In 2003, then Lt. Col. Eric “Rick” Schwartz remembers standing in front of his battalion of more than 900 men on the eve of a major push into Iraq and thinking he had to break the ice.
Knowing that his battalion was about to do something memorable for the War on Terror, Schwartz joked that a movie could be made of their efforts and asked his soldiers whom they would like to play them in a movie.
As it turns out, the real answer to that question for Schwartz is Gerard Butler — even if the casting choice is much closer to his daughter’s liking.
Schwartz’s experience as commander of the battalion that captured the heart of Baghdad in April 2003 will be featured in Freedom Films’ “Thunder Run,” starring Butler as Schwartz and co-starring Matthew McConaughey and Sam Worthington.
The movie was scheduled to come out this summer, though production on the movie has changed from an all CG 3-D film to a live-action film. Whichever way it gets released, the idea of the former U.S. Army War College student and professor being portrayed in a Hollywood movie is something Schwartz finds he has to get used to.
“It’s a bit overwhelming,” Schwartz said at his home in the Carlisle Barracks.
Schwartz, now a colonel, is somewhat used to increased amount of attention. His story was first featured in the book “Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad,” which was the catalyst for the movie. The book was published in 2005 and written by David Zucchino who was with Schwartz’s battalion when they captured Baghdad and who interviewed soldiers about the strike.
The novel was the basis for the screenplay, which is co-written by Ken Nolan (co-screenplay writer of “Black Hawk Down”) and Robert David Port, who won the Best Short Documentary in 2003 for “Twin Towers.”
Though the movie is still in pre-production and he is acting more as a “reachback” source for Butler should he need information on him, Schwartz is interested in what he’s seen.
“I’ve read the script, and I’m encouraged by it,” he said. “It’s a good story.”
Both the movie and novel are based on the efforts of Schwartz’s task force in Baghdad commonly known as “Thunder Run.”
Until his battalion entered the capital city of 5.5 million people, the U.S. military had been fighting skirmishes in towns and villages in Iraq but had not breached the city. It was decided that Schwartz’s battalion would be the first to do so, and he was given specific objectives that were important to accomplish in the capture of the city.
“There were three purposes to the mission,” Schwartz said. “1. To go into the city and determine what the resistance was like. 2. Destroy the enemy ground forces. 3. Make a statement that we are here. The propaganda put out by the Iraqi regime was telling people American forces had not made it to the gates.”
At sunrise on April 5, 2003, Schwartz and his battalion pushed for the first of two Thunder Runs.
“It lasted 2 hours and 20 minutes, and we went about 17 kilometers, which isn’t very long,” Schwartz said. “And it was like the Wild Wild West.”
Schwartz, who is also a Desert Storm veteran, said fighting in Baghdad was not like fighting in the surrounding towns. Where there were civilians in the villages, many of those living in Baghdad were trained to protect their homes and had the artillery to make entering the city difficult and costly.
When his battalion followed the plan to enter the city and for a quick firefight and get out, some of the soldiers were killed, others injured and just about every piece of equipment had been shot at and damaged.
But it wouldn’t be long before the battalion was back for the second and final Thunder Run. Two days later, the battalion made another push into the city with two more battalions at their back, and they stayed in the center square of the city, which they called the “Green Zone.”
Schwartz said the fighting was intense, though after the second day, the shooting became sporadic.
“The only people in the streets at that time were the Iraqi military,” he said. “Everyone else went into their homes. You could sometimes see people in the windows watching you. On the third day, it was almost an eerie calm, and you got a sense that we were transitioning. I remember on the 11th of April that we were getting ready to start a new phase — moving away from major combat.”
Though the book focuses on the strike into Baghdad itself, Schwartz remembers the challenges after claiming the city.
He remembers standing on top of his tank surrounded by thousands of Iraqi citizens as they looted the city. The battalions were so outnumbered, Schwartz said there was nothing his men could to stop the weeklong looting outside of the Green Zone.
He also remembers the zoo, which underwent some looting of its own — dogs, birds and other fowl were looted. In the end, Schwartz and his men were left with tigers, lions, bears and other large animals. It was the help from a South African farmer who saw Schwartz on television talking about the zoo on the news that ensure that those animals stayed alive after the capture of the city.
What also sticks out to Schwartz is what he was unable to do. His battalion was told to secure the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, which happened to be well outside of the Green Zone and away from the other areas they were told to secure. Given that the museum was also a base for enemy forces, the firefight and the fact that the military had been there for some time meant Schwartz’s forces were not able to prevent looting and damage to the museum.
Schwartz said he still answers questions about that, even as he prepares to retire in less than 20 days.
The soon-to-be retired colonel is looking at starting a new career and finding a new home, though Carlisle holds special moments for his family. Schwartz graduated from the U.S. Army War College in 2007, and a year later, his daughter Allison graduated from Carlisle High School, where she met her fiancee who returned home Thursday from serving in Afghanistan.
After his daughter’s graduation, Schwartz left the area and became the garrison commander for Fort Knox for three years, but even that prestigious post couldn’t keep him from coming back. Schwartz joined the Center for Strategic Leadership and became a professor at the U.S. Army War College. The appeal, however, was for his son Andrew to graduate from Carlisle High School. Andrew, now 19, graduated last year.
“The reason why we came back is so our son can go to Carlisle High School and graduate,” Schwartz said. “It’s a great school and it gave them a good education.”
With the last of his children graduated, Schwartz is looking forward to life after the military and possibly helping out with production of the movie.
Even though the movie is directed by Simon West, who is better known for action flicks like “Con Air,” “The Mechanic” and “Expendables 2,” Schwartz hopes the movie will reflect what truly matters in the Thunder Run operation — the men he served with.
“I hope that he does due diligence (with the story),” he said. “I hope he does good by the soldiers who were involved in this.”