Dispatches

If a “Muj” Blinks, the Marines of VMU-1 See It

Oh, Pioneer

In a small ops center inside a tent, a dozen Marines peered at two 26-inch flat-panel displays. On the screens, the black edges of the hospital roof stood out in sharp contrast to the white thistle clumps of palm trees in the courtyard below. A line of white ghosts snaked around the trees and flowed onto the roof.

“Those guys are wearing packs. They’re friendlies,” Lt. Col. John Neumann, the mission commander, said. “It’s the 36th Iraqi commandos.”

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“Concur,” said Lt. J.P. Parchman, the watch officer. “The movement’s too disciplined to be muj.”

A few miles away in Fallujah, Operation Phantom Fury had commenced at dark on Nov. 8. Inside the tent, the Marines of unit VMU-1, which flies the Pioneer Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or UAV, were looking at video taken from the UAV by a Forward-Looking Infra-Red (or FLIR) camera. The pictures were bright as day.

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“The raiding party wants us to scan across the river,” Cpl. Robert Daniels said, reading a chat-room message that had popped up on his computer monitor. “Someone’s firing.”

“Take us east,” Neumann said over his shoulder. “Shift from white-hot to black-hot.”

Behind him, the pilot of the UAV adjusted the flight path as his partner tightened the zoom on the plane’s camera. The images on the screen jumped slightly and focused on two black spots hopping from place to place behind an earthen berm.

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“I confirm weapons,” said Sg. Jenifer Forman, an imagery analyst. “Watch their right arms when they run. They’re shooting across the river.”

When the black spots bobbed together, the screen suddenly bloomed white, then settled back into focus, showing a thick gray cloud and a scattering of small black spots, like someone in the cloud had thrown out a handful of rocks.

“Tank gun got them,” Neumann said. “Picked them up on their thermals. They’re scratched. Scan up the street.”

The camera tracked up a wide, empty boulevard bordered by ramshackle warehouses, tin-roof repair shops, and dingy apartment buildings. Four dark spots—presumably insurgents—were splayed against one corner of a large concrete building, with three similar spots on the other corner

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“One’s lying down,” Neumann said. “They’re manning a crew-served weapon pointed at the bridge. Tell Fusion we have targets for Basher.”

Neumann’s VMU unit flew the UAVs and analyzed the video for targets but rarely communicated directly with the shooters. Matching targets to shooters was the specialty of the Fusion Center located on the other side of Fallujah. There a staff pulled together information from Marines on the front lines, UAVs, electronic intercepts, agent reports, and other sources. The Fusion Center compiled target lists, tracked battle damage, prioritized targets, and assigned shooters.

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Cpl. Daniels typed in and sent the center a grid location accurate within a few meters. The center sent a one-line response: Basher on the way. Marines doing various chores around the op center stopped what they were doing and clustered behind the screens. A minute went by. The four dark spots moved slightly but stayed in the shadow of the building next to the street. On the screen a ball of black hit the edge of the building, sending black chunks flying out. Another black ball and another and another, enveloping the dark spots crouched along the side of the building.

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“Basher,” an Air Force AC-130 aircraft, had illuminated the ambushers with its huge infrared spotlight and was pounding them with 105 mm artillery shells, each round packing 50 pounds of high explosives. Gray smoke rose from the scene.

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“Watch for squirters,” Neumann said. “There’s one now, heading north. Stay with him.”

A black spot broke out of the smoke. Against the background of the macadam on the street, the man’s silhouette stood out plainly. He was running with the speed of a sprinter.

“Ten to one he’s headed for the mosque up the street,’” Neumann said.

“Same as always,” Lt. Parchman said as he watched the runner climb over a wall. “He’s made it. Can’t hit him there.”

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The camera tracked back to the damaged building. Basher had moved on to another target. The Pioneer UAV circled the building to assess battle damage. A large door in the back of the building slid open and two men ran around the side and quickly returned, dragging something behind them. The Marines watched as this was repeated a few times.

“Are they carrying a heavy weapon or a body part?” a Marine asked.

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“Don’t know. We can confirm four down, though,” Lt. Parchman said. “Mark this as a safe house. We’ll come back later for a relook.”

The Pioneer flew on for a look along the river’s edge. The “Watchdogs,” as the Marine UAV crew called themselves, were the scouts out in front of the troops assaulting Fallujah. It was impossible for the insurgents to move out of doors without being seen and tracked.

“Those muj are out there to kill our soldiers or Marines,” Lt. Col. Neumann said. “We’re in here to find them so our shooters kill them first.”

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