One Veteran's Voice

15 January 2006

First Contact

Photo taken by SGT G. Davenport on orders from B.CO. 20 ENG Commander to document the scene

Every soldier (some would say every man) secretly wonders how he would react if confronted with a hostile enemy trying to kill him. For those souls who have been through the experience, it is a confused one. A man can try to piece it together after the fact, can try to describe it using words and imagery to his fellow man, but like any story, it doesn’t approach the reality of the experience. With the foreknowledge that any description that follows is fundamentally flawed, I will make the attempt anyway.

The first major action that I saw occurred on the early morning of April 8th. I say major action because a few days earlier, a lone RPG had been shot at a vehicle trailing mine in a convoy, but it was over so quickly, and without result, that it doesn’t warrant the title “first contact”. No, the first firefight I took part in occurred that morning around 3am or so, at the tale end of an IED sweep. IED is Army speak for improvised explosive device-- a roadside bomb planted by insurgents to disable vehicles and kill personnel. These bombs are usually constructed of old artillery shells wired with detonating cord to a remote control device, sometimes a cell phone or garage door opener. The bomber watches the convoy approach, and times his detonation to strike whichever vehicle he feels is most vulnerable. The attack is cowardly in nature, but quite effective, as it is very near impossible to see most of these devices before it is too late, since the roadways in Iraq are littered with trash, crushed cement, potholes, tires, cardboard boxes, dead goats, and almost anything else one could imagine. If every convoy stopped at every possible hiding place for an IED, nothing would ever get accomplished. So one pretty much has to just roll on through, clinch his asshole tight, and pray. Some genius wearing more rank than I came up with the idea that a special patrol should be sent out at various times in the middle of the night on the roads most affected by IEDS to try and spot the bombs before they hit the supply convoys in the morning. These IED sweeps, as they are called, consist of a platoon’s worth of vehicles driving very slowly, between 5-15mph, scanning the sides of the road with spotlights. In April, we still hadn’t gotten our tanks, and we had one up-armored M1114 in our platoon (the LT took it-- good for me, since I was on his crew). Needless to say this is very dangerous work, especially in unarmored vehicles. Some might even say it’s insane-- driving up and down the road in the middle of the night looking for bombs that you probably wouldn’t see anyway until you’re too close.

In the wee hours of the 8th, my platoon had completed one such IED sweep without incident, and was about a mile outside the gate of the camp when the ambush hit us. Driving at 5mph and shining spotlights around does more than assist you in looking for IEDS; it presents a perfect target for ambush. I was in the gunner’s hatch of the humvee that night, my head nodding up and down from exhaustion. We had been up since 5am running hard all day, and my body and mind were anticipating the sleep I needed. I think my eyes were actually closed when the first RPG flew behind our truck. They snapped open at the sound of the explosion as the RPG hit a house to the west of us. I am honestly not sure how many RPGs were fired at us, but I believe it was three. The 2nd flew directly in front of the humvee trailing us; one of the soldiers on that truck swore to me afterwards that he could feel the heat of the rocket. I couldn’t feel them, but I could sure hear them-- they made a noise like a bottle rocket, only louder and more fearsome-- almost like a large model rocket.

For those with little knowledge of the Soviet military arsenal, an RPG is a grenade attached to a solid fuel rocket, fired from a shoulder mounted launcher. There are a great many RPGs floating around Iraq-- having an RPG launcher in Baghdad is kind of like having granddaddy’s shotgun in the closet back in the states. The more modern RPGs are especially fearsome, as they have the ability to penetrate thick armor, as we found later on. These penetrator grenades are designed to direct the blast into the vehicle, sending a molten stream of liquid metal and shrapnel through the armor and into the crew. Luckily the men shooting at us that night were not very skilled in the art of their use, and they missed with all three shots in their volley.

My reaction upon hearing the first RPG explode was simply put, shock and confusion. “What is happening?” That probably lasted about two seconds, although it seemed much, much longer. Sometime around the 2nd RPG flying behind me, I realized that we were being attacked. I immediately scanned to my right, the east, as this was the direction the RPGs were flying from, but I could identify no targets. I yelled at my driver to kill the headlights, in order to make us a harder target to kill. Then the third RPG exploded on the ground about 50 meters short of my truck, spraying gravel and shrapnel through the air. I felt something burning hot hit my neck, and I dropped into the turret of the humvee, thinking that I had just been shot. I yelled at my driver to look at my neck.

“Is it bleeding, is it bleeding?”

Assured by him and my own hasty inspection that I had not been shot, the fear that had risen in me in that instant turned quickly to anger. I hopped back in the turret, and began indiscriminately spraying machine gun fire in the direction the RPGs had come from. Throughout the course of the training for the deployment, it had been pounded into our skulls not to engage unless we had positively identified an enemy target, and then only to engage until that target was destroyed, and no more. This got thrown out the window real quick once the rounds started flying. The machine gunner behind me was spraying tracers out like laser beams, and I heard M-16 fire. I shot about a hundred rounds or so, and didn’t stop until my lieutenant yelled at me to stop, well after the RPG shooters had decided to stop firing. I never saw them, so I can only speculate on what they were thinking/doing, but I would assume there were three to five of them in concealed positions in the field to the east of the road. I assume they fired their initial volley and then high-tailed it out of there to a waiting getaway car. The insurgents are realists, and they know that they have neither the numbers nor the firepower to stand and fight against US troops, so they don’t.

We set up a defensive coil in a traffic circle about 100 meters away from the site of the ambush and communicated our status via radio. “Is anyone hurt?” “Any damage to the vehicles?” No wounded, no damage done. My lieutenant was on the radio with battalion headquarters, and had been since the incident started. He had given virtually no commands to the platoon; the platoon sergeant took control of the situation. This would become an issue of contention among the men later.

Just then we noticed the headlights of a car approaching the traffic circle from the east-- the same direction that the RPGs had come from. Naturally, nerves were on edge, and everyone was suspicious of the vehicle. We blockaded the road with two trucks and stopped the car at gunpoint. The occupants spoke no English, and we had no interpreters, but we made our intentions clear-- get out of the car and approach us. We did not want to go anywhere near the car in case it was rigged to blow. The occupants seemed very reluctant to leave the vehicle, and there was a brief moment when tensions ran high and the Iraqis were very nearly blown away. I know I had my finger on the trigger and the safety off of my machine gun, trained directly on them. They finally left the vehicle and we discovered upon inspection why they were out in the middle of the night, and why they were hesitant to leave the car. A dead man was in the back seat. Apparently it was the driver’s father, and they were taking him to the hospital. He was not shot, and it appeared to be just a weird coincidence. I’ve wondered since if he didn’t keel over from a heart attack when all the machine gun tracers started flying over his house, which, judging from the direction the men drove from, was directly downrange of us. Probably not, but the thought did occur to me.

After the incident with the car was finished, we began searching the field directly east of the road for any enemy that might have been killed when we returned fire. What we found will be burned in my mind till the day I die. Along the dirt shoulder of the road approaching the traffic circle from the east, the same road the car carrying the dead man had come down, was a cart and a heap of bloody objects. One was a horse, still living, but shot up. The lower torso of a woman was visible to me in the headlights of our truck, her black dress around her waist, exposing her blood covered lower extremities for everyone to see. It looked like another body was lying under her and the horse, which was covering half of the woman. By this time backup had arrived, among them the company commander of B. 20 Engineers. He took out his 9mm Beretta and shot the horse in the head to put it out of its misery. Except he missed and shot it in the neck, causing it to make a horrible noise and lift its head in the air. He shot it two more times in the head before it finally stopped twitching. Watching all this from the gunners hatch, I couldn’t help but think of the “cow execution” scene in Me, Myself, and Irene. Tasteless, but that’s what I was thinking about. I was also thinking that the company commander seemed way too comfortable doing all this. Maybe he was just acting hard.

Next, we drug the horse off the other two bodies so they could be searched and identified. It took a chain and a humvee to do this. The bodies were laid out and searched by the Iraqi police who had arrived on the scene. The man was shot through the gut, and his intestines protruding out of his abdominal cavity looked like a big “outtie” belly button. The woman was bloody, but it was not immediately obvious as to where she was shot. They were obviously husband and wife. The police officers were quite agitated and gestured wildly at the woman. I think they thought us butchers. Maybe we were. No RPG launcher was found, but a loaded pistol was found on the woman. The Iraqi police cleared it and smelled it. It had not been fired recently. We turned the scene over to the bewildered Iraqi police officers and rolled back into camp. I remember feeling a little sick after the fact. I had never seen the body of a human being killed violently before that night. The suddenness of it all shocked me. One minute you're alive, and then BOOM. Much has been said about the fragility of life, but I didn’t truly understand it until then.

I also remember feeling exultant and powerful. I survived. They didn't.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the people we killed that night, and why they were killed. Out of everyone in my platoon, the only people who fired their weapons were myself, one other machine gunner, and the platoon sergeant. I honestly don’t know if any rounds that I fired hit those people, but I remember seeing the horse and cart for a brief instant during the actual firefight, illuminated by tracers. I’m not sure if they were my tracers. I know the platoon sergeant deliberately fired on the people with his M16. He swore that he saw an RPG launched from the horse drawn cart. We didn't find any RPG launcher. Another man swore he saw the people launch a flare, an indication that they were collaborating with the ambush. Yet another swore that the flare was fired by one of our soldiers from his M203 grenade launcher, and a chunk of burning crap from the flare shot out near the cart. I believe this to be the truth, as one soldier did fire his 203. I can't say for sure; I was too busy spraying and praying to notice. In the end, determining what really happened only matters to the living. The couple we killed don't have the luxury of hindsight. Whether they were innocent or guilty, they were, and are, dead.

"It is only the dead who have seen the end of war."
Plato

7 Other Voices:

Sarah said...

Excellent writing.

"Every soldier (some would say every man) secretly wonders how he would react if confronted with a hostile enemy trying to kill him."

I would only add, that women think about it too.

1/15/2006 05:52:18 PM  
KG said...

nice piece of writing...

1/15/2006 08:54:09 PM  
Elmo said...

Thanks for the story Brian. I wish I could relate, but I only trained to fight a well defined enemy. My only brush with combat was jumping into trench on the Kuwait border. The band of stragglers that attacked the border were gone by the time we got there, I never fired a shot. I was a 21 year old spc4 team leader responsible for the right flank of the trench. The 60 AG on our team froze up and I literally had to drag him out of the Bradley into his position. To this day I don't know how I did it. He out weighed me by 20 .lbs and had all the m60 ammo on him. Tame as far as war stories go, I know, but it's how I felt that has stayed with me. Or truthfully, how I didn't feel. Total mental and physical numbness is as best I can describe it. I just reacted as I was trained but in a surreal subconscious sort of state. Like I was outside myself watching. When reality came back to me it felt like getting punched in the gut. Like people who claim to have had out of body experiences in their sleep say it hurts when their body returns. Not that I believe in that shit but it's the only thing I can think of to describe it.

1/16/2006 09:45:17 AM  
withinreason said...

Great story and an in delpth look at the reality of war,I was in B-42,however I never saw combat but I know it would rock you to the core,and something you would carry with you forever.

1/16/2006 06:12:21 PM  
Anonymous said...

Hook me up with an e-mail. I am organizing a five day anti-war veterans march that will go from Alabama to New Orleans. We need some vets that can hang in for 25 miles a day. Let me know if you or any of your friends are down for helping out or joining us?

gridburn@hotmail.com

1/17/2006 01:54:59 AM  
fist said...

to said anonymous,
Alabama to New Orleans? why not some random city to Washington D.C.? that would make more of an impact.

1/17/2006 07:18:07 PM  
Sara said...

Damn, you have a good memory. AND a fine way with words!

1/18/2006 12:27:08 AM  

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