ROUGHNECK NINE-ONE by Frank Antenori and Hans Halberstadt

Medium ImageThis past summer I noted that I had ordered Roughneck Nine-One: The Extraordinary Story of a Special Forces A-team at War by Frank Antenori and Hans Halberstadt. True to form, I read the book but haven’t managed to post on it until now.

In the meantime, Antenori lost in the primaries for the Congressional House seat in Arizona’s 8th District.

Regardless of that race or the elections this coming Tuesday, this book is a good one. Here’s a basic summary of this unit’s mode of operation:

“Eric, our guys have been shooting really well,” I said, –and if we get into a larger force of infantry, I am not running! As long as we have enough ammo, I don’t care if half the damn Iraqi army is out there, I am going to keep killing them until we get to the point where you think we are at risk of being killed or captured, and then you can break contact and pull us back. Till then, I think we ought to pile them up.

From this conversation came a policy decision for our team–that we would stand fast whenever possible and never run from a fight unless we clearly could not win it. The policy turned into a sort of motto: –Nine-One Don’t Run.”

As you will see, that motto stuck.

The book starts in the mountains of Afghanistan and details the unit’s return to the US, their assignment to the Iraqi invasion in 2003, their sitting around waiting for a mission, and their eventual insertion into Iraq and battle against an Iraqi armored unit.

A fair amount of time is spent discussing some Special Forces-style equipment:

Third Group and 5th Group, unlike some others, are equipped with specialized Humvees. We train to conduct mounted patrols as well as foot patrols. Our ODA had four of these vehicles, each a variant of the basic M998 model that the Army calls a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV).

These were no ordinary HMMWVs. The standard 11 4-ton suspension systems were replaced by a heavier suspension that doubled the cargo capacity to 21 2 tons, the same capacity that the large FMTV (Family of Medium Tactical \/ehicles) Army trucks had. They also had some additions under the hood: a turbo-charged diesel engine, an additional transmission cooler, an oil cooler, and an extralarge radiator for operating in desert heat.

Adding an extra alternator to keep the batteries charged while we were running the DC to AC power inverter increased the power-generation capability. The power inverter came in handy because it produced standard household current. This enabled us to plug in the battery chargers for our IMBTB and SATCO LVI radios, freeing us from carrying a lot of batteries and allowing us more room for ammo. it also allowed us to bring along the electric coffee maker that is standard equipment for any A-team. Besides the Humvees, we had four all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) made by Polaris.

Bobby Farmer, being a young and motivated sergeant, was always looking for something to do. He loved riding ATVs and off-road motorcycles for fun in West Virginia, where he grew up. Now Bobby asked if he could be in charge of the ATVs. He had some ideas about how to modify them, and he asked for the authority as well as for some money for the accessories he had in mind. Well, it seemed like a reasonable idea, and the team had just received its first funding authorization for the deployment–about $ 150,000–so Marty and I told Bobby to go ahead and get his list together.

Here’s what they got:

Special Forces ATV in Afghanistan. MO coverage here.

Special Forces teams and other military units, too, purchase a lot of things they need on the open market, frequently with a credit card known as an IMPAC (International Merchant Purchase Authorization Card). Of course, there are the normal rules and accounting requirements, but when an ODA needs something, they often need it quickly. They cannot wait to put a request out for bid. Kenney Wilson carried our credit card around, and it had a $25,000 limit, with a $2,500 limit per single purchase.

Bobby and Kenney put together an order for auxiliary fuel tanks that nearly tripled the range of the ATVs. Then he added big basket racks that enclosed the whole rear of each ATV and added lots of storage capacity for more fuel and ammo. He ordered brackets for our M4 carbines and brackets for our GPS receivers, saddlebags, and other things that made each ATV much more capable. Bobby did a hell of a job on these ATVs, and when he was done, he had still other ideas.

“I want to order some parts to trick out our shotguns,” he told us. “If we’re going to be operating in an urban environment, the Mk19 and .50cal will he useless at close quarters. The gunners need small, short-barreled shotguns, not those long clumsy ones we have, and I know exactly the parts we need to convert them.”

“Sure, Bobby, go ahead,” we told him.

We could easily order weapons parts with just the group commander’s endorsement, and we were sure he would approve of Bobby’s idea. We wrote it up, submitted the request, and got permission to buy the gun parts. Throughout the train-up and prep, the support from all levels of Special Forces Command and USASOC was almost unbelievable. With the approval letter in hand, Bobby called up the Mossberg company and told the order clerk exactly what he had in mind. He ordered a very short barrel of 14 inches and a small custom pistol grip without a buttstock at all. It had a bungee-style shoulder harness so that it fit under the armpit and lay at your side between your arm and your rib cage. Mossherg ordered four sets of them for us and made our order a high priority, and we had the shotgun parts very shortly. Once the battalion armorer installed the new parts onto the receivers of our old Mossberg 500s, the shotguns looked odd, like overgrown pistols–but Bobby’s idea was right on target. We used them in combat just a few months later at Debecka as well as in Kirkuk and Mosul.

Jason Brown and Kenney took over equipping the Humvees. These Humvees had been stripped of a lot of accessories and body panels and had racks on the back, with a large extended bumper for water, fuel, ammunition, and MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). When they are all tricked out, with a full complement of radios, an air compressor, infrared driving lights, and a multitude of special weapons mounts, they become known as GMVs–Ground Mobility Vehicles.

Each CMV had a ring mount on the roof for either an M2 .50cal heavy machine gun or an Mk19 40mm grenade launcher. There was a second mount for an M240 medium machine gun, operated by the front-seat passenger. And there was a third mount on the back for either an M249 SAW light machine gun, an M240, or a Barrett .50cal sniper rifle for doing assaults. These GMVs had the fuel to go much farther than a conventional Humvee–600 miles compared to the usual 200. They carried enough other supplies to sustain the crew for up to ten days. All of those modifications paid off big later on the battlefield.

After much delay and changing of plans, Roughneck Nine-One finally made it to Iraq, landing at As-Sulaymaniyah airfield, which they called “Ass West”. They were sent to Surgot at the end of March to investigate WMD reports, but the place had been totally wiped out by cruise missiles and bombs. Though a lot of incriminating evidence was turned up, no trace of WMD compounds was detected. Roughneck Nine-One returned to their FOB.

The MSNBC report on their ricin test results at Surgot (Sargat). Read it here.

The next morning we got the word from Capt. Cook that we had to go hack to Surgot. “What? Why?” I asked.

The MSNBC crew brought their own WMD-detection kit with them,” the captain said, ‘and they are telling the world that they got a positive response for ricin when they did the tests. It was on the news last night.”

MSNBC used a kit called the BADD, or BioWarfare Agent Detection Device, sold by Osborne Scientific. The BADD is a single-use kit that comes in a small pouch, and the UN inspectors had used this kit extensively before the war kicked off. Detection kits for poisons like ricin look for protein molecules that can be found anywhere. Simple detectors are used for screening tests to get preliminary response, and they produce many false positives. Experienced investigators like our CBIS team didn’t put much faith in the results generated from these kits, but the reporter did.

Based on the BADD kit result, the reporter broke the story that WMDs had been present. We didn’t know it at the time, but MSNBC would post a very detailed and confident report on their Web site several days later, on 4 April 2003, explaining how accurate the test was and how confident the test’s developer was that the results were correct.

When this report hit the news, Condoleezza must have hit the roof because some very senior people in the Pentagon were calling up on the SATCOM radio to tell the CBJS guys that they got the wrong answer and that MSNBC found the WMDs that we missed. Go back and look again, dummies was the gist of their message, so we loaded everybody back in the GMVs and drove back for another visit to Surgot. Once again the team went through the rubble, and once again they came up with negative results.

Antenori notes that Osborne Scientific “remains confident that their kit found traces of ricin at Surgot” and that they claim their unit is, in fact, much more accurate than the one used by the military.

As everyone knows, often times big things start out small. Not long after the Surgot WMD fiasco, the ball started rolling for Nine-One:

Javelin Missile

A CIA officer named “Sergi” ran up. “I need your help,” he said in a heavy Russian accent. “There is an Iraqi tank battalion over there, and I would like you to have some bombs dropped on their position. I have been discussing surrender terms with them, and they refuse to surrender because they do not believe there are Americans in the area. I wish to bloody their nose to convince them that Americans are in the area and that it is in their best interests to surrender. But I cannot do that unless we bomb them. Will you go with me and have your TACP call an air strike on them?”

This seemed to be a wonderful idea to all of us, but we didn’t intend to get the Air Force involved. Great,” Jason said. “We can sneak up there, move to within a kilometer or so of the tanks, and get some kills with the Javelins.”

Let me summarize. This is a light Special Forces unit deciding to forgo calling in the Air Force and instead sneak up and take on and Iraqi tank battalion with shoulder-fired missiles. Just so we’re clear about what’s happening.

This bit about the approach to the area was interesting:

The distance from Irbil to Pir Da Ud was only about 15 miles. The road was in good repair in Irbil, but traffic was relatively heavy as we drove through what was the largest city and the provisional capital of Kurdish-controlled Iraq. Jubilant Kurdish civilians, particularly children, constantly ran toward us to cheer as we passed, tossing flowers into our vehicles as they attempted to get a handshake from one of the Americans. They forced us to slow down, but we were still able to make it down to the spot on the map within an hour.

Cheers. Flowers. Handshakes. They happened.

Needless to say, the showdown with Iraqi armored forces came next, and the troops were stunned by the capabilities of the Javelin missile system. There’s far too much good stuff to excerpt meaningfully here, so you’d better just check out the book.

I’ll finish with this bit at the end, after the smoke and dust had cleared and Roughneck Nine-One had made a name for itself in international media:

During the last election, there were several presidential candidates that touted they would “double” the number of Special Forces during their first term of office (four years). These politicians are completely ignorant of the process required to produce these types of warriors. Not only will it require decades of time, but it would most likely have a damaging effect by lowering the standard required for recruitment, training, and duration of completion of Special Forces training. While there is some room for growth, slow, well-resourced, and careful monitoring of quality are the keys to increasing the numbers of Special Forces.

Roughneck Nine-One is a good read and definitely worth the time for those interested in the things our Special Forces are doing and how they’re doing them.


  1. Murdoc, Thanks for the honest, positive and detailed review. So many of those ‘profession book critics’ that review the book just skim through it and don’t glean the details that make the book stand out from those written by reporters. You were able to pull out and explain just some of the finer details that are often times missed, for that I thank you. Warmest regards, Frank Antenori Di Oppresso Liber