Camp Pozzi. GROM in IraqTekst

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Table of Contents

Title page

Colophon

PART I. STRAŻAK

1. Bill Pozzi

2. The Medical Board

3. Strażak

4. The Platform

5. Umm Qasr

6. The Border

7. No Easy Day

PART II. READY FOR THE GAMES

8. Return to the Persian Gulf

9. Baghdad

10. A Strange City

11. Task Unit Thunder

12. Operation Simoom II

PART III. EQUALS OF THE GODS OF NIGHT

13. Drago

14. The Polish Zone

15. Not just the 4th of July

16. Equals of the Gods of Night

17. A Soldier’s Luck

18. The VIP

19. To be like James Bond


Copyright © by Naval, Warszawa 2018

Copyright © for this edition and translation by Dressler Dublin 2020

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.

Cover design

Paweł Panczakiewicz

Photos by: Naval, Tylut, Strażak, Krzysztof Puwalski.

Publisher:

Bellona Publishing House

An imprint of Dressler Dublin Sp. z o.o.

ul. Poznańska 91

05-850 Ożarów Mazowiecki

www.bellona.pl

eISBN 978-83-11-15972-3

Ebook design by drewnianyrower.com

Being a special forces soldier is a bit like being a professional athlete. Athletes, however, have the advantage over us of knowing when the season starts and when it ends, and they adjust their training to reach their top form for the games. Going down range, we operators must be ready for the games every day and every night.


Naval

To the memory of those boys who sacrificed their lives so that you could live in safety and read books such as this one.


„Szczupły”

„Kaśka”

„Żuku”

„Diabeł”

„Ousi”

„Poziomka”

„Witek”

„Mirek”

„Krzychu”

„Gienek”

PART I STRAŻAK

Dokument chroniony elektronicznym znakiem wodnym

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1. Bill Pozzi

“Anybody home?” the rough voice of a somewhat older gentleman came from the doorstep of our bungalow. The voice woke us at high noon on our first day among the date palms, somewhere on the outskirts of Baghdad, in a settlement by one of Saddam’s palaces.

“Hi guys” — the melodic greeting that followed was a touch warmer.

Our English, when employed as a joint effort, was already good enough to welcome our guest and find out what he wanted from us — or rather, as it turned out, what we might want from him in our Iraqi reality.

“Pozzi, Bill Pozzi, I’m the Chief around here,” the gentleman, clad in American uniform pants and a brown T-shirt, introduced himself. “If you guys need anything, bring me a list, and I’ll take care of it or do some shopping at the PX.[1]”


Saddam Hussein’s Palace in Baghdad

This is how Bill Pozzi greeted us. He must have been quite brawny once. In spite of his age, he hadn’t lost anything of his military bearing, and a slight belly only added to his stature. As a welcome gift, he brought us a box of batteries. “In this climate, they run out in no time, and you usually operate at night, so you all need to have a lot of these,” he explained, placing it on the table.


Entrance gate to Camp Jenny Pozzi with an inscription and the green mascot of the SEALs

Such are my memories of our first encounter with Bill Pozzi. Our guest turned out to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest Navy SEAL in the history of this legendary US Navy unit — and a living legend by the time we met him. His experience and dedication were impressive, and his age was an extra advantage — you could say that Pozzi knew literally everything there was to know about life in military bases. He asked us about simple things — needs so basic that they’re often overlooked, though they’re a part of every soldier’s daily life. Bill Pozzi joined the US Navy as a volunteer in a time when most young men avoided military service like the plague. Some of his friends would break their joints with pool cues and feign old football injuries, fearing a “fit for duty” opinion of the military medical board, which meant an unwanted conscription. It’s hardly surprising — the late 1960s were the period of military operations in the Indo-Chinese Peninsula (the Vietnam War), and, after all, not every young man has a warrior’s soul.

Pozzi first joined the US Navy reserve. He was absolutely convinced it was safer than serving in the infantry. He served as a submarine sailor for a time — and he didn’t like it. His vessel was so old it must have been operational during the Second World War. Pozzi worked as a mechanic. He often went to bed with his hair so greasy his head slipped off the pillow as he slept. And then he heard of the Navy SEALs, and he found his place among their ranks for many years (thirty to be exact). Initially, as he recalls, the Navy SEALs somehow reminded him of the Sea Hunt television series — it was all about beaches, girls, and beer, which seemed a good enough list of reasons to enlist. This is how, on our very first day of the war, we got to know a SEAL, whose service had started in the jungles of Vietnam. Who among us hasn’t seen Rambo?


It wasn’t a very long way home for us…

In Vietnam, the SEALs, including Pozzi, secured beaches ahead of Marine landings. It was a time of countless combat missions and patrols, and it was there that he first encountered an enemy face-to-face. Later in his career, he secured the landing of Apollo 12. He volunteered for the task, which definitely wasn’t easy — after the mission, he was just as exhausted as the astronauts returning from the Moon. This is how he became the first SEAL to meet the Apollo crew; his name appeared on TV. When Pozzi, at 54, wanted to enlist for the first Gulf War in 1990, the Medical Board rejected him as being “too old, too fat, and too dumb.” Being a keen expert, he ended up going to Iraq regardless, and later, in 2003, he greeted us in Baghdad. At that point, nobody reproached him because of his age, or his belly for that matter. Pozzi was the mastermind behind our base setup. He built the entire infrastructure from scratch, took care of our supplies — and, most importantly, he knew everything about our vehicles. He was also a generous man, raising money among the soldiers for a Catholic orphanage in Baghdad. Yet he remained a warrior until the very last days of his service, occasionally taking part in combat operations. The guy just loved to fight throughout his whole military career. No wonder our base was known as Camp Pozzi. Camp Jenny Pozzi, to be precise. Pozzi’s daughter was in the military too. He decided that instead of having the base named after him, he would rather honor her as a soldier. Thus, we called it Camp Jenny Pozzi.

 

1 PX, Post Exchange, base exchange — a type of retail store found on United States military installations worldwide. Originally akin to trading posts, they now resemble contemporary department stores or strip malls.

2. The Medical Board

“Naval!” one of our combat section commanders, Robson, called me over as I was climbing the stairs to the department on my first day back at the unit after returning from the Persian Gulf.

I had spent the last few weeks on mandatory leave, undergoing medical tests required upon our every return from a so-called mission abroad. Meanwhile, Robson got the order to form another component, which was to relieve some of the guys operating in Iraq and reinforce those staying. Without beating around the bush, he asked if I’d be willing to go to war under his command. Most of my section was in Iraq at the time, and I had just returned from the waters of the Persian Gulf; when you get right down to it, I could stay — but the most recent political decisions regarding the GROM meant that there were just enough of us at home to barely fill a roster for another round. Robson made it clear to me in a few words. “Sure, man, of course I’ll go” was the only answer I could give.

Our component was to be made up of three regular sections plus support from the guys in logistics, communications, and a few in operations. One section was to come from squadron “A”; another two were to be formed by the Maritime Element. I was overjoyed — it meant that guys who had just come back from the Gulf with me would be going as well. Robson said the experience we gained during our MIOs[2] would count for a lot during the preparation period. Before we could start intensive training though, we had to take care of the mundane details of military life, collecting all the various defense department papers a soldier needs to be let off to war. The word “mission” surely doesn’t reflect what we did on the waters of the Persian Gulf — or what we were about to be doing in Iraq. Nowadays, the word “mission” is usually used to describe peacekeeping operations organized by the United Nations (I was on one of these in Lebanon). After the Persian Gulf, I know that our work there is not the same thing as a UN mission. Well — it’s all the same to us what they call it; for politicians and journalists, I guess, it’s a somewhat softer description of the truth of war.

As for the paperwork, let me let you in on who truly has the final say in whether or not you make it in army life. Nowadays, everyone who wants to be a soldier and go to war during their service has to be healthy as a horse. In the past, military service was compulsory for everyone — as long as the basic medical tests didn’t show anything that would disqualify them. Now it’s doctors that are the masters of service and war — specifically, the Military Medical Board. In my personal archive, the biggest pile of paper comes from the Board in Warsaw. I have a bunch of different health certificates and statements of fitness for service, depending on what regulations were in force at a given time. It never occurred to the MON[3] machine that a soldier might be deployed to operations abroad more than once, not to mention many times at short intervals. Each and every time, before you go anywhere, you have to appear before the Board and get a full range of medical tests. Regardless of the fact that every soldier — like any other employee — undergoes mandatory annual check-ups, you will be tested in detail. You have to be fit as a fiddle to go off to war. Of course, vaccination is supposed to help keep you healthy — OK, I understand that; what I’m driving at, though, is that the whole medical system is poised and ready to test soldier after soldier almost at the drop of a hat. Here you don’t have to sign up and wait your turn for months — but it’s completely different if you’re sick, or, even worse, wounded, as we saw by Strażak’s example; more on that later. Why am I writing about this? Because the amount of time spent by a countless number of soldiers, including myself, sitting or standing by the door to some specialist’s office is certainly noteworthy. These specialists could use their time to see people who really need help — and the healthy military, instead of sitting around in clinics, could be undergoing training, and learning useful skills relevant to their work. Every soldier must be examined thoroughly: blood, urine, hearing, eyesight, heart, head, bone, skin — and a few x-rays on top of that. You must be fit like an eighteen-year-old recruit. So you stand in a winding line of perfectly healthy guys waiting to visit the internist, the cardiologist, the laryngologist, the dentist, the neurologist, the dermatologist, the ophthalmologist, the psychologist, the psychiatrist... After returning home, you go right back to those same lines to get tested for any injuries sustained during the mission (that much, at least, makes sense).

I’m not complaining about the check-ups — but consider this: I come back from a mission at the start of the year, so I get a full round of tests. I’m a combat diver, so I go to the Navy Medical Board in Gdynia, hoping they rule that I’m still fit for the job. The tests are nearly identical to those I had a month earlier after my return from the Gulf, but the doctors in Gdynia don’t accept the results from Warsaw. I only succeed in persuading them not to x-ray my chest since I have such a nice photo of my lungs from a month ago. I come back to Warsaw only to get a letter calling me to appear before the Military Medical Board if I want to qualify for another round abroad. It’s not the same institution that examined me upon my return — so the whole process is set in motion all over again. Had I come back from the mission before the end of the year, I would have had a fourth set of tests. Of course, in the meantime, I have undergone regular check-ups, because our HR department records need to be kept up to date as well. For some unknown reason, no one seems concerned by the fact that I’m about to start glowing in the dark from all the x-rays; that, instead of training, I spend four weeks every year standing around in queues at healthcare institutions. Medical boards have their own regulations, and if you depart too much from their definition of healthy, they may decide you can’t go to war since you’ve lost one tooth too many or have a crooked nose. Yet, as soon as you get back, they’ll try their damndest to prove you’re the picture of health, just to avoid having to spend a dime or two on your rehabilitation.

During medical tests, we did what we could to try and simplify things. Doctors are people too, so sometimes we managed to get inside in groups of two or three and get the stamps to confirm our fitness for duty, earning the gratitude of all the actually sick people waiting in line. Sometimes it took creativity to demonstrate that we were fine and fit — whoever had better eyesight would go to the eye doctor, while those with better hearing waited in line for the laryngologist. One day in Gdynia, a nurse asked for my friend’s last name to enter it in the patient record, and the only answer she got was “uhhhhh,” followed by the creak of the door shutting behind him. “So nervous he forgot his own name,” she must have thought…

Why all these medical check-ups, most of them unnecessary? The answer is very simple. The MON pays quite handsomely for every check-up, every x-ray and every test performed. Any more questions? I don’t know how they paid for the wounded back in those days, but knowing Strażak’s fate, I’d say more money was spent on the healthy soldiers than on those in need of an extra glass of water at the hospital.

When I stood before the Medical Board at the end of my military career, I felt a persistent pain and numbness in my arms due to a cervical spine sprain. I got it when we were practically blown down by the shock wave from an exploding booby trap in a rural compound somewhere in Afghanistan. After returning home, I didn’t see a penny from the army for my aching neck — as far as the medical specialists were concerned, it was fine, still attached and in one piece. Fortunately, we also had private insurance — my insurance company recognized the injury and gave me a few bucks for my recovery. Nevertheless, when I was retiring from military service, I went to the Medical Board in Warsaw, carrying a pile of papers with me and… a miracle happened. The Board recognized my sprained disc and confirmed a five percent handicap. My grief over falling five percent behind the entirely healthy population was, of course, sweetened by the monetary compensation. Neither my joy nor sadness lasted long though — it soon turned out that the Warsaw Board’s verdict still had to be confirmed by the Central Medical Board, which was the superior authority. They, in turn, concluded that my neck was perfectly healthy, and I was to forget about the compensation. Well, OK, I said to myself, the higher ups are probably right… but something about this just didn’t sit right with me.

I took both documents and went back to the Warsaw Board to complain about the injustice, since — whatever the Central Board was saying — my neck really did hurt when I turned my head. I mustered all my politeness and knocked on the door. It felt a bit like attending an audience with the pope. As a nation, we tend to approach doctors with a certain degree of humility. The doctor seemed to listen, but he didn’t let me finish. He interrupted me halfway through a sentence and explained the obvious: the Central Board was a higher authority than the Warsaw Board and nothing could be done. I took out both documents, pointing out that they were signed by the same medical experts (even in the same order!). “Including you, Doctor, right here,’’ I added, pointing to the signature. The doctor got a bit flustered. “See?” I went on, “here you declared that I should receive compensation, and then the very same group of doctors, acting as the Central Board this time, basically overruled their own decision.” He mumbled that I could lodge an appeal. I did just that; but, as you can guess, the Central Board couldn’t simply change its mind — how would it make them look if the local Board doctors, sitting on the first floor in the morning, were right, and the same doctors, sitting on the second floor of the very same building in the afternoon as the Central Board, were wrong?

Well — once all this obviously unavoidable administrative mess has been sorted, and the army staff is done with constantly asking “Just what is it that the Americans see in you that they want the GROM in Iraq and not tanks, cannons, and generals?!”; once you have your deployment papers stamped and everything has been confirmed… you can get started on individual and team training. Nothing toughens you up before a mission like training on the waters of our Baltic Sea, cold as hell all year round. Our wonderful sea! It bore no resemblance to the hot waters of the Persian Gulf.

In the GROM, as a rule, trainings were harsher than anything we faced later down range. The guys from the Maritime Element volunteered to organize the training and share the knowledge they gained in the last few months; all we had to do was polish our skills to perfection. The situation in the conflict zone was very dynamic; we kept an eye on all political news from Iraq and kept ourselves informed of combat situations, which started to emerge shortly. We sat in the briefing room to analyze the course of events after coalition military forces entered Iraq. Our friends over there were doing a great job. We kept track of their tasks and adjusted our training to include anything we might encounter getting off the boat. It always sounds a bit pompous, when the mighty of this world speak highly of your fellow soldiers, doing their job out there. And the GROM was in the vanguard, on the front line with the best. The truth is, in the Persian Gulf, the GROM operators proved their worth in battle, fighting as equals alongside the Navy SEALs, Delta Force, and the British SAS. Keeping up to date on the situation was very important to us in every aspect of training before deployment — we were confident that our preparations for the mission matched the current operating conditions. Equipment was still our Achilles heel — before leaving for Kuwait, we had sewn our tactical vests all by ourselves, and we had to do the same getting ready for Iraq; nevertheless, our logistics officers were slowly starting to realize that the capabilities of a special forces unit depended strictly on the equipment at hand. We regularly received operation reports from Iraq, which gave us a much broader view of the situation than what you could see on TV. We wanted to be up to date on everything that was going on over there. It was important to let us smoothly transition into doing our job once we got there — in war, the enemy may not give you time to warm up before things get hot. The series of good news from the Iraqi front on the GROM’s increasingly impressive achievements was suddenly interrupted by one piece of bad news: there was a wounded soldier on our side. It was Strażak.

 

2 MIO – Maritime Interdiction Operations – naval operations aimed at delaying, destroying, or disrupting enemy forces or supplies on their way to the battle area.

3 Ministerstwo Obrony Narodowej (MON) – Ministry of National Defense, Poland.