“No Tougher Duty, No Greater Honor” Part 1: Into the Fray Once Again
by Gunnery Sergeant (retired) L. Christian Bussler
These excerpts are from the multi-award winning book “No Tougher Duty, No Greater Honor” and were provided by the book’s author, Gunnery Sergeant (retired) L. Christian Bussler, who retains the copyrights. This an exclusive look into the world of a how the Marine Corps took care of our fallen warriors during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The book can be found on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible.
Excerpt from Chapter 7: “The Helo”
Feb 27, 2003
In a place that was hard to get any news, the word of the helo crash had spread like wildfire, and Major Q had worked hard at trying to get us onboard to help with the recovery efforts. He had spent a good deal of time the day before rubbing elbows with the decision makers. But since this was considered a peace-time accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had the lead on the investigation, not the military, and they dictated who was allowed on the scene and who wasn’t.
For us, this would have been a huge opportunity to learn directly from those who performed these difficult recoveries from terrible scenes often. The firsthand knowledge to be gained would be invaluable considering the strong prospects of a war looming just weeks away. It took a bit, but Major Q had pulled it off, and we were able to assist the NTSB with their recovery efforts.
It was quite a trek to get to Camp New Jersey from Coyote while riding across the desert in our Humvees. But when we finally arrived and set eyes upon the crash scene, it was nothing short of shocking. The helo was spread across the distance of a football field and literally in thousands of twisted, burnt, and melted pieces. From our vantage point, the scene looked so much more complex than anything our WWII-era manuals had explained recovery scenes to be. There was no way that all the classroom work and in-the-field training could have ever replicated the amount of destruction that lay upon that field.—————————————————————————————————————————————
Excerpt from Chapter 10: Forty-Eight-Hour Deadline
March 18, 2003
The wheels of our truck cut through the soft layers of moon dust as the eleven of us moved to join our assigned convoy en route to the northern border. I started to notice that some vehicles had cages of chickens and some had cages of ducks strapped down to their roofs, and I assumed that it was a modern-day version of the canary in the coal mine. We were moving into a chemical warfare scenario with the deadliest of man’s creations on the menu; we needed every telltale sign of an active agent in the air, even barnyard animals to alert us.
The convoy headed north on the highway, past the Toyota trucks with large machine guns mounted on the back of the Kuwaiti police. We made our way into the desert, past Kuwaiti T-72 tanks patrolling their side of the Iraqi border, and after several miles, we arrived at our destination. The sun was beginning its trek toward the far horizon, and as far as my eyes could see, there were military trucks and Humvees all spread out with hundreds of yards in between them. Ballentine’s team three truck sat about two hundred yards away, and I could see them already digging in.
“All right, guys,” Sgt Davis spoke up. “We are now well inside Iraqi artillery range; we need to immediately dig skirmisher holes to sleep in and change over into our MOPP suits. Make sure that you keep your gas masks on you at all times because we don’t know when the Iraqi army will start hitting us with gas. Orient your holes; north is that way, and remember where everybody is. Do not get out of your holes unless you absolutely have to, and there is one hundred percent light discipline because light travels out here, and we don’t want to give the Iraqis something to shoot at. Good to go? Good. Let’s get it done.”
We all dug in and prepared ourselves for the night. I lined the bottom of my hole with my sleeping mat, and ran an electric razor across my face to improve the seal of my gas mask just in case of an attack in the middle of the night. The sun quickly dipped below the earth, and it became eerily quiet. I climbed into my sleeping bag and listened to the warm wind blow the shifting sand around me. Under the pitch-black sky of a Kuwaiti night, I finally surrendered my conscience to slumber. I no longer feared the unknown; I was willing to accept my fate as it came. It was time to prove ourselves, and rid the world of a monster.—————————————————————————————————————————————
Excerpt from Chapter 11: “Into the Breach”
March 19, 2003
Everything that we had trained for had been in preparation for this exact moment. We had honed our skills, sharpened our minds, strengthened our bodies, and prepared our spirits for this fight. We had committed our lives to the winds of fate; our futures were now uncertain, but our determination and resolve would see us through whatever hardships and challenges lay upon that horizon ahead. Contact with the enemy had already been initiated, and we were moving northward toward the sound of the guns. We were heading straight into the breach, and the end of Saddam’s rule begins tonight.
It was bumper-to-bumper traffic creeping along Highway 80, making our way into the fluorescent lights of the UN border checkpoint. We slowly made our way into the pitch black of an abandoned village; the only sounds that could be heard were the idling of our engines and the nervous complaints of a lone dog barking in the night.
We rounded the bend and saw the sight of a large swarm of shooting stars rising from the earth, which caught everyone’s attention in our truck. The shooting stars erupted from the ground in flashes of orange and gracefully arced through the obsidian night sky before gravity beckoned, and they obeyed her command, crashing to earth in flashes of silvery white. A single curling fireball climbed the heights, illuminating the columns of smoke that wafted from the hell atop that mountain. It was the very first time that I had ever witnessed a regimental artillery fire-mission in action, and it truly was a beautiful sight to behold.
But I could imagine that Death himself was dancing a bloody waltz across the reaches of Safwan Hill, to a musical masterpiece played by the lethal orchestra of Task Force Ripper, with percussions of 155-mm cannon fire and duets made of shrapnel and splintering steel. The Iraqi brigade upon that mountain who hoped to spring a trap onto the Marines of Ripper was now sorely paying for its tactical mistake. Our lead elements gave them the opportunity to surrender, and it was answered back with gunfire, so the decision was made that Iraq’s Ghost Brigade was going to be ghosted; and it was done.
It was mesmerizing to see such thunderous power being wielded, and I could see the similarities between the preparatory fires of this place and the flickering black-and-white images of the Pacific campaign sixty years prior to this conflict. I watched the flashes light up the faces of my fellow Marines in the bed of our five-ton truck.
We were a group of confident Marines staring nervously at a bubbling hell of high-explosive impacts not too far away. We were witnessing the taking of lives in a spectacular fashion, and soon we would ride upon this sand-encrusted sea to meet our enemy and destroy him. History was being made in front of our very eyes, and we had the front row seat to witness our names being carved onto the pages of time.
But high-definition death loses its luster with the absence of sleep two nights in a row. Our day had proven too long and our eyes too heavy. The swaying of our trek across fields of murderous boredom slowly rocked us to sleep like children in the backseat of a war-torn lullaby. And the music of Task Force Ripper continued to play on into the night.—————————————————————————————————————————————
Excerpt from Chapter 13: “CSSC-117”
March 25, 2003
We drove off into the darkness, which seemed to last forever as we expected another engagement with the enemy. Our convoy finally stopped, and we were told to exit the vehicles and to dig into fighting positions, so we did. We stared into the darkness with frayed nerves and in anticipation of green tracers fired by an eager enemy looking for retribution for its earlier ass kicking.
I wrapped myself in my Ranger roll (a field-expedient blanket made from a poncho and a poncho liner snapped together), leaned against the tire of the five-ton, and proudly reminisced about the actions of my fellow teammates and convoy members. We had met the enemy in a time and place of their choosing, and now they littered the open desert terrain: destroyed.
When the sun rose the next day, I remember looking at another vehicle belonging to our convoy. From that truck flew an American flag, crisply snapping in the wind, and I thought to myself what a most beautiful sight to see. To stand up in the mud, covered in filth, exhausted from the fight northward, and see something so familiar to us all, with a brand-new perspective, it felt like the coming of a new day; it added to my realization of being part of something so real, something so big, and feeling like a champion for freedom, enabling a repressed people to climb out of the pit of despotism.
An unfamiliar feeling welled up in my chest as I looked around at my fellow Marines. We were sent here to represent America in war, we were challenged by the enemy, and we survived to see our nation’s flag hoisted on muddy ground that we fought for. It was something truly beautiful, and I was happy to say that I was here to witness it.—————————————————————————————————————————————
Excerpt from Chapter 19: “Into the Fray Once Again”
March 1, 2004
We had now been assigned to Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, 81mm mortars platoon, and our task was to be their subject matter experts to impart Western-style community policing onto the local Iraqi police, who were rumored to not do much more than sit around the police station and drink tea. At first we had found it hard to keep up with 3/4’s direct, fast-paced, no screwing around attitude, and I chalked up their abrasiveness as unit loyalty, as we were not to be trusted until we, as an attachment, had proved our worth, and I was eager to oblige.
It was going to take us three days to drive up from Udairi Range in Kuwait to Haditha Dam, located in the western province of Al Anbar. The effects of the insurgency upon the landscape had been very evident and were very easy to spot as we sped down the highway as fast as our vehicles would let us go. In no other place on this trip had we seen so many signs of the enemy’s attacks as we had seen here, in the middle of the sunbaked nightmare called Al Anbar province.
Our convoy drove along the desolate highway potted with fresh blast marks from the recent IED attacks, and sand drifted about, carried on the cold March wind, finding its way back into the craters from where once it was cast. Deep holes several feet wide were evenly dispersed along an area approximately fifty to sixty yards deep. These were the holes of the convoy killers that so many had talked about. Their purpose was that when a convoy was to barrel down the road as fast as it could go, not seeing the trap that they were heading into, in one push of a button, fifty, sixty, or even one hundred yards would erupt simultaneously in a blinding veil of shrapnel and dust, knocking out multiple vehicles, causing much mayhem and disorder, and that’s when the real attack would begin.
Seeing the highway bearing the scars of such attempts and the realization that we were riding in an unarmored Humvee made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Armor for our vehicles was virtually nonexistent in the beginning of 2004, and for those lucky few who received it, it often proved too thin to provide the appropriate protection needed to survive the IEDs. The terrorists would just build bigger and bigger bombs to defeat our billion-dollar solutions. Already this experience had been noticeably different from my first tour, but not wanting to seem like the wide-eyed, inexperienced reservists that I was, I put on my poker face and pretended that it was just another day at the office.