"I hate Saddam!": Capturing and losing Iraq's Queen of Hearts

The following is an excerpt from Destiny of Heroes by Lt. Dan Marcou

Editor’s Note: I recruited Lt. Dan Marcou as a new Columnist for PoliceOne when I discovered his book, S.W.A.T.: Blue Knights in Black Armor on Amazon. In the five years since, Dan and I have become not only colleagues, but also very close friends. I am therefore delighted to deliver to you an excerpt from Destiny of Heroes, the latest book by PoliceOne Columnist Dan Marcou. Chapter One of the novel — Ambushed by the Queen of Hearts — is reprinted here with the written permission of the publisher, Thunder Bay Press. Destiny of Heroes is available in paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local independent bookstore. Enjoy!
— Doug Wyllie, PoliceOne Editor in Chief

Ambushed By The Queen Of Hearts
As John Savage squinted through the stinging sweat in his eyes to see what potential dangers lay ahead, he pondered. In Iraq, the heat was just like the enemy. You sensed its heavy presence, but it surrounded you unseen. If you weren’t careful the heat could kill you as certainly as the blast from an undetected IED. John reached into the small pocket of his vest and grabbed a piece of Bazooka Bubble Gum, unwrapped it, popped the gum in his mouth, and started chewing it soft as he read the comic. He smiled and carefully folded the comic, tucking it back into his vest pocket.

The heat was bearable only because he was a soldier at war and had no choice but to endure the 118 degree temperature. Anyone born and raised in Wisconsin grows accustomed to cold winters. During the summer when a day reaches into the 90s, “Cheeseheads” will all praise themselves for being able to tolerate a Wisconsin summer. They bear the burden of the humidity, longing for the higher temperatures of an arid climate because it is a “dry heat.”

John day-dreamed himself back home listening to his mother complain about “the humidity,” as she longed for that “dry heat.” The thought inspired him to shout up to his gunner, Balduzzi. “Dry, wet, or covered in shit, 118 degrees is hot,” shouted John.

“I can’t even catch a breeze up here,” shouted down Balduzzi, who was top side of the Humvee manning the 249 SAW.

John hydrated himself as he always did whenever he thought about the heat. He knew that if he was thinking about heat he was losing focus. A sip of water always brought him back to the business at hand. At this moment John rode shotgun in the lightly armored Humvee, which was the last vehicle in a three vehicle reconnaissance. His unit lumbered along route Irish. The road was a heavily traveled supply artery which languished through the desert outside Baghdad.

The mission today was to clear the route for the convoys which would follow. John scanned the roadside for something out of place, like a child with a cell phone standing alone waving and smiling, freshly disturbed soil, or construction materials scattered about in a manner that was too random to be accidental. So far nothing looked out of the ordinary in this environment that had been home to him and his squad since the 3rd Infantry took Baghdad.

He felt his stomach turn again as it did every time they approached the curve up ahead. It was a perfect spot for an ambush, but they had passed it fifty times before, and even though he would always get on the radio and give a quick “heads up here on the left,” nothing ever happened. On the left was an escarpment that curved perfectly as if it was man-made instead of natural. Below it was an irrigation ditch running along between the road and the escarpment. Either spot would be a perfect place to set up an ambush.

Before John could give his “heads up,” Chase cut in over the radio, barking,” Heads up on the left!” Chase was the best friend John ever had and they, along with Balduzzi, were referred to as, “The Three Amigos,” by other members of the unit.

John was already looking left and saw a movement in the irrigation canal. The insurgent blended perfectly into his surroundings but had done nothing to alter the black detonator, which stood out to John like a distributor in a V-8 engine. “Balduzzi, 2:00! 2:00! 2:00! Take him out now!”

Balduzzi shouted, “I see him!” He racked the SAW and spun it toward the black detonator, which to Balduzzi seemed to be hovering in mid-air. Then the box jerked as the bomber hit the detonator’s trigger just as Balduzzi’s opened up with the SAW. The rounds from Balduzzi’s weapon ripped through the dry heat of the desert and into the bomber. They arrived a moment too late to prevent the explosion triggered by the camouflaged bomber. It belched a ball of flame from the right side of the road, seeming to swallow up Chase’s lead vehicle. Simultaneously the area from the left and above the escarpment seemed to come alive as a contingent of hidden enemy opened up, and the ambush John Savage had seen in his day-dreams and nightmares was happening right in front of him.

John shouted, “Cut right off the road. The incline will give us some cover!” Haldane, the driver, was already moving.

“Balduzzi concentrate your fire on that ridge. Boots, cover the irrigation canal. You could conceal an oversized company in there. I am going to make my way around the left and flank them.” John had not only pictured the ambush, he had mapped out his response. He had given these commands fifty times before in his daydreams and nightmares. His dream, which to some would be considered a premonition had prepared him well for this day.

As the Humvee rolled to a stop, John secured his M4, spit out his gum, and rolled out of the Humvee, staying low so that he could not be seen by the enemy. He ran fifty yards parallel to the road, following the ditch line to a small bridge. Reaching the bridge, he cautiously approached but paused at the embankment adjacent to the bridge with his M4 at the ready. As the battle raged to his rear, he leaned slightly out to clear the area under the bridge, and there they were. There were three of them. The leader was turned to the two that followed him, and he was giggling as if they had just succeeded in leaving a bag of burning feces on the neighbor’s doorstep and watched him stomp it out.

The two that followed the leader were also joyous at the apparent success of their surprise attack. There was the abrupt change when the two realized they had celebrated their victory too soon. John sent a burst in their direction, trying to conserve his ammunition for the fight ahead. All three went down.

As John moved past the three ambushers, he quickly checked to make certain of the effectiveness of his fire when he noticed the red triangle patch on their uniforms. It was the patch of Saddam Hussein’s vaunted Republican Guard. The faces of the three in death took on the appearance of masks. Two of the dead had a look of horror frozen in place as if John had hit a pause button on a remote rather than the trigger on his weapon. The leader, who never perceived his imminent demise, was still smiling a garish smile. So passed eleven seconds of John Savage’s life, from which every sound, sight, and smell would be forever emblazoned in his brain’s hard drive. There would be time to dwell on it all later. Now was not the time, for John Savage was on the move.

As John approached the enemy’s right flank, he could see that all of the fire was coming from the ridge along the top of the escarpment. As he climbed the path leading up the escarpment, he could see the lone bomber in the canal. He was clearly visible now that the camouflage was compromised because the bomber had been nearly cut in half by Balduzzi’s accurate fire. Because of the curve in the road, John could only see the smoke of the lead Humvee, but it was clear from the rate of fire that someone had survived the explosion and was “truly pissed.”

John had scouted out the escarpment months earlier, and he headed quickly up the path stopping just short of the top. As he eased up, he used the muzzle of his weapon as if it was his third eye, and he saw he was twenty feet from two guardsmen desperately firing back toward Balduzzi, Haldane, and Boots. There was no celebration going on here for there was a third guardsman who would be sending no more letters home. He had obviously been hit in the head by Balduzzi’s SAW and lay dead. John took aim carefully, but quickly, and “Pop-Pop, Pop-Pop.” Both guardsmen, who were already prone, dropped their heads as if they had simultaneously dozed off. John was on the move again as he continued to work his way up the Iraqi line.

The path snaked its way along the back side of the ridge, which took the shape of a strung archer’s bow. The Humvees were caught in the sights of the bow. John was working his way from the lower limb of the bow to its tip. The rocks and scrub brush allowed him to move from position to position without being seen by the Iraqis, who were all heavily focused on the Humvees below.

As John came upon the next position, he saw three insurgents firing toward his buddies, but a fourth was on his knees facing John with his head down. He was frantically reloading his weapon; when he looked up and saw John he screamed, “EEEiiiiii!” As the panicked Iraqi tried to put his replacement magazine into the weapon backward, John fired at the three, taking them out of the fight and then hit the screaming Iraqi who had dropped his weapon to pick up a grenade. He managed to pull the pin as he was hit, and John ducked behind a rock and waited for the explosion.

After the loud, but dull “Whump!” he was on the move again. As John passed the scene of his work, he saw the screaming Iraqi must have slumped forward on his own grenade when he was shot. The aftermath of this encounter caused John to slow down, trying to interpret its meaning, as if the scene were a Picasso painting. Once he realized he was slowing down, he whispered to himself, “Get your ass moving, no time to dawdle.” John sped up as he switched out the magazine in his M4 and slipped the old magazine into his side pocket. It still had rounds in it which he might need later.

While John worked his way toward the middle of the ridge, he came upon a heavily prepared position. Flat rocks were carefully chosen and piled to give the occupants cover from the front and both sides. They had prepared gun ports in their position, but all faced forward. John could not see anything of his adversaries but their muzzles and an occasional helmet top popping above the white rock wall. He scanned the area and could see no one guarding their flank.

“I can’t believe this is the Republican Guard. I heard they were supposed to be the best, and as of yet no one is covering their six,” John said quietly to himself as he slung his M4 and took two grenades out. He moved quickly, pulling the pin out of one as he held the grenade and the striker lever tightly in place with his right hand, preventing the grenade’s detonation. John efficiently went about multi-tasking in a manner which the person who invented the word could never have envisioned. He pulled the pin on the second grenade with his right hand as he held the striker lever on the second grenade with his left hand. He moved quickly forward, hugging the white rock wall of the prepared position. All the occupants were heavily engaged in trying to kill every member of his unit, and members of his unit were all vigorously returning the favor.

Got to wait for the last second, thought John, I am too close to let them have the opportunity to throw these back. He took a deep breath and let it out. He released both striker levers simultaneously, and they sprung clear of the grenades. John held the grenades longer than he had ever held live grenades before in either training or in combat, and at what proved to be the last possible moment, he tossed them both over the rock wall. He turtled up, making himself as small as possible as he plugged his ears. Instantly, there was one loud explosion as the grenades went off in unison. He found the Iraqi position to be well fortified because the metal particles of death from his grenades were all either held within the bodies of John’s enemies or contained by the hastily built, but well-constructed, rock wall.

John swung his M4 about, quickly peeking around the back side of the wall. He discovered that the two grenades had turned this deadly location into a messy but now peaceful scenic overlook. Enjoying the view, however, would be for someone else at another time. John was moving again.

Waiting For A Kill Shot
Ahmed’s plan was working. The position he had chosen and prepared for this attack was perfect. Since Saddam and his generals had gone into hiding, Al-Qaeda had taken a leadership role. Ahmed had no rank, but he was the de facto commander of this small contingent of Republican Guard, which would have melted away long ago if not for Ahmed’s inspiration and his ready supply of cash. He watched with great satisfaction as the improvised explosive device detonated and engulfed the lead Humvee. He shouted, “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!”

His initial joy gave way to shock to see the Americans somehow roll out of the burning Humvee and return fire at an alarming rate.

Ahmed fired back with his two companions. As the battle was joined, Ahmed realized that the heights provided a position of advantage over two of the American Humvees, but he could see neither the rest of his line nor one of the Humvees in the American Squad. “Damned it! Abdullah set off the charge too soon!” he shouted to Hussein, who was next to him firing at the Americans. Hussein did not even react since he was engaged in firing his AK-47 wildly at everything but hitting nothing.

“Hussein. Take careful aim. At this distance you will hit nothing unless you aim,” shouted Ahmed, but Hussein was “praying and spraying” as was Tariq next to him. Ahmed listened and could hear the entire line of Republican Guards he had personally positioned engaging the Americans. He smiled and shook his head thinking, “We will win this glorious fight.”

Ahmed had wondered if his unit would stand and fight with him. Since the fall of Baghdad, even the Republican Guard had lost its zealous loyalty to Saddam, who was hiding in a hole somewhere. Saddam Hussein occupied himself moving from place to place and sending out communiqués occasionally telling non-existent loyalists units to, “Fight to the death against the American devils and make their blood flow like rivers.”

Ahmed and many like him had stepped in to fill the void. His orders were simple. He was to cajole, bribe, or threaten Iraqi’s into inflicting a continuous flow of casualties on the Americans and their allies until their “weak leadership” ordered the military to withdraw as they had in Somalia. Ahmed had been only fourteen when he went to Somalia to join the Jihad. He had fought in the battle of the Bakaara Market in Mogadishu. He had been in the battle of Kandahar and with Bin Laden at Tora Bora. Ahmed thought himself to be America’s worst nightmare. To him, Islam was not “the religion of peace” but a sacred call for a violent Jihad. He refused to die needlessly for Allah but instead felt better suited to kill for Allah.

As Ahmed watched the battle develop, he noticed one American soldier fighting from behind some rubble on the opposite side of the road. When he had escaped the burning Humvee, he appeared to be moving too fast to be injured. The soldier would expose himself occasionally to take a shot from behind a discarded chunk of concrete he was using for cover.

Ahmed shouldered his rifle and took careful aim. He began taking deep breaths, letting each one seep out slowly like life’s last whisper. He was patient. He would wait for a kill shot. “Come to me, come, come, come, Allahu Akbar,” Ahmed whispered as he squeezed the trigger. “Bam!” The soldier crumpled to the ground. After Ahmed fired the one round, his rifle jammed.

Ahmed locked the action open and yanked the magazine out, but the casing had failed to eject after he had fired. He sat up and began working the action forward and backward repeatedly trying to free the casing. He blew hard on the sand covered rounds in the magazine and slipped out his knife to pry the empty brass from the chamber. “Goat Fuck!” Ahmed shouted as he pried the brass loose enough to take hold of the rim and pull it the rest of the way out. “This ammunition is shit!” Ahmed shouted to the heavens.

The Fight Continues
Just before John rounded the bend in the line to reach the last position, he press checked the chamber on the M4 and saw the round glint in the sun. His ever-faithful and ever-present companion in war was waiting patiently for its opportunity to continue the fight. John never failed to take care of his weapon and, in turn, it never failed to take care of him.

John took a deep breath through his nose and blew it out through his mouth as if he was on the range preparing for his qualification course. He peered up over the ridge and saw his friends were holding their own. He had maneuvered to a point where he could see all three Humvees and the fighting positions his friends had taken. They had chosen well. Even from these heights the available terrain appeared to be providing good cover. As John counted the puffs of smoke, he could see everyone was fighting, and it did not look like they had suffered any casualties. This position, chosen by the enemy, provided great defensibility if properly manned, but the distance to the road was a long shot for an average soldier to make under battle conditions. The enemy’s attack was proving to be a wasted effort. He smiled with pride, admiring the fighting spirit of his unit.

John woke himself from his ill-timed reverie and was just about to move as his buddy Chase rose up to fire. Before Chase could take his next shot, there appeared a puff of pink mist from just below his helmet and Chase slumped to the ground, motionless. One of the best friends John had ever had was gone in an instant.

“Chase!” John cried out painfully to the blue Iraqi sky as he went on the move again. The last position was built in the same configuration as the position he had just taken out with grenades, but its occupants had only piled the rocks about a foot and a half high. Two were on one knee firing down toward the patrol, both oblivious to John’s arrival. One was sitting up and trying to clear a malfunction in his rifle with his knife. John opened fire, killing the one closest to him first. The man never saw what hit him.

The second soldier reacted quickly and swung his rifle toward him, and John, whose blood was up for the fight, fired four times at the guardsman before he could get a shot off. John could see his rounds hit the man in the throat and head, and the one-time member of Saddam’s personal guard toppled clumsily over backwards falling into the lap of the third man. The last living ambusher’s eyes and mouth opened wide and he dropped his knife and rifle abandoning his effort to clear his weapon. As he did this, he thrust his hands high into the air.

“Please don’t shoot. Don’t shoot. I love America. Fuck Saddam!” Ahmed turned and spit at the mention of the name. “My name is Ahmed. I am not your enemy. God Bless America. God Bless You. You have saved Me!” whimpered Ahmed. “Please don’t shoot.”

John Savage was frozen with his weapon trained on the athletically muscled, dark-haired man with light olive-colored skin, which appeared to be turning an ashen gray. The man spoke excellent English with a slight Julio Iglesias-type accent but not as pronounced. Up until this moment, Previously John had surprised his foes at each position, but this encounter took him by surprise. He was ill-prepared for this particular situation.

Before John could say a word, the man rolled his dead comrade out of his lap and slowly got up. Ahmed began unbuttoning his uniform shirt as he loudly cried, “I hate Saddam!” He ripped the shirt off, spit on it, and then offered it to John, “You can have this. I love America. I studied in America. God Bless America!” When John made no move, Ahmed threw the uniform shirt to the ground, and he ground it into the dirt with his boot. He looked into John’s eyes and could see the confusion. Ahmed thrust up his hands again to feign the dutiful prisoner.

“You are our liberators. You have freed us from the pig, Saddam. I now can go home to my family. Please let me go home. I will never raise my hand against an American again.” Then Ahmed conjured up a look of glorious love and while his eyes were locked on the eyes of John Savage he said, “You have not captured me, you have rescued me. God bless you, my young American friend. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome?” said John instinctively, an out-of-place courtesy ingrained in John, the result of living a lifetime in Wisconsin. Cheese Heads were known far and wide to be congenitally friendly. This fact is proven by their willingness to tolerate a moniker like Cheese Head without punching someone in the nose. This amiable nature, however felt out of place on the battlefield, even to John.

Ahmed could see in the eyes of the soldier that the American had succumbed to the ruse emotionally, but not tactically. The muzzle was staring unwaveringly at Ahmed. He could see but one option before him. Surrender would be unacceptable because he would eventually be discovered as a member of Al- Qaeda. He had made a name for himself. He had earned such a reputation his heavily whiskered face was emblazoned on a deck of cards. Surrender would mean he would be sent to Guantanamo Bay and would never see home again.

Ahmed deduced attacking this American would be suicide, and throwing his life away without reason or reward, even for the cause of Jihad, was ridiculous for a man of Ahmed’s talents. Now that he stood eye to eye with the enemy before him, he assessed that this man was a warrior, by his actions, trappings, and bearings. The warrior’s eyes told Ahmed that this American possessed something Ahmed did not possess. Ahmed deemed this trait a weakness with no place in the pantheon of modern Jihadists… mercy.

Ahmed put on the most tragic facial expression he could muster as he explained, “I hate Saddam. I will wear his uniform not one moment longer. Please do not shoot me.” He dropped his hands and sat in the dirt pulling off his pants.

“What? W-W-Wait,” stuttered John.

Ahmed ignored John’s half-hearted words of caution. He had judged this American correctly. John would not shoot. He continued to roughly rip at his pants and pulled them over his boots.

Ahmed kicked free of the last vestige of his uniform and thought, I was willing to sacrifice all of the soldiers I led to this hilltop to kill one American soldier and I have done it. Now I must live to fight another day.

Ahmed popped up to his feet and said, “Thank you, GI. I am free now, just like in America. I can go home now to my wife and children. I love America. My war is over. Thank you. God Bless America,” and with that Ahmed turned and ran down the back side of the hill yelling, “God Bless America! God Bless America!”

“Stop or I’ll Shoot!” shouted John, and it was not an idle threat. He took careful aim at the man running away from him in his underwear screaming, “God Bless America.” It would be an easy shot to make, but John found it a difficult shot to take. This man running nearly naked down the side of the hill was either exactly the type of person he came here to kill, or exactly the type of person he came here to liberate. There was no way for John to know which one was the case. John found himself here in the middle of the desert, swimming in the unfamiliar waters of indecisiveness.

“WOOMP!” John recognized the unmistakable sound of a 40 mm MK-19 grenade leaving the muzzle of its launcher fired from below toward his position. John’s friends were obviously unaware that he had cleared the position.

Instinctively, John ran back in the direction he had come from, toppled over a boulder and skidded to a stop as he tried to avoid the imminent spray of killing fragmentation, “BOOOM!” Rocks and shrapnel ripped through the dessert air around him just inches over his head.

After John emerged from the mental and physical haze created by the near miss, he regained his equilibrium. John keyed his mic and radioed, “Road Dog Three to Road Dog Leader, Cease Fire! I am on the ridge. The ridge has been cleared and is secured. Cease Fire! Repeat, Cease Fire!”

“10-4 Road Dog Three,” crackled the response followed by the command, “All Road Dog Units Cease Fire! Cease Fire!”

After a brief pause there was a cluster of frenzied communications. “Road Dog One to Road Dog Leader we have one KIA.”

“10-4 Road Dog One, who is your KIA?” came a voice sounding concerned.

“Chase is down. He’s gone,” followed the response from a voice reflecting the realization that a good friend would not be going home.

John came up with his weapon at the ready, but Ahmed was nowhere in sight. “Well, bad guy or not I guess you are now officially liberated, Ahmed. Peace out,” said John kissing two fingers and flashing a peace sign toward the area he had last seen Ahmed hightailing.

A Discovery
Two days later as John played five card draw at Camp Victory, he discarded a six of clubs, hoping to fill an ace high inside straight with a queen. The dealer with one hand adeptly flicked a card across the table, causing it to slide face down neatly in front of John’s chips. John tried to look emotionless as he slid the queen into his hand and managed to conceal his joy after his wish was granted.

Then his poker face fled the battlefield as the emotion of joy was replaced by the sinking feeling of depression. He laid down his cards face up and said, “I’m out guys,” as he pushed himself away from the table.

Not believing his eyes, Balduzzi spread out John’s cards and bit down hard on the tip of his cigar, causing it to stand at attention. Balduzzi managed to talk out of one side of his mouth, gripping his cigar tightly between his teeth. He displayed John’s cards in disbelief. “That’s OK if you want, partner. I’ll always back your move, but that’s an ace high straight you are walking away from, Johnny.”

The rest of the players hooted in approval. Boots declared, “Out is out! He’s out!” He sat straight up realizing his aces and eights may take the rather sweet pot. John had been the big winner up to this point. Boots was not the type of poker player who would ever question why another player with a winning hand was folding. “No guts no glory, he’s out!”

Balduzzi was a friend first, poker player second, and it was disconcerting to see such an uncharacteristic mood shift in the rock solid John Savage.

“Whadaya doin’, Johnny? What da fuck?” Balduzzi sputtered.

“The face on the card. That’s the guy. The guy in his underwear God blessin’ America that ran away from the ambush,” explained John. The deck that was being used in the game was one of the decks passed out to the coalition soldiers with photos of the most wanted war criminals in Iraq. It was a coalition strategy that proved very successful.

Balduzzi shifted his cigar to the other side of his mouth as the smoke drifted into his left eye. He picked up John’s cards, “Are you sure, Johnny. I thought we got most of these peckerwoods. Which one is it?” asked Balduzzi as he fanned the hand out and closely scrutinized each face on each card as if he looked hard enough he might be able to recognize someone he had never seen before.

John walked back and pointed as if he was picking him out in a police line-up, “It’s him. I’m certain.”

“Are you sure of it. Looks like just another Ahmed Abdullah Bin-Asshole to me,” said Balduzzi with a tone of incredulity.

“I’m sure it’s him. This was him. Ahmed Abdullah Rahim. He even used the name Ahmed; besides I’ll never forget those eyes. I had my sights on an Al-Qaeda commander, and I let him get away. I’m telling you that’s the guy! The son of a bitch! We were ambushed by the Queen of Hearts.”

Destiny of Heroes is available in paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local independent bookstore.

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