Heroism, valor, and sacrifice atop a rooftop in Samarra. The cover story from our new November issue.
This article is the cover story of The American Spectator’s new, November 2007 issue. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
THE DAY OF AUGUST 26, 2007, began like any other for the soldiers of Charlie Company, 2-505 Parachute Infantry Regiment (from the 82nd Airborne Division) — with a mission in the city. Over a year into its deployment to Samarra, Iraq, and now working on the three-month extension announced by Secretary of Defense Gates in the spring, the company knew the city like the back of its collective hands and had its operational routine down to a science, whatever the mission it might be tasked with.
On this morning, that mission was to establish a defensive perimeter around a block in central Samarra, so that Charlie Company’s 3rd (“Blue”) Platoon, led by Lieutenant Scott Young, could search a shop where it had information that Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) were being manufactured.
Due to the insurgents’ penchant for placing IEDs along the routes used by Charlie Company’s vehicles in order to ambush them on their way back, two separate rooftop observation points (OPs) would be established, one to the north and one to the south of the shop, to watch for enemy activity on the roads that were serving as Blue Platoon’s infiltration and exfiltration routes. The southern OP, led by Staff Sergeant Jason Wheeler, was manned with paratroopers from Charlie Company’s 1st (“Red”) Platoon. “Reaper Two,” one of the sniper teams from 2nd Battalion’s scout platoon, would man the second OP, almost a kilometer to the north. Reaper would be overwatching the area from the roof of a large four-story apartment building, which was laid out with the long axis facing north-south, and which was bordered — across the surrounding streets and alleys — by several other buildings.
The three-man Reaper team, known as the best in the unit, was led by Sergeant Josh Morley, a 22-year-old paratrooper from North Carolina. Morley was regarded within Charlie Company as a consummate professional, and the men in the unit knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they could always count on him and his team to come through whenever they were needed. Morley was affected even more than most of his fellow soldiers by the additional three months that had been added on to his unit’s combat tour, for he was a new father and was counting the days until the end of the deployment, when he would finally get to see his infant daughter for the first time — something he had already been waiting months to do.
The rest of Morley’s team was made up of Specialist Tracy Willis, a 21-year-old from Texas, and Specialist Chris Corriveau, a 23-year-old from Maine. Willis was well known within Charlie Company as a friendly, laid back, permanently smiling young man who was always good for a laugh and for conversation, regardless of the person and the situation. Corriveau was quieter, but had earned the immense respect of his peers at Patrol Base Olson not only for his talent as a sniper but also for his abilities as a natural leader. The team had been together in Iraq for well over a year, and the three young men were as close as soldiers could be. They knew everything about each other, from their backgrounds, to information about their families, to the punchlines of Willis’s tiredest jokes. Further, they had worked together so closely, and for so long, that they could read each other’s body language and tone of voice, and were able to function as an extraordinarily effective unit.
For this mission, the three-man Reaper Two sniper team was rounded out by a fourth man (and a second Texan), 23-year-old Specialist Eric Moser. The company armorer, Moser was not a member of the Battalion Scout Platoon like Morley, Willis, and Corriveau, but was a competition-caliber shooter, and had gone along on several OPs with Reaper in the past, serving as a “designated marksman.” His skill with firearms would end up being critical that day.
EARLY IN THE MORNING, after dropping off SSG Wheeler’s team, Red Platoon’s four Humvees rolled up to the predetermined dismount point for the second OP and came to a stop, allowing Morley, Willis, Corriveau, and Moser to get out. Upon departing the area, the trucks would make their way to Patrol Base Uvanni, an Iraqi National Police outpost in the center of the city (about 1.5 kilometers southwest of Reaper’s OP), where they would wait until it was time to pick up the overwatch teams, while also serving as a Quick Reaction Force in the unlikely event that anything should go wrong at either of the overwatch sites.
The four-man sniper team hustled to the northern gate of the apartment building, cut the lock, and quietly moved into the courtyard. Morley instructed Moser and Corriveau to remain behind to close the gate and remove other signs of the team’s presence, while he and Willis made their way into the building and up the stairs. Moser pulled security while Corriveau quietly closed the gate and replaced the lock, and then the two followed the others inside, clearing the stairwell as they ascended, but not going into the hallways of the apartment building, as they didn’t want to alert the inhabitants of their presence.
The four-man team emerged onto the northern half of the roof and surveyed their surroundings. The building was set up with two staircases, one on the north side and one on the south side, both of which opened up onto the top of the building facing west. Dividing the north and south halves of the roof was a four-foot high, east-west running wall. The entire perimeter of the building’s top was lined with a wall of the same height.
Once the area had been secured and the OP established, there was little to do but watch the street around the building. The team took turns keeping watch and sleeping; they had done hundreds of these before, and, while things could get hairy at times, their job involved far more boredom than excitement — especially if they were careful, as they always were, to keep their heads down and not let anybody below know that they were there.
Unfortunately, unbeknownst to the four men of Reaper Two, one of the building’s occupants had seen them enter and had passed the information along.
JUST BEFORE 11 A.M., reaper received word that Blue Platoon had finished its search of the shop (which had yielded no evidence of illegal activity) and was heading back to Patrol Base Olson, three kilometers to the west. With this, the men dispersed across the top of the building, with two — Moser and Corriveau — watching the road from corners of the roof, and the other two — Morley and Willis — taking up a position by the northern stairwell, where the team’s radio had been deposited. Assigned to the southeast corner, Corriveau picked up an M4 rifle to complement his sniper weapon and vaulted the dividing wall, moving onto the southern half of the building and taking up his position, watching the base of the buildings across the road but careful to remain below the roof’s perimeter wall and out of sight from the street below. Taking a quick peek over the wall, he saw a white sedan nearing his corner of the building but due to the obstructed view that came along with his rooftop concealment, Corriveau never had a chance to see the situation developing on the street directly below.
On the northwest corner of the apartment complex, Moser was watching the road in front of the building through a cut in the roof wall. As he looked down, he saw a white car speed up to the corner of the building. Four men holding AK-47 assault rifles (at least two of whom had long beards — a distinctly non-Iraqi trait) emerged from the vehicle and sprinted toward the building’s entrance. Seeing this, Moser immediately yelled to the others that enemy fighters were below. Morley, who along with Willis had been positioned next to the stairwell, raced to Moser’s corner of the building to assess the situation and if possible to engage, but could not move quickly enough to prevent the men on the ground from making it into the building.
Suddenly, machine gun fire erupted from both of the stairwells behind them.
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