Embedded in Iraq: What it’s like to be a war correspondent

Veterans Voices

WINCHESTER, VA. (WDVM) — It’s been 18 years since I rode into battle in the backseat of Gun-3, a heavily-armed Humvee in Counter-Mech Platoon in Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment of the First Marine Division during the Invasion of Iraq.

Ross Simpson in MOPP-4, full chemical warfare suit, in the backseat of Gun-3 as the platoon commander’s Humvee heads to the border between Iraq and Kuwait on the night of the invasion.

Before coming to WDVM where I co-anchor the Morning News and host the award-winning Veterans Voices, a half-hourly program each month, I was a network radio anchorman and war correspondent for The Associated Press in Washington. I covered the intervention in Somalia in 1963, the Invasion of Panama in 1989, the Gulf War in 1991 and military action in Haiti in 1995, but the Invasion of Iraq in 2003 topped them all.

I was one of four members of the media; a reporter and photographer from the Orange County Register in Southern California where the battalion was based at Camp Pendleton and the White House correspondent for United Press International, a wire service. Together we risked our lives to report on the first U.S. unit to cross into Iraq and engage the enemy in the Rumalyah Oil Fields on the night of March 20, 2003.

The battalion received the order to attack nine hours early when Iraqis began torching gas and oil separation plants just across ‘No Man’s Land,” two parallel sand berms that separated Iraq from Kuwait. I filed hundreds of “Live” satellite reports during the next 31 days in combat with 1/5 whose motto was “Make Peace or Die.”

Unfortunately, hundreds of Iraqi soldiers died. More than 200 hundred of them in the Rumalyah Oil Fields. In one of my satellite reports, I described what I could see as my platoon crossed the desert floor and approached a cut in the sand berms

One of three GOSPs, gas and oil separation plants, in the Rumalyah Oil Fields in southern Iraq was set on fire by Iraqi troops on the night the U.S. First Marine Division invaded their country.

“As lead elements of the battalion approached the border, they could see fires burning on the horizon,” I reported from inside Iraq at about midnight local time. It was difficult to breathe. Smoke from gas and oil separation plants, above-ground pipelines, oil wells and ditches full of burning oil also made it difficult to see the enemy, even with night-vision goggles which I didn’t have. So I was like a blind man until daylight when I could determine “friend from foe.”

In addition to setting fire to processing plants, the Iraqis also torched oil wells in the Rumalyah Oil Fields in Southern Iraq; sending huge plumes of black smoke into the air.

CMP, as the platoon was called, scored the first TOW kill of the war. Just after daylight, Sgt. Steve Oldham, the Mark-19 heavy machine gunner in Gun-3, spotted an Iraqi personnel carrier moving left to right across our front. After Lt. Jeremy Stalnecker, the platoon commander got permission for Gun-6 to fire, the optically wire-guided missile streaked across the desert floor and hit the infantry vehicle; destroying it and killing eight Iraqi soldiers riding in it.

TOW-6 gunner, Corporal Travis Brosowski moments before launching a wire-guided missile.

Lance Corporal Wade Spann from Burke, Virginia standing at the Humvee’s right side guided the missile to its target. “These missiles only have about 3,000 meters of wire attached to the 13 pound warhead,” said Spann, “And the BMP, a Russian-made infantry vehicle, was about 3,400 meters away,” said Spann who was glad someone added some extra wire in the missile he fired. As a result of what happened to their comrades, Iraqis who were hiding in bunkers in front us came in and surrendered to Sgt. Oldham after he fired 40-mm grenades over their heads from his Mark-19 heavy machinegun as they tried to run away.

Lt. Jeremy Stalnecker spotted the rounds that burst high over the heads of the fleeing Iraqi soldiers. The intent was not to kill them, but turn them around in our direction.

The first batch of EPWs, enemy prisoners of war, was made up of Lieutenant Colonels, Majors, Captains and Lieutenants. Enlisted personnel followed their officers. For them, the war lasted less than 12 hours. Many looked relieved that it was over.

While filing a satellite report on the first twelve hours of combat inside Iraq which resulted in the oil fields being captured by Marines from the First Marine Division, I heard a call over Gun-3’s radio for a CASEVAC, a casualty evacuation helicopter out of Lonesome Dove, a fast-response medical unit across the border in Kuwait. Over the next few minutes I heard a call for the Social Security Number of a young Lieutenant in Alpha Company, 200 Marine riflemen Counter Mech Platoon supported during the invasion and screened as we fanned out in the oil fields the following morning.

When the CASEVAC mission was canceled, I knew then that the first American had died just a few hundred yards away. Respecting the ground rules for embedded media, I did not use the officer’s name during reports I filed. But I did refer to him as a platoon leader in Alpha Company.

After the war, I called the parents of Lieutenant Shane Childers in Powell, Wyoming where they lived. Joe and Judy Childers were on their way to Fort Hood, Texas where their son-in-law was preparing to deploy to Iraq. Ironically, they heard my radio reports from the battlefield.

Joe told me he and his wife had a sick feeling that it was their son I was talking about. “We both had that feeling that it was Shane,” said Childer’s father, “We can’t explain it, but it wasn’t a shock to us. It wasn’t really a surprise. It was like we were just waiting for it to happen”

In what is believed to be the last photograph of Lt. Childer’s taken just before he was mortally wounded, he was talking to his company commander on a radio that platoon leaders like him wore attached to their body armor.

When two truckloads of Iraqi soldiers came speeding toward his position, Lt. Childers who was out in front of his men, stood up and raised his M-16 rifle to engage the Iraqis who were “spraying and praying” as they fired their AK-47s at Second Platoon. When Childers raised his rifle to his shoulder, he also raised his body armor and a 7.62mm AK-47 round struck him in the abdomen, shattering his liver and other internal organs. He bled out on the rear ramp of his AAV, amphibious assault vehicle, despite valiant efforts by two Navy corpsmen to staunch the bleeding.

The Iraqis who killed Childers were in turn killed by his men who turned their heavy weapons on the trucks and riddled them and the Iraqis in both vehicles. Not a very pretty sight, but war is not pretty. It’s “BUTT UGLY.”

Lt. Childers didn’t make it to Alpha Company’s final objective in Baghdad on the morning of April 10th, 2003. His mortal remains were being laid to rest in a cemetery near his parent’s home in Wyoming.

While Joe and Judy’s son didn’t make it to Alpha Company’s final objective, the al-Azimiyah Palace on the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad, his battle gear did make it.

The dusty pack of Marine Lt. Therrel “Shane” Childers, who was killed on the first day of the Iraq war, reached Baghdad in an honored place on the side of the AAV that he rode into battle on the first night of the war.

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