First Person War Stories

Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.

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Sgt. Josh Remillard: A Mortarman in Iraq

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Sgt. Josh Remillard: A Mortarman in Iraq

Sgt. Josh Remillard served in the Army as a mortarman. He deployed twice to Iraq, in 2007 and 2010. During his first tour, he earned a Combat Infantryman’s Badge.

Remillard describes how he defied orders to protect civilian lives, as well as the horror of experiencing war up close.

To learn more about Josh, listen to his interview on Burn the Boats.

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.

Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.

Today, we’ll hear from Sgt. Josh Remillard, who served in the Army as a mortarman. Remillard deployed twice to Iraq, in 2007 and 2010. During his first tour, he earned a Combat Infantryman’s Badge.

Sgt. Josh Remillard:

My name is Josh Remillard. The highest rank I got to was sergeant, and I served in the army and my first duty station ... Well, I served in the army as an infantryman. In 2006, I went to my recruiter, and I said, "Sign me up. I want to be in the infantry." So he set me up as 11 x-ray. I got to Fort Benning, and there I got assigned to 11 Charlie. So I was a mortarman. I served eight years in the army, and my first duty station was in Fort Stewart in Georgia. I did five years there, my initial enlistment. While there, I did two deployments, two combat tours to Iraq, one to Baghdad during the surge and then one to Mosul. I can't remember the name of the operation, but we were there sort of helping the units as they were leaving. We were the backstop for units as they were leaving Iraq.

I learned early that life is a fight. I grew up in the foster care system, and it wasn't until I was four that my grandparents were able to adopt me. After that, I mean even the jobs I held were fights. I mean, I worked as a deckhand on a tugboat. I worked as a piercer in a tattoo shop, and then as a bouncer and I guess, I was sort of moping around town doing odd man jobs, and I started paying attention to the news more, and I started noticing that the death toll was rising in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I remember hating myself, like, what am I doing at home? Like, I'm just cheating the system. While these men and women are fighting overseas, I'm over here trying to get a coupon for Hardee's to get a cheaper hamburger or something.

So, I mean, I had like an eighth of a tank of gas in my car, and I drove straight over to the recruiter and I said, "Look, man, I don't want you to sell me anything. I just want you to put me in the infantry, and if you can, put me in the fastest deploying unit out of basic." He couldn't guarantee me the fastest deploying unit, but he was like, "Yeah, we'll do that for you." So, he signed me up for 11 x-ray and then I went off to Benning and those combat tours.

The 11 Charlie MOS, it is a brotherhood and yeah, it is the stepchild to the 11 group. I remember, in basic training, after the shark attack, I don't remember what day it was, but it might have been actually during the shark attack day, they split us all up and they just walked by and then pointed at you and said, "You're 11 Charlie." And then those of us that were 11 Charlies were like, what does that even mean? And then, a few weeks later, we're in our bay and our drill sergeant tells us what 11 Charlie is, and you can just hear the bottom drop out in the entire bay. We're like, “Wait, hold on. We all thought we were going to be on the front lines and now we're going to be launching stuff from way behind? Like, come on, man, that's not fair.”

So, I think that sort of, in that mindset, once the 11 Bravos were separated from the 11 Charlies, we were always sort of determined to be better. It was sort of this little competition between us and the 11 Bravos to be better than the 11 Bravos. I think that was that sibling rivalry, if you will.

You carry around the mortar tube, and they range from 60 millimeter mortars, which is something like ... It has a little strap on it, you can carry it on your back, to like an 80 millimeter mortar, which someone ... Usually you assign someone that ... If you're a light infantry unit, you assign someone that, and they carry that over their shoulders. And then of course, you have your 120 millimeter mortar, which is something you have to put on the back of a trailer, because that's essentially the size of a ... Or the diameter of a tank barrel. And you have some pretty big rounds in that. You can't carry that on your person.

So when I got out of basic, they sent me to 3rd ID, 3rd Infantry Division, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3-7 CAV. And so I was in a CAV unit. And so we were in tracks, we were in the 113s from back in Vietnam. Everyone else got, and this goes towards us being the stepchildren, everyone else got updated, upgraded vehicles. We still had Vietnam-era vehicles. But the vehicle was, I guess because they retrofitted with the back hatch being able to open up and us to be able to elevate our 120 millimeter mortar.

There is a lot of math that goes into that. Like when you first set into place, you have to run your stakes out ahead of you, because that's going to be how you offset your site, your mortar site. And like your FiSTers, 13 Foxes will run out ahead of you or they'll be somewhere way out ahead of you, excuse me, or the infantry units or the scout units will be out ahead, and they'll call in for fire with a 13-digit grid. And then you have to plot that on your map or on your plotting board and determine what the elevation is that you're going to need, what kind of cheese charge we call it or little explosive charge in the back of the round that you're going to need so that way you can send rounds down range. And then, of course, there were different kinds of tactics you can use with firing mortars themselves.

On our first deployment, we knew that we weren't going to fire mortars. So a lot of us were like, well, what the heck? What are we even doing here? We stopped off in Kuwait and that's where we sort of acclimated and did a lot of our training. While there, my platoon was tasked with working as a PSD or personal security detachment, for a MIT team, a military in transition team. The MIT team, their job is, you have a collection of colonels, captains, sergeant majors and so on that are essentially part of the S-shops, and they work with their Iraqi Army counterparts and helping them take over the battle space after we leave.

So our job was to be their security detachment. And so we worked for a couple of months with special forces and Rangers on how to do tactical convoy ops, clearing rooms, doing foot patrols with VIPs, excuse me, not HVTs, but VIPs, and I'll tell you what, that was some absolutely incredible training that we had. Now, once we got into country, I remember I was the gunner on the Humvee, and obviously, I was green. My driver was green. My squad leader had been to a couple of deployments before us, and it was nighttime. We're rolling out to, I think it was War Eagle, and we were all really tense, rolling out the wire, and there's like this period of quiet. And then all of a sudden, my squad leader goes, "Boom," in the mic and scared the crap out of both my driver and myself. And he goes, "Okay, now your cherry's been busted. Now, let's get back to work." I was like, so that's fun, but I think it was good. It got you over that initial nervousness.

During that deployment, my platoon didn't stay with the unit. My platoon went all over Baghdad. We were in the old Ministry of Defense building. We were just south of the army base, Rustamiyah. There was a 9th Iraqi Army Division there, and we stayed there. And then we ended up, towards the end of the last few months of deployment, we stayed in an Iraqi police compound. So we bounced. I mean, we went all over it. We went through Sadr City. Oh man, we went all over the place.

I'll tell you what, I really appreciated working with the Iraqi Army, the 9th Iraqi Army Division. I mean, those guys, they were squared away, and they were really determined to do a good job. So, it was definitely a pleasure working with them. The Iraqi police, a lot of us were concerned working alongside them because a lot of them had been bought off by al-Sadr and his insurgents. And so they were given free passage to other militants and so on. An d so we just didn't ... We never knew what was going to happen if we were working with them. And as a matter of fact, whenever we did convoys with them, we interspersed them in our convoy. So it was like an American vehicle, then an Iraqi vehicle, then an American vehicle and so on. So that way we knew that we had convoy security and integrity.

There was an Iraqi police officer that I worked with during the place that I was at, and we called him Smiley because he didn't really have any teeth, but he was a good guy. I mean, we had these army translation books and the translation book would say a little bit ... Would teach you how to speak Arabic and all that stuff. So I would go out to my guard shift with him, and I'd try to speak Arabic, and then I would teach him English. We'd go back and forth. I even bought him a Michael Jackson CD, because he was a huge fan of Michael Jackson.

And after a while, you start to understand, as you're talking with them, you start to understand their thinking and why they believe certain forces ... I guess why they believe that the American forces sometimes weren't good or so on, because they would see the constant changing of the guard, and they would see they'd get a really good unit, then they'd get a really bad unit, then they'd get a really ... And so there was just never this consistency with them. So, they just never knew who they could trust. And so they were just like, I might as well ... I mean, if 3-7 CAV's not going to be here, I might as well trust al-Sadr when he threatens me and my family to go do bad stuff. But I think overall, when I was working with him, I had a lot of confidence in the guys that I worked with, but I think it also came from the fact that I took the effort, I took the time to learn the language, to respect them, and in turn, they respected me.

We were rolling with the MIT team. I don't remember which base we were rolling to. And we came over the bridge through the intersection, and I was the lead truck. I was the lead truck gunner and the car off to the right of me, about 50 meters or so, blew up. And I'll tell you what, seeing that explosion, like I remember trying to like capture that experience afterwards, because you see that quick flash of red, black smoke, you feel that instant heat and then like, immediately, you get the sense of like, oh crap, I got to protect myself, but then your training sort of kicks in, you get that momentary pause, then your training kicks in. And I start scanning the area around me, then I told my driver, I was like, "Blow through the kill zone, man. Get through it, get through it, get through it."

So, we blast through the kill zone, we drive through the kill zone, and I'm pulling security. We're getting our green to green inside the truck, making sure everything's clear, and then I found out later on, once everyone else was good, there was no damage, we were all green to green, we all rolled to our base because the guy that had blown up the car was in the car, and he sort of like melted out of the driver's seat.

We get to our base. And I find out once we're there that the Iraqis that we were rolling with, they executed, what's called like, I guess like a death blossom. And they all had DshKs, or the Russian .50-cals on their trucks, and they were all pointing in different directions, and they just opened up on everyone in the intersection. I mean they shot and killed pretty much everyone that was there. And I was just like, that's insane. Like, I mean, even after being blown up, I still had to give PID, positive identification, of the assailant, but these guys just opened up and killed everybody, and I was just like, that's insane, and there were several other times we had mortars walked in on us and I think, towards the end of the deployment, we had sort of become so desensitized by it.

We went into the green zone waiting on our colonel to do a meeting, and we're in the parking lot of the PX and mortar rounds start just walking in along the PX. And we see everyone else start scattering for the mortar bunkers, and we're just sitting by the trucks going, "Nah, that's not close enough. We're good." And I remember when I got home, I was like, when we redeployed back stateside, I was like, man, that was really stupid. That was really stupid of us. Oh man, yeah. So there were some interesting times.

I mean, if you were in some units that experienced a lot of fighting or if you were in like a base where you had a lot of tall buildings around you and you were experiencing sniper shots all the time, like it starts to wear on you and yeah, I mean, there were some pretty mean things that the soldiers would do, I think, just because of that extra stress of you never know when the next bullet is going to come for you, and then, on my second deployment, we were in Mosul, and we were up in, I think it was like Diamondback and Marez, I think those were the two bases. And at the time, for that deployment, I ended up becoming the de facto platoon sergeant for the mortars. I was just a Sergeant, but then my platoon sergeant and the other, my staff sergeant, ended up getting sent to other units. So I became the de facto platoon sergeant. So I had two mortar tracks, eight soldiers to be in charge of. And once we got there, we placed our mortar tracks in a certain spot, somewhere further on down the base, and initially, all we were doing was shooting up illumination rounds at night, I guess, to have a show of force, if you will.

And then, one day I get called into my commander's office, and I'm in there along with one of his scout platoon leaders, and the scout platoon leader is updating him on the past two weeks that they were out observing this island, I think it was. And the company commander looks at me and says, "All right, Remy, I want you to go and get your mortar team ready. We're going to drop some HE on that island." And I remember looking at him and there was a moment there where I felt scared because I was like, well, I just heard him say ...Because when the LT said ... When he was debriefing him, he was saying, "Look, there's nothing happening over there. There's like old people walking goats. There's kids playing soccer. There's nothing going on." So when the commander said to me, “Let's go drop HE rounds," I just remember just this internal panic, because I couldn't believe what I was hearing and I couldn't believe what I was told to do. And I knew that I'm supposed to go do it, but like there was just something, an itch in the back of my brain, and I was like, "I can't do that."

So, I'm talking to the captain, and I was like, "Sir, are we part of the same conversation?" And he's like, "Yeah," he's like, "We're going to go ... As a show of force, we're going to drop HE on it," whatever the case was. And I looked at him and I said, "Sir, I can't do that." And he got ... It was like a momentary pause, and he and the LT are looking at me, and he's like, "Remillard, that's an order." And I was like, "Yeah, but I mean, he just said that there's no one over there. Like there are kids over there." I was like, "I can't do that." Then he got really angry at me, and next thing I know, I have first Sergeant, I got all these LTs coming into the office, and they're all yelling at me. And my commander is telling me, he is like, "Look, if you don't do this, you can go to Leavenworth. You can lose your rank, you can lose your pay. You can get kicked out of the army, dishonorably discharged." And I was like, "Look, bottom line, sir, I mean, I could do this all day. I just can't do that. I can't do it." So he was really angry, and he sent me back to my barracks.

And I told my other guy that I was bunking with what had happened, and he was trying to convince me too. He's like, "Remy," he's like, "Just do it, man." He's like, "You're just doing what you're told. It's not a big deal." And I was like, "Yeah, I know that, man, but because I know what's over there, because I know what the scout leader told me, I can't be a part of that. I can't have that blood on my hands. I can't go home and have that blood on my hands." And so I told my guys that we're not going to do it. And so I had to keep going back and forth to the commander's office every day, because he would go up the chain, and he would talk to another person, another person, another person, our squadron commander, battalion commander, division, even all the way up to like General Odierno at the time, at least that's what he told me. And every time I would come back, he'd say, "All right, they said that we're going to do it. You're going to do it." And I was just like, "I can't do it. I'm not doing it."

And then finally, when it got up to, as he said, General Odierno, and it came back down, I guess, General Odierno said, "Don't worry about it. We can scrap the mission. We don't need it." And so after that point, my company commander was like, "All right, Remillard, well, you're lucky. You don't have to do this. Odierno said we don't have to." And throughout the rest of the unit, I think, for a while, I was considered kind of a pariah almost because I didn't do what the company commander wanted. So, I mean, I got put on odd details here and there, but I was like, look, I'm fine with that. I can go home at night knowing that I didn't kill innocent people. So, yeah, I definitely see how being out there on mission over and over again, with a threat of death constantly looming over you, can drive some people to do some pretty nasty things, but I never wanted to be that kind of soldier. I wanted to be over there. I wanted to do something honorable while I was in the military.

I ended up telling my guys because I mean, it was sort of the buzz around the troop that I had said no. I mean, I told the team leads, the squad leaders that we weren't going to do it, and once the buzz came back to me, I think at some point, I probably even brought my guys into a room, all my guys into a room, and it was weird before I did that. Like, I remember sitting in my room thinking to myself, like, what am I doing? Like, this is crazy that I'm in this position. And I guess I just fully took it on, and I was like, I told them that, yeah, I'm going to say no every time. I'm not going to send us out there to go shoot HE rounds. Because a leader has to take responsibility for their actions, that's what the army tells you. You can always delegate tasks, but you can never delegate responsibility. So, the blood was always going to be on my hands, but I also didn't want my guys to participate in something like that.

Having the intel that we had, having the PID, having the positive identification, I didn't want my guys to have to live with that. I didn't want them to have to be a part of that. And I mean, I didn't get much pushback from my guys. I told them, I was like, "Go ahead, talk freely. Let me know what you guys think." Ultimately, I didn't want them to be a part of it, and I think that I didn't receive a whole lot of pushback either from it.

When I got out of the army, there were some dark times, there were some dark times for me, because I didn't have a mission. I didn't have a purpose, but I had all this PTSD, what do I do? And then that's when I found Team Rubicon, and I saw what they were all about, veterans helping veterans, helping veterans respond to natural disasters. I think the slogan is kicking natural disasters in the face or something like that. And they gave me a mission. They gave me a mission to continue helping out my community and my country. And I'll tell you what, I got my wildland firefighter certification with them. I got my damage assessment certification from them. And when I went down to Florida after hurricane Michael to help down there, after the missions were up, they raised the beer flag. Everyone's back on post, raised the beer flag, we all grab a couple of beers, and we sort of sit around the fire and we chat and nothing is more cathartic than being able to be there for other veterans who have experienced some hard experiences and being that person that they can lean on because they know that you understand it.

If I hear an explosion or some sort of pop or on 4th of July, I still twitch a little bit and whenever I'm driving down the road, if I see a sewer lid, I try to split the car. I try to put it in the middle of the car as I'm driving over it, because the insurgents would put pressure plates underneath sewer lids, and they would put 500-pound bombs underneath those sewer lids, and then, so if a vehicle goes over it, you end up losing your entire crew. And then there was a period of time too, whenever I would drive under overpasses, like I sort of start on one side of the overpass and then go to the other side because again, insurgents would stand on bridges and then they would drop armor piercing grenades from the top of those bridges down onto the gunners.

And then, of course, one of the last things that we had heard about is that on our first deployment, what the insurgents were doing is they were taking the big tall Jersey barriers or T-barriers, and they were putting like heat sensors or what have you on one, and then they were attaching it to an IED, like an EFP, on the ground somewhere else for the purpose of killing the gunners. And so, there's sort of that, I guess, wariness and also like, I mean, whenever I go into restaurants and stuff, I always try to put my back against the wall so I can see who's coming in.

I have, I guess you could say, a little bit of PTSD from all that still to this day, but I mean, I certainly didn't get the worst of it like other guys did.

And one of the things I always try to tell veterans is like, look, I know it's scary to talk about, but the more that you talk about it, the less of a mystery it becomes, the more normalized it becomes, your experiences, the more normalized it becomes, even if no one understands what you've gone through. The more that you talk about it, it doesn't have that effect on you as it used to. And so I'm always trying to encourage people to talk about it as much as they can, as much as they're comfortable doing it, because getting through that, it will make your life a whole lot easier as you're dealing with it.

I think maybe from all the movies that we see, where there's this fetishization of people always being the lone guy defending democracy, defending our country or whatever, standing on the hill, triumphant. A lot of these people like Madison Cawthorn, they sort of view themselves as that guy, nothing's more exciting for them, but then they don't understand the reality that comes with killing another human being.

People who cosplay attacking our government, engaging in a second civil war, I find it disgusting, and I find it very detached because clearly, I imagine that most of these people have never had to put another human being at the end of their gun sights, their knife sights. They've never had to pull a trigger on another person. It's not easy. It's not easy. I was really excited to join the military because I felt like it was my job, and I wanted to be in the fight. I knew what the infantry was all about, well, at least generally before I got in, but before my first deployment, knowing what I was probably going to have to do, I spent a good month, maybe two, any moment that I had by myself, talking to myself and getting myself in the head space, trying to picture what it would look like to have to put another person in my knife sight and then pull the trigger on that human being. Because the reality is that when you pull that trigger, when you fire that round into another human being, you're not prepared for what's going to happen.

I had heard reports that day that people were trying to break into the capital with the express intent of finding Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pence, and then hanging them outside. Like, that's just... Sure, I guess like in the back rooms, when you're talking it up with your buds, it sounds like a really cool romantic idea of saving your democracy, ‘stopping the steal’, but then just realize that you're taking another human life and you're going to pull the trigger on it. You're going to hit that person with a baseball bat. You're going to string them up by a noose, that's not ...

When I was over there, there was one time I was doing a patrol, a foot patrol through a neighborhood and this lady brought... She brought her kid out to us. And she spoke to us because the kid needed some medical aid or something like that. And our medic gave her that aid. And later on, we found out that al-Sadr had this sort of kill order out, that if anyone came out and interacted with the Americans, they were dead. They were going to kill them. That was just unbelievable to me. It was just unbelievable to me.

And then, again, I had another experience where I was helping out a convoy, and it was a bunch of trucks bringing T-barriers to help wall off a neighborhood or something like that, and the truck was trying to make its way into a tight turn. And I was the one exposed, protecting its backside on the highway, and I see a car barreling down on us. I went through the SOP or the ROE, excuse me, the rules of engagement. We're supposed to shove, shout, show, and shoot. That's what we're supposed to do before we ever pull the trigger on anybody.And so I see them coming down road and I'm waving at them. And so I'm showing them, and I put my finger on the trigger, I lean into the butt stock. I take the rounds out, I charge it and I lay it down. I charge the weapon and I'm leaning into it. And I'm still yelling at this guy and I'm getting ready to pull the trigger. And then probably a hundred meters from me, he slams on the brakes, comes to a skid, and I look inside and it's his pregnant wife and his kid in the back of the car. And I remember just being so pissed at the fact that I was about to kill this man and his entire family, but the way to release it was for me to throw a water bottle at his car. Like, what are you doing, man? Like, why did it take you so long to stop? I didn't want to have to kill you, but I was going to, that was going to be the next step.

So I guess what I'm saying is like, sure, I suppose civil war might be romantic to some people because you're going to be in this fight against an enemy, a perceived enemy, but killing other human beings isn't fun. It's not romantic. It's not like the movies.

Ken Harbaugh:

That was Sgt. Josh Remillard.

To learn more about Josh, listen to his interview on Burn the Boats. The link is in the show description.

Thanks for listening to Warriors In Their Own Words. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on twitter at Team_Harbaugh.

And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.

Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.

Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.

Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

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