Tampa recalls key role in Operation Iraqi Freedom
Even before the launch of “shock and awe” 10 years ago today, Tampa played a key role in what came to be known as Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Well before the first bombs fell, planners at U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, both headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, had drawn up plans for how to conduct a war if the United States attacked Iraq.
The war cost the lives of 196 Floridians and left thousands more wounded, turning parents, siblings and loved ones into caregivers and forever altering those who served.
Overall, nearly 4,500 U.S. troops were killed and nearly 32,000 wounded in eight years of war, according to the Department of Defense.
More than 130,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the war started, according to a report released last week by Brown University. The report estimated the war will cost the U.S. “$2.2 trillion, including substantial costs for veterans care through 2053, far exceeding the initial government estimate of $50 to $60 billion.”
The Tampa Tribune spoke to several people with local connections for whom the war went far deeper than the headlines.
”Did we find bin Laden?”
That was the question Frank Wuco, a Navy lieutenant commander assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command Central, asked when returning to MacDill from an overseas deployment in the spring of 2002.
Planners “were dusting off the contingency plan for the invasion of Iraq,” said Wuco, deputy director for intelligence operations for the command at the time. “My first question to them was, ‘Did we find bin Laden?’ They said no.’”
Early on, planners were not discussing the issue of weapons of mass destruction, which Colin Powell, then secretary of state, famously would later mention at the United Nations as a reason to go to war.
Regardless of the reason, planners at both Centcom and Socom were “hot and heavy” in preparing for an attack, said Wuco, who now hosts the Frank Wuco Radio Show on 970 WFLA-AM.
“It was the largest deployment of special operations forces in the history of the U.S. military,” said Wuco, now 49, who deployed to Qatar in early 2003 to help plan his command’s operations.
Paul Smith’s time in Iraq was short but heroic.
Smith, 33, who enlisted in the Army in October 1989 after graduating from Tampa Vocational Tech, was in the first wave of troops to cross over from Kuwait into Iraq.
On April 4, 2003, Smith, a platoon sergeant in the 3rd Infantry Division, was setting up a temporary holding area for enemy prisoners during the seizure of Saddam International Airport when his unit came under attack.
About 100 Iraqi troops swarmed Smith’s position. As the battle unfolded, Smith grabbed a .50-caliber machine gun on top of an armored personnel carrier. He told a soldier who accompanied him to “feed me ammunition whenever you hear the gun get quiet,” according to an official description of the battle.
Firing from his unprotected position on top of the vehicle, Smith went through at least three boxes of ammunition before he was mortally wounded.
Smith was the first soldier from the Tampa area to be killed in combat during the war. Two years to the day later, he became the first trooper in the war to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
“The enemy attack was defeated,” according to the citation for his medal. “Sgt. 1st Class Smith’s actions saved the lives of at least 100 Soldiers, caused the failure of a deliberate enemy attack hours after 1st Brigade seized the Baghdad Airport, and resulted in an estimated 20-50 enemy soldiers killed.”
Smith’s mother, Janice Pvirre, said her son wanted to join the Army from an early age.
“Paul was 5 years old when he made the decision to go into the Army,” Pvirre said. “When we asked him what he wanted to do, he said, ‘I want to go into the Army and have babies.’ It was predestined for him to be in the military.”
Pvirre, who lives in Holiday with her husband, Donald, said that when Smith went into the Army, they weren’t overly concerned.
“It was a time of relative peace,” she said.
Smith returned to Holiday in January 2003. It was the last time he would see his family.
“On April 4, I got a call from my granddaughter in the middle of the night,” said Pvirre. “She just said, ‘Daddy’s dead.’”
Pvirre said her son’s death didn’t really sink in until later, when his ashes were spread over the Anclote River, where he used to go fishing with his dad.
The Gold Star mother said March 19 holds no special place in her memory.
“April 4 is the day that registers with me,” she said.
Marine Lt. Col. Bryan “BP” McCoy was on the berm separating Kuwait and Iraq when the orders were given to start the war.
The commander of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Regiment, McCoy was in charge of 1,150 men and 165 vehicles. He was on a 20-day mission to get to Baghdad.
By April 9, he and his men would take part in one of the war’s most iconic moments, seen live worldwide.
First, though, they had a hellacious slog ahead of them. Seven troops would die and nearly 60 more would be wounded on the way to Baghdad. McCoy was later awarded the Legion of Merit for leading his battalion across the Diyala Canal against a hail of enemy fire.
Though not nearly as difficult or as strategically significant, McCoy’s brush with history came a few days later when his unit rolled into Baghdad’s Firdos Square.
Commanders up the chain were getting word that Iraqi resistance in the city was “melting away.” McCoy was given orders to head to the Palestine Hotel, where journalists were camped out.
On the way, they came upon what would become one of the most visible, and misread, moments of the war.
Iraqi citizens were chipping away at a 30-foot-tall statue of Saddam Hussein and had a rope around its neck in an unsuccessful effort to topple it.
“There was a Paris, 1944 vibe going on,” said McCoy, 50, who retired as a colonel last September and now serves as vice president for operational support and analytics for the Tampa office of Orbis Operations, an irregular-warfare consulting firm.
The Iraqis asked if they could use a crane off a tank to help take the statue down. McCoy, knowing that it wouldn’t come down otherwise, called his boss and got the go-ahead.
“It would have been a buzz kill if it didn’t come down,” he said.
McCoy didn’t realize the moment was being broadcast live around the world and that even the White House was watching.
“Obviously, it was a significant moment,” said McCoy. “I had an inkling it would be iconic, but I did not know that people would be declaring victory in Iraq.”
McCoy said he knew the war was far from over. But on that day, he said, he didn’t realize it would drag on for so many years as the Iraqi Army was replaced by Sunni and Shiite insurgents.
It wasn’t until Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, ordered the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the outlawing of Hussein’s Baath Party, McCoy said, that he got a glimpse of the future.
“I knew that was a colossal mistake,” he said.
Life for the Tavera family was altered forever five years ago last week.
On March 12, 2008, Joel Tavera and four other soldiers were in an armored Chevrolet Suburban inside Tallil Air Base, about 12½ miles southeast of An Nasiriya, when the vehicle was hit by a rocket.
Three of his cohorts died immediately. He and another man survived.
Tavera was severely burned, had a traumatic brain injury and lost part of his right leg, sight in both eyes and the fingers on his left hand.
The injuries led to a long convalescence and brought the Taveras from North Carolina to Tampa, where Joel was recovering at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital. His father, Jose, and mother, Maritza, became full-time caregivers.
It was a situation thousands of military families experienced during the course of the war.
Jose Tavera, 57, himself a veteran of the Marines and Army, left his job as an aircraft mechanic for the Navy. His wife left leave her job working for a boat company.
“Life changed for me and my wife,” said Jose Tavera. “We had to put everything on hold. It was as bad as it gets.”
Maritza Tavera, 53, who hasn’t left her son long enough to return to the family’s North Carolina home, went through training to become certified to take care of her son. They now all live in a specially designed home in Tampa.
For a time, the Taveras had to provide their adult son the same level of care they would give an infant. But Joel Tavera, who turns 26 on Sunday, has greatly improved since the attack. He just participated in the Gasparilla 5k, attends concerts, has a busy schedule and will soon leave for “blind school” at the Hines VA in Chicago.
“As he gets more independent, I will probably go back to work and build up my Social Security,” said Jose Tavera. “But for the time being, we want to be close to him.”
Air Force Col. Ted Mathews, vice commander of the 927th Air Refueling Wing at MacDill, helped turn out the lights in Iraq.
From May to December 2011, Mathews, 46, commanded Ali Base, the last U.S. Air Force installation handed over to the Iraqis after nearly nine years of war.
An Air Force Reserve officer assigned to the 407th Air Expeditionary Group, he was in charge of all operations, including Apache helicopter missions, armed Predator drones seeking enemy forces and, ultimately, turning the base over to the Iraqis.
“I was happy for both countries,” said Mathews, who now works in the Pentagon as chief of programs and requirements for the Air Force Reserve. “We were leaving and they were getting their country back.”