“The hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, was so secretive that one special forces widow did not know her husband had died in a close encounter with the terrorist until she read about it in The Sunday Times.
Master Sergeant Tony Yost, a 39-year-old sniper known as “Chief” because of his Apache heritage, was leading a special forces “A-team” raid on a Zarqawi safe house in Mosul, northern Iraq, when he was killed last November.
The Sunday Times referred to the incident a fortnight ago in an article about Zarqawi’s death in a US airstrike. We reported that Yost had killed three of the terrorist’s lieutenants in a firefight before Zarqawi blew up the house and escaped through a tunnel.
It was news to Yost’s grieving wife Joann. “I saw Tony’s name and thought, ‘That’s my husband’,” she said.
All she had been told by the US military was that a building had exploded with her husband inside. She learnt later that he had killed several insurgents, but Zarqawi was not mentioned. The information was top secret.
“I can live with the fact that Tony died doing what he loved,” Joann said. “But I want to fight for the right for my children to know what happened to him.”
Joann was discouraged from seeing her husband’s badly injured body before he was buried at Arlington national cemetery. She hopes to be buried next to him one day.
Joann, the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, still lives near Fort Bragg in North Carolina, home to Yost’s 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (airborne). She was a 34-year-old aerobics teacher when she met Yost, a weapons instructor, at the local gym shortly before the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
They had both been married before and each had a teenage child, but they soon became inseparable. Yost secretly went to buy an engagement ring with Joann’s son Donovan before he proposed.
After their marriage, AJ — short for Anthony James — was born. He is two now and missing his father. Joann has taken him to see the memorial at Fort Bragg where Yost’s name is inscribed alongside those of all 965 special forces soldiers killed or missing in action since the Vietnam war.
She has told the boy his father will not be coming home. “He’s too young to understand. He still says Daddy is at work.”
Joann worries that Yost will be nothing more than a photograph to AJ. “I would like my son to be able to say one day, ‘This is what happened to my father’. The details may not matter to some people, but they matter to me,” she said.
Yost had served in the special forces for more than a decade when the Iraq war broke out. He was a deadly accurate sniper and volunteered for active duty.
“Tony was a special forces legend,” one source recalled. “There are many stories around about his prowess with a rifle. He was a known master sniper.
Another special forces soldier said: “He was a natural leader who was called chief. I remember him telling me that he carried his grandfather’s tomahawk with him.”
The net began closing in on Zarqawi last autumn as the tip-offs about his location increased. On November 19, Yost’s “A team”, backed up by Iraqi forces, surrounded the house in Mosul where they believed the terrorist was.
A firefight broke out in which an American soldier and several Iraqi soldiers were killed. Eleven US troops were wounded. Yost fought his way into the house.
US Army Special Operations Command said later that Yost “was in the process of searching a building in Mosul for insurgents when an explosion occurred, collapsing the building. Yost was killed by the blast.”
But a source familiar with the operation confirmed it was a key moment in the hunt for Zarqawi. “They had good information that Zarqawi and three of his top subordinates would be meeting there,” the source said.
“The house was surrounded and a firefight ensued. Tony was able to get into the house. Forensics indicated that Tony killed the three subordinates. A tunnel and blood which proved to be Zarqawi’s was found. He apparently blew the house up as he escaped.”
Joann said: “I asked everyone I could whether Tony’s death had anything to do with Zarqawi and was told, ‘Well, Zarqawi wasn’t in there’.”
Major Jim Gregory, a spokesman for Special Forces Command at Fort Bragg, said he had no information on Zarqawi’s alleged presence. “We don’t hold things back from the wives, but it’s not something we would be typically made aware of.”
Joann is hoping the military will consider awarding Yost a Distinguished Service Medal for “exceptional performance of duty”. He has already been granted a Silver Star, Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
“I’d like to see my husband fully honoured,” she said. “It makes me more than proud to know he was on that mission.”
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