Screaming Eagles Through Time
Command Sgt. Maj. Jerry L. Wilson

Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jerry L. Wilson, 45, of Thomson, Ga.; assigned to 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), based in Fort Campbell, Ky.; killed Nov. 23 when hostile forces attacked the vehicle in which he was riding in Mosul, Iraq.

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Comrades mourn `invincible' soldier

The killing and defiling of a top enlisted man in increasingly perilous Mosul leaves many shaken

By Christine Spolar
Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent


December 1 2003

MOSUL, Iraq -- Jerry Wilson was the enforcer. A senior enlisted man in the 101st Airborne Division, Wilson spent his days bumping along the pitted roads of northern Iraq, talking to soldiers, gauging morale and advising them--always--to stay safe.

So the thought of the last moments of Command Sgt. Maj. Jerry Wilson of the 2nd Brigade and his young Army driver--shot in the head by insurgents last week and then pillaged by angry Iraqi youths waiting in a gas line--made war-hardened soldiers cry.

News reports first indicated, erroneously, that the men's throats were slit and their bodies dragged away. The worst of the allegations proved untrue. The men died in a barrage of gunfire. Still, witnesses and military reports found the bodies by their car roughed up, looted and kicked by marauders.

The defilement of a top non-commissioned officer--a 27-year veteran respected by many among U.S. brass in Iraq--was a riveting death for the military even in the deadliest month yet for American soldiers in Iraq.

Senior leaders in Baghdad last week gave upbeat assessments about a drop in the attacks by insurgents in Iraq, but the enemy had taken a prize.

"We hear the attacks every day on the radio. We can hear the injuries come in," said Capt. Rob Stanton, who monitored the radio the day Wilson and driver Spec. Rel Ravago were killed. "What you don't expect is someone of that stature to be lost. . . . All their weapons had been taken. Their radio was gone. Their body armor was off."

Other soldiers, in pained conversations, said the attack was the kind that Wilson, a committed military man, privately deplored. "They're biting the hand that wants to feed them," said a confidant of the command sergeant major.

Coalition forces were taunted again Saturday night as seven Spanish soldiers were ambushed and killed south of Baghdad. Jeering Iraqi men, chanting allegiance to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, were caught by news cameras as they kicked the dead.

Senior military leaders have acknowledged that the resistance is targeting whomever they can in their fight to repel the U.S.-led occupation. The image of Iraqis celebrating coalition deaths this week, one general said, points out the danger every soldier faces on patrol.

"It certainly has an effect on them," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. military deputy director for operations, said Sunday. "But I think all the soldiers recognize that's part of the mission. . . . Our soldiers understand, sometimes painfully, that their job is to go out there and show their presence."

A brute reality

Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, the commanding general of the 101st Airborne, said looters who filched money and equipment from the dead soldiers are just part of the brute reality of post-Hussein Iraq.

"People who have nothing will take anything," Petraeus said. "If we leave a warehouse unguarded, they loot it. That's how things are here."

The gangland-style killing in Mosul, about 200 miles north of Baghdad, came in a month of increased attacks, some devastating, in northern Iraq.

In the early days of occupation, Mosul had been the sweet surprise of the American-led effort in Iraq. The city, an urban area the size of Dallas, is a combustible mix of Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs and Assyrians. But Mosul responded quickly to American military efforts to foster peace. It was, for much of the past seven months, relatively calm.

That changed dramatically in the last days of October with a steady and stunning spike of attacks. One intelligence officer said the wave showed "the honeymoon is over" in Mosul. Insurgents had regrouped beyond Baghdad to show that Americans are at risk everywhere in Iraq, he said.

The attacks began Oct. 28 when independent journalist Ahmed Shawkat was shot dead in his office. He had received death threats about collaborating with "infidels." A week later, a judge investigating human-rights abuses of the past regime was gunned down.

Barely a week passed before Mohammed Ahmed Zubari, the head of oil distribution in Mosul, was targeted by gunmen. By chance, Zubari survived the attack during his morning car ride to work. He had ducked his head to pick up mail that had dropped from his lap. The bullets sliced through his son and killed him.

Five days later, an interpreter working for the Mosul administration and his son were killed in an assault similar to the one on Zubari.

As civilian attacks increased, so did assaults on the military. Two Black Hawk helicopters collided over Mosul on Nov. 15, killing 17 soldiers in the single-worst American loss since the beginning of the war in Iraq. Investigators believe insurgents precipitated the crash.

The two helicopters were flying safely, one above the other, in separate nighttime missions. One helicopter, unexpectedly, bounded upward into the other. A report to be issued this week concludes that the helicopter probably was moving to avoid a rocket-propelled grenade.

Military personnel, much like civilians, also became vulnerable. Col. Joe Anderson, the commander of the 2nd Brigade, was told he was being targeted by gunmen. One suspect was arrested a week ago and another--spouting disturbing facts about Anderson--was taken in last week.

The suspect knew Anderson's code name, used to monitor his travels, and had even bandied about the code name as a means to convince people that he was friendly with the colonel, Anderson said.

"You cannot take any of it not seriously now," Anderson said about the threats. "Assassination is a loose term here. It's a drive-by shooting. And I try now to be very unpredictable in my travels."

That makes the death of Wilson that much harder for those vigilant about risks. Because Wilson, 45, and his 26-year-old driver were felled by an ambush made easy. The enforcer, of all people, violated the rules.

Wilson and his driver were rolling through Mosul on their own, in a civilian vehicle, without security. It was a risk taken so that Wilson, known to demand strict adherence to operating procedures, could visit troops daily.

A warning to stop

His commander, Anderson, knew Wilson was traveling in civilian four-wheel-drives. Anderson said he told Wilson to stop. But Wilson's Humvee kept breaking down. Wilson, keenly interested in his soldiers' welfare, apparently shrugged off the warning, officers said. Wilson also ignored another security rule: no military travels without a three-vehicle convoy.

Gunmen sprayed Wilson's windshield with bullets. The lack of backup left the dead men open to the ravages of a crowd.

The brigade's radio log shows the attack occurred about 9 a.m. The first call, from an Iraqi interpreter who ran to a nearby base to report the carnage, reached the brigade about 9:15. A crowd already had ripped into the car. Troops who ran to the scene found the dead on the road, near the car.

"He said he didn't feel threatened here. He wanted to get around and his Humvee was in for repairs once, and then again," said Anderson, whose friendship with Wilson spanned more than 15 years. "I told him, `You really have to stop doing that. It's against operating procedures.'

"But he was a big guy--6-foot-3--and he thought he was invincible. And not only did he think he was invincible," Anderson said, "so did most people around him."