A First Person Account of a Vehicle Ambush – by Frank Gallagher


On December 6 of 2003 Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the presidential envoy, who had been chosen to oversee the rebuilding of Iraq was ambushed in his vehicle. This is a first person account of the attack told by the person who was responsible for his protection

December 6, 2003

As Ambassador Bremer came out of his meeting with Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Abdul Aziz Hakim (head of the SCIRI party in Iraq) at Hakim’s house in Baghdad, he turned to me and said he would go to the airport (BIAP) with the Secretary of Defense. This was not part of my plan as we were expecting to head directly back to the Green Zone and the Palace. My initial reaction was to protest the move, but I could see the look in his eyes that this was not open for debate. I quickly answered, “Yes, Sir”.

The road to BIAP was referred to as many things. None of them were favorable. We usually called it the highway of death as the insurgents repeatedly targeted and killed coalition forces as they made the dangerous journey from the airport to the Green Zone. The adrenaline began to pump as I mentally made a checklist of what had not been done to make the trip as safe as possible. No advance team, the helicopters had not been briefed; many major components of a regular mission were not in place. The flip side was that as unscheduled visit, no one knew we were heading out there and we would be traveling with the additional man power that Secretary Rumsfeld had with him. I notified the team that there had been a change in plans and that we were off to the VIP lounge at the airport. Needless to say, some of the radio traffic back to me expressed grave concern about doing the mission and questioned my sanity.

The trip out to the airport was uneventful. However, the 18 or so car motorcade with US Army Apache helicopters, Kiowa helicopters, and my 2 Little Bird helicopter’s certainly told everyone in the area that something unusual was taking place at the airport that evening. We arrived safely and the meeting began.

I gathered my men and explained that getting back to the Green Zone was going to be an adventure and to make sure that everyone was aware of the dangers. A truly unnecessary step as they all knew what the risks were. We laughed and said our goodbyes to each other and promised to have a cup of Mead in Valhalla later that evening. One has to love the macabre sense of humor amongst contractors.

At about 23:20, the meeting broke up and the Ambassador and Brian McCormick came out and we loaded them into the motorcade. And, of course, as luck would have it, we would be the first motorcade leaving and heading down the highway of death. The fact that we were now the advance motorcade for the others at the meeting was not lost on any of us and certainly raised the adrenaline levels.

The Little Birds were in the air flying as top cover and scanning for potential issues.

I was sitting in the right front seat of the limo (a level 6 armored Suburban). Q was driving. The Little Birds had just reported that they saw a suspicious vehicle backing down an onramp on the highway and one of them were going to check it out. The shift leader gave the command to shift the limo to the left (away from the side of the road towards the center) while the follow and lead cars shifted to the right.

Seconds later, all hell broke loose.

I heard something hit my window and while I was trying to figure out what it was, there was an explosion of light and sound, the limo veered while Q fought to retain control. Temporarily blinded by the explosions, we could see nothing. I leaned over the seats to check on the Ambassador and Brian just as the Ambassador asked what had happened. “Bomb and AK fire, sir” I told him. I asked him if he was OK and he said that he was. I could see the back of the limo had sustained extreme damage and told him and Brian to get down. The bad guys were shooting at the limo as we sped away at roughly 60 mph through the smoke induced fog. Neither Q nor I could see anything more than 5 feet in front of us. Q was driving purely by instinct and training.

I heard the shift leader over the radio calling out, “TUNA, TUNA, TUNA” – our code for us to drive through the ambush, get off the “X”. The smoke cleared and I looked to my left to see the follow car driver about 24 inches away from me using his car to shield the limo. His side mirror touching Q’s side mirror at 60 mph. I asked for a casualty report and learned that 2 of our 4 CAT team vehicles were damaged, but limping along. No injuries to any of the security team members.

As the AIC, I had to make the painful decision that they (the damaged CAT vehicles) were on their own as I was unsure of the damage to the limo and the Ambassador’s safety always comes first.

The shift leader radioed me again to ask if we were alright and I responded that we were. Apparently the damage to the vehicle was far greater than I knew at the time, but the follow car guys could see it and we could not. We were advised to slow the limo down to make sure we safely reached the Green Zone. We did. And we made it back.

Inspecting the damage to the motorcade vehicles after arrival, we found several bullet holes in the rear of the lead vehicle. The limo had lost the back end (the non armored hatch area), the ECM had been destroyed and we found shrapnel and bullet holes in the armored area just behind the rear seats of the Ambassador and Brian. Additional bullet holes in the right side of the car and, of course, the one that was even with my head on my window. The follow car had extensive shrapnel damage riddling the body and bullet holes. When the explosion went off, the heat from the blast convinced both the shift leader and the driver that their feet had been badly burned. The CAT vehicles finally limped in. All 4 tires had been destroyed and there was extensive shrapnel damage to the vehicles.

We survived for several reasons, the first and foremost was that the drivers behaved under pressure the way that they had trained. They know automatically what to do and did it. We train to get off the “X” for a reason.

Thanks for reading – Frank Gallagher

Please also reference Ambassador Bremer’s book – “My Year in Iraq” for further information about this incident.