Special Operations Troops Recount Iraq Missions
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 5, 2004 Multi-service special operations troops have led the way to victory in overseas campaigns during the war against terrorism, a senior U.S. military officer said here today.
Special operators' expertise was a factor in driving the Taliban out of Afghanistan, noted Air Force Lt. Gen. Paul V. Hester, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, as well as in the ouster of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Hester told attendees at the 15th annual National Defense Industrial Association Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict symposium that a small group of special operations troops was inserted into Afghanistan early in the conflict.
The U.S. special operators worked with Northern Alliance forces, the general noted, enabling "the airpower of America to be brought quickly to the battlefield of Afghanistan."
U.S. special operations troops also contributed to victory in Iraq, Hester said. He introduced three special operators, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jamie Cartwright, Army Sgt. 1st Class Frank Antenori, and Air Force Capt. John Traxler, and asked them to relate their experiences during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Cartwright, a Navy Sea, Air and Land, or SEAL, special operations officer, noted that some of his unit's missions throughout Iraq from April to October included protecting a key dam, finding and capturing remnant regime members and foreign terrorists, seizing enemy ordnance and searching for weapons of mass destruction.
Members of his unit conducted more than 300 combat missions while in Iraq, the Navy officer noted. During missions they all subscribed to the cardinal rule of "Don't Get Shot," he added.
Cartwright said one of his most memorable experiences in Iraq was the discovery of a mass gravesite in Central Iraq that contained the remains of 3,000 Kuwaitis who'd been reported as missing after the 1990-91 Gulf War.
"Almost all of them had received a bullet in the back of the head," the Navy officer recalled.
Antenori, from the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) of the Army's Special Operations Command, recalled that a major part of his unit's mission in northern Iraq "was to keep 12 Iraqi divisions busy" so they wouldn't deploy to engage U.S. and coalition forces approaching Baghdad from the south.
During the April 6 Battle of Debecka Pass fought near between Mosul and Kirkuk, Antenori said, the Americans' prior training in Kuwait with the shoulder-fired Javelin surface-to-surface missile system turned out "to be worth its weight in gold."
During that fight, 31 Americans and 80 Iraqi Peshmerga troops, aided by Navy fighter bombing runs guided by Air Force combat controllers, successfully dealt with an Iraqi infantry brigade that was equipped with T-55 tanks and armored personnel carriers, Antenori said.
The fighting went back and forth, he recalled, but ultimately the Navy jets and Javelins destroyed myriad enemy armored personnel carriers and tanks, taking "the wind out of the Iraqi's sails" and helping to seal the victory.
After two more hours of fighting, the Iraqis left the battlefield, Antenori said, abandoning eight of their tanks and 16 APCs during the withdrawal.
Not everything, though, went according to plan, Antenori acknowledged, noting that a Navy bomb mistakenly killed a group of Kurdish soldiers gathered around a disabled T-55 tank.
"It was just one of those terrible things that happens" during war, he said.
Air Force special operations officer Traxler recalled his participation in "the largest Navy SEAL operation in history," which involved the protection of Iraqi oil-producing infrastructure in southern Iraq. The operation, he added, also included U.S. Marines, Polish troops, and British commandos.
U.S.-coalition special operations forces took control of the oil facilities, Traxler noted, with no friendly losses. The mission also secured the Faw peninsula, he pointed out, and "was a resounding success."
Traxler said his job during the operation was to route naval gunfire and artillery, mortars, close-air support and unmanned aerial vehicle traffic "in an extremely congested and complicated battle space" involving air, land and sea forces.
Photo-taking reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles, Traxler remarked, played an important role in identifying enemy vessels that plied along area waterways.
"This was an immensely difficult operation," Traxler pointed out, noting the mission also involved "a lot of coordination from a great staff."