March 28, 2003. Night time. Warm air. Kuwait International Airport. The screaming roar of engines disorients as we hobble towards the anxious planes sitting in the dark. Distant city lights twinkle in the gaseous exhaust. I imagine a Kuwaiti family, somewhere out there, sitting down for dinner.
Fuck. I’m already sweating in my brand new camouflage chemical suit. It’s bulky, hot, and scratchy.
We waddle forward. I’m upset that I’m not wearing a parachute. For months, we trained to parachute into Baghdad airport commando-style in what would later become the greatest-mission-that-never-happened. Now, our commanders tell us we are going to instead simply land on some captured airfield in southern Iraq. The details are unclear. Were we going to roll out of the back of the aircraft, guns blazing? Would the enemy be there, or was the airfield secure?
I shuffle up the ramp and drop my heavy rucksack filled with explosives at the rear of the aircraft and follow the guy in front of me to a waiting seat. I can’t hear anything, the engines completely drowning out the world. I buckle in and take a shallow breath, looking around at the other guys. They look so ready for this. I feel tense and pukey. The flight would be two or three hours, they said. The cabin is dimly lit with an eerie red light that’s supposed to help our eyes adjust to the darkness we’d face when we get to Iraq.
The engine screams louder and we rocket off. No one speaks. Most try to sleep.
I always imagined that on my flight to war there would be an officer on the ramp with a massive whiteboard, energetically updating the enemy and friendly situation on the ground, crossing out little black symbols of sister aircraft that get shot down en route. We’d all be wearing headsets, listening to updates. I imagined the pilot blasting Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” over the intercom as we got ready to jump, pumping us up.
None of that happened. Instead, just the dull roar of the engine and nauseating anxiety.
I spent the majority of the flight twisting my arm behind my back trying to unbuckle a hard-to-reach pouch that kept my night vision goggles. I forgot to take them out before we buckled in. I squirmed in my seat, sweat beads forming on my brow, my shoulder joint about to tear from the tension. My fingers move frantically trying to untie the cord, over and over again. I feel helpless. I want to cry. I was nervous that we would land and I wouldn’t have my night vision ready. I could just ask the guy sitting next to me to get it, but I don’t. I don’t know why.
I want to sleep, but can’t. I imagine our aircraft zooming low along the desert, weaving between friendly cruise missiles and enemy scuds.
It’s early afternoon in New York. My dad is just coming home from work, my mom pouring his Guinness with a shot of Jack Daniels. I’m convinced that every sound I hear is the sound of bullets pinging the sides of the plane.
Two or three hours pass.
We land. The ramp slowly opens and reveals Iraq for the first time; a gaping, never-ending black hole.
We stand up and grab our rucks, running off the back of the ramp. Outside, I take a knee and make sure my team is with me. I still can’t hear anything because of the engines. I can’t see anything, I just feel the darkness. Once everyone is out, a team leader from another squad pounds me on the shoulder and screams something in my ear, gesturing to stand up and follow him. Confused and scared, I stand up and follow, marching in a straight line away from the aircraft.
The C-130’s engines hit a crescendo as they power up. It turns around, speeds away and takes off, disappearing in the distance. Suddenly, for the first time in hours, it is completely quiet.
A voice from the darkness, with a caricatured accent like Major Payne from the movie, “Alright ya’ll, gather ’round he’ah.”
Confused, we all jumble around the dark figure. I can only see his silhouette under the starlight.
“Welcome to Talil airfield, 82nd Airborne Division, hoo-ah!. To your north you have the 3rd Infantry Divison, Rock of the Marne, to your south you have the 7th Special Forces Group, and to the west we’ve got the Marines, oo- rah! Watch where you step, we’ve got all kinds of ordnance out he’ah. We’ve also got a fair share of creepy critters crawling around, so shake out your boots before you put them on, hoo-ah?”
I scoffed, and then laughed slightly. I was offended that my war was starting with a standard Army orientation brief.
“Your shower facilities are located to my left, your right, roger? We’ve got a mini-PX he’ah, but it’s mostly sold out. We should start getting resupply regularly, though, so stand fast, hoo-ah?.”
After our briefing, our company is directed to a staging area nearby. It was quickly becoming clear that the war, wherever it was, wasn’t here. But since this was day zero for us, our leadership didn’t want to take any chances. We formed a circular perimeter, paratroopers spreading out every few feet and laying down in the dirt, ready to repel the Republican Guard or a pack of scorpions. We went to thirty-three percent security, meaning one guy needed to be awake and alert for every three guys. It was probably around midnight.
I got into position with my team and told my two guys they could sleep, I’d pull the first shift. Directly in front of our security position were a bunch of tanks. Friendly tanks. As my guys closed their eyes to go to sleep, I settled into the prone position. I watched a soldier in full chemical gear and flip-flops lazily get out of the tank in front of me and hobble to the shower with a towel over his shoulder. He shook his head at me as he passed. “New guys,” I imagined him thinking.
Feeling silly, I stopped fake guard duty after that and went and talked to my friend “Davis” who was in another squad. Davis was unofficially the “senior junior” soldier in the platoon. He had a dark personality, often telling inspecting sergeants and officers that he worshipped Satan, just to see how they’d respond. He carried a butterfly knife with him, and flipped it around casually as he spoke with you, both because it was his thing and it made people nervous. Davis was a machine gunner and had some questions about snipers – I was on a sniper team before coming to this platoon a few months earlier. He was concerned about being singled out by an Iraqi sniper because he had the biggest gun in the platoon. I instinctively responded that a sniper would probably shoot him first. I immediately felt bad, and then told him that the sniper would probably shoot the radio guy first.
Before heading back to my position, I had to pee. I realized that I hadn’t done this in heavy chemical gear before. I stood there, in the middle of the desert and fumbled with my chemical pants, trying to figure out how to get through it, my normal trousers, and my underwear. It took forever.
Relieved, I went back to my battle position and got down in the sand, making myself as comfortable as possible. It was quiet except for the distant buzz of generators and soldiers shuffling in their nylon to get comfortable. I stared at the tank in front of me and wondered what they sold at the PX.
March 29, 2003. After an hour of guard duty, I woke up one of my soldiers, “Samuel,” to replace me. Samuel was relatively new to the platoon. Sam was a strong, baby-faced soldier who was a minor celebrity in his hometown because he was a good high school wrestler. I explained to him that there was nothing to pull guard on; there was a friendly tank right in front of us and they weren’t doing anything either. He shrugged and got down behind his weapon and started to fight off sleep.
A few meters behind the security line I lay down, resting my head on my rucksack. I closed my eyes to try to sleep, exhausted. My mind raced with what the war would bring, what it would be like. I tried to shut my brain off every few moments to focus on sleeping, but dark thoughts kept intruding.
This went on for about thirty minutes, dark thoughts, try to sleep, dark thoughts. Eventually, our company first sergeant, “McKenzie” – a short, stocky man with a big personality – yelled loudly, breaking the tactical silence we all exercised for the past few hours: “Everybody get the fuck up! We’re moving.”
I was instantly angry that I didn’t get any sleep and others did. They’d get to go to war somewhat refreshed, while I’d still be exhausted.
We gathered our gear and moved into long lines, shuffling in the darkness to rumbling trucks which materialized not far away from us over the past couple of hours. These were old Army trucks that I had never seen before. Soldiers from the Army Reserve and National Guard sat in the driver’s seats, sleeping, or waited next to their truck, greeting us like a chauffeur as we approached.
Our platoon sergeant, “Skunk,” stopped us at a pair of trucks and told us to get on, these were ours. Skunk had served in the first Gulf War and wasn’t happy about being back in Iraq. He had a child three days before we left Fort Bragg. He was quiet, and didn’t reveal much about himself to the platoon. We all respected him because he was proficient, but it was easy to see he didn’t want to be here. Skunk seemed to either be fully engaged and in the fight, or completely disinterested. Today, he was in the fight.
I climbed into the back of one of the trucks. They were uncovered. These were utility trucks, not combat vehicles.
“We’re driving?” someone asked.
“Yeah, ground assault convoy, a GAC,” Skunk replied like it was a real thing, counting us on the truck from the ground.
“This is such bullshit,” came a frustrated response from the back. We all wanted to jump into combat like we had trained. You get a special award for that, a gold star that goes on your jump wings. You didn’t get anything for driving.
We sat on our rucksacks, lined up in the middle of the truck bed, our weapons lazily resting on the sides of the guard rails. The truck idled at a low rumble, rocking us into sleepiness like a mother to her baby. We sat there for a long time, waiting to drive to war.
After an hour or so, with everyone loaded and accounted for, our convoy lurched forward into the darkness.
As we crept towards the exit of the airfield, I looked out at an endless sea of military equipment. There were trucks, tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, and steel containers for as far as I could see. Palm trees swayed in a light breeze under a dark purple sky as I marveled at it all, taking it all in for the first time. The enormity of what we were doing started to hit me. We were only days into the war, and all of this equipment was here, ready to be switched to kill. I felt supremely small, a pawn in America’s Grim Death Machine. I felt drunk with power, and happy to be on the winning side.
We drove through the night in a straight line of trucks. All around us was desert. Bombs detonated in the
distance. We rarely heard them, only saw the dull white flashes and a low rumble, like a far away thunderstorm. “Shock and awe,” David said slyly, repeating the phrase he heard from the Big Boss, Don Rumsfeld. “Fucking bad ass,” I replied.
Night turned to day. We kept driving, stopping only to take piss breaks every couple of hours. We finally stopped for good somewhere in the middle of nowhere. We were ordered to change out of our heavy chemical gear and into our lightweight desert uniforms. The chemical threat had passed, they said, though we had to keep our gas masks on us. In pairs, one of us stripped down naked in the middle of the Iraqi desert and changed clothes while the other pulled guard. We then moved into a group of abandoned buildings on the outskirts of the city of farming city As Samawah and settled in for the evening. Guys shifted on and off of guard duty through our first night of war. They told us to sleep in our chemical gear, just in case.
March 30, 2003. I woke up early for guard and sucked on sunflower seeds, watching a nearby Iraqi family go through their morning farm routine. It was damp out, and the air had a chill. They were a football field away, and I peered through binoculars, watching a young girl fill buckets of water and bring it back to her house. A man, probably her father, walked out and put his hand to his eyes, looking back at me. I stared at him for a moment and then put the binoculars down and picked up my rifle. He went back inside.
We didn’t get a very good mission brief, other than we were going to walk into As Samawah and try to start a fight. The plan was to just walk, one behind the other, straight into the city until something happens.
We were confused and pissed. This was the exact opposite of what we had trained. We expected to attack deliberate targets, moving in tactical formations under the cover of darkness, using our night vision devices to our advantage, utilizing principles of fire and maneuver to maximize our combat power. Our complaints were heard, noted, and discarded. We slid our armor over our shoulders, hoisted up our bags of explosives, and moved out towards As Samawah. One foot in front of the other.
“How far are we going?” I asked as we started walking, leaving the safety of the buildings behind us.
“Eh, probably 3 or 4 miles” was the reply from another leader.
I shook my head, frustrated, thinking this was stupid.
We halted shortly after coming off a main road on the outskirts of town and pushed into a lush, green grove.
It felt like a Vietnam war movie. Palm trees, tall green grass, and shallow, murky water. This was not what I expected. I expected either sandy desert or souks and minarets.
We were just outside the city. In the distance I heard the sounds of machine-guns and occasional explosions – our sister battalions, closing in on As Samawah, I supposed. Off in the distance I heard an angry, frantic voice on the loudspeaker of a mosque. He was yelling, screaming. I was reminded of the scene in Saving Private Ryan, where the German on the loudspeaker was saying that “the Statue of Liberty is kaput!” I was certain he was giving away our location. I didn’t like the voice. It sounded hateful. I felt exposed.
Waiting on a knee, I heard a commotion to the front of our halted formation. An Iraqi man in a white robe approached us with his hands up. One hand clutched prayer beads. He looked friendly, or at least, not threatening. The team leader near him, a handsome, statuesque paratrooper named “Chris” raised his weapon and shouted angrily to stay back. The man raised his arms higher and seemed to plead, as friendly as he could. Chris shouted back louder, pointing his weapon at the man, threatening to shoot. I thought that he probably wanted to tell us something or just welcome us. Chris wouldn’t budge and eventually the man walked away.
After a few minutes, we got back up and started walking again. We moved out of the grove and onto a paved road. Our platoon marched on the road, soldiers lined on the sides and our gun trucks in the middle. The gun trucks had .50 caliber machine guns and MK19 grenade launchers. We also had a psychological operations vehicle with a massive loudspeaker on top, blasting a message in Arabic – “Inti-bah! Inti-bah! Inti-bah! (Attention!)” followed by their message, whatever it was they were saying. To us, it was just a giant target.
I was on the right side of the road and I looked off into the distance as we walked, searching for the enemy. Mostly I saw people poking dark heads out of windows, curious. Houses had colored flags raised over their roofs. I struggled to think back to our classes in Kuwait, trying to remember what the colors meant, if they meant anything at all. Gunfire continued to ring out in the distance, the background music of the day.
The march was painfully slow and the sun rose steadily into the sky, heating us up under our heavy green armor. Our packs were stuffed full of equipment. Mine was filled with explosives – claymore mines, extra grenades, DET cord, C4 plastic explosive. I was afraid of falling down and spontaneously exploding.
After walking a mile, we stopped again and pulled off to the side of the road into a dusty ditch. We got low to the ground, happy for the rest. I felt a general anxiety starting to build. It was all around us. Something was going to happen soon. We heard the sounds of mortars passing overhead – something I had never heard before. It sounded like a Nerf football that whoozes as it goes by.
“Are those ours or theirs?” I asked to no one in particular.
The guy next to me shrugged when we made eye contact.
We got up and started walking again. It must have been about noon now and getting hotter. My shoulders and back ached as one foot fell in front of the other. I heard a “poof” and looked up, a dark cloud of black smoke floating overhead. A mortar round – maybe a spotting round? Or was it chemical gas? I didn’t know. No one around me knew. I looked around expecting a call to put our gas masks on or take up positions or something – anything – but got nothing. “We’re really going to act like that didn’t just happen?” I asked to no one I’m particular. No response. Keep walking. One foot in front of the other.
The tension continued to build. I looked over to the right. Through some trees, about fifty meters away, I saw an Iraqi man on his balcony. He wore a white robe and had a thick, black mustache. Like the guy in the grove, he was rubbing prayer beads in one of his hands. He watched us.
My head turned back to the road and I saw the truck in the middle of our formation explode in a grey cloud accompanied by loud bang. An RPG round had slammed into it.
“Shit!” I thought or said.
A machine gun rang out and I jumped off the road behind a tree. Everyone did the same, seeking cover. The guys on the left side of the road jumped off to the left, and the guys on the right jumped to the right, splitting our formation in two, with the trucks still up there on the road, one smoking.
Someone started hot-mic’ing, meaning their push-to-talk button on their radio was stuck, freezing up our communications. I heard the sound of an unfamiliar machine gun. It sounded slower than ours and more high pitched. It was terrifying, the sound of death.
My heart sank down to my feet as “the war” suddenly became “my war.” This was it. We were in an ambush. I got as low as I could behind some cover and kept my head down as the bullets flew overhead.
My first thought: “Fuck this shit. I’m not re-enlisting.”
My second thought: “Why are they shooting at me? What did I do to them?” It felt personal and stupid. I forgot for a moment that I was a United States soldier, sent here to invade Iraq and win. For a tiny moment, I was just me.
My reality rushed back and I remembered I was in a war and it was now real. The fight was happening in front of me. I turned around to make sure I had my two guys with me: they were there. I looked up to the road and saw our Weapons Squad Leader, “Vincent,” a short, tattooed, beast of a man, standing up straight and directing soldiers – he was fearless and crazy. Everyone was screaming into their radios saying nothing. I couldn’t reach my squad leader who was on the left side of the road. I looked back to the front and saw one of our soldiers firing an anti-tank rocket.
Looking back to the right I saw the Iraqi man on the balcony again, watching the ambush. I raised my weapon and took aim, my little red dot shaking on his bright, white robe. I watched him for a second and thought about pulling the trigger. My finger got tight on the metal and I hesitated. He turned and went inside.
After an eternity of everyone yelling and shooting around me, I decided I should probably do something too. I turned to my team and said “Okay, we’re going to move forward, help the guys up front.” They looked back at me blankly.
I got up and dashed to another tree. They followed behind. We ran about twenty-five meters before I saw a bunch of our company leadership, officers and radio operators, sprinting back from where we came along the road. My head turned, watching them literally run at a full gallop away from the fight.
I heard a voice shouting that we were pulling back. I was confused. Then I saw Skunk, waving wildly at me to get up and run back to him. I complied, my team following behind me. I ran as fast I could, which felt incredibly slow. My legs felt like tree trunks like they might in a dream. My helmet and assault pack bounced. I was dripping sweat and I felt sand scratching the insides of my legs.
I reached Skunk and he hit me hard on the shoulder, counting me as I passed him.
I was covered in sweat and dust. Adrenaline flowed into every cell of my body. I felt sick. Our platoon consolidated off the side of the road.
“Gomez, your team has rear security” my squad leader, “Matthews” said.
“Roger.” I moved my team to a position to cover the rear. Our team watched a couple of farm houses while the rest of the platoon settled in along the road, facing the source of the ambush.
“Helicopters en route,” the commander shouted.
“F-18 also en route,” someone else added.
I kept peeking back to see what was going on as I pulled security, scanning the farm homes about thirty meters in front of me. After a few minutes, two Kiowa helicopters – small, quick things – appeared overhead and flew down the road, towards the ambush site. They identified a target and then turned back around towards us, setting up for the strike. On their second run, the first Kiowa lifted up slightly and fired a couple of rockets before quickly peeling off. The second did the same. They made two or three gun runs. I pulled out my disposable camera and nervously snapped a couple of pictures, catching the smoke trail of the rockets.
After the gun runs, the Kiowas did a celebratory fly over and we cheered stupidly, waving our rifles as they passed overhead.
We moved further away to an open field and spread out, securing ourselves. The Command Sergeant Major, a tall, powerful man who had been in the Army forever visited us, congratulating us on our first firefight. ‘Shock and awe’ resumed when the sun went down.
I was finally at war.
March 31, 2003. Bombs rumbled in the distance. We could see the orange glow of explosions shade the black sky over the city followed by the low rumble, leading up to an explosion a few moments later.
When it became apparent that we were going to stay here for longer than a few hours, our leadership decided it was time to dig in.
“Alright Gomez, have your team start digging fighting positions” Matthews ordered.
I looked at my squad leader and smiled, laughing slightly. He returned the stare, not laughing.
“You serious?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, “start digging.”
Digging fighting positions was one of those things I thought we trained for back home for posterity’s sake but would never actually do in combat. Kind of like marching. This was 2003, we were practically cyborgs. But there we were, chopping shallow graves out of the hard earth with our portable, foldable shovels.
Between bouts of digging, soldiers rotated over by the road to gawk at a dead Iraqi. He was shot by a squad leader in another platoon during the ambush. We didn’t know what to do with him so he just lay there in the street.
After a couple of hours of digging our team finished our positions. We started a rest plan. I would sleep for an hour and then my team would sleep for an hour.
The leaders planned while the rest of us either slept or fought off sleep looking through green hued night vision devices at an open field in front of us. It was quiet, warm, and peaceful. Crickets and distant bombs, rumbling lightly like thunder.
The word came around that we were moving, pack up your stuff. We hastily filled in our fighting positions with dirt and got our gear together. Our brief, parceled out in rushed whispers as we stepped off: we were going to move in and kill the guys that ambushed us earlier that day.
We moved under darkness down in the low ground. Our gun trucks slithered slowly along the road, following. Dogs barked in the distance, cutting the night with their ghastly echoes. Besides all the noise, it was quiet. The sky was dark and full of stars. It was still a few hours before morning.
We were going to conduct a company attack. One platoon would act as a support by fire, essentially shooting the shit out of the ambush position while another platoon assaulted through, killing everything again. I had only ever done a platoon attack – this was the same thing but on a bigger scale.
Meanwhile, every single one of us knew that there was no way in hell the enemy was still there.
We arrived at our support position and the leaders started emplacing machine guns and rifle squads.
“Hey Gomez,” Matthews half-whispered, “your team has rear security.”
Matthews was obsessed with rear security. Often, Skunk forgot to designate someone to cover the rear, so my squad leader laser focused on that and made sure we always had someone. That someone seemed to always be me and my team. I knew it was an important role, but it was usually boring.
As the rest of the platoon settled in along a ridge, ready to kill everyone, my team spread out along some bushes about fifty meters behind them – three boys to protect the platoon from whatever monsters emerged from the darkness.
We sat in that position for awhile, and then the artillery started. The objective was about three hundred meters away. I had never been so close to falling artillery before. There was no long whistle like we practiced in training. There is a short thwoop and then the vibration and sound of the round smashing into the earth. One after another. It was an amazing thing to be near.
Thwoop – boom! Thwoop – boom!
After the artillery, I watched a gun truck truck fire their MK19 onto the objective supported by another truck with a .50 cal.
Dunk dunk dunk and off went three 40mm grenades, followed by a short spray from the machine gun, then boom boom boom as the grenades exploded.
Then the platoon opened up with their machine guns. Then everyone started shooting. Gunfire and explosions everywhere. The grand finale at a Fourth of July show.
I sat there, watching the flashes and explosions go off in my night vision. I’m pretty sure we were shooting at nothing. But I’m completely certain it was dead.
Our platoon stopped shooting and one of the other platoons assaulted the objective and seized it. We waited awhile until that was over. It took forever – maybe an hour. I slipped in and out of consciousness, my heavy night vision device slowly tugging my helmet down to earth and my head and eyes with it. The night was ending and the sun would soon be rising.
Adrenaline gone and exhaustion settling in, we were finally told it was time to move forward. We would be moving into a piece of territory that had not been seized yet. My squad was placed on point.
We started walking, moving off of the road that we had been ambushed on and into a big, choppy field. We spread out into a wedge formation. My team behind the first. We crept along slowly. To our left the ancient Euphrates. Ahead we could see a bridge crossing the river to another part of the city – the suburbs. To the distant right was Samawah proper.
Our leadership halted the formation when we spotted a couple of buildings – large sheds along the river to the left. Doctrine stated we needed to clear them before moving forward. The platoon got down and scanned their sectors while my squad leader directed me to the first building. My fear grew quickly as I bounced along the ground at a jog with my team following closely behind me. Me, Samuel, my SAW gunner “Pete” and then Matthews. We decided since these were tiny buildings Pete and Matthews would take up a covering position while Samuel and myself breach and clear the buildings.
We approached the first. The sun was now barely peeking over the treetops. I stacked along the building near the door with Sam doing the same behind me. I glanced over to Pete who was where he needed to be, ready to shoot whatever decided to greet us. I checked the door and it was unlocked so we burst in. I tried to quickly turn as I entered but the way was blocked by a workbench. Instead, I pushed further into the center of the room and moved around the workbench to make room for Sam following closely behind. There was nothing here. Clear.
We exited the building and I motioned for Pete as we quickly moved to the second building, which was further ahead of us and further away from the rest of the platoon.
I led my team towards the building when suddenly gunfire rang out loudly. I hit the ground and crawled behind cover. The thought that I was definitely going to be killed quickly entered my mind – I was too far away from the rest of the platoon – I was spacewalking, untethered. I turned my head around to see if anyone was hit and saw Matthews sprinting away for cover. I kept my head low for a moment and looked to see who was shooting at us. I saw one of our gun trucks drive forward, shooting their .50 cal at a ridge near the bridge, not very far from me. They popped off a few shots and stopped.
I lay there, waiting for a phantom bullet to rip through my face as the situation slowly de-escalated. I watched another gun truck drive further towards the ridge and park, engine lowly growling.
Without comment as to what happened, Matthews gave me the signal to clear the next building, and we did, quickly, with the same result. Clear.
We moved back to the platoon and settled into a security position. My team and I were at the lead of the formation again. Guys in the platoon said that they saw some bad guys poking over the ridge near the bridge, the spot where the gun trucks were shooting. I trained my weapon on that spot and watched. I focused hard, my red dot aiming point shaking again. My breathing got heavy and I felt my heart beating hard against my ribs, my ribs against my armor, the armor against the ground, shaking my red dot with each beat. At one point, I thought I saw something and I stopped breathing and switched my weapon off safe, watching carefully. The wind buzzed in my ear. The adrenaline disappeared again, giving way to the nervousness and anxiety it masked.
I sat there watching the exact spot the guys said the bad guys were for what felt like an eternity. I felt alone and afraid, trapped in the tiny circle of my weapon sight.
I caught movement in my peripheral vision. It was Dave the machine gunner, whom I said would be killed first by a sniper. After pleading with Skunk, he and his team were given permission to move up and support us. He looked right at me and gave me slight, super-cool nod, a little signal saying “I got you” as he got down behind his beast of a weapon. And just like that I wasn’t alone.
We wanted to take this position to our front. We could all see that there was a large pipe along the bridge. It was carrying liquid which was now pouring out from large bullet holes. We didn’t know if it was water, gas, or something else. We sat there looking at it as Skunk tried to decide on a course of action. We were paralyzed, sitting there, waiting for something.
In a moment that can be described as both ridiculously heroic and crazy, Dave jumped up and started running towards the pipe.
“I’ll check and see” he said, sprinting forward without his machine gun.
“Stop!” we shouted.
He didn’t listen and kept going forward. While Skunk didn’t approve of this individual act of whatever-it-was, we could feel that he was actually relieved that he was going to check. We watched him, hoping – hoping he didn’t get popped.
He crouched next to the pipe and put his finger to the flowing liquid, then tasted it. “It’s just water!” he shouted before coming back.
With that, our platoon moved forward and settled into a battle position, happy to be holding some piece of ground.
We sat in there for the longest day, digging holes and piling rocks. The city was declared a “free fire zone,” if that’s even a real thing. A speeding truck across the river was torn apart by our machine guns. It crashed and burned, puffing an endless stream of black smoke into the sky, reminding us and everyone around that it was a war.
It got hot. We were out of MREs and were told to conserve what we had, because we didn’t know when we would be resupplied. This was another one of those things that I didn’t think could happen in 2003 – no resupply?
I heard the strangest sound behind us, from the area we were ambushed the day prior. It sounded like fighting dogs, lots of them. It was frightening. I asked about it, and someone said it was women mourning the deaths of loved ones. I didn’t see it, only heard it. The flat land and water carried the ghastly sound from them to us. We killed someone.
It was a lazy, hot, and hungry day. We joked and stretched our muscles, sore from carrying our gear nonstop for over 24 hours. Like dogs, we drifted with the shade. We watched the river peacefully flow and the lush greenland across from us, the destroyed truck pouring thick, black smoke into the blue sky in the the distance. The colors of war are magnificent.
We convinced Skunk to let us take off our gear and take an improvised shower under the damaged water pipe. It was the first time we could take off our body armor, and we lingered under the water until he yelled at us.
The day dragged on. When we weren’t pulling guard duty, we retreated under ponchos strung out to stay out of the sun. Word spread that we would be assaulting a hospital in the city that the fedayeen were using as their headquarters.
The sun set and the moon rose, shimmering brilliantly on the river. I was pulled under a poncho with the platoon leadership to go over the plan. Six heads close to one another, hovering inches off the ground looking at a satellite map. I tried really hard to keep my mouth closed, concerned about having bad breath, because I smelled theirs. The plan was simple. We would breach an outer wall with explosives and flow the rifle squads into the hospital while weapons squad supported with their machine guns. Simple. There really is no other plan.
We’d move at 2300, a couple of hours away. In the dark, I walked back to our squad’s position and quickly briefed my team on the plan. Then, we went into a rest plan to try to get some sleep before the mission. I was exhausted, but thought it would be best to stay up myself and pull security while my two guys slept. They crawled out of their position and slid down a concrete sump and quickly fell asleep. I settled in behind our team’s SAW with the M203 sitting next to me. I flipped down my night vision and watched the river gently flow in front of me, stars twinkling in the sky. It was peaceful and quiet.
I woke up to violent shaking. The giant image of Matthews, hued in green night vision came into focus. He looked like the Incredible Hulk. He was yelling but I couldn’t hear anything. He was furious and telling me to wake the fuck up. I fell asleep on guard. Back in the US, I always thought that if I were ever in a real war, I would never fall asleep on guard like I did in training in the woods of Fort Bragg. The fear of the enemy would be enough to keep me awake. Exhaustion is a force more powerful than fear.
I stood up, confused. The world slowly came back into focus, the realization that I was in Iraq hitting me hard. It was 2300 and we were on the move. I slipped my fingers into one of my pouches and pulled out a package of caffeine pills I bought at CVS before deploying. I experimented with them in Kuwait and they worked at keeping me awake all night, to the annoyance of the guys in my team who were trying to fall asleep while pulling guard. I popped two of the yellow pills in my mouth and washed them down with a sip of dank water from my canteen.
We moved into a wedge formation, the squads expanding out like a long snake. We were pumped. We were about to hit a building with known enemy inside. Finally, this was exactly what we trained for. An urban fight, where we’d get to use all of our gizmos and gadgets to their best effectiveness. We even spent some time in the concrete sump prepping C4 breaching charges.
The caffeine was starting to hit me and I was ready for war. My cells opened up and I sensed everything. The rest of the platoon stumbled like zombies while I stepped lively. We moved maybe ten meters before stopping. I raised my hand to signal a halt with vigor and took a knee, amped. Everyone else either just stood there or immediately flopped down on their assault packs, exhausted. Word spread that we were waiting for a Bradley Fighting Vehicle from the 3rd Infantry Division that was going to move with us and support our mission.
Ten minutes went by. I was still on a knee.
Thirty minutes. No Bradley.
An hour. I flopped on my assault pack. Everyone else was sleeping or pretending to be awake. Two hours.
Four hours, and I was finally coming down off of my caffeine high.
April 1, 2003. It was now nearly 0400. The platoon slept. The low pitched grumble of a heavy diesel engine in the distance cut through the night. It was our escort, the Bradley, finally showing up. Skunk roused us awake. The plan changed, but we didn’t know what it changed to. It didn’t matter, we were moving. I followed the guy in front of me, wondering.
It was still dark, but barely. The twilight of the morning began. I stumbled along, turning into a zombie as my true exhaustion set in after the caffeine-induced adrenaline receded from my blood and exited my body through beads of sweat, evaporating into the cool Iraqi air.
Every dog in Samawah barked at us from a distance. Sam stumbled up and pleaded with me to stop – he had a terribly twisted ankle. I told him there was nothing we could do (there wasn’t). He pleaded again – I understood. I told him this was war, there was no stopping. He grudgingly fell back to his place in formation. I felt bad.
The horizon hued purple for a moment before a bright pink began spreading out. The sun threatened to reveal us to the enemy before we got to our position. We moved faster. The Bradley ground up the concrete along the road while we walked at a fast quicktime before picking up a light jog. Chickens clucked. Goats yawned.
We were still on the outskirts of town. Crops. Animals. Lots of greenery. The tension was building again, like it had a couple of days earlier on the road before the ambush. We moved along a mud wall and then turned into the opening of someones farm. It was still early, maybe 0600 now. Heads peeked out of windows at what must have looked like Martians playing war in their yard. Our nylon armor rattled against the metal of our guns as we bopped along, teams pulling security to allow for the rapid movement of the next, leap frogging one another deeper into someone’s livelihood. The sun was up. It was morning.
Somewhere not far away we heard shooting. At us? I don’t know. The temperature rose and we all tensed up. I was tired, but alert. More shooting.
I fell backwards onto my ass when I ran head first into a cow that popped up in front of me out of nowhere. I looked into her eyes, and she looked into mine, chewing. I thought she was going to kick or bite me. I got up and continued on. Our platoon emerged from the the farmhouse and into a green, wooded area, brightly lit by the rising sun. I had no idea where we were. I knew this wasn’t the hospital. Where was the Bradley?
Skunk put us into a circular formation. We took up security positions. I slid into the cool shade behind a log. In front of me was grass, trees, lots of bushes, and a house behind all of that. Every now and then we heard machine gun fire in the distance. The ground felt damp and soft.
I could hardly breathe. I felt like my heart was about to shut down. All I wanted to do was collapse into sleep. I was in my post-caffeine exhaustion and fading fast. I rocked to my side in the prone and propped my rifle on the log in front of me, scanning my sector as my eyes lazily opened and closed.
One of my teammates looked at me and said I looked like shit. I told him about the caffeine pills. He said to take more. I disagreed, wanting to normalize my system. My skin was clammy. I felt sick.
Vince, the short, tattooed maniac came by with the greatest news of the war. We were going to hold this position for awhile, so we could go into a rest plan.
Without even saying anything, I slipped behind the log and curled up. My two teammates nodded at me, knowing I was exhausted. They took the first shift. I closed my eyes and tried to quiet my mind. I thought I would immediately pass out, but I had to actually focus. The sun was up and bright. it was around 0700. Birds chirped, and I could hear Kiowa helicopters nearby, humming.
My eyes opened to the sound of nearby gunfire. I looked up to see my two teammates, pulling security, scanning. I closed my eyes. A couple of moments later the gunfire returned, closer.
I huffed deeply, annoyed, and poked my head back up over the log, grabbing my weapon. I scanned and saw nothing but green bushes.
More gunfire. They were out there somewhere in front of us.
I dipped my head back down behind the log for cover. I looked back and saw a couple of other guys in my squad, heads up and exposed like a couple of Easter Peeps. We made eye contact and they giggled at me, low behind the log. I thought they were crazy, heads exposed. The gunfire kept getting closer. All I wanted to do was sleep. I fought to stay awake. It physically hurt.
I poked my head up again to take a look and then quickly dipped back down behind the log. I was terrified of being shot in the face. I repeated this several times. Two Kiowas were circling directly overhead now, making it hard to hear anything other than their engines. They were looking for the source of the gunfire. A rocket whizzed past one of the Kiowas.
Matthews broke in over our radio. “Gomez, have Sam fire a marking grenade where the shooting is coming from, the Kiowas will take them out.”
Sam heard the call and started fishing around in his bag. We made eye contact and I pointed out the general direction.
He loaded the round and fired.
A few seconds passed and we heard a loud explosion. Sam had pulled the wrong grenade.
McKenzie broke in over the radio, “I said fucking smoke! Fire a smoke round!”
This time with a smoke round loaded, he fired again. After a moment, the Kiowas rushed towards the billowing smoke, circling like vultures, searching.
More gunfire. Dangerously close.
I clutched the ground behind the log. It sounded like they were right in front of us! The Kiowas hovered above for a moment and then left us having never found them. It got very quiet.
More gunfire. Louder. Right fucking there.
McKenzie came back over the radio, starting off as calm as could be and then exploding in anger: “You know what, Alpha Company, they wrote a god-damn book about this – it’s called fucking FM 7-dash-8! SHOOT AT KNOWN OR FUCKING SUSPECTED ENEMY LOCATIONS!”
That was all I needed. I looked to Pete and nodded, “Ready?” He nodded back and we simultaneously popped up over the log and started shooting cyclic, into the trees and bushes.
Once we started shooting, everyone started shooting. A volley of death into nothing. We fired for a minute or so, a tiny explosion of hate and fear in the middle of Iraq. When we stopped, the mysterious gunfire disappeared.
Shortly thereafter, McKenzie spoke with the owners of a nearby farmhouse and told them we would be occupying it temporarily. The platoon moved up to the farmhouse in a file, exhausted and exhilarated. Soldiers flowed inside, taking off their packs and body armor and collapsing into corners to rest. I was put on guard duty. I had to sit in a white plastic lawn chair in front of the house and watch the roof of the hospital, which was far in the distance. I positioned myself so that I could watch it through a break in some nearby tree branches. I wondered if a fedayeen sniper could take me out from there as I fell asleep in the chair.
Completely passed out. My eyes opened as the platoon sergeant from a sister platoon passed by, his platoon behind him in a file. He looked down at me as he passed and smiled slightly.
“Tired?” he asked.
I nodded. “Yeah.”
We spent the day lounging in the farmhouse. Soldiers sprawled out along the cool tile floor. The extended family that lived there moved to an attached guest house. Our snipers took up a position on the roof and shot at targets of opportunity at the hospital, still controlled by the fedayeen. It was a carnival. A long distance shooting gallery. Soldiers would go up there from time to time to take a shot, and then slip back downstairs to boast about it and then take a nap.
I took off my armor and lay on the floor, resting my head on my helmet, slipping in and out of consciousness. The temperature outside rose, cooking us slowly on the inside. My dream-sleep was punctuated by single shots from a sniper rifle or a volley of machine gun rounds flying through the air into the side of the hospital. I slept until sunset.
Upon waking, and feeling refreshed, I stood up and looked through some dirty glass in a door to see a line of Iraqi women in brightly colored robes setting up an old black stove on the patio. They moved swiftly, nervously, trying their best to ignore the dozens of young, dirty paratroopers lounging and preening in their home. They were cooking bread. Lots of it. A doughy smell wafted through the house, reminding us how much we hated our pre- packaged meals.
Pieces of bread were passed around. They were fresh and warm. The exterior was either soft or crusty, but the inside was always doughy. There was more than enough. The women kept cooking until we stopped eating. Soldiers held giant pieces of circular bread and pulled off small pieces, filling their cheeks.
I never got the impression that they wanted to cook for us, but I wanted so badly to believe that they did.
Night fell. The shooting from the roof stopped. Calm came over the house.We were invited to move into the guest house, a large rectangular room adjacent to the main house. We moved in. It was dark, lit only by candles casting an eerie, flickering glow over our faces. Pictures of mysterious religious figures adorned the wall. The floor was covered with a bright red rug. The head of the household sat, leaning against a wall. He seemed an ancient man. His beard was white and long and he wore a turban. His elbow rested on his knee, fingers massaging some prayer beads. His other hand supported himself sitting up. He was the image I had of a wise old Iraqi man. There he was. Other family members came and went, bringing trays of tea and sweets.
It was quiet. For the longest time no one spoke. I sat against the wall and watched intently. One of the more extroverted members of the platoon began conversing with the man in broken Arabic. The man spoke a little English. Over the next couple of hours, we learned about the fedayeen in Samawah, how they were intimidating the people, threatening them if they supported the Americans.
We listened and ate bread and drank tea. A young woman came in and argued with the man. He tried to dismiss her with a wave of his lithe hand and send her off, but she persisted. The man relented and asked us through hand gestures and the most rudimentary English if we could look at a young girl who needed medical attention. We agreed and brought in our combat medic, a tall, skinny black soldier that everyone just called “Doc.”
The woman left and then came back holding the hand of a young girl, maybe four years old. She looked scared. Doc, tall and imposing crouched down and examined the girl. The woman grabbed the child’s hand and turned it over roughly under the medic’s headlamp, revealing a small growth on the child’s hand. Our medic said it was benign and could be removed with a scalpel.
He prepped the area and gave her some local anesthetic. We all watched intently. Quickly, he sliced off the growth and the child started shrieking at the sight of her own blood. The medic applied a bandage and the woman smiled, hugging the child and calming her down before whisking her away from the room, expressing her thanks as she exited.
We all felt good, having done something to help.
Afterwards, we sat for a while longer until Skunk came in and broke the silence with his cutting voice. We were leaving immediately, we wouldn’t be assaulting the hospital after all, but heading somewhere north.
The old man watched the commotion. He must have sensed what was happening. A couple of guys tried to explain to Skunk what the man had said, that once we left here the fedayeen would come and hold them accountable for having us in their home – something that was surely known by everyone in town by now. Skunk heard our complaints and said there was nothing we could do. The young soldiers cursed, feeling terrible for abandoning the family that served us tea and bread.
I felt ambivalent. It sucked, but we had orders to move forward. We all felt very disconnected from whoever it was who made these decisions, someone much higher in the chain of command, moving chess pieces on a map. The chess piece that represented our platoon was sitting in a house with an Iraqi family that told us they would be killed if we left. That is the disconnect. We said our goodbye and quickly got out of there, not knowing what would happen. Never knowing.
We walked out of the house and into the darkness through the same farmland we came in on, working our way to mysterious trucks lined up off of a road. We piled in, not even caring about security anymore. I climbed onto a gator – a kind of military golf cart – and lay down in the bed and tried to sleep. The platoon felt like shit for leaving the family.
We bounced along, driving somewhere, leaving Samawah behind us forever. It would become the war for us. That was it before everything else. I fell asleep in the gator.
Somewhere down the road, we stopped suddenly. I opened my eyes, seeing black and occasionally dark purple sky, appearing fleetingly between shadows of soldiers shifting in the darkness of the back of the truck.
“The truck in front of us tipped over” someone said, disinterested.
A couple of the guys near the rear of our truck got out to help. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.
April 2, 2003. Emerging from the darkness, we got off trucks and filed into a quiet train station in the middle of the desert. The war was over, as far as we were concerned. We were told to rest. It was our job. The capture of Baghdad was imminent.
We slept. In the morning, we woke up and looked around. The dusty train station was abandoned. It was like a ghost town straight out of the Old West. Our duffel bags were delivered overnight and we rifled through them for treasures packed away in North Carolina. CD players, junk food, tobacco. Mail was handed out. I read a letter from my fiancé describing the awesome images of ‘shock and awe’ on her television. She said she was proud of me and it made me feel like I did something.
Some soldiers found a small puppy and took it under their care. Everyone visited and pet the small creature. They called him ‘Meces,’ like feces.
Rumors spread about when we would go home. Next week? Next month? Soon.
We explored the station, creeping inside a green, abandoned train. Did this train take tourists from the rural south to the big city, Baghdad? Soldiers took shits in the train and got yelled at by First Sergeant McKenzie. We slept. We joked and told war stories from yesterday that we would tell for the rest of our lives. We were glad we survived and that it was over.
The ‘XO’ came around and handed out Light Anti-tank Weapons (LAWs). We requested them back in Kuwait because they were smaller and lighter than the big AT-4s and seemed more appropriate for what we might face in the war. We weren’t surprised that we got them now, with the war over and our redeployment to Fort Bragg seemingly imminent. We scoffed as he walked around, passing them out.
“We’re not going to need these, sir. The war’s over” someone said. He smiled. “Okay. Just take one anyway.”