Honoring a Great Leader

headshotIn 2003, I crossed the border into Iraq with 3/7 Cav and fought my way north. After the Battle of Samawah, I was moved over to the 4-64 Armor for the feint operation near An Hillah, then pushed north to the outskirts of Baghdad. Then, my team was moved to 1-64 Armor for the two Thunder Runs into Baghdad. Once we were firmly planted in the heart of Baghdad and the city fell to the mighty 3rd Infantry Division, I was transferred to 3-15 Infantry for support and stability operations in the capitol. I would spend the rest of my time with this superb unit.

This is the girl that ran to us for help when her family was warned criminals were coming to take her away.

This is the girl that ran to us for help when her family was warned criminals were coming to take her away.

With 3-15 Infantry, my team collected intel that led to the kill/capture of nine senior Ba’athist officials in the deck of cards (Iraq’s most wanted). Two of those would surrender directly to my team. Together, we pacified Iraq, helped stem the tide of looting, and protected many valuable resources around the city. We also helped capture a group of men that were kidnapping Iraqi school girls off the streets and raping them. After a young girl approached my team and said that she was threatened by these guys, we set up a sting and got them off the streets.

After some time, 3-15 and most of 2nd Brigade consolidated in preparation for redeployment. As we were sitting around playing spades our lieutenant came in with the much anticipated movement order. Unfortunately, the movement order wasn’t to Kuwait – we were being sent to Fallujah and our deployment was extended.

This was my team while I was assigned to Task Force China, 3-15 Infantry. You can see the infamous Mercedes symbol we attached to our truck.

This was my team while I was assigned to Task Force China, 3-15 Infantry. You can see the infamous Mercedes symbol we attached to our truck.

The Command Sergeant Major of 3-15 was a decorated combat veteran named Bob Gallagher. We had a rocky relationship at first because he didn’t like intel nerds like us. We knew we had to prove our worth to him. When he learned of the accomplishments of me and my team over the previous several months, he began to lighten up. However, that didn’t stop him from complaining about the Mercedes symbol we had zip tied to the rail of our HMMWV and demanding we take it down. We had some…heated discussions over it and tried to explain how it helps us interact with the Iraqi people we’re trying to glean information from. They liked it and thought it was funny. That made them more willing to talk to us like humans.

I was warned of CSM Gallagher when I asked to be attached to them. I wanted an infantry unit, since we couldn’t be re-attached to the Cav. I was told that Gallagher was a “take no prisoners son of a bitch.” That’s okay, because I was a take no prisoners warrior at heart. Up to this point, our Tactical HUMINT Team had seen and participated in more combat than any other in the Division. He had already earned three Purple Hearts through his career and he wasn’t done yet. Come to think of it, I should have taken the fact that he received a PH in every combat operation he’s been in as a bad sign, but I took it as an honor to serve under him. After all, a senior NCO battle hardened and tested in Panama and Mogadishu that lived to talk about it could teach me something about survival.

After one particular raid, this infantry platoon leader brought me what he thought was an important map.  Here I am breaking the news to him that it was nothing more than...a sewing pattern.

After one particular raid, this infantry platoon leader brought me what he thought was an important map. Here I am breaking the news to him that it was nothing more than…a sewing pattern.

When we got to Fallujah, CSM Gallagher pulled me aside and asked if my team was capable of handling an insurgency, to which I replied, “more than ready, CSM.” He then gave me one charge: “find these bastards so we can kill them and go home!” Fallujah was a Saddam stronghold and the home to many of his most trusted leaders and advisors. We took up residence at one of their resorts east of the town on a big lake. We immediately went to work establishing a curfew and then aggressively enforcing that curfew. We were able to capture and identify senior leaders of the mujaheddin that were causing us trouble. We identified and destroyed a major, illegal weapons market in the heart of Fallujah in the northwest part of the town – the most dangerous in the city. At one point, we were given a mission to find a missing HMMWV that was stolen after a unit was ambushed. The insurgents that took it were donning our dead brothers’ uniforms and killing innocent Iraqis to make it look like we were doing it. My team was able to locate their base of operations a few miles south of Fallujah, slightly out of our sector though we were the closest.

This was taken just prior to leaving for a late-night, undercover surveillance mission in the heart of Fallujah.

This was taken just prior to leaving for a late-night, undercover surveillance mission in the heart of Fallujah.

Earning Gallagher’s trust, he began embedding us with assault teams and helping with clearing operations. At one point, one of my Soldier’s and I even donned Iraqi clothing to sneak into Fallujah at night in a technical vehicle (a confiscated civilian truck) to assist with an important raid that we wanted to ensure was successful. It possibly meant our ticket home. While we had ONE AK47 in the vehicle with us, we carried no armor and a small, MBITR radio. We watched the target for several hours cringing every time a vehicle would pass or we heard a noise outside the heavily tinted vehicle. Once we were able to positively identify that the targets had arrived at the location we were monitoring, we began our pre-planned route to our rally point.

As we approached the RP, we saw flashes of light and recognized them as warning shots. Somehow, the squad either wasn’t aware we would be coming back or mistook us for someone else, or was just being cautious. Either way, I’ll take being on the receiving end of an entire Iraq Brigade over an American squad any day. I was livid and thought I was about to die. I jumped out of the vehicle and began yelling at them. After they confirmed who we were, I got back in the truck in the truck and headed back to base with my escort. The operation was a success.

Not long after that, CSM Gallagher called me into his office and began chewing me out for not removing the Mercedes symbol he told me to remove back in Baghdad. He was also pissed off because our guys didn’t wear nametags or rank. Because of our mission, we didn’t wear rank so that the people we were interrogated wouldn’t refuse to speak with “low ranking” Soldiers. During interrogations, we were authorized to use any rank necessary to extract information, we just couldn’t wear it. Once I again explained why we do things a little different, he calmed down again and told to get back to work. Another time, I had to see him after a health and welfare revealed we had dozens of bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label, other alcohol, and cartons of cigarettes in our team room. After we captured Saddam’s palace, we had confiscated most of the bottles as barter for information. We were specifically exempted from the alcohol possession policy as long as we kept it secure (so other Soldiers wouldn’t steal it). It took our MI BN LTC to explain why we kept that stuff. We also had cool things like sunglasses, flashlights, and other valuable items to pay off informants with, but they weren’t as popular as booze. Plus, if someone was found with American sunglasses or flashlights, they would be exposed as a traitor and killed on sight.

Today, I was reading the Army Times that makes its way to my mailbox every weeks and I came across a sad story.

A decorated soldier who participated in major military actions spanning three decades and spent the last few years of his career helping fellow wounded warriors was found dead in his Georgia home Oct. 13 of natural causes.

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Robert “Bob” Gallagher — who parachuted into Panama during Operation Just Cause, served as a platoon sergeant with Task Force Ranger in the Mogadishu, Somalia, battle made famous by “Black Hawk Down,” and fought on despite being wounded as Task Force 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry, made its way to Baghdad in 2003 — was 52 years old.

His death was a result of a heart condition for which he was receiving treatment, his son, Patrick Gallagher, said in a Wednesday interview. Third Infantry Division, the parent unit of the task force in which Gallagher served during Operation Iraqi Freedom, announced his death in a Facebook post.

When I got promoted to Sergeant First Class while in Fallujah, CSM Gallagher told me, “now that you are a senior NCO, your PRIMARY focus was to take care of your Soldiers and make sure your junior NCOs were competent in executing their missions.” Gallagher was tough, but he cared deeply for his troops. He was protective of them and when Brigade was trying to pull us back, he fought to keep us. We had earned his trust and confidence as true Tactical HUMINT operators, not just intel nerds. We were helping him keep his troops alive by uncovering insurgent TTPs, exposing IED production nodes, and identifying weapons caches throughout the city.

One time, we provided intel that there was a major weapons market that had re-emerged in the slums near the bridge where, later, some Blackwater contractors would be burned and their lifeless bodies left hanging for all to see. However, every time a patrol was sent in, they wouldn’t find anything. Our intel was solid, so we worked harder to figure out why we weren’t finding it. We learned that there was an OP that could see us entering the town in our convoys on the main highway.

We provided the intel and details about how to avoid the spotter on ingress, but Brigade wouldn’t authorize the operation. The 82nd was slowly pouring in to replace us and we were getting short timer’s syndrome. Since no one would sign off on a 3-15 operation, I got with the Psyops Team and we planned our own operation. We were violating orders, but the increase in IEDs, RPGs and direct fire was crippling us in the city. We were able to surprise the guys manning the market and captured thousands of rounds of ammunition, RPGs, and hundreds of blasting caps and other IED-making materials. Gallagher was publicly pissed, but admitted that the only reason we weren’t in trouble is because we were successful. It was a risk every one of us were willing to take.

My good friend (and interpreter) Larry and I handing out Tootsie Rolls to kids in the streets of Baghdad while attached to 3-15 Infantry.

My good friend (and interpreter) Larry and I handing out Tootsie Rolls to kids in the streets of Baghdad while attached to 3-15 Infantry.

I haven’t spoken to Gallagher since about 2009 when I reached out to him as I was weighing getting help with PTSD. I had heard from a friend that he was doing something with resilience, I can’t remember. I was a little worried asking an infantry CSM about seeking PTSD help because of the stigma at the time and the fact that I didn’t want to be seen as a weenie. However, he and others I served with were very inspirational and had a part in convincing me getting help was the right thing to do.

The reason I mention all of these stories is to highlight that Gallagher was a man from whom you had to EARN your trust, especially if you didn’t wear the blue cord. He gave us a chance to prove ourselves and our frequent talks and briefings helped me to be a better NCO and leader. He was the last person to eat and even forfeited his share of a shipment of watermelon to ensure as many Joes as possible got some. He walked around and visited troops and made sure they were maintaining hygiene, hydration, and fitness – both physical and mental. He was one of those leaders that, if you disappointed him or let him down, you were harder on yourself than he ever could be because of respect you had for him. And I’m pretty sure he killed people just by staring at them!

Our nation lost a hero on October 13th. I will never forget Command Sergeant Major Robert “Bob” Gallagher.

Note: all pictures were taken during my time with 3-15 Infantry, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized).

4 Comments on “Honoring a Great Leader

  1. Thank you very much for your story. I’m Bob’s nephew and the amount of story’s and kind words my family and I have been reading the last few weeks leave us speechless.

    • Ryan, I could only wish to be the kind of man your uncle was. He forever changed the way I led my troops. I hope your family knows that he touched many lives in his time and served his country with honor and integrity.

    • I also lost my son in Afghanistan. Please except my deepest apology. The loss of a child and mate is something no one should ever have to go thru. He’s in my prayers, may God bless him and give his family the strength needed at this time.

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