Originally published in MilitaryWeek.com, 22 April 05
W. Thomas Smith Jr.
It was a textbook response to ambush. Soldiers bolting from their vehicles, hitting the earthen berm on the "bad side" of the highway, and blasting away at guerrillas who were attacking a convoy of some 30 civilian tractor-trailer trucks.
The natural – and usually fatal – reaction would be to hit the deck or run in the opposite direction. The infantry-school drill would be to counterattack in the direction of the ambush and attempt to gain fire superiority. Sounds frightening, but the latter almost always saves lives among the ranks of those being ambushed.
Enemy bullets were zinging through the air above the soldiers' heads as they advanced on the attackers. Army Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester later told a newspaper reporter, she could hear rounds "pinging" off the vehicles behind her and thumping into the ground all around her position.
But it was more than simply an immediate-action counterattack to the ambush. The soldiers – ten members of the 617th Military Police Company of the Kentucky National Guard (attached to the U.S. Army's 18th Military Police Brigade), including Sgt Hester and another female soldier – had responded to the attack by racing their three Humvees forward from the rear of the convoy, turning the vehicles off the main highway, then gunning them down a narrow access-road paralleling the enemy's flank. Almost before the hummers slid to a halt on the sandy desert road, the soldiers – under constant fire – rolled out and began a fierce counterattack on foot, all the while pouring a murderous fire into the insurgent positions.
The insurgents were fighting back hard. One Humvee was struck by a rocket-propelled-grenade (RPG), wounding the guardsman manning the vehicle's .50-caliber machine gun. All three vehicles were riddled with automatic weapons fire.
The Americans then closed with the enemy: Yard-by-yard, firing M-4 Carbines, launching grenades from M-203s, and moving.
It was a classic example of what had been drilled into me years ago as a young Marine: "To locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver; or repel his assault with fire and close combat."
That's just what these fighting Kentuckians were doing, March 20, 2005, on an isolated stretch of highway, 20 miles southeast of Baghdad.
When the fight was over, more than half of the 40-50-man enemy force had been wiped out. Twenty-six were dead. Seven wounded. The insurgents learned the hard way what happens when bushwhackers tangle with armed Kentuckians.
Fact is, the Blue Grass state has been turning out fierce, free-minded warriors who can shoot and have been fighting and defeating numerically superior forces since America's colonial wars.
One of the best known of the early Kentucky braves was Daniel Boone, a famed frontiersman and "Indian fighter." Many of Boone's men – like the scout, Simon Kenton – also earned stellar reputations as fighting Kentuckians.
Then there was General George Rogers Clark, older brother of the explorer William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. The elder Clark was so respected as a soldier in the Kentucky territories during the late 1700s the Native Americans named him, "The first man living, the great and invincible long-knife."
Kentuckians earning combat notoriety in the early to mid-19th Century, included Jim Bowie and Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson.
Bowie, the knife-fighting brawler whose Bowie-knife design became famous the world over, was killed among the immortals at the Alamo.
Kit Carson, a hunter, trapper, and military scout who, for a time, lived among the Arapaho and the Cheyenne, later served as a Union Army officer during the American Civil War.
It was during that war that the initially neutral state of Kentucky fielded forces for both the Union (presided over by Kentucky rail-splitter Abraham Lincoln) and Confederate Armies. And on both sides, stories and legends continued to flourish regarding the fighting prowess of Kentucky warriors.
In her poem, Kentucky Belle, poet Constance Fenimore Woolson penned the following stanza about Kentucky's Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and his hard-riding band of irregulars:
"Morgan, Morgan, the raider,
And Morgan's terrible men,
With Bowie-knives and pistols,
Are galloping up the glen."
Throughout the 20th Century, Kentucky was known as a state from which volunteers would eagerly flock to the colors, and their reputation for fighting was proven time and again through two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, and a variety of lesser American military operations and expeditions.
The reputation of Kentucky's famed riflemen and pistoleros has even found its way into the lexicon of modern English as it pertains to shooting and marksmanship. Kentucky windage, for example, is a term long-used by professional marksmen and military and police snipers. The term describes the method by which shooters aim off-target to actually hit their target if they know their weapon is "pulling" in the opposite off-target direction. Leave it to Kentuckians to figure that one out; after all, Kentucky boys (and most girls) have been raised with rifles since they were old enough to utter the word, "gun." They have a long history of dealing with "bushwhackers." And they did so in classic Kentucky fashion, last month.
The insurgents, on the other hand – all wearing handcuffs in hopes of capturing some of the truck drivers or perhaps a few American soldiers for God knows what – had no idea who they were exchanging shots with; even after they saw the Americans charging toward them. But they quickly realized they had bitten off a bit more than they could chew. After all, a clash between fifty, armed bad-guys and ten, armed Kentuckians has never been – and will never be – a fair fight.
— W. Thomas Smith Jr., a former U.S. Marine infantry leader, parachutist, and shipboard counterterrorism instructor, writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is an award-winning author of four books, the co-author of two, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, National Review Online, CBS News, The Washington Times, and many others.
W. Thomas Smith Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
© 2005 W. Thomas Smith Jr.