Top U.S. General in Iraq looks back on the legacy and lessons of the attack on ‘Tower 22’

BAGHDAD – The headquarters of Operation Inherent Resolve maintains two memorials to troops killed since 2014 in the fight against ISIS. One is a mural of pictures that the OIR staff walks past each day in the Baghdad headquarters, including three soldiers killed in the so-called “Tower 22” attack in January, Sgt. Kennedy L. Sanders, Sgt. Breonna Moffett, and Staff Sgt. William Rivers.

The second is a ring of dogtags, one for each fallen member of the force.

In an interview with Task & Purpose, OIR commander Army Maj. Gen. Joel “JB” Vowell said the deaths of the three soldiers have informed much of the command’s daily operations since.

“It’s our duty, it’s our obligation to remember those who died in service of this country and in the missions that we’re trying to do for our country,” Vowell said. “So, that’s why the dog tags are there. That’s why the mural is there. We maintain contact with the families too over time, so they’re not forgotten as well.”

Vowell spoke to Task & Purpose on Thursday in a wide-ranging interview, during which he talked about the importance of honoring the legacy of all the troops who have paid the ultimate sacrifice while taking part in Operation Inherent Resolve, and what the U.S.-led coalition learned from the Jan. 28 drone attack.

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The three fallen soldiers were part of a unit that was providing engineer support to U.S. troops in Syria, said Vowell, who recalled talking to their loved ones after the attack.

“I called their families – all three, great families, great people, great Americans – to express our sincere condolences for their loss and the sacrifice,” Vowell said. “What they were doing there was trying to do something to help us continue the ISIS fight in Syria. And, so we remember that. We don’t want to forget. We can’t forget.”

Vowell also explained to the families how their loved ones’ sacrifices were not in vain because they helped the U.S.-led military coalition prevent ISIS from launching attacks in Europe and the United States.

The attack on Tower 22 was part of a strategy from Iran’s proxies to kill and wound Americans so that the United States would decide to withdraw its troops from the Middle East, Vowell said.

After Hamas ignited an ongoing war with Israel in October, Iranian-backed militia groups began attacking U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

Prior to Jan. 28, Tower-22 had not been targeted in those attacks, Vowell said.

“And it was in another country, so it was just difficult to conceive that the militias might try to attack in another country that way,” Vowell said. “We had not seen it.”

At the time, the U.S.-led military coalition was more focused on protecting bases in Iraq and Kuwait, he said.

One major lesson from the Tower 22 attack was that smaller U.S. and partner nation military installations needed more defenses against one-way drones, Vowell said. He did not specify which types of systems are now being used to stop further drone attacks.

“We leveled the field with force protection,” Vowell said. “We dug a lot more earth. We poured a lot more concrete. We went back to school on ourselves: Where are we still holding risk that’s just unacceptable?”

While Iran is not Vowell’s focus, it exerts “a great degree of control” over the militias that began launching attacks against U.S. troops in the Middle East since October, he said, adding that “Iran will fight to the last proxy.”

Iran’s overall goals are to continue its 1979 revolution, emerge as the top power in the Middle East, and become a major player on the world stage, Vowell said.  It has also become part of a “cabal” that also includes China, Russia, and North Korea, he said.

“The revolution, in their mind, must continue since 1979,” Vowell said.

The attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria have largely subsided since February, but Vowell said all U.S. and coalition troops who deploy to the Middle East as part of Operation Inherent Resolve remain at risk.

“At any time, any number of things can go wrong between ISIS or a militia group, you name it,” Vowell said.

Honoring the legacy of fallen troops is important to Vowell, who has spent 33 years in the Army and he lost soldiers under his command during combat deployments to both Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I still remember,” Vowell said. “Memorial Day, Veterans Day are the two key times a year that I personally take the time to reach out, talk to people and remember every one of them. It’s our sacred obligation.”

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Jeff Schogol

Senior Pentagon Reporter

Jeff Schogol is a senior staff writer for Task & Purpose. He reports on both the Defense Department as a whole as well as individual services, covering a variety of topics that include personnel, policy, military justice, deployments, and technology. His apartment in Alexandria, Va., has served as the Task & Purpose Pentagon bureau since the pandemic first struck in March 2020. The dwelling is now known as Forward Operating Base Schogol.

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