“Second prize outside the wire is a body bag.” Al Abbondanza, Iraq, 2004
I was not scared.
This makes no sense, the explosion surprised and stunned me, for a second or two I was physically frozen, mentally assessing what happened- noise, smoke and dust and smell of burnt explosives and rocket propellant.
Service members encountered ambushes worse then mine on a daily basis. How do they endure? The ‘door-kickers’ job was to engage the enemy on a daily basis. Every time they left the relative safety of the wire- they knew contact was their job.
The explosion did not scare me. I did not lose control, cry, panic or run. I did not have a sick feeling in my stomach, nor tasted my vomit.
I was not heroic either.
Thinking stopped, I went to ‘auto-pilot’ and did what I was trained to do- find cover and continue the mission’s unexpected new phase: get the team out of Tikrit as quickly as possible.
I got scared when our machine gun opened fire, about six feet from me, shooting over my head.
My first outside the wire Civil Affairs mission to a Tikrit school complex was almost a disaster. The ineptitude of the Insurgents saved us. How do you miss a stationary target?
We were screwed up and nearly paid the ultimate price – death. Little did I know my civil affairs team and I were one of the first units to experience the Iraqi insurgents’ pent-up wrath, known as the ‘April Uprising’.
After two explosions- RPGs do not sound like the movie version of a ‘fizz’ and pop of a bottle rocket. When fired, RPGs sound like an explosion and on impact, the ambush began.
I was close enough to the point of impact, I guess 20 to 30 feet, to feel over-pressure and heat, my uniform ruffled, my hearing was gone and ears were ringing like church bells. I did not feel scared and continued to walk, almost unfazed. As the dusty darkness settled, I saw a blue sedan driving by with the driver’s side window rolled down.
“How did the driver throw a hand grenade so far from a moving car, with his left arm?” was my initial thought. Given the circumstances, that was an interesting question and thought. An RPG attack was not at all on my mind. The gun truck gunner on my right side about 6 feet away began shooting over my head at a roof top across the street, suppressing any follow on small arms attackers.
Fortunately, there were none.
The machine gun fire woke me from my daze and made me focus on the new task at hand: figure out what happened, get behind some cover, check for casualties and vehicle damage and get out of the ‘kill zone’.
Time stood still, from the time I heard the two explosions, felt the over pressure and uniform flutter, saw the blue sedan drive by and heard the suppressing fire seemed like 30 seconds, was 3-5 seconds.
The closest comparison I can make about the feeling time slowed down and reacting to the explosion impact are the movie scene explosion in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Blackhawk Down’. After the explosion, a few fuzzy seconds, then the situation’s reality sets in and time for action.
I assessed the situation then took cover behind the closest HUMMV and got to the radios. SGT Median beat me to the radios and radioed the ACE [Ammunition, Casualties, and Equipment status] Report, to our unit at Camp Speicher.
We were attacked with a RPG when I saw a hole the size of a softball in the Girls’ School wall and the RPG’s tail/rocket motor section lying on the sidewalk.
One plus one equaled RPG attack.
I almost grabbed the RPG tail section as a war trophy, but realized it might be too hot to pick up with a bare hand- given the circumstances, I was not completely irrational; a cool war trophy- the one that almost got me.
The strange things one thinks about while under pressure.
No one was wounded [soldiers reported ears ringing, myself included] and no equipment seriously damaged. The machine gunner closest to the RPG impact was lucky; he just ducked into his HUMMV to get a quick drink of water. Had he been standing straight up, all six foot two inches of him, he would have been hit in the face, shoulders and arms with shrapnel.
SGT Hernandez was struck by two pieces of shrapnel in the body amour just inches from her chin, she still has those pieces- her war trophy.
The two HUMMVs closest to the impact were peppered with shrapnel, were still functional.
That day, we were not good, just lucky. Being lucky was better then being good, but that is another story.
We got into our vehicles, did a head count to ensure no one was left behind and drove back to Camp Speicher.
As we moved out of the ambush area, SGT Medina, the driver whom I do not remember and I started to giggle and laugh. I am not sure if our fear was subsiding, releasing tension or just lost our minds.
Abu Ali, translator, was with us and did not act the same- he seemed very scared and judging by the way he was adjusting his pants, I think he wet or pooped himself. Either one was understandable.
Strangely enough, the RPG explosions did not scare me, the machine gun fire initially did- I was not sure where the machine gun fire was coming from, if the machine gun fire was ours or theirs nor sure where the bullets were going.
Where I was standing seemed momentarily safe. I did not want to get shot because I did not assess the situation and ran into our machine gunners line of fire.
By the time I was taking cover behind the HUMMV my initial fear was gone, my training kicked in and I was in ‘go’ mode.
This event did positive outcomes.
I did not think to change jobs, being the Civil Affairs Officer was a mistake. My thought was ‘boy, this is going to be a long tour.’
That ‘long tour’ sentiment was felt again a few days later when my convoy to FOB Danger in Tikrit, got lost and when our vehicle distance became too long, we lost sight of the vehicle to our front Of course our radio had quit working and SGT Hernandez followed her instinct and past trips to FOB Danger. After a few tense minutes, we rejoined the vehicles to our front- who did not know we were even missing.
Nor did SGM Gamache or SGT Hernandez ask to leave the section for a safer job within the unit.
We stayed together, eventually joined by an exceptional soldier, Moroccan-American Arabic translator: Lachen Talbi.
The ambush bonded us.