‘The House That Rob Built’: Special Forces Combat Outpost Pirelli, part 1
Editor’s note: Freelance War Reporter Alex Quade embedded long-term with Operational Detachment Alpha Teams of the 10th Special Forces Group in Diyala province, Iraq in 2007 and 2008. One of those “A- Teams” was ODA-072. Quade covered their pre-mission training at Fort Carson, Colorado and followed up with them and their families through the years. Per Special Operations Command embed guidelines: no last names of operators were used; military public affairs officers in Iraq, as well as at Fort Carson reviewed every frame of Quade’s video to ensure no techniques, tactics & procedures are revealed. Also, 10th Special Forces Group Operational Detachment number designations changed after 2007. Most Team members retired or moved on. They shared their personal photos. Alex Quade returned to Diyala Province repeatedly to cover U.S. troop movements and progress. Six years later, she is allowed to share more information and locations, since U.S. forces and bases are no longer there, after the U.S. military departure.
Reporting from DIYALA, Iraq and COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. —
It came in the mail unexpectedly.
Stacey Pirelli looked at the tattered, white, padded envelope at her home in Hull, Massachusetts. It was misshapen; felt hard and lumpy, had tears and scuff marks.
She opened it.
Finally, she thought.
The last “piece” of her Green Beret brother, killed in action in Iraq six years ago, was home — in time for Memorial Day.
When the U.S. military officially departed Iraq due to the Status of Forces Agreement deadline, a little known part of the handover included leaving behind secret Special Forces’ “Team houses” — or “safe houses” — hidden around the country.
One Team house was built by Green Beret Staff Sergeant Robert R. Pirelli and his Operational Detachment Alpha -072, or “A-Team.” Pirelli, of the Army’s 10th Special Forces Group, built the combat outpost near the tiny village of Tibij in a remote part of Diyala Province, not far from the Iranian border, in 2007.
DIYALA THEN: “INTO THE HEART OF DARKNESS”
“It’s the worst danger I’ve seen in three tours in Iraq,” Army Major Derek Jones warned this reporter before heading out to embed with each of his A-Teams, spread across Diyala Province in June 2007. Jones was the commander of a 10th Special Forces Group company.
“We refer to the area as ‘the heart of darkness’. It’s truly the heart of al-Qaeda controlled territory right now,” Jones stated. “There’s heavily-mined roads, large amounts of al-Qaeda reinforcements within kilometers of each other.”
When he and his Green Berets arrived in Diyala in March, it was an al-Qaeda safe haven and the most violent province in Iraq.
“The surge was on in Baghdad, pushing a lot of al-Qaeda up into Diyala,” Major Jones explained. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, “was killed in Diyala [in a targeted American F-16 bombing in 2006,] so it’s always been important to al-Qaeda.”
“That’s the situation we walked into. Inside of Baqubah was nearly a free-fire zone when you drove through there,” Major Jones briefed.
The Iranians were there, too.
“They’re doing my job, but on the other side, as the Iranian Special Forces, really the IRGC-Quds force. They are here as advisers, providing arms training, and facilitation to these different Shi’a elements and al-Qaeda. We know they’ve armed both. So they are really playing both sides of this fence to make sure that they maintain some chaos here, so that we can’t be successful. That’s the ultimate goal, is that we’re not successful, that we politically lose,” Major Jones added.
One of his A-Teams — Operational Detachment Alpha-072, composed of twelve Special Forces soldiers — would be responsible for a huge area where no American troops had been since around the start of the war.
They’d just built a combat outpost.
“They started out with six Iraqi Security Force elements. It wasn’t looking real good. And they own an area that is probably a quarter of all Diyala,” a province about the size of New Jersey. “And they were going to secure it with 12-guys and these six Iraqi Security Force guys,” Major Jones said.
It also “wasn’t looking real good” for that A-Team, because upon arrival in Diyala, improvised explosive devices benched the Team’s three senior non-commissioned officers with serious wounds before they were even “in the fight”.
“We were doing a site survey for the new house we were going to build,” Senior Engineer Sergeant Aaron said.
“We were the lead vehicle in the convoy. Zac” — the senior communications sergeant for that mission — “was the truck commander and I was the gunner,” Senior Weapons Sergeant Scott added.
As they crested a hill, an IED — buried under the road in a culvert — blew up.
“I was launched about 100-meters immediately. Zac and the rest of the crew were ejected as the truck flipped three times,” Senior Weapons Sergeant Scott said.
“Zac suffered a compound fracture on both of his wrists, a bad gash on his chin and a concussion. The driver had some broken bones in his back and ribs. The terp [interpreter] lost a portion of a finger, had a broken hip and a swollen head. I ended up with the least amount of injuries. I was knocked out completely,” Weapons Sergeant Scott added.
Engineer Aaron “woke Scott up” when he reached his “landing spot”.
“I had a TBI [Traumatic Brain Injury], broken ribs, a fracture on my L2 [spine], cuts and scrapes,” Weapons Sergeant Scott said.
Then they began taking small arms fire.
“I was trying to get back into the fight, but my M4 [carbine assault rifle] was in two pieces,” Weapons Sergeant Scott said.
“Scott was dazed, confused, laying next to a Humvee, trying to figure out why his M4 wouldn’t go back together,” Engineer Aaron said.
The Team secured the site. Two Apache helicopters helped deter the threat by scattering a group armed motorcycle-riding insurgents.
Aaron called in the 9-Line — GPS coordinates and casualty information — to med-evac his wounded Teammates to Balad Air Base. From there, Communications Sergeant Zac flew to Landstuhl, Germany and then to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Senior Weapons Sergeant Scott spent a week at Balad before being sent home as well.
“So we started the deployment off on the wrong foot: you have your Team’s senior commo guy and senior weapons guy already out of the fight for who knows how long,” Scott said.
Their Senior Engineer Aaron soon followed.
“Once the rest of the Team got into country, we fabricated body armor for the vehicles because the stuff on there was sub-standard,” Aaron said. “When the vehicles were finished, we tried to go and do another site survey [for our future combat outpost]. As soon as we left the gate, another IED went off on my door. It rang my bell pretty good,” Engineer Aaron recalled.
It was a serious setback at the onset of their mission, but the rest of the Team rose to the challenge, as is expected of all A-Teams.
With three Teammates “in the rear” — two recovering from IED wounds, the other attending a course — the junior non-commissioned officers on the Team moved into the senior positions. A-Teams are built with this type of redundancy specifically for such events.
In ODA-072’s case, Engineer Rob Pirelli moved into the senior spot vacated by Aaron, who’d spent three months intensively mentoring Rob on engineer skills. Weapons Sergeant Chris moved into Scott’s job, and Communications Sergeant Kevin, who was a senior non-commissioned officer, assumed Zac’s spot.
“That small Team is together 24 hours a day, for years,” Major Derek Jones explained. “And because it’s a tight-knit group in Special Forces, everybody knows everybody. So when something like that happens, it’s a devastating thing. The only thing you fall back on is: we volunteered for this job.”
“Every one of us here loves everything we’re doing; we all want to get outside the wire. And you know from being out on missions: in those moments in contact [battle], that’s when SF guys thrive,” Jones said.
“Because of the tenacity of that Team, they [took their original six ‘Iraqi guys’] and built it to the largest FID [Foreign Internal Defense] force run by a single Team anywhere in Iraq,” Major Jones said. Foreign Internal Defense — providing support to a host nation government to help it fight insurgency — is one of the Green Berets’ core missions.
“With that FID force, they have gone in and secured an area that used to be considered by al-Qaeda as a sanctuary, untouchable by conventional forces. And they’ve been able to do that in four months,” Jones assessed.
“We get targeted by name by the enemy, because we’re that effective. So, staying out of the limelight keeps us and, you know, our families safe,” Major Jones said. “But, I think the capability and the effect that a small group of soldiers are capable of doing on the battlefield needs to get out. Here we are, small elements, like the battle you saw the other day where, it was less than 30 Special Forces soldiers and 1,400 indigenous soldiers, fighting it out with al-Qaeda to secure an area where there’s no other conventional forces. The American public’s not seeing that — other than you, nobody else has been out there to see that,” he stated.
I asked to witness what this A-Team was doing. The Commander consented.
THIS IS SPARTA
“This is Sparta!”
The crude, hand-painted sign on the freshly-built wall said it all. The new Special Forces Combat Outpost was alone in cowboy country, Iraq.
It was the proverbial “tip-of-the-spear”; a hackneyed phrase, which for this 12-man A-Team, held true. Perched on the farthest edge of the Coalition’s realm at that time, ODA-072 was responsible for the outlaw area stretching east along the Iranian border and north to Kurdistan.
The Team was alone: no Americans, no Coalition forces — no “friendlies” had marked that territory since the initial invasion.
“It’s a real dangerous area,” Captain Jason told me upon arrival there. “Four guys on my Team have Purple Hearts already. We’ve encountered more than a few IEDs, snipers on the rooftops, and there’s still the threat of al-Qaeda. There’s also Ansar Al Sunna, Islamic Army, different factions working in the area. All of them are pretty strong and they got a lot of support, financially and number-wise,” he added.
Spartan it was.
The safe house was surrounded by sandbags, bunkers, T-walls — cement “Texas” protective barriers — outdoor “piss-tubes,” and hanging laundry. Wood pallets of supplies — plastic water bottles and MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) had just been air-dropped in. In a freshly built area, meant to provide shade from the blistering sun, hung another spray-painted sign that read, “Salchica Fiesta” — Spanish for “Sausage Fest.”
“It’s in the middle of nowhere. We moved into a house in the desert surrounded by a barbed wire fence. The Iraqi security posture is not as stringent as ours,” Chief Warrant Officer Jim said. “Within a month Rob [Staff Sergeant Robert R. Pirelli] gathered up enough materials through the locals to build a strong defensive position for us,” he added.
As the Team’s “18-Charlie,” or Special Forces Engineer, it fell on Pirelli to build up this compound in between their secret missions going after high value targets in Diyala Province during the surge. Each member of an A-Team is a gunner first, and then, a highly trained expert in a specific field. As the Team’s engineer, Pirelli was not only their demolitions expert, but their construction expert, too.
“Rob basically built the entire camp. His ingenuity in gathering equipment and talking to locals — getting a local Iraqi guy to volunteer his time with a forklift to move cement T-walls. He did everything from installing the barriers, to running electricity for the house and repairing broken generators,” Chief Jim said.
For Rob, it was a huge responsibility on his first deployment — with life and death repercussions should his Combat Outpost prove breach-able by the enemy.
“Rob went to sleep in his ACUs [fatigues] because he was literally working until he went to bed,” the A-Team’s Medic Tim said. “He’d wake up, still in his ACUs, boots on, ready to work in the morning, with a smile on his face. Actually, he’d wake up in the middle of the night to play some online poker, go back to sleep and wake up,” Medic Tim laughed.
I’d met Engineer Rob briefly on an earlier operation, a company-sized air assault at another location in Diyala, a Forward Operating Base called “Normandy.” The 29-year-old with the wide grin had been a Panthers hockey goalie back home in Franklin, Massachusetts. He’d studied criminal justice at Northeastern University and wanted to become a presidential Secret Service agent after the Green Berets.
Engineer Rob was known for his thick Boston accent, pranks, and fear of heights. So his Green Beret brothers teased him about joining an Airborne unit, and made sure to let this reporter know: he’d vomited during every parachute jump.
“One time, Rob heaved in his helmet on the plane. Then it occurred to him that he’s got to put his helmet on, and jump. Sure as hell, he begrudgingly put the helmet on and vomit was running down his face,” laughed Dan, a Green Beret from another Team who went through the Special Forces Qualifications Course with Rob and Medic Tim. “I waited a few moments before jumping out, because I didn’t want to eat his puke,” Dan chuckled.
Pirelli’s notoriety cemented when his Teammates couldn’t understand what he was saying on another operation.
“They’re shoot’n houses at us!” Rob said in his Boston brogue over the radio. In the middle of the mission, every Team brother did a double-take.
“I think he’s saying ‘Howitzers’,” one of them translated over the radio.
“When we first established our Team house, this whole area was controlled by al-Qaeda,” Captain Jason briefed me inside their new compound. “All the Iraqi security forces were scared to go into the area because they knew they would be killed, executed, or run into an IED,” he stated.
We walked around the Team house. There was a weapons room with a crude map of Diyala Province painted on one wall. There was a maintenance area out back with a sign saying “The Swamp.” And, their prized possession: they now had a freezer to keep their water bottles cool before heading out on scorching missions.
“We had to start from scratch; there wasn’t much intel,” Captain Jason continued, “We moved into Tibij village and established this permanent outpost here. It’s pissing all of al-Qaeda off; they’re having to find somewhere else to go. It’s been neutralizing their offensive operations from that time we got here,” Captain Jason said.
“They’re a very ‘austere’ Team,” Major Jones warned me before I headed out to this Team. “They’re out there at the fringe of the empire. And every single day, as you’ll see there, is truly a fight for survival. Being out in that location, that Team is a ‘rough Team’: hard-charging. They’re living the Special Forces dream,” Major Jones stated.
“The Team is so remote that it took a long time for things to get un-caveman-ish,” Weapons Sergeant Scott said now back at their Company’s AOB (Advanced Operations Base), recovering from the earlier IED blast.
“I talked to the guys and they would all say, ‘Don’t rush back since we’re living in squalor and life is sucking out here’,” Scott added. But the senior weapons sergeant was anxious to get back with his Team and back into the fight.
He called Engineer Rob.
“Do you know how bad it sucks putting an entire COP [Combat Outpost] together?” Engineer Rob joked with his buddy Scott on the secured phone line.
“Hey, when are you guys going to make the trip to Warhorse [the Forward Operating Base near Baqubah, where their AOB was secretly located] to come pick me up?” Weapons Sergeant Scott asked him.
“We need to come in and clear funds, and of course need to pick you up,” Rob replied sarcastically, “So we might be there tomorrow.”
Later, Rob Skyped with his sister Stacey Pirelli back home in Franklin, Massachusetts.
“I need to work on my tan so the next time we chat, I’ll look as dark as you,” Stacey laughed with him.
Rob never said anything about going on missions between building the Combat Outpost to his family; he took what he did very seriously and didn’t want them to worry.
Instead, he told them about trying to teach the local Iraqi children to play baseball.
“I gave a boy a catcher’s mitt and he didn’t know what to do with it,” Rob joked with his dad Bob Pirelli. “I had to show him.”
That was August 14th, 2007.
On the morning of August 15th, Senior Weapons Sergeant Scott was hanging out at the AOB watching TV, waiting for his A-Team to come pick him up.
Suddenly, an intelligence break the A-Team had been waiting for: information of “bad guys in the area” from a source they considered “somewhat reliable.”
But locals in the area told them nobody was there. The Team decided to do a long-range patrol and bring 200 of their new Iraqi FID force with them as a kind of rolling, quick reactionary force, just in case.
“The mission always comes first,” Weapons Sergeant Scott said.
Engineer Rob was not particularly excited about the mission change that day.
“Rob was always eager to go on missions, but he was in the middle of a lot of work at the compound and was in a hurry to get back and get it done,” Chief Jim said.
The Team members divided up into their three up-armored Humvees. Each truck had its own convoy of Iraqi Security Forces they were advising — a hodge-podge parade of Toyota pick-ups, taxis and bright “jingle trucks” souped-up with weapons, like the “technical vehicles” in Somalia’s Battle of Mogadishu.
“Rob was tired, thirsty, and in a frustrated mood. The FID force he was advising was getting on his nerves,” Captain Jason said.
The terrain was mountainous, a rough environment of mud huts in very small villages. The Team suspected it to be where the enemy would bed-down or store logistics.
What they didn’t know at the time: it was home to a hardened al-Qaeda cell.
They rolled into the village. It was dead quiet. Nothing moved.
Suddenly, “squirters” — people running away from the village; cars leaving at a high rate of speed. Clearly, something of interest was in that village.
Captain Jason instructed his Team Sergeant Don in one truck, and his Chief Warrant Officer Jim in the other truck, to stop the squirters and combat-advise the Iraqis to establish a cordon around the village. They did, while he maintained a battlefield over-watch position with his Iraqi Commander counterpart.
Gunfire erupted from within the buildings.
“When we heard it,” said Captain Jason, “The first thing everybody was thinking was, ‘All right, you know, this is it! We get to get into a little fight here. Hell yeah, you know, this is exciting.’ This is what we train for. We’ve been in firefights before and we’ve always done well,” he added.
But the local Iraqi Security Forces with the A-Team immediately started taking casualties.
“Guys were going down,” Chief Jim said.
Engineer Rob Pirelli, driving Team Sergeant Don’s truck, went in. He attempted to move his Iraqi soldiers into the area to relieve pressure off the first Iraqi trucks that were in the firefight.
“Eagles down! Eagles down!”
The cry: desperate across the radio from Weapons Sergeant Chris.
And again: “Two Eagles down!”
“It was crazy. Nobody can really get the feeling of having somebody come on the radio and say ‘Two Eagles down,’ which for us, stands for, ‘two of our… our guys are down’,” Medic Tim explained in anguish. “At that second, because I wasn’t next to them, it was a hopeless feeling; a helpless feeling.”
Weapons Sergeant Chris was now the only American Green Beret standing at that location amongst two of his gunned down Teammates lying shot on the ground. They were still taking fire.
Medic Tim, driving Captain Jason’s truck, headed into the fight.
“There’s someone wearing all black, running on the rooftop with an AK-47!” their truck’s gunner, Junior Communications Sergeant Eric, shouted.
Ting-ting-ting! Bullets hit their truck.
But Medic Tim focused on reaching his downed Teammates. He saw one of them, shot, leaning against the building. Tim rushed to him on foot. The armed insurgent, dressed in black, was on the rooftop above them.
“It was weird. There was definitely ‘fires’ going on. But it didn’t really ‘click’ to me. I was aware that there were bullets going both ways at the time,” Medic Tim said. “It was hectic.”
It “clicked” for the medic when two grenades came over the wall that his wounded Team Sergeant Don was leaning against.
“They went off like, right there. OK, this is definitely going down,” Medic Tim said.
Captain Jason watched Tim run to his wounded Team Sergeant Don.
“It was obvious that he was in pain. The look on his face – he was in shock and was hurting,” Captain Jason said. He turned to see Weapons Sergeant Chris crawling on all fours, on the other side of the wall, towards another Teammate lying on his back. It was Staff Sergeant Rob Pirelli, their Engineer.
“Rob’s been hit,” Weapons Sergeant Chris yelled as he crawled towards him, and shouted about a sniper on the roof. Captain Jason followed Chris.
“Rob, you are… you are gonna be all right, man. Where were you hit? Where were you hit?” Captain Jason shouted.
Rob didn’t respond.
“Chris, where was Rob hit?” Captain Jason asked his weapons sergeant. Rob was lying on his back; no blood anywhere.
“Man, he was hit in the head,” Weapons Sergeant Chris answered. Captain Jason looked at Rob’s helmet. There was an entry mark.
A 7.62mm round from the insurgent’s AK-47 on the rooftop, pierced 19-layers of anti-ballistic Kevlar fabric of Pirelli’s helmet. It happened as he and his Teammates rushed the building to “stack” — take down the insurgents inside. The enemy fighter on the rooftop put his gun over the wall, blindly spraying the stack of Green Berets below. One shot hit Rob in the head. Another hit Team Sergeant Don in the pelvic area.
Medic Tim ran from the downed Team sergeant to assess Engineer Rob. He reached around the corner, grabbed the strap on Rob’s kit, pulled him around the corner of the building, and immediately started treatment.
“The Medic was within the area where they got shot,” Chief Jim said. “My truck was on the other side of the wall trying to cover fire.”
“It was crazy, ‘cause other than the fact that Rob was unconscious, he looked like nothing was wrong with him,” Medic Tim said as he assessed the hostile situation.
“There were no ‘bad guys’ directing fire at me. I could see my other Team members around the corner returning fire. So I sensed they were pulling cover fire for me and the captain and the Bravo [Weapons Sergeant Chris] so we could help Rob,” Tim said.
Captain Jason watched as his medic took off his engineer’s helmet. There was a lot of blood.
“Tim, what are we gonna do?” the captain asked about Rob while helping his medic apply gauze to the back of Rob’s head. “How’s Don? How’s my Team sergeant?”
“He’s bad. We need to get these guys out of here,” Medic Tim replied. He lifted Team Sergeant Don up, and moved him to the back seat of their truck. Don was still coherent. He was speaking; but in a bad state.
Weapons Sergeant Chris grabbed Rob Pirelli’s legs, while Captain Jason grabbed his head, and they put him on top of their Humvee hood.
“Everything’s going to be all right, Rob,” Captain Jason told the motionless Pirelli.
Medic Tim jumped in the driver’s seat, put the truck in reverse and floored it, all the way back to a location where he thought it was “safe,” behind a small sand berm, while the other trucks provided cover fire.
They lifted Engineer Rob and Team Sergeant Don to the ground so Tim could work.
“Tim! Rob’s convulsing and struggling to breathe,” Captain Jason yelled.
“I was working on Rob,” Medic Tim said, “And dealing with Team Sergeant Don who was bad. I didn’t realize it myself, or wouldn’t realize it, but Rob, he… you know, it was pretty obvious that he was… he was not going to make it from just seeing his… seeing the wounds he had,” Tim said.
“I needed to be on the radio directing troops and calling in the med-evac bird,” Captain Jason said. “So I got some of my other guys to come down to our location to help out with the cas-evac [casualty evacuation] and medical treatment,” he added.
Chief Warrant Officer Jim, previously a medic, came over to help Tim.
“Hey, look at him, he is… he is probably done,” Chief Jim said to Medic Tim. “Don is bleeding now. Let’s save Don because he… Don is gonna make it, and we know we gotta stop his bleeds,” he added.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Tim conceded. He’d already stopped the bleed on Rob’s head and had an intravenous drip in his arm. “He’s as stable as I can get him, due to the wounds he has,” Tim added, and turned his attention to his Team sergeant, who was bleeding significantly.
“He had a gunshot wound entrance in the upper right thigh. It ran through his body and came out the upper left back thigh,” Tim assessed. There was a lot of blood. The medic and the warrant packed that bleed. With the hemorrhage controlled, Tim turned back to Engineer Rob Pirelli to see if he could do anything else.
“I re-assessed his wounds; tried to help him with his breathing a little bit. You know, like you see on TV, on ‘ER’, that bag,” used to force air into his lungs. “And ‘bagging him’, trying to get those deep breaths in,” Tim said.
But he was having issues with the bag.
“It wasn’t working too well. I finally got it working all right. And about that time the bird started coming in for exfil [medical evacuation] with all the dust flying and the noise,” the medic said.
Tim told himself: “Ok, well, I have done what I could for Rob. And we stabilized the Team sergeant. Now let’s get these guys on the bird, get them out of here, and finish the fight that’s still actively going on.”
CONTINUE THE MISSION
The helicopter landed. Medic Tim and Chief Jim loaded their Teammates and the wounded Iraqi Security Forces on the bird.
“The helicopter crew was nervous because we were receiving fire at the time. They lifted off quickly,” Captain Jason said.
“We pushed the bird out and went back towards the building, returning fire the entire time,” Medic Tim said.
The fighting never ceased around them: even while Medic Tim had been tending their wounded, the rest of his Special Forces A-Team had continued battling fiercely.
When their Team Sergeant Don was shot, Communications Sergeant Kevin — their senior enlisted member at the time — immediately took charge as Team sergeant.
“That’s not the exact way I wanted to become a Team sergeant, you know, under fire like that,” Kevin said.
At that moment, Kevin said to himself, “Just get us through this point, get us through this situation.”
The Team still had a mission to complete.
The assault was intense. Weapons Sergeant Chris shot six rounds off their Carl Gustav 84 mm recoilless rifle at the building they’d taken fire from.
“As soon as fire started happening, our entire FID force kind of disappeared on us,” one Team member said later. “It’s a good example of: ‘We can train them all we want,’ but when it really goes down, are they going to be there for us? Maybe, maybe not.”
(When I asked Major Jones about this later, he explained: “For the indigenous forces, the idea that they got SF — Special Forces — guys standing behind them, or pulling them from the front, by far keeps them from running in most cases, and keeps them in the battle. And once they’ve done it once, they realize that, ‘Hey, it’s not really the Americans, it’s really us.’ For a sheik or a tribal leader, the idea that they’re working with a Special Forces Team is something important. It gives them more legitimacy, more power.”)
“I consolidated our Iraqis and told their commander to direct them to maneuver towards that building,” Captain Jason said. “They needed to start clearing that objective.”
“There are still people returning fire over the hill back towards the house,” Medic Tim alerted.
Captain Jason pulled back their Iraqi Security Forces and called in the 9-Line med-evac request to their Advanced Operations Base back in Baqubah.
Inside the tactical operations center, an expert in close air support called in fast-movers. Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controller Mike was trained to the unforgiving Special Operations standard. He’d been personally selected by Special Operations Command to align with the A-Teams of 10th Special Forces Group in Diyala. As their CAS enabler, JTAC Mike — call sign “Vampire” — called in an Air Force F-16 to do bomb runs on the building they were taking fire from.
It partially collapsed.
But the Team was still receiving enemy gunfire from within the half-collapsed building, despite the bomb drop. So the Green Berets “mowed it down the rest of the way” with their 50-cal.
When the gunfire stopped, the Team sent their Iraqi Security Force to search the rubble for anyone still alive.
“One enemy wounded in action,” Medic Tim said. “He had a pretty severe gunshot wound entrance from the right chest, exiting on the left. He was pretty bad off. We drug him out of the building and provided treatment, then called in another med-evac bird to get him out of there,” Tim added.
A number of insurgents had been killed in action. Among them, the enemy fighter dressed in black on the rooftop, who’d shot Engineer Rob Pirelli and Team Sergeant Don.
“He had a gunshot wound to the head,” Captain Jason stated.
16 insurgents gave up. They were put down and zip-tied. The Team gathered evidence and intelligence information, and brought the detainees to a collection point.
“We did some tactical questioning to see if there is any sort of follow-on operation to find out what exactly we basically stumbled upon,” Captain Jason said.
What they’d stumbled upon was a hardened al-Qaeda cell. The fighter dressed in black who’d shot Engineer Rob Pirelli and Team Sergeant Don was the battalion commander for all of al-Qaeda in that area.
Battle weary, the Team faced another ordeal getting back to their safe house.
“Hey man, how’s Rob? How is he?” Medic Tim’s Teammates asked him on the long drive back.
Tim knew even before they arrived back that Engineer Rob Pirelli wasn’t going to make it. He knew it from his two years of intensive Green Beret medic training, even if he didn’t want it to sink in. But as his A-Team’s “18-Delta”, he needed to prepare his brothers.
“It doesn’t look good for Rob,” Tim said as he drove their Humvee back through the dry, mountainous terrain. Their Iraqi Security Force’s dilapidated convoy sped ahead of them, kicking up dust.
“Look, I’m gonna be completely honest with you,” Tim stated. “He is not gonna make it.”
“No man, no way,” a couple of the guys on the Team wouldn’t believe it. “No man, you know? This happens. He’s gonna be all right, he’s gonna be all right,” they refuted.
Even Captain Jason, sitting next to him in their Humvee, refused to believe his Medic.
“Don was talking when they got on the bird. They’re gonna be fine. Rob’s going to be OK; they got on the bird. We got them on that bird,” he insisted.
(Medic Tim later explained Rob’s physical reactions to the gunshot wound – his “convulsing” — to me, as an indicator of a brain stem injury, and high up on the “he’s not going to make it scale”.)
It was a long ride back, and about to get longer.
In the middle of a mountain pass, the Iraqis with the Team ran out of gas. The Team was forced to stop in a spot which looked like a perfect enemy ambush point.
“The Iraqis weren’t prepared for the operation as far as having enough fuel or enough water,” Captain Jason lamented.
They called another A-Team to drive up from the nearest forward operating base a couple hours south of their position, to deliver gas cans for their Iraqis. Once tanked up, the Team continued slogging through the hills to get their Iraqis back to their base.
Then, the Humvee Medic Tim was driving quit.
“Without noticing, when we were driving up from when we heard the call [on the radio] that our guys were down, driving up to that building, the vehicle got shot… shot to shit,” Medic Tim said. “You hear bullets coming, you know, ting-ting-ting, off of everything. But didn’t notice anything was wrong.”
The truck’s lights shut off. Electric shut off. All of the Humvee’s systems were shutting down.
“Up ‘til that point the only thing that worked was the throttle and the brake,” Medic Tim stated.
And it was about to get worse.
“My FBCB2 [a communications system for commanders to track friendly and hostile forces on the battlefield] and my SATCOM [satellite communications system] and all my radios are down,” Captain Jason alerted. “I have no communication.”
“This was the Captain’s vehicle: so he’s trying to maintain control of the Detachment while he has no comms in his vehicle,” Tim said. This is what’s known as a break in contact. Their Iraqi Security Force’s vehicle, driving in front of them, didn’t notice and didn’t stop.
“They don’t do very well looking in the rear view mirror,” smirked Medic Tim. “It was a long, long trip back to the base through the hills.”
Captain Jason told himself: “During the operation, you just have to finish the job you started, and hope that everything will work out.”
THE PHONE CALL
Back at the Advanced Operations Base, the Company Headquarters for all the 10th Special Forces Group units spread out across Diyala, Major Derek Jones was having trouble sleeping because his A-Teams were “outside the wire” on combat missions.
“There’s just nothing like that sound of people walking up in the rocks to my little hut. There’s just nothing that makes your heart race like that, ’cause you never know what it means,” Major Jones said.
“I don’t care how many people walk by: I’ll wake up, and my heart will start beating faster. Because I don’t know what it’s going to mean when somebody pounds on my door. First thing in my mind is, ‘Who did we lose today?’“ Major Jones said.
Someone pounded on his door.
“ODA-072’s in a TIC [troops in contact],” the staff member told him. Jones jumped up and threw on his clothes and shoes. He found ODA-072’s Senior Weapons Sergeant Scott — who’d been waiting for his A-Team to come retrieve him — and they ran to the Tactical Operations Center to listen to the radio chatter.
“The JTAC [Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controller Mike, call sign “Vampire,”] was already in the works on getting fast-movers to the area. And about 5-minutes later, the med-evac call comes up,” Weapons Sergeant Scott said.
JTAC Mike was pushing every air asset he could to the remote A-Team under fire.
“It was too far away for us to have good comms with the aircraft, so all I could do was pass the Team frequency [radio channel] to the aircraft and advise them that they had to perform emergency CAS [Close Air Support],” JTAC Mike said.
The A-Team reported casualties over the net.
“As I’m listening to [Captain] Jason’s 9-Line, I’m thinking, ‘Shit! Who got hurt? My Team has had enough shit happen to us already’,” Weapons Sergeant Scott said.
Over the radio, Captain Jason’s voice: “Leg GSW; head GSW.” Translation: gunshot wound.
“At first you try to think people survive GSW to the head all the time,” Weapons Sergeant Scott said. “Jason’s voice didn’t sound hurried or unsteady, so I’m praying everyone will be OK,” he added.
“When Jason called in the two casualties, one head wound and one lower extremities, he never said ‘expectant’, or ‘serious’,” Major Jones said. “We had been through numerous TICs up to this moment, and these were the first casualties we had sustained. The fact that no one had been reported KIA [killed in action], left me with a false sense of security based on the quick response of the med-evac; I figured we were well within ‘the golden hour’,” he surmised.
“We were lucky no one was killed,” Major Jones said to his Sergeant Major Keven Cleveland, while the medical evacuation was en route to the hospital. “I pray that their injuries are minimal,” he added as they walked to his office to start calling for hospital updates.
“We all heard that Rob Pirelli was shot in the head. None of us wanted to believe what we knew to be a fatal wound,” JTAC Mike said. Tears involuntarily fell down his face. He looked around the Tactical Operations Center: there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. The close air support expert, walked out of the TOC for a few minutes to “re-set himself.”
Mike remembered times he’d spent with Engineer Rob at the Team house watching a DVD of the TV show “Scrubs”. Rob had offered the “outsider”, the Air Force JTAC, a blanket to sleep on, because he’d only brought a poncho liner when he showed up at the Combat Outpost to go out on a mission with them.
He remembered sitting next to Pirelli after a 24-hour operation to clear a large village with about 1000-Kurdish Iraqis (the Team’s growing FID Force).
“We sweated our asses off all day. I was controlling armed over-watch with F-16s and A-10s. After it was over, we went to a tribal leader’s home to do a key leader engagement,” JTAC Mike recalled. He sat next to Engineer Rob and they talked about their families.
“We talked for a long time. We were dirty, we were tired. I think it was his way of saying that he accepted me – maybe not as part of his original Team, but someone who was there to help the Team,” the Air Force JTAC recalled. “I will never forget how he looked that day sitting against the wall with me. I counted him as a friend from that point.”
“When you’re in harm’s way and you have the same bullets flying over both of your heads — it draws you closer,” JTAC Mike said.
JTAC Mike sat in the Tactical Operations Center monitoring the situation for three more hours during the Team’s extended ground battle and after-battle damage assessment.
Major Jones and Sergeant Major Cleveland called the hospital for an update. Neither was prepared for the news they were about to get.
“So I call the hospital thinking I’m going to find out exactly what their injuries were, and this nurse comes on and asks me for the names and approximate time of arrival. So I give her the info and she’s like, ‘We don’t have two WIA [wounded in action,] it’s one WIA and one KIA. Pirelli is KIA’. My heart dropped through the floor. I was not mentally prepared for her to tell me this,” Jones said. He had no idea that the Team member’s wounds were life threatening, from the time Captain Jason requested med-evac.
“I immediately thought of Rob’s family and of his Team. I assumed they would have reported that he was ‘expectant’ if they knew he was going to die, so I was thinking, this was going to be extremely hard for them to hear,” Jones said.
He and Sergeant Major Cleveland brought Weapons Sergeant Scott into their office to tell him about his Teammates Rob and Don. Scott asked a number of questions. Then he went for a walk.
“All I can think about is: ‘Why didn’t the guys come pick me up? I could have been an extra operator to help out. What if I had been there? I know things would have been different! Why Rob? Why Don? Did I train the guys enough before we left the U.S.?’“ Scott reprimanded himself [the weapons sergeant on an Operational Detachment is responsible for his Team’s weapons training.]
From the time Major Jones found out, the A-Team still had several hours of travel time to get back to their Team house before he could notify them. From that point on, all internet and phone services on the entire Forward Operating Base Warhorse, where the Advanced Operations Base was hidden, were turned off. This was to ensure that no one could report the casualty back to the States before the Pirelli family could learn that Rob was killed in action by an official military Casualty Assistance Officer.
“When ODA-072 exfilled [left the scene to head back to their Combat Outpost] I pulled two F-16s to cover them on the way home,” JTAC Mike said from the Tactical Operations Center. “These guys lost some men today,” he told the fighter pilots over the radio, “We have to make sure they see it home safe.”
“There’s not a more covered Team in all of Iraq right now,” Major Jones observed.
“Every man at the AOB [Advanced Operations Base] and every other Team out in the field, and every air asset was standing by, ready to go at a second’s notice to ensure that the men of ODA-072 did not experience another loss,” JTAC Mike said.
A couple hours into the Team’s long slog back from battle, Operational Detachment Alpha-095 launched from its safe house in Muqdadiyah to link up and escort them back to their Combat Outpost – along with those gas cans and water for the Iraqi Foreign Internal Defense Force.
Major Jones waited until the exhausted Team finally made it back to their Combat Outpost to call Captain Jason about Rob Pirelli.
“Tim [my medic] had been telling me that it didn’t look good for Rob. But I just… you know, to be honest, I just refused to believe him. I thought that he would be OK once we got him on that bird,” Captain Jason admitted.
It was tough for Jason to hear on the phone. It was tough for him to tell his A-Team what happened. It was tougher still to then make that follow-up phone call to Rob’s family.
“Any parent just wants answers. And for Rob’s Dad, Bob, he wanted to know that his son didn’t suffer. It was a very, very difficult phone call. They were trying to keep their composure, but they were pretty hysterical over the phone when I was telling them what happened,” Captain Jason said quietly.
He clears his throat and continues.
He told them their son died a hero.
“When Rob’s time was… “ Jason paused. “When it was time for him to assault the objective, when it was time for him to exit down the request, he never hesitated. He continued on. He was taking serious direct fire from our objective, and never hesitated for a moment.”
Captain Jason told the Pirellis, he was responsible.
“Everybody tells you, ‘Don’t second guess yourself,’ and, ‘It wasn’t your fault.’ But all the training that you receive growing up as a young officer leads you to believe that anything that your unit does – or fails to do – you are responsible for. And that’s true. And I am responsible for what happened. I am accountable for all of that in the end,” Captain Jason told me later.
“Words can’t explain the sound of a parent’s suffering,” he said after making separate phone calls to both Rob’s father and his mother. “I’ve never heard the sound of ultimate agony before those calls. I will never forget.”
“WE’VE GOT YOUR SIX”
At Fort Carson, Colorado, home of the 10th Special Forces Group, two Team members sent “to the rear” for medical treatment after those earlier IEDs immediately hopped a plane for Franklin, Massachusetts. Senior Engineer Aaron and Senior Communications Sergeant Zac would help the Pirellis.
“We did this to show our solidarity and compassion to the Pirelli family,” Engineer Aaron, Rob’s mentor, said. They did it, too, because every Team brother “covers each other’s back”.
Meeting Rob’s family and friends was heart-wrenching for the two Green Berets.
“As an outsider, it was hard for me to remain in control of my emotions while projecting my sorrow; all I wanted to do was sit and cry with them,” Engineer Aaron said.
Rob had been his best friend. “The first night, Zac and I sat in the middle of a circle while Rob’s friends and family fired questions at us. Some of them we could answer and others we could not,” he added.
Stacey Pirelli, Rob’s sister (who’d talked to her brother on Skype before the mission,) said the family appreciated that these were Rob’s Teammates here to help them, not strangers. They knew it was Army protocol, but they detested that the casualty assistance officers who’d knocked on their door with the news had been absolute strangers.
“Aaron and Zac were with us. We took hours on end to trade stories about Rob’s life. They shared stories about their military experiences with Rob, and we filled them in on Rob’s family life and upbringing,” Stacey said.
“The next day, we did our best to work with the CAO and take control of the situation, allowing the family to grieve while we took care of planning Rob’s service,” Engineer Aaron explained.
For Rob’s younger brother Shawn, writing about his brother helped, while the family waited for Pirelli’s body to be flown back to the States for burial. Shawn quoted William Shakespeare, trying to put Rob’s sacrifice into perspective: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women are merely players; They have their exits and entrances.”
“He was the beacon of fearlessness and strength,” Shawn wrote of his older brother Rob. “In a strange way, I am still convinced he is bulletproof.”
Weapons Sergeant Chris, who’d crawled on all fours to his fallen Teammate on Aug. 15, escorted Rob’s body home from Diyala Province, Iraq, to the Pirelli family in Franklin, Mass.
“Chris was Rob’s closest Green Beret/Special Forces friend, and he made sure not to leave Rob’s side until he was back home in Massachusetts,” Stacey said. Weapons Sergeant Chris and Engineer Aaron helped carry Rob’s casket at his funeral service.
“The big thing for me was to…” Engineer Aaron found the words, “Besides recognizing their loss, was to let them know that Rob was loved by us too.”
Meanwhile, at Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Arabian Peninsula Headquarters at Balad Air Base, the 10th Special Forces Group chaplain, and his armed assistant, began a series of long helicopter hops out to the remote Combat Outpost to talk with ODA-072.
“Everybody handles grief and an experience like that differently. Some of the guys on the Team were deeply affected by it, but they didn’t let it show,” Captain Jason said.
Weapons Sergeant Scott, still stuck at their Company’s Advanced Operations Base, called Chief Warrant Officer Jim at his Team house to talk about the whole situation. Scott still blamed himself, and wanted to be with his Team brothers.
“The guys were sad and pissed off. The Team is like, WTF [‘What the f***’] at that point,” Scott said.
“They’re a different breed within the military,” Captain Black, their chaplain told me. “These are ‘Type-A’ personalities: very driven, very ‘macho’. This is a man’s world. And sometimes to let their guard down is difficult for them.”
Word of Rob Pirelli’s death spread quickly throughout the Special Operations community in Iraq. Dan, a Green Beret from another Operational Detachment who’d been through the Special Forces Qualifications Course with Rob and Medic Tim — and who’d shared stories of Rob vomiting before every parachute jump — was deployed to a different combat zone in country.
“A guy came into our area and said, ‘A guy from 10th Special Forces Group was killed.’ My first thought was, ‘Rob.’ Sure as shit, it was,” Dan said in disbelief. “All I kept thinking about was: Rob always had this really wide, shit-eating grin, ear-to-ear,” he added.
Chaplain Black’s work was far from over. He flew from the remote Outpost to the 10th Special Forces Group’s Battalion Command Headquarters, tucked away inside Forward Operating Base Taji, to hold an official memorial service, as is the Army way.
Special Forces soldiers not on missions, officers and staffers, gathered. Bagpipe music from the movie “Band of Brothers” played over a loudspeaker. A flag flew at half-staff.
There was a “Fallen Soldier Battlefield Cross” consisting of: Rob Pirelli’s inverted M4 assault rifle with his dog tags hanging off it, Rob’s combat boots, and his Green Beret with 10th Special Forces Group insignia patch.
Battalion commander Lt. Col. Dan Stolz spoke at a microphone. Battalion Command Sgt. Maj. Jeff Stigall stood by.
“Without regard for his safety, Staff Sgt. Pirelli, through his heroic actions, allowed his Iraqi element to move back. His actions resulted in six al-Qaeda killed. Staff Sgt. Pirelli was the consummate quiet professional and Green Beret,” Stolz stated.
Chaplain Black reminded everyone about Rob’s Team, ODA-072.
“Seven-Two was sent to the most remote area of our operations. Hear me now brothers: he faced his fears,” Black stated, and quoted Gen. George S. Patton: “Patton said we should not mourn soldiers who died, rather thank God such soldiers lived.”
The chaplain closed with the Special Forces Prayer: “…Go with us as we seek to defend the defenseless and to free the enslaved. May we ever remember that our nation, whose motto is ‘In God We Trust,’ expects that we shall acquit ourselves with honor… ”
Then, the painful “Last Roll Call”: the first sergeant’s accountability roll call after combat. Rob Pirelli’s name was called three times as a final tribute, signifying that all unit members will be accounted for, and none will ever be forgotten.
The three volleys are fired; Taps is played. The flag lowered, folded, and presented to Rob’s Battlefield Cross. One by one, soldiers walked up to salute.
But Rob’s Team and company were not there. They were not invited since they had combat missions to continue. The Public Affairs Officer sent them a video DVD of his service, instead.
THE HOUSE THAT ROB BUILT
Since the brothers of ODA-072 were not allowed to come in from the frontlines for their fallen Teammate’s ceremony, they made their own tribute instead. They did it in stone; they did it with words.
The Team developed a symbol: a sword, lightning bolts and fire. Junior Engineer Sergeant Kole, who Rob had mentored, painted the symbol on a cement protective T-wall at their safe house.
“We decided on a color scheme. The green by his name represents our Group [10th Special Forces]. It turned out real nice,” Medic Tim said.
The Team boldly painted “Combat Outpost Pirelli” on the T-wall as part of the symbol — renaming their location after their engineer: the first Green Beret killed in action there. Captain Jason sent the official paperwork to rename the outpost up the Army chain of command.
“When the Chaplain came out after everything happened, the words, ‘The house that Rob built’ came out. Which is a pretty good description because Rob was the guy behind the scenes of making the place what it was,” Medic Tim said.
“That painting’s going to serve to remind not only the Iraqis, but all the Special Forces Teams that go to that location, that ‘things happen’ and people are willing to give everything for their brothers,” Chief Jim stated.
Tim, the medic who’d done everything he could for his friend Rob, later tattooed that Combat Outpost Pirelli symbol on his arm from shoulder to elbow.
“My tattoo is my way of remembering and having part of it with me,” Medic Tim said quietly.
The rest of his Teammates had black bracelets in honor of Staff Sergeant Robert R. Pirelli, inscribed with the date: August 15th 2007; the place: Diyala Province; and the phrase: “They’re shoot’n houses at us,” to remind themselves of Rob’s thick Boston accent and how much he always made them laugh.
Weapons Sergeant Scott finally made it back to the Combat Outpost a few days later.
“I tried to talk with some of the guys and lighten the mood a little,” Weapons Sergeant Scott said. “But even that was short-lived. After seeing you, I was taken back to Balad and sent to Landstuhl [Army Medical Center in Germany]. The IED had destroyed my gall bladder and every time it tried to work, it would cause horrible pain and I had to be doped-up on muscle relaxers. So, good times,” Scott said with irony, while his Team continued its high operations tempo, focusing on its combat missions.
Rob’s roommate at the Team house, Intelligence Sergeant Brady, quietly pulled me aside before another operation.
“There’s lots of times where I remember what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it, so Rob’s death wasn’t in vain,” Intelligence Sergeant Brady said stoically.
Stay tuned for part 2, coming Monday…