An Iraq Experience
The author of the following story is a Seattle Central student and veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He asked that his name be withheld from publication.
A version of this article appears in spring print edition in June 4 2013.
It’s an uneasy sensation, traveling to a combat zone. Worry is not sufficient, nor is anxiety. The breadth of emotion is so vast, changing from moment to moment, that it leaves you feeling numb. And so it was, in the summer of 2007 that I traveled to Iraq via Kazakhstan and Kuwait. Landing in Kuwait I first encountered the tremendous heat I would endure.
I could feel the weight on my back, pressing on my spine. Atlas must have been a soldier. I adorn a flame retardant Army Combat Uniform (ACU) that insulates my body. Two-and-a-half pound combat boots stress my ankles and knees. Two, 50-pound duffel bags containing all possessions for a 15-month deployment dangle from my arm like a wintry icicle, ready to snap. An Independently Operated Tactical Vest (IOTV), complete with four plates capable of stopping an AK-47 round, and weighing in at 35 pounds press on my lungs like a vice.
A four-pound tactical helmet keeps my neck stiff and strained. My M-4 rifle with full combat load weighing roughly 17 pounds numbs my hands. A Medic Aid bag and rucksack, weighing approximately 45 pounds, felt like tossing rocks onto a roof- top about to collapse. It was in this condition that I waddled, much like a pregnant penguin off of the C-130, carrying nearly 125 pounds of extra weight on my back, shoulders, and in my arms.
I walked down the open tail plank into a blinding bright light. We had to go about 100 yards to download our equipment for transport. Not a small task. I could feel the sweat drip down my back before I leave the air-conditioned cabin. When I exited the plane it feels as if the wind had been knocked out of me. I could feel myself sweating as though a faucet were turned on in my body. Squinting intensely, I emerged from darkness to blinding light. The intensity of the heat, combined with the noise of the runway made me think I was feeling the exhaust from the plane.
“This is not a natural heat,” I thought.
My only goal was to make it 100 yards, drop these bags, and remove this protective gear as quickly as possible. Then, drink water. When I arrived, and removed all the gear I could and found myself in disbelief. Looking back, I could see that the plane was not the source of the heat after all. Rather, the sun blazing in the cloudless sky was the culprit. This introduction to the desert heat only solidified my numbing emotions.
The first lesson you learn in the military: hurry up and wait. This saying holds true from the first day of training, and was equally valid on this hot summer day. I was informed the day before that I would be the medic for another division. Their medic had been wounded the week before, and I was to fill the vacancy for 30 days. This would be my first mission with them. At 4 a.m I arrived for a routine patrol mission to Fallujah and back. The air was a cool 86 degrees when I awoke at 3:30 a.m.
As I rolled out of my cot, I heard the gravely voice of my friend calling, “Can you grab me some smokes when you get back?” With an inaudible grunt, I acknowledged the request and proceeded out the door to meet the convoy.
Compared to the mid-day highs hat could reach the 120’s, this truly felt comfortable. At 4 a.m, I found the convoy commander and told him that I was his re- placement medic. He informed me that the convoy briefing would occur at 0500 hours and that we would depart at 0700 hours, arriving back at 1900 hours that evening. Three hours early for a convoy, with reprimands for arriving after 0400 hours— hurry up and wait indeed.
The personnel carriers were not the most comfortable vehicles in the world, particularly for my svelte, 225-pound body. The first few moments leaving a secured area were a bit nerve racking for everyone. After a few hours on the roads you tend to relax a bit and become complacent. Such was the case this day—endless desert on either side of you, legs numb and asleep from the cramped cabin of my vehicle. I was riding in the third vehicle in the convoy, an Iraqi national leading the way. As we approached Fallujah, the music in the cabin stopped and the broken sounds of vehicle commanders checking in crackled across the radio as we approached our final checkpoint before dismount and patrol.
Days before, while I mindlessly walked the makeshift alleys of my Forwarding Operating Base (FOB), my future was being written. The best description I’ve ever heard of war reads “long stretches of boredom,interrupted by moments of sheer terror.” The boredom can be unbearable. This was where I found myself in the days before this mission.
I woke early and spent two to three hours working out, then had breakfast and showered before my first training at 0900 hours. The rest of the day was left to do as I pleased. Some days we’d play poker, other days a pickup game of football. Still, I couldn’t help but think that as I mindlessly walked about the FOB, somewhere near Fallujah a group of men where plotting my future.
Late in the night with nothing but a shovel, 80 pounds of homemade explosives packed into artillery rounds, and angry emotions was where these men found themselves that evening. Perhaps we killed their father, brother, mother, lover, or friend. Perhaps they were pressured by others with threats to do this. I’m certain that if I knew these men in other circumstances, we’d find more to agree with each other than to disagree about. I was in the medical field to help, not hurt others. I hated Bush and Cheney. I hated the war. I hated that I had to participate in this.
When the explosion occurred I lost the moment. Some events can be too traumatic to hold and remember. My mind saw the event happening and decided to check out briefly. I don’t recall hearing or seeing, or even feeling it. But I do recall awakening, and being frightened. My ears were bleeding, I couldn’t see. I struggled to breathe. The vehicle was on fire and smoke filled the cabin. The Captain in front was panicking when he could not get out. He tried shooting the windows, but they began to ricochet back at us. It seemed we sat there for hours fighting to escape, in reality it was only a matter of a moment or two. The doors burst open. A new nightmare began.
We sat in the road, disabled, in the valley of two hills. On either side a few dozen men fired AK-47’s and rocket propelled grenades frantically. If you looked hard enough, you could see the fear in their faces too. It was the same look of fear I surely must have had on my own face. Lying in the roads were six to eight wounded American soldiers.
As I exited the vehicle I was dragged to a pile near the other wounded. I rolled over and began to apply a tourniquet to the man next to me. I fought for him to cooperate, but had trouble hearing anything when I asked questions of him. He lied on his stomach with obvious arterial bleeding from his leg. I was wounded as well and had trouble getting to his leg. It was only after a few moments that he died, and before I could stop the bleeding. The next moment stays in my mind daily to this day.
As I lied on the ground I did not know to what extent, if any, I was injured. As the shots began raining from the hillsides, the senior platoon sergeant ordered me, and the few others on the ground, to provide cover fire so that additional infantry personnel could move into position.
“I need you to fucking cover that GOD DAMN HILL!! If you can hold a weapon you should be shooting these hodgie motherfuckers!!!” he screamed.
I did not enlist to shoot others. I was, for all intensive purposes, a non-combatant, with the exception of protecting myself from a casualty from immediate danger.
“What the fuck are you waiting on?? FIRE!!!!” he commanded.
Rather than stand by my principles, I chose the cowardly way out. I fired the automated machine gun near me. I must have rattled off 100 rounds. I hit no one. I aimed 20 to 40 feet above where anyone could stand or be hit. I obeyed the order, but endangered the troops moving. I felt shame, and swore to myself to take this to my grave.
I don’t think it was brave to have been in combat. I don’t think I protected anyone’s freedom. I did not usher in democracy for a fledgling nation. I did not bring justice to 9/11 victims in Iraq, nor later when I went to Afghanistan. I did not save any lives that someone else could not have saved in my place. I did not protect anyone. I did not obey my convictions and refuse to shoot, nor did I obey my oath and protect troops moving to engage the enemy. Just like the war itself I embodied its true value: cowardice. And for fulfilling this virtue, I was awarded the Army Commendation Medal, and the Purple Heart. They sit in a drawer collecting dust, as much an embarrassment today as it was the day I received it.
Shakespeare wrote, “A coward dies a thousand deaths, the valiant taste death but once.” Not a day goes by where the events of that summer day don’t cross my mind. My wife has awoken me from sweating nightmares on several occasions. I never have recollection of these nightmares when I awake. When others meet me, I have no outward wounds that people can readily see what I’ve been through. Despite this, I think of this day, and others similar to it on a daily basis. It possesses my thoughts at times. I have felt bad for the men who died in the road next to me for a very long time. Perhaps they were the lucky ones: spared the years of memories and nightmares.