One Man's War on Terror The American GI from Berlin

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Part 4: Combat by the Full Moon


Zuhaira, at home in Opferbaum, received the call at 4:30 p.m. on July 1. It was the moment she had feared since Jeff went to war. She was in fact entitled to a personal visit, which meant two soldiers in "Class A" uniforms showing up at her door and speaking in lowered voices. But when the two men from the Ledward Barracks in Schweinfurt arrived at her house she wasn't home. She was out shopping and had missed the news that she was now getting via telephone.

The voice at the other end said that Specialist Jamaleldine had been wounded. How? Zuhaira asked. "He was shot in the face." Where? "I can't tell you that." Is he conscious? she asked. "Unfortunately, I don't have any information about that either. But Ma'am, we do hope to be able to fly him out to Landstuhl within 48 hours."

After the phone call, she says, she sat down and did nothing at all. She didn't have any pictures of her husband, something that brought her emotions into turmoil. It was not until much later that she would discover what had really happened.

The incident that would change both their lives occurred on the evening of June 30, a Saturday. Jamaleldine was traveling south on a dusty main road, past industrial wastelands, bullet-riddled houses and destroyed apartment buildings.

As a "gunner," he was standing at the machine gun in the turret of a Humvee, with Specialist Dixon -- whose grandparents came from the northern German city of Bremen -- at the wheel below him. Staff Sergeant Brian Nethery was sitting in the passenger seat, operating the radio. They were driving in a convoy with other scouts, with two Humvees traveling in front and one behind them. Although they didn't feel entirely safe, after months of relative calm they also didn't feel tense. They were talking about dinner.

At a location known as Checkpoint 2, they heard fierce gunfire coming from the east. After 10 months of combat duty, they had developed the ability to identify the source of any loud noises. What they were hearing now was the sound of American guns, perhaps two or more kilometers away. It was almost exactly 9:15 p.m. There was a full moon that night.

The first radio messages were confusing. A routine patrol from the 77th Tank Regiment, consisting of three Humvees, had apparently had enemy contact at the Nasr canal southwest of Ramadi. There was talk of "elements," or trucks, and, in contradictory messages, of a group of 10 or 20 armed combatants.

None of the scouts at Checkpoint 2 sensed the potential danger. Captain Jim Spannagel, the scouts' commander, divided up the convoy, sending two Humvees, including the one with Jamaleldine in the turret, to the area where the shooting was coming from. The others kept on driving.

As they drove eastward, Jamaleldine repeatedly heard brief, compressed bursts of gunfire. The closer his Humvee came to the scene, bumping along over uneven terrain, the more obvious it was that the patrol ahead of them had been ambushed, and that it had in fact stumbled upon an entire enemy company. By this time, the radio operators were talking about grenades, machine-gun fire and men in the white ankle-length robes known as dishdashas.

What it was, in fact, was the beginning of the Battle of Donkey Island, which would claim the lives of two Americans and severely injure at least nine, perhaps as many as 11.

The Americans would later learn that when the patrol arrived at the Nasr canal at 9:15 p.m. on June 30, they had unknowingly wandered into the middle of a group of roughly 70 enemy combatants apparently on the verge of launching a new wave of terror in Ramadi. The US soldiers that held back the enemy that night, in skirmishes lasting well into the next day, prevented the war from returning to Ramadi. In the end, they won a decisive battle, killing 27, perhaps 32 enemy combatants, each of them a jihadist.

The 70 men flitted through the night, making their way through coarse shrubs along the bank of the canal and up through bushes into the surrounding hills. The Americans had hardly arrived on the scene before the enemy combatants scattered and regrouped to form small units in which to wage their version of desert warfare. The shots would come from all directions, followed by minutes of silence in the ghostly moonlight, a silence that meant that the enemy was still lurking in the bushes and hills.

Jamaleldine's Humvee arrived at the Nasr canal well south of the actual fighting. Staff Sergeant Nethery had the "truck," as they call the vehicle, travel slowly northward along the bank of the canal.

Large Molotov cocktails occasionally landed in front of their radiator, plastic bottles filled with gasoline and nails, launched from the darkness. To their right, 200 or 300 meters away, they saw two trucks, one of them a large Mercedes semi-trailer truck, both belonging to the enemy. To their left, they soon saw the tip of Donkey Island, named after the wild donkeys that live there, against the dark water. It was difficult to tell whether this was the right place to take up a position.

The enemy muzzle flashes made things seem even more confusing, sometimes appearing on one side, sometimes on another, and sometimes even suggesting that the enemy might be on the other side of the canal.

It was then that the soldiers lost their sense of time, when everything became a hysterically compressed present and instinct took over. This is why no one knows when exactly Jamaleldine and his team arrived at the canal; it was probably around midnight or shortly thereafter.

Apache combat helicopters had been in the air for two hours, flying in circles to intimidate the enemy -- "creating a lot of drama," as soldiers put it. The choppers fired rockets at Donkey Island and rattled off 600 to 1,000 rounds a minute with their 30-mm guns.

Jamaleldine began firing brief salvos at the enemy, alternating between two directions, 12 o'clock and 9 o'clock. He stood on a steel box containing 1,400 rounds of ammunition, manning a machine gun on a mount, an M240 Bravo capable of firing up to 600 projectiles a minute and, with the ammunition belts in the barrel, weighing in at a hefty 30 to 35 kilograms (66 to 77 lbs.). Jamaleldine would soon need to lift the gun.

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