The Fight for Mosul – “Both the ERD and Counter Terrorism Service had a dual mission in Mosul – clear the city of ISIS occupation and simultaneously protect the civilian populace.”
The campaign to retake Mosul from ISIS was one of total war. The enemy had no intention of either surrendering or retreating, nor of leaving a single building standing or civilian unharmed as ISIS literally fought to the death. This was the environment, the “battle space” in military terms, that Alpha Platoon, SEAL Team 7, under the command of Lieutenant Jacob “Jake” Portier found itself. The platoon was fighting alongside the Iraqi Emergency Response Division, a unique security force primarily trained by U.S. Special Forces and commanded by Major General Abbas.
Scant attention has been paid by the media as to the extreme nature of the battle for Mosul that was primarily fought by the ERD and its supporting units such as Alpha Platoon. RIR recommends the reader refer to retired Special Forces colonel Mitch Utterback’s blog, “A Veteran in Transition”, regarding the fight for Mosul. Utterback, with a master’s in journalism, spent 14 days on the ground in Mosul with the Iraqi Emergency Response Division and Counter Terrorist Services. Alpha Platoon arrived on-scene several days after Utterback’s departure. RIR interviewed Colonel (ret) Utterback for this story.
How might have the brutality, cultural differences, view of the enemy by the ERD and CTS and the operational tempo of this battle affected the SEAL platoon’s members? In such a fight can our war fighters themselves enter what Conrad called “The Heart of Darkness”?
Iraqi Planned, Iraqi Led – No “Shoulder to Shoulder” U.S. Combat Advisers Needed
“The plan called for the ERD to systematically move west one block at a time – killing ISIS in front of them and protecting civilians at the same time. This meant heavy weapons only after confirmation civilians were not being used as human shields by ISIS.
“Both the ERD and Counter Terrorism Service had a dual mission in Mosul – clear the city of ISIS occupation and simultaneously protect the civilian populace.” – LTC (ret) Mitch Utterback, USA Special Forces.
Combat Enablers – Value Added Presence in the Battle Space
Alpha Platoon, Naval Special Warfare Group 1, SEAL Team 7, located on Coronado Island in California, had been given a real choice mission. At full strength the platoon could field 16 operators, two of which were officers. The platoon chief, normally an E‑8 position, and that of the targeting operations lead petty officer, most often an E‑7, were the glue that held the platoon together.
Chief Edward Gallagher, veteran of seven overseas combat deployments and a well-considered “frogman”, was slotted in both positions. He would be undertaking his eighth deployment and joining the platoon to do so. Gallagher’s service record, among other notable achievements, reflects his physical courage under fire. Two Bronze Stars for Valor signified this. At the same time, he is described as someone fully dedicated to accomplishing whatever mission he’s assigned. Gallagher, like many other SOF senior non-commissioned officers regardless of unit or Service, possessed the “Whatever it takes” attitude to get the job done. His spouse, Andrea Gallagher, has described her husband in the following way. “He is an aggressive operator. He is an aggressive leader. And I don’t think that he’s ever apologized for that.”
According to multiple news reports Gallagher was selected to ramrod a platoon considered one of the poorest performing in ST‑7. His job was to bring them up to standard while likewise coaching/mentoring the two young officers in command of Alpha Platoon, Navy SEAL Lt. Jacob “Jake” Portier, and the assistant officer-in-charge Navy SEAL Lt. Tom MacNeil. Gallagher is described as turning the platoon’s performance with respect to mission essential criteria and tasks around during its pre-deployment work-up and training. One in Mosul and working side by side with the ERD, Gallagher realized he and his platoon needed to fight with the same intensity, commitment, and discomfort the Iraqi forces under General Abbas were fighting. Some in the platoon sought to temper his enthusiasm. In response the former BUD/S instructor told them “You guys are not performing…on the SEAL teams, this is how we do it.”
Upon its arrival in Mosul the platoon linked up with General Brigadier General Abbas Al-Jubouri, the commander of the Emergency Response Division which along with Brigadier General Haider, commander of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services, were charged with retaking Mosul. The ERD had been well trained by U.S. Army Special Forces for many years as had the CTS. In the fight for Mosul this training would be shown to have paid off. LTC Mitch Utterback, who knew both men personally and professionally, returned to Iraq as a civilian journalist for the Mosul operation. He was “boots on the ground” for 14 days and observed the house to house, block by block fighting firsthand. “The ERD and CTS obeyed the Rules or Armed Conflict as we had trained them in when I was on active duty,” Utterback told RIR. “General Abbas ensured his troops knew protect both civilians and property whenever possible. Combat operations would be stopped while civilians were evacuated. Proportional use of weapons systems with respect to damage was emphasized. Prisoners, when taken, were handled appropriately.”
Utterback related his watching from a hidden position as Iraqi forces captured an ISIS fighter. The man was on the “most wanted” list for making a selfie video of himself burning the bodies of seven CTS soldiers who had been killed. “They knew who he was when they captured him,” the colonel told RIR, “but they performed the capture exactly as we’d taught them to. I watched them search him, secure him, safeguard him, and then speed him to the rear for further questioning.” Utterback affirmed the ERD and CTS troops were well disciplined and knew they faced punishment if they looted homes or other property, or mis-treated prisoners. On the other hand, he witnessed notable war crimes committed by ISIS to include the murder of children during the fighting.
American involvement in the campaign to retake Mosul consisted of ISR support coming from the 82ndAirborne and 101stAirborne Divisions. Drone operators were co-located at the ERD headquarters some miles outside the city. Using translators, the drone operators would provide “eyes on” for ERD and CTS troops, block by block, as well as fire support such as Hellfire missiles. Advanced medical support for the wounded was also provided at a field medical hospital located well away from the city. Otherwise there were no American combat advisers in a “shoulder to shoulder” role – meaning directing the fight – in Mosul. The ERD and CTS were superbly trained, experienced, to include calling their own close air support in and fielding their own snipers.
Alpha Platoon arrived several days after Utterback’s departure. The platoon presence had been accepted by General Abbas for essentially two reasons. First, he knew with an American special operations unit on the ground with his forces he would have access to American MEDEVAC assets with their capability to get his most seriously wounded to hospital. Secondly, he knew that having the platoon’s additional radios, internal drone support, and firepower would be an added plus. Otherwise there was no strategic or tactical need or mission for the SEALs, as noted by Colonel Utterback. “I got a message from the general along with a photo,” the colonel told RIR. “He told me some Americans had joined him in Mosul. He took their picture from behind for security reasons, but their kit and uniforms were what MARSOC and the squids wear.”
Why ST‑7 had sent the platoon to Iraq for remains unknown. “No Iraqi commander is going to turn down an ‘elite’ U.S. team if it is offered,” shared Utterback. “They know there are resources that come along with them such as MEDEVAC or ISR. Neither the ERD or CTS needed any help, as I witnessed while I was there,” the colonel offered, “Perhaps they were there to gain experience and to have a role in the action?”
“Hell no, we won’t go!” – An Intergenerational Split Between War Fighters
The younger SEALs in the platoon (Gallagher is now 40 and was the “old man” of the platoon) have been described as “millennial SEALs”, a term coined during the Navy investigation. Elaborating on her husband’s perception of the overall platoon Ms. Gallagher told Breitbart “It’s just very weird juxtaposition of this warrior community that’s been infiltrated by these weaker minded individuals that can’t be told what to do, they don’t respect authority, in fact they usurp authority and they don’t think that they’re accountable to anyone or anything,” she said.
The term “millennial”, or millennial generation” refers to those men and women coming into adulthood in the early 21stCentury. Haim Ginott, a school teacher, child psychologistand psychotherapistand a parent educatorwrote “Parents often talk about the younger generation as if they had nothing to do with it.” And Horace opined in hisA Progeny Yet More Corrupt, Book III of Odes, circa 20 BC, “Our sires’ age was worse than our grandsires’. We, their sons, are more worthless than they; so, in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more corrupt.”
That said, the truth is our millennial SOF war fighters, whether they be SEALs or Rangers or Marines or “Green Berets” or Air Force PJs have been fighting our nation’s multiple wars, both in the open and in the dark, for many years now…and doing a damn fine job. In a thoughtful article in The Military Leader by Christopher Manganaro, Millennial service members are shown to have the following characteristics.
Here are 10 characteristics of military millennials that leaders need to understand as they engage and lead them:
- They are mostly in the rank window of E5-E6 and O2-O3.
- They joined the military after 9/11 and see the world through a lens that includes terrorism.
- They are the most technologically connected, but least socially communal group of people.
- Millennials understand that Russia and China are known for their recent Olympic games, not for being a “threat” we need to train to fight against.
- They are typically not interested in staying at one job for too long.
- They find it highly unlikely we will engage in another ground war similar to Desert Storm and more accepting of the type of war found in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
- They’re stuck between “being ready” for the next war and finding purpose in their everyday actions.
- Millennials have lived the predictable life of the “patch chart,” which helped families, friends and civilian employers, for Reserve and National Guard Soldiers, prepare and ramp up for combat.
- They find it hard to believe we are not doing more about Syria, ISIS or other transnational threats that we see every day on TV and the Internet.
- They do better knowing the “why” behind things and receiving accolades from their supervisors.He concludes with this regarding how our “Old School” combat leaders can be more successful and have a greater positive impact with the millennial war fighter even as he/she is preparing to transition from active duty to retirement.
He concludes with this regarding how our “Old School” combat leaders can be more successful and have a greater positive impact with the millennial war fighter even as he/she is preparing to transition from active duty to retirement.
Questions for Leaders
- To what extend are you willing to leave your own generational perspective in order to understand that of your subordinates?
- In what situations could you give a Why but instead rely on rank or position to reinforce your guidance?
- Is connecting with your followers important enough to try to understand their generationally influenced attitudes, biases, and ways of thinking?
That said, physical and psychological conditions, treatments, medications, and how these affect the SOF warrior in specific have been brought to light in lieu of the war crimes trial currently underway. The behavior, judgment, and overall performance as a leader and as a combatant have always been of the utmost importance.
Chief Gallagher, for example, now has his traumatic brain injury diagnosis as a matter of public record. TBI often sees co-occurring diagnosis’ such as combat induced PTSD, Major Depressive Disorder, Anxiety, and Insomnia accompany this form of invisible wound. Cognition skills are often affected, and these are crucial to have fully operating in “the Green” when in combat or other periods of high stress. The ability to interact and maintain control is essential. TBI and its oft accompanying illnesses or disorders degrade that cognitive ability.
“Cognition is the act of knowing or thinking. It includes the ability to choose, understand, remember and use information. Cognition includes:
- Attention and concentration
- Processing and understanding information
- Planning, organizing, and assembling
- Reasoning, problem-solving, decision-making, and judgment
- Controlling impulses and desires and being patient
“A person with TBI may be unable to focus, pay attention, or attend to more than one thing at a time. This may result in:”
- Restlessness and being easily distracted.
- Difficulty finishing a project or working on more than one task at a time.
- Problems carrying on long conversations or sitting still for long periods of time.
The moral, ethical, and medically sound question is what further damage is done to the individual if allowed to “go forward” when medically he or she should not? And what might occur in the negative if the conditions worsen on the battlefield?
While with the USSOCOM Warrior Care Program (previously known at the Care Coalition) I had the opportunity to talk with a senior Army psychiatrist at Madigan Army Medical Center. One of my cases, a SOF operator with extensive combat experience, was self-admitting to the in-patient behavioral health unit at Madigan. As the admission was taking place the doctor, who had worked extensively with Special Forces at Womack Army Hospital at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, before coming to Fort Lewis, said this.
“You Special Forces guys are most often catastrophic when you finally raise your hands and say, ‘I need help’. Then, when you get it [mental health care] we only see you long enough for you to stabilize, get back to your unit, and re-deploy. It’s almost a waste of time for us because we know you’ll be back again, just like this patient is today.”
Why was Alpha Platoon deployed to Mosul if there wasn’t any real need for a U.S. special operations unit to be “boots on the ground” with the Iraqi ERD or CTS? What was their purpose for deploying to begin with? How many of the platoon possess, as does Chief Gallagher, behavioral health challenges to include TBI? Why would Naval Special Warfare Group One, knowing the medical histories of its operators, elect to put their long-term well-being at risk?
And had the platoon’s deployment not taken place, or been better defined mission wise, would Chief Gallagher be on trial today? Would Special Operator Corey Scott, who testified last week that it was he who killed the young ISIS fighter that Gallagher is charged with murdering, now be facing perjury charges?
Would what some in the Special Operations community see as simply “dark humor”, the flying of a drone over the body of the dead teenager, not have become an international outrage and huge embarrassment to Naval Special Warfare at-large?
Perhaps Admiral William McRaven, himself a SEAL (Class 95) and former USSOCOM commander, said it best.
“The purpose of the mission must be thoroughly understood beforehand, and the men must be inspired with a sense of personal dedication that knows no limitations… In an age of high technology and Jedi Knights, we often overlook the need for personal involvement, but we do so at our own risk.”
If we learn nothing else from the trial of Chief Edward Gallagher may it be that our war fighters are not expendable, not invincible, and not inhuman.
Greg Walker has been an author journalist, and writer for the last four decades. Along the trail he completed a military career with the United States Army’s “Green Berets”. He was proud to serve as an Oregon law enforcement officer for ten years, medically retiring from the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office in 2006. Greg’s final career was working with our nation’s most seriously injured, wounded, and ill service members, veterans, and their families as a Department of Defense warrior care coordinator. He is the co-author, with Navy SEAL legend Chief Gunners Mate Barry Enoch, the best selling book “Teammates–SEALs at War.”