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. —
GOLD STAR FAMILY
U.S. Army Special Operations Command holds a ceremony for families of fallen operators at Fort Bragg, N.C. every Memorial Day. Gold Star families from the past year meet each other and learn they are not alone, as the command gives them tours and lunches. They learn more about what their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers did.
In May 2008, Staff Sgt. Robert R. Pirelli’s father, Bob, invited me to attend the ceremony with him and his daughter Stacey. His son, Rob, a Green Beret, was killed in action in 2007. Rob’s Special Forces A-Team, ODA-072, was already redeployed to Iraq — and I was heading back over to cover them again.
The Pirellis braced themselves by reiterating that Rob was a hero.
“His captain summed it up by saying, ‘Rob never turned back; he never ran. He served forward.’ And they [his A-Team] didn’t stop: they finished the mission for Rob,” the senior Pirelli told me.
Earlier that day, I’d given Bob a photo of Rob’s team in front of the cement T-wall in Diyala, Iraq, with “Combat Outpost Pirelli” painted on it. Bob took that photo to a tattoo parlor and ‘got inked’ before the ceremony. The insignia showed on the length of his calf — just as Medic Tim had done on his arm.
It was pouring at the solemn ceremony. An honor guard stood at attention while rivulets streamed down the faces of Green Berets, Rangers, and “Night Stalkers” (members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment). A bell rang after every name killed in action. Team liaisons escorted families to the remembrance wall to read the name of their loved one freshly engraved in the dark marble, and to leave carnations.
As team liaisons Chief Warrant Officer Jim and Engineer Aaron escorted Bob and Stacey Pirelli to the wall, Bob froze. He turned back to me with tears in his eyes.
“I can’t do it,” he said and hugged me. Chief Jim looked at me annoyed.
“Yes,” I whispered in his ear firmly, “You can.”
“Do it for Rob,” I said. “Rob would want you to do it for his team who is back over there [in Iraq] right now.” The father immediately pulled himself together and walked forward with his daughter to the wall.
After the ceremony, Bob told me that he believed his son was watching over his Team re-deployed to Iraq.
“I know that every day they must think of Rob, because I hear it in their telephone calls and emails,” Bob said.
“We trusted Rob with everything; trusted him with our lives,” Chief Jim said. “He was the guy who you knew would be there to support you no matter what was going on. We’re always looking out for each other, that’s the way pretty much all SF is. It’s a team,” he added.
Months later, at home in Franklin, Mass., Bob Pirelli had developed the daily habit of visiting Rob’s gravesite to drink his morning coffee and talk to his son.
One morning, he found it vandalized.
Someone had backed into it with a truck, knocking over the headstone.
Bob blasted photos and angry notes over the internet: Who would do something like this? Desecrate a hero’s resting place?
An investigation found a family member involved. As often happens after deaths: tragedy, grief and stress can bring families closer together — or deepen already established rifts.
“Rob told me in a dream to ‘Just let it go,” Bob said. No charges were filed.
He moved to Albuquerque, N.M. to start over. Other family members made the closest thing they could to replicate the “Combat Outpost Pirelli” cement T-wall in Iraq for Bob’s front yard: a four foot tall, 300-pound slab of rock with “Combat Outpost Pirelli” engraved into it.
“I want to see the real Combat Outpost Pirelli,” Bob told me on the phone before I left for Iraq to link up with 10th Special Forces Detachment Teams again. “I’m talking to my congressman about trying to get over there,” Pirelli said. He asked me to check on his son’s Outpost while I was back in Iraq.