Battle for Baqubah - Killing Our Way Out
Author: First Sergeant Robert S. Colella Ret.
Publisher: iUniverse.com (2012)
Binding: Hardcover, 416 pages
The Battle for Baqubah: Killing Our Way Out is a firsthand account-and sometimes a minute-by-minute tale-of a raw, in-your-face street fight with Al Qaeda militants over a fifteen-month span in the volatile Diyala Province of Iraq. This story is presented through the eyes of a first sergeant serving with B Company 1-12 Cavalry (Bonecrushers), 1st Cavalry Division, out of Fort Hood, Texas.
The author takes the reader into the midst of the conflict in and around Baqubah-Iraq's "City of Death"-a campaign that lasted most of 2007. The author and his fellow Bonecrushers watched as the city went from sectarian fighting amongst the Shiite and Sunnis, to an all-out jihad against the undermanned and dangerously dispersed US forces within Baqubah and the outlying areas.
“As for me, the spinning of rotor blades and the gravel crunching under the boots of the pall bearers as they walked past are things that will be burned into my brain for the rest of my life.” –p 156
First Sergeant Robert Colella does an in depth and accurate portrayal of life in a combat zone. His attention to detail as only an Army First Sergeant could provide is admirable. However, his knack for those moments of profound human reaction, emotion and thoughtful wrestling with the art of living is what blew me away. Colella’s writing was almost poetic at times and quite intriguing. It was a challenge for me to keep up with all the “army nomenclature” and details of the logistics, timelines, soldiers and battles. This book is an excellent resource for military history. However, it is an even better resource for philosophical discussion.
“It turned into a battle drill: after you do it so many times, it just becomes muscle memory and you don’t think about it, you just execute. My emotions were getting dulled; I thought that was both a good and bad thing: good because I didn’t hurt as much; but bad because I was losing my compassion.” –p 177
The author wrestled with his negative emotions aimed at a sergeant who went AWOL (absent without official leave) on a number of occasions. The story of the soldier remains out there with no resolution. However, the author-soldier provides his own understanding without the reality of the soldier who deserted and possibly caused great harm to his brothers and sisters in arms. What I understood from reading this sometimes terrifying account (because it was real and not fiction) was that because the soldiers were deployed so often and for way too long, they each became more of a “Bradley tank” and less of a genuine self.
The book, which is more of a story than a military history takes us on a journey with the First Sergeant who seems cold and distant from his family and self, but grows toward being a man I want to look up to and be around. The transformation was remarkable.
His writing in Chapter Five on pages 70-74 could save lives. He gives a rundown on the history of IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices). It is the best of his writing abilities. It was personal. It was preparing us for the results of “kicking over the hornets’ nest.” It brought together his care—no, rather love--of his troops. It puts it out there what is to come. This is not for the weak. His explanation of surviving the mental after not being killed is brilliant.
When PFC Berg gets hit in the shoulder and brought to an Aid Station, the author’s reaction was quite real and guarded. I could see it crystal clear from my own experience in Fallujah Iraq. Bob Colella’s reflections on body bags, the repulsion to Amazing Grace, “Hero Flights”, memorial services, and wrestling with God helped open this combat chaplains eyes…and heart!
I wept as I realized that the Battalion Chaplain failed to pitch his tent with the troops. Chapter 9, City of Death, seemed to be a key to the book. It speaks powerfully of conversion, a real God, the chaplain’s limitations, and leadership…or the lack thereof. “Luckily my moment and realization came and went rather quickly because…” Actually, Robert…you tucked it away like a letter to be reopened and shared in your book.
It was frustrating trying to keep up with the army way with the first half of the book. Then it cracked…and cracked some more… Quiiisssh…
Robert let us into his heart. However, thank God, he was still the First Sergeant and a professional soldier. Thank you for your service Robert! When he was on his two week leave, his wife and daughter brought him to the airport. He was secretly wishing he were back with the troops. “We walked to the final security checkpoint, said our good-byes, hugged, kissed, and cried, then departed ways. I fought back tears as I watched them walk out of sight, and then I went to a secluded corner of the airport, sat down, and wept.” Conflicted truths are a reality to those who serve.
The danger in soldiers writing military history books is the danger in taking sides. The enemy has no family. The enemy can become simply evil. There is a failure to understand what motivates. The vulnerable human heart plays on the emotions and influences. The modern wars in places like the Middle East rarely speak of soldiers falling in love with the local people. Their hearts are big for the children, but even that is quite difficult. Robert Colella takes a stab at giving us insight into the lack of genuine friendship with neither the Iraqi Army nor the civilians. “War is an art, if you treat it as such, you can and will be successful. Al-Qaeda does.”
Chapter 14, The Awakening, speaks of a trapped dead soldier in a tank and the rules of engagement. The writing was exceptional. In Chapter 15, Keeping Your Enemies Closer shows how the author was reflective while still in the thick of it. The year in the combat fields was making me weary, but I am so glad I sucked it up and continued through the pages.
“…As I turned, I noticed a small child and an old broken-down, hunch-backed Iraqi woman peeking out her door, smiling at me. This country is crazy!”
“The exhaustion we felt that day seemed to be a constant daily companion for all soldiers throughout the summer: the 120- to 130-degree temperatures … the sprinting from cover to cover … the repetition of lifting your weapon up and down, time after time, to cover your buddies’ movements, so much that it began to feel like it weighed a hundred pounds …”
First Sergeant Robert Colella impressed me as very gentle and kind, but a very firm man with limitations and strengths. He cared about his troops as a professional leader soldier. But he also cared about his troops with a professional-strength-compassion. He also understands that some “people” are truly enemies no matter what and must be treated that way. With what has happened in Afghanistan recently with the murder of coalition soldiers by uniformed soldiers, this is a powerful lesson that must not be ignored!
And yet, something beautiful, although not perfect, was happening: “We were pumping thousands of dollars into the community each day and giving the economy a jump start. It was truly an amazing site to witness, as the city transitioned from being a ghost town that had death looming in the air to being a thriving city eager to get back to some sort of normality.” (p 362) This was key to this thought-provoking book. There are slow parts of the book, but they are necessary to understand that through the fog of war (and terrifying horror) there emerges hope and a transformed city, army, nation and soldiers who risk (and sacrifice) their lives for a people they don’t even know or trust.
They made it.
We made it.
I made it.
The last chapter, Move that Bus! brought Bravo Company back home. It was some powerful and moving writing. He captured a very common thread of returning combat veterans. It reminded me of some things (both painful and humorous in hindsight) that I had forgotten, just as Robert forgot which country he refueled in on the long flight home. I even believe that Jesus was smiling beside him. This led into the Author’s Notes and the Testimony, which would be foolish to overlook in the book and story of a soldier who survived the Battle for Baqubah: Killing Our Way Out. Colella connected the dots in his final words.
First Sergeant Robert S. Colella, USA, Retired…We cannot thank you enough. Hoorah!
Reviewed by: Ron Camarda (2012)