April 2004



One of the gas mask canisters we found at the place we dubbed the “chemical plant”.

The man in the passenger seat lay slumped against the dashboard, a massive wound to his head. Kirk pulled the body upright and cut his pockets open looking for ID. When he was done and let the body fall back against the dashboard, he said what was left of the man’s brain fell out of the opening in the back of his head and onto the ground. He could handle the guy with the brain and both the dead women, but it was the three-year-old-girl, he said, that got to him.

Roughly an hour earlier a convoy of fuel tankers and Humvees came to a halt a little north of our forward operations base when what looked like an improvised explosive device was spotted on the side of the road. Since the suspected IED was spotted mid-convoy, the vehicles were split, part to the north and part to the south, leaving the area around it open to avoid any of the trucks being destroyed. Our explosive ordinance disposal team was being called in and our quick reaction force (QRF) was going to escort them. I was in the QRF staging area that day, but I wasn’t on the mission. We were listening to the radio in a Humvee as one of the officers in the convoy was communicating with our headquarters about the IED when they started to take small arms fire. They took contact from multiple directions. Then the mortar rounds started to fall. The people that attack convoys and FOBs seem to have no end to their supply of mortar rounds, a common means of attack and the primary charge of the IEDs they leave for us like Easter eggs. Thankfully they don’t know how to aim them any better than they do their rifles.
       When our QRF made it to the scene, shots were still being fired, so they laid down suppressive fire the best they could. Even though this attack took place in daylight, there was much difficulty pinpointing the location of the enemy assailants. There was a building and a parked vehicle in the distance and the guy on the ground calling everything up on the radio was unsure if fire was being taken from these locations. Restraint was exercised and fire was directed toward less collateral damage-inducing areas.
       But to the north, another QRF also responded to this ambush, an active duty unit newly in-country. This was their first mission.
       Since the other QRF was on a separate communications net, the response attacks were not coordinated. This isn’t particularly important other than it’s anyone guess what the communication was like between them and their battalion leadership. They also spotted a vehicle, this one on the move apparently, but less restraint and less positive target identification was exercised.
       The vehicle was a white pickup, a small Toyota, one like most Iraqis stack their families into the back of, just as this family was. Everyone has these trucks in Iraq, it’s like the national vehicle It’s also the preferred vehicle of the ICDC and insurgents alike. I can imagine that the man driving it, most likely the father of those on-board, just wanted to get his family out of the area of the fighting as quickly as possible. I can also imagine that the other QRF got word that a fast moving vehicle was our attackers’ likely means of attack and escape, a completely plausible and reasonable possibility.
       From what could be gathered afterward, the Humvee gunships engaged the pickup with a SAW, M240B and a M2 .50 cal., or in other words, a shitload of machine gun fire. The truck contained six people. Two men, two women, and two young girls. As is the custom in Iraq, the men were in the cab as the females huddled together in the bed of the truck. Among the dead were one of the men, both women, and a three-year-old girl, apparently smothered to death by the two women’s bullet-riddled bodies, trying to shield the girl from the fusillade of gunfire, the tragic irony being that this ultimate protective act was the very thing that killed the girl. The man driving was still alive when CASEVAC (comprised mostly of members from my squad) got there, but he was probably on his way out. Matt, our platoon medic, a member of my team and a paramedic out of Poughkeepsie in real life, said the man had numerous wounds to his legs and a gunshot wound to the scrotum, an entry wound for a bullet that had no visible exit and was most likely lodged in his pelvis or abdomen. As Matt held a pressure dressing to the man’s bleeding thigh, he felt the shattered pieces of femur grind against each other. The only one who seemed certain to survive was an eight-year-old girl who had gunshot wounds in both of her upper arms. The man and the girl were medevac’d via Blackhawk, along with another girl from a separate location nearby who took a round through her cheek and leg. Stan and Kirk had the grisly duty of stacking the bodies in the back of a truck to be moved to the aid station at the FOB.
       As I try to fathom what it must feel like to be a poverty-stricken eight-year-old girl and experience the epic pain of having your family suddenly and violently killed in front of you, I have to pause and ask myself, Now what am I doing here again? I know this kind of thing happens in combat and I kind of expected to see it, but Jesus, the record is pretty bad so far. Since I’ve been in Iraq, in situations that my platoon has responded to, there have been three dead bad guys, two wounded civilians (one critically), and seven dead civilians, including four women, one three-year-old girl and one mentally-unstable homosexual man on a moped. Hell, if you count the suicide of the latter’s lover– an excellent two-for-one dead civilian deal– and the de-familied guy who got his balls blown off, who even if he lived, will wish to Allah that he was dead, that makes the tally 3 to 9, a 1:3 ratio of dead evildoers to innocent and ridiculously poor Iraqis who couldn’t care less who leads their country just so long as they are able to feed themselves. Now that I think about it, there have actually been more civilian casualties in our area, but these are the only ones that I remember right now. Thank god none of this carnage has been carried out by anyone in my platoon or even my company for that matter. My battalion has sustained only one casualty of its own so far, and there has been at least one engagement by another company that netted a few dozen dead bad guys, so the numbers are at least decent in that regard, but still, I’m having a hard time being okay with all the dead civilians. But it happens so often. It’s like we should have bumper stickers that read, “I ♥ Dead Civilians”.
       But let’s get back to the family in the truck who were killed. Like I said, I wasn’t with the QRF that day and didn’t see any of this first-hand and all the information I got was gleaned from the guys in my squad who were. Even though Matt said it was better that I didn’t see any of it, I wish I had been there, to bear witness I suppose. So tell me, why would I wish for this?

I’ve been stewing over this dead family thing for a couple weeks now. I’ve been painstakingly mulling over in my mind the things these insurgents do and the things we, the US Army do and the unintuitive peculiarity of how the drive to be violent seems to precede the purpose to be violent and how rampant it is to meaninglessly develop one’s identity through injury, but frankly I don’t think I’ve figured it all out well enough yet to even kludge together a coherent line of thought. Introspectively, I’m blindly trying to sew together the absurd lateral progression one unwittingly goes through when pulling legs off grasshoppers as a child and how it is a precursor to compulsive sexual infidelity as a young-adult, among a million other uncoalesced thoughts. I’m unprepared at this time to write the Gödel Escher Bach of my own self-loathing.
       But what does any of this have to do with the dead family you ask? Well, nothing directly. It’s just another one of those things I’m having difficulty reconciling in my mind, I guess.

EOD robot
There were several occasions during April where we escorted EOD so they could destroy suspected IEDs. The process is pretty simple. You put a few bricks of C4 on the IED and remotely detonate it. To safely get the C4 to the site, the EOD guys use robots like this one. The control device for these robots are really cool in a geeky kind of way. The future of warfare is owned by the geeks, mark my words.

trucks with inert bombs
What do you do when you’re driving back from a mission and you see trucks driving down the road full of bombs? You pull them over and ask them what in the name of fuck they think they’re doing. We made these guys drive to our base and spend the night. Once we were convinced that the bombs they had were in fact inert that they just wanted to use for scrap metal, we let them go. The whole thing was slightly unnerving.


The not uncommon way for kids to get around. Photo by Matt.


The three dead hooligans and their car. In the ditch is a long-abandoned armored vehicle. Photo by Jeff.


The IED craters near the chicken ranches. Second photo by Matt.


When clearing buildings, this is a startlingly bizarre thing to come upon.


The house and its occupants, hours before our raid of it. Photo by Kirk.


To any kids out there thinking about becoming infantrymen, here is one of the meat and potatoes elements of being a grunt: scanning your sector. My team’s job was to pull outer security on the building while another team searched it. My platoon sergeant and platoon leader came up with the plan for the raid and left to me the task of security. As a team leader, my job was to determine how to break the perimeter up into what are called sectors of fire. The above photo was my sector. If any lookyloos started poking their heads out, you’d tell them to get inside. If anyone got on a roof with a rifle, you’d shoot them. Establishing sectors of fire is not hard, you just place soldiers in locations where collectively the team has eyes on everything and some degree of cover, such as a wall or a corner of a building, and if any threats present themselves in your sector, you engage that threat.


Dan, with his M14, a.k.a. “The Long Gun”, scanning his sector.


Matt, scanning his sector. As you can see, this town is a tactical nightmare. All the roofs are open with a rampart-style small wall around them with arrow loop-like slots that a rifle could easily fire through; narrow alleys; six-foot walls surrounding the property; every single fucking household is allowed one weapon, usually an AK-47; and just to make it especially tricky, I’d guess that sixty percent of the town is under the age of twelve.


Never tell a group of New Yorkers raiding your home that you can’t find the keys to your car because they will open your car in a way you may not like.