Saturday, May 19, 2007

Kenneth Mack remembered

We were standing along the road that pitch-black night, the Marine Corps master sergeant and I, and he was explaining how insurgents detonated the roadside bombs that were killing and maiming so many Americans.

They use a cordless phone, just like you have in your kitchen, he said. The base unit is wired to a few buried artillery shells. An insurgent waits for a target vehicle to pass, dials the phone number, and the bomb explodes.

Then he talked about laying down ambushes for the men who plant the explosives, how you hide in the desert and watch one guy mark a spot, another guy dig a hole and a third guy plant the device.

Which one does the Marine sniper kill?

"Take your pick," said Master Sgt. Kenneth Mack.

We'd spent four hours together, and it was the first time I saw him take an easy breath. I'd hitched a ride with him and his 27 Marines, who provided security for a convoy of 50 trucks from Fallujah to Ramadi.

It was the longest 45 miles you'd ever want to drive, along a nasty piece of road in Anbar province, and Mack was in charge of the thing.

Five IEDs hit a convoy on this highway the night before, and Mack was told he could count on the same thing happening this night in September 2005.

He gathered his young Marines for a pre-mission briefing and told them what was expected.

"We have a proactive mentality tonight," Mack told the Marines, who were seated in a small, stifling room in Fallujah.

"We're not defensive. We're looking for them. We see them, what do we do? We kill them. We're not out there to exchange potshots with these people. Get a positive ID on them. Then kill them. If they give away their position, light 'em up."

It went on like that for 20 minutes or so. Expect to be hit, he told them. Focus. Don't chitchat out there. Never take your eyes off the countryside. For any reason. If you have to pee, do it on the floor of the vehicle. There's a drain. Hose it out later.

He had them check their radios. One didn't work properly. Mack quietly chewed out the man responsible and talked of the possible consequences. He told them where they could anticipate attacks and spoke again about focusing on the mission and nothing else.

It was like listening to a great coach - Vince Lombardi or Red Auerbach maybe - before a game. No yelling; no hysterics. Just the business at hand.

"If they shoot at us, I want them dead," he said, staring at the Marines.

I was told Mack had assigned me to ride in the back of an armored truck. No windows. No radios. I found Mack and told him I wanted to write about him and his Marines and couldn't do it if I couldn't see or hear.

He grunted and said I could ride in the back seat of his Humvee. I promised to shut up and not ask questions, stupid or otherwise. He grunted again.

We drove to the truck assembly point and Mack signed some papers, taking charge of the convoy.

That's when an American contractor - I think he worked for AT&T - walked up to Mack and asked if he could join the convoy. Traveling alone on that road would be suicide, he said.

Mack grunted again, shook his head and said 50 trucks was already too many. Then he said something like, "Phone company, huh? Got any phone cards?"

The guy ran to his truck and came back with a fistful and handed them to Mack, who told him to join the convoy.

Mack grinned.

"I'll give them to the guys when we're done tonight," he said. "It's phone calls home."

It was a maddeningly slow drive to Ramadi. The trucks chugged along, some able to go no more than 25 or 30 miles an hour. That meant every vehicle was forced to crawl along the road. A couple of times the convoy stopped. It drove Mack crazy, and he mumbled something about "herding cats" and everybody being "sitting ducks."

It was a total blackout. No headlights; no moon. Marines watched the road and countryside through night-vision goggles. I scribbled notes using the glow from the dial on my cheap watch.

Mack was on the radio constantly, making sure the trucks were properly spaced, telling his guys to watch for bumps and holes along the road that might hide bombs.

There was no attack that night. We made it to Ramadi, and Mack's Humvee stopped outside the gate of a Marine base, where we waited for the trucks to enter. That's when he relaxed. We stood outside to get some air and talk about IEDs.

None of it was personal. He knew I was from a newspaper in Iowa. I knew he was from Fort Worth, Texas. That was it.

I went away knowing that I'd met a fine leader and that no soldier or Marine could do more to make his people safe. It was more than being tough. Mack was serious and absolutely professional, the kind of guy you would want taking care of your kid in a combat zone.

He's one of those people you don't forget.

So when the phone call came Monday from the Dallas TV producer telling me Master Sgt. Kenneth Mack of Fort Worth had been killed in Iraq last weekend, I said yes, I certainly remember him.

I asked how it happened. Roadside bomb, the TV guy said. You know, an IED.

Incredible, I thought. If they can get this guy, they can get anybody.

I checked a couple of Texas Web sites and read that Mack was 42, married, had five kids and was in the Marines 23 years. Then I watched a TV interview with his wife.

I knew Mack only a few hours, but it was long enough to make me smile when I saw how his widow referred to him in the interview.

She called him the "master sergeant."

I'm thinking he would have liked that.

From the Des Moines Register

Related Link:
Kenneth N. Mack dies 'while conducting combat operations'