Leave, Again


by Eric Martin Aimerson

(Ringing) mouthing words, what the hell was that!!…I can see they are yelling but I can’t hear what they are saying…Calm down, close your eyes breathe… Open my eyes ok  move your toes good I can feel that, bend your legs good,  back hurts like hell so does my neck and head. I can move but I can’t hear yet, still ringing. Check yourself there’s blood?  No holes nothing missing doing good, buddy check yup they’re still there now battle buddy check; not so good, Jason’s gone, Fortner’s left leg is missing. Apply tourniquet. Back is really hurting now f’it Forrester is checking the rest I need to get us outta here. Hatch is freakin heavy, there we go. Close it, close it! Great it’s on fire. Freakin, Iraqis and their damn IEDs Getting really smoky in here, hard to see…hard to breathe, good I can hear now. Oh shit its black in here now, everyone’s yelling… can’t hear what their saying, f’it I might as well yell too… Shut up! Shut up! They’re gonna get us out! Ok, it’s getting hotter, and smoker now, harder to breathe….OK freakin out now, GET US OUTTA HERE!!! HEY CAN YOU HEAR ME!!!

Daddy, Daddy! Babe, BABE! Wake up, hey wake up. Are you ok, babe? Hey, hey, its ok, you’re ok. Breathe, take a deep breathe. Its ok now, you’re good now, you’re here with us now. It’s ok. (Smile let them know you’re here with them.) But in your mind your still there, apart of you is lost there.

Same dream again, again. Now what? Get up pretend I’m good and go to work again. I think reality is worse than my dream, at least I wake up from that and this, well “this” is here, again over and over. Everyday same ole same ole.

I miss it yeah, I miss it. I can remember the heat, the dirt, the smell of JP-8 and CLP. How your uniform kind of stuck to you and how it felt kind of stiff after it dried out, how you kept the same stuff around you so you could grab it in a hurry. You had your little routines and personal checklist, it was living. In a way it was a little like being a young kid you didn’t care about how you looked how you smelt or if you wore the same clothes for a week straight. Seems strange when it’s written down but in my heart I miss it, I miss them, my guys. From their a-hole attitudes to the awesome stupid stuff they said and finally the way they worked a group of nobody’s put together to become a somebody. Sounds cliché but, they are my brothers some were my boys.

I told Chaput this was gonna happen so here it goes, even if it only goes between here and there it happened like it was supposed to I guess.. So there we were/but this is what really happened.

We deployed on Dec 17th, my birthday, happy birthday to me huh? After months of training two rotations to the big island Hawaii and a horrible rotation through NTC (National Training Center), we were ready for the sandbox. Our lives as we knew it were about to change, everything we “thought” we knew about life and war was about to be thrown in our faces and the reality of it all was about to be burned in our hearts and brains forever.

Our first stop was Kuwait, Camp Buehring, awesome food, sandy as all heck and camels. This was the staging area for all military heading into Iraq or the Stan. The chow there was awesome, supposedly the people here were so thankful for America and they’re help with booting out Saddam they spared no expense in showing they’re gratitude. They even had Santa walking and talking around the kitchen there during Christmas, no expense.

Eventually everyone that’s been there has gotten used to the sand but if there was a starting point this place had to be it, you know how a smoker became a smoker it started with the first cigarette, well this was it. Everyone that was there will be happy to tell you about the sand, everyone has their own story to tell. My story, let’s just say I prefer my sand in either in sandwich form or on the beach.

Here you verified weapon systems and tweaked what you could on the range. This was the last chance to get everything right, before heading into the sandbox, because once there you were lucky to get any more chances at getting anything just right without worrying about dying. Also you put back everything you took off your vehicle when you were in the states, or the island in our case.

I can say I never saw a camel in any other place but the zoo until one day at the range, they came out of the horizon like ghosts. A herd like no other herd I’d ever seen with an old man walking along side of them. It looked as if they walked the same path many times before because he never once had to correct them or adjust course whatsoever, right through the middle of the range. And just as eerily as they appeared they disappeared into the horizon again. Don’t know why that stuck with me but it did…why walk right through a range with your camels. Symbolic, maybe or were we just in his way?

That lasted about two weeks can’t recall the exact amount of time, but I know it was long enough. We were ready as we could be to start.

Three weeks in country, boots on the ground, left seat right seat ride completed. SPC Chaput had already got a head start by having gone out on four missions before “we,” as a platoon, began our routine patrols through Abu Ghraib and surrounding communities. He was quick to let you know it too. SPC Chaput was a young kid skinny as a flag pole with the mentality of a forty years old sex deprived sailor. He had to get a waiver to even get into the army because he was so young. I remember he talked about hitting up the teen events at the family center in the MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation). It was almost as if he was two different people at times, around me he was that young kid who liked to talk smack and asked questions about everything, around everyone else he was that rough tough 40 year old guy I mentioned before. Why did he join the army, same old response- family business, f-stuff up.

I wasn’t any prize winner myself, thirty-three years old, married, three kids, God oriented and full of heart but with a body already beat up from life and then joining the army. Why did I join the army? God told me too, not like over the phone or anything but through His leading. Plus I believe every able body American should serve in some capacity. Just getting this old body back in shape I believe was the hardest part for me. Boot camp was geared toward young people without any disciple or slack morals. It wasn’t too hard, just do what you were told and learn. I was already used to working long hours without reward, and with others getting the credit for a job well done. Being a mechanic for most of my life I looked at a lot of things with that mindset. I looked at boot camp like bringing a whole bunch of greasy engine parts together, breaking everything down, cleaning them and putting it together and in the end you had an awesome cam thumping lean mean fire breathing Chevy 383 with so much torque and horsepower you could pull down an old world castle. But we came out more like a governed four-cylinder engine, with two fouled out spark plugs and a burnt out exhaust system but we made it.

If you ever been there you know how every “story” starts…

So there we were, first couple of patrols under our belts and feeling froggy. It was getting kinda cold out, my nose was cold as well as two of my fingers on my left hand bad circulation I guess. We had just finished a short mission where we went on a patrol in Abu Ghraib in the guise of befriending the locals but in actuality looking for a mechanic shop suspected of wiring cars up to be used for VBIEDs (vehicle borne improvised explosive device). Even with full gear and a layer of polypro the air still found its way in and chilled you up pretty good. At this time SPC Chaput was the driver and I was the .50 Cal gunner in our Stryker. We were the lead truck in our three truck team providing over watch for our boys on the ground. We were moving to set up so our guys could load up and head back in to the JSS (joint security station).

Being new and still somewhat green Chaput and I were living the dream, calling out everything we saw, guy in the window, old lady carrying a heavy looking bag, kid with a plastic bag. We were doing it so much we were told to shut the f-up. “If you see a humpback whale selling flap jacks with an AK strapped to his back then you can call it out, but shut up about everything you see, cause I can see it all from up here.” Roger that SGT leaving it to….. That’s as far as I got then all hell broke loose.

The first rocket caught our VC (vehicle commander) off guard, it pretty well torn him in half with his lower torso falling inside the truck still kicking. I not going to lie, I froze for what seemed liked minutes. But I came to when Chaput started yelling “SGT!!! WHICH WAY!!! SGT!!! WHICH WAY!!! AIMERSON WHATS GOING ON!!” It was on, the radio came alive with all kinds of what’s, where’s. The second rocket hit our sighting system on the fifty so inside we were blind. Still not sure where to go, Chaput kept yelling, “WHAT ARE WE DOING?” The radio went silent as we kept hearing gunfire and rockets outside. Then I heard this voice in my head set say “Aimerson calm down and get your head out of your assigned seat and get us out of here.”, as cool as a cumber. It was Chaput still not sure what happened but that was all I needed, I switched out the crazy eyes for my angry eyes and we went to town.

I popped out of the VC hatch grabbed what was left of our VC, closed the hatch and jumped back into the gunner seat popped opened that hatch switched it to manual mode and started lighting up the idiots that were trying to rush the truck. Then I gave the order to Chaput to move left but I meant right so we wound up in a store front but it was ok because as I turned around to look back the route right just turned into a huge crater from an off shot RPG (rocket propelled grenade)tripping an IED (improvised explosive device). Another rocket hit the side of the truck sending shrapnel up nearly ripping my helmet off peppering my face thank God for eye pro. They were trying to take out our truck to block the route so they could eat us up. Chaput knew it, I knew it and it wasn’t gonna happen, not on our watch. As I trained the fifty to the building on the right I let off a volley suppressing enemy fire Chaput had popped his driver hatch and started lighting up the guys on the left with his M4. We both surveyed the building we were in and hoping against hope that the floor wouldn’t fall in. We both decided that our best bet and one the enemy would never expect was to drive on thru the building since it was fairly open from front to back and come around back behind the enemy on the right since they were the ones suppressing our movement no matter which direction we took. I gave the reins to Chaput and he put it down driving right through the building and whipping it hard right we were face up with at least twenty Iraq army defects with RPGs and a couple of Dishkas. We lit it up like Christmas and New Year combined, the air was filled with smoke and the smell of gun powder and iron.

Truck 2 sustained the most damage having its front four tires blown out and its main weapon system the 40mm cannon was blown to pieces, as well as having a hole the size of a basketball on the engine compartment side. They were giving it all they had, taking fire from all directions. Then we pulled around the corner, and lit up what we could on their right, our front. Giving them a chance to catch their breath they were able to move back and angle their front to the left and bring the pain to those guys. They were in much the same situation we were except their VC was shot up and refused to give them the satisfaction of knowing it. He continued to bark orders and give directions as well provide radio contact with the TOC (tactical operations center).

Our 3rd truck hooked back right blocking what it could to give our guys a chance to gather up and get in the fight. Their gunner was able to knock out at least two heavy gun positions they had set up on the top floor of the buildings to their front. This gave our guys an opportunity to move into the buildings on the left and the right. Alpha team took the right; bravo scooted across the turkey shoot to hit the building on the left, our right. Our weapons team became an on the fly medic team as we had five wounded from the initial barrage of rocket and small arms fire, and a couple more after shtf.

Alpha team was able to secure the first building without much resistance, and was moving to the second building when other assets arrived on scene, QRF (quick reaction force), way to go finally some payback. Great they just passed us by, I could see them down the alley way to my left. Chaput yelled out, “Are they f-n blind, hello were the ones over here getting shot at dumbasses! Follow the sounds of people shooting, you f-n a-holes!” Didn’t matter we had to get control of this situation, we ha… (Boom)…am I dead? I felt the heat and felt the thud through my head down to my toes, something hit me right in the head and back. Chaput was yelling “are you okay!  Aimerson, are you okay!” I was able to get back up and turn around to see that the spike strip box that was strapped on top had taken a direct hit from a rocket and flipped up hitting the hatch door dropping me back down in the gunner seat. I yelled back to Chaput I was good to good couldn’t remember what the heck we were gonna do but it had to be done quick. It was hard to talk now my jaw hurt and popped from hitting the front part of the hatch opening, my neck gaiter was soaked in blood I thought for sure I bit my tongue or knocked out some teeth. I was missing home pretty good right then.

Bravo hit the buildings to the left like a hammer, popping bad guys like popcorn. Without a SGT leading it was -4 mafia at its finest, text book, smooth as silk. Like butter, I heard one of our old CSM say during one of our training scenarios on the big island. They were able to secure and establish superiority then after gaining access to the buildings’ roof top they started focusing fire on the bad guys across the street in the second building which alpha team was trying to secure. We had an edge now and we took the fight to them, then finally QRF arrived (after stopping and asking for directions?). They were able to move the wounded and reinforced our guys in the buildings as well as provide coverage to start getting to our guys in the trucks. Three combatants and a few other squirters were taken care of by our assets that showed up on site.

And just as quickly as it started it ended, it was weird like a tornado right before it ropes out. All the rage of Mother Nature then she changes her mind just like that. We were shot to shit but we made it, freaked out but good to go. It burns in your mind, it leaves its mark.

It was all quite as it was before, ears ringing and hands shaking I looked around at all that had happened in disbelief and awe.  Chaput opened his hatch stood up and lit a cigarette, I hate that freakin smell, we both looked at each other and laughed don’t know why exactly, just did. Then we both kinda looked toward where our VC was and my immediate thought was aww man were gonna have to clean that up. I think Chaput had the same idea because the look on his face was like disgust and he shook his head. He took another long drag off his cigarette and sat down on what was left of the slat armor, and just started looking around. The QRF guys were running up to the truck by that time and asking stupid questions, I crawled back down and dropped the back hatch so they could get in. Doc asked a lot of questions and I tried to answer but my jaw hurt so bad it was hard to talk.

After what seemed like hours we were ready to go but I couldn’t find Chaput, he had walked off with his M4 on his back, Rippit in hand and cigarette in mouth. We had our team loaded up and they took our VC’s body and put him in the medevac truck… he was a good guy I was gonna miss him. Chaput finally came back said he had to piss ever since we started the patrol and he couldn’t find a bottle. Since nobody wanted to stand in the VC hatch because of the blood guts and pieces of skin plus my gun was in manual mode I stood up from gunner hatch and lead us out. As we hooked back left I saw Chaput’ s name and the words, F-you written in piss outside the door where we tore up the first group of bad guys, just like that.

No one talked on the ride back it smelled like poop and iron from our VC’s body and it kinda started getting me sick plus my jaw was killing me. Platoon SGT was relaying info because for some reason our radio was out. Our VC didn’t make it (duh), plus we lost one more and the other five were gonna be fine. QRF stayed on site for survey and waited for recovery assets to arrive for our 2nd truck since the engine was shot. 2nd platoon was on site to lend a hand, and provided security. People can say what they want but if you never been there and done that, you’ll never know what it’s like.

As we were going through the zigzag, Chaput asked me if I wanted to hit the chow hall then clean or clean then chow hall? “Whatever man”, I replied “what is it tonight?” Simultaneously, we both said surf and turf! Yeah we’ll eat first, that a way if we get sick we can come back and eat again. I know it sounded weird that we said it but, again you had to be there plus my jaw was killing me, it was more like suvf an tuvf.

Yeah it could’ve happened like that, but this is what really happened.

Being new and still somewhat green Chaput and I were living the dream, calling out everything we saw, guy in the window, old lady carrying a heavy looking bag, kid with a backpack. We were doing it so much we were told to shut the f-up. If you see a humpback whale selling flap jacks with an AK strapped to his back then you can call it out, but shut up about everything you see, cause I can see it all from up here. Roger that SGT leaving it to you. Oh look an ugly looking dog eating a dead cat. Chaput remarked that the dog was eating some rotten pxxxy. I told him to watch his filthy mouth, he just laughed and we continued on providing over watch. Being the lead truck we had to make sure the front was clear for our guys and plus be able to watch out for IEDs (improvised explosive device). I had no idea what I was looking for, neither did Chaput.

We had just rounded a corner and started heading up an alley way when we all heard a shot ring out, our VC started the usual yelling where was that, scan, scan. I switched it to thermal and scanned left and right I wasn’t able to see anything I checked each door way every window looking for some type of heat signature…nothing. The locals just looked at us like we were stupid, our guys were seeking cover and relaying info but…nothing. We sat in place and relayed info to the TOC, they in return relayed to us that the local police signal each other with (two shots rang out) one shot from one check point to another and then respond with two shots. So we shook it off laughed it off, CM’d (continued mission) loaded up and headed back to the JSS. As we were going through the zigzag Chaput asked me if I wanted to hit the chow hall then fuel point or… “f-n idiots,” VC chimed in, “fuel point clean the truck then one of you knuckle heads can get chow for both, after weapons maintenance.” Roger that SGT. Will do.

Yeah I miss it, by the way we had surf and turf that night too.

We had many routine type missions after that, door knocking, patrols through the city and got to visit “the” prison. Then we were moved to another AO (area of operation) to help out, more than a couple of times in fact. We were moved around so much we felt like the black sheep of the family and so we started calling ourselves that and yeah, it stuck. 3rd platoon Black Sheep; we did the stuff nobody else wanted because we could. Needed a field watched for twenty-four hours straight just because, call the Black Sheep, a plane crash land in your back yard need someone to watch the wreckage for 48 hrs. straight, call the Black Sheep. Need to escort a Sunni kid to school call the Black Sheep; yeah we made a name for ourselves. We made a name in so much we started to hate it and that’s when things started to happen.

One such mission comes to mind; I call it, Fistful of Salt.

Our mission was a simple knock and search, suspected bomb maker in housing area northwest of Abu Ghraib. By this time I was a VC for the 2nd truck Chaput was the driver for the 3rd truck. We still had our own set of rules we followed instilled in us by our former VC. I had a new gunner Aviles another young kid from the bad lands of New York, a real killer, kinda looked like the guy from the movies, Channing Tatum, others would disagree but I think it was that weird lip thing. He was eager and open to suggestion, a little arrogant but he learned pretty quick.  I was also issued a new driver, Poland, from Texas and proud of it. He was a pretty good kid, had a baby huey look about him but he was smart as heck. He was up for any challenge you gave him, and in a tight spot I felt I could trust him with my six.

We had just set our trucks in, dropped our guys and began over watch. Truck 1 set up on the northwest corner of the housing complex covering the road and dead end road running north to south, truck 2, myself, we set up directly west over watching both directions north south and with full frontal view of housing complex, and finally our 3rd truck took up the southwest corner securing our infil and exfil route. The rear of the building was a steep wall no windows or doors, it at one time was the back wall for a part of the factory before it was blown away (courtesy of the US Air Force).  We informed the TOC and the guys on the ground, they then gave the signal that they were going to start with knock and search. GTG (good to go).

So there we were, everything going according to plan, it was hot as Hell, and the bugs were bugging. My gunner was scanning the reeds in front of us and I was watching the road, Aviles mentioned something about a guy in a car across the field and another standing outside the car, looking in our direction. I told him to zoom in and to see what he was doing. Aviles excitedly relayed back “he’s got a phone or radio and bino’s (binoculars).” I tried to take a look with my ACOG (advanced combat optical gunsight) but with the reeds in the way it was hard to get a good look, so I hopped down to look at the gunner screen and sure enough I wasn’t able to make out phone or radio but the bino’s weren’t to be mistaken. As I was hopped down, I turned to see our rear hatch guy PVT Gutierrez had also hopped down and was looking at the screen. “What the heck are you doing, idiot get back up there and watch the road.” He looked at me and got back up, I had just established comms with the TOC and relayed the info about the guy when Pvt. Gutierrez hopped back down, I was on the radio giving the 3 D’s (distance direction description) and pointed him back up. He just looked at me, then looked down, then back up at me,” What’s wrong Private?”, (my first thought, he just peed or pooped himself) it was then I was the blood come from over the top part of his IBA…sniper!

Then we heard the shot, pretty far at least six-hundred to eight-hundred meters estimate. We relayed the info to the TOC and the guys on the ground. I tried to pack the bleeder, as I was applying the quick clot, (man that stuff gets hot), I heard another shot. Chaput came on the radio his VC was hit, his gunner another new guy lost it shooting at anything laying fire up and down the road, tree line, the side of the building our guys were in and finally running out of rounds. He popped up for a second like a prairie dog and started slamming all the hatch doors closed.

The angle of the shot it had to come from… I told Aviles to check the guy in the field, after a quick scan the guy on the road was packed up and heading out. Aviles was on the radio already relaying the info, he then looked at me and said “they want me to light him up?” Both Poland and I yelled “DO IT!” Aviles commenced to light the fire of God on this guy hopefully he was saved because he was about to meet his maker. The first burst ripped up the rear of the car causing it to drop into instant lower rider mode the second volley fell short, third went high and left. I grabbed Aviles looked him in the eye and told him to calm down and breath he turned back to the screen just in time for both of us to see two people jump out and roll. He trained up and then our whole world turned white with a loud boom.

The car hit us broad side in the rear, VBIED. The blast knocked me out and Aviles was slammed against the front panel busting his nose breaking his arm and dislocating his right shoulder. If PVT Gutierrez wasn’t dead from the shot, this sure as hell did it for him. The rear hatch was blown open taking half of PVT Gutierrez’s head with it. It threw me down the driver’s hole head first into the back of Poland’s seat it could have been worse if we didn’t have all our sleeping bags in there it took me a bit to come to and get unstuck from the all the crap that flew up there with me. Poland was up and out, yelling at me as he was trying to pick me up it was then I noticed we were on our side. “We have to get Aviles,” I yelled back at Poland. “He’s already out! We need to move, the trucks on fire and our guys are getting tore up!” we have to get to Victor 3 I thought ours is gone but we can use Victor 3. Quick assessment: my right eye was swollen shut, huge knot on my head, it was hard to stand, and my left knee kept buckling. Everything there, buddy check…still hanging, nothing missing, no holes, GTG. Battle buddy check, Poland was GTG, Pvt. Gutierrez gone, and Aviles, on the side of the truck grabbing what he could. Good he had my m-4, he looked at me and cracks a smile and wipes his nose with his sleeve, “man that f-n hurt, huh?” “Yeah,” I said, “this ain’t what I signed up for!” Poland and Aviles helped me run to Victor 3, by this time Chaput had climbed out opened the gunner hatch jack slapped the new gunner and gave him a boot to the face and dropped the rear door to let us in. The new guy was strapped to the back end of the gunner cage and screaming like a little girl. Aviles, even with a busted up face and arm, slapped the stupid out of him, it was short lived though because when he looked at us all bloody and broken he started again. With Chaput out of the driver hole we sent Poland in, Chaput and I agreed he would VC, I jumped in the gunner seat, and Aviles took the rear hatch. Chaput relayed info to the TOC and our guys on the ground, QRF was on the way and during all this our guys were nearly blown to bits when they breached a room that was rigged. Our weapons team was pushed out to the buildings north of the Victor 1 because that’s where the car had come from. Weapons team was heavy-handed so I knew it was getting taken care of.

Alpha and Bravo teams inside were in a room to room fight all the way, when the rain started outside. Mortars were hitting all around us like rain, these fools were waiting and planning for a long time. QRF 2 mics (minutes) out, great, we couldn’t risk moving because the infil /exfil route would be closed. So we buttoned up and decided we needed to put an end to this rain.  We called for air assets, TOC approved and by God’s grace we had a group outside of Fallujah doing a recon patrol with a unit of marines…ETA 1 mic… Blue 1 Victor came up on radio and announced that they were hit, damage to right rear, no casualties. Idiots from TOC were still trying to talk to my truck “this is blue 2 Victor Charlie, Victor 2 is out of the fight, Victor 2 is black, I say again Victor 2 is black, SGT Aimerson, SPC Poland and SPC Aviles are now linked in with Victor 3.” Break, “Pvt Gutierrez is KIA.”  TOC, “Roger that Pvt. Victor 2 is black and crew are KIA.” What!! No, you idiots, “this is blue 2 Victor Charlie…the crew of Victor 2 is now linked in with Victor 3, Victor 2 actual is black, hit by VBIED, PVT Gutierrez is KIA.” Roger, (loud roar, metal clanging, Stryker bouncing and shaking)…a mortar round just hit south west top corner of building bringing a pretty good size chunk of it down on top of us. Chaput and I looked at each other we needed to move so he had Poland hook it hard left just as Aviles jumped down after taking a peek and yelled the rest of the building is coming down. We had just moved in time before the whole south wall crumbled down which would’ve buried us under more than four tons of Iraqi brick and mortar. Great there goes our exfil route.

Our guys inside were roughing it out, fighting room to room trying not to get crushed by the rain from outside and tending to their wounded. They had entered a room occupied by several military-aged men and began questioning them. SGT Brickman, fueled with the rage of a man under stress and bodybuilding.com’s latest muscle builder, torn into each of them getting answers before the questions were even asked. In his rage he wrapped his huge hand around the neck of an older Iraqi man and began questioning him about the contents of the items in his house, large bag of white powered substance, rolls of different gauge of wires. “Bomb making material you f-in mother f-er!!” to which the older Iraqi man replies as best as he can “that’s salt, I work with electricity I take care of the building, mister.” Brickman still with the rage of old world gods looks at the old man then at the bag of “salt”, and with a strangely calm voice replies, “ok…ok…if its salt…THEN EAT IT MOTHERF-ER!!!! With a snarl and a face of pure hate he grabs a handful of “salt” and starts shoveling, no pounding his fist full of “salt” into the older Iraqi man’s mouth. One fist full after another, he pounds salt into the older Iraqi man’s mouth until the old guy starts gagging and choking on the “salt.” He then stops thrashing about and SGT Brickman let up on his grip as the older Iraqi man points to the floor then the corner of the room.

Two of our guys run over to the corner throwing the table and chairs that were sitting in that same spot to the side, by now the air assets are lighting up the mortar guys in the field, (BOOM!, BOOM!,…BOOM!), it rocks the whole building dropping a few more good sized chunks of wall off the west side. A few of the floors were now starting to give way, (BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!), and there they went, the first top three floors on the south corner drop angled onto the fourth floor knocking off a big chunk of west wall. Not being able to handle the sudden weight, the fourth floor started to crack and drop some more brick from the west wall.

BOOM!, BOOM!, BOOM!, it sounded like a good idea at the time but now the air assets were doing more harm than good. Chaput radioed the birds to stop because the building was about to collapse with our guys still on the inside. The guys in the building are on the radio now, yelling to call off the birds. The TOC wants an update, QRF they’re on the radio wanting an alternative route they aren’t able to get through the road because of the collapsed wall. Victor 1 also was hitting the radio wanting an update too, yeah, and sometimes it happens like that. Everybody wants their question answered first, or they just want some kind of acknowledgement. So we shot back…Cease fire, cease fire target destroyed good hit…roger that calling off birds now…this is blue 3 Victor, we are in process of gaining information from air and ground assets will relay as soon as possible, you have four-wheel drive go on the lowest side farthest from the building and drive over the brick pile, Victor 1 this is Victor 3, sit rep as follows- we’re kinda busy right now don’t know any more than you do continue to monitor your radio.

The older Iraqi guy yells out to stop! No mister no! Good he didn’t want to die either. With the building shaking and roaring he crawls over to the hatch on the floor, releases some wires that were wedged between the cracks in the tile and says “ok, ok.” SGT Brickman finds out from further questioning that all the items hidden in the floor were placed there by other men who threaten the older Iraqi man and his family. “Where’s your family?” “The men took them.” Oh…sorry,… about the,..the um salt and all, yeah. We need to get the f-outta here now! Call Victor 3 and tell them to call the birds off before this building …..OH SHIT WE NEED TO MOVE NOW!! They run down the hall toward the north end of the building, it’s really rumbling now shaking, all the lights go out. Gotta move, move, move, get the f-up and run PVT, grab the old guy, MOVE!

Weapons team provides an exit for our guys, QRF pulls up and over the pile of fallen brick and parks next to the building we just told them to avoid. More explosions from within the building, then more, Chaput looks at me, “are they trying to bring the building down on purpose, they can’t be that f-in smart?” BOOM!, The lower half of the building disappears in a big black cloud, Aviles yells,” we need to move, AGAIN, NOW!” Chaput guides Poland back and further away from the building, I get on the radio and ask Victor 1 for sit rep on our guys and their status, also relay that we think they are trying to bring down the building, Chaput is yelling for QRF to pull back from the building. Victor 1 reports all our guys are out, 3 walking wounded 1 KIA, and four enemy combatants.

Chaput yells for QRF to pick up our guys since Victor 2 was out of the fight. The building was really starting to crumble now, great, here comes a car up the road toward the building. I yell at Chaput as I look at the car through the sighting system on the .50 it stops at the road, “oh yeah idiot what are you gonna blow up now, huh, road’s blocked.” I zoomed in on his face…young guy, clean shaven, you could see he was scared, sweaty, gritting his teeth, he looked around there was no way to reach us. Had he just failed Allah, or maybe he was rushing home because he had to poop real bad? Or was he like the older Iraqi man, forced because his family was taken? He made a choice (BOOM)…it was weird to see…he kind of squinted his eyes took a long deep breath then closed his eyes no doubt thinking of a better world without all “this” then in a flash it was all gone. My screen faded out from the bright flash and the shock wave but I could still see him very clearly in my mind. Whatever, whomever, he believed in, he met in that instant. Did he have a choice? In your mind you think “well if he didn’t I was gonna make it for him.” I made myself not think about it, but even now I still do…

The building started to settle on itself, what was once seven stories now sat as a four-and-a-half story building. I had always wondered how that happened, when you’re driving by and you see these building’s kind of looking like they had fallen in on themselves, well know I knew. Each of our trucks reported in to the TOC, sitreps were being relayed about personnel and equipment as well as enemy. We got a chance to look at Victor 2, my war pony had fought a good fight, and everything that could melt had melted everything else just burned along with PVT Gutierrez. Loose rounds popped off as they were heated beyond normal…BOOM.”AT4” both Chaput and I said as we watched it burn. We were both standing up in the rear hatches clearing the bricks off the top, my eye still swollen shut, I looked at Chaput and said “cut me Mick, I can’t see, cut me Mick.” He just laughed and lit up another cigarette and took a big drag, I hate that smell. “You know we should write about all this one day”, “yeah” I said “if I could see what was going on.” We both started laughing again even as the PVT strapped to the back of the gunner cage began to scream again. Poor guy, suck it up this is war.

With our wounded loaded up and our guys stacked in the trucks with one QRF truck we proceeded to exfil back to the JSS. Those who could, along with a small group from HQ and members from the Iraqi army stayed behind and waited for recovery assets and EOD.

“The sniper got away, and whoever he had with him, the guys in the car were gone. All the big hitter guys were gone, lived to fight another day. Man this was planned out so good,” Aviles commented on the way back. Yeah we agreed, waiting till all our guys were in the building and hitting it with mortars, while sitting in the open knowing they were close enough where we wouldn’t drop our own, all while being covered by the trees and berm where we couldn’t exactly bum rush them on the ground. Blowing the lower level of the building hoping it would drop on our guys and possibly getting a truck or two sitting next to it. And our own birds used to their advantage, kind of. Too good or just weird it played out like that? Either way it made all of us uneasy that someone so smart plus a sniper got away, in our AO. Well played…well played.

Yeah it could’ve happened like that, but this is what really happened.

Our mission was a simple knock and search, suspected bomb maker in housing area northwest of Abu Ghraib. We had just set our trucks in, dropped our guys and began over watch. Truck 1 set up on the northwest corner of the housing complex covering the road and dead end road running north to south, truck 2, myself, we set up directly west over watching both directions north south and with full frontal view of housing complex, and finally our 3rd truck took up the southwest corner securing our infil and exfil route. The rear of the building was a steep wall with no windows or doors; it at one time was the back wall for a part of the factory before it was blow away (courtesy of the US Air Force).  We informed the TOC and the guys on the ground, they then gave the signal that they were going to start with knock and search.

The heat made even just breathing painful, and miserable. The small canal behind us smelled of rot not sure from what but I wasn’t in a hurry to see anytime soon. Freakin bugs were bugging as well as the new kid we had with us. “What do we do if this happens, what would happen if, has anyone ever” all to which I reply “shut up and watch your lane.”

Nothing exciting happening, wait a car, open mike “warning shot.” Fire 2 rounds in front of the car. Yeah that’s right, you’re just going to have to wait until we leave.

All during this time Poland is schooling us on Texas country music, clarifying what red dirt music was, and what steakhouses we had to eat at when we made it home. Another car or same, not sure, open mike “warning shot” fire two rounds. Yes, you, yes, turn around, now go home, now. Freakin idiots.

Our guys inside give sitrep, ”nearly complete, questioned old man with wire and other tools in house” break “says he is the housing maintenance man, over” Roger that good copy… maintenance man. Blue 1 Victor relays info to the TOC, something blows up in the distance…

What are they having at the chow hall tonight? Someone asks.

“It’s freakin hot in here.” “Yeah.” (After about 5minutes of silence) “You’re moms hot.” We all laugh. Man it is hot, that freakin smell picks up and goes straight to the back of my throat. Ulp, ulp, trying to hold down my chow, but that smell gags me again. I think I swallowed a bug, sick. Come on guys lets go.

Finally our guys start heading back to the trucks, we load up and get ready to move out. Another mission down and hundreds more just like it to go.

God works in mysterious ways it’s been said many times and I’ve heard of many accounts from people during my many years in church. How God allowed this to happen and let me tell you what God did, I love those accounts hearing how God continues to work in our lives even when some people don’t believe so. I prayed each time we went out and during missions for safety and that God Almighty would bring us home again. But again I can’t remember praying as hard as I did this one night.

This one I refer to as…Leave, now?

I had a new driver for the week because my assigned driver was on leave. We were in the Zidon area conducting a village assessment, late at night, with a sniper team, and some British commando type guy. I’ll leave that there. Anyway, we had just embarked on this mission and I found out that my temp driver SPC Cantu hadn’t driven since we left island seven months earlier.

SPC Cantu was unofficially adopted into our family, during our time on island. He became the big brother to our girls that they never had, even as far as to teach them the fine art of miniature golf etiquette. “Just give me five!” he would say under gritted teeth and white knuckles after failing to get the ball in the hole. Also his tactfulness or really his lack of won the girls over also, with remarks like “look how fat that girl is!! Don’t eat the bait honey it’s for the fish!” Even to this day the girls at times chime off different things they heard him say at least once or twice. He fit right in with us, as well as his devotion to prayer and God’s Word, I remember many long hours while sitting in the Stryker he would ask me to read scripture and he would sing hymns and anything else that popped into his my at the time.

So needless to say we had a time on the ride there, our conversation consisted of mostly…(Me) ”Get in the middle, get in the middle you’re going on the left to much get back to the middle, come on man.”, (Cantu) “I’m trying, its hard too, I haven’t driven in a long time. I’M TRYING.” I’m not used to this screen anymore.”

The importance of keeping the vehicles in the middle of the road was because of IED’s, most of the IEDs we found were on the sides of the roads and not very big, but thanks to the providence of God we operated in a poor but well traveled area. Poor being to our advantage because no one could afford heavy type machinery and well traveled again because there was always a military presence. All this made it possible to keep driving on these roads because IEDs weren’t as frequent, and when you did drive on these roads the middle of the road was the safest place to drive. One, because of being in poor area no one could bury an IED big enough fast enough by hand and two; because it was well traveled they wouldn’t have the time to do so. So you can see the importance of staying in the middle and how much I wanted Cantu to be and stay there.

We finally arrived at said location and dropped the guys to conduct survey, we then conducted radio checks with TOC and guys on the ground, and all was GTG. During the ride over I prayed hard for God to guide and help keep us in the middle of the road, I fought hard with Cantu over the radio to do so. We sat for a couple of hours and then we mounted back up ready to head back, when it was suggested that we go around IED alley. IED alley was a levy that ran alongside of the Euphrates River, a one lane road that steeply dropped about twenty feet on either side. Great, I thought, were dead, if not from an IED it was from driving off the side and rolling over, then getting hitting by an IED. Either way we were dead, I seriously planned for a wreck, had my mind prepared. Even went as far as to give a quick shout out to my family and friends, and thanked God for the time I had been given. Also gave a quick safety brief to my guys on the truck as well as prayed again. We arrived at the route, again after trying to keep Cantu in the center of the road, moment of truth, I prayed again gave it to God and let what happens happen. We started our drive over the levy with my NODs I could see the dirt falling away on the side I even had Aviles get up on the gunner side out of his hatch looking. I remember praying in my mind Lord Please, please God, I was almost all the way out of the hatch looking at my side and I think Aviles was too. My heart was in my throat I never understood that expression before, but that night I lived it.

We finally made it across, Praise God!!! We then took the route back home and I gave God the glory. Cantu continued to drive on the side even when I corrected him and it was then I prayed “Lord thank You for getting us safely through that, I pray just get us home safe now thank You.” We were on the home stretch, then BOOM!!!  It sounded like the boom of a Fourth of July artillery shell, I turned around just in time to see 3 Victor disappear in a huge cloud of smoke and dust…

Everything went into slow motion, I yelled at Cantu to stop and radioed to Blue 1 Victor, “IED, IED, 3 VICTOR IS HIT, IED, 3 VICTOR IS HIT.” SFC Wood, radioed to 3 Victor, “Blue 3 Victor sit rep, Blue 3 Victor sit rep, 3 Victor do you copy?,” no answer….”Victor 3 do you copy?” no answer… fear, anger, hate, all the emotions you could ever feel welling up inside now. “3 Victor do you copy?” silence….

Three things were going on at this exact same time. One; I was yelling at Aviles to scan,( the usual thing to do when you have no other idea about what to do) Two; 1 Victor was lighting up some people in the field that were running toward them to their right, both Aviles and myself also saw them on our screens. Three; I was praying for a miracle.

Then, after what seemed like an hour but was really only about 5 minutes… “This is 3 Victor.” It was SGT Fogle. He began his assessment. We dropped our guys to clear the area, after we let off a burst “clear by fire” to the right up through the canal on the right side which was concealed by brush and was a good spot for an ambush. Air assets were called in to help secure the area, Aviles spotted a heat signature in the field on our right but since this was not our usual truck the IR (infrared) spotting system was junk. We had to guide in Alpha team from Blue 1 Victor when the air assets finally arrived.

1 Victor took over guiding the air asset and we took over with recovery on 3 Victor, no causalities KIA type. Praise God, we backed to them and began recovering equipment and transferring it to our truck. Air Evac was called in for 3 Victor gunner, SPC Diaz who sustained a broken ankle and other injuries, everyone else was walking wounded, but still good to go. Bravo pulled security during evac and we waited for QRF as well as recovery asset from Camp Victory to pick up 3 Victor. 3 hours later recovery arrives and 3 Victor is loaded up, site survey told us this… Bomb makers set up IED homemade pressure plate in the middle of the road painted green same color as what we saw through our NODs. Estimated bomb yield at 250 lbs. but due the fact they buried it too deep it wasn’t able to do the damage it could have. (We lost 6 guys a few months earlier from a fifty pound bomb buried only a few feet under the sand but with pressure of truck on top it caused more damage) God was watching over us that night, it could have been so much worse at that time.

It had been light now for about 3 hours, after we had finally got every piece of equipment up and had everyone loaded up we started back home to the JSS. We arrived back home and pulled into our usual parking area and began to unload our gear when Top walked down from the TOC and began talking with us all, then out of the blue he looked right at me and asked if I was still going on leave… “Yes” I replied, “well you better get your stuff together, you’re leaving in five minutes.” “Leave, now? Roger that.” I ran to my bunk grabbed my gear and handed off my sensitive items and reported to the TOC. 3 days later I was at the airport in Tulsa, OK, waiting for my wife to pick me up.

I hated to leave like that, we were hurting, but when you got to go you got to go. I knew I had already changed maybe it was because it was fresh on my mind or I was just tired everything was weird, different. I didn’t want to be here, I didn’t want to be there, I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t realize it yet but my heart was already turning to stone, until a couple of days after being home my youngest daughter Kate cut her foot on the base board in the kitchen I couldn’t do anything but look at her. My baby girl cried and all I did was stare at her as she cried, my wife came in looked at me and then helped Kate. Later that night she asked me why I didn’t help her, I told her I don’t know… I didn’t have the heart to tell her then, that I couldn’t, because it didn’t matter anymore. Nothing mattered to me anymore.

That was all there was to that episode, no “so there we were”, or this is what really happened, because that’s how it happened.

During my leave I visited with family and friends, said my, if anything happens, and so there we were’ s, you know all the gruesome story stuff people want to hear about war, it was all good but at the forefront of my mind I knew I had to go back and finish. I ate a lot of cookout and drank a lot of Sobe not knowing truly if I’d ever be able to again. It was a good leave, I stayed put, I stayed alert. Until it was time to go back. Time for the suck again, time to leave…again.