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A Bad Day on Khulfafa Street

A Bad Day on Khulfafa Street

This entire article is based on an oral history conducted with Col. Warner Anderson by Maj. Paul Landry, 126th MHD, in Baghdad, Iraq, days after the event. The interview is currently in the collections of the USASOC History Office, Fort Bragg, N.C.

When most people think of the typical Special Operations mission they generally imagine fast, dynamic, and violent direct action style missions – remarkably brave men doing remarkable brave things. Few think of the more simple yet critical day-to-day missions such as those accomplished by the soldiers of Civil Affairs, and for the most part these missions are routine affairs. Wells are dug, schools built, peace reinforced. Nevertheless, these are special operations soldiers and every mission carries the possibility that they will need the skills earned in the course of their training.

On April 27, 2003, Baghdad teetered between a complete collapse and a fragile peace. U.S. forces had poured into the city only eighteen days before, hounding Saddam’s army to oblivion. Immediately afterwards looting broke out, but the situation eventually settled into an uneasy calm as U.S. forces struggled to bring normalcy to the shattered city. Part of that effort was to rebuild a medical system wracked by neglect well before the start of the war. The lead element of that effort was the specialists of the 352nd Civil Affairs Command Public Health Team. Composed of a mix of medical doctors, health specialists, and enlisted personnel, the team was ably directed by Col. Robert T. Frame, assisted by Col. Warner J. “Butch” Anderson, a Special Forces medical doctor and emergency physician.

That morning elements of the Public Health Team prepared to drive to the Ministry of Health for the first official meeting with the reconstituted ministry. The team had stood up the Ministry of Health the day before and after a short search found an Iraqi physician to serve as the acting minister of health. This was to be their first meeting, so it had high importance. The plan called for the team to move with an escort of military police from the Civil Military Operations Center across the Tigris River to the ministry building, located in a group of fairly high-powered hospitals called Medical City. The team was composed of Frame, Anderson, Maj. Robert Donovan, the team sanitarian, and one enlisted soldier, Spec. Jason Lang. Accompanying the team was a contract interpreter, who was also a medical doctor, named Ali Habib.

As the morning wore on the planned MP support failed to appear, so the team gathered up two soft-skinned Humvees and made the determination that, because of the importance of the meeting and its significance, they would convoy over in a two vehicle convoy; a common occurrence in 2003. The team quickly briefed a convoy plan, placing Frame and Donovan in the lead vehicle, with Donovan serving as driver. In the second vehicle Lang took the wheel with Anderson in the right seat and Dr. Habib behind him in the rear passenger seat. The plan briefed, the men strapped on their gear. In the second vehicle Anderson and Lang traded weapons so Anderson would have an M16 rifle while Lang took Anderson’s M9 pistol. Half joking, Anderson asked Lang if he were qualified to use the pistol. His answer, which Anderson thought sounded more like a typical pre-med student response was, “What do you think sir?” Anderson chambered a round in Lang’s M16 and the convoy set off, crossing the Al Jumhuriya bridge and eventually turning down Khulafa Street.

The ambush started from this overpass, the gunman firing from roughly where the sign is torn. The green fence along the road kept the team from escaping to the left. Photo by 126th MHD, U.S. Army, April 2003.

Khulfafa Street is normally a four-lane boulevard but, as was the habit in those near lawless times, it was being used as something closer to a six-lane boulevard by the Iraqis on that day. The traffic northbound became congested and the team realized they were still more than a half-hour from the ministry even though it was less than two miles away. As the team struggled through the traffic they found themselves

surrounded with several different vehicles, including buses and commercial vehicles. As Anderson scanned the crowded boulevard he noticed a Christian church on the left side of the road, almost directly across from the Khulafa mosque on the right side of the road, and for a moment, hoped that is signaled some level of cooperation and pluralism in Iraq. All along the road people were waving at the American troops and street vendor activity struck the team as normal, so the team had little reason to suspect anything unusual. An experienced Special Forces soldier, Anderson kept track of the team’s progress on a GPS and maintained constant communication with the vehicle ahead as they ground slowly along their route.

Checking his GPS, Anderson reached for the radio to tell Frame and Donovan they were about one kilometer away from Medical City. Suddenly the windshield of Anderson’s vehicle exploded as shots slammed across the length of the Humvee. Hit by flying glass, Anderson was momentarily stunned and remembers, “We had no idea how many shooters there were. We had no idea what was going on. Of course the immediate action was to get out of the vehicle, so I yelled at Lang, “Get out!” And he had the presence of mind to throw the emergency brake on and he jumped out and, with my M9, he fired a few rounds off. He didn’t see anybody to my knowledge but I think he was trying to help clear traffic and contribute to the terrorist’s confusion.” The momentary confusion that gripped Anderson might be attributed to the fact that he had been hit two or three times in the initial fusillade. At least one round, maybe two, struck him in the right side, breaking his lower rib and ripping into his abdominal cavity. The second round tore into his arm.

Despite the profuse pain in his side and damage to his arm, Anderson was able to keep control of his rifle. Looking ahead, he saw Frame slip from the lead vehicle and saw that he too was bleeding heavily from his left arm. As blood spread rapidly across the sleeve of his uniform, Frame, staggering as he slipped into shock, turned to Anderson and called out, “Butch, I’ve been hit. I’ve been hit real bad.” Anderson realized the situation was growing worse and shouted to Frame, “Bob, I’ve been hit too. I don’t know how badly. Get back in the vehicle; I’m going to get to you.” Despite a brief lull in the in the firing Anderson and Lang were still unable to locate any assailant. Nevertheless, they took advantage of the break and rushed forward to help Frame back into the vehicle. Realizing that Frame was much closer to death than he first thought, Anderson turned and rushed back to his vehicle to recover his medical pouch and noticed his Humvee was leaking fuel and hydraulic fluid.

As he reached for the medical kit a shot slammed into his protective mask carrier but missed his leg. Spinning around, Anderson suddenly saw a gunman standing on a nearby elevated crosswalk that was roughly four meters above the road. Anderson also remembered that there was a wrought iron fence cross the median, which meant the team was effectively trapped with almost no route of escape. The attacker was dressed all in black, his face and head covered by a traditional black headdress. More rounds slammed around Anderson as the ambusher continued to fire. Anderson remembers, “I was able to see his eyes and he was intently concentrating on me, directing his fire at me. And the bullets were kicking up in the pavement around me.”

The market next to the ambush site blocked the team from moving to the right. Photo by 126th MHD, U.S. Army, April 2003.

From that moment forward Anderson recalls “…an interesting thing happened. The events sort of slowed down and my thinking became crystal clear. Up until that point, my predominant emotion, if you can call it that, was confusion, because I wasn’t able to locate a shooter. I knew that I had to give immediate care to Frame because he was going into shock. I knew I had to neutralize the assailant before I could attend to Frame. I couldn’t find the assailant. I had no idea where it was coming from. I had no idea if it was coming from the bus beside us or from the civilians who looked like bystanders, or what was going on. But once I located the assailant, I knew exactly what to do. I actually formulated a plan in a split second. I raised the M16, with the first round intentionally going wild, being fired as quickly as possible. My intent there was to throw off his mental balance. My second round, I was trying to get close to hitting him but I was doing it by swinging the rifle up. But I planned for the third round to be an aimed shot, because I’ve always been told that an aimed shot wins the fight.”

Anderson’s second shot was telling. The assailant, either grazed or sufficiently frightened, turned to run away. As he broke contact Anderson took careful aim at the enemy’s left side, leading him slightly to compensate for the run. This shot found its mark, knocking the terrorist from running enemy to a motionless, lifeless form. Wary of a ploy, Anderson kept his sights on his target for about two to three seconds. The man, however, had fallen behind a low wall, so Anderson could not tell for certain that he had killed him. Nevertheless, after a few moments it seemed clear the assailant was out of the fight.

Anderson’s shots alerted Lang, and he quickly covered the same spot where Anderson was aiming. Realizing he was covered, Anderson, ignoring his own wounds, quickly switched from combatant back to medical doctor and rifled through the shattered vehicle for his medical bag. He quickly ran back to Frame and applied a tourniquet. By this point Frame had been bleeding so profusely that he was pale, sweaty, and confused. Shock was setting in as Frame repeated to Anderson over and over, “Butch, I got hit real bad.” The friend in Anderson took command of his emotions and he gently said to Frame, “Don’t worry Bob, we’re going to take care of you. We’re not going to let this kill you.” Anderson’s experience as an emergency physician and instructor at the Special Forces’ elite Special Operations Medical School enabled him to get the tourniquet in proper position above Frame’s wound, which was high on his left arm. Anderson was able to employ a special tourniquet – known as the McMillan tourniquet – designed for such a wound. Still, Anderson found Frame’s blood pressure so low that he needed only a half turn on the tourniquet to stem the flow of blood.

Once Anderson realized he had stopped Frame’s bleeding, he piled him back into the lead vehicle and shouted to Donovan to get Frame out of the kill zone. Looking over he saw Donovan peering back, seemingly confused and clearly pale. Anderson was unsure if Donovan was hit, but seemed confident that there was enough of him there to understand their predicament. Turning back to the second vehicle, Anderson pounded on the first Humvee, yelling at Donovan, “Go! Go!” By this time the shooting had cleared the streets and Lang, seeing Anderson running back, jumped in the driver’s seat and prepared to move out. As Anderson threw himself into the passenger seat Lang began to roll forward when an Iraqi man stepped out in front of us waving his hands. Anderson was, at first, unsure if the man was another part of the ambush but something made him think the man was stopping them for a good reason so he ordered Lang to stop and he stepped out to see what the Iraqi was shouting about.

The Humvee driven by Lang and crewed by Anderson and Dr. Habib shows the extent of the damage caused by the ambush. Photo by 126th MHD, U.S. Army, April 2003.

Anderson was stunned to see Frame laying on the ground inches from the front of the second vehicle. It appeared that Frame had rolled out of his Humvee as it pulled forward. Anderson called to Lang, “Frame’s out here. Let’s get him.” The two men started to pull Frame from the ground when the Iraqi man who hailed them pitched in to help. The three men carried Frame to the rear of the Humvee where Anderson found Dr. Habib, still in his seat, moaning, “I’m hit! I’m hit! I’m dying! I’m dying! I’m an only son, I can’t die.” Anderson realized that Habib had enough of his wits about him to talk and therefore was able to function so he calmly told him, “Ali, there’s an aid kit right beside you. Get in it and get out what you need, we’re driving.”

Once again Anderson climbed back into his vehicle and ordered Lang to drive hard, bumping out of their way anything that got in their path. Amazingly, a group of Iraqis had run up the street clearing the way for the damaged Humvee. Lang tore up the street and to the traffic circle near Medical City. There, a single Toyota Land Cruiser blocked their progress. Anderson shouted to Lang to brush him aside and then noticed that Lang was having a hard time steering. He too had been injured in the initial onslaught. Still, Lang was able to keep enough of his wits about him to push the Toyota out of the way and press on to Medical City.

Anderson specifically picked Medical City as a destination since he knew American soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division had set up a security team there. As they pulled into the compound Anderson shouted to Lang, “Go get a litter!” “Get a stretcher!” As Lang limped off to find a stretcher a soldier who happened to be patrolling the parking lot ran over to help. Anderson told him, “Let’s get this guy inside. He’s bleeding to death.” Quickly assessing the situation the young soldier told Anderson that, “The medics are over there.” As Anderson and the soldier pulled Frame from the vehicle Anderson realized that Dr. Habib was gone. He had been in the Humvee when it pulled into Medical City but was now missing. The two men carried Frame over to the medics. As he carried Frame, Anderson considered silently that if he is able to carry a person 150 meters, even with help, he probably was not too badly injured.

Frame continued to slip in and out of consciousness repeating, “Butch, I’m hurt real bad. I’m hurt real bad.” Still, Anderson saw, some of his color had returned. Anderson leaned toward Frame and whispered, “Bob, we got you now. We’re going to take care of you. Don’t worry about how this turns out.” One of the medics started an IV as Anderson ordered the other to get a Sam splint. Anderson helped the medic apply the splint and then turned to the second medic and helped him set the IV properly. At this point Lang said that his leg was bothering him. The medics gave him a quick look and realized that he had a gunshot wound to his left thigh.

Both Anderson and the medics realized that Frame needed to be in an operating room if he was going to survive. Anderson called for a helicopter medevac but soon found out that the only way to get Frame to a helipad was up twelve flights of stairs – a climb he would not have survived. Turning to the only other option, Anderson and the medics loaded Frame and Lang into a field ambulance where another army emergency physician took over for Anderson. Relieved of his immediate concerns, Anderson limped to the second ambulance when he realized that he had not seen Donovan or his vehicle. Reaching into his blood-stained desert uniform, he found his notebook that had the bumper numbers for their tiny convoy and, before he would allow himself to be evacuated, conveyed the information so a search could begin for the major.

Once at the Combat Surgical Hospital, Anderson could take the time to calmly assess what had happened and what he had seen. In the initial blast of fire Anderson’s glasses were damaged so he was aware his disrupted vision certainly contributed to his initial confusion, making locating the attacker, in his own words, “hellishly difficult.” Anderson was evaluated and discovered to have a through-and-through wound to his elbow, fragment wounds to both biceps, and a gunshot wound to his right side that glanced off his rib. Despite the protests of the Combat Surgical Hospital staff, he demanded to stay in Iraq, where he took over the Public Health Team. Frame was far worse off. The surgical team placed a tubular splint in his brachial artery. The splint had been on for roughly 45 minutes so the team also had to graft a vein from his leg to his arm. He was evacuated to the United States in hopes of recovering some movement in his damaged arm. Lang suffered a gunshot wound severe enough to require he be evacuated to the U.S., where his thigh was laid open for several days to relieve pressure to the wound.

Despite his wounds, Donovan showed up at the hospital later. He had been shot through the shoulder and neck, the round striking his lung and collapsing it. In his confused state he drove aimlessly around Baghdad before coasting into an infantry check point several kilometers away. There they administered first aid and got him evacuated. The missing Dr. Ali Habib was able to help himself. When Anderson’s vehicle pulled into the Medical City compound he called, in his native tongue, for several men to help him. They transferred him to a civilian ambulance that took him to another section of Medical City where he recovered from a single gunshot wound to his side.

The last thing Anderson remembered seeing as they pulled away from the ambush site was a crowd of Iraqis that gathered around the dead body of the assailant. Someone had thrown him off the overpass and the crowd tore at his body in anger. When it was all over Anderson recognized that his Special Forces experience and the ability to assess and react to any situation earned over years of service with SF allowed him and his men to survive what could have been a bad day on Khulafa Street.

For his actions that day Anderson was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device and the Purple Heart for wounds received in combat. This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2008 Edition.

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Dr. Patrick R. Jennings, Ph.D., is a longtime U.S. Army historian and author who has...