CAMP SWIFT, IRAQ –
Before he enlisted, Spc. Erik Salmon was a traveler fond of seeing new places and experiencing different cultures. When the 26-year-old intelligence analyst deployed to Iraq in May, 2016, with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), he found himself trapped in tiny Camp Swift behind dirt barriers, concrete walls and concertina wire.
"For the last nine months, I've only spent a total of eight hours outside Swift for my buddy's reenlistment in Erbil," he stated. "I jumped on a convoy during my off-shift. I got about four hours of sleep that night."
Salmon is just days away from returning to Fort Campbell, Ky.
"I'm pretty excited to leave," chuckled the tall, slender Soldier.
The U.S. Soldiers, alongside international coalition partners, are supporting the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) as they wage war against the terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Salmon's own "Strike Brigade" has spent the last 270 days advising, assisting, training, and equipping the ISF as they conduct an on-going offensive to liberate Mosul, the second-largest city in the country. Although not in direct combat, U.S. forces provide intelligence, indirect fire support, and reconnaissance for maneuvering Iraqi forces.
Salmon, from Palmer, Alaska, could only tour Iraq through the lens of the camera on an Aerosonde Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), which feeds a picture of the battle-space to a joint U.S.-Iraqi operations cell where he works. The UAV has no weapons but provides over watch for maneuvering ISF, reconnaissance and surveillance, as well as targeting and observation for indirect fire support. Salmon is the liaison between the pilot and the operations cell, interpreting what he sees on the screen for intelligence-gathering, a critical role for the ISF fight. Although living in less than ideal conditions, Salmon appreciates the experience.
"I feel pretty fortunate to be on this deployment with the 101st," he said. "The longer I'm here, the more I feel a sense of camaraderie with the people of the Strike Brigade. Definitely made it all worth it."
One night, Salmon found himself glued to the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) UAV feed, but this night he was not following the enemy. He was searching for an ISF soldier who was alone in enemy-held territory.
A group of ISF had found themselves surrounded and fighting in the urban darkness. A contingent of ISF were attempting to clear a retreat route for their embattled comrades, but were driven back. During that engagement, one ISF lieutenant found himself cut off from his unit, surrounded by a vicious enemy who could be lurking anywhere.
In desperation, the Iraqi soldier used his cell phone to call the coalition forces in the operations cell. There they tried to get the soldier to describe his surroundings in order to pinpoint his location. Using a map, they tried to sync what they saw on the grainy video feed with what the soldier reported.
Salmon said the ISF Soldier sounded frightened as he reported he had been wounded and surrounded. He would whisper, stop talking, or hang up, presumably to avoid detection. For the operations cell, it made the Soldier's descriptions difficult to interpret and understand. Minutes dragged into hours as the cell searched for a location. Eventually, the soldier was convinced to leave his position so Salmon could locate him before the battery in the cell phone died. They spotted him as he emerged from a small carport before dashing for concealment behind some bushes.
Salmon said that the long hours on the night shift in the operations cell had allowed the U.S. Soldiers to bond with their Iraqi counterparts, passing slow time with games and eating local meals together. Gradually the camaraderie broke down the language barrier. Now they found themselves anxiously working together to save a fellow soldier from eventual capture or death.
"They're people fighting for their country, fighting for freedom for their people, so put yourself in their situation," said Salmon. "These people value human life. It is important to them and to us. People are generally the same everywhere."
The operations cell had directions prepared for the ISF soldier. They guided him through the dark streets, using the image feed to avoid danger. However, his movement was too slow while navigating between the buildings. Desperate to remove him from the enemy-held environment, the operations cell urged him to sprint.
"It was really nerve-wracking," said Salmon of the dramatic operation.
Iraqis and Americans alike watched anxiously as the soldier raced through the darkness. Then something unknown appeared on the ISR. On edge, the entire cell froze and everyone feared the worst.
With relief, they realized it was only a stray horse.
As the soldier grew closer to friendly forces, they instructed him to hold back and seek cover in a ditch. They feared the ISF would fire into the darkness, mistaking their comrade for the enemy.
"We didn't want this to end badly," said Salmon. "We had to get positive [communications] with the receiving unit to ensure he could safely proceed."
When confirmation was made with ISF on the ground, someone on a rooftop took over, guiding the soldier to a group of Humvees where he was received by friendly forces.
"It was a great moment," said Salmon. "Everyone was laughing and hugging."
Salmon predicted he would forget a lot of other aspects of the deployment, but he would never forget that night.
"It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be directly involved with saving someone's life."