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.