Life at the Tip of a Spear—Part Four: Iraq

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Nearly a year ago, my editor asked if I’d be interested in interviewing Garth Jones, a former British SAS soldier and security contractor who’d worked extensively in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. I of course said yes without hesitation. What follows is part four of his story as told to me.

Click here for parts one, two, and three.

Garth Jones: I bumped into a buddy I hadn’t seen in a while who had been in Iraq. He’d been out there for six weeks and he said this buddy of ours was putting together this whole 290-man team to start working in Baghdad. I didn’t really have any responsibilities in the UK at the time so I said “I’ll come out with you kids for six weeks and see what it’s like.”

Got out there – sweet. Money was awesome. The unit we put together, the company they put together, formed into something really stable, huge contracts—multi-million dollar contracts. And then I did three or four rotations. The companies we were working for were US Department of Defence reconstruction companies.

Brett Hamm: So like infrastructure projects?

GJ: Yeah. Water, power—oil and gas was not an infrastructure project but it was needed to power the water station.

BH: So where did you live?

GJ: In the Green Zone in compounds. Because the Green Zone is not a green zone…it’s a hot zone with some walls around it. I originally lived in two houses that were ex-Baath Party officers houses. Obviously they were gone, no families or kids. We’d employ a lot of locals and that’s very tenuous for them because they have to come in and out of the Green Zone everyday and if you get caught working for the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] in Baghdad, you’ll end up in the river. Most of my Iraqi employees would take four or five cabs in different directions. They’re fantastic at counter surveillance. Awesome.

BH: Is that because they had to live like that…

GJ: Yeah, everyday. Even the women that came in to clean the bathrooms would be counter surveillance experts, because otherwise they’d end up with their head on a stick.

BH: Okay, so what were your jobs?

GJ: The job was normally moving a live body, or bodies, from one place to another. I used to have my concerns about somebody saying we needed a bunch of air conditioning units to go up in a two million dollar patrol risking eight guys’ lives because these guys are hot. I mean, it’s a desert. Deal with it! I didn’t do that kind of stuff. I had friends that were killed on the road in ambushes transporting sixty tons of rice. Fuck that. Not worth it. Doesn’t matter how much you’re paid.

So the good thing about taking a live body, is they’re normally quite accomplished people—they’re engineers, sub-contractors. Some sneaky-deeky spook type people are part of the course. Some of them are carrying their own weapons, so they’re pretty savvy.

You’re out on the road in B6 armoured Ford Excursions or Chevy Suburbans. And B6 armour will supposedly take an RPG direct hit…anyway…so it’s like two-and-a-half to three tons of armour placed on top of a two-ton car.

So you’d be out on the road and you’d be overt. People, everybody knows who you are. So you drive aggressively. You can’t fire out the wagons.

BH: You can’t?

GJ: You cannot. That’s the whole rule: if you’re gonna move overtly, move fast, move heavy. There are certain drills you learn, like how to get around a roundabout without hitting a car but making sure you still control the roundabout.

You get three vehicles go in. The first one stops traffic from the right, you come in, the second one flies through and goes round the front, stops any traffic coming in from the next lane, and the principal car in the middle goes through, the back car then comes through and takes the front. So you’re constantly like a circle within a circle. And it works really well because people just get out of the way.

BH: I guess people would get used to it.

GJ: The interesting thing is that the only people that want to be around you are people that want to do you harm. So you get a car that’s staying with you or coming at you and doesn’t look like it’s going to change direction, realistically—in the first period when we were working—you couldn’t fire at them. What evolved were the gun trucks. So people would mount heavy machine guns in the boot and lose the back window and have a guy sat in the back. And that’s where you got the Triple Canopy and the Blackwater issues, brassing locals up because they were getting too close.

We didn’t go down the gun-truck road because it invited trouble. We decided to go more of a Northern Ireland route. Everyone had to grow beards, get a tan, wear yourself a little skull cap, get some dishdashes, covert cars—local cars, Mercedes, BMW— get ‘em B6 armoured. You take away the overtness and you just blend. We’d be in traffic with everybody else local, just sat there, humming away, no problems and you get another team coming through just booting and bashing everybody out of the way—smashing people off into the air. And the great thing is, if anybody’s going to have a pop at anybody, it’s them.

BH: Okay so, you said you’d been working for your mate’s company for a couple years before you went to work directly for the client…

GJ: It was about 18 months and then there was a communications project that the client wanted to…

BH: Can you say who the client was?

GJ: It was a major American and UK-based reconstruction company. This is all commercial, nothing to do with the military. They just needed to connect up all their construction sites. So I spent nine months to a year flying around in Blackhawks putting kit together, mass antennas, ordinary antennas, losing it on the road and building it again. I was also running the fleet of comms kit and the security side of it for two sites and a 49-vehicle fleet. It turned into a huge operation. And that was at the paramount time period, so you’re talking 2005-06, that year period when it was really huge.

The problem was…it’s not an old boys network but there was a case of if you jumped ship, you didn’t jump ship to a rival or a client, really, because it’s a bit naughty, because then you become the boss of your mates. But most of them were big enough to understand that they’d have done it. The only reason I did it was because Rick [an old Army boss from the former Yugoslavia days] was on the other side and he said to me, “get your arse over here.”

BH: And he was working directly for the reconstruction company?

GJ: Yeah. I was very conscious of the fact that certain jobs and certain individuals were just too dangerous. I refused to take some patrols because I knew they’d get hit based on intel and gut feel, and they did. So my situational awareness was becoming very honed. I said “Look, I’m not prepared to put my arse on the line for stuff that’s not worth it.” So Rick said, “I’ll let you come work for me.”

He originally owned the fleet and I ended up dumping two of his cars. Cost him a million dollars, cause we were shot to bits. We lost a really nice guy, a local Iraqi guy— we can call him Mr King—he took a round in the face. He was in a soft-skinned vehicle. The way it turned out, Rick was interviewing somebody for the company at the airport in Heathrow watching CNN and he could see—he knew damned well that it was my vehicle. My vehicle, a Suburban and the Excursion behind me were burning on the freeway. And people were stealing the wheels. So Rick got on the sat phone trying to ring me, and I’m running down the freeway like a lunatic trying to hijack cars and I can hear my phone going. You know, “I’m a tad busy right now.” So he then phoned the HQ and asked if they’d heard anything and they told him we were overdue. And then we hijacked a car…

BH: What had happened?

GJ: We got hit from a bridge. It was a cock-up within the administration. We were told to take a Russian engineer to a place, we got there and they said “Naw, wrong place, it’s 20Ks up the road.” And we were pushing the envelope anyway—it’s getting dark, and you don’t go out at night. You’re more likely to get hit by the Americans than anything else ‘cause it’s a free-for-all. There’s a curfew, you’re not allowed out, you’re in loud cars, moving fast, they’ll just light you up. I phoned in and said “Look, we’re gonna bring him back,” and they said “Get to the secondary location where he’s supposed to be and drop him off.” So we did. And we turned straight around and came back.

We were coming back into the sun, because it was going down, and we got to this freeway and it was clear and clean 500 metres left and right, no houses…I thought a bit iffy. And then these two guys popped up on the bridge with RPKs and just drilled the shit out of us for about 20 seconds. We were moving about 140km/h.

BH: What’s an RPK?

GJ: It’s a magazine or drum fed 7.62mm, high velocity, light support weapon. Russian. Very accurate. If you know what you’re doing with it, lethal. They put a dinner-plate grouping in my windscreen and I’m thinking “Shit!” The windscreen’s flexing. The next minute I see a guy to my left on the bridge and he’s got an RPG and he fires it. But I’m already…I already know the angle’s wrong. It bounced off the road behind us and it went off and it spun us. So I’m spinning, like we’re in one of those [mimicks speaking in slow motion as if in an action film], and I’m feeding the wheel because I can feel it trying to tip. SO I’m steering into the skid basically. And then these three concrete trucks come flying down the slip road. They had these big orange tip trucks for all the construction and they hit us hard. One hit me on the right and I spun again.

BH: On purpose?

GJ: Yeah, they were part of it. One of them went up the wrong way and tried to front-end my compadre behind me. But he was already facing backwards and skidding. So I spun into the corner of the third truck, the rear left corner, and it took out the support in front of me, the windscreen, and the whole roof was pulled back, sand and shit and glass flying through it. And we just came to a stand still. Luckily the rear of the vehicle was facing the bridge.

BH: So you were still protected a bit?

GJ: Yeah, cause the whole front of the car was open, there was no more windscreen. So I’m after my weapon, and we climbed out over the bonnet because the doors were stuck. We could hear the rounds going ping off the back of the wagon. I’m thinking, always, “Where’s Mr RPG?” So we looked up and he wasn’t on our side, because we had gone under the bridge, and then we look up and we see this little red sedan with about 11 guys in it with guns sticking out and they’re pissing off over the sand dunes.

BH: So they just booted it?

GJ: The Iraqi guys that were supporting us were coming up the road, so the [guys in the sedan] thought “we’re in for a gun fight here and we don’t want one.” So they buggered off. But we were stuck in the middle of nowhere and the crowd…it’s interesting. It’s like if you’d been out in the middle of the Sudan and you just stood there and you bent down to tie your shoelace, you stand back up and there’s six blokes standing around you. It’s bizarre. It’s like they come out of nowhere. Within about 10 minutes there was a crowd of about 500 people.

BH: Just coming to have a look?

GJ: Oh, they’ll just pick their moment and then smash the shit out of you, kill you. So we took a car. Twelve of us in it, legged it. Got back to the Green Zone and my first phone call was to Rick, because he was the big boss. I said, “We’re all right. We lost Mr King. We didn’t get his body, it’s still in the car.” And he’s going “Yeah I know, I saw your vehicle on CNN.” And I’m like “there was a news crew there?” He goes “Yeah, I’ve seen a picture of you guys going off into the sunset in a BMW 5 Series with the arse dragging. So the vehicles are gone?” I said “ I should think so. They were shot to shit.”

That was May…2005. I got promoted for that.

BH: Because of the way you handled it?

GJ: Yeah. In the After Action Report—you have to give a report to the military—in the report the American officer wrote, “And then the individuals hi-jacked a local vehicle, a BMW 5 series (style!).” [Laughs] He was like “You didn’t pick just any shit-kicker did you?” [laughs]

But I just grabbed the nearest car available, mate. I didn’t give a shit what it was. And then I got tasked to pick up the CFO and the GMD of the company from Baghdad airport and take them down the BIAP Road—the most dangerous road in the world. And fuck me, didn’t we get hit again.

BH: How do you come to live with stuff like that?

GJ: If it’s gonna get you, it’s gonna get you. You develop like a seventh sense. Not a sixth sense—a seventh. You knew it would happen a half-hour before it would happen. But you just try and sit somewhere where you hope it ain’t gonna land.

BH: So you’re doing these runs. Do you do them everyday?

GJ: Yeah, I wasn’t too bad. Maybe one a day, maybe three a day. Some of the guys would do 31 long runs a month. You’re eyes are on stalks, the stress level of being on the road where you could get IED-ed. You go in the city, you’ve got a thousand different threats. You leave the city, you’re on the road, there could be a 2000-pound bomb buried under the road at any point, and I’ve had that.

BH: What to do you do for downtime in a place like that?

GJ: Go to the gym. Most guys study. I did a bit of languages and stuff like that. Some guys just read or just go to sleep. Some clean their weapons 50 times.

In all honesty, based on the fact you are embedded and working with and around the military machine and you have to carry the added stress of avoiding getting killed by basically anyone, the stress levels are phenomenal. We were once sat in the lounge of a local Arab ‘face’ who was ‘ensuring’ a water treatment plant we had in place wasn’t sabotaged, and a burst of 50. Cal came through the windows and peppered the wall in front of us. The fire came from a nervous GI in a Hummer on the freeway behind the plant. A small arms fire ambush had been initiated against them, and basically they just light up everything and anything.

To put it in perspective, I still closely worked with US Special Forces, Delta personnel and ODA (Operating Detachment Alpha)—the ‘bearded Bobs’ (big beards, and all called Bob!)—who were a step apart from the nervous hummer top gunner, in Baghdad. I was working in the North of Iraq, as well as continuing to work for Rick (as I only really trusted him) and the paradox is alarming. I was most at ease when working around these highly intelligent, experienced individuals who displayed high standards, and a level of Esprit De Corp, not found anywhere else.

Iraq was the time that I started to present some behavioural issues, mainly psychological. When I was not working with the ‘Bobs’ or Rick, I became defensive, and minor trust and anger issues started to surface. These were manageable (some of my team members were not so lucky) but still to this day, it requires treatment and has repercussions in my personal, and to some degree, my work life.

Stay tuned for Life at the Tip of the Speak Pt 5: Afghanistan.

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