One Sunny Day In the Ass Crack of the World
We hauled ass down the road taking pot shots at anyone in front of us that didn’t stop as we honked. Just warning ones, but it didn’t matter, they either move, we blow their tires, or worst case aim for heads. Between the time I saw the cloud and now was less than five minutes, but it felt like a couple of hours. It’s times like this that your training just kicks in and you stop thinking. Stop feeling. Reacting in a way that makes it seem like you are riding along in your own body.
As we approached the scene I could see that a Mobile Assault Platoon (MAP) is already there. Five gun trucks and a highback, like an armored pickup, making up the unit along with about twenty-five Marines. They had already secured the area and were forcing all of the regular traffic back. We pulled up and the Iraqi Army (IA) guys were on point. They knew what had to be done, I’d told them on the way over. Since they were locals they could do a better job keeping the citizens in check than a bunch of on edge Marines looking for something to shoot. It was chaos, even in hindsight there is still a lot I can’t remember clearly, if at all.
* * * * *
One thing about the desert, especially the one in the Middle East, is that it’s HOT. I mean damn hot. Hot to the point you wish you could get in the proverbial frying pan to cool off. I spent almost two years of my life there over the course of several trips. My second time was the worst. I had been assigned to our headquarters company to be used for whatever. This usually meant the crap jobs. I was assigned to work at one of the Entry Control Points to the city of Fallujah. A shining gem of Iraqi society and favorite destination for international travelers.
It made sense in regards to what i knew. I had previous experience as a security guy, not the mall kind, but the kind that did background checks, worked with and destroyed the classified papers, and even was in charge of Security during the invasion for one of the Generals, like the Secret Service, but with none of the perks. I had a ton of training in it too, this included counter terrorism and physical security of buildings, locations and what not. So when I first arrived at my new job I saw the things that were wrong. Like a good little Marine I pointed out what I saw. And was ignored.
The problem was that our main post was set in the middle of one of those clover leaf on/off ramps of a highway, the ones that make a huge circle. It was sunk enough so even a leprechaun walking up the ramp could look down over the eight foot concrete barrier into the little checkpoint. It was like opening the hen house door at night and then expecting the fox to go to Applebees instead. I didn’t have to worry about it, they sent me half a click (kilometer) up the road to be in charge of the satelite post that checked commercial traffic.
I did it again, pointing out what I saw was wrong. I was ignored again. It got to the point that I was threatened with punishment if I kept it up. One of those things where they would punish you for something that you really didn’t do like disobeying an order, but where the order was to stop talking about the gaps in security. It sounds asinine, but it was the military. It’s about who is in charge, not what makes sense. The higher ups (bosses) are always looking to make themselves appear better, just like in the real world. And in that regard they could care less about those beneath them in pursuit of that appearance. In corporate America this means the workers might get stiffed some hours, benefits or what not, in the military it can get you killed.
* * * * *
I was lucky when it happened. On this morning we were just waiting, because we were a satellite outpost it took awhile for ride to come by and grab us during shift change. We had opened the post for the morning rush. The gates open at 6am and the trucks start rolling in. No rest for the wicked, or the jarheads in this case. So, it was like any other morning, but nice and sunny. I was out in the main area supervising, just waiting for our ride. Then I saw the cloud from an explosion. Moments later the shockwave came and knocked me on my ass. I was up in a jiffy and yelling at the guys on the towers if they saw anything.
No one had a clue. We suspected what had happened but wanted to know. I ran into the trailer while shouting to shut everything the fuck down. We turned all the trucks around that were in the post and the ones waiting. I also gave the clear to go hot, loading all our guns, and no more escalation of force procedures. We had certain Rules of Engagement we had to follow. This could be waived if a situation arose and an officer said to ignore them. I wasn’t an officer, but none were around and I could answer for it later, because that meant I would still be alive. So the new rules were, if something looked wrong, just shoot it. No warning shots or anything. If it moves kill it, if not, shoot it till it moves, then kill it.
I tried calling on the radio but wasn’t getting any details. We had long range walkie talkies as well to try and call over to the base, which was less than a mile away. I was trying to get hold of the main post anyway I could. I called in the explosion to headquarters, but they were trying to figure out what to have for breakfast or something. Finally, after about three minutes I got a message, “They hit us.” From the radio. It wasn’t a lot, but enough. We didn’t have any transportation, but our IA guys had a truck, more like an open bed cargo truck, but close enough for government work.
It was a piece of shit to boot, we had to push it to get it started. Luckily it was a day when it did it on the first try. Maybe having a dozen people pushing it instead of the usual three did the trick. No one was in the mood to figure it out though. I passed off the reins to one of my Corporals, barked orders to the IA guys to load up, and took off in their transportation with half a dozen of them. I wanted my guys to stay behind and secure our post, plus they had just been assigned there, a rotating post. Only a couple had been there as long as me and they needed to stay to run it, plus none of them were infantry. None of them needed to see the shit that might be waiting. Plus, I was the only one that could speak any lick of Arabic.
* * * * *
I saw the cause for the mess as we pulled in. Halfway up the on ramp was a large orange dump truck. The ramp went to the right of the post and up at about fifteen degrees until it met the highway that ran across the bridge right before it. There was nothing but desert on the other side from the edge of the asphalt, down the embankment, and then out as far as the eye could see. The truck had been loaded with explosives. It had pulled up right next to the post, just above the concrete barriers and detonated. The on ramp was two lanes, it was the outer one.
There was one car between it and the post, and a couple behind it. They were all on fire. I could see the engine from the truck about 200 meters further up the on ramp. The only thing I could tell about a couple of the cars were what kind they were. The explosion had ripped the one next to it apart so bad, just saying it was a sedan was a 50/50 gamble. The three bays we used to inspect vehicles were all collapsed, these were on the opposite side on the post on the road that entered the city, about 150 meters away from the ramp.
The thing about a landscape that had just been devastated by a large explosion is it takes time to adjust to the new scene, like trying to understand calculus the first time they throw it at you. I know I saw the wreckage when I first got there, but I still can’t remember seeing all the dead and injured until a bit later. If it was my brain trying to put it all in place, or just it trying to protect me I can’t say, the type of cognitive dissonance you get when you are first told Santa isn’t real. It eventually had to settle in though. With the changeover happening there was almost thirty Marines on the post.
The first big thing, aside from the wanton destruction of structures and cars, was seeing my Gunnery Sergeant crawling out from the rumble of our little building. It wasn’t the best built thing in the world, just a bunch of plywood really, but it was covered in sandbags and surrounded by smaller concrete barriers and hesco barriers, canvas square boxes held together by wire framing that are then filled with dirt. The Hescos are great because they absorb shrapnel. There were a ton of them around the building.
It wasn’t until I saw the corpsmen (Doc) from 3rd MAP lining up the wounded that I began to realize how bad it was. There were maybe five or six at this point. A bunch of others were wandering around in a daze. Being that close to hundreds of pounds of explosives going off would do that to a guy. I had to put everything out of my head and start doing my job. The site itself was secure, the other platoon had set a perimeter and no follow-on attacks were happening so that was done.
* * * * *
I was the highest-ranking member of the checkpoint crew that wasn’t injured or in a daze, so I had to do the head count. This part is always shitty. The headcount usually is the last act when you are done training or doing something that involves moving a lot of people around. You have to make sure you didn’t lose anyone, like a kindergarten teacher. After an attack it was the first thing, to see how many you did lose.
I also had to work with our Iraqi counterparts because the post also had Iraqi Police and Army guys. We all started going around taking count of our people. How low is the bar that each time you see one of your people your only thought is, he’s alive, regardless of how fucked up he is?
You don’t think about it initially, you just want to make sure that everyone is alive. Fixing them up is secondary. I took a mental roll call and found most of them, we had to get a couple out of the building. That was where the shift change happened, everyone else waited outside, so not too many were in there. One thing I can say about our engineers, they overdue structural support, which wasn’t a bad thing in this case. The guys in the building were just trapped under stuff, but not really hurt, aside from the blast wave that gave them a concussion and maybe a headache from random stuff that might have fallen on their heads.
Then I made the way to the Tower that had been closest to the blast, it had collapsed. I saw one of the last guys I was still missing. Well part of him.
Most of the Marines that were outside had been sitting behind the 7-ton, which was armored. Think monster truck, but more practical. The angle of the blast based on the height of the on ramp was higher than where they were sitting. The truck was taller, so when the blast went off it shielded them from a majority of the shrapnel. The tower on the other hand would have been almost level and nothing was in the way.
LCpl Short had nothing in his way to stop the incoming fragments. The only solace I could take was that he probably didn’t even know what happened and that it was quick. Seeing something like that first hand, right after seeing the cause, and knowing the guy, is one the hardest things most of us had ever been through. In all we lost one Marine, and three Iraqis. This was just the service member fatalities though. There were easily a dozen wounded, that number would grow to over thirty Marines alone in the next day or two.
* * * * *
The blast had turned the concrete barriers into tiny shrapnel, debris from the bomb and vehicle. The larger bits that hit people were obvious, but some guys didn’t start reacting to the smaller bits for a while, once their systems started to force it out and they became sick. The blast had been so large that this eventually was the cause for most of the wounded. I never did find out how many of our Iraqi co-workers had this problem. They were all sent elsewhere, and a new crew came in.
It’s not like I hadn’t seen things like this before, it was just a little more personal, but I was still rolling with it. The thing that still haunts my dreams was yet to come. Once I knew where all of my people were. I started to survey the damage outside of our post. The ambulances and other first responders were showing up now.
Most Iraqis are decent human beings who have to live in conditions you can never even imagine. Despite this they carry on and react to situations like true heroes and help each other. We had been so conditioned to see them as an enemy that you can’t imagine them as anything else. Look at the basic math for this scenario, the bad guys got one Marine and wounded a bunch more, but they also killed three Iraqi service members and I don’t even know how many civilians.
* * * * *
We’re trained to expect death and losses. It’s part of the job. The thing they can’t prepare you for is all the other shit. At least half a dozen cars had been taken out in the blast. They were just going about their business when it happened. I had seen burned bodies before, nothing new on the experience scale, but the thing that hit me came almost out of nowhere. Even had I known it was coming I couldn’t have prepared for it.
The paramedics were pulling a guy out of car that had been right next to the truck when it went off. I mean it was right next to the post and was just to the left of the truck. The explosives were likely packed to detonate to its left. I say this, because the damage to the right of the truck was minimal. They knew their target and how to get the most carnage in. That car though had a family in it. Mom and Dad in the front and two kids in the back. If the kids were older than ten I would have been surprised, it’s hard to tell though when all that is left is smoldering flesh.
The medics were working on the dad. By some miracle, if you would even call it that, he had survived. Looking at him though, covered in burns and his clothes melted into his flesh I can’t imagine that it would be a very lengthy or pleasant existence. His entire right side was burnt, his left side still had some skin. The thing that hit me the hardest though was that as he was placed on a stretcher he rolled towards an ambulance and started yelling.
This was one time I wished I didn’t know Arabic. He was calling for his wife and children. Here is a guy that should be in intense pain, burnt over a majority of his body and all he can think of is his family. It was a testament to what true love is. And because of it I don’t think I could ever feel it myself again. There are things that can scar you, this is one of them. Because now when I turned and looked at was left of his family I saw them as the people they might have been before the blast took them. I had names now, I had a family member wanting to know if they were still alive. He couldn’t tell, shit he probably couldn’t even fathom much at this point. I never did find out what happened to him.
The smell of the burning flesh of children has a way of changing how you look at the world. It also lingers for the rest of your life. You might have defining events, but stuff that alters the very core of who you are I don’t wish on anyone. The compounding of all the events of that day are still the biggest cause of my inability to effectively reintegrate back into the real world.
* * * * *
When I finally got back to my post I had to gather up all my guys and give them the news. I was just blunt about it. In hindsight I could have been subtler, but we were Marines, just do it and get it over with. I told them, “We lost one, he’s dead.” Nice and simple. Most of them took it in stride, but one of my Corporals just broke down. He was LCpl Short’s friend. They were basically inseparable when we weren’t working. A fist through a wall, then crying. Sights like that can be just as heartbreaking because you know that somewhere a family will be doing the same thing, but worse.
None of it made sense. No rhyme or reason. Do you want closure? Tough luck. Life is rarely wrapped up and topped with a bow, sometimes it just never makes sense, no matter how long or hard you think about it. So get over it.