In 2004 I was on a security detail in Iraq. Our principles were senior State Department officials and heads of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Our mission was to protect lives in the most dangerous and unrelenting place in the world.
After spending the first few weeks in Baghdad, I eventually moved to a town in the north called Dohuk, roughly 45 minutes from Mosul. In Baghdad we lived in the outskirts of the green zone, which gave us a relative sense of security, because of the large contingent of military stationed there and in the surrounding areas. Once I moved to Dohuk, it was a different story. The town itself was primarily quiet due to it’s Kurdish population but its neighbor to the south was a hot bed for insurgent attacks and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Our compound consisted of two homes surround by 200 ft. of fencing, with security towers on each corner. The parameter security consisted of armed local Kurdish men. While we slept, we had no choice but to trust those individuals with our lives. I think we all slept with one eye open and our M4 rifles at the ready.
Within the compound lived our principle and our eight man security detail. Our vehicles were two armored Suburban’s and two armored Nissan pickup trucks. The Suburbans were used as limo’s for the principle and the Nissan’s were used as chase/security support vehicles. There was no green zone or safe haven. We were on our own and we were targets because of our American vehicles.
Our days consisted of taking our principle to meetings with tribal leaders and heads of local government. Often, being off of the beaten path left us feeling vulnerable to attack. There were often tense moments, but so far we had always managed to get through them and bring everyone home in one piece.
There was one time that stands out from the daily routine that we all grew accustom to. Yes, even in an environment such as this, you have to fight off complacency. In fact, complacency could very well be the most dangerous enemy you would face.
I was summoned into the office of our principle one day along with my detail leader. It was brought to my attention that there was a young lady in the immediate area, that was being held against her will by her family. This particular young lady was born in northern Iraq, but was sent to Australia for education and protection from Saddam Hussein’s attacks on the Kurds. While she lived in Australia she began to live a westernized lifestyle, much to the distain of her father. Eventually she was invited back home for a visit, not knowing that she was walking into a trap; she would spend years locked up like a prisoner in her families’ home, enduring a great deal of abuse. By the time I had learned about her situation she was likely less than a week away from a death by stoning. An honor killing carried out by her very own family?an occurrence that takes place far more than we would like to admit.
I was asked if I would be willing to plan and lead the operation to get her out of harms way and back to Australia were she truly belonged. I volunteered without hesitation and began the planning process. I only had a few days to do so. A few of the guy’s on my detail volunteered to help as well.
The day of the rescue went as planned for about the first 15 minutes. She was instructed to walk to a particular point and stop. Once she reached that spot we were going to quickly drive up to her, throw her into our vehicle, and make a mad dash for the military base in Mosul. It turned out that she was so nervous that she passed the rendezvous point and kept walking down an alleyway that was too narrow for our vehicles to access. The plan had been for none of us to leave the vehicles so that we didn’t create to much of a scene. Once she headed into that alley though, I had no choice but to get out of the vehicle and run after her. Mind you, I was armed to the teeth with body armor, M4, Glock 19, and a rhodesian pouch filled with ammo and frag grenades. So much for not drawing any attention!
I began to sprint down the alleyway thinking to myself in amazement how fast she was walking. Once I got close I said, “Hey sweetheart, are you ready to go?!” She stopped in her tracks but did not turn around. I closed our distance and put my arm around her, swinging her in the direction that we needed to go. I could feel her trembling and could see the fear in her eye’s that peered through her hijab. I said something to effect that everything was going to be fine and that she was safe now. Even though I couldn’t be sure at that point. We had already started to attract a lot of attention.
The once empty alleyway started to fill with locals who were wondering what the hell was happening. It got so crowded I had to use the muzzle of my rifle to move and coerce individuals to clear the path. Eventually we made it back to the vehicles. Now for the hard part. We had to navigate through multiple Iraqi checkpoints and traverse one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in all of Iraq, leading us into the hot bed of Mosul where a plane would fly her to safety.
At the time I had no way of knowing the magnitude of what we accomplished. It has turned out to be one of the proudest moments of my life. Being a protector is something you have inside you. It’s the will to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves… the will to lay down your life for others.
Looking back, I realize that even though there was complete chaos all around us, I felt at ease. Everything seemed to move a bit slower than usual but remained very clear. I can directly attribute this to both my survival instinct, and my extensive training, which gave me the ability to focus and filter out any distractions in the moment… when it really matters.