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Baghdad, Iraq, March 20, 2003 – At 5:34 AM, the USA, joined by British, Australian, and Polish forces, launched the “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq, opening one of many deadliest army engagements of the twenty first century. The conflict would outline then-President George W. Bush’s legacy and alter the Center East’s geopolitical panorama.

As Bush addressed the American folks from the Oval Workplace, hellfire missiles reigned down on key governmental places of work within the capital of Baghdad and compelled residents to hunt shelter. The brutality and violence of the conflict have been captured by 24-hour information channels broadcast to thousands and thousands of individuals worldwide.

“We have been working 24 hours your complete time, and I nonetheless bear in mind the night time the bombings of Baghdad started. That is actually when it began, and [the coverage] by no means stopped after that,” stated Fox Information Digital’s Gary Gastelu, who was the bureau chief for Fox Information in Kuwait earlier than and within the months after the Iraq Struggle. “We had reporters in Kuwait doing dwell studies from a studio we had arrange in a resort. However then we had a number of groups embedded with numerous army divisions. It was fairly an operation.”

The invasion got here off the heels of the “Axis of Evil” State of the Union deal with from Bush 5 months after the September 11 assaults. Throughout his speech, the previous president known as for motion in opposition to overseas governments he accused of sponsoring Jihadi terrorism and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. The time period was properly acquired, and whereas there was some opposition to the conflict within the early levels, the American public overwhelmingly supported an overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime.


On March 20, 2003, United States forces bombarded the Iraqi capital of Baghdad with aerial strikes and coordinated a military offensive across the country.

On March 20, 2003, United States forces bombarded the Iraqi capital of Baghdad with aerial strikes and coordinated a army offensive throughout the nation. (Getty Photos)

A USA At present/Gallup ballot carried out 4 days after the conflict started discovered that 72% of People supported the invasion whereas solely 25% disapproved. On the time, 9 out of 10 People believed that U.S. forces would discover conclusive proof that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, with 41% considering it could be essential to seek out the weapons to justify the conflict.

Over the approaching months, coalition forces labored with Kurdish Peshmerga allies to chop off the regime from the north and moved via the south, seizing oil fields and capturing city facilities. Iraq’s most important oil property have been within the Al-Faw Peninsula alongside the Gulf Peninsula. British and U.S. Marine teams efficiently captured the fields and the Umm Qasr port inside days of the invasion earlier than Saddam’s forces may destroy them, inflicting a possible ecological catastrophe. 

The land, aerial and amphibious invasion of Iraq had put the Baathist authorities on the run. A core factor of the coalition forces’ plans was to quell resistance by eliminating high-value army targets with precision airstrikes. Nevertheless, the USA additionally sought to seize and prosecute Iraq’s longtime authorities leaders, so the previous regime might be discredited as they ready to usher in a brand new period of western-backed democracy.

Assembly the Delta Drive crew

Key to this mission have been the members of probably the most elite preventing pressure within the U.S. army – 1st Particular Forces Operational Detachment–Delta, additionally recognized to the world as Delta Drive. In the course of the conflict, these males coordinated counter-terrorism operations, eradicated high-value targets and commonly engaged in direct enemy fight in some missions that stay categorised at this time. 

The night time former President Bush unleashed the canine of conflict, Delta Drive operators 25-year-old Chris VanSant and 33-year-old Craig “Chili” Palmer crossed over the western desert of Iraq seeking the nation’s notorious weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and to seize or kill longtime dictator Saddam Hussein.

Each males didn’t come from a protracted line of household who served within the army, nor have been they pressured to enter service rising up. The decision of responsibility got here naturally to them after they have been 18. 


For VanSant, a Delaware native, the urge developed whereas listening to his grandfather, Charles Calloway, mirror on his service within the Asian-Pacific for the Military Air Corps in World Struggle II. 

“He was gone for almost 4 years throughout World Struggle II, and though it created a whole lot of points in his life, he nonetheless talked about it in such a constructive gentle concerning the folks that he served with and what he obtained to do for his nation,” VanSant advised Fox Information Digital. “And I feel that is in all probability the most important contributing issue to why I went into the army.”

Proper after highschool, VanSant entered the Military and, not lengthy after, enrolled in Airborne college to affix the military’s seventy fifth Ranger Regiment. After being satisfied by a buddy, the 21-year-old VanSant signed up for the Delta Drive choice course of. Nevertheless, he didn’t make it into the unit throughout his first spherical, however recruiters inspired him to use once more in a yr. 

When VanSant tried once more for a spot within the Military particular forces, the nation was reeling from the fallout of 9/11, and the thought of going to conflict immediately turned a actuality for the 22-year-old Military Ranger. 

“It was an unimaginable motivator. On the identical time, I used to be in all probability a bit nervous in that I knew that if I used to be profitable, I used to be in all probability going to conflict instantly upon completion of coaching.”

In early 2002, VanSant formally joined the first Particular Forces Operational Detachment-Delta after being skilled as an operator throughout choice. Two weeks later, the 23-year-old VanSant was deployed to the primary of his 11 fight deployments in the course of the early days of the conflict in Afghanistan, touchdown at Bagram Airfield to satisfy his crew for the primary time. The second was surreal for VanSant; many of the operators he met that night time had formal fight expertise, and the closest to his age was 30. 

Delta Force team is pictured in front of a Pinzgauer on April 3, 2003, located somewhere east of the town of Rutba, Iraq, the day after the team lost an operator, Andy Fernandez, in battle. They decided to unsheathe their U.S. flags to show the enemy they were not discouraged one bit by their attack the day prior. Pictured from left to right, is Shawn Stevens, Craig Palmer, Mike Hefner, Brad Thomas, and Chris VanSant.

Delta Drive crew is pictured in entrance of a Pinzgauer on April 3, 2003, positioned someplace east of the city of Rutba, Iraq, the day after the crew misplaced an operator, Andy Fernandez, in battle. They determined to unsheathe their U.S. flags to indicate the enemy they weren’t discouraged one bit by their assault the day prior. Pictured from left to proper, is Shawn Stevens, Craig Palmer, Mike Hefner, Brad Thomas, and Chris VanSant. (Courtesy of Chris VanSant )

“I used to be in awe. I felt like a boy amongst males after I first obtained there. I seemed as much as them for steering and path, and my crew as a complete actually type of took me underneath their wing,” Vansant recalled. “I used to be overwhelmed to be there, however I used to be excited and motivated and felt like I may convey some good issues to the group if I simply paid consideration and realized from the folks round me.”

One of many older operators who helped mentor the younger VanSant was Palmer, a crew chief in Delta Drive with fight expertise relationship again to the USA invasion of Panama in 1989. Palmer was part of the first Ranger Battalion at 19 earlier than becoming a member of Delta Drive in 1997. Vansant and Palmer served in a fight rotation in Afghanistan and three further cycles in Iraq.

Palmer’s expertise in Afghanistan preventing the Taliban and Al-Qaeda was his first time dealing with rebel jihadists earlier than his crew joined the opening invasion of Iraq. For him, probably the most harmful experiences in Iraq was in the course of the preliminary opening invasion in opposition to the regime.


“We have been nonetheless new to fight regardless that we went to Afghanistan. However our factor was properly underneath 100 folks on the bottom, and we have been surrounded by 100 guys attempting to hit us from a number of instructions. We have been to this point in Iraq that we did not have air help immediately,” Palmer advised Fox Information Digital. “You are woken up, and hastily, you are surrounded in an space the place you do not have wherever to go, so it prompts the battle or flight mentality. “

Searching Saddam

In the course of the preliminary invasion of Iraq, one of many important priorities of coalition forces, moreover searching down the WMDs that have been by no means discovered, was capturing the high-ranking members of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Occasion to take away organized resistance and cripple the previous regime. The U.S. intelligence equipment created a deck of taking part in playing cards to establish the most-wanted authorities official in Iraq. 

Saddam, together with numerous members of his household and interior circle, was on the prime of the deck of playing cards because the ace of spades. Process Drive 121 was a multi-service pressure comprising operators from numerous elite command teams, together with Delta Drive, with the only mission of capturing these high-value targets. 

By the fall of 2003, Iraq's former dictator Saddam Hussein was still on the run from coalition forces.

By the autumn of 2003, Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein was nonetheless on the run from coalition forces. (Getty Photos)

In April 2003, Saddam’s opulent palaces throughout the nation have been raided and seized by U.S. forces. Nonetheless, months into the invasion, the charismatic dictator, who acted because the nation’s iron-willed strongman for over 20 years, was nowhere to be discovered. Saddam’s sons, Qusay and Uday, have been killed that summer time by operators in Process Drive 121 throughout a raid on their compound within the metropolis of Mosul. 

By September, VanSant and Palmer have been targeted totally on the deck of playing cards, particularly on Saddam, who turned the principle focus of the media’s consideration on the level and a headache for coalition forces. “[Saddam] rapidly turned the story after the autumn of Baghdad,” stated Fox Information’ Gastelu. “That was actually what it was about – monitoring him down.”

“Because the months wore on in Fall 03, we have been a bit fatigued from continually pursuing this man and arising empty-handed,” VanSant stated.

Nevertheless, in early December, their crew acquired an intelligence report on Saddam’s right-hand man Muhammed Omar al-Musslit. Musslit was the gatekeeper for Saddam, relaying the previous dictator’s orders to loyalist teams throughout the nation and shifting cash to help these insurgents. Intelligence believed he was the important thing to discovering Saddam’s hideout.


On Dec. 12, 2003, VanSant and Palmer took half within the Delta Drive raid on an upstairs residence in Baghdad that was believed to be Musslit’s location. The operators detained Musslit however have been uncertain if he was the proper goal as a result of he didn’t match the pictures they’d been given. Nevertheless, the Delta Drive crew captured some attention-grabbing possessions, together with serialized and sequential hundred-dollar payments. 

VanSant famous that after Musslit was handed over to interrogation personnel again at Baghdad Worldwide Airport, they have been woken a number of hours later in the course of the night time by an excited intelligence analyst that stated, “He is spilling the beans. He is giving it up. He is aware of Saddam’s location. You guys have to get able to go.”

Advert-Dawr, Iraq, Dec. 13, 2003 – Operation Crimson Daybreak consisted of two teams; one to raid the home of Saddam’s private chef in Samarra and the second group to safe the chef’s household farm exterior the town in Advert-Dawr, the place Saddam was believed to be hiding, in keeping with data operators acquired Musslit. VanSant and Palmer have been part of the group that raided the chef’s home and have been met with no resistance. 

Each missions have been carried out concurrently, securing the cook dinner and the household farm. Nevertheless, the operators couldn’t discover Saddam on the farm as a result of Musslit, in a last-ditch effort to guard his chief, incorrectly recognized a neighboring farm. Based mostly on data from the private chef, operators regrouped and launched one other raid on the proper farmhouse. 

Picture was taken on Nov 26, 2003, after an assault in Tikrit, Iraq. The picture is outside the team's Mission Support Site in Tikrit roughly two weeks before the capture of Saddam Hussein. Pictured left to right, Chris VanSant, Mike Hefner, Brad Thomas and Craig Palmer.

Image was taken on Nov 26, 2003, after an assault in Tikrit, Iraq. The image is exterior the crew’s Mission Help Website in Tikrit roughly two weeks earlier than the seize of Saddam Hussein. Pictured left to proper, Chris VanSant, Mike Hefner, Brad Thomas and Craig Palmer. (Courtesy of Chris VanSant)

Delta Drive operators secured Saddam’s hideout that night time and found a spider gap after a soldier kicked over a bit of flooring. The outlet was lined by a bit of Styrofoam with a rope connected. Operators initially deliberate to clear the outlet with a frag grenade, however a raveled Saddam emerged, surrendering with no resistance. 

“I’m Saddam Hussein. I’m the president of Iraq, and I’m keen to barter,” Saddam advised his captors after being pulled out from the outlet and disarmed of a Glock pistol. 


VanSant and Palmer confirmed that an operator responded by putting Saddam within the face and advised the dictator, “President Bush sends his regards.” 

Dealing with the insurgency and private battles  

Following Saddam’s seize, the general public notion in the USA over how the conflict was progressing turned extra constructive. The president’s approval quantity elevated by numbers just like former President Reagan’s achieve after the 1983 invasion of Grenada, in keeping with a ballot taken on the time by Pew Analysis Facilities. Furthermore, some Delta Drive operators on the bottom believed their mission was full and that there was an opportunity they’d return residence. 

“I feel a whole lot of us felt like possibly we have been going residence. Our activity, which was the elimination of an evil dictator, was full. And that massive service would do its factor for nonetheless lengthy was requested of them,” VanSant stated. “I feel that inside 24 hours [after Saddam’s capture], we have been out on one other mission.”

Close to the tip of 2003, shortly after Saddam’s seize, a lethal insurgency was fueled by sectarian violence between numerous ethnic and non secular teams inside Iraq who have been against the U.S. occupation. For many years, Saddam’s regime had saved the totally different factions at bay via sheer brutality and pressure. Iraq is a majority Shia Arab Muslim, whereas the Sunni Muslim minority accounts for over 1 / 4 of the inhabitants and is damaged up amongst Arabs and Kurds. 

Nevertheless, from 2004 till the preliminary withdrawal in 2011, U.S. army forces and Iraq’s new coalition-backed authorities confronted assaults from guerilla Sunni teams comparable to Al-Qaeda and Shia militias like Kata’ib Hezbollah, supported by Iran. Assaults have been carried out in opposition to U.S. service members with improvised explosive gadgets, assassinations and concrete warfare throughout street-by-street preventing in Fallujah and Ramadi. 

The conflict with the insurgency was in contrast to something elite U.S. operators had confronted earlier than and compelled Delta Drive to alter fight procedures to adapt to the brand new conflict of attrition as overseas fighters flooded the nation’s rat strains. Because of the sectarian violence, U.S. casualties have been the best between 2004 and 2007, with over 3,400 useless U.S. service members.

“With overseas fighters, when somebody’s sole objective in life is, is to kill People, and so they’re keen to blow themselves as much as do it, issues are simply inherently going to get extra violent, and so they did,” VanSant stated whereas reflecting on the rising escalation within the nation following Saddam’s seize.


The political fallout from the insurgency torpedoed Bush’s approval numbers, falling from 50% at first of his second time period to 24% by the point he left workplace in 2009. For Delta Drive operators like VanSant and Palmer, the controversial flip of the conflict straight led to them being hamstrung on the battlefield by leaders in Washington.

“Unexpectedly, we have been advised to face down from increased, which increased at the moment was [Secretary of Defense] on up,” Palmer stated. “It is unhappy when that occurs as a result of issues begin shifting on the battlefield, and we lose our momentum. We begin getting hamstrung, and it modifications the entire dynamic of issues.”

Because the violence elevated and the conflict turned extra divisive at residence, operators like VanSant struggled with the traumas of frontline motion, and people emotions made it tough throughout his time away at residence. Throughout his service, VanSant was married to his first spouse and had two daughters ready for him at residence. Holding out the anxieties of conflict whereas attempting to not be overwhelmed by daily at residence turned tougher for VanSant after every of his eleven deployments. 

The team in front of a tank at Objective Grizzley, later FOB Grizzley, outside Tikrit, Iraq, April 12, 2003. Operators had taken control of a former Iraqi Army base. Tanks were flown into our area via the H1 Airfield to provide security for their new staging base and to provide fire support as they prepared to enter Tikrit. Pictured from left to right, Brad Thomas, Craig Palmer, Chris VanSant, Mike Hefner and Shawn Stevens.

The crew in entrance of a tank at Goal Grizzley, later FOB Grizzley, exterior Tikrit, Iraq, April 12, 2003. Operators had taken management of a former Iraqi Military base. Tanks have been flown into our space by way of the H1 Airfield to offer safety for his or her new staging base and to offer fireplace help as they ready to enter Tikrit. Pictured from left to proper, Brad Thomas, Craig Palmer, Chris VanSant, Mike Hefner and Shawn Stevens. (Courtesey of Chris VanSant)

“I feel conflict obtained the higher of me. Your life is sort of a rollercoaster. You reside a lifetime of extremes, these excessive highs and these excessive lows. The unimaginable rush of adrenaline in fight if you survive one thing, after which the unimaginable unhappiness of dropping a teammate,” VanSant advised Fox Information Digital. “It takes a fairly good toll in your private life as a result of you understand how to operate in fight since you’re surrounded by a bunch of individuals with a single objective. In order time glided by, at the least for me, life at residence turned harder than life at conflict.”

He added, “It began a vicious cycle of you come residence, you miss your loved ones, and also you’re comfortable to see them, and also you’re excited to see them. After which, as time passes at residence, you get a bit overwhelmed by life again right here, and also you simply type of need to deploy once more. And the time between being comfortable to be residence and eager to deploy once more will get shorter as every rotation goes by till, finally, you end up simply preferring being at conflict.”

Palmer, who accomplished 13 fight rotations all through his carer, reiterated an analogous sentiment on the problem of transitioning from a lethal fight setting to on a regular basis life at residence. 


“Life was a lot simpler if you’re coping with one factor, and that one factor is nearly doing all of your job is defending your self and your buddies. I did not have to fret about paying this invoice or taking the automotive to get inspected and getting the oil modified, ? So if you’re gone, and also you’re doing this job and residing with a heightened sense of actuality, you come residence, and hastily, it was extra aggravating being residence extra it was abroad generally,” Palmer stated. 

In 2010, VanSant was recognized with a traumatic mind damage whereas affected by the consequences of post-traumatic stress, in addition to being a extreme insomniac, and he had developed an habit to prescription capsules. At this time limit, VanSant had a employees place inside the group and was now not deployed as an operator. 

“I used to be surrounded by guys that have been like-minded and had related experiences, and we may share these experiences with one another. And I feel that was all a part of the therapeutic course of for me. By the point I retired in 2015, I had a great deal with on my points, and it is one of many causes that I put up service accomplish that many issues to help, veteran charities and providers,” VanSant stated.

Certainly, the rise of post-traumatic stress dysfunction (PTSD) and psychological well being points remained an ongoing situation for service members throughout army branches serving in Iraq. A examine by the Division of Veterans Affairs discovered that 15.7% of deployed Iraq and Afghan conflict veterans screened constructive for PTSD. In the meantime, researchers on the Prices of Struggle Venture concluded in one other examine that 30,177 veterans of the worldwide conflict on terror have died by suicide in comparison with the 7,057 service members who died whereas deployed. 

Life after the Iraq conflict

After retiring from Delta Drive in 2015, VanSant served because the chief working officer for Tyr Tactical, a U.S. producer of physique armor, ballistic shields, and tactical tools, however stepped down after seven years to deal with hereditary coronary heart points. He at the moment runs his personal consulting agency that makes a speciality of authorities acquisition and product growth with a concentrate on army and legislation enforcement packages. 

VanSant, alongside along with his spouse Robin, help numerous veteran charity operations, such because the All Safe Basis, the place Chris serves as an lively board member. The non-profit works to finish the stigma of veterans in search of assist for post-traumatic stress and different psychological well being points. As for his personal trauma, VanSant notes that whereas the scars of conflict won’t ever go away him, he has come a great distance in coping with these points.

This picture was taken at the border of Saudi Arabia and Iraq right before the initial invasion on March 19, 2003. Pictured standing together on the right are Craig Palmer and Chris VanSant.

This image was taken on the border of Saudi Arabia and Iraq proper earlier than the preliminary invasion on March 19, 2003. Pictured standing collectively on the suitable are Craig Palmer and Chris VanSant. (Courtesy of Craig Palmer)

“There isn’t any such factor as 100% restoration, or I am cured of the cumulative results of these issues. I feel the distinction that point and schooling supplies is that you simply uncover methods to cope with it and methods to drag your self out when it begins to get dangerous,” VanSant concluded. “You are going to carry parts of that with you for the remainder of your life. The bottom line is speaking about them and arising with wholesome and efficient methods to cope with these points and make your life higher.”

Palmer, who lots of his fellow service members nonetheless check with him by his nickname “Chili,” retired in 2014. He at the moment works for the Sentinel Basis, a non-profit devoted to ending underage youngster trafficking. When requested how he feels about his service over 20 years later, Palmer notes that he’s happy with what he did and solely regrets he couldn’t do extra to guard his pals. 

“We needed to defend this nation. I would not have traded it for something. I feel at this time; we lose sight of what this nation stands for. And I feel folks have to get again to that [unity],” Palmer added.

In 2011, U.S. troops formally withdrew from Iraq however returned in 2014 to defend the Iraqi authorities after the beginning of the second sectarian civil conflict involving ISIS. The unique coalition formally concluded its mission in Iraq in 2021, however U.S. army forces stay within the nation to today to offer assist and help the Iraqi military from jihadist threats. 


Saddam, the person Palmer and VanSant spent the prime of their profession searching, was convicted by an Iraqi court docket for crimes in opposition to humanity and sentenced to loss of life by hanging. He was executed on Dec. 30, 2006. 

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