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voices in the storm: against all odds

listen to against all odds
And now, 'Voices in the Storm' the second in our special series of flashbacks to mark the fifth anniversary of the Gulf War.
Guy Smith presents "Against all Odds"--the true story of an American commando patrol trapped behind enemy lines.

George Bush
Just two hours ago, allied air forced began an attack on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait.

Three, two one. [sound of firing and bombs and people screaming]

General Schwarzkopf
Now. I'm going to show you a picture of the luckiest man in Iraq.

Why? We are re human, like you. Why? [chanting, singing]

One, two, three, four, United States Marine corps, Hurrah, hurrah...

George Bush
Tonight, a battle has been joined.

For thirty-eight days and nights, the might of allied air power had wreaked havoc and destruction on Iraq, but Saddam Hussein remained defiant and refused to withdraw his army from Kuwait. To liberate the Gulf state, American soldiers would have to attac k on the ground, encircling the enemy forces in southern Iraq. But before they could do that, they needed to have eyes and ears behind enemy lines, feeding back intelligence on troop movements and positions. In a top secret operation, Green Beret commando s were sent into Iraq. Their mission--to hide out in foxholes in the desert and radio back reports on Iraqi military activity. They called these patrols, 'the human trip wires.'


One of these patrols was code named, Alpha Five Two Five, commanded by Chad Balwanz. His eight man team was to observe Highway Seven, one of the main routes south from Baghdad, through the Euphrates valley. But their mission went disastrously wrong, beca use of a terrible miscalculation. The planners thought that the area where Alpha Five Two Five was to hide, would be unpopulated. It turned to be anything but.

[Helicopter sounds]

Chad Balwanz
We were a bit surprised when we landed into Iraq. We came in, of course, under the cover of darkness. When we got off the helicopters, there was a lot of dogs barking and as the, the helicopter went away, there was a a sort of a, a let down of everybody' s heart, because they knew once that left, we were a hundred and fifty miles inside enemy territory. And there was no other forces around, that we were on out own.

After the helicopter took off into the night, Chad Balwanz and his team set about digging a foxhole from where they could observe the main road in the distance, and radio back reports on what they saw.


Chad Balwanz
The sun was just starting to come up, so we covered the hide site, just in the nick of time to be out of the, out of the daylight.


Chad Balwanz
The terrain was level and open. It kind of reminded you of, of a field in Kansas--farmers' fields. It was wide open and there was canal systems, or ditches if you will, that was dug throughout for irrigation purposes I suppose--throughout this area. And now, as we looked around in the open, we could see there was numerous people in the area. There was, gentlemen were out there herding cattle and sheep, and women were gathering up wood, and children were playing. This area was probably a hundred years beh ind the country in America. A farmer in America plants his crops and may not go back until it's time to harvest them, or just periodically. Over there they're in the fields every day. The children play there. And it's, so it was a different mind set. It w as something we was not prepared for.

Then began to hear the, the voice of children out in front of the hide site. And for maybe twenty minutes carrying on and talking back and forth. And it was of some concern to me, but I really didn't feel that we were in danger. I, because we had rehears ed building these hide sites. I felt that the hide site was adequate. That anybody could walk by and not even know, what was there. But that changed suddenly, when one of these girls--there was two girls and a small boy--actually came up and you could hea r their voices. Then the voices got quiet, and they come up and actually looked into the peephole, into the face of the sergeant that was inside the peephole.

Then the girl screamed, two of my soldiers jumped out the back of the hide site, with silenced weapons, and having the weapons aimed at the children and asking me, "What can I do? What do you want us to do, Chief? What shall we do with these children? Sh all we shoot them?"

And I know, in my heart, had I told them to shoot, they would have shot them children. But, it was an instantaneous decision, no, we're not going to shoot children. It's not their war. So I let those children go. And as it was, as it all turned out, it w as a good decision. Had things turned out differently, then, I might have felt differently.


Chad Balwanz
We lay there. I'm beginning to feel comfortable, like. Well, nobody has come. These girls went off and nobody has come back to check on us, to see what was going on. I could only assume that the girls never told nobody. Maybe they didn't realize what they had seen. Or because it was Arab culture, these girls wouldn't, perhaps wouldn't have been believed anyhow, or were unable to talk to the adults. As we watched the highway again, the sun was out and it was warming up after the night. Some of the guys were kind of snoozing and relaxing a little bit. And as, I was actually on watch, looking at the road, and I caught something out of the corner of my eye and looked an there were some children, moving along the canal further back, to the east of us . Back away from the highway. Even further behind us. And I dropped down into the canal very quick and called one of my sergeants over, and I said I think I've been seen. I'm not sure though. And er, the sergeant crawled up on the top of the barn an d looked and he seen the children come, and he's like, we've been seen. Here they come.

And this time there was an adult with them, in Bedouin headdress, in traditional Arab garb. He came up and actually stood on top of the berm and looked down at us in the, in the canal. And I spoke to him in Arab, "Salaam, alecom?." And he rattled somet hing back that I could not understand. And he took off at a rapid pace, heading into the town. I did not want to shoot this individual, he is unarmed, he was a civilian. He was not one of the enemy. It was not. it was after that that I then got on th e radio and called back and told that we'd been seen. And as we were on the radio talking, he comes back, the farmer, with perhaps thirty armed Bedouins. Beginning to maneuver on us, walking in the field, coming, coming around us. And again, I am on th e radio, talking back to the 18th Airborne Corps, telling them that contact is imminent, that we must be exfiltrated, as soon as possible. It really didn't look very good for us. There's a hundred and fifty man element out there, and there's only eigh t of us with small arms. But our, I can remember feeling, inside myself, my gosh, we're all going to die here. This is, there's just too many soldiers. There's no way that we can get out of this.


I ordered my men to take aim, and to, not to fire on automatic, but to make each shot count. I also informed them that if we were going to get out of here , we was going to have to fight, like John ... dogs. And I recall looking around at two of my me n, who were very good friends. And one was on either side of the ditch and they turned around and faced each other, and, they waved good-bye. And, you know, it was very symbolic, like this is it, we're about to get overrun. It was a, it was a very prof ound affect on me to see that. I can recall thinking to myself, if we're going to get overrun, I would like to be one of the first to go.


We then ended up in a fire fight that lasted the rest of the day, virtually up to, into the evening hours. As I looked out across the plains. I guess I could call it plains. Or the open fields, I could see the Iraqi soldiers and the Bedouins moving in groups. They would be standing upright, not down moving in military maneuver. They were just standing up very arrogant. I'm sure they thought this was easy prey, there were some Americans in the ditch. As they came in, they would give out a, a yell, an Arab battle cry, like 'heylelelelel'. It was, it was terrifying, as they would, they would come to you. And again the closest one to us, we would shoot. Then we came under a very heavy barrage of small arms fire, particularly from the Bedouins. Ver y accurate fire. There were rounds coming, you know, impacting actually right around where we was at. Within inches of, of head personallym, and around my men also.


As, as we begin to drop the Bedouins and the soldiers coming in, there was a time when there was a lull in the firing. They, they came out. These women came out to drag you know, bodies off, and perhaps provide aid. We permitted that. We did no shoot at them women. One of my soldiers was looking very closely and seen a woman come out over, over a berm and walk out to where he had shot a soldier. And instead of grabbing the soldier and providing aid, she went and picked up the gun, he, he had to shoo t this woman, because then she became a combatant. But it was something that weighted heavily on his mind. And he actually talked to me about it later. It was something that bothered him. I'm sure, perhaps to this day, it still bothers him.

[Sound of planes]

Eventually the commandos could hear American jets overhead but they couldn't communicate with the pilots, because their main radio had been smashed in the fire fight.

Chad Balwanz
Finally, in the, in the confusion, one of my soldiers pulled out the PRC 90 radio - a small air force survival radio - and began calling on it. "Mayday, Mayday. Anybody on this station? This is Guard. Mayday, mayday." And then the squelch was broken a nd we heard an American AWACS plane that came back. Had heard, had picked up our signal.

'... stand by one. We're talking to him on guard. Obviously we have our heads down pretty low at this time, but we will try to give you a BDA in to let you know. Over. Copy that, we got a bunch of stopped vehicles on that road and he's going to take th em out.

Okay, the vehicles have gone. We're ... All those stopped vehicles are coming to our location, with personnel, approximately company sized element. We're trying to kid rid of the vehicles first. Over. ... Copy.'

He then directed the F16s to come in, into the area that was threatening us the most. It was a platoon sized element, that was out in front of us. We brought in the F16s and as the, they dropped their ordinance, they would tell us, the bombs are away.< P> Actuality
'We got bombs away now. you got to keep your head down, we got some more coming in ...'

The radio man is speaking to the pilots. He is directing them to drop their ordinance. He would be telling them - to the north of our position, three hundred meters, we need cluster munitions. There's troops in the open.

'Please drop a, a, cluster bombs for personnel approximately a platoon size element five hundred meters due north of our location. Over.' 'I understand that. Due north of your location.' 'Correct approximately five hundred meters ...copy'

'Make sure he understands this is cluster bombs. This is danger close.' 'Guard on guard. Understand. Do you understand out ordinance is cluster bombs?' 'Rupture that. Ordnance is cluster bombs. Affirmative. Over.'

They would come back to us and say, you realize this is danger close. And as we would reply, yes this is danger close. Anything within a thousand meters is danger close because the bomb can actually hurt the people it's there to protect. and it could , you know, cold have been dropped on the team. There's F16s flying at 20,000 feet, you know, and dropping bombs that are danger close. we refer to danger close within a thousand meters of us.

So instinctively, everybody would be down in the ditch and your head would turn around and you would look up to see the bomb coming in. And it's er, it's really a terrifying sight. You see the bomb coming in. It splits open. It actually breaks apart in m id air and all these hundreds of smaller, you know, golf-sized bombs, break out of it.

And then you can hear the bombs actually hitting and start out as a small vibration and work into a crescendo and then, then come back down. And at the end of the crescendo as it breaks down, you can hear the Iraqi soldiers, you know, yelling out and scr eaming because these bombs had hit the target. My soldiers on the radio telling the air force it's a good hit. You know, we need some more there.

'Good job. Good job. Er, vehicles have gone...

As dusk fell, the Iraqi attack petered out. Undercover of night, the Green Berets would be helicoptered out. But before the rescue mission could be launched, one last threat had to be confronted-a cluster of Iraqi soldiers dug into the banks of an irriga tion canal, about a hundred meters away. Balwanz decided that the only thing to do, was to try and sneak up on them.

With one of this officers, he started edging towards them. As we came up on a bend in the canal, it was, it was, quiet because the firing had, had subsided and we, we stopped for a moment, you know to get our senses and listen. And you could hear breath ing, we was that close to them, you know, to the Iraqi. You could hear, (breathing). We came, we popped around the corner and there, as close as ten feet from us, they were hunkered down in the canal. And actually, their weapons were laying down in the ca nal. So they were, they were down, trying to protect themselves from the air strikes that we had just called in.

As they seen us, they grabbed their weapons. But, of course, our weapons were at the ready. You know, our hearts jumped into my throat as we pulled the trigger and, you know, unloaded into, into the point element. And dropped that point element and elimi nated it. And as we, we walked by and looked at the bodies there, it was sort of a profound thought, that, you know, we had taken the lives of these people. It's a very intense, you know, few moments.

In the field around them, lay more than a hundred dead and wounded Iraqis. On the road, the smoking hulks of burnt out trucks, destroyed by the air strikes. The exhausted Green Berets, finally heard the sound that they had been waiting for.

[Helicopters flying]

Chad Balwanz
You could hear the helicopters off in the distance coming in. And it's a sound that almost every soldier's familiar with-that, that low 'woof, woof, woof, woof' sound of the helicopter coming in. And we instinctively knew that that was our exfiltration r oute.

Of course, there was still some, some tenseness in the air, because we wasn't sure if they was going to be able to get in. They were flying low level, directly off the ground and perhaps at the last moment, something could go wrong there. But as they wer e swooped in to pick us up, there was a feeling of, of relief. And it really wasn't until we was on the helicopter, and well on our way back, that finally it, it hit me, like, my goodness, we've really been through a lot this evening. And we made it out o f here and there was a lot of handshaking amongst the men on the plane. You know, congratulating each other, that, that we'd come out of that without a single soldier hurt, which was a miracle.

All eight members of Alpha Five Two Five patrol had survived and after the war were decorated for bravery. Chad Balwanz received the Silver Star for keeping his team alive in the face of overwhelming odds, maybe twenty to one against, though the full sto ry of how he came to be awarded the medal was kept secret.


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