Monday, September 13, 2010

Cake, Dog, Death--Four Days in Iraq

Looking back through the journal I kept during my deployment to Iraq, I came across these four entries--four days which were pretty typical of the 345 I spent over there.  The events of the Sept. 14 entry forms the basis of what is currently the opening scene of Fobbit.

September 11, 2005:  In a small, grim echo of the events from four years ago, my day starts off with the news of a KIA.  I can’t even remember the circumstances now—this death has melted and blended in with the rest of the KIAs which flow through our office nearly every day.  Yet, somehow it hurts more to be starting my Sept. 11th with a death.

At one point, I need to go in to the CIC (the command and control center of the headquarters) to get more information on an incident.  I mount the stairs and walk across the middle level of the amphitheater-like room to talk to the battle major who sits at his triptych of computer screens, monitoring calls and logging in Significant Activities (this is where they’re written and posted to the classified web server).  As I wait for him to get off the phone, I look around the room at all the other desks.  Officers are sitting around reading paperback novels, playing computer solitaire, or watching streaming video of the latest college football game.  On the three large screens at the front of the room, the camera feeds from the blimps over Baghdad zoom in on the traffic moving through the narrow streets.  The cameras restlessly pan back and forth, watching for “suspicious behavior” while, at their desks, the officers turn another page in their Tom Clancy novels.

When I go to lunch, I stop at the dessert table.  The cooks have baked a large sheet cake in commemoration of Sept. 11th.  Over top of the chocolate-and-yellow cake layers, the frosting is thick and runny.  A fireman with “FDNY” on his helmet looks out at me earnestly from the frosting—his lips are a garish red and his eyes bulge, as if he’d been drawn by an amateur who took too much pride in his talents.  The cake is more than half gone when the cheery Filipino baker cuts my slice.  I imagine the other half of the cake had the World Trade Center towers with little blossoms of smoke curling from their mid-sections.  When I take the cake back to my room and start to eat it, I have to put it down after only two or three bites.  It’s too sweet and cloying—not at all what a 9/11 cake should be.  At the very least, there should be dark, bitter chocolate on this cake.

At least at the end of the day, there’s a little bit of comic relief when I read this Sig Act: “An Iraqi Army Soldier was hit in the helmet by one round of sniper fire.  Wasn’t hurt.  Only has a headache.”

September 12, 2005:  I hear about some hardcore battalion commander with too much time and money on his hands who had a bunch of patches made at his own expense.  They looked just like Ranger tabs, but read “Fobbit.”  He also had some that had “REMF” and “POAG” (other derogatory terms for us Fobbits).  They looked just like the real thing and he went around handing them out—with no small measure of amused derision, I imagine—to admin guys he came across in his travels.

September 13:  I saw a wild dog while I was running around the lake this morning.  I rounded the bend and there he was, this mangy coyote-like dog trotting alongside me for about 20 feet, his sharp, knife-like muzzle pointed in my direction.  He and I stared at each other for a few seconds before he veered off into the tall reeds bordering the road.  The look he gave me seemed to be one of irritation--like I was the intruder, the interloper.  I cut my run short and headed back to the safety of my fellow American soldiers.

September 14, 2005:  We started feeling the first explosions around 8 a.m., just after the morning briefing started.  As always, when the percussion rippled through the air, nudging us slightly in our chests and making our hearts skip half a beat, we collectively said, “Whoa,” but kept on with our work.  When the second Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device detonation came about 15 minutes later, we paused a little longer, looking at each other as if to say, “Well, here we go again.”  But along about the third one, then the fourth one on its heels, we knew this wasn’t just another ordinary day.  It was like the feeling we had on Sept. 11th when we watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center and we knew this was no “accident.”

From the next cubicle over, I heard one officer say to another: “Man, it’s a VBIED day in Baghdad today!”

“Yeah, we’ve got a whole fuckload of ’em.”

By the end of the day, our Sig Acts chart was riddled with more than a dozen VBIEDs—14 in all, matching the previous record (in case you’re keeping a scorecard) set back on April 29.  It was a deadly day for civilians (more than 140 dead), but our U.S. soldiers only took it on the chin with three or four wounded.  It was a carefully crafted, coordinated attack on the part of the terrorists.  They’d been squeezed out of Tal Afar, so they returned to Baghdad to show us the stuff they were made of.

Not all of the attacks were successful, however.  At least one suicide driver failed miserably. Here’s how I described it in a press release (which we never sent out):
          In Eastern Baghdad, at about 10 a.m. today, a homicide bomber crashed his explosives-laden vehicle into a coalition tank and survived.  The driver’s right leg was pinned under the dash of the damaged vehicle.  Coalition forces, working in concert with Iraqi Police, cordoned off the area around the vehicle to ensure the safety of civilian bystanders.  The vehicle was inspected by a camera-equipped Explosive Ordnance Disposal robot and it was determined that the vehicle contained explosives. The driver was observed drinking water and told an Iraqi Police officer that he was from Syria and that his (terrorist) group had launched numerous vehicle bomb attacks today and that other attacks would follow.  The driver said he was here to kill Americans.

          It was considered unsafe for soldiers to approach the vehicle while the terrorist was still capable of detonating his explosives.  To reduce the threat, the EOD robot placed an explosive charge (water charge) beneath the vehicle to blow the munitions out of the rear seat and render the vehicle safe.  The water charge was detonated.  The driver survived the blast.  The EOD robot investigated the vehicle again and found the water charge did not successfully render the vehicle safe; explosives were still present.

          An EOD specialist approached the vehicle in his protective suit and found a grenade within reach of the driver and a landmine near his foot.  When the EOD specialist went to remove the grenade the driver began to move.  The EOD specialist moved away from the vehicle as the intent of the driver was unknown.

          The EOD robot was again called into action and approached the driver.  The bomber became agitated when the EOD robot attempted to pull him to safety, preventing his removal from the vehicle.  It was determined the driver still wanted to blow up his vehicle to cause casualties.

          As the driver was still considered a threat, it would have been an unacceptable risk to have soldiers approach the vehicle.  The driver was engaged with small-arms fire and was killed.

          EOD investigated the car and discovered the driver’s foot was indeed still placed on top of a mine and he could have detonated it if soldiers or civilians had approached.

          At 2:30 p.m., EOD technicians completed removing all ordnance from the vehicle, which included three propane tanks, two 152-millimeter artillery shells, several anti-tank mines and a grenade.  Iraqi Police then assumed control of the scene.

When I asked Lieutenant Colonel W______ about this, he said, “You know who killed him, right?”


“Battalion commander.”


“The order came down to ‘terminate the threat’ and the commander was the one to carry it out.  He wanted to take responsibility for it, he didn’t want any of his soldiers to have to deal with that.  I mean, what’s he gonna do?  Turn to one of his privates and say, ‘You there!  Shoot that bastard in the head!’?  So, he did what he knew he had to do.”

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Good thing I didn't read this while you were there!