We were staged at FOB Warhorse waiting from the word from higher command as to when we would be departing. I knew that it would be an early morning, and that it would be at the most inconvenient time for me-thats just the way the army works. I took my time to pray and think through my actions before we departed to one of the worst areas of iraq. I knew that things were going to be different on this operation than anything i had been through so far. i took time to clean my M16 thoroughly, I knew that i was going to need it. every time that something bad happened to me, i would have a gut feeling that something was wrong before it happened. ever since i had arrived in Iraq, this sense was stronger than ever. I knew that something was going to go horribly wrong. we got word that we were going to leave in the early morning, just before sunrise. the chaplain came over from FOB Scunion and prayed with us. we prayed for safe travel and return, we prayed that God's hand would work through us in this mission, and I prayed that i would feel his presense. I had seen enough action already (i.e. the usual improvised explosive device), that i was ready for this convoy, but nothing could have prepared me for the journey ahead.
We rolled out of the north gate of FOB Warhorse just after sunrise and began the long journey south to An Najaf. We had to go out of the way of most of the cities along the quick route because unfriendly personnel were prepared for our march south. Thank you CNN. Our operation had been headline news for days. Have you ever felt like complete strangers knew more about what you were doing than you did? I was just a private. they tell me to drive, i do it. they tell me to shoot, i do it. Why do i need to know any more than that? My vehicle commander was a combat veteran. he had been a member of a tank crew, and he had seen enough action already. he knew what to do. SGT Long would be manning the only 50 caliber weapon among the support vehicles. support had sent 2 cargo HEMTT's and 2 Fuel HEMTT's. i was driving one of the cargo HEMTT's with a battle load of tank rounds and enough food and water for three days. i would have rather been on a rolling bomb than what i was carrying-hello private, i have no say in what happens to me. The ride was mostly uneventful for the first 12 hours...did i tell you that it was only supposed to take 12 hours. we were in the middle of a hostile area, and our commander was lost. thank you West Point. we had been lost for about 4 hours, switch-backed across lord only knows how many miles of iraq, and we were still no closer to An Najaf. the convoy commander had led us down the wrong road not once, not 3 times, but 4 times. did the lead vehicle have a team of monkeys working around the clock to make sure that we never got there or what?
Things progressively went downhill. by midnight, we were lost in Downtown Al Hillah. A little history lesson on Al Hillah. This city was an insurgent stronghold since the outset of the war. the people of the city had not seen an american in months. Al Hillah had been blacklisted and american troops were not to enter the city. here we are downtown in a city, at night, and we were lost. great. I saw hate in the eyes of the people on the street. if you looked long enough into their eyes, you could just picture that same individual holding a handsaw and cutting your head of for the nightly news. my gut was doing summersaults. i was going to die, and my mother was going to have to learn from CNN. I dont think i have ever felt such a suffocating feeling as i did looking into the eyes of these people on the streets of this unfriendly neighborhood. where was mr rogers when you needed him? we made it through downtown without incident, and I began to relax as we reached the outskirts of town. that's when i saw it. a white phosphorus parachute flare. this put both my TC (truck commander) and myself back on edge. we continued to drive down the road and made a left turn. there was a canal on the left side of the road and dense shubs on the right side of the road. this was not a good development. then i saw it again, another flare. we passed a marine convoy going the other direction, and that put my mind at ease. they were the ones who fired off the flares, i knew it. we made it about a mile down the road and that is when all hell broke loose. I saw the third and final flare.
The Heavy Equipment Transport (HET) 4 vehicles in front of mine was hit. time stood still. you know how in the movies, when the battle starts, everything goes into slow motion? they arent bullshiting. it felt like an eternity we were sitting there staring at the site of the explosion and wondering why the HET wouldnt move. then we started to see movement all around us. people were pouring out of a house just to the right of the site of the explosion. the track vehicles on the trailer of the HET started to fire on the people running up towards us. SGT Long fired off a string of expletives and then matched fire with his 50 cal. I was in a dream. this couldnt be happening. what was i doing here? I started to see tracer rounds coming between the vehicles from the left. I had been driving for 22 hours and i was not ready for this. I saw the vehicle in front of me start to fire in the direction of the fire, and i matched fire. Its funny that people say you never know what you will do when the rounds start coming back at you. its true. you just shut down, and, if you are lucky, you recieved good training that just takes over. the vehicle in front of me remained as motionless as it did the last time i checked, and the people coming out of the house were moving closer and closer to the vehicles in the convoy. one insurgent got about five feet from the passenger door of the truck in front of me. the medic in the passenger seat swung his shotgun out of the window and laid down great vengence and furious anger upon the man who was hell bent on killing him. the gun fire did not stop and my TC had gone through 3 ammo cans before the HET driver snapped back into reality. he pressed the pedal to the metal and we followed suit. we met up with the front part of the convoy about 3 miles down the road. we knew someone in the HET was hurt, and we were ready to provide as much aid as possible. Unfortunately, the civilian driving the truck had waited too long. A Staff Sergeant had been hit by a piece of shrapnel about the size of a California peach in his midsection. our first rate body armor is no match for a piece of metal moving that fast, and the staff was dead before the HET started moving again. we called for a medevac and a bird was enroute. 6 feet from the ground is a long way when you are moving deadweight. SGT Chase was a 5 foot something medic. Along with about 5 other medics, he stood at the base of the truck trying to figure out how to get this body out of the cab. Remember that trust that i mentioned earlier, he climbed into the cab, looped his arms under the staff's shoulders, looked back, and said catch me. he took a leap of faith, knowing that his fellow soldiers would be there to catch him. they prepared the body for pickup, and treated the driver for minor wounds.
The helicopter arrived about fifteen minutes after the call, and the casualty was loaded into the chopper. this ugly phase of our journey was over, but the night was still young. the HET platoon commander brought another person up to replace the TC and we were ready to roll. Unfortunately, no one had seen the driver. He had pulled a Keyser Soze' and he was gone. we could not leave an american in this hostile territory, even if he had run off. A group of soldiers were sent to search the surrounding area, outbuildings, and homes in an area where we were just attacked looking for this guy. 3 hours spent looking for him brought no fruit. the convoy commander callled back to the dust off and asked them to check the bird. The medic assured him that he was not in the chopper, but agreed to check just in case. When he came back on the radio, he informed us that the civilian driver had been found, curled up in the fetal possition in the back of the chopper. 6 medics, 2 pilots, and a convoy full of men had all missed him sneaking on to the chopper. that civilian punched his time card, and i am sure he was on the next flight home. 27 hours since i last slept. he wasted three hours of my time. I was mad, tired, and wanted to take a shower and wash the pain away. i would never be able to forget what i had just been through, but right now i wanted to wash all of the images out of my mind. ever since i joined the army, i wanted my chance to fight in this war, and now all i wanted was to be a little kid curled up on my mothers lap. safe from all danger. God i wish i could cry-why do i have to be a man at times like this.
we were still eight hours from our destination, we had just lost a soldier, and we all needed some rest. the convoy commander decided we would drive out as far into the desert as we could, the drivers would sleep while others took shifts on guard, and we would move out at first light. I dont know how i slept, but i found comfort in the cab of that HEMTT and i slept the best four hours of my life. when we got back on the road the next morning, we found that we were on the right track for an arrival at FOB Duke before lunch time. Insurgents had blown up every bridge leading into An Najaf the day previous-every one except the one we were headed for. I felt something jump inside me. A shower was calling my name...we continued to drive faster and faster towards our destination.
we made the last turn heading into the Marine base, and the Entry Control Point(ECP) was visible. I was so excited, we were almost there. Just before we arrived at the gate, the convoy commander made a left turn into a patch of sand. i thought this was normal. we were just going to get accountability before we rolled in the gate. boy was i wrong.
COL Dana J. H. Pittard, our Brigade Commander, wanted to name a FOB. In our brigade we were the Iron Dukes. Hence, FOB Duke. Instead of going to the Marine base-the one the had phones, showers, internet, a Dining facility, and a Post Exchange we were going to "rough it." I had not, nor had any of the other members of the team, on not having laundry facilities. this was about to get ugly.
Why is it when you are a kid all you want is to be dirty, but when you're an adult the prospect of being dirty is horrifying?
I felt like Pigpen-the cloud of dust and all...