Jake Wood: Stories of Service in Iraq and Afghanistan
Jake Wood tells stories from his service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jake is currently the CEO and co-founder of Team Rubicon, a disaster relief organization that retrains military veterans to deploy as emergency responders. He is also a Marine Corps combat veteran. He enlisted in the Corps in 2005 and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan with the 2nd Battalion - 7th Marine Regiment, which suffered some of the highest casualties of any unit during their deployments.
Ken Harbaugh: I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors in Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’re bringing this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
For generations, Americans have answered the call and gone where their country sent them. They’ve done their very best, under sometimes impossible circumstances, to serve with honor.
In the coming months, we will dive into the archives, and bring you stories from wars that have long since receded in our collective memories. We will also bring you new stories, from a new generation of warriors, who answered their nation’s call in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
We owe it to those who fought to record their recollections for posterity. As a nation, we can also learn from what they experienced. Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who wear our country’s uniform. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
On today’s show, we’ll hear from Jake Wood, currently the CEO and co-founder of Team Rubicon, a disaster relief organization that retrains military veterans to deploy as emergency responders. He is also a Marine Corps combat veteran. He enlisted in the Corps in 2005 and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan with the 2nd Battalion - 7th Marine Regiment, which suffered some of the highest casualties of any unit during their deployments.
Jake Wood: So, my platoon in Iraq was doing what we call dwell ops. We would go out into this part of Anbar Province for two weeks at a time, and we'd take over these Iraqi houses and turn them into patrol bases for three to five days, and then we'd move for three to five days, and so on. So one night, we showed up in the middle of the night, we knock on this door, owner of the house shows up, it's probably 2:00 AM, and we hand him $400 in cash, and we say, "Hey, pack up your family and get out of here. Don't come back for five days." It never felt good to show up at 2:00 AM, pound on a door, and tell a guy who just woke up that we were commandeering his house for nearly a week. It always felt a little dirty. We would do our best to respect the house. It's not like we would make efforts to trash it. We would do our best to try to return it to some semblance of normalcy at the end. We were never in a house that didn't get attacked. And I have to imagine that every time we left, Al Qaeda or the Sunni militias would go and ask that guy why he'd let us use his house. And of course, he had no choice. He was just a helpless participant in this counterinsurgency strategy. I don't know - counterinsurgency, that methodology was the only tactic I ever used in Iraq. I don't have anything to compare it to. I don't know if it was better or worse than just dropping a bunch of artillery and air support. I think it largely worked while we were there, but as with everything in war, it's a series of trade-offs. And the trade-off here was that we alienated this man and his family and oftentimes brought combat literally to his doorstep. And I never looked on that with anything but guilt.
But yea, we spent all night, literally all night, transforming this house, then, into a fortress. We brought in thousands of sandbags and we put them on the roof, we built machine gun positions, and the sun started rising, and we were just putting the finishing touches on it. And at that point in time, the three squad leaders would get together and we would literally draw straws, because immediately a squad would have to go out on a foot patrol, one squad would have to take post and guard the patrol base, and one squad would get obviously the best job, which was to go to sleep for a couple hours. And so, we draw straws and my squad gets to go on sleep, which was just great. So we bed down, we got maybe an hour before it gets really hot, so we're trying to get as much sleep as we can. And I'm sitting there, I probably just fell asleep, and all of a sudden there's just this huge explosion. And all this dust starts coming down from the ceiling of this house. And we had taken a direct hit from a mortar. Not even a second later, all this machine gun fire starts pouring into the house. And it's impacting the side of the house, it's shattering the windows, and it's bad. And we're crawling around on the ground, trying to orient ourselves to what's happening. We're grabbing our rifles, trying to throw on flak jackets, and all this stuff. And a bunch of things happen. I post up near this door at the back of the house and I can't see anything yet, so I haven't fired my rifle. And all of a sudden I hear this guy screaming like a kamikaze outside the house and I think to myself, "Oh my God, we're about to get overrun." And so, I hold up my rifle, I flip it off safe, onto fire, and I raise it to my shoulder. I get ready to blast this guy coming through the door. And I see his shadow into the doorway and I'm steeling myself to have to shoot this guy, and then I realize that he's screaming in English. So I pause and one of our corpsman, one of our medics, tumbles in through the doorway with his pants around his ankles. And he's scrambling and half crawling, half running down this small entryway, and he rolls and he pauses right at my feet. And I look down and I said, "Jesus Christ, Doc, I almost blew your brains out." And I realized that he'd been out there using the restroom, because we'd have to dig a pit. [laughter] He quickly relays that he had this terrifying choice to make between taking a moment to wipe and possibly staying out there a moment too long and getting killed, or taking that moment to wipe and dying with dignity. And so, in the middle of this firefight, again machine gun rounds still pouring in, I asked him, "So what did you do?" He goes, "I wiped. What did you think I did?" And so then, maybe another couple minutes go by, and the shooting subsides. And I'm walking back through the house, and I walk towards the front of the building where our small little operations center was so I could speak to the Lieutenant. And as I'm walking by, I see one of the other squad leaders, a good buddy of mine, Jeff Muir. And he's sitting there, and he's wearing a white tank top, and his pants are barely hanging on and he's got this dumbfounded expression on his face and he's got this toothbrush hanging out of his mouth. I said, "Jeff, what are you doing? Where's your flak jacket? Where's your weapon?" And he sat there and he paused and he thought about it for a moment. And he said, "When the shooting started, I was brushing my teeth, and my toothbrush flew out of my mouth. And I sat here for 10 seconds looking at one side of the room that had my toothbrush and the other side of the room that had my rifle, and I had to choose which one to go and get." And he goes, "And I realized that the Marine Corps would get me a new rifle, but it wasn't going to send me out a new toothbrush. So here I am." And he just started brushing his teeth again and walking away as if nothing had happened. And that's when I realized that we'd been in far too much combat for any of these things to really make us shocked anymore.
So in Afghanistan, I was a member of a sniper team. And so this six man team, we were charged with going out on these missions, often at night, sometimes for multiple days, and either support active operations in the area by providing over-watch and unseen eyes and ears for commanders, or we were actually out there trying to track and hunt insurgent and Taliban forces. And every once in a while, we'd get a tip or we'd get intelligence that, "Hey, this bazaar is going to have a big weapons transfer," or, "Hey, the Taliban is going to be moving in three vehicles through this valley or this wadi within this timeframe." And so, we'd get some more specific mission sets. And in one such circumstance, our team was sent out to set up a firing position on this hillside overlooking this valley with the expectation that the Taliban was going to be bringing in some fighters and some weapons from the Pakistan border into the area that we were in. And so, this seemed like a big opportunity, the intelligence sounded sound, and so we set up the mission. We looked at the satellite maps and identified the part that we wanted to sneak into. And it was going to be a really tough insertion. So we were going to have to pack three days of food and water, move about 10 kilometers over really, really rugged terrain, and then move up onto this mountain side that was super rocky and dig in these firing positions. And we were all going to have to do it at night. So the timeframe was limited that we had to execute this insertion. And so, we sat around this Afghan patrol base waiting for the sun to go down. And I remember we were waiting for it to get dark enough and we sat around and we watched the movie The Notebook which is probably the least masculine movie in the history of the world. We have six snipers sitting around a laptop watching The Notebook. And then we get up, and we pack our stuff, we get ready, we gear up, we paint our faces, and we set out to go on this super dangerous mission. It was just such an interesting dichotomy. But we go out and we have this really tough, careful insertion over, I don't remember if it was eight or 10 kilometers, where we have to remain undetected. It's largely enemy-controlled territory, so we're sneaking through. And this is also one of the most heavily land mined parts of Afghanistan, so there was just danger with literally every footstep that you took. And then we picked our way up this mountain side. And again, we've got 80 pounds of gear on our backs, we're carrying our weapons, and we're just crawling on all fours up this mountain side, trying to be as quiet as possible. And finally, we get to the area that we had designated, where we were going to set up these firing positions, and we had to dig two firing positions to hide these six snipers. And so, we identified the two areas about 50 meters apart from one another and we start digging in. But we have to be so careful because at night, particularly in these valleys and on these mountainsides, sound carries so far. And so, we were just gingerly picking up every rock, and quietly moving it 50 feet away, and depositing it slowly, and then taking our small shovels and slowly, agonizingly slowly digging out this gravel and the sand and the earth, and putting it on ponchos, again, to be carried away because those overturned rocks and earth could be visible to people walking by. It's just this most painstaking process. It's taking hours and hours and hours. And finally, you can start to see the sun just start to crest the horizon and dawn was approaching. And so we realized that we were running out of time, and so we quickly finished the job. We put a hide cover over it, and we settled into our firing positions super proud of this job we'd just done. I mean this was a really intense insert, really intense build, up against the clock, racing the sun. And so the sun is just about to rise, and this is the time of day when all of the shepherds and the farmers start to come out, so the community becomes active. So we're sitting there and there's not a sound. And then all of a sudden, I hear this crinkling plastic as if somebody is ripping open a bag of Doritos. And we're sitting there in my hide and we're looking at each other, and we're not even speaking or whispering, we're mouthing to each other, "What the hell is that?" And it keeps going, and you could tell whoever was making the sound was super self-conscious about it. They would start and they would stop, they would start, they would stop. And then, I hear carry on the wind, somebody chomping into a snack, and we couldn't believe it. So finally, so frustrated, my team leader gets out of his hide, and he marches over to the other hide 50 feet away, and he rips open the cover, and he looks in. And my best friend is sitting in there, Clay Hunt. He had packed in a sleeve of Girl Scout cookies, Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies, that had melted during the day and melted together and then re-formed as a singular log of Thin Mints at night. And he was eating it like a bratwurst and making enough sound to notify the entire Afghan countryside that six snipers were sitting up on the hillside looking for bad guys. And I swear, we almost grabbed him by his neck and threw him down the hill. But God, that was one of those moments. Most people don't realize that combat isn't all fear. So much of it is just comedy, even in these moments of these dire circumstances, there's so much comedy that happens that you just have to take that moment to laugh. And I'll always remember that story. I look back at that, I look at the guys that were on that mission, guys that mean so much to me, then and today. And that was a story - Clay, the antihero of that story, he ended up taking his own life back in 2011. And I told that story at his funeral, because like combat, it was one of those moments that needed levity, and it was something that brought a smile to his parents' face.
One mission, we were providing over-watch for a big Marine Corps operation. And so, the night before, we snuck into the area and set up a hide in a home. We were providing over-watch on this home that was up on a cliff top and looking down into this village that the Marines were moving through. So the next morning, the Marines moved in and there was a firefight as the Taliban resisted. And we observed as this one Taliban leader was directing these children to run back and forth across the battlefield and carry messages, carry ammo and weapons to the front lines. And they were carrying messages because the Taliban would use these radios that they knew we could intercept all the messages on. And so they would do this, oftentimes, because they knew that we wouldn't, of course, harm these children. And there were a few moments when we had to watch what was happening and make tough choices. There was one point when a young girl moved to pick up a rocket propelled grenade that had been dropped by a fighter. And as you're sitting there and you're watching this battle unfold, you have to think to yourself, "Who is she going to give that RPG to? And what's he going to do with it? And if a Marine gets hurt by that RPG, is that something I can live with?" And ultimately, we didn't fire on that girl, thank God. And no Marine was hurt that day by an RPG, thank God. Those were the types of impossible choices we would face. And then, eventually, the fight ended, the Marines were withdrawing, and we had an attack helicopter circling overhead. So rather than wait for darkness to sneak back out of our hide, we were able to just leave in broad daylight, which was pretty rare. And as we were exiting this house, my team leader looked back down into the village and saw that Taliban leader who had been directing the kids. And so, he and I, we got down into position, and we were looking at this guy through our rifles, and he was surrounded by five or six kids. And I remember my team leader, Sergeant Shawn Beidler, a man of unimpeachable integrity, honestly one of the most honorable people I've ever had the opportunity to meet, we confirmed that it was the same guy, and Shawn made the decision that we were going to shoot him. And he didn't make that decision lightly. I think he wished he wasn't faced with the decision, but we were. We don't get to choose those scenarios. So we just went through our routine. I called the shot as his spotter, and he fired, and it was a fairly easy shot. It was 200 meters away. And the leader was killed instantly. And the thing that I'll always remember is that in one moment, I'm staring through that scope and there's this Taliban man and six kids. And a minute later, the only thing that's left is a bloodstain on the wall where he'd been standing, and the kids sprinted in every direction. And their screams were just echoing off the valley walls, just echoing and echoing and echoing. And they just kept screaming and screaming and screaming. It's those sensory moments and memories that really sear themselves in, the sound of those kids screaming. Those are the things you remember.
KH: That was Jake Wood. Following his tour in Iraq, Jake was awarded the Navy-Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Valor. He received a combat meritorious promotion to the rank of corporal and left the Marine Corps as a sergeant. He is now the CEO of Team Rubicon and author of a memoir, Once a Warrior.
Warriors in Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcast, in partnership with the Honor Project. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Warriors in Their Own Words.