Words are power, more powerful than steel, more powerful than war. Words, define us, words travel with us each and every day.
Yesterday I finally came face to face with an IED. The soldiers…no men of Delta Company 1-184, and Rogue platoon recognized the threat. As we passed by the device, the driver became hyper aware, he saw what most of us did not, a glint of metal amongst the trash strewn road. As we passed by it, it lay there barely visible, yet it was the only thing I could see, it became what could have been our end. Life does not flash before your eyes when you come face to face with mortality, but a resignation that this could be the last moment, then sadness. Yet oddly, it didn’t take us. We cordoned off the area and kept the civilians away, spectators began to gather, and the danger became three dimensional. Moments before we passed our IED, another of our patrols was struck by an IED of similar design, there were no injuries, within moments of that report we seemed years away surrounded by onlookers, and trapped within our own cordon. The walls we had built to keep people away had also trapped us within.
I felt as if we were on a stage, and everyone from everywhere was looking at us. Demon 6, the on scene commander called up the report and help was on the way. Until then we were to wait literally on top of the weapon. Uncertain if the man who was to detonate it was amongst the on lookers, uncertain if an attack was to come at us. As the temperature rose so did the tension. Everyone was visibly on edge. We were each assigned sectors to scan for threats, yet the uneasy feeling that you were in someone’s sights was never far from our thoughts. It is that uneasy feeling you get when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and your spine tingles because you know you are not alone. The urge leave had to be overcome; each man there knew his duty and his job. Yet, each and every one of us knew that innocent lives were on the line, it sounds cliché but as we looked at the crowds gathering, the people getting out of their cars, we knew that the real danger didn’t lie with the IED itself, the real danger was us… We were the bait, if we were blown up, the crowds could easily swell to hundreds of onlookers. There is an old Arab saying; “It is foolish to hunt a tiger when there are plenty of sheep to be had.” If we were blown up, our enemies know that the civilians would converge upon the scene providing a much more lucrative target.
Our enemies know that we cannot be beaten, so they opt for the easy kill. Civilians… As LTC F said be polite, be professional, be prepared to kill. As I mentioned the threat was three-dimensional. Civilians and curiosity go hand in hand here, the Iraqi Police came to assist us, but our first thoughts were of cautious skepticism, were these true Iraqi police, or were they the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing. Demon 6, is a professional soldier, his men, seasoned and crisp, like a symphony the men moved with precision to their assigned positions, I on a rooftop observation post, with an SPR, (Special Purpose Rifle). This weapon has a scope on its upper receiver enabling the shooter to accurately engage targets (threats) up to (in this case) 500 yards away. As were in an urban area, we were limited in what we would shoot at given no discernable threats. I ranged each open window, alleyway, doorframe, parked car and other visible points of reference. I drew a hasty range card, and set up my position. Then like everything else in the military, I waited. Moreover, as the minutes passed the heat rose. The thermometer read 126 (it was in the shade), eyestrain and muscle cramps from dehydration began to set in, and the weapon became hot on my cheek. The mirage downrange also increased, I had to re-verify my distances to known points, as I did this doubt set in. Was my windage correct, had I adjusted for my elevation, how hot was the bullet in the chamber. As people started to move in the distance, sweat began to fall into my eyes, my heartbeat became erratic, and the armor started digging in to my sides. It felt like I was having an anxiety attack, and I was losing my poker face. At that moment, I thought I saw a rifle in a window about 290 yards from my position, I could not see into the room from my vantage point, only a shadow on a wall in the room. Still, I wasn’t’ sure if I actually saw a weapon.
I was trying to control my breathing; I could not calm myself to get a steady picture in the scope. I cursed myself and bit hard into my lip, I needed to focus on anything other then the burning in my eyes, and the pain from cramps. I bit harder, drawing blood. I was certain I had seen a weapon in the window; I clicked off safe and prepared to engage the threat. Blinking rapidly I got the sweat from my eye, and the stinging stopped, just as I was exhaling I got a clear picture of the room it was a woman nursing a child looking out to see what we were doing. I put the weapon back on safe, and stepped off the gun. I slumped in a corner of the rooftop telling my partner to cover my sector, I needed a break; two minutes later, the break was over. I was drenched in sweat, and shaking from cramps. Our water bottles empty, and Power Bars gone, we resigned ourselves to our stupidity, laughed it off and got back into position. 35 minutes had elapsed since we got on the roof.
The demolition team arrived and prepared for their mission, to clear the IED from its location. They decided to blow it in place. Soldiers began to scream for civilians to back off the area, and in Arabic, the police shouted commands to the locals with about as much urgency in their voice as the metallic voice coming over the PA in at most US airports. After some “unique” prodding, the civilians withdrew. My partner (a soldier of average height, and a slight drawl to his voice) told me the “6” (military term for a commander) told us to clear the roof and get below. From our position, the IED was about 130 feet behind us. As we clambered down the stairs with our kit, I was reminded of the pictures of Leathernecks from WWII, climbing down cargo nets into Higgins boats, we had little of their grace in walking down the stairs. Chewing bubble gum and walking at this point proved to difficult, so against the advice of my mother from decades past, I swallowed my gum. As my throat was dry from lack of water, it nearly choked me. Odd, I thought how embarrassing would this be to be evacuated because I choked on a piece of double bubble?
When the signal came; “FIRE IN THE HOLE, FIRE IN THE HOLE, FIRE IN THE HOLE!!!” The explosion was far louder than I anticipated, thunderous is not an accurate enough word, it was louder than anything I have heard since I have been in Iraq.
We were less than a football field away from it, and windows broke, dishes fell, and a child that was in the house that I was not aware of began to cry. Slowly I picked myself up from the floor and again we went to the roof. The silence there was surpassed only by the ringing in my ears, as we got back into position slowly the people began to reemerge from around corners, from behind cars, and from locked doors. As the moments passed us by, it became evident that we would not be attacked; our mood became no less tense. Finally after being there for several hours, we were given the all clear, and we once again descended the stairs of the Iraqi home. As we came down, I was struck at just how ordinary the home was. Pictures on the walls, fine china (albeit cracked and dusty) was stacked on shelves. Coffee cups on the kitchen counter. A throw, hung on the back of a couch. The smell of cooking clung in the air, and the people in the home who let us in, looked ordinary, scared but ordinary nonetheless.
The man in the house was holding his daughter Mina, a beautiful little girl who for some reason smiled at the two soldiers standing before her. I took off my helmet and goggles, and smiled back at her. Again, I was reminded why I am here. And again that reminder came in the form of a smile from a child. We exchanged thanks back and forth, and shook hands, the women in the house (his mother and wife) smiled at us the man of the house said “Assalamu alaikum.” As we put our kit back on I clasped hands with him and patted him on the shoulder “Walaikum assalam.” (Peace be upon you too) I patted my partner in the helmet, and staggered we moved to the gate. “Friendly coming out!” We shouted, and rejoined our patrol. As we rolled out, I was looking at the spot where the IED had been. The metal, contorted and charred a shadow of what it once had been, a reminder to me to what could have been. Shaking it off, I drank cold water, and drank and drank and drank.
They thanked us…
The power of words…
My friends you are very welcome…
SGT Monkey, as always thanks for having my back.