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The Battle of Debecka Pass: Roughnecks at War

3/3rd, along with the 5th SFG troopers scheduled to work in western Iraq, had worked up a new field resupply scheme using specially modified trucks. Known as “War Pigs” (officially known as “Ground Resupply Vehicles” or GRVs), these were 5-ton medium trucks with cut-down cabs, mounts for medium machine guns, and radios and satellite communications gear. In back were racks and stowage for enough fuel, ammunition, and other supplies to let a GMV-mounted ODA stay out an additional 10 days. The idea was for the “War Pigs” to deliver the required supplies to a field resupply point so that the GMV-mounted ODAs would not have to leave their observation stations. 3/3rd SFG’s GRVs had some extra features, including a winch for handling 55-gallon fuel drums, a trailer hitch for towing, and one extra touch, a 60mm mortar. Assigned to ODB 390 (“C” Company, 3/3rd SFG – “The Roughnecks”), the trucks would act as mobile company headquarters and bases of fire. From here, the four ODAs of ODB 390 (ODAs 391, 392, 394, and 395) with their 16 GMVs would be supported and resupplied, and ordered into battle.


Getting There: Into Iraq

As it turned out, the toughest part of OIF for 3/3rd SFG may have been getting into Iraq once the war started. The battalion began its movement into the theater in early March 2003, flying to a staging area in a nearby host nation. From there, the adventure began several weeks later with the ODAs taking a circuitous ride aboard an MC-130 tanker/transport to As Sulaymaniya, combat-loaded and ready to drive off into their first mission. The ingress route had the MC-130s flying south over the Mediterranean Sea, entering Iraq from the west, then moving north along the Syrian border until they passed over the Green Line and entered “permissive” airspace. FOBs 102 and 103 from 10th SFG had preceeded 3/3rd SFG, and were already operating throughout northern Iraq. ODB 390, with their heavily loaded GRVs, had to be delivered by C-17A Globemaster heavy transports.

Attached to each ODA and the ODB was a U.S. Air Force (USAF) Tactical Air Control Party airman (TACP) equipped with the radios and skills necessary to call in every kind of fire support imaginable. From U.S. Navy (USN) F/A-18 Hornets operating off carriers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to big USAF B-52s from RAF Fairford in England, JSOTF-N was given every kind of support possible to make up for its lack of armor and artillery.

ODB 390 swung right into action, first moving over to the eastern side of the Green Zone to help support operations against the Ansar Al Islam terrorist camp near Halabja. The company then made a rapid road march on April 1 of almost 100 miles to the town of Irbil. The Roughnecks then joined other units of JSOTF-N on April 4 in Operation Northern Safari, a major offensive operation designed to clear northern Iraq, capture key population centers, and secure the Kirkuk oilfields and petroleum production facilities. ODB 390’s job was to take a force of Peshmerga insurgent fighters south from Irbil and try to occupy the western end of a ridge running along the Green Line. When this was occupied, the Northern Safari force would flank the Green Line, move east, and occupy the Kirkuk area.


Approach to Battle

Early on April 5, the four ODAs of ODB 390 linked up at the town of Pir Daúd about 8 miles north of the pass, along with their Peshmerga insurgent fighters. With the Peshmerga fighters were elements of ODA 044 (from 10th SFG) to act as liaison elements. There also were camera crews from various news outlets, including the BBC, following the force south. Early the next afternoon, following an “on the hood” planning session, ODB 390 began to move south. Split to the west were ODAs 394 and 395, while ODAs 391 and 392 moved south on the hardball road towards Debecka. The Peshmerga fighters marched to the rear of the ODAs, ready to move to the attack with the “A” teams providing a base of fire. By 2100 (local, as will be all times reported here), the force was several kilometers north of the ridge, beginning to reconnoiter the enemy positions.

Javelin Missile Battle of Debecka Pass

One of the deadly Javelin missiles leaves its launcher during the Battle of Debecka Pass. The teams using the Javelin at Debecka scored 17 hits for 19 shots, and shattered a far larger enemy force with the missiles and close air support. Photo courtesy of USASOC

Attached to each ODA and the ODB was a U.S. Air Force (USAF) Tactical Air Control Party airman (TACP) equipped with the radios and skills necessary to call in every kind of fire support imaginable. From U.S. Navy (USN) F/A-18 Hornets operating off carriers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to big USAF B-52s from RAF Fairford in England, JSOTF-N was given every kind of support possible to make up for its lack of armor and artillery. It needed the help, because dug in on and south of the ridge were three brigades of the Iraqi 34th Infantry Division. While the 34th was not equipped or trained anywhere near as well as the Republican Guard Divisions defending Baghdad, it was a solid regular army unit with approximately 6,400 men and good equipment, including T-55 tanks, and BMP-1 and MTLB armored personnel carriers (APCs). In practical terms, the Iraqis outnumbered the allied force by about 20:1, had armor against the Land Rovers, GMVs, trucks, and SUVs of the allies, and were dug into positions that had been held for over a decade. Hardly what conventional military analysts would call a fair fight. Late that afternoon, the ODA TACPs began to even the odds by calling in a series of B-52 airstrikes with GPS-guided JDAM bombs on the ridge. The first of these had been a pre-planned daylight affair at 1700, clearly visible in the clear sky of a beautiful spring sunset. Two more B-52s struck the ridge at 0401 the following morning (April 6), each delivering 27 1,000 pound JDAMs on point targets. It would be the opening drum roll to the Battle of Debecka Pass.


Left Flank: Battle at the Crossroads

At daybreak (about 0600), ODAs 391 and 392 linked up with about 80 Peshmerga fighters in SUVs and cargo trucks. The insurgents were well-armed, including vehicle-mounted 12.7mm DSHK heavy machine guns and 106mm recoilless rifles. The combined force then headed south towards a crossroads protected by a minefield. By 0730, the Peshmerga were trying to breach an earthen berm just ahead of the Iraqi defensive line and began to engage dismounted troops. The two ODAs supported the movement with .50-caliber machine gun fire and began to interrogate the first Iraqi prisoners. It was at this point that the SF soldiers began to get information that an armored battalion with 12 T-55s and 15 MTLBs had been defending the crossroads, but had withdrawn to the south. At the crossroads, the force found an abandoned T-55, and the ODAs continued to move forward towards Debecka.

Realizing that the minefields and berms restricted their movement in the area, the SF soldiers decided to complete the breach begun by the Peshmerga. After several tries and use of captured explosives from the Iraqi minefield, the berm breach was finished. By 0900, the force began to move south again towards Highway 2 on the ridgeline, where wheeled vehicle traffic had been observed and engaged with machine guns. Ten minutes later, one of the ODA 391 weapons sergeants spotted a military truck loaded with troops, and Staff Sgt. Jason Brown (ODA 391’s senior weapons sergeant) engaged it with a Javelin anti-tank missile at a range of 3,000 meters. Though the “official” range of the new weapon is only 2,000 meters, the missile flew true and killed the vehicle, scattering its occupants. A few minutes later, after engaging another light vehicle, the SF soldiers began to notice Iraqi vehicles about 2 kilometers south and moving toward their position. With mortar fire and airbursting 57mm anti-aircraft shells beginning to be fired in their direction, it became clear that a battle was in the offing for the SF/Peshmerga force.

By 0940, a line of MTLBs and T-55s emerged from the morning haze to the south, the tanks firing their 100mm guns at the GMVs. Realizing that their position was too exposed to fight effectively, the two teams displaced about 900 meters north to a small ridgeline they would call “the Alamo.” From there the teams began to call in CAS to deal with the enemy armor, and set up the rest of their four Javelin Command/Launch Units (CLUs). By this time, Sgt. Brown had reloaded his CLU, and fired two more Javelins at MTLBs, killing both and causing the rest of the Iraqi armored vehicles to halt their advance and deploy into line abreast along the ridgeline. With just two shots from the deadly new missiles, Brown had stopped an advance by a company of armor and mechanized infantry, and the Iraqis were about to suffer even more deadly treatment from the SF soldiers.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...