himself. I was impressed by his selflessness.

Before we left Walmart, the Afghans took pictures of themselves in the aisles using the merchandise for their backgrounds. They wanted to be photographed with some of the clerks, a few of the shoppers, American kids and the soldiers who escorted them. Outside the store, several were photographed standing next to some of America’s expensive SUVs.

These men didn’t spend much time in the United States. They are now back in Afghanistan where they face the possibility of death each day. It is difficult to support their families on their small salaries, but they are proud of their jobs and very proud to be Afghans. They are stalwart, courageous and rugged – the only kind of men who can endure in such a savage land.

Each time I have the opportunity to meet average people from countries like Afghanistan or Iraq, I am more grateful than ever to be an American. We have been blessed in this country and we must not forget that there are those who have so much less.

SFC Chuck Grist

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Afghan Warrior General: Din Mohammad

One of the most enjoyable parts of my last short-term mission was to help escort Brigadier General Din Mohammad of the Afghan National Army. Along with Captain Robert Hilton, I was able to gain some insight into the leadership of the new Afghanistan.

Mohammad is the deputy G-2 (Intelligence) of the Afghan National Army. He visited the United States to observe Afghan soldiers and police officers who were helping train Americans who are headed for Afghanistan. I’ll talk more about these other visitors on another day, but I wanted to mention General Mohammad because of the impression he made on me.

American Army Colonel James Cobb and Afghan interpreter Barialai Ahmadzai accompanied General Mohammad on the long trip from Afghanistan. Captain Hilton and I took them to training sites, local restaurants for dinner and even on shopping trips. Although the general had been to the United States once before, I enjoyed watching him buy some clothes and sample a little American food.

Mohammad fought the Russians during the previous war in Afghanistan and spent a total of six and a half years in captivity. Eighteen months of that imprisonment were in solitary confinement under relentless interrogation and torture by the KGB. During our time with him, Mohammad was friendly and he had a good time, but it was obvious he spent much of his life on constant guard.

While we sat in an Italian restaurant, his eyes would move to the door or scan the crowd. As a cop and a war veteran, I am one of those who likes the corner table and who avoids turning his back on anyone. I could only imagine what it was like to spend every day on “red alert”. This would always be the general’s life in Afghanistan as he tried to avoid assassins of the Taliban or their spies and infiltrators in the Afghan army.

General Mohammad softened when he spoke of his family and he expressed his gratitude for American assistance. He is one of the founding fathers of the new Afghanistan and a man of great courage and strong presence. When he addressed a formation of Afghan police officers and soldiers, they treated him with great respect. Afterwards, many approached him and asked to have their pictures taken with him.

These people of Afghanistan are bred from a warrior class that is thousands of years old. They are a hardy people who endure a difficult life in a harsh environment. Those that fight alongside our soldiers do so fiercely and with purpose.

Our common enemy is just as hardy and just as determined. The Taliban, Al Qaeda and the other Islamic extremists also fight with purpose and their ultimate goal includes our defeat and our submission to their brutal fundamentalist world.

It will not only take the strength of the American military to defeat this enemy. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, courageous warriors like General Mohammad will have the ultimate responsibility for ensuring peace and stability in their own nations.

SFC Chuck Grist

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Mortars Along the Tigris

I am still involved in training activities at Fort Bragg and I will soon tell you about some of the extraordinary individuals I have met. Until I can do so, I’ll reflect once more on my tour in Iraq in 2004. The above photo shows the Tigris River and downtown Baghdad.

* * * *

I was fortunate to lead the men of the “C.O.B.R.A. Team” (Staff Sergeant Aaron Self, Sergeant Chad Higginbotham and Sergeant John “Doc” Actis, II). Our job as a protective service detail, or personal security detachment, was to protect the life of Brigadier General Charles “Sandy” Davidson, the commander of the 350th Civil Affairs Command. Davidson is now a major general assigned to Centcom. Our team’s website is

When we lived in Baghdad’s Green Zone, our little house was directly on the Tigris River across from the Sheraton Hotel, a frequent target of insurgent rockets or mortars. We called our residence the “cobra pit”.

The following excerpt from my in-progress book tells about an incident during which we were the target of other incoming rounds:

“I was sitting alone in the cobra pit on the evening of August 7th when I heard two loud explosions. Running outside to see what was happening, I stepped into the courtyard just as a mortar or small rocket flew directly over my head and exploded about a hundred meters away. I muttered an expletive to myself, but another round flew into the Green Zone and landed even closer.

Looking for some reasonable cover, I ran to the concrete stairway leading up to the street. There was a small space next to the wall of the cobra pit and it provided good protection for the moment. Another round landed on the other side of the wall and the explosion sent pieces of steel shrapnel flying over my head. I could hear chunks of metal landing on the roof of our house. It was the closest these weapons had ever come to me.

After seven or eight rounds, it appeared the attack was over. I walked up to the street and headed toward the general’s house where I knew Higginbotham was guarding the boss. Several Iraqi civilians came outside and pointed to the end of the street where one of the rounds might have landed on a house. We all began to walk in that direction to make sure there were no casualties.

As we passed the house next to the cobra pit, another round came over our heads and exploded nearby. I told the Iraqis to go back and take cover and they started running to their house. Other rounds continued to impact near us and the last Iraqi in the group acted like he didn’t know where to go. I directed him to our stairwell and he joined me in the small area next to the stairs. The attack ended shortly thereafter.

Everyone was fine at the general’s house and Higginbotham made sure General Davidson was under sufficient cover. Fortunately, there were no casualties in our compound.”

SFC Chuck Grist

Sunday, March 4, 2007

The New Warriors

“Arms once taken up should never be laid down but upon one of three conditions:
A safe peace, a complete victory or an honorable death.”
Jeanne Albret

I am still at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Right now I am involved in a training activity which I will be able to discuss in a few days.

Some of those with whom I am working will be in one of the war zones very soon. I was reminded of our flight to Iraq in 2004. The following is a short excerpt from Chapter 2 of my book-in-progress:

“It was awfully cold for a Florida boy when we landed at Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany, at 0234 hours on January 25, 2004. The anticipated three to five hour wait for aircraft re-fueling and a crew change was more like eight hours.

As we entered the Gate 3 area, I noticed a glass partition that separated us from the passengers at Gate 2. Dozens of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were waiting there for their own flight. They had just left Iraq and, like strangers in the night, we were passing them as we traveled in the opposite direction. Looking through the glass, I saw a new generation of combat veterans. These were young men with Combat Infantryman Badges, combat patches on their right shoulders and the far away look of men who had seen too much. I easily recognized the “thousand yard stare”.

The faces were different, but I was reminded of my arrival in Vietnam over three decades earlier. As we filed off the plane to enter that war, a group of hardened veterans with dark tans and medals on their chests walked out of the terminal to take our plane home. Listening to some of them taunt us with “You’re all going to die” made us wonder how many of us would ever return to our loved ones.

There were troops from several units in the waiting area, but the 101st soldiers were the most abundant. I spoke to a young private who said his unit was in a firefight in Mosul only a few days earlier. When the fight began, he was afraid he might not make it home after all. The young man had served in the war since March of 2003 and he was exhausted. Tired or not, he was still proud enough to tell me he re-enlisted to go to Ranger school. The soldier looked like a kid to me, but at my age almost everyone does.”

It is true that each generation passes on, but the one behind it always picks up the sword. I was proud to shake the hand of that young warrior because I had walked his path. It takes a warrior to understand a man who will always have a layer of steel just under the surface of his skin. He will love, hate, work, live and die, but part of him will remain private. That piece of his soul can only be shared with another warrior.

A man once asked me why some war veterans can’t just get over their experiences and get on with their lives. I looked at this shallow individual and said, “If I have to explain it to you, you wouldn’t understand…”

SFC Chuck Grist

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Courage Under Fire

Major Edward Eversman

“I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
Warrior Ethos

I have been fortunate to serve with some of America’s greatest citizens – soldiers who have volunteered to serve on the front lines in the war on terror. One of these is a U.S. Marshal who trained my protective service detail – the C.O.B.R.A. Team – before we deployed to Iraq to protect Brigadier General (now Major General) Charles “Sandy” Davidson.

Major Edward Eversman is a true warrior-citizen. In Chapter 8 of my in-progress book, I tell about a life-or-death incident that was resolved primarily because of Eversman’s leadership. The chapter is called “To Face the Elephant”. Here is the excerpt about the major:

“When I first met Major Edward Eversman, it was clear he was used to being in charge. A large, well-built man standing well over six feet, he was obviously a powerful figure as a lawman. If he was the U.S. Marshal at the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the Clanton gang would probably have run away without firing a shot. Even so, his personality was outgoing, gregarious and he was the kind of guy you’d like to share a few beers with in a sports bar.

As we prepared to leave Pensacola from the headquarters of the 350th, I sat on the bus and watched Eversman as he said goodbye to his wife and young children. When he parted with them, he was clearly upset and, without shame, held back tears as he sat down near me. He saw them wave goodbye to him and the unspoken words were “Will we ever see each other again?” There is no way to explain to the uninitiated what it is like to be a warrior who marches into battle while your loved ones wait in fear at home.

Major Ed Eversman was born with Army green flowing through his veins. He entered the world as a military brat at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and spent much of his youth moving from one place to the other. After graduating from the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Eversman continued to live in that city and he now considered it his hometown. As a dedicated criminal investigator and Deputy U.S. Marshal for the United States Marshal’s Service, Ed Eversman was one tough cop. On April 1st, 2004, his coolness under fire made all the difference during a life-or-death encounter with Iraqi insurgents.

While he was still back in the States, the major clearly embraced his opportunity to create a protective service detail for General Davidson. When the 350th anointed him with that task, as well as the leadership of the PSD, he was excited about the mission and he became absorbed with the challenge of making it work.

With only a short time before deployment, he “cut to the chase” at Camp Shelby and Fort Bragg and created the necessary training to bring the PSD as close as possible to his standards. He knew he wasn’t working with recruits and the experience of the law enforcement officers and combat veterans on the team would be an asset. This made his job easier because the tasks and the training were rapidly absorbed by the new team.

When the team was decimated in Kuwait, there was no one more upset than Major Eversman. The job he was trained to do, the team he created and the mission he mentally prepared himself for were all torn apart. He was a professional and he would adapt to his new job in Iraq, but there was no doubt that being taken away from the team was painful for him. All of us missed the big guy as well.

Although his tenure as the leader of the C.O.B.R.A. Team ended, Major Eversman became intent on doing the best job he could as an advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior. As part of that job, he needed to present a briefing on the Iraqi Facilities Protection Service (FPS) to the Polish officers in charge of Camp Alpha in Babylon. At some point the FPS would take over the security for that legendary city.

Going along as an observer was Colonel Charles Lykes of the 350th CACOM. Because he was “only” a major, Eversman didn’t have enough rank to demand helicopter transportation on short notice, so he would lead a vehicle convoy to Babylon. After Lieutenant Cooper turned him down when he requested that the C.O.B.R.A. Team join him on the mission as extra security, the major looked to others at the Ministry of the Interior for a little extra manpower and firepower.

Marine Lieutenant Colonel Rich Diddams was Major Eversman’s boss at the Ministry and he would be armed with an AK47. Geoff Howard, another Ministry advisor, and Navy Lieutenant Jim Gilson also went along; Howard was armed with an AK47 and Gilson carried Eversman’s British Sten gun. Rounding out the ad hoc security team were Brendan Lund, a finance specialist at the Ministry who was armed with a Beretta 380 handgun and Jim Vickery, the Director of the FPS, who had a Glock 9mm handgun. Eversman carried his own Beretta 9mm handgun and Colonel Lykes used his issued M16.

At this time small convoys were authorized to move in NTVs. This group made the two-hour trip south from Baghdad to Babylon in two unarmored Suburbans. On the way down, the lead vehicle was driven by Vickery, with Diddams as the front seat passenger, Lykes as the driver’s side rear passenger and Lund in the passenger side rear seat. Eversman’s Suburban was the trail vehicle on the first leg of the convoy with Howard in the front passenger seat and Gilson in the driver’s side rear seat.

The briefing in Babylon was completed by 1400 and the soldiers began their journey back to the Green Zone. This time Vickery and his passengers were in the trail vehicle and Major Eversman was in the lead. About an hour and a half into the trip, the two vehicles started to take enemy fire. Eversman looked out the window to his left and saw sparks as incoming bullets ricocheted off the pavement next to him. When he looked to the right, he saw rounds striking the dirt in the ditch on the side of the road.

Yelling “Ambush!”, Eversman believed they were in the middle of a roadside ambush. Taking immediate evasive action, he accelerated his own vehicle to get out of the kill zone. Then he looked in his side mirror and realized they were taking fire at the rear of the small convoy from a beat-up, white four-door Datsun or Nissan occupied by four masked insurgents. While one of the bad guys drove, the other three were hanging out of the windows firing AK47s at the Americans.

Eversman could see that the insurgent vehicle was right on the bumper of the Suburban driven by Vickery and containing passengers Diddams, Lund and Lykes. As rear-seat passengers, Lund and Lykes were in the most imminent danger of being killed. Vickery was doing his best to perform evasive maneuvers and his NTV was weaving all over the road to get away. Lieutenant Colonel Diddams leaned out of his window and returned fire with his own AK47.

Eversman’s passengers also tried to shoot at the insurgents, but the trail vehicle was in their line of fire and they couldn’t get a clear shot. Slowing down, the major waved Vickery forward into the lead position and used his own NTV to prevent the insurgent fire from striking Vickery’s vehicle. From Eversman’s Suburban, Howard and Gilson began to effectively return fire and one of the insurgents was hit. The now-dead bad guy fell from the enemy car at some ninety miles per hour and his body bounced along the highway like a rubber doll. Eversman continued to use his vehicle as a barrier between the insurgents and the other Suburban, but then Vickery lost control of his NTV in the soft sand on the side of the road and his vehicle started to spin out.

Eversman, the tactically-trained driver, took his Suburban into a power slide which ended with a high speed stop and a 180 degree turn. He saw the Vickery NTV strike a hill and vault into the air, landing upright in a ditch. Refusing to leave his comrades behind, Eversman drove up behind the now-stationary Suburban and started firing at the slowly approaching insurgent car with his handgun. Then Vickery got his vehicle moving and the two NTVs returned to the road and headed north again. This time the bad guys didn’t follow.

After driving a couple of miles down the highway, the soldiers reached an American convoy parked on the side of the road. The men stopped and surveyed the damage. Amazingly, no one was wounded, but there were numerous bullet holes in the tail end of Vickery’s NTV. One round punctured the gas tank and gasoline was slowly leaking out. The group decided to continue on to the Green Zone, but they would squeeze themselves into Eversman’s Suburban if the other vehicle ran out of gas.

When they were safely inside the Green Zone, the men suddenly realized their adrenaline was still pumping. They were amazed they survived a deadly ambush by insurgents who used the same techniques we were all told to expect. The guerrillas hoped to attack the convoy from the rear, ignite the gas tank of one of the NTVs and then kill the occupants when they escaped the burning vehicle. It just didn’t work this time.

After the nervous laughter and back-slapping was over, the soldiers did their own after-action review. When the firing started, Colonel Lykes tried to return fire, but he couldn’t get his seatbelt loose to turn around. Brendan Lund, sitting next to Lykes, started to return fire, but the twisting and turning of the swerving vehicle caused his weapon to slip out of his hands and fall onto the roadway. Lykes and Lund ended up ducking down in the back seat for cover. The Americans had stacked their backpacks and other equipment in the back of Vickery’s NTV, so their gear took the lion’s share of the insurgent bullets.

The following day Major Eversman received a report from the American unit that investigated the ambush. Other than the insurgent who fell dead onto the highway, two of the other attackers showed up at a local hospital in the shot-up white car and both later died of their wounds. Final score: Good guys 3, insurgents 0.

When it was all over, Major Eversman was straightforward about some of the tactical aspects of the convoy he might have handled differently. Although he completed his assigned mission, the biggest change would have been to make the trip as a part of a better-armed, larger convoy. Although it ultimately cost most of the bad guys their lives, the four insurgents elected to attack the two un-armored NTVs because they perceived them to be “soft” targets.

When I spoke to Colonel Lykes about this incident, he was adamant that the expert tactical driving by Eversman saved his life. The major, as one might anticipate, downplayed his own role and said he just did what needed to be done. Lieutenant Colonel Diddams and Colonel Lykes wrote a recommendation that Major Eversman receive a Bronze Star for valor. For some reason, that award never made it through the system.

Although Eversman laughed about not getting the award, he took charge in a deadly ambush and using his training, experience and courage, he brought everyone home.

It is said that the mercenaries in Africa in the 1960s told a story about great white hunters. Supposedly a hunter could never be referred to as a “great white hunter” until he faced a charging bull elephant and survived. Because the mercenaries couldn’t respect another soldier until he faced the ultimate test of mortal combat, it became part of their ritual of acceptance to ask whether or not a soldier ever “faced the elephant” of death.

Surely, Major Eversman and the men on his convoy “faced the elephant” on this particular day and with the courage and fierce determination of warriors they decisively defeated the enemy in one bloody battle in the relentless war on terror.”

SFC Chuck Grist