On April 4, 2004, the 2-5 battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division was just taking over responsibility for Sadr City, a large Baghdad slum with a population of 2 million. A platoon of 18 soldiers and their interpreter was returning to its base from the most routine of missions, providing security for sewage trucks, when it suddenly came under fire.
Within minutes, a gunner, Sgt. Eddie Chen, was fatally injured. Others were wounded and two of the platoon’s four Humvees were disabled. Lt. Shane Aguero, the platoon leader, directed the team down an alleyway, where the soldiers took cover in a house.
Back at the battalion’s base, Camp War Eagle, located just outside Sadr City, the new commander, Lt. Col. Gary Volesky, was taking over command as radio reports came in from the platoon detailing the increasing intensity of the fight. Then reports arrived of enemy fighters seizing the local police stations in the neighborhood. Volesky and rescue teams from the battalion’s Charlie and Alpha Company raced into the city, facing an onslaught of gun fire, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and pipe bombs.
By the end of the night, eight soldiers would be dead and more than 60 wounded — the largest casualty count in one day for the First Cavalry Division since Vietnam.
Here’s more about the ambush that would be known as Black Sunday:
Who was the enemy?
More than a year after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, American forces still faced violence across the country, but Sadr City had been relatively calm. In the previous six months, only one U.S. soldier had been killed. The population, predominantly Shia, had suffered under the Sunni leadership of Saddam Hussein, and the incoming 2-5 battalion was anticipating a reconstruction and peace keeping mission.
But a young militant Shia cleric, Moqtada al Sadr, had other plans. The son of a powerful and popular Shia leader who was assassinated during Hussein’s rule, he fiercely opposed the American occupation. Drawing on the continuing instability, rampant unemployment and poverty still plaguing Shia communities, al Sadr was stirring up resentment across the country.
In the days ahead of April 4, his followers had been protesting in the thousands in Baghdad and other areas. The final straw came when the U.S.-led coalition shut down a popular newspaper and arrested a close ally. As the 2-5 Cav took over control, al Sadr unleashed his militia – the thousands-strong Mahdi Army – not just in Sadr City, but across Baghdad and in other cities.
How was the platoon rescued?
Back at the house in the alley, with an Iraqi family still inside, soldiers from the platoon took up positions on the roof. Sgt. 1st Class Jerry Swope stayed down in the alley in one of the remaining Humvees. As enemy fighters continuously assaulted the platoon, Swope was on the Humvee’s radio for the entire fight, the only point of contact with rescue teams struggling to get to them.
Up on the roof, the soldiers were frantically trying to signal their location, using smoke grenades, electronic signaling equipment, even ripping off the sleeves of their uniforms to start a fire.
Out on the streets of Sadr City, the multiple rescue teams attempting to reach the pinned down platoon came under fierce attack and incurred heavy casualties.
“It was multiple rounds constantly,” Capt. Troy Denomy, the commander of Charlie Company, recalled. “I remember looking at the street, you’d see the rounds that were missing, you could see the impact on the street, and it kind of looked like rain when it hits puddles.”
Charlie Company passed by the alleyway, but with the antennas shot off the lead Bradley fighting vehicles, the Bradleys were unable to hear the radio calls to stop.
Eventually, a tank company came up the adjoining road. Watching the tanks rolling by, SFC Swope frantically called into the radio for them to stop. The platoon leader, Lt. Aguero, in a last-ditch effort, ran down the alley waving his flashlight in the dark. The tank company commander saw the light, and stopped, bringing the power and might needed to push back the enemy fighters and get the platoon out.
What was the toll?
In addition to Sgt. Eddie Chen, the gunner with the pinned-down platoon, seven other soldiers were killed that evening: Spc. Robert Arsiaga, Spc. Ahmed Cason, Spc. Israel Garza, Spc. Stephen Hiller, Cpl. Forest Jostes, Sgt. Michael Mitchell and Spc. Casey Sheehan. Most of them were in their 20s. More than 60 others were wounded.
Why did it matter?
The fight to rescue the team in the alley was just the beginning. Within hours, many of the soldiers involved were back battling on the streets of Sadr City to retake the police stations that had been seized. They would go on to fight this new insurgency for 80 straight days, and then after a brief respite, would endure another 60.
Who are the heroes?
As Volesky put it, “Uncommon valor was common that day.” Sgt. 1st Class Swope would be awarded a Silver Star for staying in the Humvee in the alley and remaining on the radio for the entire battle. Staff Sgt. Robert Miltenberger was also awarded the third-highest medal for valor because of his actions that night. As part of a rescue mission, he and more than a dozen other soldiers were in the rear of an open-bed LMTV truck. Exposed to the enemy like the proverbial fish in a barrel, Miltenberger was credited with saving the lives of three soldiers while treating many other wounded.
For soldiers of the 2-5 battalion, it was moment that would define the days to follow.
“I don’t think the bonds that they’ve made here with their fellow soldiers will ever break,” Volesky said. “I understand now what it means when you go to a veterans’ ceremony and you see the old veterans get together and hug and cry and you never really understood it. I understand it now.”
Without these leaders, the U.S. could face a diminished role on the world stage, unable to keep up with the increasingly aggressive foreign policies of rising countries like China, she argues.
“There is simply no denying the warning signs that point to mounting threats to our institution — and to the global leadership that depends on us. There is no denying that our leadership ranks are being depleted at a dizzying speed,” Stephenson, who has headed the AFSA since 2015, writes in a new essay in the group’s monthly publication.
AFSA rarely makes forays into political issues, making Stephenson’s letter that much more surprising.
There has been a sharp impact on the next generation as well, AFSA reports. A department-wide hiring freeze prevents new employees from coming onboard and limits current employees’ ability to take on new roles, unless granted special permission. After 366 new foreign service officers were admitted in 2016, only about 100 will join in 2018, according to AFSA.
What’s worse, they say, is that interest in joining the foreign service is plummeting now because of these policies. More than 17,000 people applied to take the foreign service test last year, but fewer than half that number have taken it so far this year.
The implications of that trend could be felt long term, with a new crop of talented diplomats missing and unable to take the helm in a couple of decades, Stephenson argues.
“The talent being shown the door now is not only our top talent but also talent that cannot be replicated overnight,” she writes.
While the union and many outside the government as well are raising alarms about the situation, the president has made clear that he does not see the need to fill many of the roles or build talent.
“The one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters because, when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be,” he said in a Fox News interview last week.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said he is revamping the State Department to be more efficient and sustainable — calling the project “the most important thing I want to do during the time I have.”
That “redesign” began with an employee survey and hundreds of employee interviews, led by an outside consulting firm, to hone the department’s focus and mission, Tillerson’s team has said. Until it is complete, he has implemented that hiring freeze and left several top roles vacant or filled by staff in an acting capacity.
Tillerson has said he has the “utmost respect for the foreign service officer corps here, and they’re vital … and critical to the country’s ability to carry out its foreign policy,” telling the New York Times magazine he doesn’t understand the backlash to the redesign. “I’m mystified by it. I’m perplexed by it.”
But to foreign policy hands, he is depleting the nation’s diplomats, which will diminish America’s role on the world stage — or lead to a heavier reliance on the Pentagon at a time when the military is already stretched thin by two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria, as well as other hotspots around the world.
“The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events,” Stephenson writes. “Were the U.S. military to face such a decapitation of its leadership ranks, I would expect a public outcry.”
Military leaders have often called for robust funding of the State Department. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is often quoted from his 2013 Congressional testimony, when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”
Tillerson and Mattis have worked closely in the Trump administration, with Mattis pointing out at every turn that Tillerson and diplomacy are at the helm on their North Korea strategy.
It’s not just the loss of personnel or lack of hiring. There have been complaints about mismanaging talent as well.
Politico reported Monday that the State Department has assigned “several hundred” employees to process public information requests, often known as FOIAs, because of a backlog that has built up over more than a decade.
While the State Department would not confirm that number, an official told ABC News, “The current processing system just wasn’t working,” citing over 13,000 requests outstanding since 2006.
“The Secretary is taking an approach of calling on many capable hands to step in, as part of a surge, to clear the backlog,” the official added. “This is about accountability and efficiently getting these outstanding FOIA requests down.”
Despite the criticism, the personnel moves seem to have satisfied Tillerson’s boss.
“It’s called cost-saving. There’s nothing wrong with cost-saving. Rex is in there working hard. He’s doing his best,” Trump told Fox News last week.
If Trump does seem to have any concern about staffing at the State Department, it’s that there are not enough of “his” people in the agency to implement in the “America First” vision he promised — agreeing with conservative commentator Laura Ingraham on this point in that Fox News interview.
So far, the Trump administration has only seven high-level political appointees confirmed by the Senate and working in the department — outside of Tillerson but including USAID Administrator Mark Green and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. An additional eight nominees are working their way through the confirmation process now, with the Senate either awaiting their paperwork or the nominees awaiting a Senate hearing or vote.
But in the absence of Trump nominees, there are 30 senior roles filled by career diplomats in acting capacities. Although there is someone doing the work, they do not enjoy the full legal authority of their role or the image of speaking on the administration’s behalf to the world.
There are 39 other senior roles that are vacant, but Tillerson has said he plans to eliminate 18 of those and fold their responsibilities into other jobs. The Trump administration has named a nominee for one of the 39 roles — the chief of protocol — who is awaiting confirmation.
Nearly three dozen ambassadorships remain vacant as well, with the embassies’ No. 2, called the charge d’affaires, leading those U.S. missions.