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Iraq’s Parting Shot

by Michael “Sudsy” Sutherland

Forward Operating Base Courage sat on the commanding terrain on the north side of Mosul, Iraq, nestled on the east bank of the Tigris River. From the sky, it was part of an emerald sticking out in the bland desert sand. I was part of the 3rd Air Support Operations Squadron in February 2006, and had just arrived at the FOB after a six-month rotation in the city. We’d come back to get accounted for. We were about to go home.

When I first arrived in Iraq, it didn’t take me long to understand why this region was the Cradle of Civilization: Crops grew along the Tigris, through the heart of the city and even into the FOB itself, a rough patchwork of lighter shades of green stitched by rows of darker green palm groves, tan dirt roads, and the bright blue river.

FOB Courage, one of Saddam Hussein’s former gardens, was now a home for soldiers and airmen. Rows of container housing units, or CHUs, were surrounded by dusty ten-foot-high concrete T-barriers stacked liked blocks side by side. Each compound was made up of ten to twenty of these CHUs, which were the size of shipping containers. Green sandbags lined the outside walls of each CHU and lay across the massive 4-foot-by-4-foot timber and plywood frames built on the roof. All of this was supposed to protect us from incoming rocket and mortar fire – protect us until we could get to the nearby concrete bunkers.

We were so close to leaving, but, as I’d soon learn, Iraq didn’t let you go without a fight.

I sat inside a CHU in a threadbare Coleman folding camp chair with worn-out cup holders in each arm, reading a good book and letting my hot tea steep and cool. The tea filled the immediate area with the aroma of orange and clove spices. Next to me were half a dozen other camp chairs and few rusty and scratched metal folding chairs. They surrounded a beat-up particleboard entertainment center holding a dusty big-screen TV purchased at the Post Exchange (PX).

The other chairs were empty and the TV turned off. To me, this was a moment of serenity, a bit of the good life in the middle of the war. Iraq was like that sometimes: Hours of peace, occasionally boring days, ripped through by seconds of terror and chaos. I had these few minutes of quiet to myself before people would wake up and come into the day room we had made on this half of the container, before they would watch a DVD they had seen fifteen times already, or perhaps play on the dying, dust-encrusted X-Box someone had left behind. I relished such quiet, and enjoyed the moment of solitude. FOB life was crowded and noisy, and moments like this, sitting, reading a book and enjoying tea in the relative silence were quite rare.

Then: THRRRIIIIIIPPP! BOOM!

A sound like ripping of cloth and paper tore through the sky and a mortar round impacted somewhere nearby. The ground shook. I froze for minute. I knew that my chances of survival were higher inside the building. Sandbags, concrete T-barriers, and even the CHU walls were better protection than the open air. Strangely, there was no adrenaline in my blood yet. I looked across the room to the door, less than fifteen feet away. No chairs lay in my path across the granite patterned vinyl floor. I placed a bookmark in the book and set it down on the metal folding chair I’d pressed into service as a table for my hot tea.

I stood and grabbed the thin wire handles of my canteen cup. The silence ignited my curiosity, and I made my way carefully across the room. Even with an elevated heart rate starting to buzz in my ears, I forced myself to be calm by thinking about what sort of found had just landed outside. Likely, I believed, it was just a 60mm mortar round with a small kill zone. I controlled my breathing as I’d been taught in a shooting course.

“Breathe,” I said out loud, to reinforce my thoughts.

I forced deep intakes of air, held them momentarily, and followed with controlled exhalations.

Short pause; repeat breathing. Controlled breaths, controlled reactions.

I turned the doorknob and a wave of heat and light washed over me. I stepped out into the dry air with my tan boots crunching on the gravel.

Through squinting eyelids, I saw nothing amiss in our immediate area. I went to look around. Three paces from the door, halfway to the T-barrier entrance and the door to the sandbag-reinforced concrete bunker, then: THHHRRRIIIIPP.

Having observed the first round impact our FOB, Anti-Iraqi Forces—our generic term for any of the number of terrorists or former Ba’ath Party regime forces—had fired another round.

A blur of tan sand, grey dusty concrete, and droplets of spilled tea on the dirty white gravel. Heart pounding through my skull, I found myself with my back against dusty concrete inside the dark bunker. My companions at this moment were spiders in their webs oblivious to the human activities outside. A shaft of sunlight poured through the entrance.

BOOM. Impact two.

THHHRRRIIIIP-BOOM. Impact three.

The attack lasted less than two minutes.

I shook involuntarily; my canteen cup wiggled in my hands. I marveled at the fact that there was still tea left in the cup to drink. I felt weak. I sipped and waited. If you have ever felt the drain of energy from donating blood, that is about what the sudden drop in adrenaline felt like. No further rounds came in. Nothing I could do would help eliminate the attackers. I was helpless in that regard and it infuriated the warrior in me.

But helping anybody hurt? Yes, that was something that I could do. I left the safety of the bunker and ran outside the T-barriers. I looked over the hood of a beat up old Humvee with chipped tan paint. I saw a CHU, which could house four soldiers, completely shredded and gutted from the inside-out. It looked like a pop can hit with an M-80 firecracker on the Fourth of July. The smell of burnt metal stung my nostrils, and I could see a plume of black smoke in the air over the top of the T-barriers. Soldiers wearing a mix of uniforms, shorts and t-shirts bucket brigade to assist the FOB fire department. A single soldier stood supported by his battle buddy leaned against the dusty T-barrier. Wheezing uncontrollably, he stood out from the crowd with a soot-stained face and upper body and would soon be attended to by the medics.

An all-too-familiar feeling of helplessness and anger filled me, and I knew the other men and women there felt it too. We’d experienced attacks before and had talked afterwards about how frustrated we were to be helpless after an attack. It’s like being an eyewitness to a tornado or hurricane, when nature sweeps in so fast and furious, and all human endeavors seem to be in vain, swept away in the chaos.

Fear lingered within me, as I’m sure it did for many, though that fear was mitigated and controlled by our military training kicking in. After six months we had learned that fear is inevitable. Courage is merely continuing to go on through the fear.

After the attack, we gathered back in the day room so we could be counted. There was a somber air over the room in the silence. I looked at my friends’ faces and could read their minds. We all were thinking the same thing: ‘It happened again.’

Someone had to check in with the Tactical Operations Center to let them know we were all okay. The TOC was run out of Sword Palace, one of Saddam’s former personal vacation spots. I volunteered, pulling on my hat and heading down the hill and to the north of our housing area.

I passed by the impact site. The fire was out, but the smell of burnt metal, cloth, and rubber still lingered in the air. The firefighters and medics had almost all left.

Such attacks didn’t really excite this crowd so much after six months.

Hours later, back in the day room, one of our officers strode in. Airmen sat electrified listening to this final report of the very last attack any of us would experience on this rotation. “The CHU that was hit belonged to an interpreter,” he said. “It was completely shredded and destroyed with everything in it. However, the Interpreter was ‘outside the wire’ with his unit on a mission and wasn’t hurt.”

He relayed the story seriously, then cracked wide grin and continued: “The only injury was one of the soldiers who was sleeping. He kicked down the door after the attack to drag anybody who was inside out. He’s being treated for smoke inhalation.”

No matter how many times this kind of attack happens, it is always a relief when nobody gets hurt. I’m sure all of us had the image of twisted and burning steel tinsel containing the roasting remains of a person we knew.

You could not leave Iraq smoothly. It is almost military tradition that when you are returning from deployment, something almost gets you right at the end. This was my first deployment, and my first departure from Iraq. This attack, Iraq’s first parting shot, was a small event in the scope of the deployment, and not even the scariest, but it stands out.

I never felt traumatized by the memory – in fact I still laugh at it today, much the same way I laugh at the many other scrapes, bruises, and broken bones I experienced growing up, humorous only after the pain and excitement had faded. I know my sense of humor has certainly darkened since serving in Iraq. That, I know, is just a coping mechanism for the deeper pain I have felt.

I’m home now, but when I watch the news, I go right back to Iraq in my mind. Watching ISIS seize Mosul left me heartbroken and full of rage enough to kill again. Watching the Kurds fight back when the Iraqi Army flailed filled me a pride that made me wish I was back there fighting with them.

War never leaves us, no matter how long ago we may have left the war behind.

Illustration by Michael Sutherland
Illustration by Michael Sutherland

 

 

 

 

 

(Copyright 2015 Military Experience & the Arts, Inc.)