When Curt Hall was killed in action, I basically lost my mind.
The summer of 2004, we started off as classmates in 03-50N in EOD School at Eglin Air Force Base. He rolled out of our class on a landmine test in Ground Ordnance Division, and in the days before Facebook, we lost touch.
Fast forward to 2007, and I walk out of my battalion TOC at COB Speicher to use the head. A big tall guy in a desert flight suit stood nearby. He turned around. It was Curt.
My eyes glanced down to the patch on his chest, and I saw an EOD crab there. He had gone back through training and made it.
Big bear hug followed.
Curt, I’m so proud of you. You made it, brother.
Glad to see you here.
How ya been?
A few days later Curt was dead.
It was a one-in-a-million shot with a Type 63 107mm rocket. While driving in a convoy, someone cranked off one of these weapons on a flat trajectory towards the line of American trucks. This one hit Curt’s Up-Armored HMMWV right at the T-junction between the front and back doors on the left side.
A fraction of an inch difference at the launch point, and it would have sailed right over the truck. We’d still have Curt, and Curt would have another one of those “you not gonna believe this shit, but…” kind of stories. But in combat, Murphy and the enemy both get a vote.
The EOD team that did the post-blast assessment sent their findings to us at Speicher. It was my job to review their work and brief it up to Commanding General, Multi-National Division-NORTH (Task Force Lightning).
So there I sat in our plywood ops center, going through all the photos over and over again.
How the fuck did this happen?
How the fuck did those assholes kill my friend Curt?
Nearby, my teammate Chuck came by and pointed to something I’d missed in the photos. It was the base plate of a 107mm rocket.
See that, LT? Heavy steel plate..all those canted Venturi nozzles…can’t be anything else…they’re all over the place here. Lucky shot.
Huh. Say again?
I knew for a fact I never saw that weapon at Eglin, or when I was stationed in Guam, or anywhere else.
I thought I was Billy Badass coming out of our year and a half long training pipeline. Gimme an op and I’ll nail it. I really thought I knew what I needed to know in order to survive in combat.
But here was evidence, drenched in my friend’s blood, that I really didn’t know anything. I maybe knew the basics. Maybe. But to be a good officer and a good operator, you had to work harder and learn as much as you can. Learn the things they don’t tell you in the classroom and on the range.
I flipped on my SIPRnet terminal and started digging.
All the time I could spare, I was datamining classified databases and SharePoint portals for useful information on the weapons taking out Americans.
At one point, I felt lightheaded and realized it had been three days since I’d actually eaten anything. My only food was coffee, Copenhagen snuff, and Marlboro Lights. Dinner at the DFAC that night was like a NASCAR pit stop: fuel up as quickly as possible, and back to the race.
I realized that the vast majority of “intel” on these weapons was simply descriptive. Length. Weight. Explosive fill. Max effective range. Etc. But nothing there to tell the guy carrying an M4 what to do about it. Nothing telling the counterproliferation spook about the new Iranian copies we were rolling up. Nothing about countermeasures.
So I found a new little corner of the SIPRnet that let users register and write their own intel products. I thought I would get my pee-pee slapped (who does this Lieutenant think he is?), but I figured the something I’d write would be better than the nothing that currently existed.
Research. Write. Deal with the day’s IED attacks. Repeat.
10,000 edits later, I’d like to think I left something of value behind when I left active duty. That part of me lay happily dormant until I saw C.J. Chivers post this piece in The New York Times’ At War blog.
Who is this guy? How the hell does he get this shit right?
Journalists don’t walk this beat, too. Do they?
Would the public actually want to read stuff like this?
An email to Chivers in late 2010 eventually turned into a phonecall in January 2012 where he said to me:
You should go to Columbia J-School. You should become a journalist.
In a way, this whole thing goes back to Northern Iraq in April 2007. If Curt hadn’t been KIA, I probably wouldn’t be here in Harlem. I’d be back in San Diego screwing off in Ocean Beach, running Sunset Cliffs, biking with my buddy Neil, and hitting the farmer’s market every Wednesday.
But now I’m writing about the things you can learn from an Iraqi weapons cache. The things we expected, the things we didn’t, and the things that killed my friends.
I want people to know.
Now on The NYT At War: a reckoning, of sorts. And hopefully a beginning to the end of a six year-long obsession.
I hate those goddamn rockets.
And I don’t want to think about them anymore.
My condolences to the Hall, Billiter, and McSween families. Your loved ones are missed by many.
My thanks to Matt Schroeder of the Federation of American Scientists, for the source materiel…and the patience. Thanks to Captain John Coffey, Command Master Chief Pat McLean, and Commander Jeff Stebbins for their trust and support in ‘07 — a better command team there has never been. To Captain Marty Beck for holding EODMU-11 together. Thanks to “Chuck” for always explaining everything and getting a young LT up to speed; you’re the best NCO I ever worked with. And thanks to Chris Chivers for making me believe I could do this.
photo 1: HT2(DV) Curt Hall, after completing Dive School. Taken from the EOD Warrior Foundation website.
photo 2: cutaway diagram of a Type 63 rocket. Taken from the Federation of American Scientists’ website.
photo 3: an Iranian copy of the Type 63 laid on an improvised rocket launcher in Iraq — a tactic likely similar in design to the system that killed Curt. Taken from militaryphotos.net.
correction: an earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Digger DiGuardo as the skipper of MU-11 when Curt was killed. Thanks to Dale Rock for spotting the mistake and correcting me.