The 101st Feels a Rush of Anxiety, Relief After First Taste of Combat
Through the monocle that rested on his cheek, and on the video monitor near his lap, Chief Warrant Officer Jeffrey Lamprecht spotted his target: a row of three Iraqi tanks on the outskirts of the Shiite Muslim holy city of Karbala.
Lamprecht was in the front seat, the weapons seat, of an AH-64 Apache gunship early Saturday morning. He was the lead man on the lead Apache helicopter on the very first combat mission for the 101st Airborne Division. He was eager and, he admitted later, nervous. At age 31, he had never before flown a combat mission.
Lamprecht felt better when he saw that American rockets had prepped the target area, setting one tank aflame. That prompted him to focus the Apache’s nose camera on a point behind the burning tanks, revealing the three exposed tanks.
He locked on and released a Hellfire missile. It pierced the tank, which burst into flames. Seconds later, Hellfires ripped into the other two tanks.
“Did we hit ‘em?” Lamprecht’s pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Duane Crawford, 38, asked a few hours later as he recounted the morning’s mission. “Oh, yeah. We could see the secondary explosions.”
By the time the mission was over, more than 40 Apaches had torn into the Medina Division of the Iraqi Republican Guard. The armored division is blocking the path to Baghdad for the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, poised southwest of Karbala.
For the soldiers and commanders of the 101st, who had waited weeks in the desert for an opportunity to get into combat, the raid was a blessing -- the very first taste of this war for any of them. Some of the men said it was like a wall being breached.
“I pulled the first trigger, sir,” Lamprecht said. Crawford shot him a quick look and Lamprecht corrected himself: “WE got the first shots in.”
Those shots released a welter of pent-up emotions.
“There was a lot of anxiety, a lot of excitement and a lot of relief when we finally got in there and broke the ice,” said Lt. Col. Steve Smith, 40, commander of one of two Apache battalions on the raid. “These guys, believe it or not, were afraid they’d be left out of this war.”
Smith held the preliminary “BDA” -- the battle damage assessment -- on a folded piece of notebook paper. He read it off: four tanks, six armored personnel carriers, two trucks, three other vehicles, 20 armed men and one radar tower, all killed. The toll was based on initial reports. Such assessments have been known to shrink after targets are reviewed by other aircraft in daylight.
The damage on the American side lay on the sand before Smith, who stood outside a lonely tent camp. One Apache rested awkwardly on its side, like a wounded animal, having crashed on takeoff, the pilot breaking his leg. A second Apache had pitched forward on its nose as it returned from the mission. Both were victims of “brownout,” their pilots having lost visibility in swirling plumes of sand.
A quarter of a mile across the desert, the front wheels of a Black Hawk helicopter had plunged deeply into the soft sand, disabling it. Black Hawks, utility helicopters, had flown in support of the Apache gunships.
All the other helicopters returned unscathed, unlike those from another unit that ran into a hail of ground fire in the previous major Apache raid, Monday morning near Karbala.
Of the nearly three dozen Apaches on that raid, all but one were damaged by machine gun, automatic rifle and antiaircraft fire. One went down in the heavy fighting and its two-man crew was captured by Iraqis. The helicopter was later destroyed by U.S. jets so that Iraqis could not gain information from it.
“We certainly had that in mind,” Smith said of the raid Saturday.
On Monday’s mission, pilots said, rules of engagement designed to minimize infrastructure damage required pilots to fly within 1,000 meters of their targets before attacking. On Saturday’s raid, pilots maintained their normal “stand-off” distance of several miles, keeping them well out of the range of ground fire.
The rules of engagement for Saturday’s raid did set aside “no go” areas, particularly Shiite shrines and mosques in Karbala, along with the usual hospitals, schools and other civilian areas.
As in Monday’s raid, Smith said, Iraqis turned off the local power grid to signal gunmen to go to rooftops. Turning the power back on was the signal to open fire. But this time, Smith said, the Apaches remained out of range of the Iraqis.
After the raid, the pilots sat outside a dusty tent Saturday, surrounded by hundreds of miles of empty desert, and wolfed down military meals. They were still dressed in the same chemical protection suits required of U.S. soldiers in the war zone.
Two-thirds of the pilots had never flown in combat before, Smith said. The relief of having completed the mission was still etched on their faces, and they grinned and joked, cracking the dusty dark creases around their eyes and mouths.
Smith, too, looked serene. It had been his first combat mission as well.
Capt. Brandon Yourczek and Chief Warrant Officer Brett Halstead relaxed and discussed the fiber optics communications tower they had attacked after the prime targets of the mission had been destroyed.
“We blew the hell out of fiber optics they were using for their command and control,” said Halstead, 37, who piloted the Apache from the rear seat as Yourczek, 26, manned the weapon systems in the front seat.
As he flew into combat, Yourczek said, he kept in mind the perils that his Apache counterparts had encountered five days before. He has a wife back home, and Halstead has a wife and two children.
“I paid a lot of attention to ground fire,” he said. “I was constantly zooming in close, looking for that one guy in a trench with an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade], just waiting for us.”
Except for a few rounds of antiaircraft fire, and an RPG that zoomed past one of the Apaches, the pilots said, nothing came close.
In the lead Apache, Lamprecht searched for other targets after striking the tanks. As the Apache on his wing fired Hellfires into a group of armed men, he said, he and Crawford fired their helicopter’s 2.75-inch rockets to suppress any return fire. There was none.
As he finished his pouched meal outside the tent, Lamprecht said he was eager to go back out whenever ordered.
His father had been a pilot, he said, and he felt an obligation.
“You know,” he said to Crawford. “I can’t go back with just one mission. My dad would laugh at me.”