Forward Operating Base, Hit, Iraq, August 29, 2004
Through the advice of another Corpsman that had "been there, done that", I chose to pack light and leave my cold weather gear behind for, "The hump will warm you up soon after you get going", so he said. Well, I forgot to mention that the wind-chill, which bit through every exposed body surface while traveling forty five miles per hour down that desert highway, dropped the temperature down to twelve degrees Farenheit! I only had a lightweight polypropylene liner on under my uniform blouse and flak jacket. I figured I'd have to tough it out like the rest of the hard Marines I was with. I friggin' froze during that near hour trip to our insertion point! Who was I to whine? The young devil-dog next to me proceeded to show me, by ripping open the velcro of his flak jacket and lifting up his blouse, that he didn't have anything on under his gear and then smiled as if he was proud that he'd one-upped me!
There is only a short hump to gain the city proper. The desert floor is dry with a few rocky outcrops and undulations to navigate around. We cross a set of railroad tracks then proceed gently downhill into the amber glow of city lights. Not too bad so far. What was soon apparent though was what little night vision we had gained earlier was gone now due to the city lights ahead which were blinding us!.
NVG's were virtually useless at this point! I look behind me and see the fifty or so troops scattered about, in what looks like an army of ants crawling across a brightly lit stage! So much for the stealth approach!
A strong odor of sulfur starts to fill the air as I observe a light fog sitting atop the desert floor. The ground is becoming moist as mud starts to build up on the soles of my boots. Puddles of water become visible all around us and trying to avoid them is now useless. We push on into the wetlands as the water grows deeper, almost over the top of my boots. My body is warming up just as I was instructed it would and this is a good thing! The point man, with a GPS in hand, continues to bee-line towards the city lights. The water isn't letthing up though as it becomes deeper and deeper, almost over my knees now. Everyone else is following the point-man as well. It is starting to look like the pied piper is leading the mice into their watery graves (I learned later that the squad leader was ordering the point man to "push on" through his earpiece)! The sulfuric odor is even worse now and it resembles more of a stench than anything. I stop and sniff the air again.
"What is that?" I quizzically ask myself. I can't quite place my finger on its identity. A group of buildings resembling a factory is off to my left in the distance. The water we are standing in seems to be originating from that same plant. I think again, look around me, and then the light bulb goes on! I don't want to imagine what I am thinking but I reluctantly conclude that we must be standing in the middle of an evaporation field for sewage treatment!"Not good", I said to myself. I have to get word to the point man to stop for the situation is getting worse! We are getting into, "deep shit" literally! I push myself to the front and in the loudest "pssst" I can muster I get the point man's attention.
"You need to stop! We need to parallel the city and get to shallow water for everyone is following you into this shit! Do you realize what were standing in Corporal?"
"What do you mean Doc?" Linan asks innocently.
"This is sewage water!" I say with my best disgusting facial grimace.
"Wholly shit Doc, are you serious?" A grin starts to form on my face but I quickly regain my composure and then remember that we are suppose to locate a bridge to gain access to the city.
"What happened to the bridge we are supposed to cross?" I ask.
"I don't know Doc, but I think you're right. Follow me," Linan instructs as he turns south, relaying his plan to Sarge and continuing his pied piper march. The previous day, back at the FOB, we rehearsed securing a bridge that apparently crossed into the city near this same moat that we got sucked into. We spent a better part of the afternoon practicing that drill for this was a possible choke point into the city. Rehearsals were made to avoid an ambush or compromise to the platoon. The water eventually retreats back to ankle depth. I meet up with Corporal Linan on point.
"What do you think Doc? Do you think I can cross here?" His outstretched arm pointing, contemplating fording the moat that formed along the edge of the field. I look at the situation and see about a five meter gap at who knows what depth.
"No way Corporal, its way too far and who knows how deep it is!" I whisper back to him. Before I could say another word the Marine walks to the moats edge, losses his balance and slips, nearly disappearing under the muck!
"Help me!" he grunts with the water at his neckline and his arms above water.
"Get yourself out!" yells another Marine.
"I can't, I'mmmmm stuck!" Linan's voice trembles from the cold sewage soaking through his gear. At this point everything starts to move in slow motion. A Marine is being pulled under by the weight of his flak jacket, Kevlar and combat load helplessly sinking to his inevetable death. I picture other Marines frantically trying to help, only to be trapped themselves as they would succumb to the same nightmare. I was about to witness a horrible tragedy and the situation was getting worse! The drowning Marine's face disappears with only his helmet seeming to float on top of the water, his right arm outstretched into the air like someone being buried alive in a horror movie!
I desperately want to do something but I can't react, standing there frozen in my boots and unable to think . Suddenly, off to my left, the barrel of an M-16 is shoved into his hand! The sunken Marine's hand clamps onto this life saving oar, his head and face re-surfacing, while his lungs heave and cough desperately.
"Pull me out, pull me out!" his voice takes on a primal plea for life. I grab hold of the owner of the M-16 as another Marine grabs me in succession. It is like pulling dead weight out of cement! We pull him clear of the moat's edge while he remains on all fours coughing and vomiting up the sick fluid that has entered his airway.
"I'm ok, I'm alright," he says, trying to catch his breath. For now the emergency is over but the Marine is soaked from head to foot and with the wind-chill the temperature is below freezing. I know that hypothermia will eventually set in unless I remove his wet clothes and get him into a dry set. This is not an option though for no one had an extra set of clothes with them. We had only prepared for a six hour operation from start to finish. All I could do was keep him moving, have someone keep an eye on him and hope he didn't get worse.
We eventually find where the moat narrows to a point where a twenty four inch drainage pipe is laid and dirt is filled in over it creating a speed bump of sort. It turns out to be wide enough for a single Humvee to cross so, although not a bridge per say, it is still a potential choke-point where problems could develop with three platoons and their vehicles all gathered in one place.
Dog's barking seem to be the normal greeting for patrols along the streets of Iraq. It isn't any different this cold morning in the city of Hit. If the insurgents weren't forewarned of our arrival, they were alerted now by these annoying canines! We patrol in a file formation, one on each side of the street, our eyes scanning the alleys, rooftops and windows for suspicious activity. Our Iraqi interpreter, Safwan, quietly mingles among us, dressed in his leather flight jacket, digital desert cammies, and his traditional AK-47 slung over his shoulder. A low, distant rumble breaks the morning silence. It seems to be getting closer.
Safwan is a Colonel and former pilot in the Iraqi Air Force. He stands a good six feet one inch in height with his dark eyebrows and grey flaked mustache giving him a Tom Sellick-like appearance. His casual demeanor and well-kept standards forgive any faults he may display. He has a love for women that can be immediately noticed when you walk into his bedroom and witness the collage of pictures he wallpapers his room with. The odor of his favorite cologne surrounds him. Although he is of the Muslim faith he has a fascination with Christmas and all that it stands for, for his birthday falls on December 25th as well. Ever since his childhood, he anticipates the arrival of this Christian holiday and puts together his own Christmas tree which he adorns with lights and ornaments. He collects the songs and carols that are heard during this festive season and loves other classic American songs such as John Denver's, "Country Road".
"This is what I dream of when I imagine America," he tells me. Safwan carries his maticulously kept Kalashnikov with him on all his assignments. He occupies a room back at the FOB, upstairs, with his roommate and fellow interpreter Ali. I visit to have tea and coffee with them nearly every evening for seven month's. Safwan and Ai are invaluable assets to the U.S. forces.
It was on top of us in an instant! An incredible crack in the air and quaking above forces us to our knees where we stand! My eyes peer past the lip of my helmet skyward into the pitch black darkness to see four orange star bursts illuminating the night sky. A ghost like silhouette screams past us at rooftop level into the distance. My guess is that it must be a "fast mover" making a low level pass over us releasing one of it's defensive countermeasures. Within a microsecond following it's high speed pass an even larger explosion comes from the west, this time with the familiar barometric change in the air! With our senses overwhelmed, our teeth clenched down and our eyes forced shut we are pushed down into the prone position as the ground shakes underneath us!
Scuttlebutt circulates that a Navy Corpsman who was fortunate to have survived nine IED detonations, was heard to say that, "If you hear the explosion, you are half way there." Well, in our case, I guess we were lucky!
"Shit, what was that?!" I struggle a whisper to Safwan. All I could think of was that we were being bombed by our own! Initially, I thought it was too coincidental for the rumble, the low level pass, the orange, star like bursts and the explosion that followed in that succession for it to be anything else. Safwan and I then thought that maybe ordnance, like that of a stun grenade, only larger, was released by the fast mover in order to distract the enemy. I asked if anyone was hurt, but was interupted by a "Let's go Doc, lets go!" from Sarge. We picked up our pace trying to keep in tune to our surroundings yet now realizing how vulnerable we really were! We doubled timed it down the empty residential street constantly looking back so not to miss any hand signals that were being passed. I have to wonder what the real reason for our presents in Hit is!
"We're here to draw out the bad guys, Doc. That way the reinforcements in the rear will be able to take them out with the big guns," explains one Marine.
Great, we're sitting ducks in other words! A constant churning of nerves fill my gut while outside the wire. Not knowing what will be thrown at you next takes a toll on you mentally and physically. How much safer, as their medical support, am I than the Marine next to me? What good am I if I get hit and am unable to provide care? I have a Beretta M-9 on my left hip. Even if I carried an M-16 how am I going to manage it and take care of my patient at the same time? The only logical thing I could think of is to make sure it's reasonably safe before I begin providing care. Surround myself with Marines so they can lay down rounds to protect me and the injured and then take cover inside a building or behind a structure in order to put something between me and the chaos. Plans like these are constantly rehearsed in my head.
We continue our march as sweat drips down my face and the middle of my back even though the temperature is still in the thirties. My medical load is trivial compared to the weapon and combat loads the Marines are carrying! Most of the guys are of Hispanic origin from south Texas and average around 5'6" tall, but what they lack in height they make up for with thier strength and stamina! They definitely have my respect!
The streets are still barren and businesses are yet to open. With speakers positioned throughout the neighborhoods the constant drone of Islamic prayers, emanating from the Muslim mosques, fills the air. Dog's continue to bark and yelp at our passing. The rare presence of a vehicle early in the morning only heightens our posture for you never know what it contains, what it's purpose is for, or what is going to pop out of it!. Vehicles are randomly loaded with high explosives and used as weapons, deadly effective weapons! VBIED's are something to be avoided at all costs if possible.
My squad turns the corner heading south along a four lane business district road. I am walking along the right side of the street passing wrought iron security gates that protect the front of the buildings. Downed electrical wire hang from rooftops and telephone poles. The familiar third world smell of burning trash is constant (I have done some world travel in my life and the presence of poverty, disorganization and primitive society doesn't surprise me). I try to take in as much as I can, sometimes pretending I am on a vacation of sort, but knowing that I am in a war torn country brings me quickly back to reality.
A loud burst of gunfire erupts from behind us! Yelling follows in the distance and I can hear Sarge's earpiece come alive. We all run for cover. Although I seperate from my radioman and squad leader I head for a brick wall that I had eyed earlier in the event something like this happened. My eyes scan frantically as I kneel in the hard dirt, wondering if I am safe.
"Doc, get over here!" the radioman yells. I quickly scan my surroundings and bee-line back across to the other street corner to join back up with my team. I learn that the platoon behind us opened up on a vehicle that apparently headed towards them without an apparent intention to stop. Earlier, a group of four or five local males were seen getting into a car in a dark back alley. This same vehicle, with headlights beaming, accelerated directly at the platoon which prompted the Marine's deadly reactions. The vehicle came to a quick stop, backed away from the scene and disappeared without further incident.
My platoon gets a quick head count and we continue the last leg of our egress out of the city. We are to meet up with the QRF, load back up into the seven ton from which we came in and return to the base. There is only about four hundred meters to go and the pace quickens.
BOOM! Another crack in the air breaks the silence! Damn, the word must be out that we're are here! Thank God it wasn't close to us but you have to wonder who WAS close by and if anyone was injured. We turn the last corner and catch a glimpse of our extract. Almost there! Legs are starting to cramp and lungs are starting to burn as we push the last bit.
"McCay, McCay!" A voice calling my name echo's from off to my right in the shadows.
"I need some help. Give me a hand!" HM2 shouts as he emerges half carrying an injured Marine. "1st Sergeant's been hit. Help me get him up in the truck."
Without saying another word we work in unison and lift 1st Sergeant up into the back of the seven ton. Automatic weapons start to erupt again, this time from just behind us. Laying low on the trucks floor and after throwing my camouflage pancho liner over our heads, I turn on my tinted lensed head lamp atop my helmet to see where the bleeding is coming from.We break out the bandages and begin to stop the Marines bleeding lower leg and shoulder. A quick exam reveals a venous bleed seeping from the leg just above the ankle. There is some swelling but the bone appears to be intact. HM2 has a more serious laceration consisting of deep, soft tissue lacerations to the upper left arm and shoulder. The bleeding is managed without complications.1st Sarge is laying up against the sidewall of the cold, metal bed, his helmet askew on his head shadowing his right eye. His Wiley-X eye protection and soft yellow ear plugs are still in place. A facial grimace is apparent. His breathing is unlabored yet rapid, a response from the catecholamine release after the "fight or flight" response which he has just experienced. Fellow Marines kneeling nearby get tunnel vision with their eyes fixated on 1st Sergeant's injuries.
"WHAT ARE YOU GUYS LOOKING AT?" 1st Sarge yells with a still commanding presence. "GET YOUR GUNS DOWN RANGE AND SHOOT THE FUCKERS!" Without a word the young devil dogs swing their weapons around and join in on the sporadic firing.
Soon, after the rest of the squad fills the empty spaces, the truck begins to accelerate away from the scene at a blistering pace. It is amazing how quick that much of a truck can move! I wouldn't doubt if we are doing sixty miles per hour in ten seconds! The rest of the trucks, with their troops onboard, follow suit behind by leaving a cloud of dirt in the coming dawn. The wind is cold, biting to be more precise. 1st Sergeant starts to slump down, his chin touching his chest.
"You okay 1st Sarge?" I ask.
"Yeah, I'mmm ok," his voice starting to tremble.
Hearing that I figure Sarge is starting to shut down peripherally (the bodies reaction to adrenaline is to shunt blood to the vital organs, i.e.; head, chest and abdomen, and leave the extremities cold). So, I straddle him, laying on top of his core, using the cover of my body, to provide extra warmth for him as well as for myself.
"Hey Doc, you won't say anything about this to my wife will ya?" 1st Sergeant smiles referring to my close proximity to him. I can't help but to smile back and shake my head.
"No, not if you won't tell mine!" I chuckle back. "You a little bit warmer now 1st Sarge?" I raise my head up and ask.
"Yes, I am, thanks Doc", he replies.
At the first safe opportunity, the convoy comes to a stop to get a head count. I hear my name being yelled out again but this time it's because I'm not in the truck that I originally came in on. After assisting with the transfer of 1st Sergeant to a warmer Humvee, where he'd receive further care and pain control, I climb back into the truck with my squad to complete the count. We resume our return to the FOB.
Apparently, 1st Sarge was hit by shrapnel that came from a mortar, a rocket or an IED that was detonated nearby him. No one is for sure. Either way, he is lucky it wasn't worse.
"Hey Doc, I think Corporal Linan is cold!" a fellow Marine advises me above the drone of the engine and wind.
"Shit, Linan! I almost forgot about him!" I think out loud as a sense of urgency kicks me.
I turn to find the point man with his arms crossed, his knees drawn up to his chest, his eyes like a deer in headlights. I can see that Linan is shivering and barely able to speak when I question him. Frost has actually begun to form on the surface of his blouse. I stand up, controlling my balance in the moving truck and knock on the sliding back windows of the cab. The driver reaches back and opens them, his head straining back to hear me over the roar of the engine and road noise.
"You've got to stop and get this guy up front!" I yell as clear as I can.
The driver appears to acknowledge me with a raise of his chin and a thumbs up, communicates the emergency over his VOX and stops the vehicle. The rest of the convoy stops in turn like a giant caterpillar recoiling itself. Linan is assisted down from the back of the truck by three others to the heated cab up front. I instruct them to get his clothes off down to his shorts and crank up the heater. They find an olive drab blanket to wrap him in as well.
"Good, another fire put out," I say to myself. We continue our return once again. The ride is still a cold one, a really cold one!
"Argh!" I grunt out loud, trying to do anything to keep my mind off of the hurt.
"You ok Doc?" a Marine beside me asks with concern.
"Fuck, this is cold!" I belt out with pressured speech.
"Check this out!" The Marine proceeds to show his hands by holding them up for me to see. His fingers appear an ashen bluegray and frozen in an unnatural postion. He readjusts his M-16 between his legs by using his two palms. He obviously has little mobility left in his fingers. "It's this way every morning Doc, you'll get used to it", he confidently replies. I don't know if I WANT to get used to it! I guess I'm just a spoiled city kid compared to these guys.
We get back to the FOB without further incident. 1st Sergeant Hoover and Corporal Linan are eventually medevac'd by ground to the rear at Al Asad base for suturing of wounds and further evaluation and treatment. They both return to duty at FOB Hit a few days later without complications. Thank God.
I'd have to say that my experience in Hit was a lucky one. It could have been a LOT worse! Compared to the stories I've heard from those that were there "in the shit" and the video's I've seen of this war, what I experienced that one morning was trivial compared to what some of the service members have been through or are currently experiencing over in the Middle East! My heart goes out to them. War is not a perfect game nor are you always able to define it's purpose, but I CAN tell you one thing. For whatever reason these guys and gals are over there, they are putting their lives on the line to accomplish a job and to make it home alive! This I DO know!
The United States is the "Land of the Free" because of a Democracy that was drafted and put into place by a select few genius immigrants that had a vision beyond anything that exists to this day! This Democracy is looked upon by some as the model government for this planet Earth and is persecuted by others who do not enjoy the freedoms that some of us take for granted every day. No, it's not a perfect government but it is the BEST Democracy in the world! That's a pretty BIG statement, don't you think? So, reflect on this the next time you say anything about the country that you live in or about the people with whom you share this country with. Pause a second and look around you. Realize that there is life outside of the United States of America and that you are very lucky to have what you have! No, I'm not saying that you can't express your opinions, although I AM part of the reason you have that right, but you have to go deeper than that and educate yourself if you haven't already. I'll admit that I was part of that majority of ignorant people that think this way prior to my joining the Navy eight years ago. But now I can't help but to remember Jack Nicholson's famous lines while being questioned in the court room in the Hollywood movie A Few Good Men:
"I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it. I'd prefer you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post."
Support our troops and welcome them home when they return!
HM2 McCay, Gary E., (U.S.N.R)