“really, its no problem if we pull over in a war zone so you can buy a watermelon sir”
He wanted me to stop so he could buy a watermelon - a watermelon that was being sold on the side of one of the most dangerous roads in western Iraq. And it wasn’t even a big watermelon; it was about the size of a freakin’ cantaloupe. Even watermelons in Iraq suck. But what “the principle” wants, “the principle” gets.
It was a few years ago, and I was in charge of a PSD team, providing security for the senior military and civilian personnel in Al Anbar, to include the province governor, a Tony Soprano look alike with a big fat Iraqi mustache. It was a relatively easy gig as long as I didn’t get the bosses, or their straphangers, killed.
None of the usual suspects screwed with my team or me. If we needed some new gear, we got it. If we needed to use the range, we took priority. We didn’t have to wait at the various gates for permission to depart; we just freakin’ left. When the movement control people got pissed, I just directed’em to the Chief of Staff.
When some State Department “GS-level who cares” tried to strong-arm me into taking him somewhere without approval from the big man, I politely told’em to go pound sand. Hell, we’d occasionally even get four-day passes to Bahrain. Like I said, the only real worry I had was getting the boss or one of my operators killed. That’s where “the principle” comes in.
“The principle” was actually just one of about four primary principles I provided security for. While the actual boss flew everywhere, thus requiring less operators from my detail, “the principle” wanted to drive - and drive we did. From Baghdad to the Syrian border, “the principle” tested me day-in and day-out. It’s not that he was trying to test me personally; it was just how he did things. And so we have the watermelon incident.
Many of us here have at least heard of the once restive city of Fallujah. In case you’ve been on Mars since ’04, Fallujah is a crap-hole of a town -yeah I know aren’t they all - located about 25 miles west of Baghdad. It’s the infamous city where four Blackwater security contractors were killed and their bodies’ drug around and hung up on a bridge over the Euphrates River. As you can guess, it’s not Disneyland so you’d better bring your A-game.
It was just west of the city, on what was then known as route Michigan, where “the principle” had me stop so he could get out…and buy a watermelon. While I’m sure that he actually just wanted to talk to some of the locals, using watermelon as an excuse, it will forever be known as the watermelon incident.
If I remember correctly, we had about six gun-trucks and two “armored” Toyota SUVs. We were moving west to east along routé Michigan, the MSR that cuts through Ar Ramadi, Fallujah and eventually into Baghdad. Most of the road was, at that time, considered “Black,” meaning only necessary, and tactical traffic allowed. The reason it was “black” is because portions of the road tended to explode when soldiers or marines were on it.
At this period of the war, there wasn’t a day that went by that some American didn’t get killed or wounded on this stretch of the pothole-ridden road. But when you’re rolling with one of these bosses, it didn’t matter. Of course I advised “the principle” that we shouldn’t go on these roads but he wanted to anyway. He’ll be damned if he avoids these dangerous highways, which seem to blowup on a regular basis, while requiring his soldiers and marines to patrol them day in and day out.
So we were about a mile-and-a-half west of the city proper when I get a call over my vehicle radio from “the principle’s” PSO (Personal Security Officer). “Be advised, he wants to stop at one of these venders on the side of the road…to buy a watermelon,” say’s the PSO.
I had him repeat his transmission again because it sounded like “the principle” wanted me to pull the team over on the side of route freakin Michigan, just outside of Fallujah, so he could buy a watermelon. I mean….something must be wrong with my radio; maybe I’ve got too much sand in my ear or my Peltor earpiece is screwed up.
As the PSO repeated his “request,” I looked over at my driver who, while still watching the road, and scanning for possible threats, shook his head in disbelief, grabbed an empty water bottle and spit his Copenhagen juice in it. I guess my communications gear is working. “The principle” actually does want to pullover. “Shit,” I thought to myself. After a “I strongly suggest we keep moving” via the radio, I got a “your concern is noted…we need to stop” in reply.
Ok, so my apprehension is noted by “the principle.” Now my main concern is reducing his vulnerability. I had my lead gun-truck push up to a curve in the road that bent northeast overlooking the “South bridge” and into the city. I didn’t want vehicles, either normal civilian traffic or some jihadists suicide VBIED with a “I Hate Infidels” bumper sticker to come barreling down route Michigan without me or my guys knowing about it.
The rest of the vehicles set up in a modified herring bone formation with the exception of my rear vehicle which, as SOP dictated, pushed back to stop traffic coming from the opposite direction, and give us some standoff.
While the threats posed by vehicles were a concern, my primary worry came from the sporadic buildings, shops and palm groves, as well as the smelly Jihadists that hid amongst them. We had not entered the city yet so the streets were not lined with building after building. It was more of a suburban/rural area with farms, small markets and what appeared to be auto-repair shops. I quickly singled out a produce merchant that had the damn watermelons “the principle” wanted.
Myself, along with about six to eight shooters, got out of our vehicles, and quickly “cleared” and established a small dismounted perimeter around the roadside fruit stand. My team, as a whole, simply just tried to mask their amazement at the fact that we were risking “the principle’s” life, not to mention their own, for a watermelon. As expected, the Iraqi owner, wearing flip-flops and a man-dress, stood there not knowing what to do; his eyes were as big as the watermelon he was peddling. It was clearly something he was not expecting.
I walked up to the merchant and gave him the regular “As Salam Alaikum” putting my right hand over my heart, then pointed to the pitiful looking watermelons and made the international sign of money with my thumb and fingers. He said some crap in Arabic, but I just pointed to “the principle” that was getting out of the SUV surrounded by about five of my PSD marines.
I had “the principle’s” SUV drive right up to the fruit stand so that there was minimal exposure. It was a soft side drop to say the least. Though in the event we got hit, we could throw “the principle” in his vehicle as fast as possible. At this point I just wanted to get the damn watermelon, put “the principle” back in his vehicle, hand him a bottle of water and be on our way.
With one ear I was listening to the bosses interpreter in anticipation of goodbyes in Arabic, and with my other ear, through my radio ear piece, I was listening to my PSD team calling out potential threats such as “blue bongo truck with two MAMs (military age males) coming from the east” or “movement in the palm grove to the south.”
A typical “Bongo truck” in Iraq
The longer we stood there, the greater my anxiety grew. It’s not like we can seek out cover and concealment, at least not in the traditional sense, like a marine or soldier on patrol. Conducting close protection in PSD operations means those operators on the inner perimeter must BE THE COVER AND CONCEALMENT for “the principle.” It’s a disheartening way to look at it, but it’s the truth, and a fact that any PSD/EP professional operating in a high-risk environment must understand.
I took a quick glance over my right shoulder at “the principle” who was standing about four feet away. He held that damn watermelon in his hands laughing as he, the interpreter, and the nervous Iraqi talked about whatever it is people who have nothing in common talk about. I looked at my watch, it’s only been about two-and-a-half minutes; it feels like its been twenty.
“I’ve got four MAMs running across the road to the east,” warned the lead vehicle through my earpiece. It snapped me back into reality. I pressed the transmit button attached to my chest-rig, “Copy, you see any weapons?”
“Alright, we’ve been here long enough, I’m gonna tell the boss we should get moving”
I turned around and took a quick scan across the street. Local Iraqis were quickly leaving the area. The crowds were dissipating; shops that were open two minutes ago were being closed, their owners out of sight. It was only about 3 in the afternoon.
Leaning close to “the principles” right ear, “we should get going sir,” I told him respectfully. He agrees, but the long drawn out custom of goodbyes in Arabic culture irritates me and the other marines.
Finally I get him, and that watermelon, into the armored SUV, ensure all my operators are accounted for and I tell my lead vehicle, call-sign Black, to move out, “alright black, you’re clear to push.”
“Black’s Oscar Mike,” came the usual reply. We move out, heading east.
We were briefly relieved, but that feeling quickly vanished as we saw Fallujah in our dusty windshields not a mile down the road. Traveling west to east on route Michigan, Fallujah doesn’t really start until you cross the Euphrates River. We were only about a mile away from the city when a certain someone had the brilliant idea to purchase some round green produce. As we approached the bridge you could see the skyline of buildings with varying shades of tan. On the bridge, looking to my left over the Euphrates, I see the north bridge, also known as Blackwater bridge. It’s nothing but a symbol of how ruthless this city really is.
Crossing over the bridge and into the city, we enter a completely different world. Threats no longer just come from street level, now they come from rooftops of buildings, some as high as four stories. Everything is closer; there are more people and more trash and debris on the street, potentially hiding IEDS. If feels like everything is going to detonate, it’s a feeling you get accustom to, and learn to deal with.
As quick as one can blink, I saw a large explosion just to the left of my lead vehicle, milliseconds later I felt and heard the concussion. Almost as quick as the explosion detonated, a transformer on an electrical pole overloaded, shooting bluish-white sparks in all directions. Time seemed to slow down as I looked for the lead gun-truck, but saw nothing through the debris cloud.
“IED on black, we are green on personnel and equipment…we’re pushing,” yelled my lead vehicle over the radio. The brevity code told me the lead vehicle was hit, but the vehicle and operators were unhurt.
“Copy black, all victors (vehicles) we’re pushing through the kill zone,” I replied. As soon as I un-keyed my radio we heard two RPGs go off behind us, not to mention some quick exchange of gunfire from one of my M240 turret gunners. They were targeting my rear vehicle, call-sign Red, as it moved through the kill zone.
“RPGs on Red, RPGs on Red, were green on personnel and equipment and we’re pushing,” calmly called my rear gun-truck. “Copy Red,” I replied. We continued down route Michigan with no further incidents. I had each vehicle report status; all were fine, no injuries with the exception of a little vehicle damage and ringing eardrums. Oh and the watermelon made it through the incident without a scratch.
It’s hard to say for sure, but I believe that fact that we stopped to buy a watermelon gave Mr. “I Hate America” jihadists the time to set up this hasty ambush. Was “the principle” right or wrong? In the end it does not matter. We, as PSD or EP operators, work for the principle. We work around his schedule, and within whatever environment he wishes to conduct his business in. We can simply just advise him, making relevant suggestions.
If his business is buying one of the worst watermelons on the planet, on one of the most dangerous roads in crap-hole-astan, well…so be it. That’s why we have the newest gear, get paid a decent wage, are continually training and sharpening our skills, and improving our capabilities. We, as the security professional, had better be prepared to meet these threats because “the principle” doesn’t want to hear what you can’t do; he wants to hear what you can do.
~Jason A. Contributing Correspondent
Jason A. served for 10 years in the Marine Corps, to include multiple tours in Iraq. Much of that time was spend in the more unconventional units such as ANGLICO (Air/Naval Gunfire Liaison Company), and on PSD teams. More significantly, he was in-charge of the PSD teams for the senior military and civilian leadership in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. Currently Jason A. is a security consultant for a security company that contracts with the federal government and private companies, mostly within the energy sector, conducting Security Vulnerability Assessments (SVA) and penetration testing of high-risk chemical/ petroleum facilities within CONUS and OCONUS, as well as EP work for energy sector executives.