March 30, 2003
“Yes sir,” Captain Doyle said. “We’re on our way.”
The Commander hung up the phone. He paused momentarily to rub his eyes. This was not the first time he had been redirected during the early stages of a mission. Doyle was the Company Commander of the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
“Sergeant Major,” he called out. “Could you join me for a moment?”
Sergeant Major Sam Steele approached and saluted. Doyle returned his salute. Steele had served with the Rangers for 12 years, based out of Fort Benning, GA. There were a lot of things Doyle respected about Steele. He was fearless and followed orders without question, though he was also analytical; he would tell you what was on his mind when asked. At 6-foot-4 and 230 lbs., he was physically imposing and led his men from the front. When he barked a command with his deep, resonating voice, his soldiers jumped. He was near the end of his third tour in the Middle East. They were currently deployed in Iraq.
“We have a change of plan,” Doyle said.
“Why am I not surprised?” Steele replied.
“We are to take and hold the Haditha High Dam,” Doyle said.
“Are you kidding me?” Steele asked, exasperated.
Steele knew all about the dam. It was an earth-filled dam on the Euphrates River, located 185 miles northwest of Baghdad. It was about five and a half miles long, creating the Lake Qadisiyah man-made reservoir. It had been considered a key strategic piece of the Iraqi infrastructure. Its purpose was to create hydroelectricity, and to regulate the flow of the Euphrates. It also provided water for irrigation. It was the second-largest power system in Iraq, behind the Mosul Dam. Taking and controlling the Haditha Dam would be a major accomplishment, but Steele also knew it would come at a steep price. The Haditha Dam was well-protected and the Iraqis would not let it go easily.
“How much time will we have to prepare?” Steele asked.
“We go in tomorrow,” Doyle said.
“Tomorrow?” Steele replied in a questioning tone.
“Something on your mind, Sergeant?”
“May I remind the Captain that we have been preparing for a mission in the middle of the Iraqi desert. That’s the mission we are equipped to complete.”
“I know,” Doyle responded. “We are receiving an extra platoon, two sniper teams and an Air Force combat controller.”
“That will put us at just over 150 men,” Steele noted. “Do we think that is enough support?”
“It is what it is,” Doyle responded. “We’ll have air support. We are promised additional reinforcements in two days.” He unrolled a map and placed it on a makeshift table made of a 4x8 sheet of plywood positioned atop two saw horses. He pointed at the area of the dam on the map.
“We are about 33 miles from the dam, now. We’ll split into three groups: one will secure the southwest corner of the dam; one will secure the northeast corner and the third will overtake the power station control buildings.”
Steele had no doubt that they would succeed, but he was still frustrated. He had worked for over two weeks to prepare his men for a desert mission that included training drills and equipment acquisition. Now all that work and preparation would be thrown out and he would be taking his men into a dangerous situation with less than 24-hours to prepare and adding men who had not never with his unit before.
Even though he believed they would prevail, the lack of training time could easily result in American casualties that might be avoided if given time for preparation.
Twenty-two hours later, the first shots were fired. Iraqi resistance was fierce, bombarding the Rangers with more than 350 155 mm artillery shells during the next 36 hours. Captain Doyle called in airstrikes which took a little wind out of the Iraqi sails, but the Rangers were unable to completely push back the Iraqis for two full days. The other bad news was that reinforcements had not yet arrived. The good news was, that despite being utterly exhausted, the Rangers experienced only four casualties, none of which were life threatening.
Steele had led his men to the top of the dam, where the Rangers were met with heavy resistance. They faced Iraqi mortar tubes, RPG launchers and machine gun fire. Aided by snipers, Steele and his unit won the day and advanced, taking control of the dam.
Five days into the battle the Iraqi stronghold had retreated but pockets of resistance remained a danger. During a sweep Steele and four of his men went room to room in the primary control building.
They were down to three rooms when Steele saw the Iraqi soldier. Steele held up his fist. His men froze in place behind him.
“Suicide bomber!” one of his men cried out.
The Iraqi soldier held an automatic rifle in his right hand. A bomb had been strapped around his upper torso. He was wide-eyed, sweating and scared. Steele had seen the look before and knew that the Iraqi was prepared to die. It was Steele who had broken into the room first, followed by four of his men.
“Everyone, back away!” Steele commanded.
He began pushing the men out the door when the Iraqi soldier discharged his weapon twice. Steele took both rounds to his back. He fell to his knees using his remaining strength to push his men out into to the hall, closing the door shut behind them. He locked the door to prevent them from coming back in. He slumped to the floor.
“Sergeant!” screamed one of the men. “Open the door.”
“Run!” he called back. “That’s an order!”
“No, Sergeant!” cried one of the men. “We will not leave you.”
Steele grimaced in pain but barked, “The bomb is gonna go off. Move—now!”
Steele noticed a heavy metal desk laying on its side about eight feet away. He thought it might shield some of the blast he knew was coming any second.
Another bullet from the Iraqi whistled over Steele’s head. He rolled onto his back, his entire body searing in pain. The Iraqi screamed something in his native language—something the Sergeant didn’t understand. He looked at Steele, held the detonator up, and smiled.
The Iraqi soldier let out a blood-curdling scream and began firing his weapon.
Steele managed to muster strength enough to rise to his feet. He heard the click of the detonator. He dove for the desk. The explosion was catastrophic.