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Strike on Iraq: 15th MEU on the Move

Aired March 22, 2003 - 23:00   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Jason Bellini is embedded with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Jason, it's good to see you well, first of all.
Just describe the experience. Describe the day that your Marines went through.

JASON BELLINI, CNN NEWS: Thank you, Aaron.

Well, first, let me tell you that the Marines that we're with, with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, believe -- they now believe that the most difficult part of their mission is over, that -- and you can take a quick look behind me here.

And these Marines are enjoying their MREs -- well, maybe enjoying isn't the right word. But they're eating their MREs, or chow, as the Marines say.

Well, yesterday was an eventful day, but not as eventful as they were perhaps expecting.

They went to the Coast Guard facility here at the port. And before that they were concerned that there were going to be enemy combatants there. They had -- they used suppression fire before going in.

Cobra helicopters were flying overhead. A Cobra helicopter actually blew up a ship that was sitting in dry dock at the port. So that was burning all day.

But when they got into this Coast Guard facility, everything was OK. There was nobody there to meet them.

Unlike the previous day, when they were making the hike from the new port to the old port, which is about two kilometers. During that hike there were soldiers taking pot shots at them.

No one was injured from the MEU -- from the Gulf Company -- the MEU that we're with. But it was more dangerous, more difficult than they expected. And it took them a full second day to get over here and just to start that part of the job.

Now they're able to secure these buildings, and they're going to be guarding them, making sure nobody else comes back in.

And they're going to make sure that things are safe for the people that are going to be coming to join them, to help with the effort of getting this port up and running.

They're already planning to bring in, in the next day or two, people who are experts at setting up a port and running a port, bringing in people who can check for booby traps, remove booby traps, remove mines from the port.

They're saying that within 72 hours, they'll have the first ships of humanitarian aid coming into this port -- Aaron.

BROWN: All right. We'll deal with the 72 hours from now a little bit later. I want to go back to the last 24 or 48.

Was it a constant shooting that you found yourself experiencing? Or was it sporadic -- a little bit here, a little bit there? How did that play out?

BELLINI: I would -- it was very sporadic. You'd hear it at various times. And usually, it came in at one or two bullet bursts.

We weren't close enough to really tell where it was coming from. Some of it, we're told, is from small arms fire that was coming from the town.

Now, the town is little bit more difficult for them, because they're not planning to go in and go door-to-door inside the town.

BROWN: This is Frank ...

BELLINI: That was never their intent here. They were trying to avoid going to urban warfare. They just wanted to get this port secured. But they had to use mortar fire in attacking the town, and in parts of the town there's pockets of resistance.

And then they just had these individual soldiers who -- many of whom they weren't expecting to see, some of whom they think arrived here after they did.

They saw that the Marines were here, and they came in to try to take a shot and see what they were made of. And it turns out that only one Marine was killed in the fighting here. That was on their first day here.

And they were able to put down all those small pockets of resistance, as they described them -- Aaron.

BROWN: Jason, thank you. Only one is still one too many. Thank you for your reporting, and stay safe out there. Your experience is a reminder that things can go wrong.

We kid Jason all the time about, that he is young Jason Bellini. We look at Jason who is 24. So -- and he's probably three or four, five years older than the Marines that did the fighting in there.

Max Blumenfeld is on the phone with us now. He is the public information officer with the Five Corps -- Army Five Corps -- and give us a little more detail, I hope, on this incident at Camp Pennsylvania.

Sir, what can you tell us?

MAX BLUMENFELD, U.S. PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICER, KUWAIT: Yes, good morning. Yes, this morning at about 1:30, we had a very tragic incident at Camp Pennsylvania, which is where the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Air Assault Division is located.

We had an explosion at the tactical operations center. The explosion resulted in 13 wounded. Two of these wounded were treated on the spot.

However, 11 of the Screaming Eagles had to be medivacked, or helicopter transported, out to various combat support hospitals in the region.

We have a suspect. And this individual is being questioned by the -- by our United States Army Criminal Investigation Command. The suspect is a member of the division.

BROWN: Can you tell us anything about him? Or anything about what led up to the incident?

BLUMENFELD: Well, the incident -- this tragic incident is -- it's still, as we speak, under investigation. And it would be really premature for me to say anything about the investigation until our CID folks get a chance to reveal all the details, and the facts and details surrounding this incident.

BROWN: And it would be derelict of me not to ask. So we'll both do our jobs here, and we'll see where we get. And I know you appreciate that.

The -- tell me what you can about the injuries, the extent of the injuries. We're -- just so that you know, sir -- we're looking at some pictures of the area now.

Tell me what you can about the extent of the injuries, of the 11 who are, who were medivacked out.

BLUMENFELD: Well, the first and most important thing that we want to do is to extend our heartfelt wishes that our Screaming Eagles who have been injured, that they enjoy a very speedy recovery.

We -- this is a very tragic event, and we wish them a very speedy recovery. But also to the families of our Eagles. Just want to let them know that they're in the very best of care. They're being taken care of by the very best professionals in the medical community that we have here.

And our -- and your Eagle is going to be back up in the air soaring, as they need to be.

As far as the extent of the injuries right now, or anything else, what we want to do is to ensure that the families are notified of this very tragic event. That's the first thing. That's part of our process.

But as far as their injuries are concerned, we probably have to give this a little bit more time until our medical professionals get a chance to evaluate the -- our Screaming Eagles. And then to provide information when that time becomes seasoned.

BROWN: And I probably should have asked you this earlier, sir. Are you able to see -- I don't know if you're in front of a TV or near a TV, or if you can see any of the pictures that we are -- that we have been showing.

Are you able to see those from where you are?

BLUMENFELD: No, sir. From where I'm ...


BLUMENFELD: ... the only thing I can see is just sand. But ...

BROWN: There's a tremendous amount of ...

BLUMENFELD: ... the other thing is ...

BROWN: I'm sorry. There's a tremendous amount of ...

BLUMENFELD: I'm sorry.

BROWN: There's a tremendous amount -- not tremendous -- there's a lot of debris around -- can you -- can you tell us, by the way, you know, the reporting out of there has been that this was an -- this incident, this tragic incident, took place in the tent of some commanding officers or senior people in the unit.

Can you confirm that part?

BLUMENFELD: Well, let me try to clarify what a tactical operations center is.


BLUMENFELD: It's, in essence, a series of tents where staff officers such as the S1, the personnel, the S2, the intelligence folks, the operational folks -- it's actually the nerve of that brigade, of that brigade's operation.

And so, because of the fact that the explosion was caused by hand grenades, it's -- there's going to be debris.

But more importantly than debris, as far as material, unfortunately, we've got 11 Screaming Eagles right now that are -- that have been taken care of for their injuries.

BROWN: And our hearts are with them and their families.

Is there any indication that anyone else was involved in this? BLUMENFELD: No. At this point, the investigation is still ongoing. And our CID folks are extreme professionals, that are meticulous in finding facts and details and accuracy.

And I can assure you that our CID -- the CID agents are pursuing every single aspect of this very tragic incident, and will indeed come to a conclusion and come to a resolution of this very quickly.

I think the best thing to do is just to give the -- just allow a little bit more time. That way the process is given an opportunity to work.

BROWN: And just two quick questions, honestly, and then we'll let you go. You're doing your job really well, because I'm working really hard here, sir.

Number one, can you tell me physically where the suspect is now?

BLUMENFELD: I can't really tell you where he is now. He is under custody.


BLUMENFELD: And so, therefore, once an individual is under custody, the individual is still a suspect. And let's remember that, because under military law, a suspect is presumed innocent until found guilty.

However, the criminal investigation division, our special agents, our military special agents, are questioning this individual to find all the five Ws, and to get right down to the bottom of what caused this.

As far as the suspect's physical location, I really don't know.

BROWN: OK. I -- will you give me his name and his rank, or not?

BLUMENFELD: Well, if I don't know who the suspect is, ...

BROWN: You don't know, OK. I'm sorry. I didn't ...

BLUMENFELD: ... I don't know who the suspect is ...

BROWN: Got it.

BLUMENFELD: ... at this time. I really can't provide you that information. And even if I can't, remember, as I as told you, within a military system, an individual is concerned innocent until there's a reasonable cause to believe that that individual was involved in that.

And so ...

BROWN: I understand.

BLUMENFELD: ... it would be unfair to the individual until the investigation is complete. BROWN: Max Blumenfeld, thank you for your time. I ...

BLUMENFELD: My pleasure. Have a good day, sir.

BROWN: Thank you very much.

We laugh a little bit. There's a -- it's not -- the incident's not funny, but we reporters and these public information officers work pretty hard to, both of us to do our jobs. We're trying to get the information on a story that is quite sad and quite tragic, and has lots of implications.

And he can only tell us what he has been told he can tell us, and we understand that, too. And I hope you understand it's our job to try.

General, before we move on, did you hear anything in that that you want to throw out, add to?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, CNN MILITARY ANALYST, FORMER NATO SUPREME COMMANDER, RET.: Well, the most important thing is that it wasn't a sleeping area. It was a tactical operations center. And that's what we were looking at.

It was a -- I believe that was the TOC. Although I didn't see the antennas, I couldn't see the inside of it with the maps and the rest of it. But that did look like the brigade tactical operations center.

So, ...

BROWN: Who would have been in there?

CLARK: You would have had -- it depends. It could have been a brigade commander and his principal staff. Could have been some of his staff assistants. Could have been a night duty watch team. Everybody could have been asleep.

It's really hard to say. And some of them probably aren't even assigned to the brigade who are in there, because brigades tend to bring different people together.

You might have had an Air Force officer in there. I don't want to spread the circle of concern here.

BROWN: Right.

CLARK: But it's really hard to know who might have been affected by this.

BROWN: Well, a lot of people have been affected by this, both in the incident -- the direct incident -- and the ramifications of it.

You see Baghdad on a Sunday morning, coming up on seven o'clock in the morning there. We're going to -- we have a lot to do tonight. We'll check with Frank Buckley in a bit out at sea. A number of other things to care of. We want to take a short break first. Our continuing coverage of the war with Iraq after a short break.


BROWN: Just one other thing on this Camp Pennsylvania before we move on.

The General noted, as I was talking to the public information officer, that on the crawl beneath the screen there was a note that the individual who Mr. Blumenfeld was not going to tell me anything about, had been previously reprimanded.

That's interesting in and of itself. But it also says that there is some information starting to come out, and we're going to get it. And we'll get it to you in a more cogent way pretty quickly here.

Frank Buckley is out at sea. He's been on the carrier Constellation in the Persian Gulf, which is -- all of these carriers are pretty remarkable and complex ships out at sea.

And Frank joins us now. It's good to see you.

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Aaron, I can't really hear you because an engine is turning right now. But flight operations, as you can hear at least, are continuing here on the USS Constellation.

They are continuing without, perhaps, the drama of the first night of the strike. The first night of the strike, the pilots didn't know exactly what they would find, especially when they flew into Baghdad.

We had (UNINTELLIGIBLE) opportunity to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that drama and haven't been able to share it with viewers to (ph) now.


BUCKLEY (voice-over): The flight deck of the USS Constellation roared to life with the first strike fighters bound for Baghdad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are the Oscar Bravo Sierra package.

BUCKLEY: Earlier, a briefing. Embedded journalists getting a front row seat to a moment in history.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Some of you have already combed (ph) once or twice. But this is -- this is the package now that's going to be going downtown, here.

And it's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here, gentlemen. I don't think that any of us will ever step away from this and not remember this particular day. BUCKLEY: Ordnance from strike fighters and Tomahawk cruise missiles rained into Baghdad. Anti-aircraft fire flew up. The men who flew over it saw things they'll never forget.

LT. PAT CRONIN, U.S. NAVY: Just continuous, constant explosions going off all over the place. We saw the triple A coming up. Occasionally you see some missile first.

CAPT. BILL BARBER, U.S. MARINE: I don't think anything we could have thought of would have prepared us for what we were going to see happening on the ground out there.

BUCKLEY: The first strike package was led by a Desert Storm veteran, the carrier Air Wings commanding officer, Mark Fox.

MARK FOX, U.S. NAVY: We didn't fly on night vision goggles back then. So everything that you saw then was with the naked eye. And now you've got an ability to see a lot more.

So I don't know if that's necessarily a good thing or not, but there was a hell of a lot of stuff to look at.

BUCKLEY: Mike Herbert remembers watching missiles like this one crash into targets on TV during Desert Storm. He was only a teenager.

LT. MIKE HERBERT, U.S. NAVY: And to actually do that myself for the first time, when I remember in high school seeing it on TV, being able to see that and now to actually do it, it's a whole different world.


BUCKLEY: And what we hear over and over from the pilots is praise for the precision weapons, the satellites, the satellite-guided weapons, the laser-guided weapons. The pilots are all praising those weapons.

They say that it will help to limit casualties of coalition pilots, and also to limit civilian casualties. But today General Tommy Franks conceded that in any war, there are going to be non- combatant casualties -- Aaron.

BROWN: Frank, thank you. I don't want to press our luck here. We're obviously having -- we're right on the audio edge there, so we'll leave it at that.

Frank Buckley aboard the Constellation. He's been out there for a while, now.

Ryan Chilcote is -- Chilcote -- is with the 101st Airborne, the 3rd Brigade. And he's spent some time with us almost every night, I think.

How is it going out there for your guys?

RYAN CHILCOTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Aaron, first reaction to what took place at Camp Pennsylvania, 101st Airborne 3rd Brigade that I'm traveling with, does not have any soldiers at Camp Pennsylvania.

Still, the soldiers from the 3rd Brigade expressing grief that this happened to other soldiers from the 101st Airborne -- grief and shock.

As one commander here put it, shock -- why, I should say, of course, because of those initial reports that this might have come -- this might be the work of another soldier. Obviously, something that neither I nor the soldiers that I'm with can confirm, but that they are hearing from initial reports.

They are shocked, because as one commander put it, you come here to face the enemy, not to face other soldiers. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) commander put a brave face on what's taken place.

He said, you know, that the unit is larger than the individual soldier. They would be all right. They will move on.

Now, we are at the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne, also known as the Rocket-Sans (ph). You're going to hear a lot about the Rocket- Sans (ph) from me.

We are now well inside Iraq at a refueling point. I can tell you that we have not stopped much since we left Kuwait, except for things like this, for these refueling points, never stopping for more than a couple of hours, really constantly on the move.

Now, down the road, I am told by some field commanders, that another unit not belonging to the 101st Airborne, has come under some fire, under some small arms fire and RPG fire.

That is one of the reasons why the road that we have been traveling on is so congested. That, however, is not the only reason. The soldiers here ...

BROWN: OK. That happens, too, out there. Let's just try and -- we'll spend a minute and do what we call vamping for a second and see if we can re-establish with Ryan.

He has been -- General, it's been interesting. There are two units, particularly for you and I, that we have spent a lot of time with the Cav making their way through the desert, and a lot of time with the 101st.

These guys that Ryan's with, we saw them just before they were ready to push out. We saw them -- and that was a spectacular scene as they literally were getting ready. They were putting on their stuff. And now we seen them -- we saw them last night and now we see them again today.

They have been on the move. They must be very tired. Are they stressed out at this point? Or are they into the moment, as we say?

CLARK: I think they just want to get there and get something going, ...

BROWN: Get it -- get it done.

CLARK: ... because these guys are not used to being trucked around. I mean, that's -- they're moving to get repositioned on a battlefield.

Obviously, they're following another unit. It's -- for most of the troops that -- we saw those neatly lined-up rucksacks strapped to the outside of the trucks.

And that was obviously preparation for movement. And when they begin moving, they're seated in there, I would presume.

And this is a unit that's -- they like to get on those helicopters and do the combat assaults. But they've got to get in the position to do that.

And so, there's lots of just movement right here, right now.

BROWN: Is that ultimately what's going to happen with them? Is that they'll get to someplace and helicopters will come in and move them to another place?

CLARK: Presumably that would happen.


CLARK: That's the capability of the unit. Of course, we have no idea what the plan is ...

BROWN: Because we don't know if ...

CLARK: ... specifically ...

BROWN: ... what their mission is.

CLARK: Absolutely not. And if we did, we couldn't say it.

BROWN: Well, yes. That, too. Nor would we want to.

So, anyway, they're making their way through.

I gather we haven't been able to get Ryan back. It is -- I marvel at the fact we get any of this stuff out in the first place. And these glitches that occur from time to time, occur from time to time.

But we have witnessed some things that, over the last several days, that are remarkable in the world of journalism and -- just, since we're trying to get him back.

A concern that came up today, which I thought was an interesting one. One of the problems with this is that it becomes almost the ultimate reality TV. And you can forget -- I mean, you take the scenes of these vehicles racing across the desert. And you add in the fancy graphics and maps and this and that. And you can, if you're not careful, it's true at this end and I worry it's also true at the other end, you can lose sight of the fact that this is no game and this is no TV show. This is war.

CLARK: You're right. And two thoughts on that. Number one is that we're in a -- in this era, where fewer and fewer people in the American population are directly connected with the military -- this is their connection.

The hardship these soldiers are going through, the dirt, the mud. We watched the 3-7 Cav last night, 60 hours without sleep. And then they got rained on, stuck in the desert there. And it was pretty miserable.

And that's their connection. That may be the only connection they ever have of what their armed forces are doing.

And in a democracy, those armed forces are representing all of us. And so, I think the communication function here is really vital.

But the second thing is, there's no substitute for actually having been there and been part of it. Because as you say, it's not entertainment.

BROWN: Right. And I just -- I just know, please know, that none of us here, none of all those good people behind us, none of us think of this as a television program, or a TV show of some sort.

We get it. We may not always say it as elegantly as we wish. It's the nature of live TV.

But this is serious business, and you only have to do one interview with the family of someone who lost someone -- and we did this earlier tonight -- to be reminded of it. It's serious business, and these are serious young men going about that serious business.

And for all the whiz-bang technology and the rest we're able to use to make it come to you and make it become clear, we get it and we know that you do, too.

It's no game going on out there.

We keep getting Ryan and losing Ryan. And let's try and get him back if we can. And if not, guys, let's move on.

CLARK: Can I just add ...

BROWN: Please.

CLARK: ... one thing as you're ...

BROWN: Give the General ...

CLARK: ... talking about this thing.

BROWN: Well, wait a second. I'm going to interrupt you. Ryan, can you hear me?

If you can hear us, go ahead, Ryan. If you can't, we'll move on.

OK. I'll take two misses as a pretty good sign that we don't have him, and we're trying -- we'll try and straighten it out.

You were going to make a point ...

CLARK: Well, I was going to say, we continue -- the other military analysts and I -- continue to hear feedback that people are still concerned that somehow we're giving away plans.


CLARK: And, you know, I just want to reassure everybody that we're very sensitive to that, that none of us have seen these plans. And we wouldn't ask our military colleagues about them. We're hypersensitive to the safety of the soldiers, the welfare of the troops out there, the importance of this mission.

And so, we're very careful about what we say. And so we're watching these units. And what we have to remind people is, there's a whole lot going on in this battlefield that we're not reporting, not talking about, not speculating on. And ...

BROWN: But some of this you're able to do because there are certain military doctrines that are in play.

CLARK: Exactly.

BROWN: There are certain -- it's like -- I don't want to reduce it to a game -- but there are certain chess moves that get made that are tried and true, and probably in some respects, go back literally thousands of years, that through the course of war planning and war execution ...

CLARK: Well, if you were asking -- if you were going to ask a businessman what's happening in a company that's about to do a merger -- what's it like in there -- you wouldn't have to have a guy who was inside the company to tell you. If somebody had gone through it, an experienced businessman could tell you what it was.

The same thing with an operation in a hospital. The doctor doesn't have to be there opening or looking at the body cavity to tell you what's going on. He's knows what's going to go on, because that's his business.

And that's all of us who have been there and seen these things. And we have a pretty good idea of what's happening and why.

BROWN: The major stories as we approach the half-hour here, that we're covering tonight, and one of the things we need to do, we ought to do, is at some point, you know, we're giving you the series of snapshots -- Frank Buckley on the Constellation and Brent Sadler up in Northern Iraq and Ryan with the -- Chilcote -- with the 101st, and this and that.

And they are all snapshots of what is going on out there. And at some point we need to step back a bit and paint a larger picture to give you a better sense.

We haven't done this in about 90 minutes, of where the mission has gone so far. We know where the endpoint is. It's an odd thing. We know how this thing ends in some respects.

We don't know all the details of how it's going to end, but we know where they're headed. They're headed to Baghdad.

We know they have to make a couple of critical stops and control, some crucial areas along the way. And we ought to look at the maps and give us a broad sense of where they are.

And we'll try and get mapped on, in not too very long, across America and across the world today, it was another day of protests, both protests against the war. Some of them quite large. A very large one in New York. And we'll look at those.

And there were also many demonstrations in support of both the President's policy and, of course, in support of the troops.

We saw a little bit of that from David Mattingly, who is in -- or not far from Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

So we'll get all of that done and a lot more before the evening is done for us. But first we want to get all of you up to speed on where the day has gone, and once again, Heidi Collins takes care of that duty.


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